Sixteen years after Sir Peter Blake’s untimely death, his legacy lives on. Sarah Ell jumps aboard Steinlager 2 to see how the New Zealand Sailing Trust is progressing Blake’s desire to educate and inspire the younger generation.
It’s 9am on a rainy Thursday, down the bottom end of Waiheke Island. A turbulent ferry trip and a heart-stopping taxi ride have brought me to the Orapiu wharf, from where I can see my home for the next two days, her bright red hull bobbing gently in the grey waters.
Steinlager 2 is in the middle of a four-day charter, hosting a class of Year 13 outdoor education students
from Botany Downs Secondary College in East Auckland. They’re sitting around the cockpit in wet-weather gear, still smiling despite the inclement weather.
These kids have taken a beating these past few days. The original plan was to sail from Auckland to Great
Barrier via Kawau, but high winds and particularly high seas kept them in the shelter of Waiheke. A good night’s sleep and a cooked breakfast has perked them up again, and they’re ready for action.
I don my wet-weather gear and join the professional crew of Bridget, Brooke and Hamish as they ready
the boat to get sailing. With Steinlager 2’s charismatic skipper Alistair Moore calling the shots, the watch of the day moves to their designated positions – helmsperson, navigator, engineer and safety manager.
Grinders assume the position, sails are hoisted, courses set and called, and we’re underway. The sails set, the call comes for some music and I discover for the first time this trip – and certainly not the last – that while these kids might be 30 years younger than me, we like the same music. A succession of ’80s hits is the perfect accompaniment to reaching down the western coast of Ponui in fitful sunshine, out of the worst of the wind, on a bloody big yacht.
It’s probably one of the most recognisable boats in New Zealand, if not the world. Nicknamed ‘Big Red’,
the 25.6m, Bruce Farr-designed maxi ketch carried the hopes and dreams of New Zealanders around the world in 1989–90, making an unprecedented clean sweep of line, handicap and overall honours on each of the race’s six legs.
Today she’s a relic of an earlier time, one of the first racers built of carbon fibre in the days before water ballast, canting keels and – heavens! – foiling; a masterpiece of classic IOR design brought back to New Zealand and restored a decade ago.
Now under the auspices of the New Zealand Sailing Trust, she works alongside Blake’s earlier Whitbread boat Lion New Zealand, on youth development and leadership courses, school programmes and corporate charters.
Paul Powney, the Trust’s CEO, says it has nearly 60 secondary schools on its books which have completed one or more trips. It gears the trips to the schools’ aims, from day-trips up to six-day journeys, covering leadership, personal development and outdoor education skills.
“Part of our purpose is to make sure that Blake’s legacy lives on, utilising the assets he and his crew used to deliver leadership and youth development programmes,” Powney says. “The history of the boats is an important side of this, as we find the majority of the youngsters who come aboard don’t know about Blake’s achievements with these boats.
“And as well as learning about the history, there’s also the interaction with the environment in which we operate. They walk away with a greater appreciation of the fragility of the marine environment.
“Sailing the boats also brings out teamwork and leadership. There’s only three or four crew on board, and you need more than that to sail these boats, so once you drop the lines and turn off the engine, the kids are it.”
Not today, though. With a forecast for continued strong winds and a wet and tired band of passengers, Moore decides a no-more-sailing day is in order. We find a sheltered spot at Bryants Bay on the northeastern corner of Ponui and anchor as close to shore as we can – not easy when the boat draws more than four metres.
Taking my first look ‘downstairs’, I find she’s much, much bigger than I expected. I’d imagined a dark, wet cave into which we would all be packed like sardines – Volvo 65 style – but it’s massive. The interior’s largely faithful to its origins: at the base of the large companionway ladder is the galley where Cole Sheehan used to prepare the meals for the Whitbread crew, and further aft Blake’s nav station, with its giant red chair, remains intact, if updated electronics-wise.
Some of the hanging locker and sail storage space has been converted to bunks, but it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like for the sailors in that historic Whitbread. Although, of course, we are sitting at anchor having a cup of tea, not massively heeled while ice-cold water sluices down the companionway…
Sails and gear packed away, it’s time to take the students ashore for some teamwork challenges. It’s interesting to be one of the ‘adults’ and stand back and observe the students as they work together, seeing who takes a leadership role, who takes orders, and who resorts to skimming stones.
There’s plenty of laughs, joking and camaraderie over dinner. We certainly eat better than a Whitbread crew – there’s no freeze-dried on the menu. The adults also have a secret stash of chocolate which we
surreptitiously share, sitting down the back by the big twin wheels. Tonight is declared a ‘no phones zone’, and the teens seem to cope pretty well being disconnected from technology. Much hilarity is caused by a lip-synching challenge involving bizarre props, with the grand finale seeing one of the kids diving over the side. Then it’s free time till 10 o’clock lights out.
As I lie in my bunk (all named after Blake’s crew and other sailors), one of the students is in the nav station with his teacher Scott and crew member Brooke, looking at Glen Sowry and Mike Quilter’s 1990 book Big Red, telling the story of the epic Steinlager adventure. To this young guy, the 1989-90 race is
a historic event, the whole Whitbread event part of the past, the idea of sailing around the world almost unimaginable.
While I feel like a bit of an old codger, it’s kind of cool to be able to join their conversation and explain how the race used to run, the incredible things that happened – dismastings, whale strikes, sailors lost overboard. To this generation, the Volvo race is a professional event put on for entertainment and sponsorship dollars; in those earlier days it really was a thrilling adventure.
Teenagers aren’t known for getting up early, so we get to sleep in until 7am before alarms go off and the new day begins. It’s still pretty windy, but we have to get home somehow, so it’s time for swims and packing up before heading north past Rotoroa Island to Hooks Bay and the northeastern tip of Waiheke. It’s going to be a long beat home, but with a new watch in charge, jib, main and mizzen up, and the retro tunes pumping, everyone is in good spirits and enjoying the ride.
I get my own turn on the helm as we beat up the northern shore of Waiheke, once again feeling the sense of history, and imagining what it must have been like to steer this beast through the Southern Ocean. Helming is physical work in the fresh conditions.
Throughout the trip Moore is listening, encouraging, telling stories about his experiences with Blake and discussing the great man’s leadership technique. It’s a highly-effective way to get the message across; Blake remains a relevant, powerful entity through the tool of his boat.
We’re making good time, so the (excellent) call is made to stop at Little Oneroa and send ashore for hot chips. I chat to a couple of the students, 17-year-olds Rhys and Armani, about their time on the boat. Neither knew much about the boat’s history or Blake’s achievements before coming aboard; their horizons have been extended.
The highlight of the trip? The big-wave conditions on the second day. “It was really scary, but then you looked at the crew and their faces were like ‘this is nothing’. Everybody was freaking out,” Rhys says, but he’s grinning.
“The experience has really put into perspective how much mental toughness it takes to sail around the world,” says Armani. “I’m sort of at the end of my tether now and I’m ready for a nice hot shower and a good sleep in my own bed.”
A final, fresh beat home and we are back on the dock in Auckland’s Viaduct by 3.30pm. Bags are packed, wet socks rescued from the bilge and then it’s back to reality. Moore gathers the kids for a debrief. “You are now part of the history of this boat,” he tells the assembled students. “You’re among the
top one percent of people able to experience her.”
The trip ends with hugs all round, and it feels like we have become a team, a crew. There is no doubt that these students have reaped enormous benefits from their time at sea. Blake would have been proud of them.