Cruising with the General

Recalling an inland delivery trip long ago in a land far away.

The muddy brown creek marked the Florida–Georgia state line.

The green, stygian forest of a national park crowded the north bank and on the Florida side, Hermanson’s Boatyard scrabbled a living on a clear strip surrounded by swamp grass and mangroves.

We had been there for a few months, doing a major refit on our steel cutter Elkouba – and I mean major refit. A large portion of her decks had been removed and a deckhouse fitted, I had sandblasted and spray-painted her hull and virtually rebuilt the interior.

We’d got to know the locals and had become almost local ourselves. Among the boatyard workers there was Charlie, a nuggety good ol’ boy who habitually wore camouflage gear. He worked a trapline catching raccoons in the national park across the creek. Most of the carcasses were sold to Afro-Americans in Fernandina Beach township who called him “the coon man.”….until the morning he was escorted to work by heavily-armed Georgia park rangers and taken away by the local police.

Dougie at the wheel of the General, the writer keeping watch on his shoulder.

“I was jes emptying my traps,” he told me later ,” when I heared the walkie-talkies….and I knowed I was busted.”

Our local bar was a small shack, called Shrimp Haven, near the jetty, at the end of a rickety boardwalk through the swamp. Local shrimpers gathered in the evening to drink Budweiser (“we call it Butt-wiper”) and tell fishing stories.

Big plastic bags full of empty beer cans crowded the back doorway.

I’d been a commercial fisherman in New Zealand and enjoyed swapping yarns… they asked how our refit was going, where New Zealand was – they figured it had to be near New York someplace because of my funny accent and because both places shared the same first name.

Or maybe Canada someplace?

Further down the creek a small black bulk ship was tied to a wharf by chafed and furry dock lines. Stickers slathered all over the ship proclaimed that she was the property of the US Government and trespassers would be gunned down, blown up, eviscerated and stabbed. ‘General’ was crudely brushed on the bows in white paint which had dribbled lavishly during its application. Smears of rust ran down the hull.

The General tied up to a rickety jetty in the creek.

Like good boat folk, we ignored the signs, peered through the wheelhouse windows and lifted a corner of the hatch covers to look into the hold. A few hundred tonnes of sand were mounded in the centre of the hold.

“Ain’t nothing but a Cuban dirt box,” one of my companions said.

It turned out the ship had been running refugees from Cuba when she’d been stopped by the US Coastguard. The refugees had been imprisoned or deported and the ship had been confiscated and tied alongside the derelict wharf.

“I got a job for it,” Dougie said. “I’m gonna buy it.”

He already ran a high-lining shrimp boat – about 12m long. What could he want a 50 or 60m ship for?

We strolled back through the swamp to the Shrimp Haven with its single beer bill of fare.

Big plastic bags of empty beer cans crowded the back door of the Shrimp Shack.

Then, a couple of months later, Dougie strutted into the Shrimp Haven. “Well,” he said, “I done it – I done bought the General.”

Over a few Butt-wipers he outlined his plans. He was going to take the ship to Jacksonville, about 30 miles south, to rebuild her as mothership for a fleet of scallop fishing dories. “Ain’t nobody never done it,” he grinned, “we’s gonna make us a fortune!”

And a week later he swung by the boatyard. “Hey Lenzee,” he asked, “reckon you could run the General down to Jacksonville for me?”

“Yeah, no problem,” I said and, when he’d left, I wondered what the hell I’d done.”

The first thing was to take a tape measure down to the General. Most of the road bridges over the Intracoastal Waterway between us and Jacksonville were manned and would open on demand with a VHF call. The others had a statutory clearance of 40’ (12m). With the tape measure I figured our air draught (height). We could make it with about 60cm to spare.

The Fourth of July in Edgarstown, Florida, 1986.

Width was another matter, but I figured we could sneak through the narrowest spots with our 10m beam and, as for depth, some of the ‘Cuban dirt box’ would have to go.

The next plan was to slap a mask and snorkel on and check out the propeller and rudder, but my workmates warned against it. “Them ol’ alligators will eat your goddamn legs off!” they advised. So I firmly crossed my fingers, hoped all was well, and stayed on dry land.

We trooped below to check out the engine room. Main
power was a 12V92 Detroit Diesel. This huge green pile of machinery was one of a series of two-stroke engines designed for the US military. The appellation means 12 cylinders, in a vee configuration and 92 cubic inches per cylinder displacement. It produces about 700hp (522kW) at 2,100 rpm.

I checked the fuel filters and engine/gearbox oil, opened the sea cocks and hit the start button. It tried to go but couldn’t quite overcome the compression in all 12 cylinders.

But I had been shipmates with 471 and 671 Detroits in New Zealand and had learned how to get a reluctant one running. One of the guys brought a newspaper down from the messroom which I rolled into a tight cylinder (or torch). The shrimpers peered over my shoulders to see what I was doing and I borrowed a cigarette lighter.

I opened the throttle slightly, set fire to the end of the rolled up newspaper, and pushed the start button. I thrust the burning paper into the air intake, the flame was sucked into the intake (the newspaper and my hand almost went with it). The engine cranked one….twice…then let out a loud bang and roared into life at about 1,800 rpm.

Elkouba’s refit at Hermanson’s Boatyard beside a muddy creek on the Georgia-Florida state line coming along nicely.

An engine the size of a Toyota Corolla, starting from dead cold to full flight in seconds – I’m sure that was the beginning of the hearing loss I suffered in later years. I looked around triumphantly to see if my buddies were as impressed as I was – but there was no-one to be seen except for one pair of outbound work boots fleeing through a bulkhead door.

The engine tappets rattled like castanets at a Spanish festival and the engine screamed the typical high-pitched Detroit bellow. The face of the cooling water pump was cool – indicating that water was getting through and on deck a small geyser of cooling water hosed overboard. The rev counter didn’t work, but after I’d tapped it a few times, it shrugged and swung into life.

I gave the engine a few revs….all good there. But I didn’t dare try it in gear in case I tore the wharf away from its swampy anchorage.

The creek was about 40m wide and the General was about 50m long….I could foresee problems turning her round and heading downstream but the skipper of a local pusher tug agreed to hang off our bow and steer the ship while she backed downstream.

I had a few sleepless nights before, on the appointed day at high water, we fired up the big Detroit, took lines from the tug boat and loaded a pickup truck-load of Butt-wiper on board.

Extricating the General from her berth in the creek went smoothly. The tug pulled the bow gently to port to counteract the propeller torque and a small crowd waved good bye from the bank. The Detroit warmed up and settled into a steady beat.

In the waterway we cast the tug off. I put the helm over and opened the throttle. A plume of black smoke poured out the exhaust and water swirled from the stern. The tug tooted and bustled back up the creek. We were underway.

We passed tinnies full of old boys out fishing. As soon as the rusty black ship appeared up the canal, they began frantically pulling on outboard start-cords to get out of our way. A couple of Dougie’s mates steamed along on our quarter in their shrimp boats, then waved, tooted and headed back.

Oil pressures and temperature looked good on the gauges and everything seemed to be working well belowdecks. The boys crowded in the wheelhouse, popping the tops off beer cans and talking excitedly.

My knees stopped trembling.

A VHF call to our first bridge operator produced the desired effect. Lights started flashing, alarm bells rang and barrier arms dropped across the road. The traffic ground to a halt while people tooted their horns, flashed headlights and waved.

The next bridge was a fixed model and we slowed the General to bare steerage speed. I scrambled onto the ‘monkey island’ on top of the wheelhouse and held my breath as we slid below the bridge with about half a metre to spare – and likewise the sides, which had about 30cm clearance between them and the concrete pylons holding the bridge up.

Sweat streamed down Dougie’s face as he sat behind the wheel, turning it a few centimetres in either direction.

“Goddamn it Lenzee,” the normally imperturbable Dougie said, “I thought we was gonna break the bank on that one.”

That’d look good, I thought, taking out one of the US Government’s bridges while operating an unregistered ship without any qualifications after spending four years in the country working on a six-month tourist visa. Yessir….that’d be enough for them to lock me up with the mass murderers and drug smugglers and chuck the key away!

More bridges passed by, some opening, some not, with varying degrees of clearance. By sticking to the outside of the bends we had enough water depth to get by and the Detroit rumbled on imperturbedly.

Just on dusk we pulled into the wharf at Jacksonville, the big ol’ river winding slowly past the General, rippling against her rusty topsides.

Herein lay the biggest problem. At high water there was about 6m between our deck and the wharf below – but there was nobody there to take our mooring lines. We idled the ship’s shoulder against the wharf and called the port control. No – no help there. We hadn’t told them we were coming, so they had all gone home.

And our own crew had too many Butt-wipers on board or were too fat to do much about it.

Finally I lowered a line over the side, slid down to the wharf and took a bow line, spring line and stern line to slip them on the bollards.

“Here ya go,” Dougie stuffed a roll of cash in my hand. “You wanna go scallopin?” BNZ


New Zealand’s largest natural harbour, the Kaipara is guarded by a treacherous bar that’s chalked up its fair share of maritime disasters. Which underscores the bravery and resourcefulness of the early settlers who made the harbour their home. Story by Kinsa Hayes.

The last time I’d seen Kewpie Too was 1962 in the Bay of Islands. We’d sailed on the iconic tourist trip to Cape Brett and through the Hole in the Rock, marvelling as we gently rocked our way through the stone archway.

Now she was in the Kaipara River, that roiling brown highway between the mangroves at Parakai, Helensville. I wanted to sail on her again. I found the website and chose the very affordable two-day cruise on the Kaipara Harbour, staying the night in Dargaville in an old hotel.

An example of Kaipara’s early freight infrastructure, and a scene from colonial Dargaville.

Then I discovered that her sister boat, Kewpie, was based in my home-town, Tauranga. She used to do the Cream Trip run in the Bay of Islands, calling into isolated settlements to pick up the daily cream cans. Kewpie’s owner, Amy Neale, is the first female skipper in the boat’s history.

I boarded Kewpie at Pilot’s Bay at her Mount Maunganui (Mauao) base and was amused by the nod to her past – two old-fashioned cream cans tucked away on deck. The hour-long harbour round trip had the option of a drop-off at Matakana Island. We were requested to stick to the beach but the crystal- clear water was perfect for swimming.

Built in 1894, the Huia held the record for the fastest passage from Australia to New Zealand.

Walking along the white sand, I made myself comfortable against a downed tree trunk and read my book, to be picked up by the next cruise. Very pleasant – but only a curtain-raiser for the main event – cruising the Kaipara aboard the MV Kewpie Too, ‘retracing the routes of historic steamers from a bygone era and exploring the distant reaches of the Kaipara...’

Both boats were built in Opua – Kewpie in 1953 and Kewpie Too in 1958 – and were named after a local character and guide, Ted Cubitt, ‘Kewpie’. Each was a 17m kauri hull with slightly different deck designs.

Easter Saturday morning found our keen group of 31 boarding. Terry and Gaye Somers have been operating this run for 40 years. It showed in their encyclopaedic knowledge and smooth organisation.

Terry and Gaye Somers – your affable hosts for the cruise.   

The Kaipara Harbour is a massive tidal estuary. Originally a complex river system, the valleys became drowned with the temperature rise 10,000 years ago. Five major rivers and many streams flow into the harbour carrying silt from upland erosion. “It’s too thick to drink and too thin to plough,” commented an early settler.

The Kaipara is the largest enclosed waterway in the southern hemisphere. Tributaries from the Waitakere ranges of Auckland to the Hikurangi swamps of Whangarei create a network of navigable creeks. Boats were the means of connection between supplies, settlers and export markets.

The Kauri Coast looked very different in 1840, Terry told us. Tall grey pillars of kahikatea and kauri – in demand overseas – grew right to the water’s edge, towering over the land. The country’s first export crops were logs milled around the little settlements that sprung up along these rivers. As demand increased, square-rigged sailing ships defied the risks of the Kaipara bar, and utilising tidal flow, sailed upriver to the settlements.

A storm uncovered the long-lost Daring, and a charming spot for refreshments – the Commercial Hotel.

The Kaipara became a major port and a Port of Entry. Up to 20 ships arrived or left daily. The blue-roofed Maritime Customs Office in Poutu once housed a Harbour Master, Customs and a signal station. Despatch riders on horseback rode along the beach to ensure the flag signals at the old lighthouse coincided with those of the port.

From the 1860s kauri gum became a new source of income. Gum was used mostly as a bonding agent in making linoleum and varnish. Diggers flocked to the gumfields, particularly from Dalmatia, the old Yugoslavia. Upon arrival, they’d stay a night at one of the two-storey colonial hotels (now mostly boarding houses) before heading off to the uncomfortable life of gum digging. Their descendants still live in the area, farming, fishing or in small business.

Kewpie Too rock’n’rolled gently across the opening of the harbour to the Tasman Sea. Surf was breaking on the sandbars – this area is known as The Graveyard. The current flows at 7-8 knots, sandbars change constantly and wind sweeps through the narrow opening. A wind shift could send a ship to her doom.

Some of the local wildlife species you’re likely to see on the cruise.

More than 110 ships have foundered here. In 2018 storms uncovered a rare find. The Daring, a 17m schooner, beached in 1865 during wild gales, was buried by sand and forgotten. Carefully uplifted from its grave, the well-built boat is currently being conserved at Mangawhai where she will ultimately be displayed at the yet-to-be-built Daring Discovery Centre.

We sailed up deep creeks, a new vista opening out around each corner. In colonial times, the banks would have been lined with wharves for coastal trading by schooners and cutters. Waterways were highways that connected settlers. With a wealth of timber to build boats from and the necessity for a supply line, New Zealand’s boatbuilding tradition was launched.

Hulls were fashioned from kauri planking fastened to curved pohutukawa frames and a keel. Kauri was durable, strong, straight and even-grained. Pohutukawa branches have natural crooks and curves. Both are easy to work. Flat-bottomed scows could land on beaches or mud.

In 1894 James Barber built the Huia, a tops’l schooner which held the record for the fastest journey from Australia to New Zealand. Thompson’s boatyard in Dargaville built hundreds of schooners, whalers and sailboats. In 1907 the boatyard was contracted to build whalers for Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition – and quickly. In this race to the pole there was limited time to complete the boats. Shackleton planned his arrival at King Edward VII Land for January 1908.

On his return to England Shackleton wrote: “In regard to the boats, it will interest you to know that they gave every satisfaction under trying conditions in the Antarctic. They proved to be admirably suited for the work of the expedition, and reflected great credit upon your firm.” In his commentary, our skipper Terry pointed out the shed where they’d been built.

Kewpie Too pulled into the wharf at Pahi. The river settlements became ghost towns almost overnight following the demise of the kauri industry, but Pahi was buzzing with holidaymakers on this perfect day.

We disembarked and joined a coach for the 50km run to Dargaville, passing through Ruawai which grows 90% of New Zealand’s kumara crop. A warm climate, a thin layer of river silt over a clay bed and the flat landscape combine to provide ideal conditions.

We stayed at the Northern Wairoa Hotel, built in 1923. Walking alongside the river, we were attracted to a crowd at the Northern Wairoa Boating Club – the annual regatta was in progress. Boats from settlements around the Kaipara had gathered to follow the tradition begun in colonial times – to race and hold a party.

I grabbed a rum and coke and settled down to watch. Most of today’s boats were launches. Locals and ducks lined the banks as 30 boats churned up brown foam, creating waves that tossed the tall riverbank reeds into a frenzy. The party lasted until 3am we were told. Next morning we set off down the river on our return journey accompanied by launches sailing home and, no doubt, owners with hangovers.

Manchurian rice grass lined the banks. A pest brought in with a sailing ship’s ballast, it grows in fresh water, doesn’t respond to poison and can’t be burned. Northern shearwaters or mutton birds carried out an aerial inspection of us. The first overwintering seals basked on rocks in the sun.

Dolphins leaped beside sandbanks. Spoonbills, oyster catchers and other seabirds fed in the shallows. Hot Cross Buns, coffee and lunch, tea and cake were fed to us by the ever-cheerful Gaye. The passengers themselves were a source of good conversation. It was a weekend of delights that I can heartily recommend if you want to escape from the city. BNZ


How did they load ‘the grey pillars’ of timber into ships not designed for the cargo?

Those seamen were skilled, daring and inventive. Sailing up Kaipara creeks, they drove the ship’s bow into the mud at high tide and made her fast. The stern would still be in the deep water of the river channel even at low tide.

Shipwrights and carpenters then ‘sprung’ the planks at the bow to open the front end of the boat. The ‘pillars’ were hand-sawn, the logs squared and then loaded onto a trolley and packed tightly into the ship’s hold or lashed on deck. The shipwrights then refastened the bow planks.

Flotilla fun

The dreaded Bucket List keeps raising its ugly head and when it aligns with Fate’s fickle finger you’ve no choice but to submit. Story by Col Bell.

For many years my wife Caroline and I have threatened to return her dad’s ashes to his old home town of Urmston in Manchester, to be with her mum who is resting in peace in Saint Clement’s Church.

Now to travel all that way we needed an added excuse to make it worthwhile and that’s where the Bucket List comes in. We’re both sailors and the dream of sailing around the Greek Islands has always been right up there.

Thanks to my daughter Samantha’s connection with an English charter company, we chose to go with Sailing Holidays – a week’s flotilla sailing from the island of Corfu. Being completely ignorant about flotilla sailing, the charter was booked for mid-October.

The good news about it being late in the season was the cheaper cost – the risk is unpredictable weather. We reckoned we had a good connection with the weather gods, so arrangements were made and paid.

I was dreading the long flight to the UK, so two days in Singapore offered some rest and gave me a chance to reminisce about the good old days (50 years previously) when I lived there for two years serving Queen and country.

With the help of an elderly taxi driver we visited my old haunts. Dieppe Barracks still existed but Nee Soon was gone. Much to my surprise the old drinking spot of The Sembawang Strip survived, but the driver assured me that all my favourite bar ladies had retired.

Arriving in Manchester we had three days to kill so we took our time. We placed Bill in the church garden under a rose bush with a blessing from the lovely lady minister. I could see by the look on Caroline’s face that the mission was accomplished – her mum and dad were reunited.

On the Sunday we flew to Corfu and were greeted at the airport by the Sailing Holidays crew. At Gouvia Marina we were escorted to the good ship Natalia – a 32-foot Beneteau – with instructions to assemble at the local bar the next morning.

We were up bright and early and after exploring the marina we located a Mini Mart and stocked up on the necessary vittles for breakfast and lunch. We limited our dining out to the evening meal and, unlike our Pommy friends, we resisted the full English breakfast served at each port.

After a quick change of clothes to accommodate the temperature difference between the Med and the UK we all met at the local bar. Our fellow sailors were a mix of

families and older couples, all from jolly old Britain. As the only crew from downunder we were assumed to be Australians.

Our flotilla chaperones were a captain, a hostess and an engineer. Charlie the captain was a young English boy in his early twenties, Rosie an even younger English lass and Scott was slightly older with no English accent. I asked Scott from whence he came and was surprised at the answer – Waiheke. I was even more surprised to discover he’d been to school with my niece and had later flatted with her.

Charlie explained how the flotilla operated and the trip to that day’s destination. There were 11 yachts in all, ours at 32ft the smallest, with bigger ones up to 46ft – all modern designs with open transoms and furling sails. It was all very casual and once Rosie had outlined dining options/attractions at our destination, Scott explained the ins and outs of operating our boats.

It was interesting to discover just how relaxed Sailing Holidays was in terms of charter experience. We convinced them we knew how to sail but it was hardly an issue. It became obvious on the first day that some of the crews were on a steep learning curve, but it seemed the assumption was if you could drive a car, steering a boat was easy.

We motored out of the marina and headed to our first destination – Plataria, a small port on the Greece mainland. A beautiful sunny day, a lovely little yacht to ourselves, surrounded by scenery totally new to us and the thrill of finding our first port somewhere over the horizon. Bliss.

The lack of tide simplifies things – only a 300mm fall – and manoeuvring around the marinas and ports was easy. The lack of wind also helped. We’d been given a compass bearing and had a chart on board, but Caroline downloaded a navigation app that became our main source of information.

There was a GPS but it was down below, along with a VHF set to the flotilla’s channel. This became an important tool when approaching harbour, as we liaised with Charlie to find and tie up at each destination.

Plataria was some 35 nautical miles from our departure and with the little Volvo pushing us along at 4–5 knots in no wind, we settled in for a leisurely cruise. Under the shade of the bimini we kept a good lookout for ferries. As warned by Charlie, they sneak up on you from all directions.

We headed straight to port and – one by one – we were ushered in under Charlie’s instructions. Anchors are lowered and the boat reversed back to the wharf, tying up stern first. A gangplank between transom and quay provides easy access to the town. As luck would have it, Plataria has a lovely sandy beach and with the temperature in the mid-20s we had our first swim in beautiful clear water.

As it was the end of the season, towns were starting to close down for winter but still plenty of restaurants were available for dinner. At Rosie’s request we all gathered for a wee drink, getting to know one another over some Greek cuisine.

Being a meat and three veg man, I’m not a very adventurous diner – the thought of sucking on a squid or looking an anchovy in the eye is not my cup of tea. Caroline likes to try new things but even she was put off by the seafood platter delivered to the lady sitting alongside.

Just about every living thing from the deep was represented. I use the word ‘living’ intentionally since the ‘movement’ of several of these sea creatures added to the ‘not-for-me-thank-you’ feeling.

Our fellow sailors were a jolly bunch and in true British fashion, the volume and frivolity increased as the evening progressed. We aren’t party animals and discovered a simple way to close things down – just introduce the word ‘Brexit’. There would be looks of bewilderment, disgust, anger and sheer frustration, followed by arguments and separation. Teach them for calling us Aussies.

Next morning we met for instructions about our next port of call – a place called Lakka on the island of Paxos. One by one we untied and hauled anchor. As this was a shorter trip we were able to stop for a swim in a bay on the mainland before crossing the channel to our destination. As luck would have it, a nice breeze came up in the afternoon and we shook the wrinkles from the sails. I used a furling mainsail for the first time and am now an enthusiastic convert.

Sadly, it was a head wind so it was late afternoon by the time we arrived. Once ashore we sampled more Greek cuisine, sitting in the warm, fresh air at a table with all the condiments and even an ashtray! I settled for a hamburger while Caroline went vegetarian.

We spent a leisurely evening chatting to three senior dudes who had come all this way to sail in memory of an old friend who had passed away. It was all very relaxed and, after the captain had visited each table outlining the next day’s plans, we returned to Natalia for a good night’s sleep.

Up bright and early for our morning walk, it was back to the boat to set sail for the port of Parga on the mainland. With a fickle following breeze there was no great hurry to reach our destination. Laid back and with sails aloft we went with the flow.

By early afternoon the breeze had strengthened and with our destination in sight we reached across the calm, clear waters to pretty Parga. There was a slight change of plan for the parking in this port – it had a sandy beach with a steep slope – so we set a stern anchor and Charlie took our bow anchors ashore and dug them in.

The boats were rafted side by side and with some amusement I watched the different disembarking techniques devised by the crews. Some hung fenders over the bow as a step, some just jumped or used the anchor chain. I preferred the old rubber ducky and oars.

Parga port and Parga town are on either side of a point which is home to an old fort, and to get to the town from the port, an old open boat taxi ran a service every half an hour. We secured our boat, hailed the water taxi and went to town to stretch our legs. Later that evening we caught up with the crews and the next day’s instructions – a short hop up the coast to Sivota, a small cove with a restaurant and a jetty.

Next morning we scaled the hill to the fort and it was clear OSH had not arrived in Greece. You fend for yourself on the rather wonky marble steps. Mission accomplished, we set sail up the coast for another evening of fun and food with the added attraction of games set up for the children by Charlie.

This included laying all the inflatables upside down in a row and each kid took a turn to see who could get the furthest by running over them – a certain amount of dishwashing liquid may have been applied.

The following day we returned to the island of Corfu and Corfu town. Excitement was mounting, not only because we were coming to the end of our trip but also because Rosie had taken a €200 bet with an Aussie barman on the outcome of the rugby world cup game being played the next morning. Because there was very little rugby coverage in Greece a large crowd gathered around Rosie’s cell phone – and as the game neared the end it was obvious Rosie was on a winner.

Corfu is a lovely town but once the large cruise ships set their passengers free it’s standing room only. So we returned to Natalia for the journey back to Gouvia. As we left port we were overtaken by one of the other 32-footers, not for the first time.

I said to Caroline “that boat’s at full throttle again, I hope he has plenty of fuel.” Well my suspicion was spot-on: about halfway into the trip there was a VHF call from the speedster asking for assistance – his engine had stopped.

Charlie was ready for all emergencies and extra fuel was delivered to the distressed crew, but I couldn’t help thinking that had they been kinder to the engine and used the appropriate revs, they would have been like us at refuelling – half a tank left.

Back at the marina we prepared for our morning flight to Athens, and then it was off to the bar for our last get-together and prizegiving. A great evening was had by all with no-one left out of the prize department and the Sailing Holidays crew applauded for their efforts in making our cruise one to remember.

Ocean Passage

Jim Lott and wife Karin recently returned from a seven-year global cruise. This puts him in a useful place for considering the differences between his first ocean voyage in 1966 and the modern equivalent.

Change is not always obvious. The memory of most weather events fades but we’re nonetheless aware of the increasing frequency and severity of exceptional events, whether it be wind, rainfall, floods or droughts.

Since our departure from New Zealand in 2011 we’ve seen glaciers melting, sea-ice vanishing to allow yachts to transit the Northwest Passage – even ocean currents heading the ‘wrong’ way. Hurricanes and typhoons have always existed, but the maximum wind speeds are increasing.

Higher wind speed is one thing, but the force the wind exerts increases exponentially with greater speed. An obvious result is the spiralling cost of insurance for owners of property on sea and land. So yes, weather conditions have changed – but so have many other components relating to ocean passages.

Yachts, for example.

They’ve become much larger. In the 1970s the ‘ideal’ oceangoing yacht was about 11m. Many are now around 16m. The quest for improved stability (115° is the minimum safe angle for positive righting moment) has seen a marked increase in freeboard. That increases interior volume, which in turn has improved safety thanks to greater reserve buoyancy. A bigger boat handles bigger waves better.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ian Dear Archive/PPL
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And there’s more. Yacht design has been driven by the need for improved comfort, lower building costs, fewer expert man-hours during building and the reduction in the amount of materials. Less material and man-hours equate to lower costs – and lighter weight means faster sailing.

But these developments come with attendant issues. A lower building cost has played into the hands of the charter market whose cast-offs we now see sailing the oceans. What is fine for charter work or coastal sailing is less than ideal for long-term ocean cruising.

Rigs are much lighter with no built-in redundancy if a single component fails. Thirty years ago it was unthinkable that a cruising yacht rig would last less than 10 years. Now it is the norm.

Finding the bottom from time to time is an inevitable part of long-term cruising. A longer keel, with its fore and aft length significantly greater than its depth, provides protection for the hull. Such keels have given way to fin alternatives.

But when a fin keel is deeper than the length of the hull joint, a bump on the bottom concentrates the loads on the hull – with the aft end punching upwards causing severe structural damage and stressing keel bolts. Over recent years we’ve witnessed keels lost while sailing – an event almost unheard of with longer keels. Fin keels don’t protect a hull, but there are advantages: building costs are reduced and performance improves.

Rudders, too, have evolved.

Those that are mounted on a skeg – or on the aft end of the keel – are far less stressed than spade versions. The failure of a spade rudder’s stock leaves a yacht virtually uncontrollable – and some have been abandoned as a result. But spades cost less and perform well. The extra speed of modern yachts suits racing and is more fun on a day-sail – though it makes not an iota of difference on an ocean passage.


The profile has changed over the years. Today, those who roam the oceans are often retired, although many families sail the world too. Either way, few cruising yachts are fully-crewed – increasingly reliable autopilots and self-steering systems have replaced people. And that means the skills sailors need have changed over the years.

Until about 1980 every ocean sailor had to master navigating with a sextant, nautical almanac and an accurate time-piece. The arrival of Satnav and then GPS has turned celestial navigation into a dead skill – even charts are now electronic. While there is no doubt electronics have become very reliable, not many sailors have sufficient navigational knowledge to get home if the battery gasps its last.

But on the other hand…

Although navigation may be a lost art, modern sailors need to understand a much wider range of technology if they are to be self-reliant. Electrical systems are far more complex. Electronics are integral to a range of communications equipment. Ironically, understanding this takes more training than using a sextant. Engines, charging systems, hydraulics and refrigeration are fundamental to modern yachts – and the self-sufficient ocean cruiser needs to know a lot more than his counterpart from a few decades ago.

What hasn’t changed is the need to be self-reliant. There have always been sailors who invite others to share their troubles when things go wrong and this is often an easier option because boat servicing is tackled by marina staff at the next port. Preventative maintenance and a comprehensive DIY knowledge are being lost – but these skills have never been more important.

On the positive side of the ledger, safety equipment – such as harnesses and lifejackets – has vastly improved, particularly in regard to preventing accidents and the ability to survive in the water.


Another major area of change. A few decades ago staying in touch relied on a postcard a month from a foreign land with an occasional phone call (usually collect). Now we have instant emails with calls and texts daily to anywhere around the world.

Long-range radios only arrived in the 70s, along with locater beacons. Available resources in life-threatening situations have changed: we used to rely on flares and intermittent short-range radio – we now have EPIRBs and reliable long-range radio with automatic distress messages to summon help.

Weather forecast maps have been around since Robert Fitzroy drew the first isobaric charts 160 years ago. But only in the last 20 years could we rely on predictions a day or two ahead. Previously, you simply sailed when you were ready and accepted the weather that came your way.

In the 1990s the weather fax was a welcome development when at sea. It replaced the daily charts we drew up from morse code signals giving positions, which we joined up with a pencil to make isobaric charts.

Climate information assembled from observations over the years was displayed on ‘Pilot Charts’. These showed seasonal weather patterns and provided ocean sailors with the best time to make passages. We came to expect the seasons to come and go with a level of probability – but climate change has rendered Pilot Charts less useful.

In 2004 New Zealand was first in the world to extend marine forecasts to five days when MetService included the outlook we now have. Since about 2008 we have been blessed with grid charts updated every few hours.

Resolution is now down to an astonishing five-mile grid driven by the world’s most powerful computers. Additionally, we have at least three models to compare – to assess how much we should rely on the prognosis. All are highly reliable for several days and useful to about 10 days. For a modest fee, passage routing for a voyage is now available.

And it’s one of the best dollar-spends a yachtsman can make. Not only can we select the best time to leave on a 1000-mile voyage, we also have enough time for even the slowest cruiser to sail away from the worst storms likely to be encountered on a longer voyage.

The combination of highly accurate detailed weather forecasts along with the ability to receive them on board is the single biggest factor that has decreased the risks associated with ocean sailing in the past 50 years.

In spite of climate change adding to the risks we face as sailors, more and more yachts are making bluewater voyages. And on balance, I’d have to conclude that ocean voyaging has become much safer. We see fewer small craft lost at sea and fewer tragedies where a life is lost.

Changes in technology and design have produced safer yachts in some ways but made them less reliable in others. For sailors today, tackling a bluewater cruise requires different skills.

One crucial factor remains unchanged though: the fundamental requirement to be self-reliant at sea.



By Ian and Ngaire Carline

Published by Silberhorn

RRP $36.00

Mention cruising along canals and rivers to your friends, and chances are they’ll immediately assume you’re talking about Europe.

But there’s an equally fascinating area for canal/river cruising in northeastern America – a region of rivers and lakes interconnected by scores of man-made canals. It’s steeped in history and culture and filled with friendly locals.

The best way to grab a taste of what’s on offer is to watch this 70-minute DVD produced by Ian and Ngaire Carline. They cruised it in the 46-foot Nan, an immaculately maintained, 73-year-old launch powered by twin Detroit diesels – and between them they provide a colourful commentary on the passing show.

Nan, incidentally, carries quite a bit of history herself – she starred in the 1980s movie Absence of Malice, featuring Sally Field and Paul Newman.

The couple’s cruise begins in Maine and, criss-crossing and doubling back across the region, they venture north to Canada, and then back down to New York and beyond. It’s hard to believe that a boat can cruise through so much of the area – all in beautifully sheltered rivers and canals. You could cruise for months.

Majestic is the only word to describe the scenery – and even though many of the man-made canals are ancient, the infrastructure of locks (of which there are many) is in excellent condition. Some are fascinating historical gems in their own right!

Along the way we encounter many of the region’s legendary landmarks: Long Island Sound, Martha’s Vineyard, the Erie Canal (it features in many romantic ballads), the bustling traffic on the Hudson River, cruising under the State of Liberty – all in all, a refreshingly different perspective to the conventional ‘arm’s length’ view one receives via the TV news.

Above all, it looks like enormous fun – and certainly a voyage worth adding to your Bucket List.


This book pays tribute to the tenacity and sailing skills of four young New Zealanders who sailed an epic voyage in their Chinese junk Golden Lotus in 1962.

On their 8,500-mile journey from Hong Kong to New Zealand they confronted violent storms in the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and Tasman Sea. They challenged poisonous and powerful Komodo dragons on an uninhabited Indonesian island, and encountered numerous navigational hazards along Australia’s eastern seaboard.

Brian Clifford – master navigator at age 23, orchestrated every aspect of this classic adventure. Skillful celestial navigation, adventurous spirits and the raw energy of a youth crew – combined with total self-reliance – won the day.

The book was first printed in 1962 (with a reprint a year later). In this new, revised edition, Brian’s brother Graham Clifford invites you to come aboard for the journey – bring your sextant with you!

To buy a copy of the book email:

Tall ship to Singapore

Nothing stirs the soul in quite the same way as a tall ship under full sail at dawn, her labyrinthine rigging silhouetted against the rising sun. And when sumptuous accommodation, fine dining, pristine beaches and plenty of history are added to the mix, you have a recipe for out-of-the-ordinary cruising. Lawrence Schaffler joined 'Star Clipper'.

Star Clipper is a 115m four-masted barquentine – a cruise ship operating in the tropical waters around Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Launched in 1992, her design and rigging are faithful to those of the legendary clippers that plied these waters more than a century ago.

Her four masts carry 16 sails with a total area of 3,365m2 – many with odd names such as fisherman, topgallant and spanker. The expansive teak decks are riddled with archaic
features – fife rails, belaying pins and large wooden turning blocks – you’ll even find a pair of pelorus compasses mounted either side of the bridge.

But while the sense of tradition is tangible, it comes with a twist: she’s also a luxurious cruiser, catering for up to 170 guests in splendid, heritage-themed accommodation. Mahogany brightwork abounds down below, offset by gleaming brass and navy carpeting. She might hark back to a bygone era, but this is a very modern, graceful lady.

I joined her in Phuket, Thailand for a week-long cruise to Singapore (about 800nm), taking in some of the region’s most remote (and picture-perfect) beaches before heading south to
Penang in Malaysia, through the infamous Straits of Malacca and on to Singapore. A fascinating voyage in the wake of the tall ships that bustled around these parts in the mid-1800s.

So – she’s a somewhat unusual cruise ship. But it’s the size of the passenger complement that provides her point of difference. With only 170 guests things are cosy and friendly – the ice thaws quickly. It’s also very multinational – mostly Europeans, but also Americans, Canadians and Australians.

And their response to my probing questions was always the same: “We love cruising, but not on vessels with 3,000–4,000 passengers. We prefer the intimacy this ship offers, it’s like being part of a family. Getting to know everyone is uncomplicated. And of course, sailing on a tall ship is very romantic.”

My ‘aural’ test corroborated these sentiments – by dinner on day three the volume of conversation and laughter had climbed considerably. I also discovered that many of the guests were on ‘repeat’ voyages – second and third time around. One German couple were celebrating their 10th Star Clipper voyage – “it is wunderbar, ja?” Indeed, it is.

Star Clipper is one of three tall ships in a fleet operated by Swedish company Star Clippers. Her sisters are Star Flyer (identical) sailing around the Med and the Caribbean, and the bigger Royal Clipper, a 134m five-master that similarly alternates between the Caribbean and the Med. Between them they offer a vast range of cruises and destinations – seven to
22 days in duration. A fourth vessel is being built. Clearly, the Clipper cruising recipe works.

The cruising style is best described as informal elegance – a very friendly, laid-back environment where you can do as much – or as little – as you like. And if you’re nervous about the motion of a medium-sized sailing ship – don’t be. She’s very stable – there’s little danger of spilling your pina colada. But there is a real possibility you’ll leave the ship a few kilos heavier than when you boarded.

It’s hedonist heaven – where gourmet meals glide seamlessly into one another. Breakfast morphs into mid-morning tea with snacks, a buffet lunch, afternoon treats, sundowners and then dinner – all immaculately presented. My thoughts did extend to the team of chefs toiling in the steaming galley deep within the ship. At the equator the ambient temperature hovers around the late 30s.

Mercifully, things are much cooler down in your cabin because the entire ship’s air-conditioned. And as with the overall nautically-themed décor, cabins are a traditional
composition of gleaming mahogany, polished brass trimming and plush upholstery/carpeting.

For the most part the cruise is structured around overnight sailing with a departure at 6.00pm, just as the sun’s dipping toward the horizon. And it’s always a splendidly orchestrated affair. With the anchor secure the sails are hoisted in unison to a rousing soundtrack (Greek composer Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise) piped over the deck’s numerous speakers.

Three jibs and a staysail flying off the bowsprit, the main staysail, upper main staysail, mizzen staysail, main fisherman and jigger staysail – glorious stuff! Fuelled by a rum punch (or two), you’re instantly transported to an earlier era – it’s not hard to imagine yourself embarking on a pioneering voyage to exotic, unknown lands.

Tranquility greets you at sunrise the next morning. Early rising’s not obligatory – but as every sailor knows, it’s the best time of the day. The quiet solitude’s perfect for unshackling your mind from life’s burdens.

Generally, the ship’s anchored at the new destination by around 10.00am, and after breakfast all kinds of activities await. If you’re feeling lazy you can chill in a deck-chair at one of the two swimming pools. But most guests join the ferry to a nearby beach or depart one of many day excursions (arranged by the ship).

Our seven-day passage covered 800nm (1,500km). After departing Phuket the ship visited a number of remote islands some 30 miles off Thailand’s west coast – Ko Simillan, Ko Adang and the Ao Phang Nga marine national park. All are renowned for their pristine white beaches and warm, crystal-clear water.

Ferries (the ship’s life-boats) shuttle passengers between ship and shore. Beach visits coincide with a wide range of ship-supplied water activities – dinghy sailing, kayaking,
paddleboarding, snorkelling and even scuba diving. And with the rich, abundant marine life, the snorkelling is superb. At one anchorage the chefs even managed to whip up a beach
BBQ, complete with cold beer and wine.

The itinerary presents a fascinating mix of natural beauty, geological oddities and colourful history. In the Ao Phang Nga marine national park, for example, we sailed through an alien seascape of strangely-shaped ‘islands’ – tall, limestone formations with stalactites around their bases. Undercut by wave-induced erosion, they look very precarious.

Many are riddled with deep caves in which birds (swiftlets) roost and their nests are the key ingredient for making ‘bird’s nest soup’ – highly-prized in Chinese cuisine. I’ve not tasted
this delicacy but it’s believed to be a health tonic, especially useful for restoring virility to ageing gentlemen.

The nests are collected by locals living a monastic existence in the caves. They climb rickety bamboo ladders – the higher the elevation of the nests the higher the price they command. Injuries and even deaths aren’t uncommon. Today, facing extinction, the birds and their nests are at least semi-protected, but the business is too lucrative for a complete ban.

For 007 fans, this area is also home to what is now known as ‘James Bond’ island. It was the location for a scene in the 1974 movie The Man with the Golden Gun – starring
Roger Moore as 007, Britt Ekland (the pouting beauty) and Christopher Lee as the villain. Excursions to these attractions are courtesy of local operators in high-speed ferries, usually
powered by triple 250hp Honda rigs.

Heading south to Malaysia, you also get a sense of this region’s ancient history, particularly as a ‘melting pot’. It’s a place where different cultures and religions have intersected over the centuries, their differences pushed aside by trade and commerce. Arabic, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Malay (and later, European) influences are all clearly evident in the streets of Penang and Melaka. And you can’t help reminding yourself that much of the heated bartering took place over the holds of the 19th century clippers.

Transitting the infamous Straits of Malacca – a very narrow waterway between Sumatra and Malaysia – has been on my Bucket List for many years. Its fearsome reputation stems from the pirates who over the centuries have used its claustrophobic confines to pillage passing ships (they still do).

We didn’t encounter any pirates, but the volume of shipping passing through the Strait is an extraordinary spectacle. A bit like a marine highway – with massive tankers and freighters passing within a few hundred metres of one another. I am sure the navigator’s heart returned to its usual rhythm when we were spat out the other end and Singapore’s lights loomed over the port bow.

Tall ship cruising in the tropics. It’s a splendid way to escape from the stresses of everyday life, an opportunity to submerse yourself in heritage and tradition – and who knows, maybe even a little romance?

Above all, it’s a fun way to pretend you’re a wild buccaneer with rum coursing through your
veins, salt spray on your lips, and the sigh of a fully-rigged tall ship in your ears.


Northerly winds dictated the route of our week’s cruise around the Inner Hebrides, so with full sail on Aisling – our Contessa 32 – we headed south along the rock-strewn coasts of Skye. Atlantic gales bring powerful seas and winds to this west-facing coast of Scotland so cruising sailors have to be hardy and cautious – which explains why there are so few, writes Kevin Green.

There are many variables about west coast sailing but there is one constant: rain. Often arriving horizontally but then again often innocuously persistent and even pleasantly warm thanks to the Gulf Stream. Our cruise brought all the classic weather ingredients – two gales, heavy rain, stunningly clear sunshine and, thankfully, only neap tides.

“You can tell it’s very windy because the rubber dinghy flies behind the boat,” observed my chum Ronan who’s been flying his dinghy off Aisling’s stern for 15 years. She is reputedly one of the few yachts to finish the disastrous ‘79 Fastnet Race that drowned 21 sailors and sunk 23 boats.

Her main features are a thick, keel-stepped mast, deep semi-long keel and a near-50% ballast ratio – a well-equipped vessel for the dreaded Minch, one of the stormiest waterways in Europe that lies between the Inner and Outer Hebrides. As a child I’d crossed it on family holidays and watched in amusement as passengers’ hats flew off from the Calmac ferry, fluttering among the gannets that streaked past in the stiff breeze.

As we approached the south coast of Skye we tucked in a reef – just in case. Passing the MacDonald stronghold at Armadale Castle (now the famous Clan Donald Cultural Centre), we discussed the two rival clans that ran Skye, the MacDonalds and the MacCleods. They often crossed claymores once the Vikings had retreated.

Descended from them, the early MacDonalds were part of the famous Lord of the Isles dynasty that ruled after the Vikings left in the 13th century.

Skye played many parts in history, including being the home of Flora MacDonald who took the defeated Prince Charles Edward Stuart over to the island after the English defeated Scotland’s best at Culloden in 1746.

Flora and the largely Highland army were to suffer more afterwards in what became the dismantling of Highland culture and the clan system.

The wearing of the plaid was banned, as was the playing of the pipes. But worst of all was the outlawing of our language, the Gaelic. So despite growing up in a Gaelic-speaking household I was not encouraged to speak it.


History lies heavily in the Highlands but there is plenty of it to choose from, as we’d found out at our first anchorage. Sailing into the mainland bay of Sandaig we visited the former home of Ring of Bright Water author Gavin Maxwell. The colourful aristocrat had leased a house here and used the burn for his beloved otters. Weirdly, before his ‘epiphany-to-wildlife-saviour’ he’d decimated the local basking shark population – it never recovered.

Looking west from Sandaig the stupendous views encompassed a horizon filled with islands – the Small Isles. Shelter is never far on the west coast, thanks to the large majority of Scotland’s nearly 800 islands being on this seaboard.

The Stornoway Coastguard VHF forecast warned of westerly gales so we headed for an anchorage to ride them out. It lay on the low-lying island of Canna, described in the Clyde Cruising Club’s Sailing Directions as an excellent anchorage and sheltered from all directions.

Obscuring it were the brooding mountains of Rhum and dotted around its shores were fish farms; one of the modern success stories of this region. Looking east, the towering peaks of the Cuillins, some of the highest mountains on the west coast, jutted out from Skye.

Reefing the big genoa as we rounded the north point of Rhum we saw another reminder of the weather – the 2011 wreck of a large French stern trawler – the Jack Abry II – she seemed to be berthed against the high cliffs.

The green and verdant Canna lay low and its wide bay looked welcoming as we glided in. A grey seal swam over and snorted at us while a flock of geese honked overhead. Also welcoming were the plentiful, government-supplied moorings.

Stillness descended as we sat in the cockpit, celebrating with a dram from Skye’s Talisker distillery. I studied the few buildings: the nearby small stone church, the farm steading, and on the smaller island of Sanday a grand neo-Romanesque church. This was now the archives for Gaelic writing, established by the benevolent last owner, John Lorne Campbell and his American wife Margaret Fay Shaw.

An accomplished photographer, his wife has left 1,000 negative photos of life in the west Highlands. These are being digitised and will complement the extensive written archives gleaned by her husband in a lifetime devoted to supporting Gaelic culture. Canna now belongs to the National Trust for Scotland.

It helps having friends with connections, and my mate Ronan – a well-known and travelled musician – knew many people among the isles, including the famous singer Fiona J. Mackenzie who we visited the next day in the Campbell’s grand house. She told us about her archival work and the struggle since the 2017 closure of the school that reduced island numbers to only 14 people.


Waves of history passed through this arable land including religious proselytisers who displaced the druids of the Pictish nation with St Columba’s Catholic priests in the seventh century. After the Norsemen slaughtered all of them, longships were berthed here for 500 years.

Their remains are difficult to find but modern lasers and aerial radiography is revealing much, including the 2017 find of a Viking boatyard across the water in western Skye. Today Canna remains Catholic but has a Protestant church dating from 1914, as well as a new style accommodation for backpackers; small huts called ‘pods’ that have proliferated throughout the Highlands recently.

Back aboard Aisling we sheltered from the gale under the cockpit tent and ate our sausage hotpot, snug beside the diesel heater. The horizontal rain even drove the herd of Highland cattle into the rowan trees for shelter.

A day later – under full sail – the 2,500-foot peaks of Rhum loomed over us. Named in Gaelic as mountain of the troll (Trollaval), the middle peak alluded to the island’s dark history. Like many Scottish islands, Rhum had suffered at the hands of eccentric foreign owners who removed many people during the dark times of the 19th century Highland Clearances – and then used the island as a play park.

The last of these rogues was Sir George Bulloch who spent three weeks annually on Rhum after building the stately home of Kinloch Castle and filling it with exotic artefacts. As we passed the island’s dark and empty landscape, with only the rubble of houses left, it told its own sad story.

Many displaced people were forcefully shipped to America – and Nova Scotia in particular – where Gaelic communities flourish and the old working songs are still sung and popularised by authors such as Canadian Alistair MacCleod.

Rhum was eventually bought back by the Scottish government in the 1957 and wildlife is now the main benefactor of this wasteland. We saw sea eagles gliding past and my binoculars picked out deer near the tree line just above the main anchorage at Loch Scresort.

Aisling felt the full force of the Atlantic south of Rhum, as we neared the lower-lying Eigg, its Sgurr (‘buck tooth’ in Gaelic) giving it the shape of an upturned fin keeler. The rocky Sgurr towers over arable fields and as we rounded the south east corner the small haven of Galmisdale came into view.

We considered seeking out the famous Massacre Cave where the MacCleods had burned all the islanders and our talk grew maudlin as we discussed how the MacCleods’ ascendency was assured after fighting on the winning English side in the 1776 battle of Culloden.

Feeling very glum we sought the Laig brewery – run by Ronan’s mate Gabe. Perched high on the island, the view from Gabe’s brewhouse showed the mainland peninsula of Scotland’s most westerly point at Ardnamurchan and to our north the Outer Hebrides. These islands included Lewis, the birthplace of yet another infamous MacCleod – Mary-Anne, the mother of US President Donald Trump.


Despite being busy brewing for what he said was an exceptionally busy tourist season, Nova Scotian fiddler Gabe agreed to meet us at the island pub later for a ceilidh (musical soiree). So, with clanking, beer-filled rucksacks we wound our way down the island calling in at a few of the 70 residents to let them know about the ceilidh.

Eigg is world-famous for its community buyout, from what was yet another rogue landlord in 1997 and has been studied by international organisations as a model of sustainability. It now is also self-sufficient in electricity thanks to solar and wind turbines.

It relies on a vibrant community of multi-skilled people including many English folk escaping the congested south – a much friendlier invasion force than in 1746. A recent lifeline is the pier for the Calmac ro-ro ferry (despite visiting cars being forbidden) which allows produce and equipment to be landed easily.

While having a few beers at the ceilidh, Dean from Wolverhampton told me how he decided to paddle his kayak over to the island. Cold and near-penniless, he was given clothes and shelter. “That was 10 years ago and I’ve been here ever since!” Another English couple were sailing past in their bilge-keeled Maurice Griffiths Golden Hind and followed the same happy fate.

At this juncture, I should warn readers that this lifestyle involves a lot of self-sufficiency and surviving a Highland winter is indeed a badge of honour; something I can vouch for having been born in the most-northerly village in the British Isles.


The following day the mighty Sgurr of Eigg was our backbearing during a roller-coaster broad reach across the Minch and then the calmer Sound of Sleat to the busiest fishing town on the west coast: Mallaig. “Gee whiz there’s traffic lights at the entrance!” I shouted back to Ronan from the bow as we dodged a fast-moving Calmac ferry Skye-bound.

It was only about six years ago the fisherfolk of Mallaig relented to let us pesky yachties share their busy port, so now before us lay the most northerly marina on the west coast; but still exposed to the east (in case you’re thinking of wintering here). Yet more civilisation awaited in the form of the French style boulangerie and lots of what I call tartan-trock shops clustered around the station where the Hogwarts steam express from Glasgow was decanting Harry Potter fans.

Ducking into the nearby Fisherman’s Mission to escape the throng we had the best haddock and chips in years. As is the west coast way, the weather had changed to solid rain by then so a sprint to the nearest hostelry brought us to the Marine Bar where we downed some Tennents Lager while yarning with some fishermen.

Our stroll back to the marina for what was the last night of the voyage rewarded us with yet another change in the weather, as a dramatic sunset formed of towering clouds and butterscotch light over the mighty Cuillins Mountains.

As writer Gavin Maxwell quite rightly said about the Scottish west coast, many things may change but the rocks remain.

The Sound of tranquillity

First – a confession. I like to think I’ve sailed extensively in the Marlborough Sounds. That’s only half-true. In reality – I’ve sailed within the Queen Charlotte Sound. And there’s no denying its majesty and appeal – breathtaking scenery, idyllic anchorages, great fishing, fun restaurants, exceptional wine. Story by Lawrence Schaffler.

But the ‘Sounds experience’ changed for me earlier this year when I ventured into the Pelorus Sound – often described as Charlotte’s more demure, retiring sister – for the first time. It is – in my opinion – even more beautiful and much more interesting.

It comes with all the attractions listed above but, perhaps because of its relative isolation, the deafening silence, the star-studded night skies, the expansive waterways and hidden inlets – there’s a greater mystique. With its 380km shoreline, it is the largest of the Sounds and its name derives from a ‘blend’. In 1838 HMS Pelorus did the first survey of the Sound – and a ‘pelorus’ is a navigational accessory used on early sailing ships.

An extraordinarily convoluted (think maze) boating playground, it would take weeks if not months to adequately explore its waterways, inlets and anchorages. But the best-kept secret of the Pelorus Sound is that you don’t even need a boat to dip into its treasures. Instead, hop aboard the Pelorus Express mail boat.

This service – celebrating its centenary this year – was originally established to deliver mail (and supplies and livestock and pretty much anything else) to the locals living in some of the Sound’s remotest outposts. A century ago, it was a much busier place, and over the years has hosted whalers, miners, saw-millers, shipbuilders and farmers.

Today those industries have (mostly) disappeared and have been replaced by the country’s largest mussel farming industry. What’s remained largely unchanged though, is that there are (still) very few access roads and hardly any on-grid electricity. For many places a boat is (still) the only means of access.

Fortunately, the mail boat operating today is much more modern (and a lot faster) than the vessels that plied the Sound a century ago. She’s brand new – a fast, stable 15m alloy catamaran equipped with twin 600hp diesels. She runs seven days a week in summer (three in winter) and, in the words of her crew, her service has morphed over the years.

Says Jim Baillie, the boat’s infectiously-upbeat owner/skipper and walking-Pelorus-Sound-encyclopaedia: “We used to be a mail service boat carrying a few tourists. Today we’re a tourist boat carrying a bit of mail.” Baillie is the ninth owner of the operation. The new cat is a birthday present, he says, to celebrate the service’s centenary.

Based at Havelock Marina at the head of the Sound, she’s the day-tripper’s key to discovering Pelorus Sound. With her speed she covers the entire Sound, leaving at 10.00am and returning at around 4.00pm. And it’s an enormously enjoyable voyage.

More than a Mail Boat
The boat’s a glorious platform for taking in the sights through the Sound – presenting vistas you couldn’t hope to capture from a car – bright greens and deep blues one moment, dark, brooding peaks around the next corner. And always the sparkling water.

It’s the add-ons that create the service’s overall charm. This includes the humourous, informative commentary from Baillie, delivered in his rich, Scottish brogue. It meanders through the Sound’s colourful history, its geography, its marine farming industry, its diverse fauna and flora – and its ecology.

For many visitors the most intriguing part of the trip is meeting the locals living in homesteads tucked deep into remote bays. Each has a jetty and the ‘mail delivery’ is always a lively ritual because the livestock’s included in the welcoming party.

At the stops you’ll meet the usual variety of dogs and cats,but also goats, pigs, ducks and geese – all waiting with expectant faces as the vessel noses up to the jetties. The exchange – a bag/box drop swapped for another – is quick, but it does allow for a bit of gossip and updates.

As you’d expect, living in places that are unconnected to the modern world presents a few curiosities. WiFi passwords aren’t a pressing concern. Electricity is self-supplied – usually by diesel generators. TV coverage is intermittent at best and, talking to the locals, you sense it isn’t really missed.

There are also ingenious ‘energy’ solutions. The owner of the Wilson Bay Farm, for example, has converted the guts of an old washing machine into a hydro-generator. A stream running across the upper part of his property feeds the converted machine (there’s a 65m head).
With the tub now functioning as a ‘turbine’ and spinning the motor (now a generator), it powers a network of low-voltage lights around the homestead. If the stream dries a bit and the pressure falls, removing a few bulbs from the network sees the rest glowing more brightly. Wilson Bay Farm, incidentally, was established in 1881 and has been in the same family for seven generations.
One of the most fascinating characters is Bill Brownlee. At 91 years young Bill lives alone at Te Puru, one of the last, more remote stops on the mail boat’s route. The great-grandson of one of the early saw-millers, Bill has lived here for 45 years.
He has six children and says they sometimes drop by (courtesy of the mail boat) with a little tucker. But when he runs low on supplies he usually takes his yacht – Waimarie – to Havelock (a 10-hour round trip) or Picton (12 hours). She’s anchored in the bay off his homestead, and he’s owned her for 61 years.
Tranquillity is an ephemeral notion – emotional rather than tangible, elusive and indefinable, calm and silent. But it is the feeling that displaces all others as the mail boat sweeps along below the towering ranges.
I was the model of sobriety on the cruise – no alcohol passed my lips – but in Pelorus I think I heard the sound of tranquillity.

Like most visitors, my sense of the Sounds’ history extended to the arrival of the Maori around a thousand years ago, and Captain James Cook. During his 18th century voyages of discovery, Cook liked stopping here for a bit of R&R and ship TLC. But there’s quite a bit more to it, as I discovered.

Visiting the charming, picturesque village of Havelock today, with its art galleries and cafés, it’s hard to believe it was once a wild, boom town with some 23 hotels catering to tribes of thirsty miners. All because of a gold rush.

I also didn’t know the hamlet nurtured two of New Zealand’s most famous sons – Ernest Rutherford (he who dabbled in small things) and William Pickering, one of NASA’s most gifted rocket scientists.

Wakatahuri Bay – at the outer limits of the Sound – deserves an article in its own right. It’s been described as the site of New Zealand’s first commercial ship-breaking yard – the Sounds Wrecking Company.

Launched just after WWll, it was operated by two brothers who’d beach old vessels to remove all valuable metals and timber. Their version of recycling included burning the stripped wrecks on the shore. I’m not sure that would be allowed today. There are still traces of the activity.

Of course, the best place to read about the Sound’s past is on the mail boat itself – there’s plenty of material detailing the developments over the years.

If you’re tempted to extend your visit to Pelorus, there are accommodation options tailored to all budgets and lifestyles – from backpackers to high-end, luxury lodges. And because the Sound’s well-serviced by water taxis, getting to and from these places is quick, easy and inexpensive.

Hopewell Lodge ( on the shores of the nearby Kenepuru Sound, for example, has self-catering chalets and a superb communal kitchen – all nestling in a natural forest setting. Mike and Lynley are the friendly hosts, and if you’re tired of your own cooking, their home-made pizzas are a welcome change. The lodge’s equipped with kayaks, mountain bikes, paddle boards and fishing tackle. Forested hiking trails are plentiful, and there’s even a nearby golf course.

Similarly, Te Rawa Lodge ( in the middle of the Sound is a 45-minute boat trip from Havelock. Hosted by Rob and Anne Brabazon, its quality accommodation is complemented by a fine restaurant (it’s where the mail boat stops for a lunch). If you visit on your own vessel, seven moorings are available.

Want a preview of heaven? You might consider a night (or two) at the award-winning Sounds Retreat ( – the ultimate getaway for the committed hedonist. Located at the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound, the views are almost as majestic as the luxurious facility and service provided by owners Anne and Anthony Brooker.

Did you know that the Pelorus Sound is the heart of the country’s green-lip mussel farming industry – a $200-million a year business? Neither did I.

The industry also includes other species – salmon, oysters and paua – and even seaweed.

Pelorus is also a favourite chill-out spot for cruising whales and five dolphin species.

But I think Duffers’ Reef Rock – in the middle of the Sound – is the oddest in the Pelorus fauna and flora gallery. It’s home to a colony of king shags, cormorants who nest and roost here exclusively – even though there are plenty of other nearby rocks.

Why so picky?
This bird is endangered (there are only about 400 remaining) and is unique in the cormorant family in a variety of ways: it’s the biggest, has pink feet, and dives to the greatest depths.
But it needs to develop its social skills.

Exploring the Marlborough Sounds on you own boat demands plenty of spare time and, fortunately for those who prefer to sample it at a leisurely pace, the region boasts three excellent marinas to use as a base or stopover.

Picton, Waikawa and Havelock all provide marine and engineering facilities, as well as restaurants/cafés, toilets and showers, laundry, fuel, pump-out stations, waste oil disposal centres, a rubbish removal service and a launching ramp for trailer boats.

Picton Marina: 254 berths, catering for vessels from 8m-35m.
Waikawa Marina: 600 berths, with visitor berths from 8m-20m.
Havelock Marina: 340 berths, able to accommodate vessels between 10m and 30m.

Be aware that the entrance to Havelock channel is more tidal than the other marinas, but it’s well-surveyed with excellent navigation markers. The channel has been dredged to 2.1m at chart datum.

With permanent moorings available, all three are good places to leave your boat for extended stays.
Note: If you are planning to cruise the Sounds this summer, consider downloading the Marlborough Sounds Cruising Guide App. Available for Android and Apple phones, it’s an invaluable accessory for itinerary planning.


Fountaine Pajot’s latest sailing catamaran, the Astréa 42, has been voted ‘Multihull of the Year’ by the prestigious French Voile magazine and Le Monde du Multicoque.

Since its April launch at the Grand La Motte boat show in France, Multihull Solutions, Fountaine Pajot’s Asia-Pacific dealer, has already taken more than 10 orders for the Astréa 42.

The cat features an inverted bow, which gives the boat an elegant and dynamic line while offering incomparable interior space. It is distinguished by an abundance of natural light, energetic lines, elegant living spaces and unparalleled comfort.

The coachroof features a double seat at the helm station and a builtin sun lounger. The spacious cockpit is the perfect place to relax and also offers a Beach Club option with an embedded gangway.

The saloon has expansive panoramic windows and the U-shaped galley transitions seamlessly with the cockpit, courtesy of a vast sliding pocket door.

The Astréa 42 is available in Owner and Quatuor versions, each with numerous bathroom layout options, and is priced from AUD $650,000 ex-factory in France or AUD $900,000 landed in Australia with all taxes paid and essential options included.

Kava Caper

Kava-tasting is something of ritual for yachties travelling to Fiji. Sometimes it advances well beyond tasting, writes Lindsay Wright.

One of the most uplifting aspects of travel are the opportunities to be at one with the locals; eat their food, dance their dances or imbibe their inebriants (not always in that order). Nor to excess, you understand – just enough to foster the warm feeling of mutual admiration that comes from shared experiences.
During our travels we’ve been fortunate enough to sample ouzo in Greece, wine in France, Spain and Portugal, the inexpensive and smooth rums of the Caribbean, traditional ale in Britain, schnapps in Norway and whiskey in Scotland.

So, a few days after arriving in Suva, I set out once more to enhance international relations and understanding by sampling kava, the national drink of Fiji and many other Pacific islands.
Partaking of this muddy mixture is not just a matter of shouldering your way to the bar and ordering two handles of kava to go. It is a solemn cultural experience, my guidebook told me, and should be undertaken with appropriate respect and decorum.
My first opportunity to partake came at the central produce market in Suva. Downstairs the huge concrete hall bustles with stalls selling pineapples, coconuts, bananas, papaya, mangoes, vegetables and exotic Indian and Fijian foodstuff. But upstairs they really get down to business. Stalls up there are stacked with whiskery piles of dried kava which the locals call ‘grog.’
Kava is made from the ground up roots of the pepper tree mixed with water. In ancient times the dried root was chewed to a pulp by the village virgins, then sieved into a large bowl for consumption by the local warriors.
With the advent of mechanical grinders (or perhaps because of a shortfall of virgins prepared to masticate pepper roots for hours on end) this practice has diminished and the powdered pepper root can be bought from the market for about $15 Fijian a kilogram. Many cruising yachts carry a stock on board as gifts (savusavu) to the chiefs of any villages they visit.

“Whew…she looks like a pretty powerful brew,” I observed aloud to a wizened stall keeper, pointing to the equally brown and wizened root stock stacked on his stall.
“Kava from the island of Kadavu,” he replied proudly, “best kava in all Fiji.”
“Mmmmm,” I countered non-commitally, “but what does it do to you?”
“You never drink kava before?” he asked incredulously, as though I’d just admitted that I’d never breathed air. “Come… sit,” he patted the worn wooden bench beside him.
With the air of a magician hoisting a rabbit from a top hat, he whipped a grubby muslin cloth from beneath the bench and, taking a battered plastic bowl, disappeared downstairs to the communal tap for water.
Shortly he returned, poured a helping of the gingery powder into the cloth and began kneading it tenderly in the bowl of water. I felt a bead of perspiration trickle slowly down my spine.
“Drink,” he ordered, dipping a coconut shell bowl into the mixture and handing it to me. Advice from my Fiji guide book popped to mind: the drinker claps his hands twice, empties the bowl (bilo) in one swallow, returns it and claps twice again.
Feeling faintly foolish I gave the recommended applause, held my breath and gulped the muddy brown mixture. Gritty, and a little peppery, the kava slid down my throat and left me feeling…well, different. I glowed with a sort of confused goodwill towards my host, surrounding stall keepers and the brightly-clad crowds of shoppers thronging past.
“My name is Nathaniel – call me Nat,” my host beamed, extending a work-hardened hand. I replied with my name and where I was from. Introductions over, we sat down to talk. Conversation is an integral part of the kava experience and Nat began to talk about Kadavu (pronounced Kandarvoo), his home island.
He told me how, during cyclones, sheets of corrugated iron flew from houses and sliced coconut palms in half leaving stumps that looked like grated cheese blocks. “Thatch roof is best for Fiji,” he explained.
Clap…clap...and the bilo came around again.
Kadavu, Nat told me, is a steep, hilly island and access to his village is by boat only or, if the pass through the reef is impassable, by a long hike over the hills. There is no electricity, TV or radio. Nat and his family live at Lami, near Suva, but return every year to harvest the kava and fruit from the family land.
Nat clapped and the bilo was back again.
By now several other people had joined us around the stall, many of whom were also from Kadavu. “Kadavu people is like big family,” Nat grinned happily.
Clap…clap…and the bilo came past again.
Suddenly I remembered the shopping list buried deep in the pocket of my shorts – my reason for going to the market in the first place. The mangoes, pawpaw, tomatoes and pineapples and sweet little island bananas would have to wait a bit – this was real culture and surpassed material sustenance.
During the next hour or so, I learned that Kadavu is about 80km south of Suva, mountainous at one end and tapering down to Astrolabe Reef in the north. Almost 280km long, it grows the best kava, biggest fish, sweetest mangoes and prettiest girls in all Fiji – most probably the world. Kadavu is Fiji’s southernmost island, Nat said, and Kadavu men who travelled to Suva to find brides would tell them they could take the ferry to New Zealand to go shopping.
Clap…clap…and a pair of cupped hands passed the bilo once more.

I talked a bit about where I came from, of the huge conical mountain that spent much of the year wearing a snow cap or hiding among the clouds. The men shivered at tales of sleety winter storms and nodded knowingly when I told them about the cows and how they made milk from grass. Clap…clap…the bilo came round again.
“My daughter’s name is Tui,” I said, and they asked me to repeat it. “In Fiji, Tui means big king,” Nat laughed. “She thinks she is a king in New Zealand too,” I told him and smiles rippled through the group of men as my words were translated among them.
After a few more bilos I bid the Kadavu crew farewell and, wearing a smile that threatened to split my face in half, I ambled off to the bus station, feeling unduly smug and languishing among the wonderful, warm people clasping bags of produce as they queued for their rides home. From my seat on the wooden-bodied bus I thrust my elbow out of the pane-less window and grinned at the bustle of downtown Suva as we rattled past.
Back at my room, a loosely-tied rope around some work site blocked access and the first indication that something may have been amiss with my brain cells came when I reached to lift it out of my way and missed it by about 100mm. After two or three attempts, I outsmarted it by walking around the fence post it was tied to.
The next obstacle was the old-fashioned door slid easily into the lock. “Got ya,” I thought. But it wouldn’t turn – and after several attempts and a rapidly-falling frustration threshold, I paused to muster my mental faculties. Room 23 was painted on the door. I looked at the key in my hand.
Room 32 the key tag read.

Dutch boat quest

After a few twists and turns, a Dutch couple’s quest to find the Kiwi builder of the boat they bought in Spain 15 years ago has a happy ending. Story by Janneke Kuysters, photography by Weitze van der Laan.

“Nice boat!”
Countless times we have heard this compliment about our Anna Caroline. We are proud of her; as a true bluewater yacht she has kept us safe for close to 50,000 miles. In 2003 we bought her in Spain off a New Zealander.
Larry needed the money and was done cruising. We took her to the Netherlands and refitted her. Of course we kept the beautiful kauri interior. In one of the drawers we found a little green man. We didn’t know what it was, but kept it as a tribute to the former owner.

The writers at Cape Reinga

The name Espresso didn’t work for us, so we renamed her Anna Caroline van Staeten Landt. The names of our mothers, combined with the first name Abel Tasman gave to New Zealand.
Then we set off on our circumnavigation.
One important goal was to visit New Zealand and find out more about the history of our boat. But it took us a while to get there: we sailed over four years and visited 24 countries before finally tying up to the dock in Whangarei. After some well-deserved maintenance we left Anna Caroline in the Town Basin, bought a car and set off on a road trip.
All available information pointed to Nelson, so that’s where we started. Our yacht is a Bruce Roberts 44, with a centre cockpit and a hard dodger.
The Nelson Yacht Club was very helpful. Soon we were in touch with former Commodore Kim Harris, an expert steel boatbuilder who knows everything there is to know about steel boats in the Nelson region.
He and many of his friends got involved. No stone was left unturned, but no information was found about builder Dennis Field, nor about a Bruce Roberts 44 with the distinct features of our boat. We even looked for him in all sorts of records at the local Council offices: with the help of the staff voting registrations, dog tax files – even cemetery records were explored. Nothing.
In the end, we asked the regional newspaper for help. Within a day of our quest going online, it was shared on sailing platforms, and soon after the phone rang: “Dennis was my best friend. He built your boat in 1988 on the North Shore. You’re looking in the wrong place,” said Steve Collins.

The tiki comes home.

In that  phone call we found answers to our many questions. Two degrees of separation: it is true. Especially in the boating community. And the little green man? We now know that we sailed a tiki back to Aotearoa.