With grey, almost windless conditions, no boat was likely to threaten the race record in October’s PIC Coastal Classic from Auckland to Russell. But for many sailors that’s irrelevant. The event’s always more about connecting with people and the sea – and marvelling at the star-studded heavens. Story by Lawrence Schäffler.

A near absence of wind (light nor-easter, compounded at the start by an incoming tide) saw the fleet drifting aimlessly for most of the 119-nautical mile dash.

Nothing to get any adrenalin flowing – so I’ll get a brief race synopsis out of the way.

Some 165 boats started this year’s race, an iconic event by any measure on the international yachting calendar, and always great fun. Fewer than 20 finished – the rest either abandoning the race entirely or motoring to the finish line.

The winner was Bianca Cook’s super-slick Volvo Ocean 65 (NZ Ocean Racing) – in which she will lead an entirely Kiwi crew in the 2022–3 edition of the round-the-world race. The boat ghosted over the Russell finish line at 3:58am on Saturday, becoming the first monohull to win the PIC Coastal Classic in 11 years. The 2009 winner was the 27.5m Alfa Romeo – she set a new monohull speed record of 6 hours 43 minutes, nearly three times quicker than NZ Ocean Racing’s time. Extraordinary stuff.


Still, what the wind failed to deliver was more than compensated for by the after-party following the prize-giving in Russell. Race? What race?

Greer Houston, commodore of the New Zealand Multihull Yacht Club (race organiser) expressed admiration for the sailors’ perseverance. “A true display of sportsmanship and commitment. To every weekend warrior who put months of preparation into this important event on NZ’s sailing calendar, you are the lifeblood of the PIC Coastal Classic. We are impressed at how many of you turned up for the prizegiving and danced until closing time at the after-party. You are an inspiring lot, and we reckon if it weren’t for the light winds, this would have been our best race yet.”

For this year’s event I was lucky enough be invited aboard Storyteller – a very comfortably-appointed Moody 54DS – owned by Auckland’s Grant and Ellie Porteous. My addition boosted the crew complement to eight. I met them all 30 minutes before the start, transferring from a photo boat. And as is the way with sailors, polite introductions soon turned to friendly and raucous banter. By race end I felt I’d known them all my life.

We were in the Cruising (Rally) division, which started first. Things trundle along easily and happily in this section of the fleet. I didn’t hear a single, foam-flecked Staaaaarboooaard! – and it definitely wasn’t about nailing the start at the favoured pin-end of the line. That said, this race would be a game of tactics (or luck, depending on your perspective).

The rules for the Rally division allowed the boats to motor for four hours: as you might have guessed, where you elected to use those four hours could prove pivotal.

Given the unfavourable conditions at the start most of our competitors elected to put the hammer down immediately, gaining as much ground as possible in the hope that they’d find better wind further north. Which is why we soon found ourselves wallowing far behind the rest of the fleet, with plenty of opportunity to study Rangitoto’s craggy fissures.


But after a few hours we’d had enough and fired Storyteller’s 150hp Volvo into life. With her long waterline she gobbled up the miles and three hours later we found ourselves in the lead, well ahead of the fleet. Of the other (faster) divisions which started after us, there was no sign.

And as luck would have it, we found the wind just off Kawau Island. The clouds disappeared, the sailing turned glorious, the sea a sparkling aquamarine. And the dolphins came to visit, relishing the waves tumbling from Storyteller’s bow. Majestic! Despite her 30-ton displacement, she lifted her skirts and surged ahead.

Inexplicably, the wind remained localised in the upper section of the race course, so while we eased along at 7–8 knots in 13–15 knots of apparent wind, many competitors who’d used their engines initially were now ghosting along in light airs far behind us. We later heard grumbles about us just being lucky – we like to think it was more about shrewd meteorological insights and canny tactics.

Every Rally division crew – including us on Storyteller – planned to keep at least an hour of motoring in reserve, knowing that the wind beyond Cape Brett was likely to be light – tactically, that would be a good place to fire up the Volvo again.


An unusual name, it piqued my curiosity.


Turns out the name’s mostly a nod to Ellie’s father – Len – a Northland farmer. Len is no longer of this world but was renowned as something of a raconteur, always ready with a lively tale to enrich any situation. Children, in particular, were enthralled by his roguish inventiveness and colourful turn of phrase.

The stories kept coming despite his advancing age, but on occasion his memory (and patience) slipped. In later years, as he sat the children down to relate another epic tale of adventure and daring, an adult might quietly murmur that the children had previously heard the story (quite a few times, actually). To which he’d respond: “They can bloody-well hear it again!” Len’s story-telling legacy lives on in Storyteller – she too will become a central fixture in the grand sweep of family experiences, a hub for Grant and Ellie, the children/ grandchildren – and their many friends.

Sailing – I’ve always believed – teaches one a lot about life and yourself. Its lessons for co-existing with others and learning to work in a team are well-documented. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a synchronised, successful sail change involving multiple players – all without a single expletive or skinned knuckle.

And I’m always struck – meeting other sailors for the first time – by the remarkable similarity of experiences which serve to create an instant bond. So it was on Storyteller. The attraction of bluewater sailing, shared memories from faraway cruising destinations, the demands (and delights) of transoceanic passages, heavy weather strategies, maintaining a yacht’s mechanical systems. All of this introspection without so much as a single glass of wine or beer!


Inevitably, as we monitored (online with PredictWind Tracker) the progress and positions of the other boats in our division, a little competitiveness began to colour our easy equilibrium. A few of the other boats were gaining and, as the fickle wind began to desert us at dusk, smooth helming demanded microscopic adjustments and plenty of concentration.

All to no avail. Just shy of Cape Brett the wind became a whisper – and the forecast for the next 12 hours looked equally empty. So Mrs Volvo joined in again, quite a lot sooner than we’d planned. Of course, as with everyone else, our remaining one-hour reserve quickly disappeared, and as we crossed the finish line at 3.30am we told the stalwart team patiently waiting there we were disqualifying ourselves.

It had all looked so promising! Bugger!

One more thing. Storyteller shares her name’s genesis with Robert Louis Stevenson – the Scottish-born author of such classics as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and A Child’s Garden of Verses.

Born in 1894, he spent the last years of his life in Samoa and was known to locals as Tusitala – the Teller of Tales. Buried at the summit of Mount Vaea near Apia, his grave bears this epitaph:

“Under the wide and starry sky, Dig the grave and let me lie. Glad did I live, and gladly die, And I laid me down with a will. This be the verse you grave for me: “Here he lies where he longed to be. Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter home from the hill.”

I have a feeling Len would have identified wholeheartedly with Stevenson’s sentiments.