After more than 50 years away, Peter Macky sails back to Aotea Great Barrier Island. The journey triggers a cascade of memories.

In 1972, we knew every large yacht on the Waitemata Harbour and if a new one appeared, we knew its designer and pedigree. How she was expected to perform in our division with the RNZYS was the subject of intense speculation. I had been a forward hand since my early teens on both family yachts, both called Ilex, owned by my father Warwick Macky. The second was designed and built by Brin Wilson at his Wairau Road yard in Takapuna and launched in 1970.

Ilex was a family name. My great-grandfather, JC Macky, bought the Logan-designed triple-skin kauri yawl with this name in 1908. He owned her, racing with the Squadron, until his death by drowning with his wife Mary on the RMS Lusitania in 1915.

Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat within sight of the Irish coast. JC’s Ilex was lost on Minerva Reef in 1962, just eight years before the launch of its second incarnation.

My sailing days diminished in 1972. I was then 20 years old and had other interests. That summer was my last trip to Great Barrier until December 2022, when I returned for the first time in 50 years. It was my first visit there as the skipper of my own yacht, a Beneteau Oceanis 41 called Schonica. When I say ‘my own yacht’, it’s ‘mine’ for 21 days a year under a license from YachtShare, described as ‘NZ’s Largest Boat Sharing Company’.


Fifty years is a long interval. The 2022 cruise quickly became a study in contrasts. I reminisced about my many previous cruises ‘out to the Barrier’. The jumping off anchorage was always Waiheke or Kawau. We either had blazing sun (think: baby oil for a better tan and the iron spinnaker), or indifferent weather (with sail changes and contending with seas breaking over the foredeck, clearing the headsail and much more). The biggest concern was the potential to see more of Horn Rock enroute than was wise, especially when sailing from Bon Accord on Kawau.

In 1972, the Barrier seemed far away, and something of a mission, no matter the weather. A visit required preparation; listening to the 9:18 forecast the night before departure on ZLD and making sure the charts were handy for plotting the course. That called for a hand-held compass, dividers, and parallel ruler. Even if we had visuals, we still needed to avoid Horn Rock, no matter the weather. Before setting off, we checked the rig: which headsail and whether to reef the main. On a family holiday, it was easier preparing in sheltered water than out in the Gulf. If we could keep the same headsail, so much the better. I was fine with taking one off and hanking on another, but not too often. A pulpit only provides so much protection in a sea.

In 2022, with my crew of Carthew and Mario, we set off from Bon Accord at 10.30am on December 15 in a strong nor’nor-east with a slight sea almost laying Kaikoura Island (Selwyn Island) at the entrance to Port Fitzroy. We knew this because in a heavy mist with very poor visibility we could see our destination, 45km distant, on the B&G Vulcan GPS Chartplotter. We knew exactly where we were, despite not seeing Te Hauturu-o-Toi (Little Barrier) for the entire trip.

With just two tacks, we were able to lay Kaikoura Island, and in a very easy six hours arrived at our destination at 4:30pm. We were soon motoring through Governor’s Pass, still remarkable with its width of less than 400 metres. With such limited visibility, I doubt we’d have ventured beyond Kawau 50 years ago.

Schonica is much the same waterline length as Ilex but any similarity ends there. There’s no denying Ilex is a handsome classic yacht, well built by Brin, and beautifully maintained by its current owner, Sefton, my brother-in-law. The Beneteau is an easier yacht, with three cabins for guests, with each having such luxuries as hanging lockers, drawers and even reading lights. She also sports many features we take for granted this century, including ‘essential’ items today that make operating any yacht such a breeze (excuse the pun): cockpit controls (in lieu of winches and cleats at the mast), roller-reefing, rope clutches and self-tailing winches. We had none of those on Ilex in 1972.


Any trip today is a lot more comfortable, with a Bimini for shade and shelter, rope-chain anchoring systems with a metre gauge, self-steering, solar panels and watermakers.

Sailing is also a lot safer with the afore-mentioned chart plotter and with smart phones, which we now take for granted. We regard their many apps as essential, such as those from Coastguard, Windy and Navionics. These are still quite new. Windy for example, is less than eight years old.

Less obvious but no less useful improvements include AGM (all glass mat) sealed batteries, AIS, Dyneema cordage, electric fridges and heads. The list goes on. What are we going to see in the next 50 years? Anyone who is now 20 will be able to write about this in 2073 when our sea’s going to be a lot warmer.

Being back at Great Barrier (Aotea) was wonderful and a deeply emotional experience. Although the stay was just one night, it was fascinating to see the changes as we steamed past Red Cliff Cove (now Oneura Bay), anchored in Kaiarara Bay and briefly visited Port Fitzroy the following morning before setting off for Waiheke once more, 60km distant.

A painting of JC Macky’s Ilex.

We were one of only six boats in the harbour that December 15 evening. The most obvious change was to the landscape. I remember most of the area had been farmed, with stockyards in Red Cliff Cove. What may have been marginal [farm] land 50 years ago is impossible now. It has been reverting for decades and will take many, many more to recover, but at least the process is underway. There’s evidence of some husbandry, with wilding pines dying off and being left to rot. Ideally, Great Barrier’s current crop of pines will be the last, with all marginal land being encouraged to revert to native bush. In time it will help the water quality in Fitzroy too, which is still compromised.

As we crossed the Gulf towards Waiheke, I had time to reminisce of our days on Ilex. Following in my great-grandfather’s footsteps, it was a time when we too raced with the Squadron, Ilex crewed by my family and friends Andrew and Ian. The first division yachts sailing then included friends on the Bob Stewart designed Achernar (the Buddle family), Buccaneer (a John Spencer design skippered by Tom Clark), Carmen (another Bob Stewart helmed by Geoff Wiles), Jupiter (Philip Yates, with an S & S design), Leda (Dane Macky, with another Bob Stewart design), Northerner (the Littler family’s Bob Stewart design) and Totolo (Don Winston, with a Jim Young design). The fleet expanded when we were joined by much larger yachts which included Jim Davern’s Fidelis, a design attributed to Vic Speight, and Bernie Schmitt with his self-designed Innismara, which we regarded with special trepidation. Our First Division status, on a 45-foot (14m) yacht was becoming untenable and we only remained competitive with a generous handicap.

I also thought about what I didn’t miss. The sail changes while lashed to the pulpit in a gale – reducing sail typically meant unclipping a genoa and stowing it below, then hanking on a jib, with a quick bowline to secure the sheets and getting the halyard onto the winch at the mast.


I didn’t miss the hour spent morning and night charging the batteries and chilling down the freezer. Nor being glued to the compass in poor visibility. I have some nostalgia (sort of) for the reassuring voice of the ZLD marine radio announcers, with reports from ‘Bream Head to Cape Colville’ or from ‘Puysegur Point to Farewell Spit’. ZLD, based at Musick Point, closed on 30 September 1993, a mere 20 years after my last Great Barrier visit.

Ilex under sail in 1913 – Kinnear, James Hutchings, 1877-1946.
Ref: 1/2-017015-G. Alexander Turnbull Library – and in 1925

Waiheke hasn’t really changed, although some of the houses are more substantial. We had a night in Oneroa Bay, having moved there from Sandy Bay a few hundred metres to the east early that morning. It would have been perilous on a moonless night 50 years ago, but with the anchoring system and chart plotter it could not have been easier – or safer. Furthermore, we had Windy to give us some comfort that anchoring on a lee shore wasn’t foolish.

We were soon secure in Westhaven having had a fantastic trip on Schonica and been ‘all the way to the Barrier’ and back in five days. Even the marina is easy in 2022 with a bow thruster – another amenity unknown to Ilex in 1972. With Marcus and his colleagues at YachtShare to look after the yacht, we could step off and know she’d be gleaming and ready for my next cruise. All I had to do was remember to book.

And Horn Rock? That’s something which won’t have changed in 50 years. If you want to see it, look no further than YouTube. With a click of a mouse, you won’t even get your feet wet. It’s a reminder to treat this extraordinary hazard with caution, even with the benefit of a chartplotter. BNZ

A lot more cruising comfort and convenience aboard Schonica than Ilex ever enjoyed.