A visit from a solo round-the-world Canadian sailor to our waters offers a refreshing take on what it means to be alive in a forever changed world. Story by Matt Vance.


In days gone by when cruising sailors arrived from overseas they were treated like royalty. They were such a rare and adventurous breed that in every port they arrived at they had the mana of a celebrity.
The locals would sweep them up in their embrace and lavish assistance, open their homes and take them on forays into the hinterland, showing them proudly around their place in the world. A cruising sailor’s arrival seemed to spark a warm hope in people who lived a predictable landlubber existence.



Time moved on and visits by cruising yachts are now so commonplace in New Zealand that people barely notice, or worse, treat them with disdain as some kind of nautical gypsy.
That was until Canadian Bill Norrie turned up aboard Pixie one Thursday afternoon off Lyttelton Harbour after a 92-day solo sail from Cape Town, South Africa during one of the world’s great pandemics.
It started calmly enough with courteous customs officers sorting out the legalities, a batch of fresh scones and a couple of bottles of beer for a parched sailor. There was a slight hesitation as folk tried to work out if he was bat-shit-crazy, and then jubilant relief when they figured out indeed he was – in the best possible interpretation of that term.
Bill had not used his voice for a long time and combined with an enthusiastic straining of a beer or two he appeared to be incomprehensible. No one could understand a bloody word he said but it didn’t matter – his enthusiasm was infectious.
It was a few days later that I got to interview Bill aboard Pixie at Te Ana Marina. While we were sitting on the foredeck Bill said, with one of his taps on my arm, “I’m sick of telling my own story…everyone comes down here and wants to know about me,” he gestured with an arm sweep of the marina, “but I want to know about THEM.” Bill is one of those rare people who kisses life full on the lips AND takes her out dancing afterwards.
Bill and I talked about Lyle Hess-designed yachts as my wife and I own a slightly bigger version of Pixie. I quickly ditch the interview to pursue my pet topic of conversation. It was like we had dated the same girl years ago and were comparing notes. During this discussion he would turn to my wife (who accompanied me as my Canadian interpreter) and say, quivering with delight, “Isn’t she beautiful?”

Bill may be sick of his story, but it is worth knowing so I will tell it here. In July last year he retired as an anaesthesiologist in Calgary. Forty years of putting people to sleep (and, as Bill stressed, “waking them up again”) was about to become part of his past.
With his wife Cathy he’d previously completed a five-year circumnavigation in Terrwyn, their 37-foot Pacific Seacraft. “Terrwyn was an excellent boat but she would not heave-to worth shit,” said Bill.
With plans for a solo circumnavigation of the globe via the five Great Capes of the Southern Ocean he chose the 28ft Bristol Channel Cutter designed by Lyle Hess. “I went from a 28ft waterline to a 26ft waterline and everyone thought I was crazy – but there isn’t a more seaworthy cruising yacht out there.”
Bill set out from Port Renfrew, British Columbia in September last year. He dove south at such a rate that he had to rest up in the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia to time his run at Cape Horn for peak summer.
He rounded the Horn and drank a bottle of champagne to celebrate. He stopped at the Falkland Islands briefly before being knocked down in the South Atlantic and getting water damage to his electrics. He later showed me the dings on the cabin roof where the water bottles in the sink had launched themselves across the cabin.
He stopped in Cape Town for repairs before setting out for New Zealand on the 11th of February this year. Somewhere off Tasmania he was again knocked down. Arriving at the hatch just as the wave broke, Pixie’s cabin was inundated with solid green water, which destroyed her electrical equipment and turned his navigational charts into mush.
Bill’s back-up navigation system included a small handheld GPS and an inflatable globe, which got him around South West Cape, the last of his Great Capes off Stewart Island and northward to Lyttelton.
The 92 days from Cape Town was remarkable as it took place in what is considered the start of winter in the Southern Ocean. Even more remarkable was that while he was at sea the world was plunged into a great pandemic. News of the troubles sweeping the planet came through satellite text messages from his wife back in Canada.
“It was a bit unreal,” he said, “even though I was the safest man on the planet. I went six weeks and I never saw a sign of a human, not a boat, nothing, not even a jet trail. It’s a virgin world out there and it’s big. It’s magic to be in such a wild place.’’
Before he was a sailor Bill was a mountaineer. There is nothing mountaineers like more than misery – that and a good theory. Bill has a theory on dragons. In ancient times they were drawn on maps to denote uncharted seas with “There be Dragons” printed next to them.

“Occasionally you run into one out here,” said Bill with a smile, “Pixie and I found one off Tasmania with that wave that knocked us down.” He doesn’t like using negative language to describe situations. “I said to myself, focus Bill, focus.” Any other sailor
I know would have used a different ‘F-word’ in that situation.
At sea Bill gets to think a lot. Whenever our topic of conversation turned that way he would suddenly erupt with “I believe…” said in a faux Martin Luther King Jr southern accent.
What follows will be a well thought out theory or observation on life that will ring so true you feel like saying “Hallelujah” or “Amen” at the end of it. His positivity is admirable: “I’ve only got 6,482 miles to sail home to Vancouver Island,” he said, skipping like a child on the night before Christmas.
It is this evangelical enthusiasm that seems to radiate from Bill that you notice most. At Te Ana Marina Pixie is front and centre. Nearly everyone has to walk past her to get to their boat. Bill thinks nothing of talking for an hour or four with anyone who ambles by.
The boat is a hive of activity with new electronics being installed. The tradesmen who are installing them in the chaos of Pixie’s small cabin all seem to have a smile for Bill and his endless stream of guests.
There was a palpable sense of generosity in the salty air. Chatting on the foredeck of Pixie another revelation would come over Bill – he would tap my arm to bring my attention to it, catching me mid-scribble in my notebook and skating my pencil across the page.

While Bill was talking I noticed the faces of people walking by, all hoping to have a chat, but polite enough to leave him to the guy from Boating New Zealand who was pretending to interview him while just having a royal old yarn about Lyle Hess designs.
At about a 20m radius from us they would go from their passive neutral face to lighting up with a smile. There were different versions of what constituted a smile from subtle movements around the eyes to big toothy grins, but they were there without fail. It seemed whenever Bill moved his smile radius moved with him.
For a while there – when Bill was on his 92-day voyage from Cape Town – we who live on the land had to confront the realisation from the isolation of our homes that the world was no longer as we knew it. It was disconcerting and left us with varying degrees of confusion, frustration and fear.
The usual sources of comfort had deserted us and when they did come they were from unexpected quarters; as unexpected as a Canadian sailor turning up on our doorstep and taking us back to the days when cruising sailors were friendly dragon-slaying, adventurers arriving to give us hope and make us smile.