I caught up with Sarah Barrell just as she was poised to take the helm of the Viaduct Harbour operation from John White, its manager for 17 years.

Of the three, Sarah is the only one managing both the marina and implementing operations on the ground. With a group of just three helpers she is doing office work, driving boats, overseeing comms, and ensuring that all arriving vessels are tied up securely – a particularly epic job during the recent 36th America’s Cup.

Whether negotiating a marina project or at the helm of the marina RIB, she projects ‘a very safe pair of hands’ – and it all comes down to a lifetime spent on the water.

When Sarah was eight and growing up in the UK her father bought a 19-foot bilge keeler. Fortuitously, the boat was also named Sarah. Her brothers suffered from seasickness and so it was left to Sarah to keep her father company on board.

She was very happy with the situation, loved being at sea and, one day when her father squashed his finger in the windlass, she sailed the boat single-handedly from the Isle of Wight to safety and medical care in Lymington. She was only eight or nine but recalls not thinking it was any big deal – “I just enjoyed being on the helm on my own.”

Some 10 years later her father was working at Tohatsu Marine where some of the mechanics owned a boat for competing in Zap Cats – the English version of Thundercats. One day a crew member was sick. Sarah, in the right place at the right time, got a ride. They won the series and she was given a permanent appointment.

She eventually took the big step of buying and driving her own Zap Cat but it’s a money-hungry venture and without the funds to do it properly she didn’t meet with the same success.


Her next adventure took place after a relationship break-up. Aged 21 she made a spontaneous decision to join a superyacht in Majorca. While the drudgery involved in stewardess work wasn’t really playing to her strengths, she spent two years at it before moving to outside jobs which suited her much better. “The boys say it’s not easier outside, but it is,” she says.

She worked stints aboard several boats of around 50m in size in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. “I was glad I did it, it taught me a lot. I was paid to see places I could never afford to visit, but we worked 18-hour days and everyone was tired and grouchy, living together in a tiny space. It’s easy to lose your freedom and identity.”

Next up, after a period in England caring for her ill grandmother, Sarah joined a 42’ steel ketch on a journey from Trinidad to the very inland-most reaches of Venezuela.

“We made up Molotov cocktails in case we were boarded by pirates, and always made sure we off the main river before dark. We took precautions and were sensible. We may have been lucky but we didn’t have any problems,” she recalls.

“The owner usually sailed alone, but he trusted me on the helm at night. One night I fell asleep and woke up with a container ship 200m off the bow. I never told him.”

Following that trip she rejoined the superyacht world and in 2008 decided to complete her Yachtmaster’s ticket while in New Zealand. She entered the country on a one-way ticket with plans to rejoin the boat, but after five weeks decided to stay.


She initially worked for a boating education company teaching people how to drive powerboats – something she loved doing. “It’s really sad that people will take their boat out and spend the whole time worrying about how to put it back in the berth. All boats – when you jam them into reverse – will go one way or another. If you pre-empt that, the rest happens easily. It’s about knowing what is happening and why.”

She worked aboard a charter boat, and then heard about a position at Viaduct Marina ahead of the Louis Vuitton Cup. She got the job, driving the travel lift and forklift – back in the day when the Viaduct had this marine infrastructure – and running the event comms.

Sarah was then working for what is now known as Viaduct Marina – then owned by Auckland City Council, and these days by the Council offshoot Panuku. In those days there wasn’t a Te Wero lifting bridge – the bridge changed the marina’s operations significantly.

She worked there until 2020, when the opportunity to move across to the other side of the basin, to take up a role at the marina owned by Viaduct Harbour Holdings Limited. While the operations are similar, they are very different in spirit, and Sarah is reveling in the opportunities with Viaduct Harbour.

The 36th America’s Cup has been a big feature of her working life with Viaduct Harbour and she loved seeing the precinct come alive. The 75-berth marina has been full to capacity with a large proportion of the boats heading out each day to join the spectator fleet.

On a typical day people would start loading vessels early in the morning with food and supplies – a significant logistical exercise given the lack of carparking near vessels. The less glamourous tasks – like pumping out sewage tanks – were also completed before the area filled up with people and traffic.


Once the boats left for the racecourse the team would settle in to watch the racing on screen, and to rest up for what Sarah calls the ‘intense period of re-entry’.

Each afternoon as the spectator fleet arrived back at the Viaduct Harbour entrance, and for several hours the marina would take back-to-back radio calls, working up a list of boats anchored outside and waiting to enter the marina.

“Everyone was good-natured about the process. We’d group them according to where they were berthed, open the bridge, bring them through, close the bridge and move to the next group.”

There was only one incident where a boat lost mobility. Sarah was able to jump to the rescue, grabbing keys, running to a RIB, and holding the bow into the wind while the hapless vessel was fixed.

“That was the highlight of my America’s Cup,” she laughs, adding that an opportunity to get right in close to the team and the cup itself when they returned victorious after Race 10, was a close second.

Sarah has two children, ages seven and 10 but so far they’ve not shown interest in following in their mother’s footsteps. “I may have pushed them too hard, I have told them it’s fun and exciting but children are fickle.”

She is excited about stepping up into the marina manager’s role. “John White has been here for 17 years, and has big shoes to fill, but I know the berth holders, the contractors, the history and the area.”

Congrats Sarah!