In February 2011, Diana took a solo Valentine’s trip to New Zealand to sail on the brigantine Soren Larsen.
Valentine’s Day is for lovers, so since I did not have a partner, I decided to spend my Valentine’s Day with one of the loves of my life—sailing– and I traveled halfway around the world to do it. I arrived in Auckland, New Zealand on February 14. It was warm and humid, typical summer weather in the Southern Hemisphere. This is New Zealand’s largest city, a population of around a million people in the southern part of the northern island.
After spending the night in a small hotel way up the hill from the waterfront, I hired a taxi to take me down to Princes Wharf. It was a pleasant ride, as the driver was cheerful and chatty. This was my introduction to the sweet character of the people who inhabit this island. Imagine what people were like in the United States in the 1950s, and you’ll have an idea of the welcoming character of this place.
At Princes Wharf, as I waited for the driver to pull my duffle bags from the trunk, I caught my first glimpse of my home for the next five days: the Soren Larsen, a 145’ brigantine tall ship. She was moored right next to me on the wharf.
On the gangway, a young man with a Scottish brogue was helping to load in supplies. I introduced myself as voyage crew joining the ship. Since I had arrived much earlier than the official boarding time, he very politely asked me to return in about 30 minutes.
Later, after boarding and checking in with the purser, the other voyage crew and I gathered around on the foredeck for the captain’s mandatory safety talk. The captain was in a white uniform, and I was surprised to realize he was the man with the Scottish brogue I had spoken with previously. I was impressed that a captain would help load in supplies.
Prior to leaving the dock, the voyage crew had an opportunity to climb aloft. This consists of climbing up the shrouds, a web of rigging made of footropes (ratlines) and metal cable (stays) that runs up through a platform (foretop) about halfway up the foremast. I had climbed aloft on the Los Angeles Maritime Institute’s (LAMI) brigantines a few times, so I thought this would be a piece of cake. What I hadn’t realized was that the LAMI brigantines were scaled down a little for kids to climb more easily. Interesting, as I think the kids climb more naturally than the adults. So when I got to the Soren Larsen foretop, clipped my safety line onto the rigging and tried to hoist myself over the futtocks (support structure) onto the platform, it was a much longer reach than I had anticipated. I did manage to grab one of the stays and crawl up onto the platform, though. While I was up there, I snapped a photo of the Spirit of New Zealand as she left the wharf.
Climbing aloft can be quite dangerous. You free climb until you get to the futtocks, then you clip in. That’s the only time you clip your safety harness onto the rigging. One of the voyage crew, who had fortunately just clipped in, lost her grip as she tried to climb over the futtocks. She swung off the rigging and daggled there helplessly. Fortunately, she only strained her shoulder and didn’t fall. That would most likely be fatal. The standing crew scrambled to get her onto the rigging and helped her climb back down.Shortly after we finished climbing, we got underway. The first mate ordered the standing crew to the docklines. They hauled them in and we motored off the wharf.
The skies were gray. The air was humid. But the City of Auckland was beautiful from the water, with the Sky Tower prominent in the cityscape. We motored away from the mainland and soon set sail in the Hauraki Gulf.
The voyage crew was invited to participate in sailing the ship, so we all raised sails together. This is one of my favorite things to do on a tall ship. When we raise the mainsail, we all work together in a queue as we haul on heavy lines that hoist the throat and peak. As the sail unfolds, you can feel the wind engage it and take command of the ship.We headed north, with a decent wind that blew away the humidity as the skies began to clear. Our first stop was Kawau Island, along the northeast coast, about a half-day sail from Auckland. This is where we would harbor for the first night.
We set anchor in Mansion House Bay. Then a group of us were transported into the island by small boat.
Kawau Island is one of the larger islands in the Hauraki Gulf. It was originally settled by the Maori. A population of about 70 people currently inhabits it year round. It’s also a popular weekend destination for boating and fishing.
In 1862, Sir George Grey, one of New Zealand’s first governors, purchased the island and rebuilt a mine manager’s house into a stately Colonial-style mansion to use as his private residence. Today, the Kawau Island Historic Reserve maintains the home and grounds, where peacocks stand guard.
This lush, sub-tropical island of about 5000 acres is populated by a variety of sea birds, kookaburras, kingfishers, kiwi and wallabies. Muddy paths trace through native vegetation to beaches, an old copper mine, Maori Pa sites and a stand of mature Redwood trees.
A group of us set off up one of these paths. As we moved into the thick of the forest, the heavy air buzzed with the sound of cicadas, and it reminded me of the Australian movie “Picnic at Hanging Rock.”
I lagged behind the group, and they disappeared around a bend in the path. As I came around the bend, I suddenly heard a low rumbling thumping sound that came up the path toward me at some speed. Rather than run, I stopped and faced the approaching beast. It was low and compact and shot off into the woods in a blur. Though I didn’t get a clear look at it, I’m sure it was a wallaby.
Day two on the ocean was a whole ‘nother beast. As we continued north along the coast, our starboard side was pushed by an easterly wind that rolled us side to side to the point of causing profound seasickness. Many of the voyage crew went below to rest in their berths. This is one of the worst things you can do when you’re seasick. It’s better to stay on deck in the fresh air.
Because we were rolling so much, the standing crew put up safety lines to keep us from being tossed overboard. The ocean swells came in through the scuppers onto the mid-ships deck. At one point, I got caught in a swell up to my knees. The power of the wave pushed me backwards into the shrouds. Thank goodness I stayed on my feet.
Volcanic rock forms the two islands that comprise New Zealand. The rocks are craggy and black, and some of the rock formations are spectacular.
There was not much else to do but view the beautiful scenery along the coast, so I sat on the poop deck near the helm and listened to the captain and first mate banter cheerfully. There was ample ginger candy in the galley, which I helped myself to periodically. Not only does this sweet treat taste good, it’s a great way to settle your stomach when you’re seasick.
About halfway to our final destination, we put into a small bay where we anchored for the night. Our stomachs settled and we were, for the most part, able to eat dinner.
Sleeping quarters were tight. I had an upper bunk which was difficult to climb into, and was the only place to store my duffels. They became a footrest at the end of my berth.
The next morning, the weather had cleared. Though we still had some rolling with the east wind, it was not as bad as it had been the day before, and the sun helped to clear the gray clouds away. The captain promised that we would all feel better as soon as we rounded the headland at Cape Brett where the waters would be calmer.
Cape Brett is a promontory at the end of the Cape Brett Peninsula very near the northernmost point of the north island of New Zealand. Its tip extends into the Pacific Ocean to the east of the Bay of Islands. The most notable aspect of this land mass is a large rock formation at the tip of the cape, known as Piercy Island that has a natural arch, or hole, in it.
As the sun began to make its journey to the horizon, we rounded Cape Brett and sailed into the embrace of the Bay of Islands where it was, indeed, much calmer. We secured our anchorage for the night, had dinner and went to our berths, exhausted.
After breakfast the next morning, we weighed anchor and motored around to a small island with a pretty beach called Red Beach. It was a wet landing, so we climbed out of the boat into the water and waded ashore. I walked barefooted with the others on soft grass up a steep hill. From the top of the hill, one could see the entire island. There were no buildings or any sign of human inhabitance.
When we returned to the ship, we once again weighed anchored and motored to another island, which is partly inhabited and partly reserved as a national park. A former captain of the Soren Larsen, Captain Jim, lives there as a caretaker with his girlfriend, who had been a first mate on the ship.
After exploring the island in the daylight, we returned later that evening and enjoyed a cookout that Captain Jim hosted for us. The meal included fresh snapper, local beer and fresh mussels that some of the standing crew had gathered that day. After dinner, we sat around a roaring campfire, and Jim’s girlfriend led us in a round of sea shanties.
The next day, we weighed anchor for the last time and motored around the peninsula to Russell, where we disembarked. I was the first to leave in the small boat, along with the luggage, and we landed at a small wharf. I took a ferry from Russell across the bay to Paihia, a little tourist town with gift shops and restaurants.
As I had to wait several hours for my bus to Auckland, I needed a place to store my duffel bags. The tourist information shop obliged happily. I explored the main street and found a nice restaurant with second floor seating outside that overlooked the water. As I ate my delicious prawn salad, a seagull came by to eye my food.
Finally, I boarded the bus for Auckland. The three hour trip was pleasant with beautiful views of the landscape. The most memorable part of the trip was a sign I saw in the National Forest: “Please be kind to our forests. They’re busy saving the planet.”
That evening, I had the best Red Snapper ever in a restaurant on the Auckland waterfront called Snapdragon. Early the next morning, the airport shuttle picked me up and I was soon on my way back to Los Angeles.
When I went through Customs at LAX, I could never have imagined how I would feel when a Customs officer said to me, Welcome to the United States.” Tears welled in my eyes, and I thought, “It’s good to be home.”
The Soren Larsen is a 145’ wooden brigantine that had been the star of the BBC television series “The Onedin Line.” In 2011, she moved to her new home in Sydney, Australia, where she does charters and day-sails over the summer months. For information on sailing adventures on the Soren Larsen, for visit her website at http://www.sorenlarsen.com/.