I went sailing for the first time in about 30 years this time last year when I signed on for an “Adult Coastal” with the Spirit of Adventure Trust. This is different to a Spirit of Adventure experience for youth trainees, with its programme of empowering activities and challenges. On an Adult Coastal the ship needs to be moved to a new location, and berths are offered to adults keen to help, learn and experience life at sea.
I did all three of these things and it was wonderful. We sailed from Dunedin to Nelson and I sweat-and-tailed, learnt the difference between bunts and clews and stood watch off the coast of Kaikoura under the stars, listening to the night wind blowing over a dark sea.
I was researching for my book, Jerningham, about the first colonial settlers in Wellington, and I wanted to know what it felt like to be in the Cook Strait under sail, whether you could see Kapiti Island from Arapawa, what racing dolphins looked like from the top of the mast looking down and why modern health and safety is a good thing. Even clipped on, I was at first too scared to climb out on the yards.
Our captain was a local man and he was patient with my endless questions. He explained the workings of the earlier ships to me and how difficult and dangerous and slow things would have been without an engine. We spent a morning tacking into the wind in Nelson Bay and finished behind where we started. No wonder my man Jerningham sometimes raced up the coast to Wanganui in a few days and on other occasions the same trip took two weeks. I was studying the Wairau massacre and we sailed close along the coast looking at the hills where the survivors hid until they saw the ship with Colonel Wakefield and his Wellington men come in to negotiate for the prisoners, not knowing they were already dead. Our captain took us into Port Underwood and pointed out the saddle in the hills where Te Rauparaha and the Ngati Toa warriors crossed and the whaling station where Jackie Guard lived with Betty, of The Captive Wife fame. We learned how ships manoeuvered in and out of small harbours when the wind was against them, the tugging and anchor-dropping techniques and the patience demanded by the weather. That’s a skill set by itself. We moored by the small island in the harbour: Horahora Kākahu, an unlikely bit of rock for an important piece of history. It’s here that the final nine signatures on the Treaty of Waitangi were signed.
We motored smoothly into Nelson, aware now, with our tall ships experience, how different this would have been for the early settlers as they came into the same harbour. Before a cut was made in the boulder bank ships had to squeeze, on the tide, between the wonderfully named Haulashore Island (where ships were dragged onto the beach for work) and Arrow Rock. That jagged thorn in the harbour entrance was renamed Fifeshire Rock, after the settlers’ ship that wrapped around it.
A bit wobbly about the knees, we disembarked from the Spirit and went together for coffee, a new group of intrepid salts reluctant to disband. Many of us have kept in touch and have sailed again. I went back as Spirit of Adventure volunteer crew and did several trips last year, including voyaging with the Tuia 250 fleet, and have many more voyages lined up in 2020. These are trips with youth trainees who, along with putting up sails and tying knots, scrub decks, work in the galley, and think about navigation in every sense of the word. I have learned to sit comfortably now up a mast and encourage the kids to step onto a platform, hold the rigging, put their shoulders back and heads up to look out at the world.
If you’re with the Spirit on the sea, you learn things. More than just the ropes.