Monday, October 26, 2009


It’s amazing how many young people want to get abused in the name of adventure. We posted this ad on a local backpackers website, and instantly we were flooded with responses. Travelers wrote us long letters, attached their resumes, brought us excellent bottles of wine. “Wow!” they wrote. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime!” “It’s always been my dream to live on a sailboat!” “How soon can I come on board?”

I know how they feel, because I used to be that young person. Specifically, I was twenty-four when I started prowling the docks in Fort Lauderdale, two years’ worth of savings in my bank account, hoping desperately that someone would ask me to crew on his yacht. During my searches, I met a French boy named Jean-Christian. “Eet ees so easy for a girl to find eh boat,” he moaned, with typical Gallic melancholy. “For a boy, not so easy.”

It was easy all right, especially if you wore a short skirt and a pretty smile. But there were other challenges for a girl looking to catch a ride at sea. Fresh out of a lifetime of private schools, I was clueless about the way things worked on the water. When an eight-fingered captain named Bob asked me to join him on a weekend trip to the Bahamas, I had to ask around for advice.

“He says he wants to show me how to sail,” I asked my hosts at the crew house. “Do you think he wants something else?”

Harry looked up from the television, where he was watching Animal Planet, a can of beer balanced on his gut. He looked startled, then burst out laughing. “COURSE he does,” he guffawed. “Cap’n Bob wants to get LAID.” Then he schooled me, as gently as he could, about “gas, grass or ass—no one rides for free.”

For the most part, he was right. There was the Captain who inquired, in an interview, what size bra I wore, and then there was the really creepy one—Captain Joe, who kept telling me how important it was for a captain and cook team to act like husband and wife. “It makes the guests feel right at home,” he explained, snapping pictures of me for his charter brochure. Later, while dusting behind the bar, I found a small pile of photographs. It was a stack of heads—my head—carefully torn from the prints and tucked behind the bottles, like a rat might hide a stash of rotten food. I cleared off that boat without even saying goodbye.

There are exceptions, of course. We’re not asking our crew to put out free sex, or pay for our gas, or supply us with drugs. We really are just looking for help. It’s a lot of work to go to sea, and with a toddler on board, it’s too much for the two of us to handle alone.

And that, I fear is where we may shatter some youthful illusions. When I was twenty-four, going to sea represented freedom, a red-blooded life in nature’s pulse, a long way from heavy books and dried-up, intellectual theorizing. Pushed by the wind, buoyed by the sea, illuminated by moon and sun, we were utterly independent of the world and its cynics.

Then I bought Sereia. And now that I’ve owned her for six years, I know that ideal is both true and illusory. We touch that sense of freedom at times, beam reaching on a moonlit sea, phosphorescence in the water, a magic carpet ride of stardust in our wake.

The rest of the time, it’s a hell of a lot of work.

Sailboats are powered by the wind, it’s true. But they also need tons of stainless steel, fiberglass, teak, epoxy, solvents, electronics, and thousands of square feet of sail. They need a crew, all of whom must be fed, clothed, cleaned and entertained. And in order to learn the skills that are necessary to pilot a sailboat effectively, the crew must delve into mountains of heavy books, then spend hours on the docks with other sailors, trading dried-up, intellectual theorizing.

Tim has joined us for this next leg, from Whangarei to Auckland. He’s laid back, he works hard, and he’s eager to learn. He’s also twenty-four years old.

I hope we don’t teach him too much, too fast. And I hope there’s lots of phosphorescence, lighting our way down the coast.

There's magic at sea, even when you're anchored in town. Here's some genuine Kiwi dolphins, cruising past Sereia.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Tips n' Tricks

We’re back in Whangarei now, since we’re giving up on this whole sailing around New Zealand thing. That’s a crazy idea anyway. What we really need to do is sell the boat, get jobs, and live like reasonable grown-ups for awhile.

The only problem is, we’re not reasonable. Or particularly grown-up.

So I guess we’ll have to keep sailing. We’re just in Whangarei for a week, where we plan to tackle the endless mechanical projects and errands that keep sailboats afloat. Our month in the Bay of Islands was our shake-down cruise, where we learned a few tips and tricks for sailing with a baby in New Zealand. Curious? Allow me to share our hard-earned wisdom:

Babies Don’t Need To Be Bathed
As we’ve recently learned, the need for a daily baby bath is dangerous bourgeois propaganda. No, instead we’ve discovered a new invention, one we heartily recommend to parents everywhere: the FHAT bath. This handy acronym stands for Face, Hands, Ass and Tootsies. With a mere inch of soapy water in the bottom of a bowl, we can wash the baby’s critical systems without running an entire bath. We love the FHAT bath because it saves water. Silas loves the FHAT bath because it means he doesn’t have to get his hair washed, which as far as he’s concerned, is the baby version of waterboarding.

Folding Clothing is a Silly Waste of Time
As a hardened old sea dog, Silas doesn’t have time to fold his clothes. Instead, he has five colour-coded sea bags, into which his gear gets stuffed. They’re made out of polar fleece, which is a fascinating plastic-based material that seems to repel water.

Increased Deck Time = Decreased Baby Vomit
At first, I was so nervous having Silas on board underway that I kept him down below, in a padded room, reading Dr. Seuss books and eating snacks. Of course, that’s enough to make the toughest sailor sick as a dog. Once coated in baby vomit, I decided to try bringing Silas out on deck more. And guess what? He loves it. However, he doesn’t think Peter is a very good helmsman, and he is anxious to take over the wheel.

And While We’re on the Subject of Baby Vomit
You don’t want to take the vomitous towels and shove them in the bottom of the laundry bag until you happen to find a Laundromat two weeks later. They will… GROW things. FURRY things. I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination.

Navigational Hazard Buoys are Tasty
Not strictly baby-related, but good to know all the same. The waters around New Zealand are positively infested with delicious things to eat. With the help of our dinghy, we managed to pull bushels of fabulous green-lipped mussels off of a hazard buoy, which we later consumed in obscene quantities, with lots of garlic and lemon butter. While not strictly legal, this maneuver does save on grocery bills, allowing you to spend more money at the Laundromat (see above).

Touching the Void

Remember the story of Joe Simpson, who pulled himself down the sheer face of an icy mountain with a shattered tibia, after his climbing partner left him for dead? He didn’t do it all in one go, because that would have been impossible. Instead, he used his watch. “I just have to get through the next twenty minutes,” he told himself. “If I can get through the next twenty minutes and not die, then I can make it.” Basically, that’s our philosophy on sailing with a baby. When the kid is screaming, the boat is rocking, and the pressure cooker sails across the cabin, we just have to make it through the next twenty minutes without losing our minds. After that, we’re home free.

So: we’re not sailing around New Zealand with a baby. That would be crazy. But we’re not giving up, either. Hell no. Next week, we’re sailing to Auckland. Then we’ll see.

Monday, October 12, 2009


We’ve decided to claim New Zealand for France. It’s not just us, actually. France claimed New Zealand for France, back in 1772. But instead of raising a flag, or drafting an organized treaty for the natives to sign—as Britain did in 1840—the French just buried a bottle.

I’m sure it was a very nice bottle, probably a wine bottle, or perhaps an excellent cognac. They had to drain the contents first, so the glass would be dry for the note they slipped inside. And consequently, they would have been plastered—which makes perfect sense. No one but a drunken sailor could think any of this would work.

In 1772, Marion du Fresne and his crew were anchored off Moturua Island, woefully unaware that Captain Cook had circumnavigated New Zealand three years earlier, charting its coastline and learning how to communicate with the natives. Thinking they’d discovered a great new piece of real estate, they decided to claim the country for King Louis XV. So Marion's officers pulled out a piece of parchment, on which they wrote the following:
In the Year of Grace one thousand seven hundred and seventy-two, the eleventh of July, we Captains and Officers of the King's ships "Le Mascarin" and the "Marquis de Castries", have taken possession in the name of His Majesty Louis XV, our King, of the Continent to the Eastward of New Zealand, named by M. Marion du Fresne, our Commander, France Australe, being in a harbour to which he gave his name, situated on 35° 21 South Latitude; and one hundred and seventy one degrees of longitude observed to the East of the Paris Meridian.
It’s what they did next that makes very little sense. Even in the eighteenth century, when folks had a sort of slap-dash attitude to subjects such as hand washing and the finer points of the law, you’d think that claiming a new land was a fundamentally public gesture. I would have thought the French might have erected a flagpole, perhaps a plaque, and begun sending over boatloads of colonists as soon as possible.

Instead, Marion's men just buried their claim in the sand. Presumably, the Frenchmen expected to return for the bottle at a later date, because they wrote down instructions on how to find it again. Crozet, du Fresne’s second in command, wrote in his journal:
The bottle... is buried on the left bank of a stream where we obtained our water and fifty seven paces from the place where the sea comes up at the new and full moons in rising, and at ten paces distance from the said stream at four feet deep.
And that was it. Despite countless attempts to find it in the past two hundred and thirty-seven years, Marion's bottle was never seen again. Instead of France, Great Britain was the country to send over boatloads of colonists, and in 1840 they legalized their claim to New Zealand with the Treaty of Waitangi.

For obvious reasons, Peter and I think this is a terrible state of affairs. Just imagine how different New Zealand would be if the French had taken over instead of the Brits. There would be no limp, sliced white bread on the supermarket shelves, and the very thought of spaghetti in a can would make New Zealanders shudder in revulsion. The women would be tall, statuesque chain smokers, and everyone would smack their lips at the thought of moldy cheese.

Furthermore, all this stress about New Zealand’s endangered native birds would be a thing of the past, because the Franco-Kiwis would have discovered long ago how to braise the little songbirds in an aromatic sauce. We wouldn’t need to worry about saving the birds because they’d all be dead, leaving us free to eat snails and discuss philosophy in peace.

And so we determined to find the French bottle. If we could just locate France’s original claim to the country, we reasoned, it would be a slam-dunk in the international court system. Never mind that New Zealand is now a completely independent state, and has been since 1948. Who could resist being administered by the nation that invented puff pastry, beurre blanc, and the thong?

We began our search in high spirits, well-equipped with Crozet’s expert instructions. But when we examined the sketches he’d made of Moturua island, we hit our first snag.

We were missing a bay. Crozet had drawn three bays on the west side of Moturua, but modern charts only show two.

For a moment, this gave us pause, but we soon recovered. New Zealand, after all, is in the crossfire of every foul weather system blowing across the Tasman. It was perfectly understandable that in more than two hundred years, the coastline might have shifted and changed. Of course, it was unfortunate that Crozet’s instructions pivoted on an accurate estimation of the high-tide line, something that would have moved dramatically with the shifting sands. But our quest rose above such piddling details. We continued undeterred.

We arrived at Mangahawea Bay shortly after high tide, the sand still moist in a clear line across the beach. The sun was high, waves crashing like broken glass in the sharp New Zealand light. Together with our new friend John, a singlehander from Brazil, we stood side by side, and began counting paces.

And here, we ran into our next difficulty. For how long, exactly, is a pace? Is it a bold stride, as Peter thought, or the length of the average man’s boot, as my father had told me years ago? How long, exactly was the average man’s boot in the eighteenth century? Weren’t people small back then? What size shoe did they wear?

Then, as I soon learned, there was the problem of all the stuff in the way. Beaches are not empty places, as a rule. They are scattered with rocks, shells, and yucky pieces of rotting seaweed that you don’t want to touch. I counted my steps: sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. When I had to navigate a particularly large piece of driftwood, I stepped over it, adding half a pace to my usual stride. Nineteen and a half, twenty and a half, twenty one and a half.

No one ever said anything about fractions of a pace. I wasn’t even sure if they had fractions in 1772. We finished counting steps, and took note of our positions. I was in the rear, Peter and Silas were in the middle, and John was way the hell out front. Between us, I estimated a good two hundred feet of distance. Now what? Do we dig a trench? I cast a look over my shoulder, disappointed to see our footprints in the sand. Preoccupied with counting, our path had meandered and curved, hardly at right angles to the high-tide line. Wherever that was.

Of course, after quaffing an entire bottle of cognac, the French were probably a little wobbly on their feet as well. So perhaps we were being historically accurate.

In our favor, we were now near an actual stream, and according to Crozet’s instructions, we should count ten paces to the left. But ten paces from where, exactly? The bank of the stream? The edge of the water? How high was the stream, when they buried their bottle?

Annoyed and frustrated, Peter kicked the sand. And then he found it. A bottle, glinting in the sun.

“It’s here!” he called. “Come look!”

John and I came running, and we held the precious artifact reverently in our hands. It wasn’t a cognac bottle after all, as we’d so innocently assumed. It was an empty bottle of Nestle Quik, its plastic lid faded and worn with age.

“Are you sure this is it?” John asked doubtfully. “Did they have plastic in those days?”

“Of course this is it,” I chided him. “What else could it be?”

Peter held up the bottle, tilting it gently. Inside, some sand and a few pebbles slid across the glass. “Where’s the note?” he asked.

“Stolen,” I told him. “Obviously. By British agents who wanted to destroy France’s claim to the land.”

Peter and John nodded, exchanging a dubious look. It’s not my fault they’re ignorant. People should read more history, then they’d have a better idea of what they’re dealing with.

Take Marion du Fresne, for example. If he’d read up on Captain Cook’s voyage, he would have learned that this strange new land had already been discovered by Great Britain. He would have read, too, about Cook’s encounters with the Maori, how they had a tendency toward sudden mood swings. And he would have learned about the grisly way they supplemented their seafood and kumara-based diet.

But du Fresne didn’t know any of this. And that’s how he ended up in pieces, roasting slowly in an underground oven.

But Sereia’s crew will not fall victim to such heedless ignorance. The rest of the world may think Britain held legal dominion over New Zealand for a century, but not us. We have the bottle that held the French claim. We have the proof.

It’s right here, in our galley, sprouting lentils. And after all these years, it’s doing an excellent job.


Friday, October 2, 2009


By the time I get to the top of Te Maiki hill, I’m amazed Hone Heke had the energy to chop anything down. It’s a hell of a climb up here, a steep and winding track through tangled bush. And there’s a pretty good path for us to walk on. Back in 1844, running up this hill would have meant shoving your way through bushes and brambles, overgrown trees and angry British soldiers.

When we get to the top, the entire Bay of Islands is laid out before us. We can see all the way across to Opua, out to Cape Brett and the famous Hole in the Rock. And right here, standing firm in thirty-five knots of wind, is an empty flagpole. That's what we came to find.

In 1844, this flagpole really pissed off one man: Hone Heke, chief of the Nga Puhi tribe in the Bay of Islands. And he was the one who’d bought it in the first place. It was supposed to be a symbol of the peace between Maori and Pakeha. But the British, who had promised to raise the Maori flag, were flying the Union Jack instead. And Heke was starting to feel like that piece of paper he’d signed four years earlier—the Treaty of Waitangi—might have been a big mistake. More and more, the English were calling the shots: telling his people they couldn’t chop down their own trees, moving the capital to Auckland so nobody was making any money up in the Bay of Islands anymore. Then they hanged the Maori son of a local chief for killing a white family—something that wasn’t their business, and wasn’t their affair. Little by little, the English were stealing Heke’s rangatiratanga—his tribal authority—and it was time he taught them a lesson.

So he hacked down the flagpole. Or, depending on who you ask, Heke might have ordered one of his men to do it. But either way, the Union Jack was found lying in the dirt, and the British had to build another monument to Empire, this one at their own expense.

They did. And six months later, Heke chopped that one down, too.

The British built a third flagpole within a week. And less than two days later, it lay in splinters on the ground.

What was wrong with these tattooed savages? Why were they getting so angry, when they’d willingly signed a treaty that gave the British complete rights of government? As it turns out, the problems were complicated, but a lot of it came down to sloppy translation.

The Treaty of Waitangi wasn’t written by lawyers or career politicians, but by William Hobson, a navy man, and James Busby—a retired grape farmer. Though they did their best, these guys didn’t think about the finer points of the law. And when they realized that an English treaty would sound like babbling gibberish to a gathering of Maori chiefs, they brought in Reverend Henry Williams to translate it. Williams gave it his best shot, but he didn’t have much time. He pulled an all-nighter to crank out a Maori version of the treaty by morning.

The result was that the Maori chieftains signed a subtly different document to the one that had been read to them in English. In short, they thought they were retaining chieftainship over their land and all their treasures. And as far as the English were concerned, they’d just pledged allegiance to the Queen.

The fourth flagpole the British built on Te Maiki hill was made to last. They sheathed the bottom twenty feet in iron, and assigned armed guards to defend it. So on March 10, 1845, Hone Heke sacked the town.

The Battle of Kororareka probably wasn’t intended to be as deadly as it was. A few muskets fired, a diversion created, and Heke and his men could have chopped down the fourth flagpole, sending the English a serious message. But unfortunately, some poor jerk dropped his pipe on a barrel of gunpowder. When British troops saw the explosion, they assumed that war had begun. And from the safety of their ships, they fired on the town.

Kororareka burned. And Hone Heke, undeterred by iron sheathing, chopped down the flagpole for the fourth time.

Not every building in town was reduced to ashes, though many were destroyed. Christ Church still stands, and you can stick your finger in the musket holes left over from Hone Heke’s war. But for more than a decade, no one built another flagpole. It was just too dangerous.

By 1857, tempers had cooled a little, and the flagpole was replaced. This one—the fifth to be built on Te Maiki Hill—has a massive iron base, at least twenty feet high. The control lines are sealed in a locked box, so no one can raise his own flag. If Hone Heke wanted to knock this one down, he’d need more than an axe. He’d need an acetylene torch.

But it’s possible he wouldn’t even bother. On the day we visited, there wasn’t any flag flying at all.