A few years ago Neil and I decided to learn to sail. Like our rugby players, NZ sailors are often described as the best in the world and, whilst I’m never going to run around a pitch carrying an odd-shaped ball, there’s something attractive about chilling on the sunny deck of a boat as the wind flutters into a sail and drags me across the water. If only.
We enjoyed our four Sundays on the water and in the classroom. We learned that there are no ropes on a boat, only halyards and sheets; we learned how to attach a headsail and tie a bowline; the difference between a tack and a gybe, and how to execute both; we learned to keep our heads out of the way of that swinging boom when doing either. (I did manage to walk into the damn thing when it was stationary, earning a roll of the eyes from Neil and, I suspect, a wish he could disown me.) We discovered that trimming the sail doesn’t involve scissors. Damned if I can remember any of it now.
Our tutor was a salty old seadog who had, like many Kiwis (he said), learned to sail in his youth by getting in a small boat and working it out. He didn’t have a voice rough from rum and pipe tobacco and I was disappointed that he didn’t instruct us to Hoist the mainsail! Instead it was a laconic: Let’s get the main up now, and a few minutes later, a casual: Maybe time to start winching that as I dangled off the end of the rope (sorry, halyard) with my full weight and the sail was still not budging from its position three quarters up the mast. Wait? There’s a winch?
Our sailing life came to an end when we signed up to take part in a race with other new sailors. The instructor this time did have that gruff voice, which he used loudly and with many swear words, eroding mine and a few others’ meagre confidence. It didn’t help that the wind was, to say the least, challenging, and that a couple of our team had no idea what they were doing, despite supposedly having done the same course as we had. Nor that we nearly capsized, the deck suddenly almost vertical, those of us who weren’t clinging on to some part of the boat skidding alarmingly quickly towards the water. Neil, trying with another to raise a spinnaker that none of us had been taught how to, was rescued at the last second, the captain grabbing his jacket as he was about to slide under the rails, yanking him back on board. We nearly crashed into rocks when someone tried to gybe instead of tack. We ended the day soaking and exhausted, and confident that racing wasn’t for us.
Another thing we learned was that if you can sail in Wellington you can sail anywhere. Apparently, if your sailing resumé says Wellington anywhere on it you earn the respect of your fellow crew. It’s not just that there’s a lot of wind in Te Mara o Tane, it’s that it’s one of the most unpredictable winds in the world. It rarely blows in a straight line, swirling around inside the ring of hills that surround the harbour, gusting forty knots one minute, dropping into the doldrums the next. Just as you think it’s safe to let go of the helm to reach for a cup of coffee it will knock you sideways and your coffee all over you.
A group of keen young sailors learned about sailing in Wellington last week. On Friday I walked around Worser Bay with my friend Julie, and we encountered an amazing sight – dozens of tiny boats on the beach and surrounding grass, small black-suited bodies running around them. It was a breezy day, an un-spring-like chill in the southerly that rattled sails lined up like an army awaiting battle. We chatted with the mother of one of the sailors, learning that it was ‘The Nationals’, and that families from all over New Zealand had arrived to enable their 9 to 15-year-olds to take part. (Thankfully they’d arrived the day before when the weather was mild and calm – we don’t need any more bad weather press in Wellington.)
Parents huddled into fleeces and puffer jackets, probably wishing their progeny had chosen table tennis or track cycling. A hooter sounded and small bodies dragged and pushed their boats into the water, standing waist deep to drop in a keel, then clambering aboard and heading out into the harbour. ‘My kids used to do that’, Julie said. They didn’t last, spending more time in the water than in the boat, her daughter returning home with bruises across her forehead through not ducking under the boom. I shivered inside my coat.
On Saturday it was a little warmer, the wind from the north but in playful mood, whipping itself around headlands and corners and whipping the grey sea into challenging chops. We were cycling so I can attest to its ‘playfulness’ as I struggled to pedal into it wondering, as I often do, why the hell the trees are hardly moving in what is clearly a hurricane. We cycled into the bay as an inflatable pink flamingo, the sort you usually find in a swimming pool where the only turbulence is from small humans throwing themselves into the water, took to the waves, towed by a RIB. Apparently a swan and a unicorn were already bobbing around somewhere out there. ‘They’re the markers’, explained a bloke so large I presumed he wasn’t going anywhere near one of the tiny boats.
If we didn’t already know it, the proof that sailing is not a poor man’s sport was around us. As well as a boat and a suit (wet or dry, I didn’t ask) as protection against the elements and the frigid sea, there has to be a way to transport it all and none of the many cars with attached trailers parked around were either old or small, most large SUVs alongside a lot of campervans. We carried on with our ride, sheltering from the wind in Lyall Bay with coffee and an oatie slice from Maranui café, then fought our way back to the city where I collapsed into the welcome arms of the shower and wished we had a bath in which to soak my aching muscles.
On Sunday the mercury plummeted into the chilly sea and slightly less chilly rain fell in sheets from clouds that sped across the sky in front of a gale-force wind that would have blown a tanker off course let alone the tiny craft we’d seen. There was no sailing that day; nor the next day. Welcome to sailing in Wellington. Now you’re good to go anywhere.