Visiting New Zealand

Our first trip to New Zealand was in January of 1994.  We arrived for Auckland Day.  Our good friend Jerry was traveling with us.  We started our journey by getting stuck in the international terminal at LAX (Los Angeles International) for three days.  We played Rummy Cubes, hooked up with a flight attendant from Turkey who had grown up playing the game and basically had a pretty good time.  All things considered.  It was shaping up to be a grand adventure before we could even get out of the U.S.

We had been corresponding with Erica in Auckland, and Dooley and Kit in Tauranga.  They’d been warned of our pending arrival.  We spent a few days with Erica, using her home as a base from which to explore the city.  This was fascinating for me, to meet someone who had first hand knowledge of Leda and her trip across the Pacific.  Gratefully, I already knew the story of Sandy being run down by a freighter, although I can’t imagine that my enthusiasm actually allowed me to treat the subject with much grace.  I wanted to know “everything”.  I was worse than a sponge, I was a vacuum cleaner for details.  It was very hard for Erica to tell these stories without ending up in a melancholy state.  But she was a wonderful hostess and opened her home freely to the three of us.

Jerry, Erica and myself in the garden behind Erica’s Ponsonby home, 1994

We’d rented a camper van for exploring the country, and after nearly turning Jerry’s hair white as I learned to drive on the left side of the road, set off heading north.  We wanted to see the country and wanted to visit the kauri forest so I had to delay my meeting with Dooley and Kit.  I was like a kid on Christmas Eve.

We learned about New Zealand fish and chips, we went fishing in the Bay of Islands, we visited Tane Mahuta and hiked in the kauri forest.  We eventually worked our way south, visiting Rotorua.  We switched off driving duties between Jerry and myself.  Each taking every other day.  We discovered that it was legal to have open containers in the vehicle.  So the navigator got to drink beer and try to pronounce the names on the map.

Speaking of drinking beer, we did a good job of that too.  We discovered that each district seemed to have its favorite brew and were not timid about proclaiming it to be superior.  Bartenders would offer friendly advice, “Don’t drink that lizard spit, here have a real man’s beer!”  Ginny, not usually a beer drinker says she put on ten pounds trying them all out.

We eventually made our way to Tauranga and sought out Kit and Dooley’s house.  I can’t imagine that waiting for us to show up was much easier for Dooley than it had been for me.   If, as a reader, you are from New Zealand you will already understand that people of this generation had certain social norms that would be considered acceptable.  We arrived in time for afternoon tea.  Things were a little stilted as we tried to make small talk and adhere to polite conventions.

Dooley and Kit in the garden of their Tauranga home, 1994

I don’t really recall with clarity what we dined on.  Knowing the habits of the house now, I suspect we had either leg of lamb or sliced ham, served cold with slices of cucumber, tomato and beets for making sandwiches.  We sat around the dining table with a toaster on the kitchen counter, toasting our bread.  When the toaster popped up, the pieces of bread flew out of the toaster, hovered in mid-air for a moment and then flopped on to the floor.  The room sat in embarrassed silence.  I finally piped up “I suppose after tea we will be shooting skeet?”  There was another moment of stunned silence, but much to everyone’s delight we all broke out laughing, picked the toast up off the floor and proceeded with our meal in a much lighter atmosphere.  I think we might have gotten into the beer.

Nick and Dooley aboard Blaydon Racer, 1994

We did continue on to the south island and got a good tour of New Zealand.  Along the way, we visited glow worm caves, and did a pub crawl in Christchurch that was legendary.   We got to meet the Wilson children and the grandchildren.  We went sailing on Nick Wilson’s Blaydon Racer, a Wilson built trimaran designed by Jim Young.  We eventually made our way back to Auckland for another quick visit with Ercia before flying home to get busy with life and work on Leda.   But what a grand adventure we had just had.

Ginny and Kit enjoying a leisurely sail on Blaydon Racer.  Astute readers might notice the knot meter at near 10 knots.  This was not considered fast for this boat.

Ginny and I returned in January of 1995.  The highlights of this trip probably being attending the production of The Rocky Horror Show at the Aotea Center in Auckland and watching the Louis Vuitton Cup coverage from Kit and Dooley’s couch.  This would have been the year that Black Magic went on to sweep the America’s cup.  It was also the year that the Australian boat sank after cracking in two.   The much despised Dennis Connor was sailing for the U.S.A. and this all provided a lot of fodder for good fun, conversation and not a few good laughs.  The number of stories from these two visits are many and many of them legendary from our own perspective, but I won’t bog everyone down with trying to tell them all.  Good friendships were formed.

Ginny sunning herself on the rear deck of Ranger

We would return in 1997, but circumstances had changed.  Kit had been diagnosed with cancer in late 1995 and by ’97 was gone.  I am so ever grateful that we had the opportunity to enjoy her company on our previous visits.

Dooley was living alone and we convinced him to go on a road trip with us.  I wanted to buy some kauri lumber.  I had by this time gotten new bulkheads into the boat and wanted companionway doors made of kauri.  I had done a bit of research and there was a mill in Northland that still cut kauri but it wasn’t supposed to be exported unless it had been manufactured into a finished product.  Dooley and I conspired to get the lumber and make the doors in his backyard.  I could package them up as yacht doors and ship them home.  We figured we would drive up through the kauri forest, swing by the lumber mill, and be back in the yard planing boards in a flash.

We drove up to Dargaville and enjoyed the kauri museum, staying somewhere in the area.  The next day we drove through the Waipoua Forest and to the mill near Oromahoe.  I selected lumber for my doors, which we carefully packaged in black plastic sheeting to protect it and loaded it on top of Dooley’s car.  His car was a Honda Accord from around 1976.  Well cared for and in nice shape.  A lovely car and perfect for Dooley’s needs. 

The bad news is that on our way home I totalled his car by rear-ending a vehicle that stopped in the busy highway to turn across.  Not only did it total the car, but it scattered my kauri lumber down the road.  It didn’t do the car I hit any good either.  The car was towed, the kauri having been loaded back into what was left of it.  We got a room for the night and nursed our wounds with a bottle of whiskey and a hot tub.  The next morning we rented a car, gathered up the kauri timber and drove back to Tauranga to get to work on the companionway doors.

Dooley was truly amazing.  His single-mindedness in finishing the project at hand is something that I was grateful for during this event.  He never asked for an apology.  He never complained or made me feel guilty.  We basically threw away his car and carried on.  No apologies, just finish.  The car was collateral damage.  I still marvel at it.  His attitude was quite simply that there was nothing to be done about the car, nothing we could influence except how we proceeded moving forward.  I try to remember that when I get hung up over details I can’t change.  

We finished the doors.  Dooley patiently helped me sharpen his old planes and chisels and we did the whole job without power tools.  We worked mostly in his short cropped lawn overlooking the bay at Tauranga.  It was pleasant work in perfect weather.  I’ll never forget the feel of that lawn on my bare feet.   We also spent a lot of time shopping for a new car.  That wasn’t as much fun.  His Accord would have easily lasted the rest of his life.  Finding something to replace that trusted old friend was a project and not easily accomplished. 

That incident changed me forever.  It was humbling.  If nothing else I don’t like to borrow a friend’s car.  In those days, I often said, “What’s the worst that can happen?  That we might kill ourselves?”  It was funny to me when I was young, as in my view we were all going to die anyway, it might as well be while trying.  However, it never really occurred to me that I might take someone with me that I care about (or that I might be able to make a bigger mess than just being dead).  So it was also sobering.  It made me realize that nearly every accident is avoidable.  Usually there are a limitless number of things that can be done to break the chain of events leading up to it.  The accident happens when you fail to do a single one.  Not a bad thing for a sailor to think about.

This trip was the last time I saw Dooley alive.  I still miss him, as he was a good friend.  I carefully planed the scars from the road out of the kauri timber but fortunately I still carry the impressions made on me by these remarkable people.

Russ and Dooley, barefoot, in the yard making patterns for a stitch and glue dinghy

We had time scheduled to spend in Auckland with Erica.  Unfortunately her health was giving her a bad time and when we arrived she admitted that she wasn’t up to it.  We decided to get a hotel and spend a few days enjoying Auckland before flying home.  Things were heating up there in the process of getting Leda back on the water and I still had lots to do.

We did return to New Zealand one more time.  If you recall, the year 2000 was supposed to be when the computers were all going to fail and airplanes might fall out of the sky as a result.  This is good news for people who fly stand-by.  The international flights were empty on New Year’s Day, 2000.  So we flew to Auckland in a nearly empty 747.  We spent most of our time in Tauranga, with Nick’s family.  We did manage to get to Auckland to visit the Cup Village and see the racing yachts.  We also helped scatter Dooley’s ashes from Blaydon Racer.  It was a subdued trip.  Dooley was gone, Nick and his wife Allyson were dealing with grief over the loss of a daughter and Ginny and I got word while there of a good friend from Mexico passing away.  We got to see Erica one last time, she met us for dinner one night in Auckland.  Her health was continuing to deteriorate.  

We made another visit to the lumber mill near Oromahoe.  I’d called the Ministry of Forestry and asked about shipping some kauri home.  The answer I got was that if the amount were so small that it could go into my luggage that there was not a concern.  I didn’t enquire further.  I called the airline and found out how much it cost to ship a wind surfer as baggage and what the maximum dimensions could be.  So when we flew home our baggage had three wind surfers included.  I made a number of boat projects out of the timber.  A new table for the salon, drop boards for the cockpit companionway among others.  I still have a bit of left here.  I suppose I will be forgiven should the telling of that tale raise any flags.

It is remarkable to me while writing this that it has been 18-years since our last visit to New Zealand.  I never thought it would take so long to get back.  Life gets busy and we all get older and slower.  It takes some persistence, doesn’t it? 

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