Born and bred on New Zealand’s rugged West Coast, I grew up on a dairy farm, about as far as you can get from New Zealand’s ‘City of Sails’ in Auckland.
At seven years old I fell in love with the idea of sailing the world. I’d read a book about Sir Peter Blake, and feeling the thrill of adventure in those pages, I knew I had to get into sailing. So that summer, I did, and from the very first time I sailed, I was hooked.
I started sailing out of the local yacht club at Lake Brunner, and learned how to sail like any other Kiwi sailor, moving from Optimist to P-Class, and eventually learning how to race. I was at sailing every Sunday no matter the weather. All I wanted to do was be on the water. When there was no sailing in the winters, I spent the time working on yachts. I couldn’t afford to buy the flashest yachts, so with the help of my father we worked to make rough yachts look almost brand new.
I started sailing a classic Kiwi yacht called a New Zealand Moth. It was an odd yacht for a young kid to get into, but I loved the class and the people I sailed with. I spent many weekends sailing out of the Stewarts Gully Sailing Club in Christchurch.
My first opportunity to sail on a trailer yacht was with local sailor Lindsay Moore who owed an 8m yacht called Emma Jane. I went on to sail many regattas with Lindsay, and did pretty well too. Lindsay was a huge inspiration, I owe him a lot he gave me the chance to learn, make mistakes and win races.
My dreams of sailing oceans continued to grow stronger with every book I read about ocean racing. I started researching ways I could get my first taste of life offshore. I was reading a book called Lion New Zealand about Sir Peter Blake’s second Whitbread around the world race. While searching the web for more details about Lion, I came across the New Zealand Sailing Trust, which offered ocean experiences to anyone.
I decided it was worthwhile emailing the trust to see if there was any chance of getting some offshore sailing experience. To my surprise, they got back to me saying they could help, and I was awarded a scholarship to sail Lion back to New Zealand from Fiji after the 2011 Fiji race.
Being only 16 at the time, I needed a guardian to come on the trip with me, and my parents – not being sailors themselves – naturally weren’t keen! So I asked Lindsay. I couldn’t have thought of anyone better to take with me. He taught me so much about sailing and this was something we could learn from and experience together.
It took eight days for the 80ft maxi to sail back to New Zealand, with some rough weather on the way. It was a huge eye-opener for me, and I spent the first 48hrs seasick. But once I had overcome that I was hooked and loved every part of life at sea.
It’s funny, but I still think one of the best parts of an ocean passage is actually arriving. There are so many amazing things about ocean sailing, but the feeling you get when you arrive at a port knowing you actually got yourself there is incredible.
So I was hooked. Offshore sailing was in my blood, and I only wanted more.
While in Fiji, I met Doug and Vonnie France, the owners of a Farr 55 called Cotton Blossom II. After chatting to them over a couple of drinks they asked me to contact them about sailing New Zealand’s iconic coastal race – the Coastal Classic.
This was to be my biggest ever race to date. I flew up to the Bay of Islands and helped deliver the yacht to Auckland, and it was very interesting for me to see how they prepared the yacht for the race. That Coastal Classic was just the start of many more to come, and I continued sailing on Cotton Blossom, flying up for events.
As time went on, I took a lot of interest in solo sailing. I followed Mike Perham and Jessica Watson as they set records by sailing around the world solo, and felt like that was something I wanted to be involved in, but how?
It was around that time I learned about the Solo Trans-Tasman yacht race, and I dreamed of one day being able to do it myself.
In 2012 I finished school, and in January 2013 I moved to Auckland to take up an apprenticeship with Doyle Sails New Zealand. I moved to Auckland because it was where I needed to be to make it as a sailor. I needed to be involved in the sailing industry and I thought being a sailmaker would be a useful thing on any race yacht.
After moving to Auckland I started seriously thinking about the Solo Trans-Tasman race again. The next race in April 2014. Just over a year. That’s enough time to get ready, I thought.
I contacted the race organisers to find out if I could actually do the race, as the minimum age was 21. With Jessica Watson’s accomplishment in the headlines, I explained that if a 16 year old could sail around the world, a 19 year old could sail solo across the Tasman.
With a “yes” from the race organisers, my own race was then on to find a suitable yacht, and prepare both the boat and myself for the miles ahead.
I needed the support of the local sailing community to get to the start line, but building a reputation in Auckland was a huge task. Being from the West Coast no one knew who I was. Thankfully my age and the special dispensation given to me by the race organisers worked in my favour, and before long there were articles in newspapers and on the web, with the headline “West Coaster set to because the youngest person to sail the Tasman solo”. This did put the pressure on a bit though, as I hadn’t even bought a yacht at that stage!
I soon realised I had a lot to learn about preparing a yacht for an ocean passage. Fortunately I had the help of one of New Zealand’s best solo sailors – Graeme Kendall. Graeme sailed around the world via the Northwest Passage – a rugged and dangerous route through the Arctic Ocean – on the way setting a speed record though the passage.
I had contacted Graeme while he was on his trip with questions about solo sailing, so when I started to plan my trip, Graeme was more than happy to give advice on preparing my yacht.
In reality, there are so many people that helped prepare the yacht for the race, and I can’t thank them all enough. They are the people that actually made my adventure happen.
April 2014 marked the start of the Solo Trans-Tasman from New Plymouth. I had sailed the yacht in the weeks before from Auckland to New Plymouth and was ready to start the race. But a huge storm pummelled the West Coast of New Zealand, which saw the race postponed by two days. The start however was a stunning day, perfect for starting my first ever solo yacht race. I was very nervous. I didn’t really know what was ahead of me but I was ready for the challenge.
As the coastline slowly disappeared into the distance, I set about life solo at sea.
On my second night at sea, disaster struck. In an occurrence that would normally see the end of any normal solo crossing, my autopilot – the most import piece of equipment for a solo sailor – failed, and couldn’t be repaired at sea.
I set about setting up my spare, but this only lasted a few days as it was a smaller pilot only really designed for coastal sailing. Determined not to back out, for ten days I hand steered my yacht, sometimes for up to twenty hours at a time in rough weather. It was very tough and I was so tired, but in bad weather I had no choice but to steer.
Exhaustion does strange things too you. I thought I was letting down everyone who had supported me. In actual fact, I wasn’t. They couldn’t have been prouder. But that was hard to see at the time.
I struggled on towards Australia until I was only a hundred miles away from the coast. On what would be my final night at sea, I had to keep a good look out as there is a lot of shipping along the coasts of Australia. It was about 10pm, and I was sailing downwind with a building sea and wind. I could see a light closing in on me, I checked the AIS and could see the ship getting closer and closer. I decided I would move off to starboard to put some space between us, as I pulled the tiller the rudder collapsed, I had no steering! I jumped into action furling the jib then pulling the main down to try control the yacht. I jumped down stairs and tried to call the ship on VHF channel 16.
“Star Enterprise, Star Enterprise this is Atom Ant do you read over” … nothing.
Again I tried. Still nothing. The ship passed – far too close for comfort.
I only had one hundred miles to go to set the record, but with no steering that would be a massive task. Luckily thanks to the advice of Graeme and other sailors, I had an emergency rudder system that could be put in place. Unfortunately the pintles were bent and I was way overdue for sleep. I managed to get the rudder back on board using the main halyard then with a torch I tried to figure out what I had to do to get the backup rudder to fit. But I wasn’t thinking straight and couldn’t make things work. I rang the race committee and told them what had happened. Words were used that can’t be published but they suggested me deploying my sea anchor and unfurling the jib and getting some sleep, so that’s what I did.
In the morning I awoke with a clearer head, and within an hour I was back on course. That night I crossed the finish line and became the youngest person to cross the Tasman solo. I was greeted by group of race competitors and my parents who had had to change their flight twice!
With that gruelling passage, I joined an exclusive group of offshore sailors who cross oceans solo. It was a club I wanted to stay in and so the dreaming continued.
After selling my yacht Atom Ant in Australia, I returned to New Zealand, filled with drive to put together another challenge. The problem with dreamers though, is that their dreams usually cost a lot of money, which is the reason most remain as dreams. But I wasn’t going to let money stop me.
I started researching races around the world I would like to do, after knocking off one of the big ones – the Solo Trans-Tasman. One of the biggest solo fleets in the world is a French class called the Mini 650. The Mini 650 is a 6.5m yacht that is raced solo across the Atlantic in a race called the Mini Transat. These yachts are at the forefront of yacht development – tiny, but fast and fun. After watching countless videos of these pocket rockets surfing downwind at 20 knots I decided this was a good option as I could do many sailing events. And crucially, it was an option I could afford.
I found a yacht that was designed by a local designer and built in New Zealand, which I felt was a good option as I could more easily get answer to any questions about the yacht if I needed to. The boat was in the south of France, and I bought it sight unseen and had it dismantled and put on a ship to New Zealand.
While organising my new yacht on the other side of the world, I wanted to improve my sailing skills. I joined the crew of a 52ft canting keeled race yacht called Wired. I was given the job of running ‘the pit’ (cockpit) which as any professional yacht racer will tell you is a huge job. Racing on these yachts is all about teamwork – a little different from what I’d been doing – but the intensity of the racing taught me a lot about how yachts need to be driven.
I raced Wednesday nights, winter series and many other local events out of Auckland. I was selected to be part of the crew for many major events such as the Coastal Classic and Bay of Islands Sailing Week. The Bay of Islands regatta is one of New Zealand’s biggest sailing events, especially in the 50ft fleet which is sailed by some of New Zealand’s top sailors. Being part of the Wired crew for Bay Week was one of the best things I could have done to improve my sailing skills. I had the opportunity to sail with big names like Rob Salthouse and Peter Burling. There’s no better way to learn than from the best.
My Mini 650 arrived in July 2015. With the help of Andrew Duff from GT Yachting, we set about making the yacht race-ready. Many long nights after work were spent sanding the hull outside the loft in Avondale or grinding carbon at Lloyd Stevens Boat Builders. But after months of work the Mini was launched with a new name – B&G Racing.
After my problems with autopilots crossing the Tasman, I didn’t want to have a repeat, so I sought support from the best marine electronics company in the world. They agreed to kit the yacht out with a full set-up of B&G electronics. This would mean I would have the very best live information while racing – wind, navigation and of course an autopilot. It was a huge effort from lots of people to get this little yacht in the water and I can’t thank them enough for continuing to support my dream.
Following the ANZAC 60 mile yacht race in April of last year, after talking over a few cold drinks, I decided to team up with Richard Limbrick on his Ross 850 Cool Change for the 2017 Two Handed Around North Island race. To qualify for the race we had to sail 250 nautical miles together.
This wasn’t the first time we had worked together. Cool Change was moored next to Atom Ant in Westhaven Marina, and Richard helped me prep my yacht for the Solo Trans-Tasman.
We started by taking on the SSANZ Triple series, which gave us the opportunity to clock up some miles together, and for me to learn how to sail the yacht.
Our qualifying race was the 2016 Round White Island race. Unfortunately after a hard night sailing on the wind, after rounding White Island we woke to find a whole lot of water rolling around in the bilge. The electronics panel had also jettisoned itself out of the wall. With these problems and the outlook of bad weather, and having completed our required 250 nautical miles, we retired to save further damage to the yacht.
The next few months were spent preparing Cool Change for the gruelling task we were preparing to put her though.
To sum up the 2017 RNI race with one word – that word would be: epic. What a great event with fantastic sailing and equally fantastic people. We had one goal for the race – not to come last in a leg. We were the smallest yacht so we really had to push and think smart about where and how we were sailing. Because of this we never were the last to cross the finish line. We had some amazing sailing. From New Plymouth to Wellington was one of the best rides I’ve ever had, screaming our way down the coast under fractional code zero averaging an easy ten knots.
The hardest part of the race came in the fourth leg from Napier to Auckland. We were 40 miles north of Gisborne, we had just changed watch. The sea was very lumpy as we made our way towards East Cape. We came off a wave and I couldn’t find the back of it, the yacht slammed and as it did the port lower stay broke.
A quick tack saved the rig but we had to suspend from racing and head to Gisborne for repairs. Luckily we weren’t alone – other crews had suspended racing because of the weather which meant the local sailors of the Gisborne Yacht Club were already there to lend a hand.
Thanks to the talent of race-rigger Steve Ashley, the very next day we had a new stay delivered and installed. Cool Change was back in the race and able to finish. I can’t begin to describe what it feels like to cross a finish line after such an epic adventure, it’s just addictive – it’s incredible.
So the dream continues. I don’t think I will ever stop dreaming about sailing because I love the sport that I’m involved in so much.
My hero is Peter Blake; he is the reason I got into sailing and the reason why I want to keep sailing. To become half the man he was, as a sailor, a leader, and a New Zealander, would be my ultimate achievement. So I’m going to keep driving until my dreams become a reality, so one day I might inspire another generation to look to the sea for adventure.