In the beginning, everyone came here by boat.
From the earliest Māori navigators, making a journey which was barely survivable, to the first European explorers – who probably felt a bit the same way as they lurched their way around the globe – the only way to reach this sea-surrounded land was to come by boat.
Once the immigrants arrived here, they didn’t turn their back on the sea, however. Waterways became the highways, as they had been for Māori for hundreds of years. Long harbours such as the Kaipara in Northland, and big rivers like the Waikato provided valuable links between isolated settlements, and steamers between towns carried mail, news and farm produce around the coast.
It wasn’t all hard work; as long as there have been boats in New Zealand there has been fun on the water. Māori would race lightweight waka tīwai, designed to jump over logs in the water – just for kicks. Lieutenant Governor William Hobson, almost as soon as he stuck his flag in the ground and declared Auckland his new capital in 1840, declared there would be a regatta, with races between two ships’ gigs (large rowing boats), whaleboats and Māori canoes. This event has persisted for more than 175 years, with the Auckland Anniversary Regatta still held each year and attracting hundreds of boats.
New Zealanders have retained their relationship with the sea largely through its proximity: Central Otago is the further place from the sea anywhere in these islands, and even that’s just a few hours’ drive from the coast and blessed with plenty of lakes.
Kiwis grow up by the water. Going to the beach, lake or river for a splash and a play is so commonplace that we seldom spare a thought for those in land-locked in places like Kansas, more than 1000km from the nearest seashore.
Even if we don’t see it every day, we’re constantly reminded of its presence by our weather, strongly influenced by the water that surrounds us.
By and large, though, the waters here are uniquely well-suited to messing about in boats. There are not many places where you can’t at least drop in a tinny or launch your dinghy for a quick sail. And there are so many beautiful, safe, sheltered harbours, interesting islands, scenic bays, sounds and fiords to explore, all bathed in a largely temperate climate.
Some Kiwis like to race; some just like to cruise. Some like the speed of powerboats; others like to take their time to get there under sail-power. Some like to blast up shallow rivers in jet boats – invented by a Kiwi, of course – while others like to restore and sail classic yachts the old-fashioned way, pulling lots of bits of string.
New Zealand’s love of boating has produced world-beaters, too: for a small country at the bottom of the world, we win a lot of Olympic sailing medals. And, for the moment, the America’s Cup is again New Zealand’s cup. For eight glorious years, from 1995–2003, we were the holders of the oldest trophy in sport, sailing’s holy grail. There was a brief period when a team of some other Kiwis came and took the Auld Mug away, but in 2017 we rightly won it back.
From a personal point of view, being involved with boating – and sailing in particular – has brought me a world of experiences. I love to race – short course, none of this days and nights at sea nonsense – and I am learning to cruise.
What I love most is the sense of flow I get when racing; a state of relaxed concentration, where I am calmly alert, absorbed in my task and the situation around me, in tune with the natural environment and the conditions it is challenging me with. I also love the sense of camaraderie with my crewmates and competitors, of being part of a team which must work together to achieve a goal. And that beer afterwards sure tastes good when you’ve earned it.
I like it when it’s sunny and bright and the harbour is sparkling and I feel like we live in the most beautiful city in the world; I love it when it’s windy and exhilarating, when the tips of my fingers go numb and rain is dripping off my nose, because I feel so, so alive. It’s a world away from sitting behind an office desk, pushing paper. On the sea, I feel connected, involved, invigorated.
Away from the racetrack, I love taking it easy, learning to go slow. Away on the boat, your life is governed by the weather and tides. I love waking up in the stillness of a new morning, having a cup of tea on deck and watching the other cruisers slowly come to life. I love rowing ashore with the kids and exploring islands both new and familiar, where there are always unexpected discoveries to be made. I love spotting dolphins and other sea life; once we were lucky enough – though somewhat startled – to see a minke whale surface just 20 metres ahead of us. And I love watching my kids learn to do donuts in the inflatable dinghy with their dad, my six-year-old clutching onto the tiller of the outboard while his three-year-old sister shrieks with delight.
Auckland, still known by its long-term slogan as the City of Sails, offers visitors plenty of ways to get out on the water, whether it’s in kayaks or jet skis, charter boats or simply just an enjoyable trip on the ferry to one of the Hauraki Gulf islands.
But wherever you travel, seek out the chance to get on the water, whether it’s a cruise on the Marlborough Sounds; kayaking the Abel Tasman, the Otago Peninsula or Akaroa; trying out wind or kite-surfing at Taupō or the Southern Lakes; exploring the coastline and mangroves of a Far North or Bay of Plenty harbour. The view from sea level is different to anything you can experience on land, and the interaction with the ocean environment, no matter on how small a scale, brings another dimension to your adventures.
So, rock up to a yacht club and get on a crew for a race, or sign up for a learn-to-sail course. Poke up creeks in a kayak. Work on your abs while enjoying the scenery on a stand-up paddleboard. Go fishing in a tin dinghy. Shred some waves on a wakeboard. Somewhere along the coastline, the tide is high right now.