The Official Website of New Zealand writer Tessa Duder
Home News Biography Books Resource FAQ Awards Links Links

The First Trans-Tasman Tall Ships' Race, Sydney to Opua and Auckland Ships Festival, October 2013

by Tessa Duder, Spirit of Adventure Trust deputy chair

Spirit of New Zealand leaves Sydney in October 2013 bound for Opua in the Bay of Islands.
Spirit of New Zealand leaves Sydney in October 2013 bound for Opua in the Bay of Islands.

For those lucky 55 people on board Spirit of New Zealand on 10 October, the start of Voyage 652 Aus 2 surpassed expectations.

Picture Sydney’s great harbour, seven majestic tall ships from five countries emerging from their berths near the Opera House. Naval helicopters and media boats buzzing around and above. Spirit has been left superbly clean, on deck and below, by the naval cadets who crewed the ship on her passage a week earlier from Wellington to Sydney to take part in the Royal Australian Navy huge Fleet Review held a few days earlier.

Now there are 39 mostly Kiwi young adult 'trainees' aboard, about a third of whom have done a 10-day voyage or some dinghy sailing. The rest are complete novices to seafaring.

Despite this, expertly directed by the crew, they manage to set five sails by the time Spirit is photographed passing the Opera House - the only one of the tall ships, Captain Nigel Wright points out later, to achieve this.

And so to the Heads to enter the 'start gate.' All seven ships are now magnificently under sail, their motors silenced for the 7 – 10 day passage ahead. Spirit is 15 seconds early so has to do a 360 degree penalty turn. ('If Dean Barker can cop a penalty with a 360, so can Spirit of New Zealand,' quips Capt. Nigel.)  But this is only a momentary annoyance, Spirit soon back on course with several tall ships within 400 metres to starboard, and the Australian youth development ship Young Endeavour bringing up the rear as the fleet approaches the official start line - a majestic parade of sail not seen in Sydney harbour since the 1988 Bi-Centennial celebrations.  And that event itself the first for probably more than 100 years.

Dinner is well attended, the mood on Spirit buoyant as the fleet starts to spread out and vanish like ghost ships into the gathering dusk.  For Spirit and her young crew, watching the New South Wales coast fall behind, the die is cast: 1200 nautical miles of the Tasman’s notorious waters lie ahead. No going back, no second thoughts now!  Seasickness is yet to strike.

Day Two of this race starts relatively benign but the weather forecast is ominous. Shoulder-high safety netting around the aft deck and stout lines running the full length of the ship have appeared.

The trainees, most of whom have only arrived in Sydney the previous day, are divided into three watches of 13, each run by a Mate and two Watch Assistants (WA), volunteers hand-picked for their skills as square-rigged sailors and appropriate extra talents: one is also the ship's nurse, another is a former Spirit cadet noted for her fearlessness aloft; another a pilot with useful navigational abilities. It has been noted that this is not your usual 10-day Spirit voyage; the 39 young adults are aged up to 25 and not ‘trainees’ as such, but for convenience the name sticks.

The ship’s motion is now from side to side, a rocking and rolling that sometimes corkscrews and is frequently violent, causing more than few tumbles (mercifully with no more serious injury than a cut over a trainee eye). The trainee log notes dryly: ‘Most people are now seasick but on the bright side the heads are clean.’ Those most affected sit where they can, slumped over waiting buckets, or carry plastic bags.

Day and night have become irrelevant. Ginger nuts, supposedly effective in reducing nausea, provide a little sugary energy, but their effectiveness in these seas is doubtful. Life for many is now reduced to four hours on watch, eight hours horizontal, four hours on, eight hours horizontal. They’re dimly if guiltily aware that somehow the less afflicted are stoically keeping ship routines going: in the galley, cook Steph is doing 12-hour days, cleaning is being done, in the wheelhouse the ship and trainee logs written up hourly.

There is still interest in our race position, where the other ships lie. The small Dutch ship Tecla is ahead.

Day Three. Overnight, the swell has increased further to 3 or 4 metres, and the NW following wind to 35 knots, gusting to 45. Below deck, the noise is indescribable: the constant crash/bang of tons of water against the hull, the hiss of wind, the slosh of the fresh water in the tanks deep in the hull. You either brace yourself rigid n your bunk, or allow yourself to roll with the ship; neither allows much sleep. With showers allowed only every third day, you’re feeling grubby.

Called for watch, you kit up in full heavy-weather gear and buoyancy aid. Strobe lights are attached to your shoulder by the WAs. You step out into the gale blowing across the aft deck, tether yourself to a lifeline, answer your mate’s occasional call to pull on a rope to raise or shorten sail; you stagger down to your bunk, get horizontal, you sleep. A few hardy souls can divert themselves with the ship’s modest supply of movies: Master and Commander, Finding Nemo, Pirates of the Caribbean.

A TVOne Breakfast session reporter asks a few days later, were there any scary moments; not so much scary, is the reply, just more a test of endurance, the most demanding many on board would ever have encountered.

Day Four and Five:  Shooting stars across glittering skies offer some consolation, but the endurance test continues. Northerlies still up to 40 knots, grey seas, grey skies. We have apparently once leaned over to 45 degrees. Huge and lumpy five-metre swells continue to rear up on the ship's starboard quarter; the trainees on the helm learn to make subtle adjustments with the wheel to help Spirit ride the waves and minimise her heel.

These days blend into each other until the gradual realisation sometime on day five that most souls have found their sea legs, water and food are staying down, and life is again worth living.   Those few continuing in mute and soggy misery are given medication and TLC to help them through.

As for the other ships, it is assumed they are experiencing their own versions of Tasman hell. Arch rival Young Endeavour has gone further south, a move which turns out, as wind deserts her sooner and more completely, to be unfortunate.  British ship Lord Nelson is now 40 miles behind, the third Dutch ship Oosterschelde more than 80 miles astern. The stately Europa and small gaff-ketch Tecla, both Dutch, are the only two ahead.  Canadian ship Picton Castle has retired and literally disappeared off the radar.

Day Six:  Despite all this, we have clocked off the miles at a respectable average of six knots, with the LED frequently showing up to 11 knots and once, 14. At breakfast, only 270 miles to go to Cape Reinga, 340 to Opua!  This now seems achievable, the more so because the wild rocking and the interminable noise have abated. In SW winds now less than ten knots, it is easier to move around below, less vital moving about on deck to grab the life-lines.

The sun is out and a dhobi line has been rigged to dry out soggy clothing. At 8 a.m. Colours, Capt Nigel informs the trainees that Europa, so accustomed to long ocean passages from Europe down to the Antarctica peninsula, is still well ahead but Spirit may be closing on Tecla only 12 miles to starboard. Young Endeavour is still well behind and Lord Nelson has reportedly retired with damage to a backstay.

All ship's company are given Arrival Cards to fill in, a psychological boost when still out of sight of land. By day's end, 228 miles to Cape Reinga. Yeah!

Day SevenTecla is for the first time actually in sight, ahead.  Our progress is steady but frustratingly slow, but now the DTD (Distance To Destination) is less than 100 miles.  Nearly every sail is up, and with frequent tweaks and trims by the three Mates, working hard throughout their watches for our three or four knots through the water.  Dolphins are sighted, approach the ship, but don't linger.  The mood, according to one trainee's entry in the log, is 'salubrious.' Nightfall brings a full moon and silver sheen on the relatively calm water. The First Mate can't help himself:  'All I want is a tall ship and a star to steer her by’ - out here this is no cliché, but an evident and glorious truth. Just after lunch we hear that Europa is rounding North Cape, 40 miles ahead. Tecla is only 8 miles ahead, the others all well behind us. We three will in fact be the only ships out of seven that actually finish the race.

Day Eight:  We wake to see the Three Kings islands etched in pink along the horizon to port. The effect of seeing land after more than 1000 miles can't be underestimated; we recall with awe how 19th century European emigrants must have felt seeing the mountainous coasts of the South Island after anything from 3 to 6 months at sea, non-stop from England or Hamburg.

There is so little wind that we try a Team New Zealand tactic: all ship's company are assembled on the port deck, to induce some heel and hopefully produce more than 2 knots through the water. The effect on our speed is minimal, but it's a good opportunity to do an overdue 'Round Robin,' to hear others' names, where they come from, their favourite childhood memories, highs and lows of the trip so far, what they want to be doing in ten years' time. Most are Kiwis, but there are a few Australians, a few who've sailed on Young Endeavour, nearly half who've done a 10-day voyage. One tells us she was born in Alaska, another that to make this Tasman crossing she has flown all the way from North Carolina, USA.  Those off watch go to bed on a ship which is blessedly still, having heard that Europa has crossed the finish line.  Capt Nigel calls them to offer congratulations, confides that we are enjoying nice scenery but it would be nice to see it change! Tecla is 15 miles ahead; with tides now a factor, we aren't going to catch her.

Day Nine: Before dawn, a setting moon, huge and bronze, is hardly compensation for Spirit barely moving, even for a time going backwards. The 12 to 4 watch reports that at 1 a.m. Lord Nelson passed close by under motor - she will be the first to arrive in Opua.

After breakfast, Capt Nigel suggests the life-lines and netting around the aft deck, so reassuring in the previous stormy days, can now be removed. The 21 miles to the finish are beginning to seem as much of a challenge as driving through 5-metre swells; every sail is aloft, including the 'lukes'l - the fisherman which sets high up between the foremast and the mainmast and which, according to other crew, Second Mate Luke Galuszewski will hoist at the drop of a hat. Cell phones, not handed in as usual on a 10-day voyage, work again!

As we pass Cape Reinga and North Cape and turn south, two ships pass close by: the container ship Spirit of Independence, and HMNZS Manawanui, which circles Spirit and gets three cheers as she passes. Our ensign is properly dipped. As we inch closer to the finish line, a band forms on the aft deck - First Mate on uke, Cadet on flute, trainee on guitar, Watch Assistant plucking away on a tea chest bass (without the tea chest).

At 3.20 p.m. the count-down is reached - 0 miles to destination. A mighty cheer goes up, repeated when R. Tucker Thompson comes out from Russell to pay respects with her sails hoisted and a rousing four-man haka; she herself looks a picture in the late afternoon sun.

A true sailorman, Capt Nigel decides against the engine; his ambition is to be able achieve Sydney to Opua entirely under sail. The haka party of one watch, inspired by Tucker's example, is heard rehearsing. WA Tony organises the Great Southern Schooner race:  a deep tin tray of water, shaving foam for icebergs, paper boats and a straw to blow them round five laps. One lap in, the tray and a large bucket of water are up-ended over the straw-blowers and Tony. Before dinner the trainees all have a celebratory shower; the roast lamp dinner with all the trimmings tastes particularly good.

As for the race, it is confirmed that three have finished:  Europa, Tecla and Spirit. Picton Castle and Lord Nelson have retired with damage, Young Endeavour and Oosterschelde simply ran out of wind.  With darkness, Spirit is still inching towards anchoring off Russell. We put in tacks to get around Tapeka Point, only to register on the monitors as frustrating lines up and down virtually the same course. Sometime after 11 p.m., with an adverse tide and absolutely no wind, Capt Nigel decides to motor the last 2 miles. Though disappointing, for those few on deck at nearly midnight, nothing can diminish the pleasure of dropping the port anchor into the still moonlit bay.

We have clocked off 1,217 nautical miles, taking 7 days, 22 hours and 32 minutes at an average speed of 6.39 knots.

Day Ten: The first dawn swim is certainly invigorating! Spirit's crew gathered for Colours cheers Young Endeavour seen entering the bay, and puzzlingly doing a slow 360, we can only think in search of dolphins. By nine, Spirit is heading past Paihia towards Opua for Customs and Ministry of Primary Industries clearance.

On the wharf to greet us are Spirit shore staff, Auckland Tall Ships Festival organiser John Lister, former Spirit Trustee and volunteer John Duder and former Spirit master Captain Nick Hylton, along with a few trainees' families. After lunch we head back to Russell for the 4 p.m. powhiri arranged by R. Tucker Thompson with the local iwi. A large gathering of seafarers marches between onlookers along the foreshore road for the challenge and on to the marae, where a young kapa haka group is gathered. The captains of the Lord Nelson, Young Endeavour and Tecla impressively reply to the welcoming speeches by kaumatua and newly-elected Mayor John Carter.

Day Eleven: With naval ship Young Endeavour anchored about 200 metres away, the bells at Colours at 8.00 are rung to the very second by cook Steph. Several hours of a brilliantly sunny day are pleasantly passed motoring to Roberton Island, landing trainees by rubber raft to take a picnic lunch to the heights of the spectacular pah site, followed by beach games, sunbathing, simply enjoying terra firma.

Coming to anchor close by, Young Endeavour issues an invitation to come aboard for an evening concert. The Masters agree this will be after a short passage south to the yachties' haven of Whangamumu harbour. This production performed on their main deck in front on a make-shift stage is apparently their biggest ever to their biggest audience ever: some 90 minutes of skits, songs, poems and videos prepared by their watches. ("Explains why you had no time for sailing out there!' quips WA Tony.)  But there's much hilarity, particularly by the officers' contribution of the tale of the wooing (by Jellyfish, Shark and the like) of Princess Myrtle the Turtle. Spirit crew appreciate the time and energy that has clearly been put in. Spirit's honour is maintained by guitar-playing Caleb, who rises to the occasion and coaxes a spirited waiata out of Spirit's trainee group.

Day Twelve: Colours are again held on the dot, but principally to allow time to take a voyage photo - Capt Nigel employing the remote self-timer on his camera - and then to allow an exchange of six Spirit trainees with six Young Endeavour 'returnees.'  (All of their 24 young crew are former trainees, mostly in their twenties and a few around thirty.)  

Spirit then heads purposefully under motor and sail for Great Barrier, stopping briefly at the Poor Knights to ferry trainees and crew by ship’s tender to visit the cathedral-like cave there. We are followed in through the spectacularly narrow Man ‘o War passage into Port Fitzroy by Young Endeavour and Tecla, to find HMNZS Wellington anchored there.  Spirit and Young Endeavour anchor together near Smokehouse; Tecla disappears up towards the wharf and shop in search of a pub, only to be told that the fishing lodge there was closed but there is an Irish pub at Tryphena two hours’ run away.  Her subsequent movements were reportedly in the vicinity of Tryphena and later, a vineyard at Waiheke.

Day Thirteen: A huge day: at Colours, a 21st birthday acknowledgement for trainee Lewis, and most of Spirit's crew and trainees heading up the track towards the summit of Mt Hobson. Many make it up the 2000+ steps to the summit; others settle for the historic interest of the kauri dams, itself a stiff climb.

Meanwhile cook Steph is preparing a barbecue for the famous BBQ spot at Smokehouse, maintained by the Webster family and frequently used by Spirit on her 10-Day voyages. Also ashore are crew from yachts just arrived from Noumea, crew from Oosterschelde, plus Young Endeavour crew.  It’s smoky and crowded. Lord Nelson had left earlier in the day to return to Whangarei for repairs, but with the arrival of Oosterschelde there’s the astonishing sight of four tall ships in Smokehouse Bay; a fitting prelude, for those privileged to enjoy it, to the fleet’s arrival in Kawau Bay and the Waitemata Harbour.

Day Fourteen: The peace of Smokehouse Bay and light winds prove perfect for a day of match racing between Australia and New Zealand, using Spirit’s two luggers. Suitably experienced dinghy skippers are identified and the Kiwi teams emerge victorious, 2-1. The adult race, running the gauntlet of fire hoses and water bombs around the course, is again a resounding Kiwi victory: a series win of 3-1. It is seen as some answer to Jimmy Spittall and the still-raw America’s Cup result in San Francisco.

After two wonderful days at Barrier, it’s agreed a quiet night is in order to prepare for the full-on public appearances to come. The famous short movie of life aboard the tall ship Peking is appreciated by the crew who can now count themselves as ocean-going square-rig sailors

Day Fifteen: Trainees man the yards for the farewell run through Man ‘O War Passage, followed by Young Endeavour and Europa, the Dutch ship generally thought to be the queen of the fleet. After motor-sailing past Little Barrier, off Kawau Spirit meets up with the handsome Canadian Picton Castle, R. Tucker Thompson, the restored scow Jane Gifford and a good few local yachts coming out to greet and admire this unprecedented parade of sail.

Then it’s a short run to Whangaparoa, where the ships have designated anchorages south of the peninsula to enable an orderly line-up for the entrance into the Waitemata tomorrow.

The last de-brief of watches after dinner is entirely positive. Yes, the seasickness of the first few days was horrible, but the whole experience was ‘mind-blowing, overwhelming, fantastic, so glad I’ve done it . . .’ For the 15 paid and volunteer crew, who have worked so hard to give these young people a memorable, safe and fun experience, these are sweet words.

Day Sixteen: After a ‘deep clean’ above and below decks to prepare the ship for her next voyage, it’s Show Time! Off the northern East Coast bays, Spirit hoists as much sail as the winds permit and lines up behind HMNS Wellington and the two ocean-going sailing waka, Te Aurere and Haunui. She will lead the fleet in to her home port, the others to berths around Queen’s Wharf.

A sizeable spectator fleet of yachts, runabouts, launches, is gathering; this is Auckland, after all, where harbour spectacles touch at the very heart of this maritime Pacific city. It’s a sight not seen in the Rangitoto Channel for well over 100 years, that period before the turn of the century as sail gradually gave way to steam. A crew from TvOne is aboard and about three minutes will make the evening news. Spectators are gathered on North Head, Bastion Point, the city beaches, Tamaki Drive; how well the city is provided with vantage points! Even as the ships must lower sail as they round North Head and approach the inner harbour, this magnificent parade is everything its organisers and advocates have long dreamed of.

For Spirit’s crew, a fish n’ chip feed is seen as a welcome return to, well, civilization/real life. Then it’s on, for most of the ship’s company, to the Trust’s annual gathering of supporters and Spirit family, postponed from its usual date in July to allow guests from down country and foreign ships to attend. More than two hundred people attend this last celebration of the Trust’s 40th year of safe and successful youth development. The 2013 Australia deployment has been, it’s agreed, a triumph.

Day Seventeen: And it’s not over yet! By nine, showered, breakfasted and uniformed in smart navy t-shirts, Spirit’s company is assembled with about 300 for the triumphal march along Quay Street to The Cloud on Queen’s Wharf for the Ngati Whatua powhiri and the STI prize-giving.

The trophies mounted on the podium are impressive: plaques for the first, second and third on corrected time and across the finish line: Europa (Netherlands), Tecla (Netherlands) and Spirit of New Zealand. The Media Award goes to Young Endeavour, whose trainee blogs through the passage had been so informative and entertaining. The trophy for the youngest average crew, in keeping with STI’s stated mission to bring young people to square-rig adventuring: a second award for Spirit of New Zealand.

And the trophy all the ships want most to win? The Friendship Trophy for the ship which in the opinion of the STI has contributed most to promoting international fellowship and understanding goes to . . . Spirit of New Zealand. Capt Nigel and two trainees hold aloft the handsome silver plate to whoops from fellow crew and loud applause from the large audience. "It's a highly regarded prize,’ says Capt Nigel later, ‘as our emphasis is on community spirit and youth development, rather than being the fastest boat.’ For the crew of 652 Aus 2, the prize-giving and the team photo taken on the end of Queen’s Wharf mark the high point and completion of their Tasman experience.

This Labour weekend Saturday afternoon the trainees will finish packing into bags recovered from the hold a day earlier, make their tearful goodbyes and promises to keep in touch, disembark and travel to their homes around New Zealand and elsewhere. Facebook will be kept busy. Families will hear of full moons on silver seas, visiting dolphins, mollyhawks and albatross circling the ship, the thrill of steering the ship, going aloft, racing against the Australians at Great Barrier, the triumphal entry into Auckland.

Crew will sign off, pleased with the ship’s safe return, no injuries, no incidents, trainees happy, job done.

Capt Nigel and Second Mate Luke, along with Spirit Trustees and CEO, will attend the Captain’s Dinner held at the Voyager Maritime Museum. Operations Director Sue and ship coordinator Rob will oversee re-provisioning for Voyage 653, a 5-Day Trophy voyage for 14-year-olds. Engineer Dave will oversee the pumping out of ‘black water’ from the ship’s tanks, the filling up of other tanks with fuel and water.

On Monday, Labour Day, Spirit of New Zealand will again lead the fleet, this time on a parade of sail departing with a full Naval salute from the Waitemata. She is carrying 40 wide-eyed 14-year-olds from four schools, a whole new crew of twelve.

The weather is nearly perfect, all ships hoisting sail well within the inner harbour to delight the spectator fleet and large crowds on all the vantage points. It is officially estimated that around 158,000 people thronged the wharves during the weekend open days (10,000 visiting Spirit alone), with tens more thousands enjoying the entry and farewell parades of sail.

Some ships will return to prepare during the week for long passages ahead to Wellington, the Pacific, the Horn, eventually home to Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Britain.

On the STI website, Waterfront Auckland chairman Bob Harvey says the event was a ‘lifetime experience for many people . . . a fantastic success for Auckland and New Zealand.’

Paul Bishop, STI Race Director, agrees. ‘The Sydney Auckland Regatta has been the perfect area for a truly international event and it would be incredible to return.’

Three, five, seven years? Talks are starting for further STI events down under. The undoubted success of the 2013 Sydney-Auckland regatta and Auckland Tall Ships Festival will undoubtedly interest other tall ship operators, in both hemispheres.


back to top

 Home | News | Biography | Books | Resources | FAQ | Awards | Links
 Site Utilities: Contact | Privacy Policy | Site Map
© Tessa Duder.