Whangarei, New Zealand

In last month’s blog I talked about how I had answered in ad in the back of WoodenBoat Magazine (http://www.woodenboat.com) that was seeking brave souls to sail around the world. Deciding that was indeed the kind of adventure I wanted, I answered the ad, quit my job, sold all my possessions, said goodbye to my family and friends, and flew to New Zealand to crew on an old 127 foot cargo ship.

I arrive at the airport in Whangarei on the east coast of the north island on a bright sunny day with blue, blue skies and clean, clear air. Vladimir, the boat’s owner, and his girlfriend Nola pick me up and drive me to Whangarei Harbor where Ariela, is tied up. My first impressions of New Zealand are seen through the van window: Beautiful rolling hills, lush green countryside with plush trees and vegetation, and clouds that go on forever. No wonder the Maori’s refer to it as “Aotearoa” The Land of the Long White Cloud. There is no pollution here, nor garbage on the streets. A cool breeze from the Antarctic is blowing from the southwest. How wild is that to feel the Antarctic wind across your face?

We drive down a very long dock to where Ariela is berthed at the very end, directly across from a huge container ship. These are the only two vessels in the whole harbor which is undeveloped; without a proper marina or any amenities. This will be my home for the next month while we work to make the boat sea worthy. I find my bunk inside a cabin built for four that I have the luxury of occupying alone until we set sail and our paying passengers arrive. I will then move to a bunk in the hallway which is a great relief to me that I don’t have to share my sleeping quarters with others. I look over my little 7 foot by 3 foot space and determine I will need to fashion a curtain to hang in front of the bunk so I can retain a small measure of privacy while I am sleeping. It’s challenging to find a place to be alone when living onboard a floating fishbowl. There is hardly anywhere to go except aloft in the rigging, on the bowsprit, or overboard.

After I settle in, I am formally introduced to the rest of the crew. It doesn’t take me long to figure out the personalities and understand exactly what I am dealing with. There is Vladimir and Nola who I already mentioned. They met at a hospital in Arkansas, where she was working as a physician’s assistant and he was employed as a doctor. I was told later that Vladimir escaped from his native Russia by hiding in the bilge of the boat. Nola waits on Vladimir hand and foot and reminds me of a puppy dog. She is always placating him, and believe me, he needs a lot of placating. No matter what she does for him or cooks for him, he always makes her feel as though she did not do it well enough. Then he sulks to get her sympathy, and finally she coddles him and fusses all over him. This happens at every meal. Yuck!

Klaus is Vladimir’s silent business partner. He is very handsome with dark hair and perfectly straight white teeth. He was a solider in the German army and once told me the Holocaust had been prefabricated by the American media as propaganda, and 6 million Jews had not really been killed in concentration camps. I have a huge problem with this obviously, from both a moral standpoint. I refrain from voicing my opinion because in case I fall overboard, I want him to save me.

Nigel is our British captain who has never lived on land in his entire life. He seems the most normal and reliable of the bunch, which is a good thing since he is the captain. He asks me to make him a marmite sandwich, so I oblige. I slather on marmite as thick as I would peanut butter not knowing anything about marmite. Marmite as it turns out is really, really salty. Therefore, I am informed later; only a thin coating is required. The sandwich that I have lovingly crafted for my dear captain is inedible. With a little guidance and encouragement, I eventually become a dam good marmite sandwich maker.

Fred is our kiwi carpenter hired during our stay in Whangarei. He wants to see the world and Vladimir agrees to take him on. Unfortunately while underway Fred experiences great separation anxiety and is unable to perform his duties. He lies in his bunk at night crying himself to sleep even though he is a grown man. This makes us all cringe with disgust and compassion.

Some of our paying passengers are already with us, touring New Zealand while we are getting the boat ready. Thus far we have Kurt and Daphne, two outrageous hippies from California who paid a lot of cash, $80,000 to be exact, for a one year passage. They also paid Fred out of their own pocket to re-construct their cabin to accommodate more built-in cabinets and drawers. They become my surrogate parents and a saving grace on this ship of madmen. (Ultimately they jump ship in Vanuatu only 2 months into their journey, forgoing their $80 grand, because Vladimir  is such a drag to be with and they are not having any fun.) Then there is Bob and Dee, a wholesome married couple from the mid-west who bake delicious Italian pastries from scratch and catch fish to boot. And finally we have Giovanni, a stereotypical Italian lover and painter from New Orleans who keeps making unwelcome passes at me.

I begin working the very same day I arrive because there is so much to do. We have paying passengers to pick up along the way who will accompany us on various legs of the trip, and we can not afford the luxury of being tardy.  This is how Vladimir is funding the voyage. I have been up for hours from the long flight across the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans but am too wired and too excited to sleep. Even though I am not an experienced sailor, it doesn’t take me too long to realize this boat is a wreck. I don’t know how we are going to be ready to sail her with passengers in four weeks. Aside from Vladimir and Captain Nigel, the so called other crew which includes me, are novices. I have sailed in local waters near my home, but have never made an offshore voyage. I am told is a totally different experience. This concerns me greatly as docking a 127 foot vessel could present a problem.

I work very hard, scraping, painting, splicing lines and varnishing. I begin to lose all sense of time as one day quickly flows into a week. Because there is no place I need to be at a specific time, I have no need to actually know what time it is. Every day is a work day and we work until the day is done. It is a new and refreshing concept not to be tied to a clock and have your life and movements dictated accordingly. I am really enjoying it. I am totally getting in to the rhythm of life here. Every morning when I awake my body feels like it’s been hit by a Mac truck I’ve been working it so hard. It feels great.

Last night, Nigel, Klaus and I take a ride into the bush out to Mandel’s house, another one of our carpenters. The countryside is breathtaking. And I think this must be some of the most beautiful countryside in the world. There are a lot of cattle, goats and of course sheep. Possum are to New Zealand what squirrels are in the States and over run this place. We hit quite a few on our way to Mandel’s and I sit in silent agony with every thug. It’s really unavoidable I’m afraid, as we are on winding, unpaved, dirt roads without any street lights. But what is avoidable is the pleasure Klaus seems to be deriving from killing these small marsupials.

Mandel and his wife Hildegard sailed to New Zealand from Germany in the 1980’s and have been here ever since. I suppose they defected because it was before the wall came down, but they refuse to speak of it in any sort of detail. They actually knew Vladimir somehow before, and didn’t much care for him then or now. But Klaus and Mandel get on fabulously and spend hours speaking in their native tongue.

People here are so hospitable and would give you their last meal if necessary. Hildegard laid out some nice cheese, pork from their pig, and a sweet beef stick. Mandel brought pitchers filled with his “home brew”, which he had well been into by the time we had arrived. A lot of Kiwi’s choose to make their own beer because it is so incredibly expensive. It costs nearly 60 New Zealand dollars per case and it’s not even that good.

After a couple of weeks, I begin to notice how strange old Vladimir and his girlfriend Nola are. For example: There is no first aide kit onboard, or fresh drinking water because the water maker is broken. It looks to me like Vladimir  has no immediate plans to fix it. I don’t drink soda or fruit punch ever so this is a real dilemma for me. I inquire about it during dinner one evening shortly after my discovery. I ask if they will be purchasing bottled water for the first leg of the trip. I receive no reply from a direct question. Vladimir simply refuses to answer. He ignores me completely in an attempt to unnerve me. I find his silence rude and disconcerting. Later he informs me that he never promised there would be fresh drinking water or a first aide kit onboard, and when I cut my finger he hands me a piece of gaffer’s tape. It was then I realized I might be in for a rocky ride. There were other tell-tale signs of rough seas ahead. There was no edible food onboard to speak of. It was limited to peanut butter and jelly, or cheese or marmite sandwiches. After a hard day of physical labor, peanut butter and jelly simply did not cut it.

This was one disorganized ship, I soon surmised. I feel I am not be utilized to the best of my ability and could be doing more. Vladimir is clearly uptight about it, I can see. In his mind I have to prove myself first. No sense of camaraderie yet. Everyone just does their own thing. No one has assigned me a specific job to do and it’s hard to keep busy when I don’t know what it is that needs doing. Nigel and Vladimir are the only two people aboard who really know boats. It is completely beyond my comprehension how we are going to pull this off. The crew needs to know how to sail this ship. We are responsible for the lives and safety of others and for our own. I am beginning to think that Vladimir’s attempt to save money by not hiring an experienced crew was a big mistake. Nigel says this is not a problem. I have my reservations.

Monday the rigging is going up. This ought to be interesting. It looks to me like a lot of things are not safe, including the frayed halyards and sheets used to raise, lower and pull in the sails. I have been doing a lot of line splicing and repairs in an attempt to make the lines stronger, but really, old Vlad should quit being so cheap, bite the bullet, and purchase what’s needed.

It is late winter in America and late fall here. Cool mornings and evenings with sunny days and temperatures registering 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. The US dollar is equal to about two Kiwi dollars, which is great. I saw an oil skin coat for 160 Kiwi dollars. That translates to only 80 US dollars. I think about purchasing one but decide it is too heavy to carry as I still have so far to go.

One morning I wake up early and decide to have my coffee on deck and discover 6 women leaving the humongous container ship. Just as I am taking my last sip, they all pile into a station wagon and tear down the dock hollering and waving back to a bunch of men peering over the ship’s gunwale. I realize they are prostitutes and that this kind of thing probably happens a lot. I think about how much money they must have just made.

Tensions are running hot around here. There is great pressure to get the boat seaworthy and time is running out. Today I did not rinse the sink out when I washed my hands with the grit compound that takes the varnish off and Nola unleashed her fury upon me. Oh well. Right now I am more concerned about taking a shower. Being clean is a small pleasure that if I was at home, I would have certainly taken for granted.

The Kiwis are extremely laid back, friendly, and an unassuming group of people. This is the land of “no worries”. Can you fix my car? No worries. Can you fix my boat? No worries. They say it even if they can’t. They don’t rush around here like they do in the States. You have to get used to waiting for things. It’s an entirely different culture and you have to respect that. That is why the electrician and carpenters are getting very irritated with old Vlad. He is on a frantic deadline but it means nothing to them. He’s constantly on them to work harder and faster. They don’t respond well to this, need-less-to-say. I think the electrician has finally had it and is playing a little trick on Vladimir by sabotaging the electric system. Poetic justice, I suppose.

So here I am, living in New Zealand after having quit my job, put all everything that I did not manage to sell in storage, spent thousands on the appropriate inoculations, rain gear, film, videotapes, SCUBA gear, camera equipment, health insurance and so on. I have no idea what the future holds, but I do know I am very uncomfortable putting my life into the hands of these lunatics. Like it or not, they are my shipmates. And there will be moments I may need to rely on them for my safety if we are in a storm at sea or if I am physically injured while onboard or any of 100 different scenarios. But the truth is I do not trust Vladimir or Nola. This reality leaves me very uneasy. However, I made a lot of scarifies to be there and I am determined to make it work. I remember feeling totally exhilarated sitting in the Auckland airport waiting for the puddle jumper to Whangarei. I felt such a surging sense of freedom to be on the other side of the world, alone with no one to answer to in any way, shape or form. I am a small, insignificant particle in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. And now, while I did not doubt nor regret my decision, I had begun to wonder if I would make it beyond the first leg of the trip.


This month’s travel tip is about communications. With the advent of email, I am able to duck into an internet café and conduct business while I am away, and line up business for when I get home. I love that because I don’t have to miss any work. I can simply schedule the job for when I return. Also with internet cafes, the need to carry an expensive and heavy laptop is eliminated, and so is the lugging around of it and the prospect of it getting stolen.

I can also check the local weather online if I am unable to find a newspaper or can’t read the language. This is very helpful because if inclement weather is coming to the region I am in, I can leave. And if I do decide to leave, I can look for lodging online in town I want to visit. This saves time and money when trying to call ahead, which can be challenging if you can’t understand what the operator is asking.

That brings me to my next subject: Telephones. Pay phones really vary from country to country. Some countries don’t actually have any pay phones on the street. In this case there are telephone offices from where you make your call. Often the person behind the desk will connect the call for you and you pay on your way out.

I usually buy a 5 euro phone card, for example, when in Europe, that usually lasts the whole trip. I don’t bother bringing a cell because the international fees are astronomical. But if I absolutely had to, I would rent one from www.travelcell.com. You only pay for the outgoing calls and not the incoming. (My friend Joyce Metz from Preferred Travel www.chuz2cruz.com also has a handle on where to get cell phones as well as great places to travel. If you book a trip with her, please give her this code: 01CBD)

Making a local call to another area of the country you are traveling is more difficult than making an international call. It requires a different phone card than the international card. You will also need the city codes of the places you are calling which can be found in a phone book or online. When phoning the US from overseas you must dial 011 first, then the area code and then the number. You can find the country and city codes for all international dialing at www.countrycallingcodes.com.

When making international calls, most operators speak English, and often the automated voice messages telling you why your call will or will not go through and how much money is left on your phone card, is both spoken in the native tongue and in English. Try not to slam the phone if it doesn’t connect. Rather move to another booth as many can be persnickety.

That’s all for now. Until next time, safe travels. Enjoy the journey.

Caryn B. Davis

Next Month: Setting sail for Norfolk Island and managing your money.

Caryn B. Davis is a commercial, editorial, architectural, marine and portrait photographer, and a published writer, with a studio in Chester, CT. Her images and articles have appeared in over 60 leading national and international publications. She is a member of the American Society of Media Photographers and teaches photography to adults and children. As an avid world traveler, Caryn enthusiastically and artistically photographs people, places and things at home and abroad. For more information log onto www.cbdphotography.com and www.thedesiretojourney.com.


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