“You don’t forget your youth and you can feed off it for a very long time. Forever.”Bryan Ferry
I was born in the year of the Tiger, under the star sign Leo, so it should come as no surprise I’ve always kept a safe distance from dogs. My name is Stewart Coates. If you Google me I’m not the actor. Or the writer, as you are about to find out.
When I first opened my eyes I was one of the lucky ones that saw loving parents, a secure middle class home in a safe, if not a little boring, country called New Zealand. In the passage of time since then, more good fortune has come my way than I deserve.
I will try to recount the bits of my story that I think played the biggest role in forming my views about boats, sailing boats in particular and an innate desire to go to sea to get-away-from-it-all, which has been with me as long as I can remember.
Grandad on Dads side served as a radio operator in the Royal Navy at Gallipoli – I forget all the ships he served on, HMS Prince of Wales was one, pictured below. He is the only slightly salty ancestor I’m aware of. On Mums side Grandad was a conscientious objector. He did this on the grounds of “freedom of thought”. I’m proud of both of them.
The world didn’t have to wait long for another war. Dad signed up in the British Army, went to battle school where he was assigned the Bren-gun. He landed in France about D-Day plus 11 I think, was sent to the front line between Belgium and Holland where he was shelled, wounded, captured by the Germans and sent to a prison of war camp, Stalag 11B.
Fortunately the war ended 8 months later, he was liberated and sent back to England where he and Mum met and had two sons, in rapid succession. My dear older brothers whom I share more DNA with than any other persons on the planet, even our parents. Scary.
No sooner had the confetti from the V-day celebrations settled, the Cold War cast a shadow over Europe. My parents would have none of it this time and signed up as “£10 POMS” promptly emigrating as far away as possible. New Zealand. It is a move I am so proud of them for. Its exactly what I hope I would have done :-), but it was another few years before I joined the party.
They settled in Christchurch next to the River Avon and a few years later I came along. Then, around 1970, Mum and Dad felt a hankering for the old country and decided to take the family back to England for a year to see how things were. This was still the time of travelling by ship. The voyage lasted 4 weeks and took us east-about, via Tahiti, Panama Canal, New York arriving in Southampton. This was a massive adventure for a young boy and it has left me with itchy feet ever since. That brief stopover in Tahiti certainly left me with a yearning to return to the tropics.
They say “you should never go back” and maybe there is some truth to that because things in England weren’t what the family expected. After a year, we got back on that same ship and completed the circle back to Christchurch, New Zealand.
The voyage was 5 weeks this time, visiting the Canary Islands, Cape Town, Perth and Melbourne before landing back in Lyttelton Harbour where we had set out from a year earlier.
The round-the-world adventure was over and it was back to my old school. I played cricket in the summer and soccer in the winter but neither sport really grabbed me. My brothers were into rowing. One day we were returning from a chilly afternoon on New Brighton beach and Mum and Dad, probably desperate at this point to find something to grab my interest, pulled off the road into Pleasant Point Yacht Club (PPYC) on the Estuary. That was early in the 70’s. I was 11 years old and we got chatting to some of the club members. It was the start of a decade-long association with dinghy racing that took my parents and I to regattas all over New Zealand. From the moment I stepped in a boat and sheeted in, I was hooked. It was incredible. Wind, sails, boat, water and me. Movement. For nothing. And nothing to worry about either. Simple.
Every winter Dad would build another dinghy, with me getting in the way. First the Starling class, four of them. Then the Bruce Farr designed 3.7 single-handed trapeze dinghy. Four of them too. Each year they would get lighter and faster. Every summer I would race them and learn something new every race.
Pictured above, Pleasant Point Yacht Club in happy times around 2009. (YachtingNZ photo). The mix of classes has not changed much in 40 years. Optimists, Starlings, Zephyrs and Sigrids. Maybe a couple of “three sevens” under the pines on the right. If anything, no Paper Tigers or multis of any description. The multi revolution is still yet to take a hold in the Roaring Forties.
Nature had a bigger surprise in store. Exactly 89 years to the day since the clubs founding, Christchurch was struck by the first of a long series of tragic earthquakes.
(above: Martin Luff photo). September 2010, the first earthquake changes Christchurch and the PPYC forever.
Above, the Clubhouse is removed. The start box in the background, tilting, but still standing.
The earthquakes targeted the beautiful old stone architecture of the inner city and the rivers and waterways of the suburbs. The picture below shows my childhood home: 4 Arnst Place; where we built so many boats. The right one is the same area, taken in 2012, after houses in the “red-zone” were cleared away.
On a recent and much brighter note, the resilience of the Pleasant Point Yacht Club members shines through. Approaches to the City Council have paid off, with the gift of council land not 600m away from the old clubhouse. A new ramp has already been installed and concepts for new clubhouse are being reviewed. Go PPYC !
PPYC is the source of fond memories for many Kiwis. Life forming memories. That’s where Ray Frost, using a teaspoon and a running tap, taught the youngin’s how a sail sucked a boat along, not pushed it. It’s also where Harold Bennett visited as head coach for the NZ Youth Sailing Program. The fruits of which have since dominated the world of sailing. Harold, or HB as he is better known, has become Principal Race Officer of countless America’s Cup races. He has watched his early understudy, now Sir Russell Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth go on to dominate the world of match racing. He taught me how to gybe a dinghy in strong winds. A hard lesson that teaches you timing and thinking ahead.
Brad was a bit older than the rest of us, but eligible to race. He wore a tee-shirt at the 1978 Starling Nationals with the motif “Sail with a Hard On”. The class has an age upper limit of 16 but the humour wasn’t lost on young boys and girls for that matter. The reference was to nothing more than American sailmaker, William Hard, whose company, “Hard Sails” were pioneering the use of computers to design new sail shapes.
Russell, who burst on the scene that year by winning the Starling Nationals as well as the P Class Tanner Cup a week earlier, was the most generous sailor you could ever hope to meet. He would spend time with anyone who showed some keeness to learn. His philosophy was simple, how can he sail any faster if the sailors he races against don’t improve too?.
He came back from his first World Youth Championships, which he won, and said if you weren’t over the start line by at least a boat length at the gun, then you didn’t have a chance. Perhaps I was looking for a reason to get out of dinghy racing at that time, but those comments left me a bit disillusioned about the sport and winning and all that. This was years before sailing became professional and years before drug cheats, Sepp Blatter, bribing the IOC and all we know about sport and winning and politics today.
I was having a good run, 58 straight wins in club, provisional, South Island and national youth races in the 3.7. In the end, yacht racing was a fabulous distraction from all that was wrong with the world, but brought along its own questions about the real motivation to win. I only have to listen to a professional golfer or tennis player today and count how many times they use the word “I” to wonder why their ideals are held in such high regard by media and society in general? Is it just to provide a temporary distraction from what is reality for the rest of us?
In the end, yacht racing did not seem to stack up philosophically. Perhaps yacht cruising was the answer.
My brother Glen had discovered sailing too. It was a lot easier than rowing after all. He and friend Gary spent 4 years building a 38′ steel Roberts design, the Argo. She was a round-the-world yacht if ever there was one. When they said they were off to California via the Pacific and Aleutian Islands it didnt take long to re-prioritise my studies and take a year off to join them. So, in May 1983 we set off from Lyttelton harbour with six on board, straight into the teeth of a fierce storm. And it was fierce. In those days meteorologists had a pretty good idea where the low pressure systems were and when they would arrive, but they had little idea how “deep” or low the pressure would drop.
We left just as one of these SW fronts was sweeping up the east coast of the South Island and expected a fresh start to the 800nm passage in 25 knot winds up to Auckland. By midnight the first night we were in 25 foot seas and 50 knot winds. By the second night the seas were 40 feet high with long troughs between breaking crests. Nature wreaked carnage for 60 hours. None of us slept but hallucinated instead. Offwatch, vivid visions played out on the inside of our eyelids. All our instruments were flooded so we had no way of knowing wind speed. The weather station (on land) at Kaikoura 60 miles to our west recorded gusts to 68 knots. Our storm jib flogged itself to pieces and we ran with no drogue surfing at 11 knots under bare-poles. A steering cable broke under the pressure of the helm trying to counter broaching and we put the lower spreaders in. Heroically, Gary, working in the cramped, pitching and rolling engine room, jury-rigged a new steering cable using a spare S/S sidestay and cable clamps.
When we realised that the Argo was well up to this punishment, we took in the majesty of the scene all around us. Great rolling green mountains foaming and roaring, the glint of sunlight every now and again. It was quite beautiful.
The Roberts Offshore 38 design Argo, on Lyttelton harbour, in 1982. Glen on the helm, Gary sitting on coachroof, Stewart in white T-shirt.
Extract from the log of the Argo
We looked for shelter and found it in Queen Charlotte Sound, at the northern end of the South Island. Glen went out in the dinghy looking for a radio. He met some sailors on an American yacht. “you wouldn’t be the boat with 6 sailors on board heading to Auckland would you?”, Funny thinks Glen, how do they know?. Pause… “Ah, yes” says Glen. “Man, they are out looking for you!”.
Being re-united with the shore is great except when you find out the news you have been missing is about YOU. The storm we had just ran with for 3 days was the worst off NZ in 45 years. A fishing boat had rolled over off Kaikoura and 6 people had lost their lives. The inter-island ferry that left Picton in the South Island, for a crossing that normally takes a few hours, could not turn beam on to the seas and approach Wellington, so it kept going, for days. All the way up the east coast of the North Island. The TV station (I think NZ just had one then, maybe two) had sent a reporter to our homes to collect photos of the crew for the bulletin that night. “Presumed lost” was the tone. Poor Mum and Dad and relatives of the crew.
We were bowled over by the generosity of the local community at Picton and the sailing community as a whole. Lidgard Rudling sails repaired our damaged sails and made us a new, bulletproof storm jib, all at no cost. Codan repaired the SSB. Again, at no cost. A visiting yacht gave us a 6′ diameter sea anchor “so we wouldn’t get caught without a drag device again”. A local stranger drove down to the wharf where we were tied and dived our hull for checks, and then left his car with us. “Use it to do all your running around” he said. Unbelievable.
Just this year, 2016, I met a Kiwi in Kyrgyzstan. We sat and exchanged sailing stories. Turns out he was in Nelson, near Picton, 33 years earlier and remembers the story of the Argo and that terrible storm. “OK”, we said it. “Small world”.
Glen and Stewart on Argo in calmer seas.
Once the repairs were completed, Argo was much improved after her debut in the Southern Ocean. With the departure of two crew just Glen, Gary, French champion kayaker Marion and me were left. We set off for the last leg to Auckland. We encountered severe weather again off East Cape (the right hand shoulder of New Zealand’s North Island) and took two attempts to get round, forcing us to pull into Tokomaru Bay to wait out the weather.
Sailing under the Auckland Harbour Bridge marked the end of the first leg and should have marked the start of the Pacific adventure, however a crew situation arose. Or rather, a co-owner situation. Glen, after those years of building the boat and preparing Argo for this journey, had met his wife to be and was in that turmoil that confronts all sailors at one time or another: “Relationship; Cruising; Happiness. Pick any two”. Glen chose the relationship.
That left Gary as sole captain of the good ship Argo, Marion and I. We’d all seen about the worst the sea can throw at you and Argo was hardened for her voyage too. Next stop Suva, Fiji. We weren’t in a hurry to leave New Zealand though. Instead we spent a memorable 2 months cruising the Bay of Islands, waiting for the winter weather to abate. While there, in June 1983, the New Zealand yacht Lion Heart was returning home from Suva. In atrocious conditions she foundered at Whangaroa and 6 crew lost their lives. This was the early days of Satnav. The dubious accuracy of this equipment combined with a sea-sick crew confined to their bunks and atrocious weather led to one of New Zealands worst maritime tragedies. Only the skipper survived and, if my recollection is correct, he later tragically took his own life.
We met with many overseas cruisers while in the Bay of Islands. Opua is a cyclone hole during the summer months for Pacific cruisers and many boats stay on there. We were pretty new to the cruising life and figured rough weather was stock-in-trade. However, talking to world voyagers we learned that many of them had never experienced storms as we had seen. In fact, some had sailed out from as far as Europe and never seen anything over Force 6 or 7. About 30 knots. So we were definitely buoyed by hearing this and excited about the Pacific adventure ahead.
The big day came, sometime in July 1983. Marion’s visa was about to expire and we had to leave the following day so we completed all the clearing out formalities at Opua port control, Customs and Immigration. With passports stamped we went to bed that night, tied against Opua jetty, ready to push off for Fiji the next morning. I recall the morning clearly, coffee mugs in hand and plenty of excitement and anticipation in the air. Then, out of the blue, Gary announced that the trip was off. He would arrange to have Marion flown to Tahiti that day, and Argo would be put on the hard, for sale. Numb, I boarded a train and left for Christchurch.
Whether it was the departure of co-owner/co-skipper Glen months earlier, or the terrible storms we’d been through, or the news of the yacht Lion Heart, I will never know. It was likely a combination of all those events that led Gary to make what must have been a really, really, tough decision.
I had a taste of cruising and liked it, alot. In future though, I would make sure I was independent which meant owning my own boat and that meant money. I put the marine biology degree I’d started in Townsville on hold, flew back to Australia to travel, think and earn some money.
I fell in with a great bunch of guys in Melbourne and began building a Sigrid 6, a 21′ trailer-sailer, in the back garden. The parties at the ‘Nong’, a huge rental property owned by the mother of one of Australia’s most notorious criminals, were legendary. I had two jobs, working in road construction during the week and serving in a deli on weekends. Evenings and Sundays I’d build the boat.
Comfortably Numb heading out of Townsville for Magnetic Island
‘Comfortably Numb‘, was launched on Port Phillip Bay 18 months later in 1985. She would just be enough of a pocket cruiser to explore some of the islands I dreamt of exploring in North Queensland. Had my mind been opened up to catamarans at that time, I may have built a Tiki 21 or 26, if they were around then. They would have been much more capable cruisers. I towed Comfortably Numb up to Townsville to return to Uni and finish a degree in Geology. There just seemed to be too many Marine Biology students at that time, with little prospect of a job. Geology suited me. It was outdoors, concerned with natural forces and processes, had prospects for travel and paid well. I graduated at James Cook University 2 years later, in 1987.
I went straight to work for a variety of mining companies, exploring for gold and copper across northern Australia. I bought a tiny house nick-named the ‘Pizza Hut’ on an acre of ground on Magnetic Island, off Townsville. It was paradise found. I was interested in organic farming and did a Permaculture design course in Cairns under Bill Mollison. Ann and I met on that course. We built a new home on Magnetic Island right next to the Pizza Hut and had two boys, Jack and Fletcher. We started with 2 acres of virtually treeless, disused, pineapple farm and planted thousands of trees, creating a 2-acre sustainable food forest. Sweet potato, papaya, mangoes, coconuts, sour sop, custard apples, guava, jack fruit, passion fruit and 300 high quality cabinet timber trees. The variety was enormous. We had hundreds of free range guinea pigs, guinea fowl, chickens, ducks, geese and scores of resident possums. Over a few short years the land went from a bare-assed desert to a densely forested food bowl for humans and local fauna alike.
Comfortably Numb had made many trips to the islands from Magnetic to the magnificent Hinchinbrook and been the vehicle for memorable adventures over a period of 12 years. But she was a bit marginal, safety-wise, for serious coastal work, particularly with two young boys. She had also sowed the seed for the next chapter in sailing. I sold her in 1997 and bought a Beneteau Oceanis 320, Benefique, in charter, in the Whitsundays.
Benefique sailing on Cleveland Bay, Townsville
The plan was simple. Several hundred bareboats were available for charter in the Whitsunday Islands, just 140Nm south of Magnetic Island. These yachts supported about a dozen charter companies including Whitsunday Rent-a-Yacht (WRAY), Sunsail and the Moorings. In contrast, there were no bareboat charters being offered on Magnetic Island. Two companies had attempted it before, but they had gone broke.
Firstly, I searched out and bought Benefique. I couldn’t believe that the best bargain I could find was a run-down 1989 vintage Beneteau with an asking price of AUD$90,000. But so it is with charter boats. As she was already in charter there were none of the survey issues associated with establishing a new charter boat. The waters around ‘Maggie’ were already zoned Partially Smooth so her survey classification was the same. All that remained was: extricate her from her current Boat Management Agreement (BMA) with WRAY; sail her up to Townsville; obtain the necessary Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMPA) permit; make the boat presentable again; obtain the Yachtmaster qualification and hang up a shingle. But how to breach the contract? The BMA still had 3 years to run.
As often happens, things have a way of sorting themselves out. After about a year under WRAY’s management, they stopped sending the cheques. I drove down there with a couple of mates to enjoy some “owner-use” time on board Benefique in the beautiful Whitsundays. After a week, instead of returning her to the WRAY base at Shute Harbour, we sailed her back to Townsville, her new home. I figured if WRAY were in breach of contract, why not? They then went into liquidation, not for the first or the last time, and many owners were left owed thousands.
The plan would not have been possible without the internet. The internet at that time (late ’90’s) had already become a powerful research tool with IP that had once been hard to obtain, now scanned, uploaded and freely available. It was obvious that in order to survive the management company must market the business well and provide a top line service that will bring the charterers back, year after year.
In 1998, things were falling into place perfectly. I established the business Magnetic Island Rent-a-Yacht (MIRAY). The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) issued MIRAY permits for six bareboats. The local government marine surveyor was a sailor and a pragmatist. He believed in the bareboat potential of the local area and the growth potential. That was fortunate because a lesser authority may have made it impossible to grow the business.
The business was new and it wasn’t long before I made a rookie mistake. Charter #1, two love birds, was a hit but charter #2 involved six Irishmen with a propensity to drink. I know this because, once we had recovered Benefique from the reef on which they had grounded her, she had been plastered with beer bottle labels, all over her beautiful bright work. Somehow they managed to have 5 great nights circumnavigating the island only to strike Middle Reef returning the boat on the last day.
Left rudderless, the Water Police responded to their Pan Pan, towed them in and we hauled Benefique out. A third of the rudder was still out on the reef, somewhere. I sucked it up and thought, “if you want to do this game, you better get used to it”. I sent a bottle of scotch to the Water Police the next day. You never know when they might come in handy again.
We worked around the clock to repair the rudder in time for Charter #3 and had the boat back in the water 2 days later. In the next 6 years of operation, the company never had a repeat of the disaster of that second charter!
It was worth sticking with it. I had been reading Deepak Chopra at the time and, love him or loathe him, he had said “there is money circulating all around us, all the time. All one must do is place a cup out there and you will catch some”. I love that philosophy. MIRAY was my cup and although I didn’t realise it, I was dangling it out there in the flow of money.
The business had been going for barely a year when I received a call from a boat owner in the Whitsundays. “Would you like to manage my 43 foot Beneteau”? Hell yeah! Two boats is a fleet right? With two boats I approached the authorities and opened up a brand new charter destination, the Palm Islands. We now had 500 sq miles and 14 islands to offer to charterers tired of returning to the Whitsundays, year after year.
So there it began. Another Beneteau Oceanis 430 arrived, then a Beneteau 381, a Jeanneau 37, a brand new Bavaria 44 and Seawind 1000. The business was taking off, but it was not all plain sailing.
First there was 911. I was on my way to give a boat briefing to a new charter group when I heard about it on the car radio. It was on the other side of the world but it sounded ominous. All that day at the marina, I heard and watched the news getting worse and worse. 911 put an end to foreign travel for North Americans for many years.
Six months after 911, Ansett Airlines collapsed and took half our domestic bookings with it. Whilst still recovering from that, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) hit Asia and anyone still flying gave up too. Tourism was devastated. Once that recovery began, the Australian Taxation Office decided to meddle with the multi-million dollar Australian boat building and charter yacht industry by re-defining the tax code. Many businesses went to the wall with that self inflicted injury. Any one of those events is a “Black Swan”. By definition, they are not supposed to travel in flocks!
After 6 years I was knackered. It was either stay in it for another 5 years and go to the next level, or sell up. By then I had permits for 21 yachts but I didn’t have the enthusiasm to carry on.
It was time to sell Magnetic Palm Islands Rent-a-Yacht and take a long holiday. In 2004 a buyer emerged and it was done. I must have been fed up with boats at that point. I remember banking the cheque and feeling enormous relief. Returning home on the ferry, I watched a sailor heading out to sea on his keelboat. “Foolish dreamer” I thought, “just look at all that maintenance around you”. I kept Benefique though, and left her under management with the new owners of the business. I sold her in 2007, still going strong under charter, for $10,000 more than I’d paid 10 years earlier. And so it is with charter boats.
We had been home-schooling the boys so it was not difficult for us to leave Australia for 18 months and see as much of the world as possible. Thoroughly refreshed after that, we returned to Australia and launched Kooka Publishing. My brother Glen had built up the photography business Kahu Publishing in New Zealand and he trained me in the art of landscape photography, shooting panoramas from helicopters. I sold Kooka in 2009 and emigrated to Canada. With the boys grown up, Ann and I went down separate paths to new adventures.
I’d kept my hand in Geology since graduating, taking contracts in various parts of the world from the rainforests of Papua New Guinea to the Gobi desert. Being able to travel and see exotic countries had kept the lust for cruising at bay, but not extinguished it. In 2011 I found myself in Mongolia, setting up a Geology consultancy, land-locked and missing boats again. I met Zaya and during various holidays together in SE Asia she learnt to swim, then scuba dive and expressed a willingness to try sailing. Looking at the anchorages in Thailand, where catamarans out-numbered monos ten-to-one, it was obvious that the “age of the cruising multihull” had arrived. A cat seemed like the best chance of getting Zaya hooked on cruising, so I began researching them.
One holiday took us to the Fountaine Pajot factory near La Rochelle, France. The French are extremely clever at turning every last inch of space available within the tight confines of a boat into something functional. Their boats generally sail well, are well constructed, heavily marketed and pricey. We returned to Mongolia.
At the Fountaine Pajot factory in 2013
There is truth in “the more you have the more you need”. I was paring down my life at this time, looking for more life, with less things. It felt good. I was wary of tying up a lot of money, unnecessarily, in a shiny new catamaran. Would the pleasure be short-lived and would I just end up with a dose of buyers remorse? What if Zaya didn’t go for it? A production catamaran felt like a modern plastic appliance. It was overkill and just didn’t fit in with my beliefs around sailing and simply living.
The Mongolian people have a great sense of fun and yet, outside the cities at least, have very few of the trappings of modern life. These people are some of the last true nomads and Zaya’s parents are the first people I have met who are truly self-reliant and live off the land. Not only that, but they do it, year in, year out in one of the harshest climates in the world. There were lessons here for sailors. Minimising boat maintenance and cost was a priority for me, as well as maximising performance under sail. I wanted no more boat than we needed in order to get as close to living free on the ocean as possible.
Then another design took my attention. I began reading about the design philosophy of James Wharram. It wasn’t long before I was infected. James Wharram has probably put the dreams of more sailors within reach, than any other boat designer. Period. The Tiki 38 looked about perfect. I briefly entertained building one, but, that was only brief.
Neil Hawkesford (L) recounting the 4,000 hours of labour it took to build Gleda, to myself and a visitor from Sth Africa.
We wanted to see a Tiki 38 in the flesh but examples in Mongolia are not easy to find! As luck would have it, I found the blog of Neil Hawkesford and discovered that Gleda was about to be launched in SW England, near my Mum and brother Andrew. So, we we went to visit family and catch up with Neil and his partner Gail. They kindly gave up a couple of hours of valuable time, showed us around the boat and answered lots of our questions. We tried the boat on for size and could see ourselves living aboard a Tiki. We returned to Mongolia and only one thing remained. Find a good Tiki 38 for sale…
Story of the boat hunt …