Volume XVII, Issue 41 # October 8 - October 14, 2009

Sailors Live in a Small World

One of the competing boats in the Wednesday night races in Oamaru.

But Naptown and New Zealand are worlds apart

by Rob Goszkowski

“Are you a yachtie?” asked the Kiwi.

I recoiled. Back home in Annapolis yachtie brings to mind Ascots, blue blazers and brass buttons, popped collars or a pink sweater thrown over the shoulders.

“I said, Are you a yachtie?” the Kiwi repeated.

“Yes, I suppose I am,” I admitted, remembering where I was.

In New Zealand, a yachtie is anyone who sails. I haven’t seen a popped collar since I left the U.S.

Getting to New Zealand Was the Easy Part

A 10-minute application over the Internet was all it took to get a work visa. My girlfriend Candice and I had no lease or mortgage. And no jobs after a summer of seasonal work in Maine. Fleeing the country as the economy soured added to our plan’s appeal.

Candice’s online job search turned up a doozy: working for Yachting New Zealand, essentially the Kiwi equivalent of US Sailing, as a traveling instructor for their nonprofit Sailing … Have a Go! program. From November through April, she’d drive around New Zealand’s southern island to take students ranging in age from nine to 16 out for a sailing field trip. From a taste of the sport, maybe they’d get interested enough to join local boat clubs, grow up with the sport and keep sailing thriving in New Zealand.

As she taught, I crewed and wrote. 

In Auckland, New Zealand’s City of Sails, Wednesday night races are more casual than in the rest of the country. The boats are big and the races are well attended.

Wednesday Night at the Races

Kiwis are as passionate about sailing as Annapolitans, but the scale is smaller. Given the size of Annapolis, the city has more than its fair share of large and expensive yachts. There isn’t a single town on New Zealand’s South Island with a comparable fleet. For that, you’d have to go north to Auckland, New Zealand’s City of Sails, which boasts a population of 1.4 million.

The Wednesday night races in Auckland are, let’s say, more civilized than in the rest of New Zealand, yet another reason why Aucklanders are referred to as Jafas by the rest of the country. (Jafa is an acronym for Just Another expletive Aucklander.) The boats are big and the races are well attended. But around South Island, where Candice and I spent most of our time, a gaggle of trailer yachts usually made up the competition.

In Oamaru, a southeastern coastal town, we went out for a Wednesday night race with the local boys. I helped a salty, amusingly foul-mouthed retiree manage the race; the fact that I had no race committee experience didn’t detract from my suitability for the job. If I did my best to help out using the sailing knowledge at my disposal, everyone would be satisfied. Candice, in the meantime, joined the ragtag collection of competing sailboats operated by teenagers, adults and senior citizens on the racecourse.

The race results were clear — a catamaran handily won — but hardly discussed. Afterward everyone pitched in to help one another get their boats out of the water.

Do It Yourself

Camaraderie is plentiful in events like Annapolis Race Week, one of the city’s largest and longest running regattas. People come from all over the East Coast and beyond to race sailboats in classes large and small. On Sonrisa, a 37.9-foot Beneteau, I sailed with a variety of skill levels. I had sailed only for a couple of years, while others had sailed for most of their lives. Some boats in the fleet of 12 or so we raced against hired entire crews of professional sailors. That’s great for folks who make a living as sailors, but I wonder whether hiring a fully paid crew to dictate every move takes some of the savor out of a skipper’s victory.

Do it yourself is virtually a national mantra in New Zealand. The Kiwis we met did their own repairs and boat work, partly out of pride and partly out of necessity. They laughed at the idea of paying someone to race with them. Even in Auckland, it just doesn’t happen.

Don’t they have any mates? That’s the sort of response you’d hear from a Kiwi after telling a tale of a wealthy sailor who paid a crew to race. Kiwis, often underdogs in international events, would also understand why our amateur crew in Annapolis felt an extra twinge of satisfaction when we beat a pro-stocked boat.

The personalities and professions of the sailors we met in New Zealand were simply different. One yacht club commodore was the local gas station owner: His was the only station in town.

Relaxed Formalities

The customs around yacht clubs are different, too.

Following a Thursday night race at a yacht club in the U.S., I was setting up a slide show on my laptop. A rear commodore approached and stood before me, saying nothing. I displayed the slide show, figuring that’s what brought him over.

“Looks good,” he said. Then, “You know, you can’t wear a hat in the club.”

I looked at him perhaps more incredulously than I had intended.

“It’s funny,” he said, filling the ensuing silence. “The women can wear whatever they want on their heads. But the men can’t.”

This stiff scene of well-dressed seniors mingling with smelly sailors over hors d’oeuvres, wine and cocktails made me long for the friends we’d made in Oamaru.

In Stitches Among the Kiwis

At the yacht club in Omaru, we’d accepted an invitation to the Friday social. We were greeted as though we were longtime members. Around simple folding tables and chairs sat a cross-section of locals: retirees, a couple of families and a few carpenters and watermen.

A bearded biker-looking guy with a proper beer gut beneath his black T-shirt worked the propane barbecue in the next room. He grilled burgers and sausages for the lot of us. Butter spread on white bread, maybe with a little tomato sauce — ketchup but a little sweeter — is all that went with them.

With the club filled with so much BBQ smoke that Candice opened a window, the group chowed down on red sausages and burgers. While we ate, we were treated to a legendary Kiwi controversy led by our indoor BBQ biker chef.

In Australasia, the region covering Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Tonga, there’s an ongoing dispute about who sounds the most ridiculous pronouncing certain phrases — Kiwis or Aussies — and who’s actually pronouncing them correctly. Kiwis get endless grief for saying fish and chips as fush and chups. They, in turn, mock the Aussies for the way Aussies pronounce this staple of both cultures’ diet.

Said the biker: “These Aussies go around saying it” — and here he stuttered a few times for effect — “feesh un cheeps. How the hell do they even understand what they’re saying to each other?”

The room was in stitches.

Back at home, I miss that kind of earthy fun. Of course, I’d never be able to sail among fleets of magnificent boats on New Zealand’s South Island. In Annapolis, it happens every week all summer.

So am I a yachtie? At home or abroad the answer is, absolutely.

But I’ll refrain from popping my collar, and if I have a sweater with me, I’ll just wear the damn thing.