Read A Yacht Called Erewhon Online

Authors: Stuart Vaughan

Tags: #General, #Fiction

A Yacht Called Erewhon

This is a work of fiction. In the interests of narrative, some licence may have been taken with historical events.


t’s hard to believe, but this blithering idiot who was standing in front of me is my father, Jim Standish, general manager of one of the largest construction companies in New Zealand and a captain of industry.

Mum had been lying on her lounger on the patio when the Lexus roared up the drive, and by the speed it was travelling she assumed it was Matt, my dopey older brother. Then she remembered he’d been home since lunchtime.

I heard the Michael Schumacher performance and came down to find Dad in the kitchen, ripping at his tie and trying to tear the top off a can of Lion Red.

I’d never seen him so excited—I’d never seen
this excited. He was trying to tell us something as he gulped his beer, but we couldn’t understand a word. Matt, who’d been in the pool, was dripping in the conservatory, and Mum headed for the bench to get another cup of coffee. By now, Dad had managed to get his tie and shoes off, had downed the beer and was heading to the fridge again. ‘I’ve bought
,’ he blurted.

‘You’ve what!’ Mum bellowed as her cup crashed to the floor, spraying her new white jeans with coffee. ‘Oh shit!’ she screamed, as the scalding liquid soaked through. She looked straight at Dad with a glare that could melt icecaps. ‘No you bloody haven’t!’

Matt looked at me and I looked at the door, and we bolted. A tactical withdrawal was in order. We headed down through the orchard, past the barn, and on to our Eden Park, a field at
the back of the farm with a goalpost which was the ideal place at times like this.

We had a game we called ‘twenty pots’—we took turns taking place kicks, and the first one to twenty didn’t have to go back to the house to see if the coast was clear. It usually lasted an hour and, from experience, it was going to take at least that time for the dust to settle.

On this particular occasion, Matt was kicking like Dan Carter, so it wasn’t long before I was sticking my head through the door. Mum was back on her lounger, flicking through a magazine with the action of an M16 on rapid fire. Nope, not calmed down yet. Dad was in the pool with another can, and I could see it was going to take him a little while and a lot of money to win her over. He always said the only deals he ever lost were when he had to negotiate with Mum.

I wandered outside. ‘So you’ve bought
?’ I asked, sitting on the edge of the pool. There was a deathly hush. Even the tui flitting around the flax bush beyond the pool were strangely quiet.

Dad took one last swig, tossed the can, then rolled over and disappeared underwater, surfacing like a giant orca and showering me with the finesse of a monsoon bucket. ‘Sure have!’

‘Wow…’ I felt a surge of adrenalin. ‘But what about Mum?’

‘Don’t worry, she’ll come round. It’ll probably cost me that new dinner set she’s been eyeing for the last month, but hey!’

I admired his confidence, but we both knew he had a battle on his hands.

The previous Christmas, Dad and I had rediscovered
a 135-foot yacht hull, upside down on the banks of the Waiora
River. She was pretty forlorn when we found her, but still a magnificent testament to the craftsmanship of her builders.

Dad and I had borrowed an old wooden coxed-pair rowing skiff and decided that our holiday that year would be to row inland from the mouth of the Waiora as far as we could, before turning back. We rigged the pair as a double-scull, set up the steering so the stroke had control, and enclosed the coxswain’s seat as a watertight cell to stow our tent, food and clothing in, before loading it on the roof of the Nissan Patrol. The holiday would be a training row to keep me up to speed for the Maadi Cup, New Zealand’s premier event for inter-school rowing. Rigging the skiff as a double-scull shortened the oars for the narrow waterway, and Dad could take a breather while I rowed.

The Waiora is a relatively unknown waterway north of the Bay of Islands and is navigable for about eighty kilometres, from its mouth to some rapids in a gorge near its headwaters. It passes through some of the most beautiful country in Northland, including Maori land. Because the riverbanks are the last resting place for their ancestors, the locals consider the area to be sacred—strictly no-engine territory—but they were happy to let us pass so long as we rowed or sailed.

Dad had heard about the Waiora from Hepi, one of his employees, and Hepi had negotiated landing rights so we could come ashore and camp at night. Hepi had worked for Dad for thirty years. He was a jovial Maori, five foot six tall and about five foot six wide, who loved his kai. Dad affectionately called him ‘Fatman’, and he could turn his hand to just about anything, with a handy knack of obtaining unobtainable supplies. It didn’t matter whether it was a tap washer or a ton of cement, Dad only needed to challenge Hepi with ‘I bet you can’t find this, Fatman!’ and the next day it would be in the yard. Dad was never quite sure where the stuff came from, but Hepi’s answer
whenever he was asked if it was stolen was: ‘You know what Judge Greenbacker said.’

Judge Greenbacker was a crusty old magistrate, tired of the endless parade of young offenders who stood before him every Monday morning. In Hepi’s case, because it had been a first offence, His Worship had bound him over with a direction for the social worker to find him a job.

Jenny Smith, the social worker, had done the rounds trying to do just that, without any luck. Eventually, she climbed the stairs to Dad’s office, as he called the hut on poles above the yard that was the starting point of the Standish Empire. Fortunately for her, Jim Standish was in that day, and she pleaded Hepi’s case.

Employing anyone was the last thing on Jim’s mind, but being a soft touch for a pretty face, he agreed to meet Hepi if Jenny would have dinner with him. Jenny accepted, knowing she wasn’t going to find Hepi a job any other way.

Hepi duly arrived the next day in a freshly pressed white shirt, a tie and a pair of grey trousers, obviously borrowed from someone much larger. While trying to hide the discomfort to his neck, he began to sweat.

‘Not used to that choker, are you lad?’ said Dad as he thrust out his burly hand.

‘No, sir.’

‘Then take the bastard off, so we can have a decent conversation.’

‘But Miss Jenny said—’

‘Stuff what Miss Jenny said,’ Dad interrupted. ‘
interviewing you, not her!’

‘Thank you, sir.’ Hepi dragged off the tie.

‘Miss Jenny tells me you’re in a bit of bother with the law and you need a job. Is that right?’

‘Yes, sir,’ he replied. ‘But—’

Dad cut him short. ‘My name is Jim Standish, so call me Jim.
I expect you to be on time for work. The pay will be lousy. This is a new business, but we’ll grow. When can you start?’

‘Right now, sir…ah…Jim. I don’t want to see that judge again.’

‘You can’t work dressed like that. There’re some overalls in the corner locker. They’re yours.’

‘Thank you…ah…Jim.’

As Standish Construction grew, staff came and went, but the bond between Hepi and Dad remained. Hepi was grateful to Dad and repaid him by being his most dependable employee. Dad only had to say he needed 5,000 yards of four-inch watermain one day, and the following day half a ton of cement would disappear from the yard to be replaced by the required pipe. Dad quickly learned the value of his new employee’s network, and Hepi’s pay packet soon reflected his worth.

The thing that puzzled most people was the way they spoke to each other. Whenever Dad wanted him, he’d send a message down to Hepi’s hut at the back of the yard: ‘Tell the fat bastard I need him now!’

‘You tell Bollocks I’m too busy and he’ll have to fuckin’ wait’ was the typical reply. Hepi would wait for a few minutes, then burst into the office with a big grin. ‘What the fuck do you want now?’

As for the dinner with Miss Jenny, it was a nervous affair but coined a much-used phrase in our family: ‘Stuff Hepi!’ This usually appeared in heated discussions when Mum blamed Hepi for bringing them together, and it became the family’s universal catchphrase when anything went wrong.

The sun was rising as Dad and I rolled out of the back of the Nissan. The skiff was still tied to the roof, and the varnish on the old hull seemed to suit the surroundings—somehow it would have seemed like sacrilege to have brought a high-tech carbon-fibre hull.

Dad wandered down to the beach and gathered an armful of driftwood. He was in his element. ‘We’ll need a decent breakfast. Use this to get a fire going.’ He disappeared along the beach with a bucket in his hand. I soon had a roaring fire going and was putting the bacon on the grill when he returned, the bucket overflowing with mussels. I cracked some eggs into the frying pan as Dad threw the mussels onto the grill. Soon the aroma of bacon, salty tea-tree smoke and freshly opened mussels filled the air.

‘Put all the bacon on. I’ve got a special treat.’ Dad reached into the bucket and produced a dozen oysters. He flicked the shells open and delicately wrapped the morsels in piping hot bacon. We left them to stand and cook in their own heat for a couple of minutes before devouring them. Amazing.

When we’d eaten our fill, we pulled the skiff from the top of the Nissan and set about rigging and loading the storage cell. With a touch of the blades, we were under way. The plan was to row about fifteen to twenty kilometres a day. This would give us eight days there and back, and a couple of days of rest and recreation along the way—ten days of bliss. I drove down with my legs and drew hard on the blades. I felt strong after the big breakfast, and Dad picked up the rhythm. The old skiff buzzed as the speed built up and the kilometres disappeared off the stern. Apart from the natural flow of the river, the water was mirror calm, trees reflecting on the surface, the perfect stillness broken only by the dip of the blades and the knife-edged bow slicing the water. I could have rowed a million miles that day.

Each morning, I rowed and Dad kept pace for about four
hours before we stopped and set up our tent. Luckily, we had inbuilt insect screens to ward off the mosquitoes that swarmed when the sun went down, and mega-size bottles of repellent to keep them under control.

Once our camp was set up, it was time for fishing or hunting. Although we had enough food to last ten days, we hardly touched our supplies. The river was well stocked with trout and eels, and a couple of times Dad found freshwater crayfish. We bagged a pheasant one afternoon, and with some watercress and puha we feasted like kings.

Five days later, we reached the rapids at the headwaters of the Waiora, right on target. Only five days left. I didn’t want it to end, but after five days’ rowing against the current my hands were blistered, and I knew Dad could do with a little less pressure. Rowing back with the river would give us a chance to look around as we glided through the magical scenery.

On the ninth day, we had been rowing all morning when I first heard a slight change in the hum the hull was emitting. Initially, I didn’t take much notice, but as the noise increased I mentioned it to Dad. He scoffed and said he couldn’t hear a bloody thing.

I knew he couldn’t hear high-pitched sounds, after years of working with machinery in an era when only sissies wore earmuffs, but I was sure something was wrong. Then I noticed my foot stretcher was under water.

By the time we got to the bank, the water was at the seattops. We threw the blades onto the grassy strip between the river’s edge and the curtain of native bush. With the blades off and the coxswain’s cell emptied, we bailed out the halfsubmerged hull until we could lift it from the water and dump
it onto the grass. When the shiny old varnish was face-up, it wasn’t hard to find the problem. The hull had split from the bow seat forward to just ahead of the coxswain’s seat along the keel line.

It wasn’t a major catastrophe, and we could repair it, but first the hull needed to be dry. We drove wedges into the crack to open it up to air, then covered the rest of the hull with ponga fronds to keep it cool in the strong sun. With the job complete, Dad and I lay back on the grass and drifted off to sleep, letting the sun do its work. The hull was going to take a couple of hours to dry, and we were in no rush, with only a kilometre to go to the river mouth.

When the hull was finally dry, we mixed some glue and dabbed it into the keel joint. Once we’d removed the wedges the crack snapped shut, then we wiped off the excess. All we needed now was another couple of hours for the sun to bake the glue hard.

With time to spare, we decided to walk the short distance to base camp and check that everything was in order. There was an impassable bluff in the way, so we headed inland, aiming to rejoin the river on the other side. We soon realised the native bush we were rambling through was a half-kilometre strip, bound on one side by the river and on the other by a well-maintained cattle farm. From a clearing at the top of the rise behind the bluff, we could see the Nissan down by the river mouth.

As we made our way towards our camp, we noticed what appeared to be a large rock blocking our path, and it wasn’t until we got closer that we found it wasn’t a rock at all. It was the upturned hull of an extremely large yacht. Even though it was half-buried in branches and leaves, it was still easy to make out the fine lines of a truly magnificent craft. I guessed it to be 125 feet long, if it was an inch.

Without a word, Dad dived to the stern and frantically started to tear away the leaves and other vegetation piled up around the hulk.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ I exclaimed.

‘I know this yacht,’ he replied, as he clawed away at the undergrowth. ‘I’m almost positive it’s
and I’m looking to see if she’s still got her name-plate. Look!’ he yelled, ‘It is—it’s bloody
I knew it. I’d know that hull anywhere!’

By his knees was a very dilapidated but still legible carved name-plate. ‘She was built to challenge for the America’s Cup when it was raced in J-class yachts,’ he said. ‘Everybody thought she’d sunk on a delivery voyage after she was sold to an Australian. I wonder how she ended up here.’

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