Taking the helm a Kiwi skill

It's the perfect day. The sky is blue, the clouds are white, the wind is light.

The 50ft yacht Challenger cruises gently under the Auckland Harbour Bridge. I'm relaxed. At the helm, feeling a million bucks. Then we have to turn left, or in sailing speak, gybe. The boat tilts alarmingly to one side, the wind whips up and a curse escapes.

But this, says William Goodfellow, our guide for the day, is an unsinkeable boat, even as I offer him a frenzied exposition of watching news footage of forlorn America's Cup sailors leaping into the sea from their upturned hull. A big chunk of lead ballast beneath us makes Challenger the perfect vessel on which to teach novices, or almost-complete novices (I have vague memories of steering toppers around submerged shopping trolleys in polluted Northern English ponds).

I never tried it properly back in England because you didn't unless you were rich. Here, undoubtedly, it's different. "The world's perception is it is a rich man's sport, no question," says Goodfellow, a lifelong enthusiast and managing director of sailing company Explore NZ. "But it is different in New Zealand: here, it doesn't need to be. There is the potential for everyone to get into a good boat."

As we climb aboard, Goodfellow delivers a swift safety chat and a few road rules then trustingly tells me to take the helm as we navigate slowly away from the Viaduct Harbour, under Te Wero Bridge and into open water. Here, he shows me how to unfurl the two sails, the engine is switched off and we begin to move noiselessly along. The steering is relatively straightforward: like handling a particularly sluggish car. But the rest seems mysterious. "There are relatively few things you need to know to get into sailing," Goodfellow says reassuringly. "But the challenge never diminishes. We do over-complicate things in sailing, but it's actually fairly simple."

Then come some quite complicated explanations about how it all works that would have required more concentration in physics lessons to completely comprehend. And every part has an esoteric name; a rope is never called a rope.

But Goodfellow and crew member Sam Zondag - whose week so far has involved teaching eight year olds to sail and then match-racing two old America's Cup yachts - do make it look simple. When he tells me to turn, my job is to lazily rotate the wheel, while they unwind various ropes and the boom flies overhead. This is tacking, or gybing. Eventually I get some grip of the science - basically you steer hard at the wind so the boat gets that alarming lean, the sail billows and you feel the rush of air on your face. "We're used to everything being on the horizontal in society," says Zontag philosophically.

Learning how the wind works is the first lesson. Goodfellow points out the ripples on the waves, the weathervane on the mast and some tassles dangling from the sail as guides to speed and direction. If the wind grows, you reduce the sail's size because the boat cannot handle the increased power. Sailing upwind, you keep the sail tight, downwind - or away from the breeze - you keep it loose.

The second lesson is seamanship, he says - always being prepared for the possibilities and having everything ready in case something happens. Then he keeps tweaking things to make us sail more efficiently.

Goodfellow set up Explore NZ back in 2000 with the idea of taking tourists out during the America's Cup on a retired Cup yacht. He now has a fleet of 12 boats in Auckland, the Bay of Islands and Sydney, doing similar excursions and dolphin and whale watching. As well as running Explore NZ, he races century-old classic boats and takes on week-long races in the Pacific. "Sailing spans the generations and you can never perfect it - it's one of those sports like skiing where you are always learning things," he says.

I'm still learning plenty as we head back into dock. The final lesson is reverse-parking - although I'm sure there's a sailing name for it - the yacht in the shadow of the Viaduct pubs. I don't crash, so that's enough for a pass mark.

Sunday Star Times