All at sea

04:14, May 31 2011
Oyster, the 9.9m-long gaff yawl built in 1902, is skipper Mike Rossouw's pride and joy.

With a gentle breeze blowing in Lyttelton Harbour and a 109-year-old yacht waiting dockside, Yvonne Martin decides it is time to set sail.

All at sea

Despite coming from the City of Sails, I could never be called a sailor.

Once, on a cruise from Bluff to the sub-Antarctic Islands, I was green-gilled by Stewart Island. I was horizontal and lolling about in misery for three long days and nights, vowing never to sail again - ever.

However, an invitation to join a four-hour tour of Lyttelton Harbour on an old sailboat, a trusty Clydesdale of the sailing world, is something I feel I can handle. The marine forecast for a slight sea and 15-knot southwest winds, dying away to a millpond, is hardly the setting for The Perfect Storm 2.

Mike Rossouw, the skipper of the charter boat, Oyster, impresses from the outset. His safety briefing is just that - brief. Lifebuoys dotted around the craft are for tossing to anyone in the briny and the wearing of lifejackets isn't mandatory on this craft, yet. Formalities over, we cast off the mooring and motor a short distance from the wharf.


"Where are we going," I inquire.

"Wherever the wind takes us," Mike says, and he means it.

A seasoned skipper, he reads the weather and takes time hoisting the right sails to exploit the modest winds. We have two couples on board and the men are keen to pitch in with hauling the ropes. Although Mike accepts the help, it's obvious he can sail this five-tonne boat on his own, while telling tall nautical tales, brewing cups of tea and handing out biscuits.

He bought Oyster 12 years ago to run as a charter boat. The 9.9m-long gaff yawl was built in Auckland in 1902, but spent most of its life in the Nelson and Tasman Bay area, where it won races in the 1960s.

Mike wears leather cycling gloves to protect his hands from cuts and burns. He's a wiry 63-year-old with sinewy leather-brown legs, bare feet, and toenails like barnacles.

He ran away to sea in 1964, at 16, and served two years in the Royal New Zealand Navy as an ordinary seaman. However, he wasn't a man for polished shoes and standing on ceremony, so he headed overseas, working on steam tugs in South Africa and on ships in Southampton.

Moving to Christchurch in 1989, he became involved in the Spirit of Adventure Trust and its sailing ships. When he first clapped eyes on Oyster in Nelson in 1998 he decided he had to have the boat. It had been heavily modified over its long history, but a previous owner had restored the original rigging in the late 1970s. Mike began running charter trips, under Jack Tar Sailing Company, 11 years ago.

Oyster has three heavy booms and a mast made of oregon. It has a kauri hull and pohutukawa in its keel. On the water, its stand-out feature is its red-brown 'tanbark' sails that give it an air of nostalgia and romance.

On this day, we head towards Corsair Bay and then tack south towards a reef near Quail Island and catch more wind. The sails plump and the boat responds by picking up speed. Youngsters in Optimists fly by, absorbed in their race, and are surprisingly skilled navigating around orange buoys.

The winds bend around the hills in strange ways, Mike says.  A "fluky" wind means we have to tack and gybe to catch fluctuating air currents.

In the lee of Quail Island, there's a sheltered patch where we are temporarily becalmed before gybing again and heading towards Purau Bay. The Coastguard boat is also heading to Purau to practise "man overboard" drills. The crew stop for a brief chat. Mike's boat turns heads in the harbour and he is well-known in the sailing community.

We hug the coastline on the way out towards the harbour entrance. Mike points out "mortgage mountain", the top-end subdivision in Diamond Harbour, and some notable homes. We sail close by Ripapa Island, where Count Felix von Luckner, a German naval officer known as the Sea Devil, was imprisoned during World War 1.

The conversation turns to some of Mike's own nautical escapades and encounters with youths while sailing on the Spirit of Adventure. Mike is well qualified to throw a lifeline to troubled youths. Some of Mike's own experiences as a bolshie teenager got him expelled from school in New Plymouth and led to his life at sea.

Tacking back and across the harbour, we trawl for wind. It's deceptively busy on this stretch of water, with racing A-class keelers and trailer sailors. Mike has let one of the men take the helm, while he adjusts the sails and brews a cup of tea.

Between Windy Point and Purau Bay is the windiest part of the harbour,  Mike says, and on cue the boat surges forward.

We spot a juvenile black-backed gull and a white-fronted tern. Our helmsman spots a dolphin, but it's gone just as quickly, in a flash of silver. Mike has a brass bell fixed to the boat that he uses, at times, to summon dolphins.

There is something wild and romantic about being on the water, even in tame conditions. As well as full-day ($500) and half-day ($250) cruises for up to six people, Mike offers evening cruises for couples during summer months.

A client, intending to propose to his partner, once asked if Mike could make himself scarce. "I said, 'I don't think so; I have to sail the boat'."

On another sailing, a couple were married on the boat at Diamond Harbour. It was an intimate ceremony with just the couple, their marriage celebrant and Mike, who acted as a witness. The wedding party stayed close to the wharf during the ceremony, so any public objections to the union could be heard.

Heading back to Lyttelton, we take in the views of the coal piles, the container ships and of the beautiful historic town wrapped around the port. This was days before February 22's catastrophic earthquake changed Lyttelton forever.

Now, looking back, it feels as if we set sail in a different era and we are glad we took the cruise while Lyttelton was still standing. However, in the wake of the devastation, there is an even greater need to run away to sea for peace and solace. 

Mike Rossouw is running charters from 10am to 2pm during autumn/winter, until full services resume in late October. Trips leave from Dampier Bay on the western side of Lyttelton Harbour, best accessed through the Lyttelton tunnel. For more information, go to