Tuia 250: I spent five days in a squeaky boat

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff
Aboard the Spirit of New Zealand, for the Tuia 250 flotilla.

On Tuesday, the controversial Tuia 250 flotilla arrived in Gisborne, its first call. Aboard one of the ships were Stuff's Adam Dudding and Abigail Dougherty.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON
The trainees bowl up to the Port of Tauranga early afternoon – 40 teenagers, year 12s and year 13s, from all around Aotearoa New Zealand. The orientation speech from the ship's master Gerard Prendeville is welcoming, but to the point. Over the next five days there'll be no booze, no fags, no drugs, no violence, and also no "special relationships" between the trainees.

On the plus side, as Prendeville points out: "You're going to be part of history."

The ship is the Spirit of New Zealand, a purpose-built "youth development" tall ship. Taking groups of 40-odd teenagers out for five- or 10-day voyages of sail-raising, sheet-pulling, helm-turning, knot-tying and self-discovery is the ship's bread and butter, but this trip is a bit special. The Spirit of New Zealand has been roped in as part of the Tuia 250 flotilla.

The Spirit of New Zealand leaving Tauranga at sunset.
Abigail Dougherty
The Spirit of New Zealand leaving Tauranga at sunset.

The "250" bit comes from the number of years since Captain James Cook showed up at Tūranganui-a-Kiwa and called it Poverty Bay, but the point, according to the carefully phrased information from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, is to commemorate that  contact of two cultures – while also paying respectful attention to the Polynesian navigators who sailed to and from Aotearoa hundreds of years before Cook arrived and unilaterally claimed the entire country on behalf of King George III of England.

READ MORE
* Captain Cook: hero or villain?
Endeavour visit sparks awkward conversations
* Is it a celebration or a commemoration?
* Navigating through difficult histories
* Dual name approved for Poverty Bay/Tūranganui-a-Kiwa

Which is why one half of the Tuia 250 flotilla are tall ships (the Spirit, the topsail schooner R Tucker Thompson and a replica of Cook's Endeavour) and the other half are traditional Pacific craft: the two Māori waka Haunui and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti, and the Tahitian va'a tipaerua Fa'afaite.

The Spirit of New Zealand motors out of Tauranga harbour (we put up the sails a little later).
Abigail Dougherty
The Spirit of New Zealand motors out of Tauranga harbour (we put up the sails a little later).

Prendeville is expecting protesters when the flotilla reaches Gisborne on the Tuesday, and he's OK with that. He's already got a plan.

"We're looking forward to giving them a muffin and a cup of tea, and asking for their story. We're more than happy to chat.

"We need a bit of controversy, because otherwise it's all nice and pretty and we wave a few flags. But when people ask some hard questions, we start thinking. And that helps us move forward."

Training begins before the Spirit even leaves port. Trainees are strapped into harnesses and told to climb the shrouds. Others are handed large sharp knives and told to cut onions and pumpkins. I'm not sure which looks more dangerous.

Watch assistant Tessa Campbell shows the trainees the ropes – literally – teaching them how to "flake", "haul away", "sweat and tail" and tie a figure of eight (the way to remember this knot, says Campbell, as she wields a thick strand of rope, "is that you strangle the man, and stab him in the eye").

Trainees sit on the aft deck trying to settle their stomachs during the first rough night at sea.
Abigail Dougherty
Trainees sit on the aft deck trying to settle their stomachs during the first rough night at sea.

Safety drill, lifejacket practice, a short karakia from Campbell (Pākehā but a keen student of te reo), and as the sun starts to dip, we're finally off. Destination Gisborne, where on October 8, 1769, Captain James Cook came ashore from the bark Endeavour and one of his men shot dead a local gardener, Te Maro, of Ngāti Oneone.

The early meetings

Because of those early moments of violence, it's easy to forget that most of the early meetings between Māori and Pākehā were in fact very productive, author and Cook expert Graeme Lay told Stuff last week.

Second Mate Eric Anderson leads the pre-swim warmup on deck with trainees.
Abigail Dougherty
Second Mate Eric Anderson leads the pre-swim warmup on deck with trainees.

"There's all this negative stuff that's coming out of Gisborne. People tend to overlook that most of the encounters in the rest of New Zealand were amicable ones. Cook was accorded great respect, and respected Māori culture and wanted to learn all about it. There was great curiosity on both sides."

That said, Lay is totally in favour of the way New Zealand is starting to reframe its history, away from a totally eurocentric view.

"Fifty years ago, we didn't have the 'view from the shore' as it's been described. We had the 'view from the ship', and that has dominated. Since then, we've come to appreciate that it was an encounter between two people, and the people on the shore had valid points and a different but very valid culture as well."

As for Tuia 250: "It's entirely proper that we commemorate this remarkable thing that happened. Nobody's perfect ... but we've done a huge amount in the past 250 years that we can be proud of."

To lawyer and Te Tiriti specialist Moana Jackson, the whole concept of Tuia 250 makes little sense.

Third Mate Quentin Mitchell, 70, dropping anchor at Whangaparaoa Bay after the first rough night at sea.
Abigail Dougherty
Third Mate Quentin Mitchell, 70, dropping anchor at Whangaparaoa Bay after the first rough night at sea.

"The organisers, under pressure from Māori, have begun to say it's acknowledging a dual heritage. But if they're going to celebrate the dual heritage of navigation across the Pacific, then it wouldn't be Tuia 250, it would be Tuia 2000 or something."

And even to "commemorate" Cook's arrival seems weird to Jackson. When it comes to explorers, you usually make a big deal of whoever did something first.

"Neil Armstrong is acknowledged as the first astronaut to land on the Moon. There's no real celebration of the 12th astronaut to land on the Moon. And Cook wasn't even the 12th navigator to sail across the Pacific.

Ship's engineer David Scott leaning over the chart table in the wheel house during the first evening at sea.
Abigail Dougherty
Ship's engineer David Scott leaning over the chart table in the wheel house during the first evening at sea.

"So I'm not sure what the baseline was for commemorating him – except that he has become an important part of the misremembering of colonising history.

"It's convenient to forget or downplay that wherever he stopped he or his crew killed indigenous people and introduced diseases from syphilis to smallpox – and began a process that led to the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people."

SATURDAY NIGHT
We're headed for Whangaparaoa Bay, roughly 100 nautical miles from Tauranga, so we'll be eating, and sleeping on the move.

Dinner is fantastic – mashed spuds, roast pumpkin, baked terakihi. But the 13 hours' motor-sailing that follows is, frankly, bloody awful. Who knew ships rocked from side to side so much?

Trainees leap overboard for their daily dose of mild hypothermia.
Abigail Dougherty
Trainees leap overboard for their daily dose of mild hypothermia.

I avert my eyes whenever it looks like another dinner is about to be violently ejected overboard; vomiting is contagious and I'm on the brink. Plastic buckets appear, suggesting this has happened before.

I stay on deck with the first of the trainees' three-hour watches before heading for my bunk. The mattress is comfy, and my earplugs shut out the clanking from the chain locker through the bulkhead, but sleep still doesn't come easily: I'm lying athwartships, so with each big roll of the ship I slide up or down the mattress until my head or feet collide with a bed-end.

SUNDAY MORNING
Breakfast is a tragic affair. We're anchored in the relative calm of Whangaparaoa Bay, alongside our tall-ship buddy the R Tucker Thompson, but the swells are still pretty big. On deck it's cold and rainy. Below, the floor won't stop moving. Everyone's done a watch through the night, and the epidemic of seasickness isn't over. A slow trickle of hollow-eyed, green-faced trainees and crew slop a spoon of baked beans next to their toast then ponder whether they'll be able to keep it down.

"I usually never get seasick," says trainee Edan Wilson, "but last night was pushing it."

Edan, 16, is a year 12 student at Campion College in Gisborne. She knows a bit about the history of Cook's arrival in her hometown, and the help Cook got from the Tahitian navigator Tupaia. But before signing up for the Tuia 250 voyage, she didn't know much about the Polynesian voyagers who came before.

Adam Dudding demonstrates his skill at scurrying up the side of a tall ship after a mandatory morning swim.
Abigail Dougherty
Adam Dudding demonstrates his skill at scurrying up the side of a tall ship after a mandatory morning swim.

She likes the way the history of Cook's arrival is being recognised yet "people are not glorifying the things that happened when he landed".

Ihaka Griffith's iwi is Ngāpuhi, "but Onetahua marae has taken me in". He's 17 and in year 12 at Golden Bay High School. He's also got Irish, Scottish and African-American forebears, "and my ancestors were on the Bounty" – though he doesn't know the finer details.

His feelings about Cook?

Adam Dudding alongside the Endeavour.
Abigail Dougherty
Adam Dudding alongside the Endeavour.

"Well, I dunno. I guess bad, because people were bad back then. But good because he was brave and sailed around the world."

Josh McCaffery, 17, from Shirley Boys' High in Christchurch, knows a bit about traditional Polynesian navigation, but he learnt it in physics, not history. When they were studying waves and refraction and interference patterns, the teacher told them Pacific voyagers could infer the presence of an island well over the horizon, just by looking at the interaction of waves and swells on the water surface. That, along with a knowledge of the stars, of birdlife, of water-colour, of wind patterns and more, meant they knew their way around.

After last night's nauseating ride, Josh has nothing but admiration for anyone willing to cross the seas back in the day, whether by waka or tall ship.

"To be able to sit in a boat in a confined space for that long is impressive."

Josh has his own theory about why 18th-century Europeans felt such an urge to colonise the planet. His parents are from the UK, and he's been there a few times.

"It's cold and wet, and dark at 4pm in the winter. I mean, you don't see people from a paradise island doing much colonising."

The Spirit of New Zealand (left) and the Endeavour hook up off the East Cape, en route to the flotilla's Gisborne rendezvous.
Abigail Dougherty
The Spirit of New Zealand (left) and the Endeavour hook up off the East Cape, en route to the flotilla's Gisborne rendezvous.

A quiet day

At 11am we're ordered into togs, prodded on to the rainy deck and told to run around in a giant shivering circle. Then we leap, one at a time, into the startlingly cold sea before clambering back up the ladders and nets gasping, grinning, and with any residual seasickness totally cured. From then, though, it's a quiet day as we wait for the right weather for the last leg.

It could be worse. On the day in August 1768 that Cook was meant to leave Plymouth for the South Seas, a storm came in from the northwest and he had sit around for three days, stuck on a stationary Endeavour with 93 other humans, two dogs, three cats, a nanny goat, four pigs, 17 sheep and a couple of dozen chickens and ducks.

The replica Endeavour, one of the three tall ships in the Tuia 250 flotilla.
Abigail Dougherty/Stuff
The replica Endeavour, one of the three tall ships in the Tuia 250 flotilla.

The Spirit's crew keep the trainees busy with chart-reading lessons, ice-breaking games and some waiata practice. In the crew mess there's tea, coffee, and a large nautically themed library. There's a picture book about Tupaia, who also interpreted between English and Māori. There's Tessa Duder's First Map, about Cook's charting of Aotearoa New Zealand. There's a thick book about knots and a thin book about marine diesel engines. Dinner is roast chicken.

MONDAY
The day starts at 6am with a honk of the ship's horn and another compulsory leap into the sea. At least it's not raining this time. By late morning we're off round the East Cape. The trainees are out hauling on ropes and setting sails – the yards that support the square sails are especially squeaky – but our motion is mostly thanks to the six-cylinder 650hp Yanmar diesel engine below.

It's a day of happily ticking the perfect-sea-adventure boxes. Dolphins at the bow? Tick. Catch up with the Endeavour on the way? Tick. Clear skies, bright sunshine and calm seas? Tick, tick, tick. Beautiful sunset? Tick. Gentle rocking to soothe us to sleep at day's end? Tick. There's general agreement that the big swells and seasickness were alarming at first, but now this trip is awesome.

 The Endeavour replica is the big one on the left, and the other one's the  R Tucker Thompson.
Abigail Dougherty
The Endeavour replica is the big one on the left, and the other one's the R Tucker Thompson.

TUESDAY
At 3am the crew pull anchor and set a course for the muster-point just north of Tūranganui-a-Kiwa. Here we'll meet the waka and va'a for the first time. At 4am the trainees are shaken awake, and by sunrise the whole flotilla heads into the bay, all six vessels together for the first time.

Gisborne iwi have declined to pōhiri​ the tall ships (archly suggesting that "the descendants of the Colonialists who came and settled amongst us are best placed to conduct that welcome"). Instead, though, there'll be a karakia to remember the Māori killed and injured by Cook's men.

First, a local kaumatua gets on the marine radio to explain the background of the death of Te Maro, and the entire flotilla tunes in for a history lesson. Then the karakia is sung from the deck of a small local launch, Kaitiki. Watch assistant Tessa Campbell later confesses that she teared up, "mostly because of seeing how the trainees on the Spirit responded. There was one Māori girl especially, who was really feeling the wairua."

The Tahitiian va'a Fa'afaite meets up with the Tuia 250 voyage flotilla in Poverty Bay, Gisborne, at sunrise.
Abigail Dougherty
The Tahitiian va'a Fa'afaite meets up with the Tuia 250 voyage flotilla in Poverty Bay, Gisborne, at sunrise.

There's a full morning ahead: Criss-crossing the harbour and manoeuvring waka and tall ships for more photogenic angles. More lessons in history and whakapapa over the marine radio. Spotting the 40-strong crowd waving tino rangatiratanga flags along the shore ("Don't shoot," calls out Darryn Poihakena Jackson, a year 13 from Te Wharekura o Arowhenua in Invercargill. "I'm Māori!"). The wero (challenge) on the wharf for the tall ships, and much shaking of hands and hongi-ing between crew and dignitaries.

About 1.30pm the trainees disembark, though they sway like they're still at sea. Tonight, there'll be a farewell SingStar karaoke session back on board, and tomorrow crew and trainees will be swapped out for the next leg of Tuia 250. Then the flotilla will continue its months-long journey around New Zealand. Now, though, it's time for our first meal on land in five days.

A few crew are assigned to keep watch on the Spirit of New Zealand till we're back. Ship's engineer David Scott watches from the deck as the trainees leave.

And today at least, on October 8, 2019, this is the view from the ship: 40 teenagers in sunglasses and sunhats from all around Aotearoa New Zealand, one of them carrying a guitar, sauntering down Gisborne wharf, past the replica of a colonising navigator's ship, past a fleet of Polynesian waka, and then onwards, chatting and laughing without cease, to the bus that's going to take them for a feed at a local surf club.

The Fa'afaite travelled from Tahiti using traditional Polynesian navigation methods.
Abigail Dougherty
The Fa'afaite travelled from Tahiti using traditional Polynesian navigation methods.

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