South Sea Vagabonds: Gone with the tide

Johnny Wray wrote for dreamers.
Johnny Wray wrote for dreamers.

When author Johnny Wray was a lad at school in the 1920s, his form master was most disparaging of his writing, describing it as: "Conglomerations of facts occasioned by heterogeneous concatenations of stupid irrelevancies."

Happily, Wray didn't take those criticisms too deeply to heart and instead went on to write the maritime memoir, South Sea Vagabonds: proof that his pompous teacher had no idea what he was talking about.

Having just read this gripping tale of life on the high seas, I can say with some authority that Wray is a storyteller of the highest order and it's no surprise his book has been reprinted to celebrate 75 years since its original publication in 1939.

The story begins during the Great Depression, with Wray being given the sack - although he's not entirely disappointed because he wasn't really an office kind of fellow. To prove this point, instead of searching for another job, he resolves to build a boat in his parents' Remuera garden and run away to sea in it - which he would do over and over again.

From the get-go, it appears Wray has set himself an impossible task: to build an ocean-going vessel with begged, borrowed and found materials. At just 21 years old, he has no knowledge of boat-building, no money, no experience, not even any tools. But he turns his hand and mind to the task and he never gives up when most of us would have prudently admitted defeat. And without wanting to give too much away, he pulls it off and the legend of the Ngataki is launched (but you can probably tell that just by looking at the cover or the many delightful photos inside the book).

Wray paints a picture of the New Zealand many of us romanticise about, when good keen men and women could set their minds to impossible dreams and knock those buggers off with ingenuity, No. 8 wire, a spot of scrounging and a few kegs of beer thrown in for good measure.

Aside from the adventures and triumphs in the face of tribulations, Wray has a super turn of phrase that frequently brought a smile to my face. Upon returning to Auckland after one of his adventures, he declared: "For three solid weeks I toiled in that wool store. Then the desire to be moving took me by the neck. I decided I had done enough work to satisfy my conscience for another year. I am not one of your slave-driving work fiends, but it is one of my beliefs that every man should do at least three weeks' work per year - if only for the good of his soul."

And back out to sea he went.

Many times, too, my heart leapt into my mouth, such as when the 15-tonne boat was moved from land to sea; when storms and lightning struck; when whales and sharks appeared a little too interested in life on the ship; and when navigation instruments, or their operators, proved to be less than accurate. There were several passages where I even gasped out loud. It's true, there are a lot of technical details in the text about motors and keels, timber and tools, sails and nautical nonsense, but I didn't skip those bits because I wanted to follow Wray every step of the way.

I pictured him trying to bend wood to his will, breaking more planks than he cared to count; of skippers who took out their false teeth at the first sign of bad weather; of the crew who viewed those dentures more keenly than any barometer; of the spectacular groves of oranges on Sunday Island; of Wray's attempts at amateur dentistry; and of warm welcomes and fond farewells in every port.

After many years at sea, and never short of a willing crew, and a stint in the RNZAF during World War II, Jim Wray finally settled on Waiheke, fishing and beach-combing and embarking on voyages until his death in 1986.

South Sea Vagabonds is a real-life adventure story that will surely inspire new generations of sailors to follow their dreams wherever the wind may blow. Wray himself says it best: "This book is written primarily for dreamers, and they don't mind if a man can write or not as long as the facts are there. It is written for the man who works in a city office and dreams about sparkling blue waters and coconut palms and white sails ... it will, perhaps, show him how it is possible to break away from the ties of civilisation, build himself a boat and sail in her wherever he wills. I was a dreamer once, but now my dreams have come true, and I am satisfied and happy."

South Sea Vagabonds by J.W. Wray (HarperCollins $44.99)

- NZ Herald

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