An Auckland couple have found the smart answer to Auckland's traffic jams. Home is a former NZ Navy survey ship, gently bobbing in the Viaduct.


VICTORIA BARTLE goes aboard.



When thousands of Aucklanders are jostling for space on the motorways every Friday afternoon, Mandy Vernon and her partner Bill Leckie go through their front door, start up the engine and take their house to sea.



Twenty-six metres long and made of steel, the couple's home is Takapu, a former New Zealand Royal Navy survey ship.

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Mandy and Bill, both in their early 50s, were about to take a hard-earned holiday from Bill Leckie Computers, the specialist business computer solutions company they had run for the past 25 years, when the Navy decommissioned Takapu and her sister ship Tarapunga.



Just a few months off celebrating their 10th anniversary, Mandy and Bill had buried themselves in the task of reaching their main goal, to build their dream home on a chunk of land close to the sea, that also had sea views.



For six years, they had spent almost every weekend going to sea on Gambit, Bill's 10m launch. But Gambit became a casualty of their dream, too. It was sold to boost their finances for a property in Orakei.



"We bought an old state house and we'd planned to pull it down and build our dream home on that land. Then, we were going to replace Gambit except it wasn't going to take quite as long as it did," says Mandy.



Without the launch luring them to sea every weekend, Bill and Mandy fell into the habit of staying later at the office on a Friday, and even found themselves popping into the office at weekends.



"We'd got ourselves on that work treadmill, living more like machines than real people, so we took five weeks off to unwind in Europe," says Mandy.



Their suitcases were in the boot, Mandy was sitting in the car and Bill was literally locking up the house at Orakei when the telephone rang.



It was a friend who was considering buying Tarapunga.



"He asked me straight out: 'Would you be interested in an 88-foot steel boat the Navy's selling?"'



With Mandy urging Bill to hang up or they would miss their flight, Bill resumed his conversation on a cellphone from the car. "I eventually said goodbye, resigning myself to missing out on what I suspected was a bloody good thing, and focused on getting away for a break," he says. "When I look back now, we were so burned out from work, we probably would have let the opportunity go by, anyway, and regretted it later."



Missing the opportunity was hammered home when they returned to New Zealand. Their friend took them to Whangarei aboard his new purchase, Tarapunga, and they realised then, with regret, just how good owning Takapu would have been.



"I got really excited because I found I could work in the galley and be below decks without feeling seasick," Mandy remembers.



In Devonport, Takapu - though sold - was still taking up precious space at the Naval docks. Unbeknown to Mandy and Bill, the new owner was reassessing his plans and Takapu was not part of them. He put her back on the market.



The couple received another phone call and three days later, after scrabbling to raise enough money for a deposit, they became Takapu's owners. The pressure of then raising the full price and borrowing a temporary marina, then dealing with Bill suddenly falling ill right before Christmas, is now history.



On New Year's Day last year, they hauled the mattress from their bed on to the boat, and didn't spend another night at the house in Orakei. Six months later, convinced life on board was best, the house went on the market and sold in four days.



Now, Takapu can usually be found at her Viaduct Basin marina, plugged into a regular phone line and easily accessible to a fresh water supply (she can hold 7000 litres) and fuel for her 13,000-litre diesel tank.



Surrounded by floating palaces worth millions of dollars, Mandy laughs. Takapu often attracts curious on-lookers, funny comments and questions, whether she is tied up at the Viaduct or dropping anchor in a tranquil bay alongside other weekend boaties.



Though no longer flying the New Zealand Navy flag or displaying its emblems, there are daily reminders for Mandy and Bill that Takapu was very much the working survey ship.



Bill adapted the boat's power supply system to rid daily life of the constant hum of a generator - just one of the changes needed to make Takapu a two-person vessel, instead of one for 11 sailors.



Exploring the cupboards and lockers for the first time, it seemed the Navy almost literally abandoned ship. The couple found part of its chattels were insignia crockery and cutlery all in place, a cake mixer, deep fryer, washing machine and dryer - and a slightly risque team-effort diary of the sailors' days ashore.



Commemorative plaques from New Zealand ports still adorn one wall, a feature that Mandy and Bill do not want to change.



The main entrance to their home is a heavy steel door with rounded edges that seal snugly into its jambs made for nautical days on whipped-up stormy seas, while the steel gun-locker and the red battlestation lights are still there.



"And I think we have enough toilet rolls to last us a decade."



Takapu now faces a gradual transformation with the help of a marine interior designer and a marine architect who understand the need to retain the ship's balance and stability for safety.



Under their guidance, what was once the crew's dining area will become the main bedroom, while the galley will be an ensuite. The captain's and first mate's cabins will become the new living areas and galley.



Although the boat will be built for two, one of Mandy's two sons, Terry Vernon and his fiance Jenni Fletcher, frequently work as crew - Jenni is official chef and Terry teams with Bill for the ongoing remodelling work and skipper's duties.



"I've had to make some pretty radical changes from living in a house on land," says Mandy. "Like culling the wardrobe drastically, which wasn't easy because I have a huge weakness for jackets.



"But living onboard is just so fabulous, I can cope with giving up all those things," she adds.



Mandy and Bill say they are like hundreds of Aucklanders who have had enough of traffic jams and other pressures of city life, but feel they're one of the few couples who have found a virtually perfect answer.



"Some of our friends have tried to get away from the hassle of Auckland traffic and stressful corporate jobs and they've moved to the country, but the sad thing is, they hardly see all their old friends," says Bill. "We've found a way to keep working in our business, live in the city without the noise - and yet we can find somewhere different and remote to anchor every weekend."



Takapu is so solid and soundproof that they sleep peacefully, despite being moored close to some of the city's highly social venues.



"We don't hear the yahooing or noise from the cafes and bars, no sounds of rubbish trucks and sirens in the night," he says. "Takapu was made with sailors in mind and their working shifts while the others slept."



Mandy says: "The sound I do hear and love is the rain running off the decks into the sea. I can only hear it when our bedroom porthole is open, and I'll mumble to Bill, 'It's raining'. It's the most beautiful, restful and relaxing thing. I think now, it's my most favourite sound."



The possibilities for Mandy and Bill with Takapu are plentiful. "We both dive, so we'd like to do chartering and dive trips, and the chartering is being arranged in time for the America's Cup."



After next year, they plan to head off around the world. Although they had always wanted to see the world from the decks of a boat, Bill had a yacht in mind, and seasick-prone Mandy had always imagined it would be on a sturdy launch.



In the meantime, while studying to add to their list of certificates in marine expertise, Mandy and Bill intend to enjoy their water-borne home and the freedom she has given them to change the view when they feel like it.