Auckland: Setting sail in the Hauraki Gulf

By Bronwyn Sell

The Soren Larsen takes command of the Hauraki Gulf. Photo / Supplied
The Soren Larsen takes command of the Hauraki Gulf. Photo / Supplied

There's a passage in the film Master and Commander in which Russell Crowe's tall ship is becalmed somewhere near the Galapagos Islands and the sweaty crew gets mutinous.

When the tall ship Soren Larsen is becalmed somewhere near Rangitoto late on a Sunday morning, the atmosphere couldn't be further removed.

The sea is so flat and the ship so still, it's as if we're set in turquoise concrete. The only swell comes from passing powerboats, their occupants leaning out to photograph the grand 61-year-old square rigger with several sails up.

There's not a whiff of mutiny from the Soren Larsen's few dozen passengers despite the fact our five-hour day sail is turning into more of a lake cruise than a sail-snapping, plank-creaking Napoleonic pursuit. It's impossible to resent being becalmed when there's a sigh-inducing view at every turn. (And you know an engine is smuggled somewhere below.)

To starboard the sea stretches to Motutapu like a jewel-coloured satin sheet.

To port is Motuihe, its yellow grass popping against the blue sky. Aft shimmers the distant city skyline. Across the bow lies Waiheke and the blue-grey silhouettes of Great Barrier and the Coromandel. Far, far above, through a puzzle of ropes and sails, the sky is a washboard of cirrus puffs.

Several passengers have embraced the moment with a cold beer, and murmurs of conversation drift around in several accents. From the galley wafts the promising aroma of red onion being sauteed for lunch. Children race around, immersed in their own Pirates of the Caribbean screenplay.

It's hard to resist comparisons to the movies when you're on a ship like this. And, in the Soren Larsen's case, it's entirely appropriate. In the late 1970s the Danish-built ship jettisoned her previous cargo-carrying career and got her big break on the BBC series The Onedin Line. She's also channelled Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance in a BBC docudrama.

Soren Larsen has been based in New Zealand since 1990. "She fell in love with Auckland, and Auckland fell in love with her," says crewman Ian Hutchinson. She spends much of the year offering sailing adventures around the Pacific, though in the cyclone season (December to March) she sticks to the gentler waters of the Hauraki Gulf and the Bay of Islands, offering day sails and three to five-night trips. Passengers can choose to haul ropes or just enjoy the ride.

There's no great demand for rope-hauling on our watch, but at one point I find myself standing in a line, apparently doing something that contributes to setting the mainsail.

With this heroic effort ticked off, I turn to another challenge - climbing the rigging to a platform called the foretop. This serves no practical purpose, it's just to distract us from mutinous thoughts.

From the deck the climb doesn't look particularly tricky and the height not particularly dizzying. Climbing up is easy but it takes a few leaps of faith (and of hands and feet) - plus a bit of guidance from Ian and another crew member - to scramble on to the platform which overhangs the rope ladder. I carabiner myself to a safety rope and enjoy the well-deserved (and dizzying) view as the ship sways gently on its return to Princes Wharf.

The descent proves disconcerting. From some angles I see nothing under my feet but a piece of rope and a whole lot of sea. It's enough to get me feeling all Master-and-Commandery, though I end the day neither sweaty nor mutinous but blissfully becalmed, with a gin and tonic.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Soren Larsen offers Sunday sails in the Hauraki Gulf on January 16 and 30, and February 6, 13 and 27, 10am-3pm. Adults $125, children $59 (including a light lunch).

Several trips of 3-5 nights from Auckland and the Bay of Islands are also scheduled over the summer, starting at $999. Pacific voyages for 2011 range from a $6250 month-long sail from Auckland to the Cook Islands, to a 10-night Vanuatu adventure for $3495. Ph 0800 767 365.

- NZ Herald

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