Today marks the beginning of Matariki, the Māori New Year. We revisit a Carly Gibbs interview from last year with Tauranga sailor and 'star man' Jack Thatcher.

The sea has an unpredictable temper. Try and scramble away and it will reach for you. He could die in its grip tonight. Seesawing uncontrollably, Jack Thatcher cannot focus on his feet, let alone the stars. His eyes meet serendipitously with Mau Piailug. Piailug is not afraid. He sips on Rakea Taitokerau Moonshine. In the chilly night air, the sea throws hit, after hit, after hit. It roars. The wind screams back. Piailug holds eye contact with Thatcher and expertly pours another capful of stomach-burning Moonshine. He hands it over. Thatcher downs it. They will live tonight, and by sunrise, the storm will be over. Some of the crew will never repeat the experience. Thatcher, however, will go on to dedicate his life to traversing the sea.

DOWN AT the bridge marina, Jack Thatcher, with his salt and pepper beard and tattooed legs, is taking a break from working on one of two voyaging canoes in Tauranga, Ngahiraka mai Tawhiti. He is her kaitiaki (guardian) and she's high maintenance.

Sitting on a hardstand in the boatyard, the waka is weathered and partially covered by a flapping, blue tarpaulin. Her elaborately carved red tauihu (bow figureheads) face the water.

"You build a house and you don't touch it for 10 years. You build a boat, you're working on it five minutes later. Ha, ha, ha." Thatcher has a deep throaty laugh.


The 56-year-old, who lives by the water in "beautiful Matapihi", has spent 30 years at sea.

He navigates by the sun, moon, stars and horizon. One of only a handful of master navigators in the Pacific, he teaches his talent of waka voyaging and celestial navigation to eager sailors.

"Sailing out on the ocean is not for everyone. I didn't really know it was for me either, because I was a pretty poor surfer. I did more falling off and drinking water."

He learnt to navigate in Hawaii and Micronesia at age 32. Born Tiaki Wepiha Te Kapene Thatcher (shortened to Jack), he started his working life as an army officer, and then a personnel manager at Affco in Rangiuru.

Celestial navigator Jack Thatcher prepares to embark on a two-month waka voyage around the North Island and to the Chatham Islands to help share his knowledge of the stars with his young crew.
Celestial navigator Jack Thatcher prepares to embark on a two-month waka voyage around the North Island and to the Chatham Islands to help share his knowledge of the stars with his young crew.

Revered waka builder Hekenukumai (Hector) Busby encouraged him to train in celestial navigation, and among his teachers was the late "grandmaster navigator" Mau Piailug, from the Micronesian island of Satawal, who died in 2010.

Seeing Piailug calm in the eye of Thatcher's first stormy voyage 25 years ago was an epiphany for him. It sparked a love and respect for high seas. He's since weathered worse storms, and clocked up nearly 60,000 nautical miles.

Is navigation hard?

"Well, it's hard to dedicate the time to it."


How much time do you need?

"Your whole life. It's incumbent on you to go out and learn as much as you can about the art that you're regenerating. We're trying to keep the knowledge that we've been researching, and keep the experience that we've been gaining, and pass that on to young people."

Thatcher's students are Maori, Cook Island, Fijian and Pakeha. He doesn't do much sailing in winter. "You know how cold it is? I also can't guarantee I'll get there as the weather might go to crap."

Over summer, he'll spend three months riding the seaway.

Is there more risk in a waka?

"I would like to say there's less risk. People wouldn't believe me in saying that but, ahh, I've been in a waka in a hurricane.

How did that go?

"Well, we broke our mast (and survived). But nine boats around the Kermadec Islands were abandoned at that time."

The hurricane he's talking about happened when he was a crew member on the maiden voyage of Te Aurere, the waka hourua (double-hulled canoe) which famously sailed to the Cook Islands in 1992 by traditional wayfaring techniques.

The waka almost capsized as the crew tried to steer down 25-metre swells. Thatcher, who carries two "treasures" on all his voyages - a piece of coral gifted from Piailug, and a bone carving around his neck, was on duty outside the cabin. While the rain had stopped, there was a lot of spray. "The winds had dropped but the sea hadn't."

Master navigator and waka voyager Jack Thatcher. Photo/file
Master navigator and waka voyager Jack Thatcher. Photo/file

Do the crew have lifejackets?

"Yeah, we have lifejackets. We don't always wear them, but they're there. In the storms, we wear them."

He can swim 2km, having completed triathlons and half-ironmans.

"Although the moana (sea) can be a dangerous place, we learn to be one with Tangaroa (God of the oceans). Through the terrifying moments of the storm to the calm evening breezes that herald the appearance of the stars. We don't fight against the ocean, we live with it."

Trying to control a traditional waka is one thing, but navigating at the same time is a challenge. By nature, he's not a calm person. "I'm hyperactive."

"A lot of people think navigating at night must be the most difficult thing to do but it's not. Navigating during the middle of the day is way more difficult because there's absolutely no signs at midday. The only thing you go by is your ability to determine where the swells are coming from and what the wind is doing."

Unaided navigation takes "a lot of experience".

Thatcher removes his sunglasses and squints into the brilliant June sun.

"I've got these little rings around my eyes that a lot of people say: 'Ooh, you've got grey eyes.' And I'm going 'Yeah, the grey parts come from sunburn.' My optometrist says: 'You're one of these guys that wears $2 Shop glasses. And I go, 'No, my glasses cost four bucks, thank you very much!' Ha, ha."

Thatcher has recently acquired sponsored Maui Jim sunglasses from Hawaii. "Most expensive you can get in New Zealand," he says, proudly.

Of Ngati Porou, Te Aitanga a Hauiti, Te Whanau a Tuwhakairiora, Ngati Awa, Ngaiterangi, Ngati Ranginui and Ngati Pukenga descent, he's one of five siblings who grew up in Hairini. Married to "his rock" Awhina, they have two daughters in their 20s.

Is navigating his full-time job?

"Well, one couldn't call it a job. I get some remuneration out of it."

As well as training, Thatcher does a lot of public speaking. In 2012, he was chief navigator of the Waka Tapu project - two waka hourua sailing over 10,000 nautical miles from Aotearoa to Rapanui (Easter Island) and Tahiti; an incredible voyage which stretched nine months.

Small cabins mean there's not much storage. "When I'm in the tropics, I have to have two pairs of underwear, two shorts."

The difference in waka voyaging is: "We have this desire to navigate like our ancestors did. When we don't do it, we're pretty much just any other boat out on the water."

Jack Thatcher goes up the Mount with a group to talk about the stars and Matariki. Photo/file
Jack Thatcher goes up the Mount with a group to talk about the stars and Matariki. Photo/file

Waka have modern-day navigation devices as back-up. "If I'm not navigating I'm not in the zone."

He took a group of students on a 640-kilometre trip to the Chatham Islands where they had to direct themselves. "They did really well. They've been with me two years but it's like weekend (training). These guys are between 17 and 24 and it's hard for them to dedicate their time to their own self-study. They have so many other distractions ... concerts ... One Love."

Night-time attendance is pivotal. "The more you come down in the latitudes, the more distortion you get in the movement of stars. So we've learnt how to navigate down here (in New Zealand) really well. The young ones, when they go up into the central Pacific, they're going to have to adapt to seeing the stars in different positions."

The skills he teaches are transferable to land.

His dream? "Going up into Sudan or Sahara and meeting up with some Bedouin or something and seeing whether they have the same sort of knowledge."

There's only three master navigators in New Zealand, and it means Thatcher is called upon a lot.

He is sharing his skills during Matariki (Maori New Year) celebrations, taking hikoi up Mauao.

He does cultural liaison work with Zespri, and started the Te Puna i Rangiri Trust to run community programmes, including learning to paddle waka taua (war canoes). His skills within the Maori community are varied, but overall: "Everybody sees me as this waka guy".

Riding riotous waves, and teaching the ancient art of ancestral navigation, is Thatcher's calling.

"The young people that come with me, they're in this timewarp of awesomeness.

Often my heart's going 'Doof, doof, doof.' And these kids are blimmin: 'Wahoo!'
They just have faith that I have experience. They don't have fear because I'm walking around with a smile on my face, even though my heart's going like this," he says, thumping his chest.

"That's my job."