For a man whose first seafaring experience at aged 14 was spent kindly gifting what was left of his morning cereal to the marine life off the coast of Napier, it was understandable if I didn't immediately confirm my invitation to view the Bay of Islands tall ships and classic invitational race from on the water.

However, chewing on some Sea Legs tablets and armed with the biggest straw hat I could find, I set off on Saturday for what would be my first time in Russell, my first time on a sailboat and one of the biggest hangis I will likely ever see.

Of the many things I learned on my northern venture, it's that you can't beat Russell on a good day. As I drove through the small beachside stores, the site which greeted me was the definition of picturesque.

The calm, blue water of the wharf was packed to the brim with white sails and gleaming hulls. Eruptions of water flew from the jetty as children and adults alike leapt from the highest point while their spectators looked on with coffees in hand at one of the many tables and chairs just metres from the red-tinged shingle beach.


I'm shaken out of my trance by the arrival of our vessel. The 38-foot, kauri-made Kingfisher sidles up alongside me, helmed by a man who, by the tan of his skin, it is clear has spent many days similar to this, under the sun and out on the water. Stephen Western, the skipper, gives me a strong handshake and a warm smile as I come aboard, his eyes hidden by reflective sunglasses which glint in the sunlight.

As we puttered out of the wharf, Stephen begins to point out other boats, describing with faultless recollection, the name, make, owner, history, everything but the brand of the onboard kitchen sink. He's a man who just by standing next to him, you feel compelled to launch into talk of rigging and sails, only to lose your resolve in fear of venturing too far into unknown conversational waters.

Once out on the water, the images are like no other. Boats slowly pass each other as they prepare for the race to start, their names gleaming against the deep blue. The criss-cross of white sails as far as the eye could see certainly imbues you with a feeling of anticipation for what will come next.

As an amateur photographer, Stephen is keen to get out in front of the boats before they set off. He wheels around to face what are now about hundred boats pointing in our direction, sails unfurled and slowly accelerating across the water.

A range of boats pass us. Boats with large hulls and masts which reach high into the sky fly close by while the smaller, colourful vessels amble along. It's the image of these boats which can give a distinct Pirates of the Caribbean feeling to it all, but another movie franchise comes to mind once you hear a little more about the boats and their owners.

"Owned by a Russian billionaire, that one," Stephen says avidly, pointing. It looks every bit out of a Bond film with the impeccable deck and dark hull. A Dutch merchant and an Italian win-maker round out the sensational owner descriptions. It leaves you with a somewhat forlorn understanding that sailing can be quite a different world than the one the rest of us live in.

After a few hours of being torn between falling asleep to the gentle rocking of the boat to not missing one part of the beautiful scenery which envelopes the area, the time on the water must come to a close. In what was a day without regurgitation, I counted it as a success, and it was only going to get better.

As the setting sun burns the sky with a pinky, orange flame, hundreds gather on a bank beside the Russell Boating Club in front of what was a 12m-long hangi pit, now covered with a hump of earth, containing what many hungry sailors have had their eyes set on ever since they came ashore.


As those who prepared the hangi dig down, the steam rises into the sky, people craning their necks and pushing through the crowd to catch a glimpse of the feast, which has had its place in history for decades. Photos of past hangi preparers hang in a tree nearby, adorned in lights as they get to watch their descendants unearth a family tradition.

Through these experiences you get to understand how not just sport but tradition can bring a community of all types together, whether it be a billionaire or a bricklayer. It's something a lot of places have but I get the feeling, it happens more often in the north where communities are often tighter as they are less exposed to the city lights.

Asked if I would do it again, there should be no question as to what the answer would be. But next time I'm bringing a fork with me because trying to pick up a kumara fresh out of the hangi pit with your fingers is not an experience I want to repeat.

A happy man with a hot hangi. Photo / Peter de Graaf
A happy man with a hot hangi. Photo / Peter de Graaf