A chorus of horns cut through the dim of the Whangārei Harbour yesterday morning to bid adieu to the world's largest aluminium yacht, the Sea Eagle II, departing after a six-month refit.
Its spectacular arrival in April caused the Whangārei Airport runway in Onerahi to come to a standstill as triple masts 62.5m high, more than 20m above the runway, created a temporary obstacle for arriving and departing aircraft. However, its quick passage only created a five-minute delay and caused no conflict yesterday.
It was headed to the Bay of Islands to spend several days in the outer bays before mooring at Ōpua to clear customs ready to depart the country.
As the vessel slipped down a bleak harbour away from Port Nikau, its home of six months, co-captain Tod Thompson stepped away from the steering wheel to speak briefly with the Advocate. They were hoping to clear customs, while undergoing Covid tests, by the end of next week, he said.
"Then, it's a little uncertain where we'll go. There's not many places to head."
However, he added that Palau might be an option to reunite the owner of Sea Eagle II with his vessel as he had a connection with the island "so there is a bit of a travel bubble".
"And then we hope to come back for refit work eventually. There's a process to coming back but those are our hopes to go up there and return at some point."
Although it was hard to plan at the moment, a return was hoped for early next year, he said.
The 81m long, 12.5m wide schooner left Amsterdam last November on its maiden voyage to carry out a long sea trial. Thompson, who also captained the owner's previous yacht, Sea Eagle I, is from Whangārei Heads and was joined by his wife and co-captain Maxwell Cumming from Russell with a crew of 13.
"My wife and I and one of the co-captains were quite keen to come here with it so we had some degree of influence over it coming here. We're very appreciative to be here. New Zealand is the place to get this work done," he said at the time.
Most systems had run smoothly on the maiden voyage, and the refit had involved engine work, rigging and hydraulics.
"It's quite a sophisticated boat with a lot of systems. There's teething issues we gathered on the way up from Europe so we've been working through a list with our agent here and with all the local team. Port Nikau has been a very good host for us and thank you to them and to all the various contractors that have helped us there. It's been great. It's still home here so we'll be back."
Thompson spent the past six months on board and at his Whangārei Heads home and catching up with friends and family.
"It's certainly been busy. It's been so good to be in Whangārei but we've been pretty busy with the boat so weren't able to be as social as we'd liked. We weren't able to catch up with everybody that we wanted to and, of course, lockdown came along and inhibited things as well.
"But we did get a lot done and we're going to go out and tweak it," he said adding that this voyage was another sea trial and a chance for the owner to sail aboard his vessel.
Sea Eagle II reportedly belongs to Taiwanese billionaire businessman and philanthropist Samuel Yen-Liang Yin. She is a world-voyaging private boat built for pleasure and Thompson had sailed her at up to 22 knots. Along with the crew, the vessel hosts 10 guests and sea toys such as jet skis, dinghies and kayaks.
With masts of such height, a pilot was needed aboard while passing airports, such as Whangārei and also in Tahiti, to lend their local navigational knowledge of the harbour.
Upon Sea Eagle II's arrival in the Bay of Islands in April, it was met by the schooner R. Tucker Thompson. It was also met as it entered the Whangārei Harbour by friends of Thompson's on their respective yachts.
Thompson has lived at Whangārei Heads since 1974 and also in the Bay of Islands where, along with friends, he built the R. Tucker Thompson and named it after his father.