As part of the Northern Advocate's summer series Jodi Bryant takes a stroll around the Town Basin marina and visits some current residents.
When Richard Marshall finally sailed into Whangārei, it was everything he'd dreamed it would be and more, while researching from his Kansas City home almost 7000 nautical miles away.
"At night he would read blogs to me about Whangārei," laughs his wife Michelle, who joined him on his dream journey.
A lifelong sailor, Richard had always dreamed of exploring the islands of the South Pacific. However, Michelle, a keen diver, was lured in by the promise of premium diving.
After a three-year boat search, he found the ideal vessel in the Marshall Islands. Pogeyan, a 47ft four-berth charter catamaran, was delivered to Fiji, where the couple would take possession.
"It was an older catamaran but was already fitted with much of the equipment necessary for cruising," explains Richard. "It also has enough headroom for my 195cm frame!"
The engineers left their jobs, sold up, bid their adieus and flew to Fiji to pick up their new home. From there, they set sail - destination Whangārei.
That was five years ago and, as they cruised down Whangārei Harbour toward the Town Basin, everything began to look familiar.
"I'd been studying this lifestyle my whole adult life and knew Whangārei from travel blogs. I would sit in my office eating my lunch looking at this place," says Richard from the spacious deck of Pogeyan, moored opposite the Town Basin playground.
"I'd been watching the Town Basin develop, and the bascule bridge – I even knew where Pak'nSave was! So to see it all materialise in real life was something special."
He says in real life, it not only lived up to his expectations, it exceeded them.
"I wish you could see your hometown through our eyes. The beauty of it, the pace of life, the green …
"If most sailors were handed a globe and asked to point at the biggest concentration of cruising destinations, they would probably point right here."
They spent the first three years alternating between New Zealand and Tonga and Fiji for six months. Then, after New Zealand's first lockdown ended in July 2020, with their boat built for the tropics, they headed for Fiji to escape winter.
"The New Zealand winter was coming and it was getting uncomfortable and we didn't want to reconfigure the boat with heaters," Michelle explains.
However, after arriving in Fiji, our borders closed and they became stranded for 15 months enduring the cyclone season, which most boaties escape. That December, Fiji was slammed by the severe cyclone Yasa and Richard and Michelle fled up-river to the mangroves to tie up, along with 50 other boats.
During this time they volunteered with Sea Mercy, which, along with other roles, assists in emergencies during natural disasters.
In fact, last year, Richard spent Christmas Day searching through bush for solar panels strewn around during the cyclone, which he located and was then able to reconnect the village water.
"To them, it seemed like a miracle but it was just another work day for me – it matched what I did."
They were finally able to return to New Zealand one month ago after their application was given an exemption due to the major refit work Pogeyan is about to undergo in Whangārei.
This is one of many refits as they gradually convert the former charter holiday boat into a home.
"The marine services here are top-notch. We're so lucky to be here. We spent the first lockdown here as a 'dock bubble' and all became close-knit neighbours. It's the best neighbourhood I will ever live in," says Richard, who, along with Michelle, is a member of the Black Ball Yacht Club, a local group of international boaties who raise money to encourage local youth into the marine world.
The keen hikers have done all the walks and mountains in the area dozens of times - with Michelle, an avid photographer, capturing much of the stunning scenery.
While their boat is undergoing the refit they will travel around the South Island by road, before flying back to the States to visit family, and returning.
"It's like the perfect life because we get to dive for six months, then hike around your beautiful country for six months and there are lots of photo opportunities for Michelle."