Sailing identity Henk Haazen is a prime mover behind an expedition next week to restore an old coastwatchers' base on the Auckland Islands.

The larger than life Haazen, skipper of the smallest New Zealand-registered charter vessel to ply the deep Southern Ocean, has a lively interest in history.

On March 26 HMNZS Wellington is scheduled to carry volunteer builders to Ranui Cove to renovate World War II buildings there. Mr Haazen picks them up again next month.

Southern Ocean charter operator Henk Haazen came to New Zealand aboard the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. Photo / Supplied
Southern Ocean charter operator Henk Haazen came to New Zealand aboard the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. Photo / Supplied

It's a project he and fellow Waiheke Islander John Ball, have invested their own money and resources in.

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The colourful Dutchman's time in New Zealand, "started with a bang, in 1985", when he and Kiwi-born partner Bunny McDiarmid arrived aboard the Rainbow Warrior.

He built the 15.5 metre Tiama in 2000 and since then has taken 150 expeditions to the Southern Ocean. The 30-tonne cutter carries just two crew and six passengers, clients including NIWA, Universities of Otago and New South Wales, DOC, BBC film crews and eco-tourists.

In 1987 he helped to build a Green Peace base on Ross Island, in Antarctica. The plan was to declare Antarctica a World Park, off-limits to commercial exploitation and pollution, and open for limited research.

Greenpeace dismantled the base in 1992, but while Mr Haazen was working there as logistics manager, he had an idea: "Groups visiting Antarctica on large ships can spend $1 to $2 million per expedition," he said. "There had to be a niche for smaller, less expensive craft. I began researching the optimum design for such a vessel."

Extra-strong craft

Plying the southern ocean in a craft of just over 15 metres is not everyone's idea of a good time. So how Mr Haazen establish his clientele?

"Mainly, we've succeeded through gaining a reputation for adherence to the strictest of safety standards," he points out.

"In addition, operating a smaller craft, with a retractable keel, can have advantages. For example, our dive expedition to the Ross Dependency in 2006, which had a three-week window of perfect weather and sea conditions. We used the Tiama's maneuverability and retractable keel to bring a dive party closer to the Balleny Islands than any larger craft would have achieved."

While they may have some limitations compared to larger ships, small purpose-built craft, such as the Tiama or the Evohe fulfil a niche in expeditions to the Sub-Antarctic and Arctic. They can deliver expeditions at a fraction of the cost of a large ship or ice breaker, he says.

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(Evohe is another New Zealand-registered yacht which specialises in research and natural history filming expeditions to the Southern Ocean. But at 25 metres and able to accommodates 12 passengers plus 7 crew, she's considerably larger than the Tiama).

Henk Haazen (left) has taken clients to Antarctica, including from NIWA, Universities of Otago and New South Wales, DOC and the BBC. Photo / Supplied
Henk Haazen (left) has taken clients to Antarctica, including from NIWA, Universities of Otago and New South Wales, DOC and the BBC. Photo / Supplied

Back in the 1990s, Haazen chose an extra-strong ship design by New Zealand naval architect Allan Mummery, but it still raised a few eyebrows at Maritime New Zealand.
The concept of a steel cutter this small, yet able to visit Antarctica, was such a novelty that some at the Government Department were skeptical.

Mr Haazen won them over, taking pains to request every detail required in the design and construction, then carefully implementing whatever he was told.

Lacking the money to get her built, he did most of the work himself, leasing space at the Grey Lynn factory.

Once completed, she was fitted out with latest electronic navigation equipment. Ahead of every expedition, Mr Haazen spends hours poring over charts and computer screens, assessing weather patterns and planning his course.

Despite a widespread repuation as an adventurer, he's quick to dispel the image of, "a knockabout sea captain, relishing everything the Southern Ocean can dish-up".

If anything, he says he's the opposite - more of a chess player, calculating everything in advance, and using technology to plot a safe course to avoid extremes.

With the superb navigation aids available today, he says there's never been a better time in history to be sailing in the Southern Ocean.

"Iron men in wooden ships"

But despite these excellent tools, things still come down to seamanship and an attitude of care.

The skipper says while it's no ice breaker, the Tiama is a "belt and braces job" a craft carefully engineered to potentially extreme conditions.

"My passengers are the most breakable item on board, hence my near fixation with safety.
"Those of us who sail in these waters have huge respect for the likes of Ross, Cook and the other early explorers who lacked all the technology we have today.

It may be a cliche, but back then we had 'iron men in wooden ships'; now just too often I think it's 'wooden men in iron ships'."

"Keeping the history of the Sub Antarctic alive wherever possible is just so important in my view.
"The coastwatchers' base at Ranui Cove and other heritage structures still standing on the Auckland Islands, are well worthy of protection. Tourists just stare at these structures in wonderment."

The Tiama works out of Bluff, with Haazen splitting time between his home in Waiheke and skippering expeditions to the Southern Ocean. Though he has voyaged to the South Pacific islands, they bore him in comparison to the likes of Auckland Islands, Campbell and Antarctica.

He's so fond of sailing among icebergs, he takes time off to join expeditions through Canada's northwest passage.

"Honestly, you've seen one white sandy beach, lined with palm trees, and you've about seen them all. I love the remote aspect of the polar regions, their adventure, wildlife and the history. This has made me very protective of our Southern Islands and I do fear their ecology being damaged by deep-water oil exploration, or over-fishing.

Builders (from left) Jon Patrick, Doug Kemp and John Ball, discuss previous expeditions to the Auckland Islands aboard the Tiama. Photo / Supplied
Builders (from left) Jon Patrick, Doug Kemp and John Ball, discuss previous expeditions to the Auckland Islands aboard the Tiama. Photo / Supplied

"There's a vibrant eco system on the surface, with whales, seals and sea birds in abundance - but let's remember that it all depends of what happens deep under the water. When I see vast fleets of factory trawlers from Asia and Russia working down there, I do worry.

"I know the country's gets an income from this, and that's great, but the extent of what's going on in our economic zone would boggle your mind. How can it be sustainable?
"Also, the idea of oil companies drilling several kilometres down through the sub-Antarctic ocean is truly scary."

Mr Haazen also would hate to see an airfield constructed in the Auckland Islands.
"As things stand there's a kind of mote surrounding New Zealand's Sub-Antarctic region.
"Only to people who go out of their way to do so can get there.

You must find the money and put up with the discomfort, maybe sea sickness and so forth. Smehow this all works together to create a valuable respect for the region.

"I believe that limiting visitor numbers is a valid way to protect this fragile environment and right now DOC does an excellent job in looking after our Sub-Antarctic Islands.
"Yes, the big eco tourist ships go there and there are clearly some benefits from people visiting and appreciating the value of what they see.

"But I'd hate to see over-commercialisation of our wonderful southern islands."