As Maurice Brisard relaxes on board his 50-ft aluminium sloop Karmocha with a glass of French champagne, it's hard to imagine the other life he carries out saving lives in war-town countries.

The 78-year-old affable Frenchman has certainly led an extraordinary life. A surgeon for 50 years, his first recreational passion was climbing mountains. But, after reaching 8,000m on the south summit of Mt Everest in 1991, an avalanche landed him in hospital putting an end to his climbing hobby.

A friend and world-renown navigator suggested he take up sailing instead.

"I've always liked challenges," says Maurice, who can also speak Dutch, Polish and a little English. "The boat is a challenge. Before it was climbing, but each day I learned."

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He has since taken on many voyages, including sailing solo for four months around Antarctica.

"It was just me and the big iceberg and the huge albatross flying over," he recalls fondly.

After retiring, Maurice was approached by Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian medical organisation with projects in conflict zones and in countries affected by endemic diseases, and has carried out missions in war-torn countries saving thousands of lives over the last ten years.

"I have been amongst the pure misery of the world. It is a risky job every day and so they don't send for the young doctors with young families, they want experienced doctors," he explains.

Maurice has seen some truly horrific sights - his tablet holds some of the before and after images from the successful surgeries he has performed - and it is clear many of his patients have touched his heart. These include rescuing an unborn baby from the mother's womb after she was killed, reconstructing faces which have been destroyed by bullets and performing multiple amputations daily on both adults and children.

He has the photo with a 20-year-old Palestinian man giving the peace sign from his hospital bed two days after performing surgery on the spot to remove a bullet from his heart.

In October, Maurice sailed into Whangarei aboard Karmocha, which he says means 'freedom of myself' and also is a combination of his son Jean-Charles and daughter Karina's names, as well as his own, from Tahiti. He has resided there the last 36 years.

"New Zealand is the best country to repair the boat, I think, with the quality of the engineers and workers on the boats. It's a good life here in New Zealand and the listening and kindness of the people touches my taste and liking for life," he says, adding that he always looks forward to arriving at new destinations and meeting new people.

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And the voyage from Tahiti to Whangarei wasn't without its adventure. After a storm ripped the main sail, Maurice lost his footing on the stairs and tumbled to the cockpit causing extensive hematoma down his back, making the final ten days challenging.

But the active doctor has mended now and spends his days cycling to destinations, which have so far included Opua and Auckland.

"I like this country because I am so active and, the other day, I cycled to Opua and went across to Russell but there were no places left to stay so I went to Paihia and rode back to Opua and then the kind lady in Russell phoned back to say they had room so I rode back. I covered 247km in two days."

Maurice is also a keen philosopher and, it's during his sailing adventures, that he puts life into perspective.

"I'm very relaxed here and, as well as working on my boat, I have time to write my philosophies and a bit of an autobiography.

"I like to appreciate the beauty I see and hear around me. Yesterday I was sitting in a restaurant and there were two couples. One lady was normal and the other was pretty but I could see that the beauty was in the normal-looking lady because she was in love, it was in her eyes.

"Why I say that is because a woman in love is more beautiful than the coquettish. The beauty is not about the plastic but it is about love. That was my philosophy for the day," he finishes with a smile.

And on that note, while Karmocha undergoes repairs in Whangarei, Maurice, originally from Burgundy, will be flying home to France for Christmas.

"I like New Zealand but I miss my children. I have to see them."