Man who took waka 65,000km by sea, navigating by the stars, picks up life after lockdown.

Jack Thatcher was able to navigate his way through lockdown because of his experiences at sea.

The Tauranga man, who turns 60 this year, has clocked up more than 65,000km of ocean voyaging in waka in the last 30 years – a feat he has achieved primarily by navigating by the stars to find his way.

Thatcher runs a school teaching navigation of waka by crews using the celestial heavens and says the lessons he has learned on the ocean waves stood him in good stead during lockdown – as well as priming him to return to "normal" afterwards.

On his first voyage to Rarotonga in 1992, the Te Aurere waka he was on was hit by a severe storm thousands of kilometres out to sea. "The seas were huge, I thought we were capsizing," he says. "It was the most frightening time of my life, I've never been that scared."

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In such circumstances, Thatcher says, you work together; you call on your training and you know what you have to do to survive.

"You're out there with a small group of people each dependent on the other and you need to know you're in a survivable situation," he says.

Getting through Covid-19 was "a bit like that too", he says, adding that New Zealand had done a great job of locking down – and the population knew they could survive.

As a person who travels extensively and engages with lots of people, Thatcher says he missed this face-to-face interaction during lockdown. But, at the same time, he found it helped him think more about what is important to him – his family.

"I loved every moment of it in the end," he says, although he worried - and still worries - about one of his two daughters who lives in Sydney. He enjoyed spending more time with his wife Awhina, getting his garden into shape and cooking the odd meal.

Now, as Thatcher is gradually getting back to 'normal', the Te Hiringa Hauora/Health Promotion Agency is working with a range of partners to encourage all New Zealanders— but especially those in older age-groups – to get back to doing what kept them busy before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

Virginia MacEwan of Te Hiringa Hauora says many in the 50-plus age-group were heavily impacted during the lockdown by loneliness, loss of freedom, lack of access to amenities and minimal contact with family members.

"Many had no time to prepare for lockdown and even now a lot remain fearful and are limiting social connections because they are still hearing about active cases occurring at the border," she says.

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"But it's okay to live life normally now as long as you take reasonable precautions like hand-washing, thinking about what you touch and social distancing."

MacEwan says while this may take a bit of getting used to, it is important for a person's wellbeing to be back in touch with family and friends.

Older people need not think they are a bother. "Don't go it alone if you need a hand, you will be amazed at the support out there," she says. "We want them to look after their wellbeing."

She also has a message for younger Kiwis: "Value our kaumātua and support them so they can feel and be part of the recovery; don't let crisis divide us by age as for New Zealand to recover we all have a part to play, young and old.

"If you phoned your elderly relatives every day during lockdown, why stop doing that?"
As New Zealand continues its march into a post-lockdown world, Thatcher is planning his return to the sea. His school, Te Kura Waka, teaches the ancient art perfected by early Polynesian explorers who navigated without instruments across vast stretches of the Pacific solely through their ability to read the stars, wind and sea currents.

With around 250 students on his books, Thatcher has been relying on zoom meetings - zoom hui or 'zui' as he calls them - to keep in touch in recent months. But now he is preparing a new voyage: "I need to graduate them and I have promised a big overseas voyage."

He is hoping this will be to the islands in the Pacific but says it is dependent on the situation around Covid-19: "We won't go if we're not allowed; we might need to put it back a year or two."

A veteran of many ocean voyages – including a 12,000km there-and-back to Rapanui (Easter Island) in 2012 – Thatcher says voyaging enables him to see the world through the eyes of his ancestors.

"They were both brave and confident," he says. "Their trips were not accidental, nor were they one-way. I'm sure that today we are nowhere near as peerless in understanding the ocean as they were."

Thatcher says age is no limit to his waka crews (he once had a 68-year-old grandmother on a voyage) he mostly looks to pass on his knowledge to young people "because they soak it up easier."

His interest in waka voyaging came after breaking his leg playing rugby in 1988, ending his season. An uncle took him to a meeting to discuss the building of a waka and Thatcher was so taken with the idea he volunteered to join the crew – a decision which changed his life.

If you haven't already seen it the Super Seniors Website is a great place to find a range of information that can support your wellbeing and find the latest news for those over 65.