Saturday, June 21, 2008

AN ARCHETYPE FOR THE NAUTICAL NUMBER EIGHT WIRE MEN

The Yacht Ngataki - Auckland Harbour - Late 1930s

The Wreck of the Rewa 1930s - Hauraki Gulf

Well Shipmates these old photographs tell a lot of stories and have a lot of associations in the annals of New Zealand nautical folklore. The old square rigger is the 'Rewa'. The gaff sloop is the Ngataki which I will refer to later. In the second photograph the year is late 1935 early 1936. I know this because the vessel to the right of the picture is the American Dwight Long's ketch 'Idle Hour' in which he did a great circumnavigation during the 1930's (see my book list). The launch alongside the Rewa looks to be a long lean Logan design of which there were many during that period and of which many remain. Being a romantic I would like it to be Harold Pickmere's 'Winsome' of Pickmere's Atlas fame - that would really complete the picture.

The archetype of nautical number eight wire though is none of the aforementioned skippers, this mantle in my mind rests on one Johnny Wray who built the gaff sloop 'Ngataki' in Auckland and to which the 'Rewa' had an important contribution.
You can read about this adventurer and free spirit in his book "South Sea Vagabonds". It is the story of a man who during the great depression of the 30's and after losing his job, (mainly for day dreaming about sailing the south seas) proceeds to build a yacht on a shoe string and the smell of an oily rag.

Those far off days were entirely different to today's quagmire of rules and regulations and compliances and red tape. It was a generally more rugged age, no life raft, SSB radio, EPIRB, GPS or an Orion search if you went missing. There was a strong imperative to make sure the blade of your wits and skills was keen.

During the late 1920's and 1930's kauri trees were still being logged and floated to the mills in big log booms. Often logs were lost in the process and they were found washed up all over the Hauraki Gulf . Johnny Wray and his friends found seven of these and towed them to Auckland and had them milled so he could build himself a boat.

In New Zealand the term "number eight fencing wire" is used to describe a "of course we can do it and we will do it through hard work, ingenuity, thinking outside the square and using available materials in new and novel ways" type of mentality. It is a legacy from times of colonial hardships.
Well Johnny Wray with very little in the way of money and other resources used this kind of thinking, in fact he actually used fencing wire in the construction of the Ngataki. Quoting from his book:

"My next problem was the question of fastening the timbers together and this I accomplished in a manner of which I am rather proud as it has since proved to be absolutely satisfactory. No bolts were used. The timbers were joined with large staple-shaped pieces of heavy fencing wire, which were driven through the wood and the ends hammered over"

And the Rewa? I hear you ask. Well shipmates, the Rewa had been bought by a man called Charlie Hanson, lock stock and barrel. Charlie lived ashore in a sort of nautical Nirvana. Listen to this:

"To anyone nautically minded his little home was a perfect delight. It was built largely from gear salvaged from the ship "in his front garden," as he called it. Lifebelts, binnacles, wheels; flags, shrouds, ropes, rails; in fact everything dear to the heart of a sailor was built into that little home. There was a library there that must have contained every nautical book ever published, a library that would have be the heart's desire of any true sea - lover. A perfect home for an old sailor."

It was from Charlie and the Rewa that Johnny got the mast, boom, rigging, assorted fittings and enough canvas to make the sails for the Ngataki. The price? - "a bag of flour, a bag of potatoes and a few other things" The serendipity of the Rewa and Charlie in the building of the Ngataki were most fortunate, for as Johnny Wray said, "You can't cut a sail out of a log."

The rest of the story of the Ngataki are well featured in Johnny's book. The South Sea Island cruises, the trans Tasman yacht racing, the capsize in a hurricane, searching for lost treasure on Savarov Island etc.

I think it is fitting to leave the last word to Johnny Wray from the preface to his book.

".... it is written for the man who works in a city office and dreams about sparkling blue waters and coconut palms and white sails bellying to the warm trade - winds. It will, perhaps, show him how it is possible to break away from the ties of civilisation, build himself a boat and sail in her whereever he wills. I was a dreamer once, but now my dreams have come true, and I am satisfied and happy"

An archetypal No 8 wire man, a man living intensely and creatively in the moment, day to day, hmmmm, I wonder....


3 comments:

Paul M said...

I was very interested in this article, particularly the pictures and reference to the 'Rewa'. I belive this ship was built in my hometown of Whitehaven (Cumbria. England) in 1879 as the Alice A Leigh - the largest ship ever built there. You may be interested to know that there is also a survining square rigged ship based in Stockholm, Sweden. This is the AF Chapman which was built at Whitehaven in 1885 as the Dunboyne. It is fully restored and operates as a floating youth hostel. I had the good fortune to have a look around the other year and found it fascinating, particularly the 'character' of the vessel. It is great that you have recorded these facts and good luck for 2010. PM.

Gabriel said...

http://forum.woodenboat.com/showthread.php?p=2561899

IslandBeach said...

I'd say you are missing one of the sailing classics: Quest by George Dibbern.
Charles A. Borden, in Sea Quest wrote:
"What I remember most about George Dibbern, Alain Gerbault, Eric De Bisschop, Harry Pidgeon, Christopher Grabowski, and a number of others who made small-ship sailing a way of life is not their courage or seamanship, though they had both in good measure, but their quiet faith, their solid convictions in the face of a doubting world, in the face of some who called them fools. When they were up against the greatest odds, faith in life pulled them through."

For full information about Dibbern (who sailed his ketch Te Rappunga against Ngataki in the Trans Tasman Race) I invite you to visit www.georgedibbern.com