“It was purchased by Auckland Council in 2010 so that the public space could be returned to the people for recreation and enjoyment by the sea.”
Tom Warren, Panuku, Development Auckland
While the majority of the folks at Westhaven marina seem to have grown up around boats, Rob, a former Olympic sailing tactician, developed his love of them from a rather more incongruous source: a fear of water. Such was his fright at the sight of the sea beneath the cracks of the dock that he actually had to be carried across them. “When I was about eight, I saw some kids sailing some P-Class yachts and I told my parents I wanted one,” he continues as we sail out for a Friday afternoon Rum Race aboard the 36-foot Boogie Flash. “My dad thought that was hilarious and told me if I managed to swim two lengths of the school pool I could have one, which I did, and he was true to his word. Though, the first time he took me out, he made sure it was during some very rough weather off Thames!”
Luckily for this sailing novice, our Rum Race takes place on calm waters, though the Waitemata Harbour breeze is somewhat chilled. The crew, all members of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, further comprises Andrew, Helen and skipper, Mike Malcolm, and between them, they have well over a century’s worth of sailing experience. The event is approached with an easy-going professionalism, warmly welcoming their newest crew mate for the day — and ensuring that I also earn my keep. (Boats from all clubs are often in need of volunteer Rum Race crew. For any would-be sailors or curious ocean souls out there, I highly recommend it.)
Westhaven, the largest marina in the southern hemisphere and one of a select few in the world to be located so close to a CBD, is home to around 2,900 boats and four yacht clubs. “The yacht clubs really are the hub of the marina,” says marina general manager Tom Warren of Panuku Development Auckland. “They organise all the events and everyone heads to them to socialise following the races. Right now, it’s winter so it’s a bit on the quiet side, but there are still at least four days of racing, and in summer, it’s every day.”
Though the average boat owner is aged mid-60s, there is an ever-growing trend for groups of younger Aucklanders to buy a yacht between them. “Westhaven encourages entry level boating with facilities and price points for this group,” adds Tom. It also accommodates a range of further water sports and activities such as paddle boarding, kayaking, dragon boat racing and radio controlled sailing.
I learn that Auckland’s ever-rising house prices have, perversely, even been beneficial for the boat business. “It’s seen as a bit of a compromise for those who can no longer afford to buy property in the city,” says Tony Smith, a broker at Vining Marine. Tony, I am told, is somewhat of legend around the marina for not only having introduced thousands of newcomers to sailing, but encouraging numerous women to take up the sport: “They tend to make for the most reliable crew!”
Since the 19th century, the area — most notably Shelly Beach — has served as a popular meeting place for water-loving Aucklanders and the first breakwater was constructed during the 1940s as a safe place to moor their boats. The latest addition to the site, the boardwalk, will eventually connect to the Harbour Bridge’s Skypath and run all the way to St Heliers. “Westhaven is now very much an inner city marina,” says Tom. “It was purchased by Auckland Council in 2010 so that the public space could be returned to the people for recreation and enjoyment by the sea. So many of our top sailing legends and heroes have a connection to the marina, along with so many regular sailors. We like to call it ‘the heart of boating in Auckland’. It’s a city icon.”
The race ends to a brilliant orange sunset behind another icon, the Harbour Bridge, which seems to so beautifully complement the massive marina over which it stands guard. Slowly we float back into Westhaven, and, with our legs dangling over the side, Helen talks of her love for the sport and its many mental and physical challenges. “It’s this huge puzzle,” she says, “with so many things to solve.”
“And it’s just a lovely team environment,” adds Mike.
I can certainly vouch for the camaraderie, and I sure did enjoy the learning ropes — even though I did manage to tangle myself up in them twice, once very nearly ending up overboard. But I’ll blame that on the rum.
Westhaven at a Glance
- Over half of all the nation’s yacht racing originates in Westhaven.
- Ponsonby Sailing Club runs a sailing school for pre-teens, while the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s school, which takes on slightly older pupils, is considered the best in the world.
- It’s home to the largest boat refuelling facility in the southern hemisphere.
- The marina provides overnight parking and facilities for campervans.
- For ten years in a row, Westhaven has achieved international Blue Flag status in honour of its commitment to sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices.
- Vessels moored at the marina are pretty evenly split between sailing boats and powered yachts.
- There is a kilometre’s worth of fully serviced serviced super yacht berths with plans to extend.
- Three hundred pile moorings are available for entry level vessels, backed by 1,868 wet berths and a 45-berth charter base.
- Around the complex are 500 dry stack berths, two ship lifts and two large capacity slipways.
- There are over 50 charter boats at Pier Z, where sea fishing trips are offered for as little as $60.
- This month sees the opening of the Buoy Café which will sit alongside renowned Sails restaurant and the legendary Swashbucklers.
- Swashbucklers rests on the site of a former ship graveyard.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces