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The Annual Sea Gypsy Hangi of New Zealand

The Maori warrior approached us, a group of circumnavigating sea gypsies, along the banks of the Whangarei river on the north island of New Zealand. He was a startling sight: serious, intent and threatening. He approached aggressively, shaking his canoe paddle as if a spear. He feigned a rush, then retreated.

Then he began to shout loudly in his language, “…are you friend or foe? Do you come in war or peace? If you want a fight… well, we’re more than ready for you! Get ready to take a severe beating! You’ll be sorry if you threaten us! We’re warriors. Why, we can see you’re not from here… so you must have come out of a horse’s ass… no offense! But if you come in peace, well, that’s a different story…”

Finally he set down a small bit of food on the ground. One of our members, Ray Roberts, advanced cautiously and ate bits of it. “We come in peace,” he said formally as flashbulbs popped and digicams whirred, “and we appreciate your offering.”

“Then,” said the proud Maori warrior, “we welcome you.  We acknowledge that we share this earth with you— that our ancestors did and our children will. And that we will all be together in heaven. We also welcome your family— for it is impossible to welcome one person without welcoming his people. Please join us now in a massive feast… we call it a hangi… Maori food prepared with hot stones buried in an earth oven.

“We hope that you have had a good time on your vessels while cruising in the Land of the Long White Cloud… touring our beautiful, bountiful shores… and that you will tell others of our hospitality… and that you and your crews will someday return to lovely Whangarei… to relax, to refit your vessels… and, yeah, okay… to spend a little of your money with our growing marine industry!”

This is a perfect example of why New Zealand’s marine industry is such a shining example to the rest of the world. Twenty-three local marine businesses annually sponsor this well-attended traditional ‘farewell’ party for world cruisers. There wasn’t any sales pitch. It was extremely low-key. In fact, I had to ask a couple of times before I was given a type-written sheet with the actual sponsoring organizations.

We just talked boats and cruising— and ate a massive, delicious meal together. Sure, if you asked a specific marine person about something specific to his marine business, he’d answer. But that wasn’t the purpose of the party. It was to sincerely thank us for summering in New Zealand.

The marine industry of New Zealand knows a rising tide lifts all boats. They practice what they preach.

I believe the reason that tiny New Zealand has been the only country to successfully defend the America’s Cup is due to three things: attitude, hard work and experience. New Zealanders are brimming with a positive, ‘can-do’ attitude. They are willing to work harder and smarter and happier than most. And they know they must earn their stripes. They don’t demand anything be given: only the opportunity to prove themselves through merit.

Yes, the Kiwis are fierce competitors in soccer, rugby, cricket and sailing but they are also fierce ‘cooperators’ as well. Example: their dynamic Marine Industry Association gives numerous ‘bahn-heer’ cruising Pacific sailors promotional materials and then follows up to determine if their welcome message is getting out to the international cruising sailors approaching the area on the traditional coconut milk run.

We met a Kiwi sailor in Moorea and had a wonderful time swapping cruising stories and sailing yarns. Of course, we asked about his country— and he sang its praises. It wasn’t until the following day when he dropped off a large sophisticated ‘welcome yachtie!’ information packet that we discovered he was not only ‘one of us’ but also a member of the Kiwi marine industry as well.

Kiwis believe in the personal one-on-one approach— that you don’t ‘mass market’ a market to the masses… but to individuals, one sailor at a time.

Some passing yachties are hesitant to visit New Zealand because of its strict quarantine laws. The logic of these laws (as pertaining to visiting foreign yachts) is pointed out, and how to simply-yet-fully comply is laid-out step-by-simple-step. The customs and immigration officials are as nice as can be. Yes, they are strict and go-by-the-book… but they are also reasonable and responsible— and know their professional aim is two-fold: to welcome you and protect everyone’s mutual environment!

Every vessel when it clears into New Zealand receives a special ‘gift packet’ upon clearing. Every year there is a ‘special major gift’ of real value and good quality which, hopefully the cruising yachtsman will treasure enough to show off around the world. (Often a bag or ‘ship’s papers’ case which will be carried off the boat for maximum international exposure).

Many local non-marine business are included in the packet with a “second dinner free’ and ‘one free drink’ type of promotional offers as well. Sure, some of these offers are silly and/or worthless but many are not. All visiting sailors make sure to get their ‘freebie pack’ and the NZ marine industry gets a lot of bang for the buck.

In the spring at the beginning the cruising season— right when 90% of the water-borne visitors have just arrived— the NZ marine trades offer a ‘welcome’ party as well. Part ‘trade show’ and part cocktail party, its big draw is a rambling speech by the local weather ambassador Bob McDavit of the NZ Met Service.  (I call him McDamnit, because as I transit down to Kiwiville I’m always weather-lamenting, “Damn it, that’s not what Bob said!”)

The point is, for very little money, New Zealand has become world-renown as THE place for circumnavigators to refit— despite the fact that it is far off the beaten track, surrounded by rough weather conditions, and no longer cheap.

Somehow, Kiwis manage to turn weaknesses into strengths. The popular ‘sailing town’ of Whangarei isn’t even on the coast, it is far, far up a river… fifteen miles or so. And you can only transit it at high tide in a sailboat… only a Hobie cat could make it at low water. And there are no ‘fancy’ or ‘state-of-the-art’ marinas… just mom-and-pop marine operations… shipyards with boat owners doing their own maintenance…  Pile-moorings… fishing docks… tidal flats… broken down boat houses… ‘real stuff’ versus yachting stuff.

Eric Hiscock, author of “Cruising Undersail” and one of my early gurus of offshore sailing, once said, “Whangarei is just about the best spot for a cruising sailor to rest from the Pacific.”

He is still right.

Almost anytime I go into a shoreside business in Whangarei the person behind the counter says, “Ah, which boat are you off of?”

And I say, “…the black one,” and I’m astounded by how many reply, “the large black ketch from England on the dock or the small sloop from the Virgin Islands on the pile mooring?”

Over fifty percent of New Zealanders regularly go boating. Nearly one third ‘regularly’ take part in sailboat racers. They love boaters. Those who aren’t, want to be. It shows… in both how they welcome us and how they thank us.

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