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Solstice Celebration - International cruising fleet thanks Whangarei, New Zealand, for safe haven

by Lisa Benckhuysen 4 Aug 22:46 UTC

The austral winter solstice was marked with a new celebration this year in Whangarei, New Zealand. A fleet of international yachties, or boaties as they are called here, is making the best of their extended pandemic stay.

The cruisers came together with local marinas to host several events over the weekend in a gesture of thanks to the town of Whangarei. Of all the places on the planet we might be stuck, this area with its protected boat basin, wide range of marine services, funky variety of shops, restaurants and cafes and spectacular hiking, biking and walking trails is surely ideal!

The festivities kicked off on Friday evening with a Boatyard Ball sponsored by Riverside Drive Marina. Flags flying and bunting strung between the hardstands, there was potluck dinner under a marquee. After dinner, RDM Band played some old-time rock and roll for enthusiastic dancers. The band, which formed during lockdown, performed multiple encores including the trademark Ten Guitars with marina manager Karl Roberts crooning his best impression of Engelbert Humperdink.

Solstice Saturday dawned wet and chilly, so RDM Band set up on the covered bridge over the Hatea River. A crowd of intrepid boaties and Whangarei residents gathered to take in the music and then hear a "te reo" blessing of the fleet from Fred Tito. As a Maori elder from the local marae, or tribe, Mr. Tito emphasized the importance of this place in and of itself: the river, mountains and forests of Whangarei. "You are welcome here. We all belong here." Three cannons were fired from the bridge in honor of the occasion.

The mayor of Whangarei, Sheryl Mai, followed with an address in English and te reo Maori and then danced to RDM tunes in her official robes. How remarkable to see this joy and spontaneity in a public official! But then again, in New Zealand, the Prime Minister says, "Be kind" as the first rule of thumb in a pandemic and everyone gets on board and cooperates. From extra portaloos and free wifi to a blanket extension of tourist visas, Kiwi pandemic kindness has indeed come in many practical forms.

David Irvin represented the Black Ball Yacht Club. This virtual yachting organization funds marine training for a local student. Last year a $2500 BBYC scholarship for the youth development program on board the tall ship Spirit of New Zealand went to a Kamo High School student. "This is a way for international cruisers, enjoying the town of Whangarei, year after year, to say thank you. What better way than to invest in the youth of this town?" Between mini golf on the Barge Inn, dinner tickets, raffle tickets and donations, the solstice events raised $1000 NZ towards the 2020 BBYC scholarship.

The weekend was such a success that everyone turned out again two weeks later to celebrate Canada Day, USA Independence Day and Bastille Day as well as somebody's birthday. This time we had a troupe of 13 belly dancers drawn from the cruising community and led by Anna Morton from SV Noomea. RDM Band backed up the dancers with Lambada. Teenaged brother and sister Thorsten and Simone, from SV Argo, rocked renditions of Starman and Don't Stop Believing.

Now, completely done in by three weeks of rehearsing and preparing, we have all withdrawn to our boats to recover. Good thing too. A small tornado hit a boatyard down the river and knocked down five boats. Last night it hailed and thundered for hours like it was Armageddon. The streets were flooded and folks stranded in the local petrol station were up to their waist in water. A friend of ours lost a chunk of land in a slip. I am so thankful to be in a marina, tied safely to a dock with a heater plugged in. I will be waiting here for the end of the soggy austral winter before I venture out to sea with my steadfast captain. Thank you, Whangarei! We love it here!

Lisa Benckhuysen is a Canadian educator and freelance writer sailing slowly around the world with her husband on their modified Express 37. Currently in New Zealand she is exploring the various ways international cruisers are adapting to the pandemic.

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