Paul is in the Bay of Islands, some three hours north of Auckland, his boat is in La Paz, Baja California, some 10,000km west of where it should be in Palma de Mallorca. Oh, and hurricane season is looming, so the aforementioned boat needs tucking away somewhere safe fairly imminently. Yes, this is our third consecutive ‘lockdown’ captain’s interview, and things are still geographically topsy turvy. At least it gives Paul the chance to spend some quality time in his native homeland.
Born in 1981, Paul was brought up on an Auckland peninsula surrounded by beaches on all sides. He and his young boat-building dad pretty much lived on the sand, hanging a fishing line into the sea day and night. His first encounter with sailing was at the tender age of three in a little Sunburst dinghy made by his father. By five, he’d progressed to Optimists, and at eight he was in the P Class – New Zealand’s most popular sailing training boat. As he moved into double figures, Paul started to race competitively and spent family holidays chasing regattas up and down the country.
Paul picks up the story: “I won a few regattas, but was actually a mediocre sailor, no nationals or anything like that. On the other hand, I was unquestionably better at sailing than I was at school – academically I was terrible. My options were limited and one of the only classes available to me was horticulture. I turned out to be quite good at it, literally the only subject I passed, and so I did a horticulture course followed by a couple of years working on landscaping, garden centres, and golf courses. I enjoyed it, in fact, I still love a bit of gardening, but there’s no money in it unless you’ve got your own business or you’re growing plants of a rather more illegal variety.
“It was at this point that superyachts flickered on my radar. Sailing had been my whole life, so it seemed like a natural progression, and friends who had joined the industry sent back enthusiastic reports. Seduced by the glamour and the money, I was about to dive in but met a girl and decided to stay. I ended up painting houses instead.
“I started at the bottom, putting in hard graft on the sanding, and gradually grew into a pretty nifty painter. So much so, I put together a team and set up a business of my own – Premier Painters. We secured contracts with several housing companies and painted houses all over Auckland. My girlfriend and I spent the spoils on a house and, when I wasn’t working, I was sailing my very own 22ft keel boat.
“After four years, our relationship fizzled out. I was about 25 and remember thinking now is the time to get into superyachting. Having completed my STCW at the Mahurangi Technical Institute, a sailing buddy introduced me to 1934-built J Class Endeavour in refit in Auckland. I managed to contrive the odd bit of day work and, as a sailor and an America’s Cup fan, I felt like I’d struck gold. I remember showing up massively hungover one day and they handed me an air needle gun to descale the water tanks. I was stuck inside with that ear-piercing noise all day, but didn’t complain once.
“Then came in the offer of my first offshore passage, from Auckland to Tonga, onboard 82ft sail boat Mustang. We left in horrid conditions, battling thunder, lightning and massive seas, but there was no option to delay as a charter booking was awaiting our arrival. Actually it was a great first experience, a real learning curve, and a wakeup call to what being at sea was all about. In spite of everything, I had a ball and knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
“By the time I’d flown back to Auckland, some ten days later, friends of mine had left for Cabo San Lucas where they were running tourist excursions on former Team New Zealand America’s Cup boats. They offered for me to join them but, to be honest, I was more interested in Endeavour. The Mexico gig would last just six months, whereas Endeavour could set me on a solid career path. I asked for a deckhand job, and I got it – probably because of passing that needle gun test.
“My first passage on the J Class would be from Auckland to Japan and China – and back. It would be the longest I’d ever been away from home and I was kinda nervous. My parents stood on the quayside to wave me off. The captain asked each crew member for one emergency point of contact while we were at sea. Everyone gave an email address, except me. I decided I was a sailor now, and had no need to contact home. I suspect the captain gave me an eye roll for that one.
“Leg one was from Auckland to Vanuatu. It could not have been more different from the Mustang ordeal. Conditions were glassy and tuna, marlin and mahi-mahi would leap out the sea beside us. As deckie, I had the best position on the boat, no responsibility, and I could just savour the moment. A highlight was the 2008 Summer Olympics in China. Endeavour would take VIPs from the International Olympic Committee out on lay days, the atmosphere was incredible, and a few of us certainly won gold in drinking. I snatched a quick holiday and flew to Mexico to see my mates. They were living rather wild and debauched lives, I definitely chose the right job.
“After 11 months on Endeavour, I took the opportunity to complete my Yachtmaster. There followed a couple of months taking guests out to watch the 2009 Louis Vuitton Pacific Series on Lion New Zealand which was campaigned by Sir Peter James Blake KBE in the 1985-86 Whitbread Around the World Race.
“As I had no interest in motoryachts, friends told me I had to go to Palma, Mallorca, as it was the place to be for sailing. I booked flights, but no accommodation, and, chatting over my first Spanish beer, was advised to check into Hostal Corona as it was perfectly positioned for dock walking. I jumped in a taxi, muttered ‘Hostal Corona por favor’ and booked a room for a week. I asked the front desk for directions to the superyacht marina and was promptly laughed at. Turns out there are two Hostal Coronas, and I was at the one in El Arenal, a half hour bus ride east of Palma. I wasn’t the first greenie to make the mistake, and for sure I wouldn’t be the last.
“So, I bussed into town and met with various crew agents and frequented the usual yachtie bars, rattling through the 3,000NZD I’d saved in one week flat. Poor Mum had to bail me out more than once. Aside from the occasional bit of day work, I had no full-time work after a month, so took a deckhand position on an 80ft motoryacht for summer 2009. It was a bit boring, but kind of fun, and at least I got to familiarise myself with the Balearic Islands.
“As the charter season came to a close, I managed to wangle a bosun job on 52m sailing yacht Konkordia doing the usual Med-Caribbean milk run. Crew morale was high and they were really amusing times. After 18 months I took time out, ostensibly to go back home for a bit, but it ended up being time ‘on’ rather than ‘off’. I helped friends with delivery trips between Spain and France and got up to general Palma mischief in between. I never made it to New Zealand.
“I felt ready to go for a captain’s role, so decided to step down a LOA and get some driving practice. I joined 100ft Wally Alexia and was lucky enough to work for a hell of a good captain who gave me all the experience I craved. We went to some pleasantly different places – Galicia, Corsica, Sardinia and Portugal – and, in my second year, February 2013 to be precise, I met my now wife.
“Katie was a stewardess on 78m megayacht Eminence and we had mutual friends. It wasn’t until about the sixth time of meeting up that she actually remembered who I was. The first year of our relationship was spent apart but, as the season rounded off, we went to Nicaragua for a month’s holiday and realised it could get serious.
“Next, I stepped up to first mate on 130ft Wally Angel’s Share – a very cool boat with a unique flush deck. I started three days before the Superyacht Cup Palma – a true baptism of fire. Our handicap was pretty bad for regattas, but it was an awesome experience. A season highlight was cruising the Aeolian Islands off the west coast of Italy. Stromboli had erupted and massive lava flows were spewing down the sides. The only downside was it took about a week to clean off the ash and tiny little volcanic stones.
“That year became a tough one. Angel’s Share went down to a skeleton crew, laying people off, and Katie found herself in hospital. As I pulled into Greece, my mobile picked up phone reception and there was a voicemail from Katie, she had been diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma. Seeing her connected to a machine, losing her hair, was heart wrenching. It was quite the test for a relatively new romance, but we got through it together and, six months after her last treatment, we got a couple’s job on 39m Cinderella IV, joining about two weeks before the season started.
“The best thing about Cinderella IV was getting away from the milk run. Our journey began at the Channel Islands, followed by London’s Canary Wharf for a corporate event. Each bend of the River Thames we had to call in to the control centre and they would say ‘move over, make way for shipping traffic’. I moved across but, when the authorities asked me to move a little more, I argued ‘I’ve only got a metre under the keel’. Then a massive tanker appeared around the corner, ‘yeah, I’ll move over’, I conceded.
“The boss did a lot of corporate events. He had a spirits company and free samples were a perk of the job – appropriate for a bunch of yachties. After London, we went to Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway – an event in every port. It was like a booze cruise. We’d moor up and the cocktail staff would come on board, followed by 20 to 30 guests getting well-oiled on specially blended drinks. After the final tasting event, we went out with the hosts in Norway. Turns out Negronis don’t really agree with me – less said there, the better.
“After three months on the go, we did the ten-day trip back to Palma and finished the season with some Med charters. It was full-on. This time, I did get the break to see the family in New Zealand, and took Katie with me – after all she needed to meet her future in-laws.
“Back in Spain, the proposal didn’t quite go as planned, as they often don’t. I took the ring with me to kitesurfing lessons in Pollensa and was going to whizz her to Cap Formentor on the way home and propose against the stunning natural backdrop. It was windy, cold, and Katie really was having none of it. I mentally calculated a Plan B, sunset at romantic Son Marroig on the west coast, and rally-drove the winding single-track road as quick as I could. We missed sunset. The ring went back in my pocket. People were aware of my plans, word was going to get out, I had to do it, so we rounded off the day at one of our favourite restaurants in La Lonja Palma and I got on bended knee. It wasn’t Cap Formentor, but it was perfect.
“That summer, we did a last season on Cinderella IV, then bought an apartment together in Cala Mayor. It all felt very grown up and I was now keen to secure that captain’s position. I had got as far as I could and needed to pursue that final goal. A friend of mine was working on 34m Germán Frers Epiphany and asked me if I’d be interested in taking her on. I’d already committed myself to an Atlantic crossing on a J Class, followed by a bloody cold Christmas with Katie’s family in Birmingham, then I joined Epiphany – finally a captain.
“After a minimal handover, Katie jumped on for a reasonably busy 2017 Balearic charter season. The anchor chain snapped – twice, the bow thruster fell off, in short, we had a lot of problems. It was a rude introduction. Having tied the knot at a gorgeous Esporles villa wedding, I spent winter hauling Epiphany out and fixing everything before she changed ownership in 2018. We then did the usual Med-Caribbean sequence, my first Atlantic crossing as a captain.
“Christmas 2018 was an episode I’d like to forget. Guests were coming onboard on 27 December, so we went out for a crew Christmas dinner on 24, including our shiny new engineer. At midnight, we returned to find that the water tanks had overflowed, filled up the black tanks, come up through the crew showers and heads, and drowned the underfloor freezer containing a season’s-worth of meat. Said engineer disappeared for a long walk while we fixed everything up. Upon his return, he was duly fired and we spent Christmas Day and Boxing Day frantically sourcing new meat and a new engineer.
“After a mercifully uneventful trip back to the Med and a summer in Croatia, Katie decided she’d had enough of yachting and quit. I also felt that an extended holiday could be in order and resigned. A compromise counter-offer of six months off was duly accepted. We spent a couple of months in Palma, then flew to New Zealand late November, supposedly for four months, but of course we’re now stuck. I’m in the wrong place, the boat’s in the wrong place, and the poor relief captain is stuck holding the baby getting cabin fever in Mexico. Everything’s up in the air. Hopefully I’ll make it back to Mexico and pick up where I left off but, at least for now, we’re safe in a country that has largely avoided the virus thanks to PM Jacinda Ardern’s tight leadership.
“I’d like to stick with my current owner until he parts with his boat, then I may call it quits. With Katie now land based, I don’t want to be away so much. Maybe we will move to New Zealand, maybe we’ll spend a few more years in Mallorca but, whatever happens, I’ll stay in the maritime industry – I can’t see myself out of it. I’ve been sailing since the age of three and this New Zealand lockdown is the longest I haven’t been out on the ocean in 35-odd years. It’s my home and I belong there.
By Sarah Forge firstname.lastname@example.org