SOUTH SEA VAGABONDS: The Ultimate Dumpster-Diving Boat Bum Tale

South Sea Vagabonds cover

I had always understood this book was a cult classic in New Zealand and several people over the years have urged me to read it. I never really understood how strong the cult was, however, until I finally set out several months ago to buy a copy. Scanning my favorite used-book websites, I was shocked to discover that old paperback copies were going for over $70 a pop. Clearly this was a book that people coveted. So when I eventually learned that a special new “75th Anniversary” hardcover edition from HarperCollins New Zealand had also just become available, for only $45, I snarfed one up with the quickness.

Damn, I thought as I pressed the “Buy” button on my computer screen, this better be worth it! And it was. It has been a long time since I was so engrossed in a sailing narrative, and I don’t know if I have ever laughed out loud so much while reading one.

Evidently the book, first published in 1939, has over the years been a great inspiration to wanna-be Kiwi bluewater cruisers, and it’s very easy to understand why. You really want to go cruising, but you don’t think you have enough money to do it? Or that you haven’t got enough experience? Once you read this book, you’ll understand these are very lame excuses.

Our author, J.W. (Johnny) Wray, is a magnificent role model. Having been fired from his boring office job during the height of the Great Depression, he seizes on what most would deem a grave misfortune and instead makes a grand opportunity out of it. With only a few pounds in his pocket, he starts dragging lost kauri logs off beaches in the Auckland area and decides to build a boat out of them in the front yard of his parents’ suburban home. He designs his craft himself by whittling up a half model and embarks on its construction using some decidedly unconventional low-budget building techniques.

For example, he can’t afford proper fasteners so instead he clinches all the bits of his boat together with lengths of heavy fencing wire cut from a spare coil unearthed from his father’s shed. To keep the wire from corroding he develops a unique method of treating it:

I am not sure that I should reveal the process of the tarring and baking of the clinches, but, as I may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, I am prepared to chance it.

One dark night you go along the road pushing a wheelbarrow containing a pick. Note: only bitumen roads more or less in the country are suitable. You look for places where the roadmen have been over-liberal and the tar is running into the grass on the side of the road. With the pick you scrape up strips of tar until you have enough and then you wheel it home. The next morning you melt up the night’s spoil in a kerosene tin. The tar melts and comes to the top and boils. You dip the clinches in it and hang them up to dry.

One afternoon, when your mother or whoever presides over the household has gone out shopping, you put the clinches in the family gas oven and roast them until they have a hard, enamel-like, black surface. It is advisable to keep a fire-extinguisher or a bucket of water handy, because there is liable to be an explosion, or at least a fire, if you are too liberal with the gas. The result, if you are lucky and have not been gassed, concussed, or burnt, is a good serviceable-looking, black-enamelled clinch.

The rest of the project is carried out in a similar fashion. Sails and hardware are salvaged from the wreck of an old square-rigger. A 30-year-old one-cylinder engine found buried in a turnip field is excavated and rehabilitated as (exceedingly unreliable) auxiliary propulsion. The keel and other large bits are hauled about town on a tiny Royal Enfield motorcycle. And when time comes to launch the boat, named Ngataki, a Maori term meaning “home of the elite,” it is twice dropped as it hauled with a borrowed truck from its build site to the waterfront.

Ngataki sailing

Ngataki under sail

No matter. The boat survives and is duly launched, and when Wray at last sets out with friends aboard as crew to realize his dream of sailing to the South Sea islands, he turns out to be just as resourceful and thrifty afloat. For navigation he relies on a decrepit sextant given him by a friend, figuring he’ll teach himself how to use it along the way, but is perturbed to discover he can see seven different reflections of the sun when looking through it.

Well now, this was a poser. I had started to study navigation a little, but none of the problems had included that of working out one’s position when one saw seven suns in the sextant.

Luckily we knew our approximate latitude to-day. Auckland was latitude 36°50′. We had come about 70 miles north, so our latitude now ought to be about 35°40′. I worked out this highly complicated problem backwards and at length found that it was the bottom left-hand sun in the mirror of the sextant that we had to use in our calculations.

Wray and crew

Johnny Wray (on right) with his crew aboard Ngataki

Wray and company not only engage in quite a bit of cruising, they also take up the sport of ocean racing. Competing against one other boat, a ketch named Te Rapunga, they race first from Auckland across the Tasman Sea to Melbourne in Australia. Then from Melbourne they race to Hobart in Tasmania. The latter event features a most unusual starting method:

My life in the Royal St. Kilda Yacht Club revolved, I am afraid, mostly around the bar. I had patronized the bar fairly frequently during our stay and the bar was, I thought, a fitting place in which to start this next ocean race. So this was included in the racing rules: The crews of the competing yachts should be assembled at the bar of [the club] on the 23rd [of January]. The starting gun would be fired at 7 p.m. and the crews would consume a schooner of beer (for the benefit of the uninitiated, a “schooner” contains one imperial quart) as rapidly as possible. They would then run down the road and along the wharf and get under way.

Thus at 7 p.m. we were assembled at the bar of the Yacht Club, together with approximately half the population of Melbourne. The day had been spent largely in saying good-bye to our many Melbourne friends and as far as I was concerned, at least, the world had become a grand and wonderful place.

The starting gun was fired from the roof of the Club. Quickly we drained our schooners and said good-bye again. Not without some difficulty I headed my crew from the club. We raced across the road and along the wharf, to where Ngataki was lying in readiness. The mooring lines were cast off, sails were hoisted and we began to move away from the wharf.

A minute later we spied the Te Rapunga‘s crew labouring along the wharf, handicapped by the weight of a large sack, presumably containing bottles. We saw them get under way and then one of their number fell overboard. The Te Rapunga went about and picked him up. A little later the incident was repeated and by the time he was again picked up our rival had lost half an hour to us.

Race start

Te Rapunga (on left) and Ngataki at the start of the Trans-Tasman Race at Auckland in December 1934

I’m not just cherry-picking here, folks. This book is filled with these sorts of bon mots and anecdotes. There are also a number of chilling heavy-weather experiences, some clever cruising techniques, and one harrowing author-overboard adventure.

All of it well worth my $45, I thought. Looking online again I see prices have dropped quite a bit (depressed no doubt by the book’s now increased availability), and that the new hardcover edition is fortunately still cheapest. I should think it is the best one to read, as it contains a nice selection of photos and lets us know in a nicely turned introduction what happened to Johnny Wray and his boat in the long run.

Ngataki has just recently been restored by New Zealand’s Tino Rawa Trust (you’ll be pleased to learn the fencing-wire clinches held up pretty well over the years) and is still afloat. And Johnny it seems never returned to the rat race he was ejected from in his youth. He ended up marrying Loti, a Polynesian woman he met in the islands (she features briefly in the end of the book), served with distinction in the Second World War, and then lived out the rest of his life more or less in seclusion, communing with the water around Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf outside Auckland, where he finally died in 1986.

Ngataki restored

Ngataki, restored now and in fine condition

Wray when older

Johnny Wray in his later years. A boat bum to the end

All of which goes to illustrate something I learned about bluewater cruising a long time ago: you really never can come all the way home again.

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5 Responses
  1. Mike

    Great to see you covering Wray’s story. As a Kiwi kid I read the book back in the 70s and it set me dreaming. I reread it again last year and appreciated it even more. There’s something to be said about just getting out there and messing about in boats. In today’s increasingly consumer oriented society Wray’s approach helps refocus on what is really necessary to get out there and enjoy oneself. Each time I’m tempted to buy some new piece of gear – I think of wire, road tar and a boat that is still going strong.
    It is a seafaring classic and a danger in the hands of those who dream in the daytime.

  2. John Hunt

    My Dad was ‘Snow’ Hunt and a member of the trans-taxman crew. I have read the book and heard the stories for years.

    Question please: what is a clinch and where may I get a picture of one? Thanks a million

    1. Charles Doane

      Hi John: So glad you found this post! My sense is that a “clinch” is effectively a crude rivet. A piece of common wire, driven through the wood, and sharply bent at each end to hold it in place. But I may be wrong. I have no photos to share. cheers!

  3. Thomas K.

    I loved Wray’s book. I’m retired and poor as the proverbial churchmouse, but my passion is reading. And currently my wealth in reading, if you can call it that, is reading about those who favor sailing. Perhaps in my next life I’ll pick up sailing… perhaps.
    Nice website.

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