The most enduring of our family’s midsummer traditions almost never happened.
Sailing back across the Pacific in the mid-1970s, we anchored in the remotest Marquesas Islands after the longest passage of a circumnavigation, from Panama to French Polynesia. Next morning, another traditional yacht ghosted into a far corner of the bay, the first vessel or people we had seen since leaving the Galapagos.
We rowed over and were invited back later for the obligatory sunset rum and competitive tales in the cockpit.
Nick and Nancy were from Maine, their yacht a handsome Sparkman and Stevens which, like ours that we had built ourselves in Whangārei, was a little over 40 feet and great for fast ocean passages.
Cake and West Indian rum, with real cold Coke, came and went. Not long out from a year in prim and austere Britain, we thoughtfully – if regretfully – rose to leave with much of the glistening lemon cake uneaten.
Fortunately, our more forthright East Coast American hosts demanded to know if we did not like the cake. The privations of ocean sailing at the time included weevils, tins, salt fish, rice and attempts at bread or banana cake in a camp oven over an anaemic primus stove. Take Five had refrigeration and Panamanian steak. How nearly we missed out on a fabulous friendship, all for not knowing that, whatever the shibboleths of the English class system, Americans expect their guests to finish the damned cake.
Those were the days, perhaps the last, when money never intruded or occurred as the measure of a man’s worth. When we got to Tahiti and they spent more than our entire year’s cruising budget on fixing their freezer, we gave them heaps. Nick did once, famously, emerge from the forecastle during a late night session in a coral atoll in the Tuamotu Islands with a cigar in one hand and a radio in the other, announcing that he had been talking with his stockbroker, while Nancy went on washing dishes in impossibly tiny volumes of precious fresh water. It was just the colour of life, not a measure of personal worth.
Six months later, and with our own circumnavigation completed, we had a rendezvous in Oneroa Bay, our own Pendragon’s home base, and both crews came ashore for a Christmas with all the sparkling crystal and Kiwi trimmings in the former surf club on the foreshore that belonged to my parents.
Boxing Day came and as we gathered in the garden that overlooked our respective ships, Nick emerged from the kitchen door with the crystal bowl under his arm, already digging his spoon into the remains of the well-sherried Christmas trifle. Fortunately my mother, war-time Navy at her core, had already heard the cake story and everyone collapsed laughing.
This Christmas, more than half a life later, as we shared a karakia of thanks for the food piled on the table – including a generous trifle for the following morning – remembered with a pang how simple it was at that time, and how soon it was gone.
Auckland was the unofficial capital of the Pacific, even in the farthest French Polynesian islands, and Robert Muldoon had not yet launched the dawn raids on Polynesian overstayers in our colourful, crowded city or purloined the country’s lucrative suppuranuation funds for his Think Big projects – to the great detriment of future generations.
Low personal debt, fiscal prudence and a sufficiency of money for healthy lives and opportunities disappeared almost overnight. New Zealand’s Reserve Bank was created in the capitalist model and Rogernomics were to change our culture and trade.
Perhaps only since we no longer have the last laborious but well-meaning Labour government can we see how much it managed to achieve in spite of disastrous global and environmental challenges. Median and minimum wages moved further than they had in decades. Houses and social housing were built. The housing market cooled. No one I know wanted tax cuts, least of all tax cuts that leave the poorest $2 a week richer while a wealthy prime minister gets $18,000 a year. Only landlords seem to be assured of their $3billion tax break.
No wonder if we are cranky and disturbed. Half of New Zealand’s in-work households are clinging precariously while we are witness to a man-made recession applied knowingly over a Christmas of wondrous glitter and terrifying inflation.
Looking back on a fairly colourful life, if I had a wish for 2024 it would be that we find it in us to make sure everyone has enough – happiness, generosity, money, kindness, opportunity, love, history, housing, education, dreams and inclusion. As a birth right.
We seem to have lost the art of creating the things that truly make us happy. Also, perhaps, the art of making each other happy.
Best wishes to all our readers for a richly satisfying 2024. • Liz Waters