The sound of tran­quil­lity

Pelorus Sound – Marl­bor­ough’s jewel.

Boating NZ - - Contents - BY LAWRENCE SCHÄF­FLER

First – a con­fes­sion. I like to think I’ve sailed ex­ten­sively in the Marl­bor­ough Sounds. That’s only half-true. In re­al­ity – I’ve sailed within the Queen Char­lotte Sound. And there’s no deny­ing its majesty and ap­peal – breath­tak­ing scenery, idyl­lic an­chor­ages, great fish­ing, fun restau­rants, ex­cep­tional wine.

But the ‘Sounds ex­pe­ri­ence’ changed for me ear­lier this year when I ven­tured into the Pelorus Sound – of­ten de­scribed as Char­lotte’s more de­mure, re­tir­ing sis­ter – for the first time. It is – in my opin­ion – even more beau­ti­ful and much more in­ter­est­ing.

It comes with all the at­trac­tions listed above but, per­haps because of its rel­a­tive iso­la­tion, the deaf­en­ing si­lence, the star-stud­ded night skies, the ex­pan­sive wa­ter­ways and hid­den in­lets – there’s a greater mys­tique. With its 380km shore­line, it is the largest of the Sounds and its name de­rives from a ‘blend’. In 1838 HMS Pelorus did the first sur­vey of the Sound – and a ‘pelorus’ is a nav­i­ga­tional ac­ces­sory used on early sail­ing ships.

An ex­traor­di­nar­ily con­vo­luted (think maze) boat­ing

play­ground, it would take weeks if not months to ad­e­quately ex­plore its wa­ter­ways, in­lets and an­chor­ages. But the best-kept se­cret of the Pelorus Sound is that you don’t even need a boat to dip into its trea­sures. In­stead, hop aboard the Pelorus Ex­press mail boat.

This ser­vice – cel­e­brat­ing its cen­te­nary this year – was orig­i­nally estab­lished to de­liver mail (and sup­plies and live­stock and pretty much any­thing else) to the lo­cals liv­ing in some of the Sound’s re­motest out­posts. A cen­tury ago, it was a much busier place, and over the years has hosted whalers, min­ers, sawmillers, ship­builders and farm­ers.

To­day those in­dus­tries have (mostly) dis­ap­peared and have been re­placed by the coun­try’s largest mus­sel farm­ing in­dus­try. What’s re­mained largely un­changed though, is that there are (still) very few ac­cess roads and hardly any on-grid elec­tric­ity. For many places a boat is (still) the only means of ac­cess.

For­tu­nately, the mail boat oper­at­ing to­day is much more mod­ern (and a lot faster) than the ves­sels that plied the Sound a cen­tury ago. She’s brand new – a fast, sta­ble 15m al­loy cata­ma­ran equipped with twin 600hp diesels. She runs seven days a week in sum­mer (three in win­ter) and, in the words of her crew, her ser­vice has mor­phed over the years.

Says Jim Bail­lie, the boat’s in­fec­tiously-up­beat owner/skip­per and walk­ing-pelorus-sound-en­cy­clopae­dia: “We used to be a mail ser­vice boat car­ry­ing a few tourists. To­day we’re a tourist boat car­ry­ing a bit of mail.” Bail­lie is the ninth owner of the op­er­a­tion. The new cat is a birthday pre­sent, he says, to cel­e­brate the ser­vice’s cen­te­nary.

Based at Have­lock Ma­rina at the head of the Sound, she’s the daytrip­per’s key to dis­cov­er­ing Pelorus Sound. With her speed she cov­ers the en­tire Sound, leav­ing at 10.00am and re­turn­ing at around 4.00pm. And it’s an enor­mously en­joy­able voy­age.


The boat’s a glo­ri­ous plat­form for taking in the sights through the Sound – pre­sent­ing vis­tas you couldn’t hope to cap­ture from a car – bright greens and deep blues one mo­ment, dark, brood­ing peaks around the next cor­ner. And al­ways the sparkling wa­ter.

It’s the add-ons that cre­ate the ser­vice’s over­all charm. This in­cludes the hu­mourous, in­for­ma­tive com­men­tary from Bail­lie, de­liv­ered in his rich, Scot­tish brogue. It me­an­ders through the Sound’s colour­ful his­tory, its ge­og­ra­phy, its marine farm­ing in­dus­try, its di­verse fauna and flora – and its ecol­ogy.

For many vis­i­tors the most in­trigu­ing part of the trip is meet­ing the lo­cals liv­ing in home­steads tucked deep into re­mote bays. Each has a jetty and the ‘mail de­liv­ery’ is al­ways a lively rit­ual because the live­stock’s in­cluded in the wel­com­ing party.

At the stops you’ll meet the usual va­ri­ety of dogs and cats, but also goats, pigs, ducks and geese – all wait­ing with ex­pec­tant faces as the ves­sel noses up to the jet­ties. The ex­change – a bag/ box drop swapped for an­other – is quick, but it does al­low for a bit of gos­sip and up­dates.

As you’d ex­pect, liv­ing in places that are un­con­nected to the mod­ern world presents a few cu­riosi­ties. Wifi pass­words aren’t a press­ing con­cern. Elec­tric­ity is self-sup­plied – usu­ally by diesel gen­er­a­tors. TV cov­er­age is in­ter­mit­tent at best and, talk­ing to the lo­cals, you sense it isn’t re­ally missed.

There are also in­ge­nious ‘en­ergy’ so­lu­tions. The owner of the Wil­son Bay Farm, for ex­am­ple, has con­verted the guts of an old wash­ing ma­chine into a hy­dro-gen­er­a­tor. A stream run­ning across the up­per part of his prop­erty feeds the con­verted ma­chine (there’s a 65m head).

With the tub now func­tion­ing as a ‘tur­bine’ and spin­ning the mo­tor (now a gen­er­a­tor), it pow­ers a net­work of low-volt­age lights around the home­stead. If the stream dries a bit and the pres­sure falls, re­mov­ing a few bulbs from the net­work sees the rest glow­ing more brightly. Wil­son Bay Farm, in­ci­den­tally, was estab­lished in 1881 and has been in the same fam­ily for seven gen­er­a­tions.

One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ters is Bill Brown­lee. At 91 years young Bill lives alone at Te Puru, one of the last, more

Tran­quil­ity is an ephemeral no­tion – emo­tional rather than tan­gi­ble, elu­sive and in­de­fin­able, calm and silent.

re­mote stops on the mail boat’s route. The great-grand­son of one of the early sawmillers, Bill has lived here for 45 years.

He has six chil­dren and says they some­times drop by (cour­tesy of the mail boat) with a lit­tle tucker. But when he runs low on sup­plies he usu­ally takes his yacht – Waimarie – to Have­lock (a 10hour round trip) or Pic­ton (12 hours). She’s an­chored in the bay off his home­stead, and he’s owned her for 61 years.

Tran­quil­lity is an ephemeral no­tion – emo­tional rather than tan­gi­ble, elu­sive and in­de­fin­able, calm and silent. But it is the feel­ing that dis­places all oth­ers as the mail boat sweeps along be­low the tow­er­ing ranges.

I was the model of so­bri­ety on the cruise – no al­co­hol passed my lips – but in Pelorus I think I heard the sound of tran­quil­lity.

ABOVE LEFT Some of the ship re­mains still ev­i­dent at Wakatahuri Bay. BE­LOW It used to be a mail boat with a few tourists. It’s now a tourist boat car­ry­ing mail – and an enor­mously en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence.

BE­LOW RIGHT A quick mail bag swap of­fers a chance for a brief catch-up.

RIGHT He­do­nist’s heaven – the view from the jacuzzi at the Sounds Re­treat – tucked away at the head of the Queen Char­lotte Sound.

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