Not plain sailing, Anne French

Shapes on the Wind
David Lewis
HarperCollins, $29.95,
ISBN 073226801X


In 1934, when I was seventeen, I celebrated my last days at boarding school by building a canoe/kayak and informing the headmaster that I was going home in it at the end of term – 430 miles across New Zealand by river, portage, lake and sea. His prompt veto was undermined by my parents’ written permission. But at what cost to their peace of mind? After all, I was their only child. Since no one else would come with me I set out alone.

So begins the adult life of David Lewis, explorer, adventurer, and navigator. The 17-year-old made the journey home, from Wanganui to Takapuna, in 50 days, capsizing in the Tongariro River, and hauling the canoe out to avoid the major rapids on the Waikato. By the time he pulled it out of the Manukau Harbour near Ihumatao and started dragging it across the ancient Tainui portage to the Tamaki River on the opposite coast, he discovered “an empty feeling, as if an essential ingredient of endeavour was somehow missing, left behind somewhere in the rapids of the Tongariro”. The rest of his life has been spent, one way and another, finding that essential ingredient.

Until I read Shapes on the Wind I thought there were two people called David Lewis. One was the authoritative academic, author of We, the Navigators, the most complete account of the rediscovery of traditional Pacific navigation yet written. That Lewis spent several years in the mid-1960s scouring the Pacific to find people who could tell him something of the techniques they used, sailing with them to observe and learn more. Finally he assisted with voyages of discovery in reconstructions of traditional voyaging canoes, to demonstrate how the Polynesians spread across the largest ocean on the planet, from Hawaii to New Zealand. In 1976 Lewis sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti aboard Hokuleëa, on its historic first voyage; and in the mid-1990s he was aboard the voyaging waka hourua Te Aurere, under skipper Hec Busby, for the trip from Rarotonga to New Zealand.

Both voyages used traditional navigation techniques: star navigation, and the observation of ocean swells and, when closer to land, birds; and both showed that the ancient skills, handed down over the generations, had not quite been lost. The mana of the Hawaiian people, which had declined precipitately during 100 years of colonisation to a point not much above zero (“once proud soldiers of Queen Liliuokalani, were now Waikiki beach boys tinkling ukeleles for tourists”), was largely restored by the voyages of Hokuleëa. The mana of the Maori, unfortunately, has been largely unaffected by the feats of Hec Busby and Te Aurere, even though a seaworthy scale replica, Te Aurere Iti, sits proudly in the Mana Whenua exhibition at Te Papa.

The “other” David Lewis was a middle-aged doctor who decided in 1972, at the end of his second marriage, to circumnavigate Antarctica in a small yacht, single-handed. He told the story of his voyage, no less epic for being unsuccessful, in Ice Bird, an account of courage under appalling conditions that has an honourable place in the pantheon of great Antarctic adventures. In Shapes on the Wind, Lewis admits to making a couple of errors, though they seemed unexceptionable at the time: he left Sydney on 19 October, “much too early in the season”, and set a course along the 60th parallel, “much too far south”. “Even so,” he admits, “the series of hurricane-force storms that engulfed Ice Bird midway were exceptional.”

Lewis had recently lost a larger vessel, Isbjorn, when it sprang a leak in a storm between Tuvalu and Sydney. His son Barry, made of the same stern stuff as his courageous father, refused assistance for far too long and almost went down with the ship. Funds were therefore limited, and the 32-foot steel cutter Ice Bird was the best boat available for the price. There can be no doubt that Isbjorn, an old 39-foot wooden gaff-rigged ketch, could not have survived the severe Antarctic storms Lewis was to encounter. That Ice Bird did is due as much to Lewis’s seamanship and courage as to the 1/8th-inch steel shutters he fitted over the portholes.

Ice Bird (the book) is currently out of print, so it is worth telling something of the story here. Six weeks out from Sydney, Lewis was running before the wind at about 60˚ S under a tiny storm jib:

By 27 November repeated severe gales were beginning to get me down. The main water tank in the keel had frozen – wet snow filled the cockpit and plastered the rigging. Next day the bottom fell out of the barometer. The pointer moved right off the scale and continued downwards to about 28 inches or 959 kp.  Nothing in my previous experience had prepared me for this.


The wind increased to hurricane strength, building huge hollow breaking seas 15 metres high. At about 2 am one wave, larger than the rest, knocked Ice Bird down, smashing the self-steering, tearing the storm jib, and carrying away the life raft. Later that night another wave rolled the boat through 360˚, dismasting her and smashing the forward hatch. Water poured in. Lewis baled “like an automaton” for 10 hours, collapsed briefly, and then went back out on deck to secure the wreckage. The broken mast was banging against the hull and had to be cut free.

As if that was not enough, a second hurricane a fortnight later capsized Ice Bird again, bending the 2-inch steel pipe framework over the companionway so he could barely get the main hatch open. It was another two weeks before Lewis was able to work out how to make some kind of makeshift rig. He was at the point in the Southern Ocean marked “rather depressingly” on the chart as “the furthest point from land in any ocean”. His fingers had become frostbitten in the first hurricane and were now blackened, swollen, and “beginning to exude blood and pus”. They caused him exquisite pain in the cold, when he was out on deck working on the jury rig, and only slightly less agony when he was sheltering in his sodden sleeping bag below in the wrecked cabin.

Using the boom as a makeshift mast, he hoisted a sail and headed for Palmer, the US Antarctic base far to the south of Cape Horn. There, 6,100 nautical miles from Sydney, he managed to repair his yacht to continue the journey. His fingers eventually healed almost completely, and, taking stock, he discovered in himself “a stubborn determination that had hitherto been unknown to me and except for the very worst periods of my journey, a certain wry sense of humour”. That sense of humour was to the fore when he motored in to tie up alongside the wharf at the Cape Yacht Club in Cape Town, having sailed another 800 miles under a jury rig after a second dismasting in the South Atlantic. “At length someone broke the silence. ‘Where have you come from?’ ‘West Antarctica.’”

It was the second dismasting that did it. Unable to continue, he rang Barry, who offered to bring Ice Bird home. Lewis then flew back to Central Australia to get as far away from the ocean as possible – for a while.

Shapes on the Wind is eloquent testimony to David Lewis’s indomitable spirit and courage, and proof positive that one man may live many lives. There are, it would seem, not two David Lewises, but many. The kayaking schoolboy became a student and keen mountaineer, qualified as a doctor, and after active war service lived in London with his family, wearing a suit and tie and suppressing his sea-fever. In middle age (and with little blue ocean experience), he sailed in the first single-handed transatlantic race, coming a respectable third behind Chichester and Hasler. He then married again and sailed halfway around the world in a catamaran with his wife and two little daughters, writing the most genial and charming accounts of their travels.

In the 1960s came the extended research on traditional Pacific voyaging, culminating in We, the Navigators. The Ice Bird voyage was followed by several scientific expeditions to Antarctica. In his 60s, under the influence of yet another remarkable woman, Lewis went to Arctic Siberia and lived with the Chukchi for 11 months. A second period of Pacific voyaging followed. In his 80s, living on Herald Island, near Auckland, David Lewis built a junk-rigged, ferro-cement 20-tonner called Taniwha, and ultimately lost her off Tryphena on Great Barrier Island, en route to Yap. And even now, protesting mildly about old age, he is probably planning another voyage.

Shapes on the Wind is the life story of an engaging and highly attractive man who has lived life to the full. Unlike most Kiwi heroes, Lewis is articulate and self-observant, an eloquent writer with a dry wit. The book’s only fault is that it is not longer. It is highly recommended, then, to everyone who yearns to lead a less mundane existence (but doesn’t know where to start). David Lewis fans will use it to gain a deeper understanding of this complex man, and will head to the library to fill in the gaps. And who knows how many bold women will track him to Herald Island to suggest other adventures.


Anne French is a Wellington publisher and prefers sailing in the Hauraki Gulf.


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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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