by Helen Martin
As the brains and the brawn behind popular Kaipara Cruises for over 40 years, owner/operators Terry and Gaye Somers are an integral part of Helensville’s cultural landscape.
Water is in their blood. Terry moved with his family from their Motuihe Island farm to Helensville in the 1950s, when he was five, and his father soon established a fishing enterprise on the Kaipara, where catching school sharks was big business. Terry and Gaye met at Parakai hot pools while still at high school–Aucklander Gaye had come up from Westmere for the day - and they’ve been together ever since. Gaye was from a family that loved the outdoors and fishing off wharves, so throwing in her lot with boat-mad Terry was easy.
Their first version of a boating life was in the 70s, when their two boys, Andrew and Gavin, were babies. They’d go out on Kaipara Harbour, sleep on the boat overnight, and cruise up the little creeks and rivers in the day, fishing. “We used to love going further a field and meeting up with people from the Dargaville boating club,” says Gaye. “They were very interesting to talk to and they had a lot of knowledge of the Kaipara Harbour, which they passed on to us.”
In the mid-eighties Terry, with help from novice boat builder Gaye, built the Tawhana in their back yard and the Somers began their career on the water, taking out fishing parties of 12. Four years on they sold Tawhana and, in 1987, bought the 40-foot Tawa and began running Kaipara Harbour and Kaipara River cruises. With large numbers of people signing up for a cruise it wasn’t long before Tawa was too small, and in 1990 the Somers bought the Kewpie Too, a Fullers’ cream boat working in the Bay of Islands. “We sailed it round Cape Reinga, down the west coast and through the bar,” says Terry, “and we’ve been doing cruises in her ever since.”
With Andrew and Gavin following in their parents’ footsteps - both became Master skippers– the Somers set up a family business in Auckland, Abalone Cruises, which took harbour cruises to Waitemata Gulf islands, including Motuihe and Motutapu, and to Riverhead. For a time, Terry and Gaye worked in Auckland, doing such long hours they’d stay on board between trips. Eventually, Andrew bought that business and continues to run it as The Red Boats, while Gavin is a former Master for the Sealink Waiheke car ferries and now owns a fishing charter boat in Auckland. Andrew’s wife Danielle and their son Sam are also skippers.
With Kewpie Too cruises starting around September/October, there’s a four- hour trip every Labour Weekend from Pahi, which goes around to the Ranginui rail bridge, a remote area with a lot of history. Their premium trip, which takes two days and covers 66 nautical miles, is one Terry and Gaye have done hundreds of times and still enjoy. Everyone gets off the boat at Pahi, goes by coach across to Dargaville, stays overnight, then goes back to Helensville on the Kewpie Too the next day.
Every Easter and in the following week there’s a cruise down the Port Albert River, into the harbour, across to Tinopai, then around to Batley to look the site of an old mullet cannery and the historic Batley hotel, which was built in 1860s. Then there’s ‘old faithful’, the three-and-a-half-hour river cruise that starts from Parakai, goes to the other side of the river mouth so the expanse of the harbour can be seen, then to the Kaukapakapa River, which is flanked by beautiful virgin native bush. “Just before you get to Punganui there’s a very interesting area where a farm has been covenanted into reserve where students and others have been planting natives. It’s becoming a very nice-looking wetland,” says Terry. Another very popular trip is to Shelly Beach, where Terry takes the Kewpie Too up the Kaipara River then back to the beach, where people can spend a couple of relaxing hours at the café or go for a walk before being taken back to Parakai. They’re basically set trips, but Terry and Gaye are happy to accommodate interest groups wanting to go somewhere special.
Maintenance is a big responsibility for Terry, and he’s the one who gets to skipper the boat while giving a fact-filled live commentary telling the stories of the rivers. He’s proud to know the history of the Kaipara by heart, most of which he’s learned from knowledgeable people like Captain Alf Sellars, who used to run the steamers between Helensville and Dargaville in the late 1920s and 30s, and Pat Stanaway, who did many trips on the Kewpie Too in the 1990s. Gaye doesn’t commentate, but loves the variety of her roles. As well as helping with boat maintenance jobs like painting, sanding and cleaning bilges, she does the bookings, the marketing and the accounts, and on the cruises is both the hostess and the person who ties and unties the boat at the wharves.
Both agree it’s a great way of life, where they are constantly meeting interesting people and making friends from all over the world. Asked about their disaster stories - a boat running aground, say, or someone on board having a heart attack – they can only reply they’ve had a dream run. “Lots of elderly people and no dramas, with them or the boat.” Gaye reminds Terry he’s supposed to be semi-retired, but he says he can’t imagine a time when he won’t be doing cruises. It’s in the blood.
by Helen Martin