Shooting the breeze

The Dunedin entry in Claudia Myatt’s watercolour diary of her voyage from Barbados to Sydney...
The Dunedin entry in Claudia Myatt’s watercolour diary of her voyage from Barbados to Sydney aboard cruise ship Aurora. Photo: supplied
Artist Claudia Myatt and illustrations assistant Peter Dowden share a joke aboard a dinghy at...
Artist Claudia Myatt and illustrations assistant Peter Dowden share a joke aboard a dinghy at Broad Bay this week. Photo: Peter McIntosh

In a world where old and new seem locked in mortal combat, here is a true tale of their mellifluous symbiosis. Bruce Munro goes sailing with a British artist and a Dunedin illustrations assistant who have used 21st-century technology to forge an old-fashioned friendship.

It is the awkward sort of first meeting that only the internet can generate.

He is leaning on the wrought iron fence in front of Robbie Burns' bronze effigy in Dunedin's Octagon. His head is down, peering at the smartphone in his hands, trying to get Wi-Fi, to see whether she has replied to his message setting up their first face-to-face meeting.

To his right, little more than a metre away, she is seated on a park bench with her adult son, looking around expectantly in this unfamiliar town.

She glances up at him.

Without looking up, he shakes his head at the device in his hand and walks off.

A few metres away, he turns around, wondering what to do next. During those few seconds she has taken off her hat. He notices her dyed-red hair. And walks forward, hand extended.

Digital technology and its myriad social media progeny are powerful deities, overthrowing former objects of worship and shrinking the world to a village of 7.4 billion. But can they bring true connection?

An hour later, they - Claudia Myatt (60), of the United Kingdom, who arrived at Port Chalmers on Tuesday morning aboard the P&O cruise ship Aurora, and Dunedin local Peter Dowden (49) - are pushing off from the Broad Bay Boating Club jetty in a Sunburst sailing dinghy.

Sails are trimmed to make the most of a gentle, warm zephyr. Small waves slap the wooden hull as the boat slips out on to the wide waters of Otago Harbour towards Port Chalmers, sitting on the distant harbour's edge below rolling triplets Mount Cargill, Buttars Peak and Mihiwaka.

It is startling, the sort of lives that technology enables.

As her day job, Miss Myatt is a book illustrator who lives on a 100-year-old tugboat moored in England's West Country. But here she is, in New Zealand, because of a last-minute email offering the role of artist in residence for the Barbados to Sydney leg of the cruise ship's world tour.

She replied "yes, please'', hit "send'' and was soon on a plane bound for the Caribbean.

For the past six weeks, she has been providing daily art tuition for any of the ship's 1800 passengers who care to show up. And many do, stretching what should be a couple of hours to a most-of-the-day art class, except when they are in port. All of this while the passengers, including Miss Myatt and her son James (23), take in the delights of Mexico, San Francisco, Hawaii, Samoa, and New Zealand. In lieu of pay, the cruise ship company provides passage, a cabin, meals and an unforgettable experience for two.

Manning the dinghy's tiller is Mr Dowden, an assistant in the illustrations department of the Otago Daily Times. He is also a bus driver.

Because of an enduring affection for the 1930s children's adventure book series Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome, and empowered by the worldwide web, Mr Dowden is also founder and editor of the Arthur Ransome Wiki, a global online community of Ransome fans.

Contact between the two came after Mr Dowden reviewed The Salt-Stained Book for the ODT.

The book was the first in a modern children's sea-faring adventure series written by UK author Julia Jones in the spirit of Ransome. Mr Dowden described it as "pure yachtie porn''. A sub-editor changed it to "pure yachtie goodness'' before it appeared in the paper.

The book's publishers saw the review online, liked the quote and added it to commendations by Griff Rhys Jones and Amanda Craig, of The Times, that appeared in the next book in the series.

Mr Dowden emailed Jones pointing out some typographical errors in the first volume and offering to proofread the next one, which he did. And then the third, and the fourth ... Miss Myatt was Jones' illustrator. Three-way email conversations between author, proofreader and illustrator ensued.

When Mr Dowden realised Miss Myatt's cruise ship would be spending the day in Dunedin, he suggested they meet.

Both, it turns out, have a long history of messing about in boats.

Mr Dowden began sailing in his 20s. In the late 1990s, in Japan, he worked in a sailing tourism operation and as a sailing instructor. The dinghy is now 100m from shore.

"I'm going to get as far from port as I can on this tack,'' Mr Dowden explains. And then a little later: "We're out into some real wind now. That's better''.

Miss Myatt was introduced to boats about 30 years ago, through her art. She then took up sailing, has illustrated boating books, has written and illustrated a series of children's educational books for the Royal Yachting Association, and lives on that tug.

"OK, we're gybing round. Mind heads, '' Miss Myatt says as the small boom swings across and turns the boat back towards Broad Bay.

As well as being adept sailors, both have an extensive, interest-borne knowledge of the books of Ransome and Jones.

For Mr Dowden, it is at a distance but from a young age. His mother raised him on Swallows and Amazons.

It explains the Ransome Wiki - essentially an online encyclopedia of more than anyone could ever reasonably want to know about the man and his books - and the affection for Jones, who writes in his style.

Ms Myatt is Jones' friend. Jones' parents were friends with Arthur Ransome and for a time owned one of his boats, Peter Duck, which Jones has since bought and restored. Ms Myatt's tug is in a boatyard near where Ransome lived and wrote.

"Personally, I regard Julia [Jones] as the anointed successor to Arthur Ransome. I think if he was writing books today, he'd be writing books like that,'' Mr Dowden enthuses.

"Yes,'' agrees Miss Myatt.

"They're not populist. They're quite literary.''

"Julia's books are Arthur Ransome-meets-Jacqueline-Wilson,'' Mr Dowden says.

"It's a bit Dickensian; the kids are in care or they have social workers or they're in trouble at school.''

"And the corrupt policeman drives a really fast speedboat, trying to run them aground,'' Miss Myatt says with a laugh.

"I love the corrupt policeman. He's a brilliant villain,'' agrees Mr Dowden.

Their combined knowledge of Ransome, who not only wrote children's fiction but worked as a journalist and secret agent in Russia before and during World War 1, is fascinating.

"He absconded [from Russia] with Trotsky's secretary,'' Miss Myatt says.

"And she was his second wife.''

"Well, his mistress in fact,'' Mr Dowden adds. "Because he was still married at the time.''

The dinghy is nearing land again.

Mr Dowden turns the bow seaward at the last moment, bringing the gunwale up against the jetty.

"There we go, well done, excellent,'' Miss Myatt says.

Both smile.

Technology enables appointments on the other side of the globe. But, meeting is the easy bit. Connection, friendship, has to be built on something more old-fashioned; like a mutual love of books and boats.

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