Time to drop anchor on hill at Careys Bay

Stu McLachlan helps manoeuvre Camper during the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race stopover in Itajai,...
Stu McLachlan helps manoeuvre Camper during the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race stopover in Itajai, Brazil. Photo by Paul Todd/Volvo Ocean Race
Stu McLachlan takes the helm of Sodebo, a 105-foot racing trimaran, off the coast of Lorient,...
Stu McLachlan takes the helm of Sodebo, a 105-foot racing trimaran, off the coast of Lorient, France, last year. Photo by Sophie Luther.
Dunedin sailor Stuart McLachlan and partner Sophie Luther are looking forward to a change of pace...
Dunedin sailor Stuart McLachlan and partner Sophie Luther are looking forward to a change of pace in Dunedin after sailing careers that have carried them around the world. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.

The call of the sea has carried Dunedin sailor Stuart McLachlan from Otago Harbour around the world. Now a change of tack has brought him back into familiar waters. Chris Morris reports.

Battered yachts and ticking clocks have dominated the life of Dunedin sailor Stuart McLachlan.

Now, the 39-year-old is home from the sea, returning to Dunedin in search of a quieter life after stints putting yachts back together for two Volvo Ocean Race teams - Telefonica and Camper Emirates Team New Zealand.

Mr McLachlan has returned with English partner Sophie Luther, a former Volvo Ocean Race communications manager now working for Animation Research Ltd in Dunedin.

The couple plan to build their new life, and home, on a hill overlooking Careys Bay.

The views will include fishing boats and yachts bobbing about at moorings, which will have to do - for now - for Mr McLachlan. He is, for the first time in many years, without a yacht to call his own.

''It can't always be about the sailing,'' he told the Otago Daily Times.

Nevertheless, it represented a big change for Mr McLachlan, whose early years were spent learning the ropes while sailing on Otago Harbour, before graduating to Sydney-to-Hobart races, the Mediterranean Cup and even fleeing armed fishermen off the coast of Vietnam.

More recently, Mr McLachlan has also circumnavigated the globe during the last two instalments of the Volvo round-the-world race, working as a key member of the Telefonica Blue shore team in 2008-09, followed by Camper's shore team in 2011-12.

Working as Telefonica Blue's shore-based boat captain, he led a team of 50 specialists tasked with restoring their team's battered racing machine at the end of each race leg in time for the start of the next leg, days later.

The team strived to stay one step ahead of the race yacht by skipping around the globe setting up bases ahead of the fleet's arrival in each port.

The speed of the yachts meant two identical bases were used - leapfrogging each other across the globe - to stay ahead of the faster fleet, he said.

Once in port, a small army of boat builders, riggers, sailmakers and others descended on the yachts, doing what they could in a limited time.

And when adverse weather conditions last year cut the Volvo fleet's Auckland stopover nearly in half - leaving only three days to work on the yachts - the pressure grew as the fleet prepared for the hardest leg, including a rounding of Cape Horn, next.

''It can be very stressful, because you are working to really tight deadlines.

''It's nothing unusual to work 20 or 22 hours a day in those short stopovers. Sometimes the guys would just sleep in the sails ... pass out for a couple ofhours and then get up and carry on,'' he said.

And, as shore-based boat captain for Telefonica, the buck stopped with Mr McLachlan.

''If the jobs aren't done, or aren't done up to standard, then they [race crew] will come to me about that,'' he said.

Later, working as systems manager for Camper, Mr McLachlan was responsible for many of the racing yacht's moving parts - from its hydraulic canting keel to its water system.

He also rubbed shoulders with the likes of Emirates Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton, and was impressed by the team's skills.

''They are the best. The level they operate at is phenomenal,'' he said.

It was a far cry from Mr McLachlan's first few years learning to sail on Otago Harbour, initially on his father's keeler and later, from age 5, in his own optimist.

A member of the Port Chalmers Yacht Club, he competed at national level in the optimist and javelin classes, including in the Sanders Cup, and then the Auckland to Tauranga coastal classic, all before he was aged 20.

Then, with a four-year boilermaking apprenticeship under his belt, Mr McLachlan moved to Auckland aged 21 to work and race keeler yachts, with his mind still far from a professional sailing career.

''I just wanted to keep racing, getting on more competitive boats ... pretty much just getting the mileage under me, getting experience and learning how to sail.''

Eventually, he graduated to an Auckland to Fiji race, followed by his first Sydney to Hobart - the yacht race with a fearsome reputation that, a few years later, would claim six sailors' lives, in 1998.

True to form, Mr McLachlan found himself high up a mast in 45-knot headwinds, swinging around as he desperately working to fix a broken spreader - a key piece of equipment - that threatened to bring the yacht's rigging down.

He was affected by concussion for his efforts, but managed to complete the job and finish the race.

After more time on the water in Auckland, he moved to the United Kingdom in 2001, aged about 27, and found project management work for a London engineering company.

He soon found himself on a yacht racing out of Hamble, in England, in his spare time, before talk turned to the upcoming Farr 40 World Championship in Sardinia, Italy.

''I quit my job and hopped on a plane and flew over there to talk to some people,'' he said.

In 2003, that led to a spot on the racing team, and a request to arrange for the yacht to be shipped to the United States - Mr McLachlan's first taste of the logistics career to follow.

Four years of work for Dutch businessman and sailor Peter de Ridder followed, before the Dutchman made an aborted attempt to enter the Volvo Ocean Race in 2008-09.

Afterwards, Mr McLachlan was shoulder-tapped to join the Telefonica Blue team for their 2008-09 bid, followed by work as an organiser and race official for the round-the-world Barcelona World Race, and then with Camper, again as part of the shore team, for the 2011-12 instalment of the Volvo race.

The years since joining Telefonica Blue had been a stressful, challenging and rewarding ride, he said.

Among the biggest hurdles to overcome was dealing with the aftermath of Telefonica Blue's collision with a rock during the 2008-09 race, while leaving Marstrand, Sweden, and holding second place overall.

The result, including a damaged keel, rudder and hole in the hull, was inflicted on live television, and watched by a shoreline crowd of some 20,000 onlookers, and it was up to Mr McLachlan to organise repairs.

The delay meant last place in that leg, and slipping from second to third overall, he said.

''It was pretty horrendous,'' he said.

''But it's still a great challenge. I do love it, actually.''

However, the scariest moment on the water came not amid howling winds or savage seas, but when accosted by Vietnamese fishermen, who approached the catamaran he was sailing on a delivery trip to Singapore in 1997.

It was only when the fishing boat got close that ''we realised they were holding guns'', he said.

Luckily, the catamaran's twin engines - started in a hurry - allowed the yacht to slowly pull away from the fishermen and reach safety.

''It was not a fast getaway, but it was a fraction faster than them.''

Now back in Dunedin, Mr McLachlan and Ms Luther planned to focus on their new home, as well as trying their hands at new outdoor pursuits.

They had no regrets about leaving behind a lifestyle of international travel and sailing destinations for the more humble surroundings of Otago Harbour, and no plans to return to the Volvo Ocean Race scene anytime soon.

However, they will not be lost to the sport. Both plan to lend a hand with youth sailing in Dunedin, helping the next generation of sailors grow up on Otago Harbour.

Stuart McLachlan:
• Born in Dunedin 1973
• Age 39
• Learnt to sail on Otago Harbour.
• Extensive harbour, coastal, blue water sailing experience.
• Volvo Ocean Race experience.
• Telefonica Blue shore-based boat captain 2008-09.
• Camper Emirates Team NZ systems manager 2011-12.

- chris.morris@odt.co.nz

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