Trading Island Hills for Islands

As sea changes go, this is a big one with a North Canterbury couple to transition from high country farmers to blue ocean sailors, Tim Cronshaw writes.

Island Hills Station owners Dan and Mandy Shand are about to weigh anchor and sail around the world.

A work list as long as their mast is being worked through on a live-aboard catamaran based in Tauranga and they’re busy putting pieces in place to keep the farm running while they are away.

All going well, the North Canterbury farming couple will shove off in a few months with daughter Amalia and son Hugh coming during school holidays.

They don’t want to lock themselves into an exact date, but like the looks of a June launch. The cyclone-free window is May to October so it will definitely be somewhere within this timeframe.

Funding the world trip remains a work-on, but they have a few ideas up their sleeve and are seriously contemplating a YouTube channel to chart their travels.

Already locked in is their new home, a 1993 Freebird 50-foot catamaran design called Hapai and made from fibreglass epoxy which they have been fitting out for ocean-going sailing.

The 40-something Shands have always dreamed of long-distance sailing and reasoned they were best to do it now while they were still young and active.

Otherwise, it would never happen.

"We’d been looking to go sailing for a number of years and our dream was to go offshore and see places by sailboat," he said. "We thought it would be later on in our lives and when the opportunity came up to sell the honey business we had also been researching a lot with many people saying if you wait too long it will never happen. You need to try and do it while you are physically able and both fit and well."

With Amalia nearly 18-years-old and Hugh 15, it seemed now was the best time to make it work.

He said Mandy had sacrificed her own dream of being by the ocean to start a walking track and honey business and it was time to follow this dream which had become a shared passion.

"Mandy embraced our dream of doing these things and stuck with it and probably did a lot of things which weren’t her preferred things for a number of years to make it all work and ended up loving it."

So, the opportunity to sell their large bee hive operation opened up the way to go sailing earlier than they were expecting.

Coinciding with this was the crush of increasing government regulations and "so many roadblocks" put in their way the past six years.

"Trying to grow and keep the honey business running and then we had all the farm environmental regulations - it’s just absolutely overwhelming. I wasn’t the person I wanted to be and becoming the person I didn’t want to be so I actively needed to change and that’s what we needed to do."

Their bold plan has unfolded over the years, but they kept it mostly to themselves.

"Only our children would know how many YouTube videos on sailing we watched and hours we spent learning about it and also the commitment we made to learn how to sail and getting the confidence to do it. Mandy encouraged me and helped me to do the Sydney to Hobart race in 2019. Part of that was the training and getting the opportunity to crew and learning lots about the experience needed to do it."

The dream of sailing Hapai, a 1993 Freebird 50 foot catamaran, around the world is getting closer...
The dream of sailing Hapai, a 1993 Freebird 50 foot catamaran, around the world is getting closer for Island Hills Station owners Dan and Mandy Shand. PHOTO: SHAND FAMILY
The couple both sailed on the yacht returning from Hobart to Melbourne with Mrs Shand carrying out a coastal passage back home.

Even earlier, he completed the Auckland to Suva race in 2005, after applying online for a reality-TV type programme and making the cut.

"That’s where I got the love of it, because I’d never really sailed before that. It was called The Ultimate Challenge on Sir Peter Blake's yacht Lion NZ.

"I was lucky to get that chance and wouldn’t have got the opportunity if I didn’t give it a crack."

Last year they found crew positions online with Mr Shand sailing to Fiji and the pair on a trip from Fiji to Opuha.

As glamorous as this sounds, the six-night passage was hard work with the tail end of Cyclone Lola approaching them.

Undeterred, they’ve been steadily upgrading their own vessel with the props changed and the bottom painted. New shrouds are now on and a storm mainsail is on board if conditions go above 50 knots. This involves a side track running parallel on the mast to the main track and is part of "Category One" certification for the catamaran to go offshore.

Challenging standards include a tape line where they might cut the hull in the event of ending up upside down.

Finding a boat was also "interesting". Set on a mono hull, they gravitated towards catamarans for their liveaboard experience with children and settled on one which fit their price bracket and needs.

During the survey when it was hauled out, the catamaran cracked through the bridge deck and that was the end of that option.

Fortunately, their next find, Hapai, is more seaworthy and they’re happy with their end choice.

"We know it well enough to know it’s just a beautiful boat and it may be old, but it’s built very well and it’s very homely and we love it to bits. We haven’t had to do much and have just tidied up lots of things."

As a farmer he’s well versed in diesel engines and wiring up solar panels in the huts has given him a good understanding of boat electronics.

Island Hills is a fourth generation family farm on 5000ha of freehold land with about half of the area running sheep and beef cattle or in douglas fir plantations.

The remaining land is un-grazed regenerating native forest, subalpine and alpine areas known as the Mandamus Preservation Reserve, which includes a 600ha QE II covenanted block.

The station is named because its surrounded by the Mandamus, Dove and Glencoe rivers, tributaries feeding the Hurunui River.

Farmed up to 800m and rising to Mt Skedaddle at 1705m, only 100ha is capable of tractor work.

Much of it is in reverting bush and they are deliberating whether to continue farming it or find tourism or recreational opportunities. Work has already begun on a new 45km mountainbike track.

Because of the challenging nature of farming at Island Hills the young Shands have always had to look at other income streams. At an early stage of taking over the farm, they started the Hurunui High Country Track - now called the Island Hills Station Walking Track.

The track follows a 30km route with walker spending a night at the homestead before being part-driven by a four-wheel-drive vehicle and then walking to the Valley Camp, through to the Bush hut and returning.

Walkers weave through changing landscapes, past riverbeds to sub-alpine and native bush country.

The Shands ran this for 10 years until they found the long summer days without a break were eroding into family time and weddings and funerals.

"We also had some issues with our pastoral lease and being able to run the track so we had a break and get our tenure review sorted. We basically opened it up when our tenure review was finished with Shaun Monk, their business partner, starting it back up. He made some really cool additional changes with the track and over time got it back up to scratch."

Revenue from the track will continue to maintain the station and its huts and pests while they are away.

Mr Shand said it also gave them the pleasure of sharing the property to visitors.

"Our big thing coming back was meeting people from all over the place and hearing what they had to say about the walk. The main reason we started it was because Mandy was a dive instructor and I was in design and marketing so we wanted to spend time working together and from our tourism experience we wanted to do our own marketing with the walking track together."

When the Shands were in Australia, she worked as a dive instructor on Hamilton Island and at one stage carried out the same role on a boat, while he acted as deck crew and bar tender.

Then his father called in 2002. Still in their early 20s, they were asked whether they wanted to run the farm and took on the challenge.

"We decided to give it a go and at that stage didn’t have any formal farming training, but were keen to give it a crack and the key was being willing to learn. We read a few books and both being on farms we had a lot of inherent knowledge growing up on them," Mr Shand said.

Quickly, they realised the farm would be unable to survive without outside income.

"This farm is now 5000ha but it is only 3500 stock units and it only has 1200 ewes and 175 cows and their replacements.

"We definitely weren’t going to be able to be here by just farming so we’ve had to come up with other incomes and that’s why we started the walking track and the honey business and put some land in carbon credits just so we can make it work."

The walk started three days after they got married 20 years ago.

Another venture was a honey business to make use of large manuka and kanuka strands.

Honey prices had yet to pick up and rose as the venture expanded.

"That was a major supplementary income for our farm during a period we weren’t really able to do capital development and allowed us to the sheep and cattle yards and get the infrastructure in place we needed to and get the place working properly."

North Canterbury couple Dan and Mandy Shand are leaving Island Hills Station to sail a catamaran...
North Canterbury couple Dan and Mandy Shand are leaving Island Hills Station to sail a catamaran around the world. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
At the peak they had 2200 hives and outgrew their honey shed on the farm and ended up building processing facilities in Waipara which they still own.

A team of 12 staff ran this during the summer with six fulltime beekeepers in the field.

"We came straight home from Australia quite young in our early 20s and we hadn’t really travelled together and took this on and just got into it. For example, when you run the walking track, you don’t have a day off all summer. It was pretty full on for a couple of years."

Now that chapter is over, they’re on to the next adventure and Mandy’s love for the ocean will soon be sated.

She’s looking forward to diving with the family, while the appeal for him is learning new sailing skills in navigation, the weather, reading the sea and safety.

Reactions from other people have varied about their journey, but they take the view of doing what’s best for them or get 20 years down the track and live a life of regret.

"I always say, it was like the children; we didn’t know how we were going to afford them before we had them and once you have them you just make it work.

"I think that’s really true with these boats."

How they will pay for perhaps a year away or even "five-ish" years lies ahead of them.

Mr Shand said they did not know the answer to that and were still working on it, but a lot of the boat maintenance they could carry out themselves.

Having the walking track and good people to run the farm businesses as well as selling Waipara properties would help support the trip.

Carrying internet on board the whole time may bring about opportunities to find work on their journey. As for social media or YouTube, they plan on posting throughout their trip, but aren’t assuming this will form an income stream.

Keeping Island Hills is "non-negotiable" and would be there on their return, he said.

They’re pretty sure an initial route mapped out will include the United Kingdom destination of Chichester where their Freebird was built .

Hapai — set to be renamed Island Hills — was the first of its model of its kind to roll off the boatyard floor. At this stage their favoured route is a sea test to Fiji hopefully via Minerva Reefs and returning to New Zealand. The second passage will lead them to the Pacific Islands, through Indonesia and up to the Maldives and Madagascar and around the Cape of Good Hope.

From there they will head to the Canary Islands and make a call whether to sail in the Mediterranean or the Atlantic.

Mr Shand said they had carried some "out-the-gate crazy things" over the years which had required toughing it out but this was by far the toughest.

He said they would have it no other way.

"Mandy’s always been right into the ocean and I didn’t have the same passion, but through these years sharing the same passion what was Mandy’s dream is now our dream."