New ZealandPeople

Stephanie Dawn: “To live on a sailboat means to be free”

Four years ago Stephanie Dawn and her fiancé Louis Goodier decided to start to live on their boatThumbsucker, a Davidson 28  (8,5 metres). They don’t quit their jobs, they live in the city center; but what does it mean to live in a so special apartment?

stephanie_dawn_wanderlustsailor20160421_026The first question is almost obvious: why did you choose to live on a 8.5 meters long boat?

We certainly didn’t start off looking at very small boats as liveaboard options! When we decided to buy a yacht we had no sailing experience and little money, which limited our choices somewhat. We came very close to buying a bigger motorsailer that seemed very suitable for us. She was 35 feet long and beautiful inside, which was a big plus for us as intending-liveaboards, but in hindsight she wouldn’t have been as seaworthy as Thumbsucker proved to be, and we would have never really learned to sail which would have been a shame. We spent weeks negotiating and inspecting her out of the water, and even put down a 15% deposit. At the final stages we ran into complications trying to insure her and it all fell through. We went home utterly heartbroken when we realized we had to walk away from her, as she was the last boat in that size and price range that we could consider. We thought the last two years of planning, researching, and saving had ended in failure.


The afternoon we said goodbye to our liveaboard dream we looked online, almost jokingly, at boats the next size down under 32 feet. We had never even considered that it might be possible to live on a smaller boat. I remember we clicked on Thumbsucker’s advert and were all genuinely astounded at how roomy and well-laid-out she looked from the photos. We drove up to Auckland to see her the next day, and within 5 minutes onboard we knew she was to be our yacht. We bought her that afternoon. I wouldn’t say that a small boat doesn’t have its (many, MANY) challenges, but in hindsight I’m so happy all the bigger, less suitable yachts we looked at didn’t work out after all.

stephanie_dawn_wanderlustsailor20160421_022You and your fiance work full-time jobs. Your free time is completely dedicated to Thumbsucker?

Essentially, yes. When we aren’t sailing Thumbsucker during the evenings and weekends we are usually to be found sanding / painting / installing / upgrading something. The first few years aboard were dedicated to paying her off, but since we finished that we have focused our efforts on improving life aboard. I have lost track of the work we have done, but some of the bigger jobs were:

  • Re-plumbing the water tanks, replacing the pump taps with electric
  • Re-plumbing the old head with a new electric one
  • Re-plumbing all the lights/electrics with LEDs
  • Stripping the decks and cabin top back and repainting
  • New carpet (the old one had a terribly bad time suffering under a foot of sea water for a week on our first trip down the coast)
  • New carpet (again, our old ones didn’t fare too well in our shake-down trip)
  • Stripping the vinyl and horrible old glue off the ceiling, sanding back and painting
  • Stripping the vinyl in our sleeping quarters with a proper latex mattress (best decision / improvement ever)
  • Sewing custom bed sheets and duvet covers to fit our odd shaped mattress. (I would recommend not attempting this yourself if you, like us, are not great at sewing, get frustrated easily, and want to avoid having a raging marital with your spouse)
  • New squabs – again this makes such a difference to the boat
  • We do all the usual maintenance as well such as antifoul, replacing running gear, engine oil changes, greasing the prop shaft, engine servicing, etc. Right now we have no fridge or bench in the galley as our current project is a new kitchen fit-out. The sink is also only borderline usable! Looking forward to being able to cook things other than sandwiches again.

What do you love about life onboard?

Lots of things! I love the freedom of owning our own home, no flatmates, no landlords, no mortgage. I get a lot of satisfaction out of doing our own home improvements how we like. I also believe we sail a lot more than we would if we lived in a house, there would always be some reason not to get down to the boat I think.


Living aboard means anytime the weather is nice and we fancy a sail, we can be out there, alone or with a bunch of friends, within the hour. During the summer there is no real packing required for a long trip, we simply cast off the mooring lines and go off exploring for two weeks! Another cool aspect is living in the centre of the city for a fraction of the cost. We live right next to multimillion-dollar apartment blocks and share the exact same view and convenient walk to town or work. We also live in a pretty geologically terrifying area rather prone to earthquakes, so I personally always feel nice and safe and cosy in my little boat. Plus we get visits from penguins, dolphins, and whales – it doesn’t get much cooler than that!

Sometimes do you miss a “normal home”?

Oh absolutely. I often dream about the day that I don’t have to share laundry/shower/ablution facilities (and one booking board) between a large community of people. There are nights when I have battled my way home through storming 70 knot winds and lashing icy rain, carrying 40 thousand dry-bags full of boat stuff, secure in the certain knowledge that I won’t sleep a wink before dawn. These are the times when I envy all my friends and family asleep in their houses and I wonder what on earth possessed me to do something so mad! Sometimes it’s just the little things; like wishing for once that I could drink wine out of a nice glass instead of a heavy plastic vessel, or stabbing myself in the face with eyeliner while trying to get ready for work in a rolling swell.


Which are your preferred sailing places?

Most of our sailing has been in the Marlborough Sounds in the South Island, and off the Coromandel Peninsula up north. Some of my favourite sailing haunts are:

  • Ship Cove – one of the most beautiful cruising spots in New Zealand
  • Ship Cove – a marine sanctuary where the fish are so tame they come right up and eat out of your hands
  • Ship Cove – There’s a short hike I like to do ashore to a fresh water waterfall that you can drink from and shower under.
  • Peachgrove and Coralie Bay up on Great Mercury Island – both look like post-cards with glorious white sand that squeaks between your toes. We’ve spotted killer whales and humpbacks a couple of times up there too which is always fun.
  • Southeast Bay on Mayor Island off the coast of Tauranga – the cliffs are largely comprised of obsidian glass, so they are deep black and very sparkly/glossy in the sun. The water is deep but so clear you can see every shell on the seabed 14 metres down. Great swimming, but only if you don’t mind stingrays. There are huge ones living here who are used to being fed by yachties – it’s a little alarming when you first jump in for a swim on arrival and a hoard of enormous stingrays make a beeline for you!

stephanie_dawn_wanderlustsailor20160421_033Our classic final question: what does it mean for you “to sail”?

For thousands of years sailing has been enormously influential in the development of civilisation. Early tools and technology that allowed us to harness the wind and fly across oceans suddenly gave us the ability to travel vast distances over the sea, feed ourselves and our communities with bigger fish, trade with other continents, wage wars, map the earth, colonise distant lands, and make fantastic scientific discoveries.

When I sail I feel connected to this history. I sail the same ocean, using the same winds, and shelter in the same anchorages that Captain James Cook navigated to observe the transit of Mercury in 1769. Sailing was an instrumental element in liberating humanity. From being a race bound to live in one place scratching out our whole lives in caves, we become being seafaring explorers of the world. I think for me ‘to sail’ ultimately means to be free.


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