Sail away

Written by Sharon Stephenson

UK born Sarah Barrell is at home on the Waitematā doing a job she was born for.

THERE ARE LOTS OF WAYS TO START A STORY, but this one begins with a mangled finger. It was 1993 and Sarah Barrell was sailing with her father on The Solent near her home in Lymington on England’s south coast. “We were sailing back from the Isle of Wight,” recalls Sarah, who now works as Auckland Viaduct Marina Manager. “Dad somehow mangled his finger in the winch so I had to sail us back on my own. It was a three and a half hour trip but I loved it. That sense of harnessing both the wind and my skills, as well as the sheer freedom of being out on the water, was my lightbulb moment.” Having grown up so close to the English Channel, 41-year-old Sarah spent much of her waking hours on or near the sea. 

“We had a 19ft yacht which my parents and my two younger brothers would sail over to France every summer for our six week holiday. It was pretty basic and didn’t even have a toilet onboard! The trip would take 26 hours and people would cheer when we got to shore because they couldn’t believe that we’d made it. Later, when my parents separated, it was just dad and me because my two brothers hated sailing.” 

Although Sarah had her sights set on a career as a fitness instructor, when a relationship ended badly, she took her broken heart to the Mediterranean and then the Caribbean to work on super yachts. “I started off as a stewardess but I wasn’t very good because I didn’t care about things like sheets and glasses. So I eventually moved into a deckhand role.” After five years, Sarah decided to apply for her yacht-masters ticket. Of the three places that offered the qualification back then, England was dismissed as too cold and she wasn’t keen on the US so in 2008 Sarah arrived in Auckland. 

“Within six weeks I’d told my boss on the superyachts I wasn’t coming back. I fell in love with NZ and how laid back it is.” She got a job at the Viaduct, initially in the section owned by what was then the Auckland City Council, helping out with the Louis Vuitton race and eventually segued into the Viaduct Manager role for the privately-owned part of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s waterfront precinct. Thirteen years later, Sarah’s role straddles both management and maintenance of the 70 or so berths, most of which are owned by Kiwis, the bulk from Auckland with a smattering of owners from Christchurch and Marlborough. She manages a team of three ambassadors who assist in catching lines, doing basic maintenance and ensuring that boats are where they’re supposed to be. The rest of Sarah’s day is taken up with booking in boats, liaising with boat owners, making sure vessels are up to scratch and that her patch is ticking over nicely. “I love the Viaduct and my aim is to ensure that it’s a space that the public can come and enjoy. For us, it’s not about making money but providing an accessible resource and giving back to the community.” 

Much of Sarah’s early career was spent in a literal sea of men and while the single mother of Meredith, 12, and Charles, 9, admits that an increasing number of women are entering the maritime industry, sexism does still exist. “I was once the only one in the office and a boatie called in and said he needed help getting into his berth. When I offered to help, he asked if any of the boys were about! Another female boatie got onto the radio and tore strips off him, saying that I had taught most of the boys here how to drive the tenders and was more than capable of getting him into his berth.” These days Sarah’s own sailing is restricted to a small wooden dinghy she keeps at the family bach up north. “It’s all I can afford at the moment. But it’s better to borrow a boat than own one so if I need to get out for a sail, there’s plenty of people I can call on.” Her passion remains sail boats as opposed to motor boats, mainly because the journey is more enjoyable. “You’re using your skills and the weather to have an adventure with a sailboat, whereas motor boats are more of a bumpy, noisy ride. But there’s no happier people than people on the water so however you can, get out and enjoy this resource that surrounds us.” While her children aren’t fans of sailing, Sarah says when they leave home she’s up for another major aquatic adventure. “I’ve explored a lot of South America, the Caribbean and the Med, but haven’t really done much of the Pacific Islands so I’d be quite happy sailing there for an extended period of time.”

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