Timber tales and sails

Written by: Sharon Stephenson

The director of the Auckland Wooden Boat Festival had nothing to do with the sea for the first 20 years of her life, but now it’s her career writes Sharon Stephenson.

ALONG WITH HER HUSBAND OF FOUR MONTHS, Tony, Michelle Khan-Stevenson is the director of the inaugural Auckland Wooden Boat Festival, part of the first ever Moana Auckland, New Zealand’s Ocean Festival, created by Tātaki Auckland Unlimited, from 24 February – 24 March. Michelle, 55, who jokes she has sea water in her veins, actually began life in land-locked Rotorua. “I grew up on a farm with sheep and race horses,” says Michelle. “There was no sea in sight.” Having moved to Auckland with her retail job, Michelle’s introduction to the great blue yonder came in 1993 when she and a friend were holidaying in the Bay of Islands. “We saw a yacht sail past and it looked like so much fun. I knew I wanted to try sailing.” A year later, as luck would have it, Michelle’s then boyfriend sailed her around the same islands. “I fell in love with being on the water, not just the getting from A to B but the camaraderie of being part of a team.” For Michelle (Te Arawa), it also connects her to her Māori ancestors and their impressive navigational skills. She started competing with a women’s racing team but a few years later, tired of “being yelled at by grumpy male sailors”, Michelle looked for the exit. 

Success came easier in her career: Michelle cut her event management teeth at Auckland’s Pasifika Festival, taking charge in 1998. “It was a huge step to come in as Festival Director of Auckland’s biggest festival without much experience. But the two years I spent there taught me so much about community events and how to run everything from marketing to the operations side which requires huge attention to detail and being on top of a lot of things.” Despite having the wind literally taken out of her sails on the water, Michelle remained drawn to the maritime industry, spending the next 20 years loading her CV with event management roles at the Auckland International Boat Show, the America’s Cup race and the Viaduct Marine Centre. “I kept getting one role after another in this industry. But I formed a great network of contacts, many of whom I still call on today.” In 2007, Michelle met Tony, whose company Network Visuals provided signage for the Louis Vuitton and America’s Cup events. “Tony encouraged me to get back out on the water. I ended up spending a day on the Lion New Zealand yacht which was great fun.” And then Tony talked Michelle into doing the four-day Sydney to Hobart race with him.

“That was a mind-blowing experience! I’d sailed from Auckland to Tauranga and around coastal areas of New Zealand but had never done multiple days at sea.” Later there was a six-week yacht tour of New Zealand, following the route of Sir Peter Blake, then work with the New Zealand Sailing Trust. Today, she and Tony also restore wooden boats which, she admits, tell the development story of Aotearoa.“ How did people get here and travel around when they didn’t have roads and horses? They did it on the water in wooden boats and that navigation story is a key part of our history.” It’s why the couple was so keen to launch The Auckland Wooden Boat Festival as part of the inaugural Moana Auckland, delivering it on behalf of Tātaki Auckland Unlimited. “We will have 80-100 wooden boats out on the water that tell the history of Auckland, from older steam boats to classic and modern yachts, as well as another 20-40 dinghies on land to enjoy.” As part of the festival, there will be a range of seminars and films, in association with the New Zealand Maritime Museum, along with ample opportunities for the public to have a go at rowing, paddling or venturing out on steam boats. 

“It’s a good chance to experience life on the water, particularly for people who’ve never done it before or, like me, have been away from it for a while and want to get back. There will be plenty of family activities too.” Michelle admits that when she started out in the industry she battled her fair share of sexism. But she’s happy to report that’s changing, in part due to her efforts. “There were very few women in visible management positions in the marine industry 20 years ago. So I started a group of women who would meet for lunch and that eventually grew to 90 plus women. We’re still in touch and get together twice a year to support each other. It’s great to see so many more women fall in love with the ocean and this industry and decide to make it their career.”

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