Friday, 05 June 2020


A labour of love

Well-known Flaxmill Bay resident and café owner, Dave Fowell, has sailing in his blood. He has a long and distinguished family history in the marine industry. His grandfather, Hugh McRae, was a naval architect and was commissioned by the New Zealand government to design and build the hand-fired steam ship TSS Earnslaw. The ship is still used on Lake Wakatipu as a popular tourist attraction. He also designed and built yachts which he sailed around the Otago area.

On an evening in March 2013, a large storm was steadily building momentum at sea and heading for the Coromandel Peninsula. Patrons of Dave’s popular Eggsentric Café at Flaxmill Bay sat relaxing and listening to the piano played by a café guest.

When the storm finally passed over, Eggsentric remained pretty much intact, but Dave’s 11m catamaran named Chica Bonita (“Beautiful Woman” in Spanish) which had been moored in the bay, had not fared quite so well.

“She had broken her mooring during the night and was pounded heavily in the huge swell that had formed on Front Beach,” says Dave. “I found her on the high tide mark of Front Beach almost as if she had been placed there. From the outside she looked unscathed, but the inside was chaos. The flexing of the hulls had broken the bulkheads away and there were sand and seawater throughout the boat.”

What followed was a six-year restoration project which finally concluded when Dave relaunched Chica Bonita earlier this year.

The boat’s first 20 years were spent travelling between Florida and the Bahamas, before being purchased by a couple who spent two years sailing her to New Zealand. They didn’t want to sail her back and Dave bought Chica Bonita in 2010, sailing her from Kerikeri to her new home in Mercury Bay.

The next three years would be spent sailing mainly around the local islands.

To get the boat off Front Beach after the storm in 2013 was no easy task. “We used a digger to drag her down to the low tide mark, floated her off and then sailed back to Flaxmill Bay where two diggers were waiting to transfer her onto a low loader,” says Dave. “The mast was removed to clear the power lines and she was then transported and deposited in the car park of my café where she became an icon of unresolved dreams and an unrequited love for the ocean. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me either why she was there or how the rebuild was going.”

A boat builder friend of Dave estimated that just to fix what was broken would be around $50,000, which did not include any of the refit that would follow.

“The boat was worth very little in her broken condition, so I was caught between a rock and a hard place and had to take on the restoration work myself,” says Dave. “It would have been very easy to put her on the scrap heap, but I wasn’t going to do that. Initially struggling to fit in time due to running a busy café, the restoration project gradually turned into a labour of love. The inside was originally dark wood, shocking pink, lime green and burnt orange. Its little wonder the previous owners didn't want to sail her back to America.”

Apart from changing the interior colour scheme, the restoration work included a complete rewiring, upgrade of the motors, changing all 18 windows and a new galley, head, shower and hand basin.

The day Chica Bonita was relaunched was an auspicious day for Dave. The tools were finally put down and the boat entered the waters of Flaxmill Bay at the exact same place she had left six years before.

“Sitting on the sand waiting for the incoming tide, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders,” says Dave. “I know she is inanimate, I know she is not a living, breathing thing, but to give her the reins in a gentle 15 knot northerly, I could feel her gratitude for the long and sometimes dark days we spent together.

“At the end of the day, it was all worth it.”

Pictured: When she’s not sailing, the fully restored Chica Bonita is these days moored on the Whitianga River close to the Ferry Landing Wharf.


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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.