It’s not a beautiful boat, but it’s a good boat!Uwe Tolks
Obelix is the brain child of Uwe Tolks, former Master Mariner & Marine Construction Engineer, and Erwin Haag, Naval Architect, both German established in Whangarei, New Zealand, since the 70’s.
“December 1976, he comes to my office and asks can you draw me a 12m boat?” says Erwin Haag as soon as I step into the room adjacent the garage through which we’ve entered and which looks like his office – maybe from back then even!, on this sunny Saturday morning, after a 2-hour drive and a last minute pit stop at the supermarket to get some nibbles. We’ve shaken hands a few minutes earlier on his garage doorstep, he’s introduced me to Uwe and has put away the wine bottle* we’ve brought as a token of gratitude for arranging this meeting. Thomas is trailing behind with the boys, as we’ve parked in front of the wrong number and they couldn’t catch up with my impatient pace, but he doesn’t wait for them to arrive, he’s ready to get down to business.
The two men, who I wrongly thought were in their 80s, seem a lot more alert than I had feared, they stand tall and their handshake is firm, Uwe’s especially. I wonder for a minute what’s in it for all of us, but it soon becomes clear that there are a lot of stories that want to come out. Nostalgia indulgence, legacy safekeeping or desire to put the record straight, whatever it is, we’re keen to hear it all, cherish the early memories of our adopted child, and perpetuate the legend of Obelix.
We briefly mention our incident with Obelix the past weekend but they either don’t hear or politely ignore what we’re saying. Instead they dive straight in the core of the subject, unsure as to where to begin. I quickly get lost in technicalities of the different types of resin used for lamination, between orthophtalic, isophtalic, or vinylester, approved by Lloyd’s or not, so quite organically, Thomas settles with Erwin over his desk (where he’s pulled out the full Obelix file, including original brief, early drafts, quotes and calculations, all elegantly handwritten on thin checked paper), to go over the what, i.e. the boat’s design, and I sit at a meeting table with Uwe, listening carefully to the bittersweet story of the why. Their initial plans to go on a medical survey expedition in Papua New Guinea with his doctor wife Renata and a couple of crew (which explains some of the design choices), that they had sailed to New Zealand all the way from Denmark, had their daughter, Tiare, in Papeete, a perfect blue-eyed blond little Tahitian who now lives in Devonport, and that because it wasn’t safe at the time to go to PNG, they settled in New Zealand in a “waiting state”, that the name of the boat “developed while [they] were building it, with its big belly”, that their son Teva was born half-way through the project, with a heart condition that compromised the whole PNG mission, and that soon after launching the boat, Teva passed away on the operating table at age 5, which resulted in a double break-up with the wife and the boat. No wonder, then, that when we show him pictures of Obelix under sail in front of Rangitoto, he is more interested in the shape of the volcano behind, which he was trying to replicate from memory on a pastel drawing for his grand-daughter, and asks us if we could send that picture “to his computer”.
Erwin pulls all the A3 drawings of his No. 22 design, which are orderly stacked on hooks against the wall. He also takes pride in showing us and the kids the wooden boat he is building with his grandson and whose hull lies upside down in his garage, before shooting off in his modern blue Volkswagen Beetle to a friend’s farewell, leaving us with Uwe to carry on our conversation for a bit longer.
All the while, the kids are drinking apple juice and eating macaroons, cherries and chocolate we have brought for morning tea, every now and then attempting to interrupt us to comment on the many boat pictures, drawings and models that crowd the room. We have asked in the car if they had any burning question they wanted to ask but they wouldn’t come up with anything. On the other hand, we have a long list of questions, regarding both specific features of the boat and its history, and we make sure that at the end of the meeting there is no stone left unturned.
Approaching noon, Uwe kinda concludes “it is not a beautiful boat, but it is a good boat”. By then we’ve satisfied our curiosity, exhausted the subject for the time being, and feel it is time to excuse ourselves. We exchange email address and phone number and head towards Waipu Cove, to digest all the information we’ve received while soaking in the summer vibe.
In the evening, after a laid back dinner at the Yogi’s Bar & Eatery in Gulf Harbour, we pay a visit to Obelix, planning to stay the night on board. However, the dizzying height at which it is perched on its cradle, the ferocious attack of mosquitoes when we climb in, and the stuffiness inside with the smell of chemicals used to remove the rudder all deter us from staying another minute. So we just collect a few clothes, school papers and squabs, and off we go again, driving back to Bayswater to spend the night at the tent we’ve set up in our Guatemalan friends’ garden. What a day, now good night!