The Most Interesting Ronstan Customer in the World Part 1: Antarctica

by Tom Stuchbery

For this issue of Tell Tales I wanted to write an article that inspired yachties from a full spectrum of the sport. As a lifelong sailing addict, I thoroughly enjoy the conversations I have with customers on a day-to-day basis, with work often feeling like a brilliant never-ending game where sailing questions of varying complexity are constantly coming through. One customer might be seeking a replacement block for their Cavalier 37, the next might be looking to reinvent racing multihulls entirely. This article focuses on a customer of the second category.

I vividly recall my first encounter with Matt Tucker. It was April 2020, COVID was starting to spread throughout the world, and I was making the most of temporarily inheriting the office of a senior colleague thanks to social distancing measures. We received an email from a customer in Tasmania building an experimental racing proa with a 360° rotating rig. I knew I must find out more, so I immediately called Matt Tucker.

I soon found out that not only was Matt building a very interesting racing proa but he had also grown up on a home-built 48 foot Herreshoff Ketch named New Zealand Maid along with his 4 brothers and in 2006 had sailed from Hobart to Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica, with his brother Ben and father John on the 34 footer Snow Petrel. The best part about this was that he made a fantastic three-part Documentary about the voyage, which is available on YouTube, and I somehow hadn’t seen it yet!

Given the scope of topics and details I wanted to know, I found it hard to combine all the questions I had about these topics into one digestible article, so I thought I would simply list them all below for the reader to tackle one at a time.

What were some highlights of those early years travelling the oceans aboard New Zealand Maid?

Looking back on it was like a permanent summer holiday, even if it wasn’t necessarily summer. Most of my schooling was home schooling, so there were heaps of flexibility, so we would often go fishing or something in the day, then do our schoolwork at night, so life had much of a holiday feel, which I probably didn’t appreciate enough at the time.

Looking back at your trip to Antarctica 16 years later, what were some of the main highlights that still come to mind?

I think it’s pretty much the ultimate adventure. As far as the three of us in our family go, it’s pretty much as far as we can go into the unknown within our capabilities. The family element of it was huge, doing something like that with part of the family is not something that a lot of people get to experience, and I’ve since had a lot of people commenting on my video saying that they wish they had the chance to do something like that with their father or family. Basically, in terms of the actual voyage, it was just an awesome trip, with awesome experiences, and we met some of the best people.

How cold did it get? What did you do to warm the cabin?

Put it this way, our water tanks all froze, every time we washed anything, it froze (inside). We had to keep a jerry can of water on the bench next to the stove where we did all our cooking, just to stop it from freezing. The biggest issue with the water was when it started to thaw out on the way home, huge chunks of ice were banging around inside the tank under the bunk. Temperature wise it was about zero at chest height, above that it was 2 degrees, at floor level it was below zero. We had a diesel heater but because we were so limited with space, we only used it once when we wanted to dry some clothes, which failed. The other thing was because the tanks were frozen, we had to collect water from a lake with 5cm of ice on the top of it, with the lake being up a hill! Even stuff like Olive Oil solidifies under 10 degrees, there were just lots of little things like that you never think about.

Every couple of years we see awe-inspiring footage of IMOCAS and Volvo 65’s down in the Southern Ocean. How would you describe sailing in the deep south to the average yachtie? Did sailing south from civilization feel a bit like stepping off the edge of the planet?

Yeah, it does feel a lot like that, because pretty much every other ocean voyage we had done was from land to other land, in terms of what we recognize as being land. When you go down there you kind of have a totally different mental image, you know you’re going to arrive at icebergs and pack ice before you even get to land, and you might not even get to the land on the other side. In terms of the sailing, there’s an element of fear involved, you pretty much set off knowing that at some point you’ll get rolled by horrendous weather, especially in a slow, plodding boat like ours. My feeling anyway was that once we got going and were in the rhythm of it going south, it was essentially like any other trip, just getting colder and colder every day.

You had the opportunity to visit Mawson’s Hut, which is almost as they left it when they walked out the door over 100 years ago. How did you find that experience?

It was eye-opening for me, because I’d never been exposed to the history of Antarctic exploration as it wasn’t well known in NZ. It was a bit like a moon landing type story where you hear it but can’t quite relate to it. It was a bit like sailing to the moon and being like “oh, here we are”. In terms of the hut itself, it is literally exactly as they left it, there’s even clothes hanging on hooks and food on shelves. The insight you would get into the way they lived was incredible. I went back to work as a carpenter as part of a restoration project a few years later, me and another guy took all the measurements of every piece of timber for the replica that later got built in Hobart. We were crawling under bunks measuring stuff, I probably know that hut as well as anyone alive. (Matt was originally a Carpenter and now works as an Aviation Firefighter).  

It seems that when reading books about famous adventurers, or people that have gone on to accomplish amazing feats, many of them grew up on a boat. Do you think there is an aspect to life afloat that gives people like yourself confidence to tackle such an ambitious list of projects?

These kinds of questions are tricky; people often ask me that. Because I grew up like that, I don’t have the perspective of someone that hasn’t. I get a feeling it makes a difference; I often respond by asking where they grew up, and they’ll say a dairy farm, then I’ll mention that I’m scared sh**less of cows, but I’m fine on the ocean. I’ll often say to people I very rarely get scared on the water, but my wife can’t handle a boat heeling over more than 5 degrees, because she hasn’t grown up that way, it’s all about perspective. What’s natural to me, isn’t natural to someone else, it’s all relative really. The adventure and exploration elements are much stronger when you grow up that way though.

Books I have read also seem to reveal that on these long trips, be it trekking across an island or kayaking an ocean, simple things such as a particular chocolate or drink become more crucial to the day than they would be ashore. Did you find this to be the case on your Antarctic voyage?

Definitely, it’s a huge one. Depending on the voyage, on our trip we were severely limited by the size of the boat and we didn’t have a fridge, freezer or money. Most of the food we took was tinned or dried, and some freeze-dried food that was given to us. Race boat crews complain about freeze dried, but that was the best we had. It was the same with things like beer, or fresh food. We didn’t carry enough beer; it was like half a can every couple of days. You start to appreciate the little things. When we got to Antarctica and the cruise ship gave us two loaves of bread and some fresh food that was like the jackpot. Eating very quickly becomes something you need to do for survival instead of something we do for fun ashore.

Matt has recently launched a business building classic boats for the modern world using high performance, low environmental impact composites. Please see http://evergreenboats.com.au/ for details.

Ronstan thanks Matt for his time and assistance with this article, particularly when phone challenges made it hard!