In the charming New Zealand coastal town of Opua, a crossroads for cruising sailors in the enchanting Bay of Islands, sits a tidy A-framed building stationed alongside a long dock and a slipway. Most of the locals know the establishment by its formal title: Doug’s Opua Boatyard. But Doug Schmuck-yes, Schmuck-a transplanted Californian who’s been running the place for over two decades, has another name for it, one he proudly invokes when a visitor comes calling to say hello.
“Welcome to the Man Cave,” he says.
“Mate, it’s great to be here,” I reply.
The story of how Doug came to be the owner of such a functional and useful cavern, er, business, is circuitous and fascinating. It’s the tale of a sailor who went to sea and found home. Schmuck was the very first American to charter a sailboat from Opua-based Rainbow Charters back in 1982. The village and the islands had him at hello. “I thought to myself, ‘Where have I been all my life? This place has to be heaven.’ And it really is.” He liked it so much that when he was offered a job to manage the little charter company, he immediately said yes. The gig lasted six years.
Herb McCormick| |The view from Doug’s Opua Boatyard is serene and inviting.|
But Schmuck, a self-professed “boat rat” from Newport Beach, still had a case of wanderlust. He was a Vietnam veteran, where he’d spent “11 months, 3 weeks, 2 days and 5 hours driving assault boats for the Special Forces underwater demolition team,” and he was ready for an ocean voyage. In 1988, he set out alone into the Pacific aboard his 28-foot Bristol Channel Cutter, Puffin. “Nobody was shooting at me,” he said. “It was one of the great turning points in my life.”
The idea had been to sail around the world, but once he got to New Zealand, at a New Year’s Eve party on the docks of his friend’s Lin and Larry Pardey’s place on Kawau Island, he met a Kiwi named Helen off another boat that had shown up for the festivities. “She had two kids from a previous marriage and a three-legged cat called Tripod,” said Schmuck. “I started talking to her and I knew I was had.”
Herb McCormick| |Doug’s Opua Boatyard in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands has become a distinctive local landmark.|
A year later, he owned a boatyard.
“It’s sort of sleepy hollow right now,” he said last September, near the end of the New Zealand winter. “But it’ll be busy pretty soon. I haul about 120 boats a year. Because of the compliance costs and so forth, I’m the last private boatyard north of Whangarei. I’m basically fifteen years behind what happened (to small yards) back in the states.”
It hasn’t always been easy. Over the years, he’s been in and out of Environment Court arguing slipways and easements, and he’s even pleaded his case before Parliament. “Only in New Zealand,” he said. “But I’ve got a toehold here now.”
The centerpiece of the yard is the “turntable,” which in a previous life was a face shovel in an old coalmine. “That’s what made this boatyard, the installation of this turntable,” he said. It enables him to easily move and spin boats around the premises. Well, maybe “easy” is the wrong word. “I can use a come-along and hook on and pull it around,” he explained. “But mostly it’s pushed by hand. I get all the owners grunting and carrying on. It’s very labor intensive.”
It also keeps the proprietor, no longer a kid, in pretty good shape. “I’m 65 years old and still running the place by myself,” he said. “I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I’ll die with a screwdriver in my hand.”