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HENRY WAKELAM: A WORLD OF HIS OWN

It was our last weekend in New Zealand and we still hadn’t done it. We had the incredible chance of meeting in person a living legend, one of the most inspiring sailors of all times, and we kept putting off the task, as if something was holding us back…I wasn’t quite sure what that was, but I had a distinct feeling of discomfort, every time I was even contemplating picking up the phone to dial the strangers’ number. I was afraid of intruding into this guy’s private life and it took me several attempts, to actually set my mind right and make the decision. My last thought before pressing the green button was: “you should never pass on something until you actually try it, and a phone call can’t harm anyone: if you feel any awkwardness on the other side of the phone, you are always in time to bail out and forget about it all”.

Surprisingly the calm and firm voice that answered my call was immediately reassuring, and the politeness that came from the other end of the line seemed so sincere, that I felt at once comforted and relieved. Henry Wakelam, at over 80 years of age, amiably agreed to have two absolute strangers visit him at his house, on the basis of a previous correspondence with L’Alliance, and with the only premises that we may have some questions for him, having a lot to learn from his outstanding sailing experience. The only “warning” was for us not to bring any alcohol, nor any food containing gluten. Funny enough, Svenja and I had just been talking about taking with us a sample of home-baked bread and a good bottle of wine, in case we would be invited to visit the couple. The plan reverted onto cheese making, the new art that Svenja has recently started experimenting with.

Leaving “home”, we had mixed feelings and different opinions about what to expect from our belated road trip: on one hand we were excited about the opportunity, on the other the fear of intruding into some stranger’s life was back in full force. I have never been a big fan of looking for people: don’t take me wrong, I love meeting interesting people above all, but only as long as it is the fruit of a spontaneous encounter. As soon as there’s any sort of “work” involved, I feel like there’s something unnatural about the situation, and awkwardness fills the depth of my guts. Again, I suppressed my second thoughts with the idea that chances in life are to be taken as they happen. “Carpe diem” and “Panta rei” are just two aspects of the same truthful concept.

On arrival we were greeted by a Japanese man, who was very surprised about our appointment with the Wakelams. Having a workshop next to Henry’s, he was incredibly eager to introduce us to the area: he kindly drew us a map of the dirt road leading to Henry’s house, and warned us against all the local “dangers”. We were only to know later, that like others on that stretch of land, he is another person that came from the sea and never left. He was on one of the first Greenpeace boats and after years of campaigns at sea, decided to stop right there. New Zealand seems to attract a lot of sea-going and world-traveling characters…and after a bit of exploration for ourselves, we can definitely understand why.

Yannick Wakelam was walking into the house as we arrived. She welcomed us, informed us that Henry was busy in the garden and that he would have joined us shortly. She gave us some water and let us sit at the table with her, and amiably started chatting about us, asking where we came from and how we ended up there. With unbelievable politeness, she wanted to investigate our reasons for such a visit, and within the boundaries of the conversation she made us understand that people in the past have approached Henry in different ways. She literally said: “I hope you are not some of those people that come to take his picture and leave”…to which I felt all the awkwardness of the situation suddenly dawn on me, and I instantly made the firm decision that whatever was going to happen during that afternoon, I was definitely not going to take any pictures (although it would have been nice to have one to include in this article).

Henry arrived at his own pace, his awe-inspiring white hair preceding him into the room; walking with the aid of a stick, but in the most splendid spirits I have ever seen, for a man of that age. He was ready to help us out with any kind of advice he could give us about steel hulls (he literally went:”Fire off the questions!”), and seemed very interested in hearing our stories. We were obviously a source of external news, and for the old man that was way more interesting than talking about himself. We understood this straight away, and let him lead the conversation. I figured a lot of people have “used” him in the past to retrieve extra informations and anecdotes about Bernard Moitissier, therefore I steered well off that course over the rest of the conversation and didn’t ask any questions about the famous French sailor. His manifest curiosity about our motivations made us understand that all of a sudden we were both, the guests and the intruders, to a little private world that Henry had created for Yannick and himself, over the course of the last 26 years (since the day they arrived by boat).

The house we were sitting in was a masterpiece of practicality and recycling art. It comprises of a single room space (loft style, one would call it these days), completely self-built out of cheap materials found nearby. Later on we were to be shown their first settlement, not much bigger than the cabin of a little sailboat, where the couple lived during the construction of the main house, together with their then teenager son. The garden surrounding the house had all the veggies one could ever need, fruit trees, a solar panel for water heating, plus a few more for electrical needs. A composting, dry toilet was at one end, and an extra bedroom made out of a retired shipping container at the other. Henry’s ducks were happily following him around, while Yannick’s chickens had their space at the front. A pile of recyclable materials was collected in a dedicated area, from which things would be picked when the need would arise. It is important not to forget that these days Henry is a full time inventor, and anything could become useful at the appropriate time.

Just after having been invited to stay for dinner, we were introduced to a big, strong man with a long beard. He was wearing a hunter’s hat and had a firm grip on his home-made rifle. His strong kiwi accent would hardly reveal that he was born in Martinique; he was Henry’s and Yannick’s son. To our delight he ended up staying for dinner too; Svenja’s ricotta cheese got immediately put under a serious test, while he revealed his passion for cheese making and started pulling out samples of delicious home made feta cheese. Between a bite and the other, we got to know that he had just become a father, and the old Wakelam’s seemed thoroughly happy about their new grandparents status.

Altogether it was a very interesting experience. Nothing of what was on the dinner table came from a supermarket: the family seemed to be fully self-sufficient and very proud of it. A real monument to DIY, even at an age when most people would only survive thanks to full-time helpers. We were shown the latest additions to the home-built production: a walking stick that Henry made for Yannick, and a rack where to “mount it” next to the door. Yannick swiftly told us: “He doesn’t use stuff he hasn’t built himself.” We were also impressed by their ecological conscience: they live in one of the most environmentally sustainable ways I had the chance to admire to date. Moreover, we got to know that Yannick doesn’t fly because she can’t justify the amount of pollution of an airplane, when one compares it to the vain needs that people have these days, to move around the world in such a fast way. Yannick and Henry were lovely hosts, and after their son had left, they invited us to stay overnight. We declined the offer, thinking we had intruded enough, and promised to be back, one day, on l’Alliance. They wished us all the best, and walked us to our van, politely hugging and kissing good bye.

Leaving the house we had a lot to think about. Recollecting Henry’s words (from the few occasions in which he agreed to talk about himself) we found obvious that if he has lead his life the way he did, it wasn’t to set an example, or to bring his story to the general public. His path was fully personal. After all, he would have had enough material and writing capabilities to publish world-class best sellers, if he only had wanted to. He obviously made a conscious decision to keep his stories for himself and the few people that he has chosen along his life-path. Over the course of our visit, Henry was annoyed to any admiring comment regarding his past, and wondering why on earth people would be interested in “hunting him down” to meet him. “What’s wrong with the world?” he said at one point “One cannot hide anymore, these days!”. He expressed his dislike for the Internet, computers, and electronics in general. He was very direct in telling us that he doesn’t need pen-friends and that to write a hand-written letter, like the one that he had sent us in return to our first approach, would take him quite an effort. He only undertook the task, in that occasion, out of sheer politeness. The big message he wanted to get out there was: “I don’t need complications”…and here I am, loyally relaying the message to the public through the Internet. I hope this gets across to anyone who reads this article after googling Henry’s name: one of the things I have learned from this experience is that the little world that Henry Wakelam created for himself is busy enough with the daily tasks of attending garden and animals, not to mention the projects he carries out in his workshop.

Henry and Yannick will continue nevertheless to inspire me for a long time. They reminded me of the importance of keeping one’s life simple, and maybe one day I will also be able to say: “no more flights, just move through the water, rather than through air, at speeds that allow body and mind to adapt to the ever-changing environment”.

 

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  1. Dolly

    I met Henry in East London South Africa in the 50s. He was breathtaking- an adventurer – and said I could come along on his travels but I didn’t have the courage
    I googled his name idly this morning while sitting next to a pool in Pnom Penh during a brief visit visiting my daughter here.
    Thank you for the lovely article, not surprised at how his life turned out, so happy for him

  1. Henry Wakelam passed away | L'Alliance

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