The nautical saga of Lake Taupō: dreams, disasters, detours and love story
This article was published on Scout and is republished with permission.
Dreams, catastrophes, detours and even a love story in the distance … On Lake Taupō, Sue Hoffart discovers a nautical saga that has it all.
Although Dave Nesbitt was born to sail, he took unlikely detours to become a yacht owner. And he certainly encountered rough waters along the way.
The man at the head of Taupō Sailing Adventures is a former motorcycle racer who cites truck driving, motel ownership and bar management among his previous careers. None of these distractions come close to the thrill he gets from running his yacht travel business alongside his wife Jess, on Aotearoa’s largest lake.
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Dave has been taking tourists to this body of water for over 16 years, offering regular daily excursions as well as private charters and sunset tours to the Maori rock carvings at Ngātoroirangi Mine Bay.
Lately it has started showing guests the far west side of the lake, with its waterfalls and pristine private coves. On days off he and Jess will do maintenance work or set off on their 14m sloop Soul mate to explore new corners of the lake, or push the ship in an invigorating breeze.
“Once on the lake, I fell in love with sailing and realized what dad was trying to show me as a kid,” says Dave.
His father, Tony Nesbitt, raced motorcycles and offshore motorboats and ran the Christchurch and Wellington circuits. The elder Nesbitt was also a sailor, who lived on a yacht for 20 years. “Boats and motorcycles are in our blood,” says Dave. “But I hadn’t really learned to sail because dad did it all and I just did as I was told.”
Dave understood the appeal of wind-powered boating much later, having given up driving trucks to help run a lakeside motel, restaurant, and bar. He operated the tourism business alongside his then wife and parents.
The outgoing father-of-two was a natural in the people-oriented hospitality industry, and sailing turned out to be right for him, too. He quickly evolved into racing his own keelboat before hiring a yacht to carry paying passengers, which meant he could justify spending even more time on the water.
He happily timed 110-hour weeks, taking visitors sailing during the day and spending evenings at the motel and restaurant.
Her love for yachting survived both that marriage and the motel industry, with the global financial crisis of the late 2000s landing on top of a bad lease.
“It was really bad timing. We had just built a brand new house, I couldn’t afford the rent on the yacht. I walked away from the motel and my wedding with a TV, fridge and bed, and j lived in a garage to make ends meet.
He found work as the manager of an Irish bar for a fraction of his previous income. There were advantages, however: the chefs would slip him leftovers to help feed the son who lived with him. And her boss has become a mentor and a funder.
“The owner has become a friend. He financed me to buy my first yacht, Intrepid, because he believed in what I could do. He knew I could entertain people and create a great product – he could see it was my passion.
Within eight years, the debt had been paid off and business was going well, as news of the boat and her enthusiastic owner reached an increasing number of international travelers. Then, in February 2016, a German backpacker climbed aboard and broke the captain’s plans to remain single for life while touring the world on a motorcycle.
The Bremerhaven customs officer was not supposed to be there. She had first tried to book an excursion with the competition, and Dave’s boat had been chartered by a wealthy client. But it turned out that the client wanted company, that the young German earthling was destined to become a good sailor, and Dave’s days were numbered.
“We hit it off right away,” Dave says of the day he met his future wife. “She had no experience on the boats but she loved it. We chatted from the start and never stopped. Even when we are apart, we talk quite often several times a day.
The two exchanged contact details, and when Jess returned to Taupō, they watched the town’s annual Ironman race, went out drinking beer, and formed a long-distance relationship. Nine months after they met, he moved on his knees bent in a lighthouse in Germany.
The couple have married twice – once in each country – and Jess is now a New Zealand resident and an integral part of the business. In addition to managing the marketing and administrative work, she adapted to marine electrical and mechanical tasks with ease, and also took the helm of finances. “He’s a much better business person than I am,” he says. “Jess is a good saver and takes care of all the books.”
In mid-2019, demand was so high and the projections so good that the couple bought a second, much larger yacht and set out to restore it. Soul mate is a 45 year old New Zealand built vessel that has sailed the Pacific and spent a decade as a home for a family of four.
“It’s fast, it’s fluid, he likes bad weather. It’s dry, and there’s so much room down there. While Fearless is a pirate ship, we wanted Kindred to be a lot more luxurious.
By the time the beautiful wooden yacht had been rewired, redone, painted, lacquered and prepped for the passengers, the estimated costs had tripled and months had passed. And a new threat was on the horizon – weeks after essential ship documents arrived, New Zealand had its first known case of Covid-19 and the international tourism boom was on hold. To pay the bills, Dave spent the past winter driving logging trucks while Jess put firewood at a local sawmill.
Since then, they have had to replace Kindred’s engine twice, and in late December Fearless was burned down by a marina fire that destroyed two nearby boats.
In January, Jess returned to her old job in Germany to help them pay their boat fees and also to pay for fertility treatment so they could start a family. In the meantime, Dave is keen to show New Zealand travelers the lake he adores, while hoping for calm sailing and favorable winds.
“We’ve been through so much already, we’re going to be okay too,” he says.
“People ask, ‘How does he work seven days a week?’ But I never get tired of it. Just yesterday, it was blowing at 25 or 30 knots so I left alone in the middle of the lake to go sailing. I love. And one of these days, I hope Jess and I are there with our kids.
In addition to private charters, Sailing Adventures in Taupō offers three adventures of Lake Taupō onboard Soul mate, each admiring the Maori rock carvings of Ngātoroirangi Mine Bay. There is a morning excursion, an afternoon Taste of Taupō excursion, and a sunset excursion. Each experiment takes 2.5 hours.