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Clarke Gayford on The Power of Being at Sea: “It’s a Massive Mental Release”
By Dan Williams | Oct 19, 2021
Upon those raised in its presence, the sea can exert a powerful magnetic pull. Clarke Gayford, the partner of New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern, reveals how he erased growing feelings of disenchantment by reconnecting with The Big Blue.
Looking back, I can recognise my childhood as idyllic. At the time, though, do we ever realise how good we have things? Rarely. More often, the truth dawns later, when we catch ourselves as adults trying to recapture the magic of days past.
I grew up on a small horticultural farm in Gisborne, on the east coast of the North Island. My family also had what we call a bach, a tiny holiday home about an hour’s drive south in a beautiful spot called the Mahia Peninsula.
Split between those two places, my boyhood revolved around the sea. Among my earliest memories are my dad pushing me onto waves on a surfboard and taking me fishing. He taught me how to go around the rocks at low tide and find paua (abalone), how to snorkel and how to head out to sea by boat, drop anchor and check the wind.
As I got a little older and more independent, the fishing took on a life of its own. I’d save my pocket money and buy sinkers, fishing reels and all the bits and pieces I could afford. I’d pore through the fishing magazines. I’d go off by myself around the rocks and catch whatever I could.
Aged 10, at Makouri Primary School, I composed a story about the life I envisaged for myself. “I would like to be a fisherman,”
I wrote. “I will buy a great big boat. We are going to have a radio in the boat. We are going to have a deep-water sounder.”
Gisborne: by the time you’re 19, you can’t wait to get out of a town like that. And when you’re older, you find a million excuses to go back.
On finishing high school, I was keen to take a year off, but my parents wanted me to go to university. As an act of rebellion,
I picked the university furthest from home that would take me: the University of Otago, in Dunedin. I enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts degree and became a textbook case in how to be a useless student for a couple of years. Then I got all my fees refunded and snuck off to Indonesia to surf. That was my introduction to the wider world.
Back on home soil, I became passionate about wanting to work in television. That came from growing up on a farm where we never owned a TV. Sometimes we’d rent one, so it was a novelty, a treat; it became something mystical. I had a few confidence issues coming out of school and never thought someone like me was allowed to do something like that. It took a couple of years to realise that, okay, you can give this a go.
I applied to the New Zealand Broadcasting School, which took about 17 people a year. I didn’t get in, but I’d made up my mind by then and just kept pestering them. Finally, they relented and agreed to interview me. I had long hair, which I cut off, and I bought a suit jacket. I climbed into an old yellow station wagon and drove all the way to Christchurch, where I presented at the interview and managed to sneak in.
Thus began a long career in TV and radio, where initially I worked behind the scenes but in time found myself in Auckland on the mic, hosting everything from a midnight show to breakfast radio, always in the youth-orientated, musical space. I ended
up at a station where I felt engaged and stimulated, until a large company took it over and the DJs went from choosing all our own music and being passionate about what we played to having playlists imposed on us. For me, by then in my thirties, all the shine went off the job.
THE CALL OF THE SEA
It wasn’t just work that was bringing me down. Something was missing from my life, something elemental. My separation from the sea had been too abrupt, too complete. In an interview I stumbled across, the fisheries research scientist Catherine Chambers said something that resonated with me: “Fishing is not a job. It’s a livelihood and it is bound by place. When those things separate from each other… you get into real problems with isolation, depression, anxiety, nervousness.”
I certainly missed my connection to Gisborne. But more than that, I missed my connection to the ocean.
As luck would have it, I had the chance to buy a small boat – our old family boat from Gisborne that my dad no longer needed. I moved it to Auckland, and instantly it carried me back in time. I was excited about rising at five in the morning to go out on the water, as opposed to coming home from a nightclub around that time after a DJing gig.
But I knew the sea needed to be more than something I squeezed in before work; I needed to make it a central part of my life once again.
When my friend and film industry legend Mike Bhana returned to live in New Zealand after 25 years of blue-chip documentary work in the Pacific, we decided to take a chance on a format we dreamed up over a few beers. Our television program, Fish of the Day, which first went to air in 2015, has allowed us to explore all corners of New Zealand and much further afield, as well.
I suspect the sea is fundamental to who we are as humans and how we might best balance our lives. When I travel, I make a point of speaking with veteran commercial fishers, mostly old men, and they talk about the ocean as a holistic experience. They go out to sea because they have this need for it.
Skirting its edges as I do, you get a glimpse into its power. From the moment you pick a destination and cast off from shore, you’re solving problems until the moment you return. Being at sea forces you to think about that and nothing else. If you’re facing other pressures, they all disappear. It is a massive mental release, a wonderful real-life game of chess. And if you’re lucky, you come back with dinner.
FIND A WAY
In 2013, two years before the launch of Fish of the Day, I began dating a young Labour Party MP named Jacinda Ardern. In October 2017, Mike and I were diving off Mooloolaba on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. When we surfaced, the skipper of the boat called out, in his wonderful Australian accent, “Mate, you might want to call home – your missus has had a promotion”. Jacinda had just been elected unopposed as Labour Party leader. Just seven weeks after that, she became Prime Minister. The following year, in June 2018, we welcomed into the world our daughter, Neve.
The role of partner to a head of government doesn’t come with a manual, and I’ve had to sharpen my reflexes along the way. Is it emasculating? No. I believe in what my partner’s doing. I believe in the things she’s trying to push through.
Prior to having a child, you hear about how it’s going to upend your life. And then the child arrives and, oh my goodness! It doesn’t matter how much you’d like to do some or all the things you used to do . . . that’s not possible anymore.
That said, Mike and I managed to film a season of Fish of the Day for this year, and I did a documentary on great whites, Shark Lockdown, for Discovery Channel. I have my diary in which my filming segments are blocked out. And I look forward to them, now more than ever, but they do come with the guilt of knowing you’re not around, not helping at home.
Obviously, we have such a busy household now, and Neve’s mum has her eye so firmly on her job, which is relentless. But there are times I’ll say to Jacinda, when I’ve been stuck on land for a while, “I just need to go”. I need to get on the water and escape, even for half a day.
For Shark Lockdown, we were right on the edge of the roaring forties, amid that proper biting cold that cuts straight through you. We were getting into cages and, at one point, we had six great whites near the back of the boat, albatross all over the surface and seals around us. If you’re not feeling alive in those moments, there is no hope for you.
By Dan Williams
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