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It’s a labour of love for long distance sailor

Wednesday 1 March 2023 | Written by Al Williams | Published in Features

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It’s a labour of love for long distance sailor
Jens Wagner, left, and Stephen Banks aboard Zao in Avatiu Harbour. PHOTO: AL WILLIAMS/ 23022820

Stephen Banks is a sailor on a mission – a mission to sail from New Zealand across the Pacific and through the Panama Canal to reach his three-year-old daughter in Maine – mainland United States.

Banks is sailing aboard Zao – a steel hull 50-foot Laurent Giles yacht – docked in Avatiu Harbour for the past week.

The sailing hasn’t been easy and the able seaman knows people will think he’s “nuts” sailing through cyclone season.

“I’ve got a three-year-old daughter in Maine, I have to get to her,” he said.

Banks said he is involved in a legal battle for his daughter, and is confident all the pieces are in place, without going into specific detail.

He has lived aboard Zao for three years and sailed her solo out of Russell in New Zealand through the Bay of Plenty to Tonga.

He then sailed to Rarotonga where he docked on February 20 and met up with Jens Wagner, who will act as first mate for the next leg of the journey.

The two met on a New Zealand online sailing forum and Wagner flew from New Zealand to Rarotonga to meet up with Banks.  

The pair plan to sail from here through Raivavae in French Polynesia, then on through the Gambier Islands, Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica, Panama Canal, Jamaica, then to Maine on the East Coast of the U.S.

“I’m in a bit of a hurry,” Banks laughed. “I don’t really like flying.”

He said a year’s worth of supplies are on board Zao, but he plans to sail her into Maine in June.

The yacht had already covered about 100,000 miles, and sailed mainly around Scotland before he took ownership of her.

Banks, a Kiwi, said he had been away from New Zealand sailing on and off for about 26 years.

His work was mainly aboard private yachts.

“I do love the ocean; I just want to get to my daughter.”

Banks said the weather had been terrible, especially on the Tonga to Cook Islands leg, where he faced winds up to 40 knots.

“I’m going against the trade winds.”

He is being assisted by a former NZ MetService specialist and the aid of a satellite phone.

“I use south easterlies and north easterlies.

“It’s not easy, you have storms.”

It is his first time on Rarotonga and he said our people have been very accommodating, offering him food and the use of their facilities, including a washing machine.

“I love the people here, I love the avocados, I’m meeting heaps of people.”

Banks said the experience is helping him “mentally, spiritually and emotionally”.