Some people dream of building a yacht and casting off for adventures on the seven seas, but few have the tenacity, opportunity or courage to make it happen. Orewa resident Pauline Roth-Williams is one of those few. She arrived in New Zealand aboard the flying boat Awatere in 1951 and within a year, had met her future husband who, on the night they met, asked her the improbable question, “How would you like to sail around the world?” Her answer changed her life, as Jannette Thompson discovered…
I grew up in Essex, just north of London, where Dad was a fishmonger at the Billingsgate Market and Mum would give pony rides on the beach. I can’t remember ever not wanting to travel. My first proper job was in Barclays Bank, but when my boyfriend left for New Zealand, a girlfriend and I made plans to follow. The fare cost £96. Sadly, my friend died just before we left so, at 17, I found myself on my own on the P&O boat Otranto, heading for the other side of the world. I made a friend on board who was stopping in Sydney so decided to join her for a few weeks. I then booked a seat on the Awatere for the nearly eight-hour crossing to NZ, landing at Mechanics Bay. I arrived knowing no-one, with just the phone number of a friend-of-a-friend. I got in touch and she invited me to join her for weekend at her home in Hamilton. Just like that! I ended up getting a job selling make-up in a department store in Hamilton and would bike to the local dances whenever I could – I was crazy on dancing – and that’s where I met Bryan. He asked me to dance and a year later we were married.
Neither Bryan nor I knew anything about boats and neither of us were sailors so we realised that if we were going to make our dream a reality, we had a lot of homework to do. We joined the Royal Akarana Yacht Club and spent two years pouring over every yacht design book we could find. Bryan had a small engine repair shop so we used the back of the workshop to build the boat. Over a period of five years we built a 50-foot steel yawl, which we christened Nomad. By the time she was launched at Jellicoe Wharf, in Auckland, we had a son Mark and two daughters, Suzanne and Jannise. Nomad floated perfectly on her waterline but her maiden voyage around Waitemata Harbour wasn’t quite so perfect when we ran aground on Browns Island.
We spent a year in Auckland getting to know the boat and then another year in Whangarei, before eventually sailing for Rarotonga. We went through some rough weather during the 22-day voyage, but because we were so inexperienced, we thought it was normal. It was then on to Aitutaki and other Pacific ports, and the trip was relatively uneventful except for an incident near Suva. The sextant had been dropped, which had put us off course, and one night we ran aground on a reef. Thank goodness we had a steel boat! It took nearly 10 days before we could get her free. It was a bit hair-raising, and became another episode that we didn’t tell anyone about.
The children did distance education – new books and lessons would be left at various ports along our route. One of the big challenges was feeding a family of five without a store around the corner. We would supplement our supplies with fish, and fresh fruit, eggs and vegetables from the islands we visited. Seven months after setting sail from Auckland, we dropped anchor in Rushcutters Bay, Sydney. The children went to a nearby school and I got a job modelling for shopping catalogues. Several newspapers did stories on us – I think it was the novelty of having the children on board. After several months, we headed up the coast to New Guinea and made Rabaul our base for a year. The children again went to school and Bryan and I worked, and started taking paying guests for short sectors.
En route to Indonesia, passing across the top of West Irian, the boat was stormed by armed soldiers. It was pretty dicey stuff. I remember I had a couple of magazines on the table. I don’t know why, but I showed them to the soldiers hoping that it might calm them down. And that’s exactly what happened. They started sharing them around and asking if I had anymore. After the Seychelles it was on to Durban, in South Africa, where we heard someone was organising a yacht race from Cape Town to Rio De Janeiro. We thought, “Gosh, NZ should put a boat in that.” We were tempted but couldn’t afford it, plus Nomad was a cruising yacht, not a race boat. But the lure of representing NZ was too great. I managed to get NZ Insurance to sponsor us and we spent about a year getting the boat ready. By this time, Mark was in school in England, so it was only Bryan and I and the two girls, plus three South African crew members. We had a pretty rough time getting around the Cape of Good Hope to the starting line, but eventually we lined up with about 80 other boats. We didn’t place anywhere spectacular, but we did finish the race and it was a wonderful experience.
Our next long-term stop was London, where the girls eventually went their separate ways – Suzanne returned to South Africa where she’d met a boy and Jannise got a job on a farm looking after horses. Bryan and I struck upon the plan to set-up a charter boat business out of Greece, catering mainly to rich Americans and Europeans. We’d take them out for a week to 10 days, I’d do the cooking and we’d all have an enjoyable time. In the winter, we’d leave the boat in Malta and return to London to manage The Colonies, a pub close to Buckingham Palace. We did that for five years until the marriage came apart, and we divorced. Bryan kept the boat and eventually sailed her back to NZ with a new wife and a baby. He ended up selling Nomad to Brian Curtis, of all people, who I think is still in jail for drug smuggling. We understand the boat then went to Fiji where it was used as a sail training boat. Mark and I have tried to track her down, without success.
Meanwhile, I met Andrew Roth, a Swiss businessman who was to become my second husband. We were married for 22 years before he passed away at our villa in the South of France. We also had a beautiful villa in Marbella, on the Costa Del Sol in Spain, where my daughter Suzanne was also spending a lot of time. She had married an American lawyer who worked for the billionaire arms dealer Adnan Kashoggi. We went to all of Kashoggi’s parties. I guess you’d say we were living the high life.
A passion that Arthur and I shared was artifacts. We were both collectors in our own way and we had some terrific times going to remote places all over the world on the hunt for pieces to sell to museums or private collectors. Sometimes this would mean camping out in the jungle for weeks at a time – there certainly wasn’t anything glamorous about it, but we did find some exotic items like arrowheads, masks and bowls. Andrew passed away and I sold most of my collection before moving back to NZ. More than 300 items from Oceania, Indonesia, the Americas and Africa, including 80 masks, went under the hammer at an auction in the Hotel Cannes in December 2001. Buyers came from all over the world. It was a case of, “Oh well, time to move on”.
Once back in NZ, I meet Jack Gilbert who was a well-known lawn bowls player. We married and lived happily together in the Nautilus Apartments in Orewa. The children have lived all over the world and I have grandchildren who are also scattered in many different countries. It must be something in the blood. I’m not sure that what I did was right or wrong, but my life turned out a lot more interesting than I could have ever imagined when I first stepped foot on that P&O ship leaving England. If I had any advice for anyone, it would be, ‘If you feel like doing something that sounds crazy, do it!’