Talking sh*t floats Bruce Pilbrow’s boat.

The CEO of the Spirit of Adventure Trust, Pilbrow is on board the iconic Spirit of New Zealand – the square-rigged ship that’s helped change the lives of 88,000 young Kiwis over the past 50 years.

It’s just returned to its Princess Wharf dock with 40 animated rangatahi onboard, who’ve spent a challenging 10 days at sea. But it was the maiden voyage of the barquentine’s new sewage treatment plant after an eight-week refit.

The $400,000 system, tucked inside the boat’s keel, will essentially help revitalise the declining health of the Hauraki Gulf – the Spirit of Adventure’s playground.

The Gulf needs all the help it can get right now – with millions of litres of wastewater pouring into the Waitemata Harbour after the collapse of the main Auckland sewer line. 

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Instead of the Spirit dumping the waste of 53 people into the sea every day, the ship’s new sewage plant puts it through a UV filtration system that disinfects the wastewater.

“Now the waste tank on board needs emptying only once every 30 days, and we can manage the discharge deep at sea,” Pilbrow explains. “It’s clean water now discharged daily as the UV filtration burns off the chorine treatment typically used.”

It’s just one of many steps the not-for-profit organisation is taking on water and on land, not only to save the marine environment, but also to hit home the message of sustainability to its young sailors.

The daily dawn ritual for Spirit of New Zealand crew. Photo: Spirit of Adventure. 

Pilbrow laughs, though, that it’s the kids who are beginning to challenge the Spirit of Adventure crew on protecting the environment.  

“If they see us using plastic wrap, they’ll call us on it. And I love that,” he says.

The 37.5m three-masted Spirit of New Zealand is old school in many ways – every sail has to be released manually by young people scaling the mast – but hi-tech in others. Every day the boat is at sea, the teenage crew dive into the ocean at dawn, then test the sea’s temperature by dropping a probe – from a fishing handline reel – overboard.

Data from the sensor (nicknamed Mangōpare, or hammerhead shark) is relayed directly to the Moana Project, the MBIE Endeavour ocean research initiative, working to improve the understanding of coastal ocean circulation and marine heatwaves.

“We are the only ship out there doing that,” Pilbrow says. “A massive part of sustainability and biodiversity is understanding ocean temperatures, and as the sea gets warmer, having that data every day is so powerful.

“It’s a good learning experience for young people, too. If the sea warms up, why is that a problem? What is it doing to our biodiversity and our food source?”

Bruce Pilbrow and the Spirit of New Zealand. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

Away from his office overlooking the Waitemata Harbour, Pilbrow is a keen sailor, passionate about the sea.

“I took my boat out the other day and it was sunny, the sky was blue, the islands were green, and the Hauraki Gulf looked stunning. You’d believe we have the healthiest marine environment in the world – yet we have one of the worst,” he says.  

“Underneath the surface, there are too many kina and not enough kelp. Our fish are anaemic. We still do commercial dredging in the Hauraki Gulf, which it’s insane. But if we all do little things to look after it, then this could be the best playground in the world.

“We’ve decided as a charity we’re going to do something about it. And the young people hold us to account on this – they want us to take the environment and climate conditions seriously. So we’re leading by example. We’re going to be one of the most advanced ships in the Hauraki Gulf around this response.”

To let the young sailors see the environmental decline for themselves, the University of Auckland are collaborating with the Spirit of Adventure to create a dropdown feeding tank containing a GoPro 360 degree camera. “They can see what’s underneath the water – the fish, but also the barrenness,” says Pilbrow.

“The university has also provided us with 40 snorkel kits so when we go to Leigh and the Goat Island Marine Reserve they can see what a flourishing environment looks like, and then compare the two.”

Almost 90,000 Kiwi youth have been to sea on the Spirit of New Zealand. Photo: Spirit of Adventure. 

Hyundai, a long-term partner of the Spirit of Adventure, has joined their sustainability crusade, too, by providing a fleet of their electric and hybrid vehicles to the trust.

“We’re trying to be as end-to-end with our environmental footprint as we possibly can so running an EV or hybrid fleet is a major step for us,” Pilbrow says.

For the last 10 years, Hyundai has worked with the Spirit of Adventure through its Pinnacle Programme; each year sending 20 rangatahi on a 10-day voyage to kick-start their mentoring programme.

“It’s all about taking young people out on the water and teaching them life skills,” says Emma Guadagni, the marketing manager for Hyundai New Zealand.

“With Hyundai Future Positive, we’re taking global product leadership in sustainable transportation and coupling that with the future of young New Zealanders. And we think it’s a great initiative with the Spirit of Adventure and what they do – being able to give them EVs helps to bring the global aspect into the local aspect.”

One of the Spirit of Adventure’s new Hyundai cars charges up on its EV charging station. Photo: Suzanne McFadden. 

Another Kiwi company, TransNet, has provided an EV charging station which has recently been installed on the dock beside the ship. “Around 10,000 people pass through here every day and can see what we’re doing to make a difference,” says Pilbrow.

The Joyce Fisher Charitable Trust and Pub Charity funded the sewage treatment plant, installed at the Heron Ship Repair yard in Whangārei.

Pilbrow hopes rangatahi leave the Spirit with a new mindset around sustainability and restoring the health of the Gulf. “We remind them, if you drop a piece of plastic on the ground, it will almost certainly end up in the harbour,” he says.

“Then if we’re out at sea and someone spots a piece of plastic in the water, we will turn the ship around and pick it up – to show them the effort is worth it.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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