1 Apr 2021

Sealion ship not ready to 'sail along'

From Checkpoint, 5:48 pm on 1 April 2021

It's one of the most recognisable features on Wellington's waterfront, but for how much longer? 

The privately-owned Sealion - a World War II era ship adorned with hundreds of painted penguins stationed at Queen's Wharf - is being told to sail on after 18 years moored at Queen's Wharf.

The boat is taking on water. While four pumps are being used to ensure it doesn't sink, the boat is classified as "non-seaworthy". 

That's why the City Council - who are taking over the mooring contracts on the Wharf - has decided not to offer one to The Sealion. 

The ship has had many lives since it was built in Adelaide in 1945. It was meant to be a World War II supply ship but the war ended before it was finished.

It went on to be a mine sweeper, squid fishing ship and a houseboat. 

Now, quirkily painted with hundreds of penguins and a few sealions, the vessel - sporting a shabby-chic look - has become a rental property, and a self-described community and arts space. 

"We've had a number of one-off gigs out here, where we've just had a band set up here and the audience on the wharf, with 50, 80, 100 people coming down and engaging with their music which is great," said one of the boat's occupants, Simon Van Der Zeyden. 

Residents of the boat Simon Van Der Zeyden (left) and Dylan Pyle.

Residents of the boat Simon Van Der Zeyden (left) and Dylan Pyle. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"It's a beautiful open-air DIY gig opportunity that we've been thoroughly enjoying." 

Van Der Zeyden is one of four of the boat's occupants, who organise the boat as an arts space, organising film nights, games nights and live music. 

But all that is now under threat.

Centreport are planning on tugging the boat to Glasgow Wharf by next week. 

Van Der Zeyden and co-housemate, Dylan Pyle, have started a petition, which so far has over 850 signatures.

"What we're looking for with the petition is an engagement of discussion is brought upon us, where we can lock in a feasible timeline that allows everyone to have a sense of satisfaction and safety," said Van Der Zeyden. 

"Instead the decision has just been sprung upon us." 

In a statement, Centreport said they are working with the owner to get the boat repaired. 

"There have been ongoing issues with the vessel which has been degrading over time.

"The change of ownership and the impending handover of administration of the Queens Wharf berths highlighted the need for the vessel's seaworthiness to be brought up to standard." 

The Sealion has been moored for 18 years.

The Sealion has been moored for 18 years. Photo: RNZ / Sam Rillstone

[h] Moves to get it fixed 'feels very rushed'

Pyle isn't convinced. 

"If we are talking about seaworthiness, and we want to take conversation seriously, let's take that conversation seriously. Let's just not move the boat, and hope that something magical is going to happen.

"We as the community are very willing to help out to try and get the boat in a condition that satisfies peoples' fares.

"But if you want to talk about seaworthiness, let's make a plan, and then maybe we can talk about in six months time, maybe taking the boat over there and doing the work that's required, and bringing the boat back.

"It just feels very rushed at the moment." 

Meanwhile, the owner Selwyn Findley - who lives in Nelson - said he was loving the boat's current use.

"It struck a chord with me," he said.

"When the old owner said there's people onboard, I thought that's kind of good, and it's being used for a creative space. 

"I've been to concerts on board, and it's like a nice little intimate club down below, and it just suits it." 

Findley has only owned the boat since the new year, after it was sold by a fellow Nelson man. 

While his long-term plan was to do it up, then take it across the Cook Strait to enjoy in the Marlborough Sounds, he was in no rush. 

"When they first sent the letter to me, I was sort of, I guess, stunned a bit for a couple of days. 

"I just thought it was a shame. There's always going to be something that comes along, but it's just disrupted things, and put pressure. Financially it'll be hard.

"It's just involved a whole rethink." 

Inside The Sealion.

Inside The Sealion. Photo: RNZ / Sam Rillstone

[h] Boats' position in community and arts sector 'overstated' -Council

Council spokesperson, Richard MacLean, said the boat isn't fit to stay put. 

"I'm no nautical expert but the thing is, Queen's Wharf is not there to be a permanent home for a vessel that clearly can't get around the harbour." 

He was unsure of the inhabitants' description of the boat as an arts and community space. 

"We're puzzled by that, we're a bit taken aback. We tend to think that people are overstating the importance of The Sealion in Wellington's community sector really." 

But the boat did feature an evening DJ every night as part of the Council-funded events programme What If the City Was a Theatre? 

And they also had plans to take part in June's Jazz Festival... but with the boat now moving on, those plans are sinking fast.