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Ten Years to Tonga: Living the Dream aboard SV “Silver Fern”

by Bryce Sommerville and Martha Mason 6 Feb 2019 01:46 PST 6 February 2019
The 70ft SV Silver Fern in Sicily - she cruised the world usually with just two crew © Martha Mason

Ten years and four months – that’s what it took the 70 foot sloop Silver Fern to get from New Zealand to the island Kingdom of Tonga.

After a decade of cruising the world with a crew of two, Silver Fern is now available to be taken over by a new owner.

An uncooperative breeze forced Bryce Sommerville and Martha Mason to ease sheets and make their first landfall in Fiji at the start of a world cruise in their newly re-built steel sloop, “Silver Fern”.

Originally a Birdsall 60, Sommerville and a small team of helpers began their project in 2001 and completely gutted the steel-hulled sloop.

Then she was rebuilt to a design developed by Brett Bakewell-White, a leading New Zealand designer whose portfolio covers everything from powerboats to supermaxis. His firm has undertaken several ambitious projects where an existing hull has been given a new purpose and lease on life.

The original interior of the existing boat was torn out completely, down to the bare hull. Then the boat was extended and rebuilt to accommodate Bakewell-White’s raised saloon design. The firm provided the new profile lines and its engineers division provided detailed structural specifications. During construction the project was regularly inspected by a marine surveyor.

The new interior and woodwork were constructed and fitted by professional marine cabinet-makers.

The result was a beautiful raised saloon yacht with three double berths, a spacious “stand up” engine room with a workbench, plenty of storage, and a long waterline for fast passage-making. The raised saloon allowed visibility in all directions, even while sitting down in the main lounge/navigation area. The sail plan and reefing system made it possible to sail the boat with only two people on board.

The rebuild took three years, starting in 2001. Sea trials were conducted in 2004.

“The original steel hull was in excellent condition and had been beautifully welded, but we wanted to extend the lines to add buoyancy astern and provide a roomy, accessible engine room,” explains Bryce, a former autobody repair professional and ticketed welder with extensive experience in mechanical systems.

An experienced amateur boatbuilder, Sommerville has built a variety of boats from racing dinghies to keelboats, in wood and composite construction.

“We took off the transom and added three meters to the stern. As well as creating a proper engine room we also added some other features including a strong, balanced spade rudder (designed by Bakewell-White), bulwarks, and a hefty rub rail. The increased length provided a bonus: an excellent lazarette storage area big enough to store a small motorbike, scuba gear, an outboard motor and more.”

"The completed design gave us our three staterooms, two heads with showers, a spacious galley low in the boat for reduced motion, a navigation station just inside the main door, plus the lovely raised main lounge," Martha chips in. "The final enhancement was the addition of a swim platform at the stern that could easily be lifted and lowered for access to the sea and getting into the dinghy. It also incorporates a fish cleaning table which keeps a huge amount of mess off the boat!

"When the swim platform is up, it parallels the transom and is unnoticeable", she adds.

After her re-launch in 2003, without spars, the interior rebuild continued for another 12 months when she was rigged and finished ahead of sea trials in the latter part of 2004.

During that exercise, she sailed extensively in New Zealand waters. With just two crew they were pleased to find Silver Fern handled beautifully and was easily driven.

A good performer in heavy weather the 70ft cutter rigged sloop could easily be sailed by two people with reefing handled from the cockpit, using electric winches.

Silver Fern departed New Zealand in June 2005, after clearing Customs and setting a course for Tonga.

"And that’s when we learned what all long-time cruisers know - a sailing plan is an idea subject to change!" Bryce explains. "The sailing was great, and we made 12 knots of boat speed a few times, but the wind just wouldn’t let us lay a good course to Tonga."

"We realised that all we had to do was to fall off a few degrees to port, and we’d be on a comfortable course to Fiji. So we did, and this change of plan was the beginning of a 10-year circumnavigation!"

"All told we visited 79 countries/territories, and learned more than we had ever imagined. Our route took us to Southeast Asia for three years, across the Indian Ocean, where we spent three months tied to a coral atoll, through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea in 2010 and on through the Suez Canal into the incredibly varied countries of the Mediterranean.

"In 2014 we set out from the Canary Islands and crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a splendid and fast passage. Then it was the Caribbean, including Cuba and Jamaica, and the drama of the Panama Canal.

"Finally we were back in the Pacific, where we headed to the Galapagos and the gorgeous islands of French Polynesia and Samoa, with many 200 mile days. In September 2015, there it was on the horizon – Tonga!

"Instead of being our first landfall, Tonga was our last foreign port before arriving back in New Zealand," he added.

"As we headed for home, we thought back on some of the highlights of our trip: sitting on the rim of an active volcano in Vanuatu; interacting with orangutans in Borneo; traveling in a convoy in the pirate waters off Yemen; snorkelling in the Red Sea; exploring the diverse Mediterranean; the drama of the Panama Canal at night; the land and sea life in the Galapagos; being anchored under the emerald rock pillars in the Marquesas; sailing under a lunar eclipse; the magic of the sea’s phosphorescence at night; and all the lovely people we met – both sailors and local villagers, " Martha recalled.

With their decade-long voyage over Bryce and Martha have refitted Silver Fern, and are preparing her for a new owner, after deciding to establish a kiwifruit orchard in Northland.

"We have hauled our lovely, fast boat out of the water, repainted her, renewed or replaced many of her systems and are putting her up for sale," Bryce says.

"It's time for someone else to live the dream. Silver Fern is ready to go again, whether it is in the buyer’s home waters or on a beautiful blue water voyage. But be careful - you may set out for two months and be gone for ten years!" Martha warns.

If you want to live your next dream, you can learn more at or phone Judith (Vining Marine, The Marine Shop, Bay of Islands)

Call: +64 27 2312771 or +649 4026093.

Silver Fern is lying at Marsden Cove Marina near Whangarei, New Zealand.

Key details

Length 21.30 Metres (69.85ft)
Beam: 6.00 metres (19ft 8in)
Draft: 2.20 metres (7ft 2in)
Engine: Inboard Yanmar 4LHTE 110HP
Transmission: Z 220 V-drive hydraulic gearbox, new in 2012, fitted with a
Centa coupling.
Generator: Beta Generator 7 kW (New)

Sails: The original genoa (2004), by Rick Royden Auckland
Mainsail (fully-battened) (2009) by Rolly Tasker Thailand.
Inner Staysail - Quantum Sails (2007)
Other: A continuous-loop furler system for such a gennaker by KZ Marine in Auckland.
Spars: Mast - original but rebuilt by Yachtspars (NZ). Boom - composite - French designed - canoe style for easy furling.
Winches: Three electric winches in cockpit.
Diesel - 1500 litres spread across three tanks
Water - 500 litres in tanks plus Watermaker producing 20litres per hour.
Electrical: 24volt, 12volt and 230volt. Three solar panels - two for the 24v system and one for the 12v system
Communication: SSB and VHF
Refrigeration: Electric (new) side opening, dedicated freezer, drinks cooler - coolant is pumped to all three units- the fridge in the galley, the freezer and the drinks cooler.
Other appliances: Washing machine
Navigation: Raymarine chart plotter/radar combination


SV Silver Fern is a sleek, fast cruising yacht with pilot house and raised saloon. She is beautifully detailed with American Cherry and Maple timberwork. Key features include a large galley, three double staterooms plus a walk-in engine room.

SV Silver Fern was originally designed by Beau Birdsall and launched as a Birdsall 60. The hull, keel and decks are constructed of steel while the upper structure is 12mm plywood heavily fibre glassed throughout. Current owners purchased the vessel in 2001 subsequently engaging Bakewell-White Yacht Design to modernise and upgrade both exterior and interior. When relaunched in 2004 Silver Fern had been extended to 70 feet and featured a stand-up engine room, bulwarks, a raised salon, three spacious double cabins and much more.

Up-grading and modification of the vessel was supervised to an NZ Maritime standard survey with regular inspections at various construction milestones. A recent survey in March 2018 was excellent, and a full report is available.

The paintwork on the hull, inside and out, was done in the Altex system, to specs provided by the manufacturer, and supervised by their staff.

The preparation involved a complete sandblasting of the hull – inside and out - with garnet. The clean metal was then immediately painted with an epoxy penetrating paint, and various layers of high build paints and fillers. The hull was faired. The final exterior paint was an Altex polyurethane, professionally sprayed by Altex.

At the 2016-2018 haulout at Norsand boatyard in Whangarei, the entire exterior of the boat was repainted with a polyurethane. There was no need to go down past surface sanding. All the non-skid was re-done as well.

Silver Fern presents as a spacious, elegant vessel. The raised salon and large cockpit provide light and views, plus indoor/outdoor flow similar to a catamaran. The swim platform at the stern is a bonus for water access - as it is easily raised and lowered for swimming, water sports, fishing, diving and access to the tender. Silver Fern is a well tested ocean-going yacht suitable as a liveaboard for friends, family and guests.

In readiness for a new owner the vessel has had an exterior repaint, canoe-style boom fitted, new generator and cooking stove, plus new electric motors for fridge and watermaker, many new parts in the engine room, refinished varnish work and more.

Full inventory and more information available on

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