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Spick and span: Noel Coutts surrounded by Lady Sterling's kauri finishings

It’s not widely known one of New Zealand’s finest old wooden schooners, built 101 years ago, lives on Lake Wakatipu. PHILIP CHANDLER talks to Lady Sterling’s owner, muso Noel Coutts, about how he acquired her and why he compares her to an expensive mistress

If you’re into old wooden boats, Noel Coutts reckons the Lady Sterling is ‘‘about as good as it gets’’.

The veteran Queenstown muso — who is very much into old wooden boats — has owned, and often lived in, the twin-masted schooner since about 2002.

The 16-metre vessel, built of the finest kauri in 1920, is moor ed in Queenstown’s Kelvin Grove and doesn’t move much these days, but when she’s under sail she’s a sight to be hold.

Coutts believes she was built in Auckland, by Bailey & Lowe, for ‘‘a big-time painting contractor, and was built to race up to the [Pacific] islands’’.

He says she was later owned by someone who made a fortune selling army hats when
World War II broke out.

‘‘He bought it and lived on it and cruised around.

‘‘At one stage a guy who was a dentist had a dentist’s chair on it, and he used to cruise around the islands and do people’s teeth.’’

It also used to have a piano onboard.

Coutts says he found her ‘‘pretty much sinking at the dock in Picton’’.

‘‘The guy that owned it, he’d had too many balls in the air, and he’d gone broke and it was
in the hands of the finance company.

‘‘I put a bid in for her, but I put in that if she sank at the dock the bid was over.

‘‘And the agent said, ‘it’s not going to sink at the dock, Noel’, and I said, ‘I know that, but the guy at the finance company doesn’t, and he’s going to think, ‘f…, sinks at the dock, yeah, you can have it’.’’

However, Coutts adds, ‘‘I still paid a good bit of money for it’’.

As to what attracted him about the old girl, he says ‘‘I fell in love with it — boats call to you’’.

In the 2000s, he regularly lived onboard her in the Marlborough Sounds, Wellington and Stewart Island.

Once, when hanging off the jetty at Stewart Island, he says crew from the Spirit of NZ youth-training ship asked to look at her.

‘‘One of them said, ‘oh, man, this is classic boat porn’.

‘‘Another one said when he was a boy his father used to take him on a little fizz boat in Auckland Harbour to look at all the boats and they always used to say Lady Sterling was
the finest boat in the harbour.’’

Sight to behold: Lady Sterling, built in 1920, under sail in Lake Wakatipu

Coutts says he also met a woman in Picton whose dad had owned it and had taken it to Fiji where her family had lived onboard her.

On the way home, she said there was a big storm and when she’d opened the door to see her dad, who was at the wheel, water had flooded in to the saloon and main cabin, and the electrics were stuffed.

All that had stayed dry was a sealed tin of Huntley & Palmers cream crackers.

During one summer he’d taken her to various boat-only-access spots around the Marlborough Sounds, where he’d jumped off to play to the locals.

Coutts likens her to an expensive mistress — ‘‘I’ll give you a good time, sonny, but you’re going to pay for it’’.

‘‘You know what ‘BOAT’ stands for’’, he asks: ‘‘Bring out another thousand.’’

To help keep her in good condition, since bringing her to Queenstown in about 2008 he’s kept salt water blocks in the bilge, given she was built for salt water.

Now 72, Coutts says he’s put her for sale — with gigs drying up since Covid, he admits he could do with some coin.

‘‘It would be good for some one who’s living in Queenstown that wants to not pay high rents, because she’s a lovely live-aboard.’’

scoop@scene.co.nz