How the Sealion boat brought art and music to the city’s shores

By Maggie Tweedie
Photographed by Harriette Leake

Featured in Capital #75

This is part of Capital’s 10 year birthday retrospective, where we look back at some of our favourite stories over the past decade. To read an update of this story, see issue #90 of Capital.

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As we say farewell to the Sealion, we look back to it in its heyday.

Just steps into central Wellington is The Sealion, a fatigued old boat originally built as an army supply vessel in South Australia. After four decades across the ditch, The Sealion was a family houseboat for about 15 years, then had a short career in Wellington as a party charter and is now home to a floating arts collective run by four creatives in their mid 20’s.

Simon Van der Zeyden volunteered to become a guardian of the vessel in August, in the hope of restoring it to its former glory. He invited Dylan Pyle, Ollie Hutton, and GiGi Crayford to help him pay the rent and move in. The new crew happily scrubbed the mould from the walls, cranked multiple dehumidifiers, and furnished its interior to make the boat home.

Van der Zeyden and Pyle “hand pump the bilge” as a daily defence against the boat sinking. The old treasure is a liability to the maritime industry because the engines quite simply do not go and the engine room fills with litres of water a day. The Sealion’s current owner, Selwyn Findlay, pays the harbour rates and accepts small financial contributions from the four flatmates. “He’s an old tinkerer who loves analogue technology and a one-man-band blues musician,” says Pyle.

Van der Zeyden says Findlay’s dream is to retire on The Sealion, an ambitious one considering the boat hasn’t been out of the water for 20 years. This is partly because there is not a slip big enough to pull it out of the water in Wellington. Picton has the closest such slip, but the rudder is stuck, and so is the hydraulic steering system, so it cannot be towed.

The boat is moored at Queens Wharf, among waterfront walks and high-end restaurants and cafes. It has become a hub for the Sealion Community. The kaupapa of the Sealion Community is an alternative to commercially-driven artist spaces. Determined for the vessel not to be scuppered, the 450 online members have agreed that the boat is a sober space. A safe venue for artists, musicians, and poets to perform and gather, rewarding the four flatmates who keep the boat afloat.

Monday evenings are for film screenings, Thursdays are jam nights, and Fridays are for sauna sessions. Yes, there is a working sauna on the boat. It’s powered by an oil heater and an electric kettle.

In November, the Sealion Community also launched a publication called Flotsam, a zine pieced together by various contributors, which acts as a kind of time-capsule recalling the early events hosted on the vessel.

The Sealion has become a community sponge, full of mattresses, dried flowers, live music, and philosophical conversations. The young people driving this floating art space are realistic enough to recognise that The Sealion is not their forever home. But meanwhile the boat acts as a community anchor and connection point in uncertain waters.


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