Ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic societies the world over have marvelled at New Zealand's ability to seemingly lock Covid-19 out very early on. It was no miracle; they enforced a very strict closure of borders and for the last year New Zealanders have been living pretty much 'normal lives' with very few restrictions, while the rest of the world struggled to contain the virus. So how has it been 'inside' their borders? North Kiteboarding's design and marketing HQ is based in Auckland and Jim Gaunt asked their copywriter, Victoria Stuart, and NZ team rider, Marc Jacobs, for some insights about the 'utopian bubble' that Victoria describes

What has it been like to be in New Zealand for the last 12 months? It's been really hard to not wonder what the heck our governments over here have been doing in comparison to yours? Covid-19 was eliminated from the community by the government instituting a strict border control regime in March 2020 and a stay-at-home order for all, except for essential workers. This lockdown order remained in place for 49 days, with the basic reproductive number reduced to <1 during this time. Through maintaining strict border restrictions and quarantine requirements, New Zealand has remained largely Covid-19 free, barring occasional rapidly controlled incursions related to the infection of border workers. We work from home when we have to, but I think our team are a lot more efficient when we are working together in the office.

Marc Jacobs and Jamie Barrow, Mangawhai / Photo: Josh McCormack

How aware were you throughout the year of what was going on in other countries, and by then how back to normal were you in New Zealand?  Here in NZ we’ve been back to the 'new normal' for a year now. We have had the occasional Level three lockdown in that time (which involves closing the office and working from home, and schools as well as all non-essential businesses are also closed) but we can still get out on the water. We are very much aware of what is going on in other countries because we're a business operating internationally. We’re communicating with our suppliers and factories on a daily basis, and keeping a close eye on their government restrictions – as you can imagine, the smallest glitch in the supply chain can have a massive trickle-down effect. While the North brand, product development and marketing teams are based in NZ, our parent company North Actionsports Group (NAG), responsible for financing, operations, sales and warehousing are based in the Netherlands. The NAG office has been in 'work from home' mode for months on end, but fortunately they were still allowed on the water, and travel opened up for them over the European summer. Our chief kite designer, Pat Goodman, designs and tests kites in Taiwan, where they have had no major lockdowns. I believe Taiwan’s response to the pandemic was arguably the fastest and most effective globally, due to their previous experience with Bird Flu.

Wakatipu / Photo: Scott Sinton

What were some of the biggest challenges given that you rely heavily on what's going on out of New Zealand? Like all businesses, this year we had to rely on our digital efficiency for presentations and meetings. We’re coming up to our third 'digital' sales presentation and I think the team are becoming quite comfortable in front of a camera crew under lights. Thanks to technology, a lot of our development and testing can take place digitally, too. We’ve always done product development-testing with our teamriders all over the world, and while they can’t travel easily to a single location for face-to-face feedback, they can make a video call from the beach or send video commentary. Although we were unable to bring the entire dream team together, we were able to ship 2021/2022 product to Brazil, Maui, Holland and South Africa for photoshoots with local riders and crew. Tom Bridge was stuck in the UK, but allowed on the water, so you’ll notice our Freestyle edits are less about sunshine and turquoise water and more about the tricks and attitude. While it’s always a bonus to have picture-perfect conditions to shoot, we’re not a blue-sky kind of kite brand. Having such an experienced international team was a blessing – but we were also fortunate to have the 93kg powerhouse Marc Jacobs (AKA equipment-destroyer) here in NZ, which also meant we could shoot pick-ups locally. The NAG team have found it just as tough working on the ever-changing logistical side, but they have done an amazing job in working though the fluid situation and we recently hit record months for sales. In retrospect, I think Covid-19 has brought us closer as a team. We’ve always worked hard and played hard together on the water, but when restrictions kept us off the water for nearly three months last year, I think it affected everyone’s mental health. Across the company we’re all very supportive of each other and more aware of how stress can show-up. Water days really help. The company has also doubled the number of paid sick days available, and we encourage staff to take 'mental health' days when needed. We’re also well-known for our 'board meetings'. “It calls” is so much more than a tagline – we absolutely live and breathe it.

Do you wanna go yet?! Marc Jacobs at Mangawhai / Photo: Josh McCormack

Are there still current Covid safe working practices in effect in NZ? Yes, hand sanitiser and Covid-19 app sign-in posters and forms are everywhere. Face masks are compulsory on public transport and at the doctor’s, but other than that we’re almost mask-free. New Zealanders are quite compassionate and followed the government's instructions for the greater good. I think we’re all very aware that our healthcare system couldn’t cope with a massive community outbreak, and it’s a huge relief that the government has started rolling out the vaccine to those most at-risk in our community. Looking back, how pleased are you with the way New Zealand and its citizens have managed the pandemic? I think New Zealand benefited from having a government that considered scientific advice and was so concerned with well-being. Our elimination strategy provides a vivid example of how protecting public health also protects the economy: at the time of writing, there is no community transmission, the economy has bounced back from the forecast 23.5% drop in GDP to be up 0.4% on the previous year’s December performance. New Zealand is on track to vaccinate its population, the Realm of New Zealand (Tokelau, Niue and Cook Islands) and its neighbours (Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu) with at least four of the current leading Covid-19 vaccines. Finally, given the choice, will you travel this year if your government allows it, or will you rather stay at home and enjoy your conditions there for another year? We really are living in a utopian paradise with epic conditions for kiting here all year round. But now New Zealand is offering the vaccine to our island neighbours, the idea of quarantine-free travel is very appealing. You will hopefully find me in Aitutaki this winter.

MARK JACOBS - NZ TEAM RIDER

"As I'm sure many of us have experienced all over the world, it’s hard to be told you can't do what you love and you have to remain indoors. Being a large island nation with a population of only five million, the plus side was that we could close our borders to eliminate Covid from our country. Of course, we had the odd new case from NZ residents who returned from overseas and had to go back to Level 2 or 3. But from May 2020 onwards, we’ve been very lucky to say we live in NZ. "Being based in Auckland for the past ten years, I've learned a lot about the wind and what months are usually the best. 2019 we had an incredible amount of 30+ knot days from June to October. 2020 was fairly decent. We can kite in NZ year round, but the stronger winds only started in July last year, though they did blow through to November. Wellington is known for being one of the windiest places in the world. They get a lot of solid days all year round with 30+ knots. If Auckland is still, I try to make a few trips a year down there to catch some big air sessions each season and I'm looking forward to more of the same this year!"

TRAVEL ADVICE: As of early May 2021, if you want to visit New Zealand, you need to be a NZ resident and quarantine for two weeks in a hotel on arrival. New Zealand has just opened up the border with Australia and some of the Pacific Islands for quarantine free travel for residents, but at the time this issue was in production, travel from New South Wales was put on hold for 48 hours because of a community outbreak. So the situation remains fluid, but on the right track!

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