An episode in the not so recent history of the Tauranga Yacht and Powerboat Club.
There were 9 of us then: Bill Mitchinson, Owen Mackay, Jack Williams, Trevor Doherty, Binky Manson, Peter Luxmore, Ian Strachan, Dyson Gilliver and Michael Batchelor.
Now there are only 2 left, Bill and Michael so it is time to get the story written down. It all took place in 1975 so few TYPBC members will know of this episode in the club’s history or remember many of those named above.
Through a UK brokerage firm Bill contacted Leslie Holliday who was the general manager of Laings, a large construction company in the UK. According to his son David’s book “Kealoha 8, A Sailing Adventure” Leslie had been a radio officer in the Merchant Marine during World War 2.
His ship was “torpedoed in the Gulf of Benin. He then spent days in a lifeboat under sail.” This gave rise to a lifetime interest in sailing.
Les owned a beautiful Swan 44 named Kealoha 2 which had just missed selection in the British Admirals’ Cup team for the 1975 contest.
Bill was able to arrange the charter of this vessel and recruited a crew from TYPBC to sail in the Cowes Week regatta and the Fastnet Race which were taking place at the same time as the Admirals Cup completion.
It was actually the 75th anniversary of the Fastnet. New Zealand had a team, one of 19, in the Admirals Cup – Barnacle Bill and Inca (both Sparkman Stephens design) and the (for then) radical Bruce Farr designed Gerontius.
Our own TYPBC yachtsman Mike McCormick was the navigator on Barnacle Bill. Although some of us had private “digs” most of the team stayed at the Royal Southern Yacht Club in Hamble. We slept in an attic dormitory in the clubhouse.
This was a very convenient arrangement, set up by our owner, as the marina where Kealoha was moored was only a few steps away.
The crew assembled a few days before the regatta and got to work on the yacht, cleaning the bottom, greasing winches, general maintenance and trial sails in the Solent.
The night before the regatta began there was a party at the Island Yacht Club, at Cowes. This was memorable for two things.
First, we met Ted Heath, then the Prime Minister of the UK and owner of the well-known Morning Cloud.
The other event was perhaps not quite up to the same standard. It was noticed that one of our team was missing.
After a search around he was discovered sitting on the toilet fast asleep! Ian, who had only arrived that day, had a bad case of jet lag and a couple of drinks did for him.
The first event of Cowes Week was the Channel Race out to the Cherbourg Beacon off the French Coast and back to Cowes.
As was the case for the whole regatta the weather was very light and the Channel tides were a major influence at all times.
Owen did a great job putting us right on the beacon in very poor visibility conditions. It was the first time that he had navigated by radio direction finding, a means he used again in the Fastnet Race. Round the mark and heading back.
It was good to find that we were up with and ahead of most other yachts in our class, especially Loujain, also a Swan 44 owned by Sir Maurice Laing, the chairman of Leslie’s company and to which our owner had transferred most of his crew.
We were back on a mooring at Cowes, which is situated in the Medina River estuary on the Isle of Wight.
It was a bright sunny morning and we settled down to a drink or two. Suddenly there was panic, our owner was on hand urging us to “shift off that mooring, it belongs to Morning Cloud”.
We shifted PDQ. More races followed each day. Very large fleets on the start line and several divisions in each race.
The competition was fierce. Apart from the 57 Admirals Cup yachts, the Royal yacht Britannia (dressed overall), there were about 300 yachts from all over Europe and the Mediterranean, USA, South Africa and South America.
It was nothing to be caught in a strong tidal rip at a mark, between a Polish and a Moroccan yacht with a Greek or a Spanish yacht right on your transom.
Really exciting sailing with “starboard” and “go up” or “water “and various expletives being exchanged in several foreign tongues.
Our helmsmen, usually Bill and sometimes Jack managed to keep their cool throughout. The race around the Isle of Wight was memorable for an encounter with Prospect of Whitby on the edge of a shingle bank, of which there are many in the Solent.
Prospect was sailed by a distinguished British yachtsman Arthur Slater who was disabled and helmed his yacht from an easy chair situated behind the wheel.
For once there was a decent breeze and we were hammering along, hard on the wind but to leeward of Prospect.
Suddenly we became aware of a shingle bank just below the surface of the water and about 3 feet away to leeward.
Our shouts for “water” were met with an assurance from Slater that he knew these waters well and “you young fellows” had plenty of room and nothing to worry about. It was a tense moment but we managed to stay off the shingle.
Another memory was seeing two yachts, Italian and French, hugging a beach to avoid the tide flow, spinnakers drawing and both going for the same narrow gap between the piles of a dismantled pier. Neither gave way and they both got jammed.
Much shouting and waving of arms! Apart from the sailing there was no lack of interest at Cowes. The town was full of sailors and tourists of all nationalities, lots of specialist marine oriented shops, bars and cafes.
One shop in particular was Beken of Cowes with its amazing collection of sailing photographs. A non-sailing expedition by Bill and Michael, at that time a member of the BOP Harbour Board, was a visit to the Port of Southampton.
We were entertained to morning tea (literally silver service and hot and cold running flunkies) by the General Manager, then he took us on a tour of the port facilities and this was followed by a long drive into the Hampshire countryside to the Southampton Yacht Club for a 6 course lunch and all the wine you could drink.
The place was packed with business people, all no doubt doing “business” in the English way. We finished up at about 3.30pm when our host said he had better get back “to sign the mail”. And so to the Fastnet.
The start area was crowded with 370 or so yachts all milling around. At one stage the huge black aluminium French ketch Pen Duik 6 sailed by the great Eric Tabarly came charging through the fleet on port tack. She was stopping for nothing, all you could do was to get out of the way.
The race was sailed almost entirely in light weather. One memorable experience early in the race was to go off watch and hours later waking up to find that we were still in the same place, just off the Portland Bill lighthouse, trying to make way against a fierce tide. One of Owen’s principal navigation tools was the tidal book which provided detailed information about the date, time, direction and rate of flow of every tide.
There are two tides a day in the English Channel. We crept around Lands End and by the following evening were somewhere in the Irish Sea, heavy fog, no wind and nil visibility.
The top of the mast was lost in the fog and the yacht was rolling quite heavily in the swell. Eventually disaster, the spinnaker wrapped tightly around the forestay and could not be unwound from the deck. Several crew standing around the mast gazing upwards into the fog and all agreed “someone will have to go up there” but no one was volunteering.
Then up spoke Jack (the oldest of the crew) “well, you bunch of yellow bellied bastards, I’ll go up”. Quickly into the bosun’s chair and disappearing into the fog. Jack somehow managed to get the sail untangled but lost his grip on the swaying mast and began to swing to and fro.
Each sway of the mast bringing him into violent contact with the rigging. From the deck nothing could be seen but the crashing and banging and Jack’s expletives could have been heard for miles.
A somewhat bruised and battered Jack returned to the deck and after a few rums was sent to his bunk where he remained for several hours.
We rounded the Fastnet Rock, an iconic moment, but no sign of the expected waves crashing against the rock and the lighthouse. And so back to Plymouth.
This leg of the race was remarkable for cloudless sky and literally dozens of yachts spread out over a perfectly calm sea.
Crews lined the leeward rail trying to keep their yachts moving in the very light breeze.
Certainly very different from what we understood to be the usual conditions for this famous race. A long slow haul back to the Scilly Isles and then, at last, some wind came in from the north west to take us to the finish at Plymouth.
Line honours in 1975 went to the famous Kialoa (USA) and the handicap winner was Golden Delicious, a 33’ Ron Holland design.
From memory, Kealoha 2 came in 39th and well-placed in our division. Of course the usual partying followed. One highlight was the opportunity to go aboard the Jolie Brise, a 24 metre, gaff rigged pilot cutter built in 1913 and 3 times winner of the Fastnet Race.
At that time she was under Portuguese ownership and in the UK for the Fastnet 75th anniversary celebration.
Visitors were entertained with copious quantities of port and/or sherry while appreciating the beautiful craftsmanship of her construction and layout below deck.
The Jolie Brise is now back in the UK where she is used as a training yacht. She has sailed over 175,000 miles including trans-Atlantic more than once.
Another memory is of the French Breton crew who paid an early morning visit (ie. about 2.30am) to Kealoha.
They were big, broad shouldered fishermen/yacht crew, the only English they seemed to know was “All Blacks” but they could certainly drink beer! From Plymouth we cruised back to Hamble along the south coast of England, in warm, sunny weather.
We called in at one or two harbours along the way. Our visit at Dartmouth was marked by meeting with Tenacious, then owned by the famous Ted Turner, which had suffered engine failure. We gave a tow into Dartmouth.
The evening of that day was particular fun. After leaving Tenacious on a mooring we tied up at the wharf and went ashore to find a pub. Sunday and everything was closed.
Eventually a restaurant was persuaded to open up. By that time a Swiss yacht had come in and tied up alongside of us.
Then some land based tourists joined in and in the end the restaurant had twenty or so customers. The highlight of the evening was Trevor’s performance of the “egg trick” only he did it with two eggs.
Also involved were a broomstick, a silver tray, two egg cups and other paraphernalia. The trick was to get the eggs into the egg cups by knocking the tray, etc. away from under them.
Trevor’s patter soon had the whole crowd in the restaurant in entranced silence and all rather nervous about his chances of success as he bent the broom stick back.
Suddenly he let it go, the tray and everything else flew away and miraculously the eggs dropped unbroken into the egg cups.
The audience broke its tension with a mighty roar and sustained applause. Trevor said “that’s the first time I’ve done it with two eggs!”
When got back to the wharf the tide had gone out and the yachts were standing on their keels, entirely out of the water.
So we had to stay the night and enjoyed the company of the Swiss sailors tied up alongside. We also visited Weymouth and Poole on the return cruise.
Once back in the marina at Hamble it was time to clean-up the yacht, and attend to some maintenance.
It was good that our owner thanked us and remarked that his yacht was in better shape when we handed it back than when we had taken it over.
There were many other experiences and events that the crew have reminisced about over the intervening 48 years.
This was a wonderful experience and a once in a lifetime opportunity to sail in this amazing regatta with a great crew of experienced and dedicated Kiwi sailors.
But now there is only Bill and me and as we age our memories maybe begin to play tricks and the stories get longer and stranger.
Hopefully this account of our expedition, which may be unique in New Zealand sailing, is somewhere near accurate.
Thanks for several reminders of events past to Bill Mitchinson, whose memory is just as good as mine!