Racing the Wind at Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron

2023 will always be remembered as the summer of North Island storms. Cyclones Hale and Gabrielle, along with the extraordinary Auckland Anniversary Weekend deluge, left in their wake a trail of death and widespread destruction of infrastructure, property and livelihoods. For only the second time in its 183-year history, the Auckland Anniversary Regatta was cancelled (the first was in 1900 when New Zealand troops were sent to South Africa to fight in the Boer War). “With emergency services already stretched dealing with the flooding across Auckland, it would be irresponsible to go ahead,” said regatta chairman David Stone. Four days earlier, as Northland felt the force of the weather system, the final day of the Bay of Islands Sailing Week was cancelled, the first time in the event’s 20-year history a day was lost to weather conditions.

With those disruptions marking the start of the summer’s sailing season, it closed in similar fashion when the SSANZ Evolution Sails Round North Island race altered course to avoid sailing up the east coast, where Cyclone Gabrielle wrought widespread devastation in the Hawke’s Bay and East Cape regions, stretching emergency services and leaving the sea littered with forestry slash and debris. Instead, the fleet retraced its course up the west coast and back to Auckland around the northern capes. While the yachts of Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron (RNZYS) distinguished themselves with outstanding results in these events, the club’s own sailing programme had its share of weather-related disruption through the summer. As Cyclone Gabrielle bore down, the Round Kawau Island race, centrepiece of the 36 Degrees Brokers Squadron Weekend, was cancelled. Instead, the fleet raced up to Kawau as usual on the Friday night, and then raced back to Auckland on the Saturday to escape the worst of the storm.

Club racing on the Waitemata Harbour also had its share of cancellations. Six races were lost in the MRX Open series and the Etchells Auckland championships, three each in the Stewart 34, Coast NZ Etchells, Barfoot & Thompson Women’s and Elliott 7 sprint series, while two of the flagship Doyle Sails Wednesday Night Races were called off. The RNZYS Race Committee did well to complete the Harken Youth International Match Racing Cup, although lack of wind was a problem. After four days of fickle, challenging conditions, the RNZYS Mastercard Youth Training Programme was well represented with a clean sweep of the podium by crews skippered by Josh Hyde, Jack Frewin and Mason Mulcahy respectively. The outstanding result came after heavy weather conditions forced all Youth Programme training off the water for two weeks leading up to the regatta. International flight disruptions into Auckland Airport also meant an Australian crew had to withdraw.

In the two events that bracketed the summer season – Bay of Islands Sailing Week and the Evolution Sails Round North Island Race – Squadron boats returned excellent results. During the truncated Bay Week, Rob Bassett and his Wired crew shared equal handicap honours in division A with Harry Dodson and Tony Bosnyak’s Mayhem – with Mayhem winning the line honours battle. Other notable RNZYS results included Clockwork (Past Commodore Steve Mair) and Zephyrus (Matt Cole) taking PHRF and EHC honours respectively in division B; V5 (Brian Petersen) swept the boards on line and handicap in Island Racing division A with podium results by Rum Bucket (Quintin Fowler), Antaeus (Charles St Clair Brown), Equilibrium (Graham Matthews) and Go (Trustee Bill Endean); Juniper (Lode Missiaen) and No Worries (Ian Thomsen) enjoyed podium results in Island Div. B; and Machine, Slipstream III and Sailorman posted strong Young 88 results. For the Round North Island race, Rob Bassett handed command of his Bakewell-White 52 to his son, Chris, sailing with co-skipper Andrew Duff. Before the start, Chris acknowledged he had big shoes to fill after his father and Angus Small took line honours with Wired in all four legs of the 2020 edition of the race. As it happened, he did his father proud, taking out the race double, with the fastest elapsed time and winning the overall PHRF elapsed time trophy. However, the top prize went to the 16.8m Botin-Carkeek Equilibrium, borrowed from owner Graham Matthews by RNZYS member Peter Geary and Angus Small. Equilibrium won the major PHRF points prize by virtue of a 1/2/9 scoreline for the three legs of the race. Whichway, a 24-year-old wooden Laurie Davidson 16m, co-skippered by Bruce Gault and David Brooke scored 7/5/1 to take 2nd place overall.

On the points table, Wired’s 20/1/20 leg results dropped them to 13th. “We are pretty happy,” said Geary of their win. “Everybody envied Equilibrium as the luxury boat. Actually, I couldn’t believe how lucky we were.” By most reckonings, the race comprised upwind conditions for 80% of the course, playing to the strengths of Equilibrium’s size and design. “The boat is very strong upwind,” said Geary. “It likes the breeze. In 10 knots and more it can hold its handicap really well.” In keeping with its status as the fleet superyacht, catering on Equilibrium was exceptional. “Gus even cooked us a full roast dinner from scratch, including peeling the veges. We also had hot showers and we each had our own cabin. Pretty nice going, really.” It was not all smooth sailing, however. “We hit a whale on the run home just short of Doubtless Bay,” Geary recounted. “We were doing 18 knots with a masthead kite and full main in 27 knots of breeze when we came to a grinding halt and lay on our side. It was pretty scary: middle of the night with a spinnaker to get down and having to check for damage.” As it turned out, a bit of antifoul scraped off was the only scar.

Equilibrium and Wired, both built by Lloyd Stevenson Boatbuilders and representing RNZYS, had a great personal battle all the way. “Angus taught us everything we know about two-handed racing, so we call him the coach,” said Chris Bassett. “Having him and Pete Geary to race against was a lot of fun. We really had two goals: one was to bring the boat back in one piece and with no injuries, and the other was to win a bottle of rum off Equilibrium. We reckoned we would beat them by 14.5 hours on elapsed time, but we missed that by a couple of hours. We lost the bottle of rum, but the boat is in one piece, apart from a small issue. We hit what we think may have been a sunfish, or a shark and did some damage to the bottom bearing of the canard.”

Wired’s moment of glory was unquestionably on Leg Two from Mangonui to Waikawa, where it romped across the line 10 hours ahead of the bigger boat. “We had a game plan,” said Bassett. “We stuck to our routeing models and believed we would get a lift to carry us round Cape Egmont. We saw Equilibrium tack out to sea behind us and thought about putting in a soft covering tack, but kept faith with the models and just kept hitting our target speeds.” After riding the lift past the Taranaki cape, Bassett and Duff piled on sail for the final sprint into the Marlborough sounds, where they achieved the unlikely triple – line honours plus divisional and fleet handicap wins, banking enough time to ultimately claim the overall line honours and elapsed time handicap double. “Leg Two sealed the deal for us.” While the consensus was strongly in favour of avoiding the cyclone-ravaged east coast, the two long legs down the west coast and back became un-affectionately known on board Wired as the ‘Waikawa Windward-Windward race,’ but the duo were pleased to keep Equilibrium at bay, although not by enough time to claim the rum wager. In terms of overall PHRF results, the other Squadron yachts scoring podium positions in their respective divisions were Whichway and Focus (Craig Fraser and Rob Croft) in division 2; Waka (Sam Cremer and Brett Elliott) and Niksen (Marc Michel and Logan Fraser) in division 3; Start Me Up (Harri Wren and Peron Pearse) in division 4.

With divisional victories in all three legs, Whichway easily took division 2 honours, but Brooke rued a costly wipeout along the way. The crash came in Leg One, after rounding Cape Reinga at 4am in 25 knots. “We put the chute up and were going fine for about five hours when the wind built to 30 knots and we found ourselves in big waves,” said Brooke. “It quickly blew up to 38 knots and we wiped out, with bent stanchions and sheets flying everywhere. We had a bit on and probably lost an hour in the process.” The mostly upwind conditions suited Whichway, which has 800 litre saltwater ballast tanks, plus freshwater tanks that can transfer water from side to side. “That’s like having 10 guys on the rail in upwind conditions,” said Brooke, son of RNZYS Past-Commodore Don Brooke. “Our disadvantage came downwind. Equilibrium and Wired are both lighter than Whichway. They were doing 18-20 knots downwind, while we were maxing out at 14 knots down waves.”

With so much upwind work, not many competitors coveted a ride on the smallest boat in the fleet. This was the Ross 930 Start Me Up, co-skippered by Harri Wren, a Mastercard Youth Programme graduate who worked at the RNZYS for several years, and her partner Peron Pearse. Their race began with an unfortunate collision on the Auckland startline, which put Guy Pilkington, former Youth Programme coach, and his co-skipper, David Whyman, out of the race with considerable damage to Pilkington’s Stewart 34, Playbuoy. Start Me Up was holed above the waterline and broke its bowsprit, but was able to sail the first leg to Mangonui, where the hull damage was repaired and a new, bright pink bowsprit, hastily fashioned by Steve Mair’s engineering company, was installed. “We were exceptionally grateful and humbled by all the support and help we received,” said Wren, who confessed it was not really an ideal race for a Ross 930. But, to their credit, she and Pearse stuck it out while several of their division 4 classmates abandoned the final leg. “We were pretty much on the wind the whole way, except for maybe a 10-15 hour stretch with the kite up, but we were pretty happy with how we managed to stay in touch,” said Wren. “We are very proud of what we achieved,” she added. “It is cool to race with your partner and to reflect on what we have done.”

As they finally crossed the finish line in Auckland after 283.5 hours at sea, a huge cheer went up from the Sunday crowd at the RNZYS. “That was very cool,” Wren said, adding that she and Pearse remained addicted to racing, but might confine themselves to the shorter SSANZ events for a while. Also in the fleet was RNZYS Commodore Andrew Aitken (with co-skipper Andrew Hall) aboard his Elliott 1350 Favourite. Competing in division 2, he was proud of the RNZYS results in the fleet and said the relationship between the club and SSANZ worked well. “My objective was to have fun, have an adventure and still be friends with Andrew Hall at the end. We achieved all of those goals, plus what I would call a credible result (7th in division 2 and 21st overall),” he said. “Steve Mair put me in a bit of a spot when he said I had the perfect boat for the race,” he said. “I figured if I didn’t do it this time, I would regret it, and I would be three years older next time.

“So, yes, I am glad I did it. There was lots of upwind banging and crashing and I learned about risk and reward in terms of gennakers in big winds. The rewards aren’t there.”