Jib-booms and bobstays, Anne French

Southern Breeze: a history of yachting in New Zealand
Harold Kidd, Robin Elliott, and David Pardon
Viking, $74.95, ISBN 0 670 88650 5

Salt beneath the skin: Seafaring Kiwis tell their stories
ed Tessa Duder
HarperCollins, $29.95, ISBN 1 86950 332 5

If you asked a hundred New Zealanders to nominate the defining moment in New Zealand sailing, most of them, still under the heady influence of the recent successful defence of the America’s Cup, would offer you something to do with black boats and red socks. Harold Kidd and his co-authors would be more likely to come up with a much earlier event, such as the launch of Lou Tercel’s famous A-class, Ranger, which dominated Auckland racing for 30 years. Ranger was a break with tradition: not only were her hull design, rig, and construction well ahead of their time, but most significant of all, she had been built at home by a couple of ordinary Kiwi blokes.

Ranger is a wonderful instance of the great Kiwi backyard world-beater myth. She was designed and built by the Tercel brothers, and first raced in the 1938 season. Based on the Bacchante design of Knud Reimers, she was a light-displacement yacht at a time when all other vessels of her size were heavy-displacement.

The Tercels were working class, unlike most of the A-class owners, and had a limited amount of money at their disposal. Lou was a crane-driver, albeit one who had done his research and had read everything he could find from overseas on yacht design. He and his brother put up a shelter next to their house at 29 Ponsonby Terrace and in it they built Ranger with their own hands. Not until the arrival of John Spencer’s world-famous black Infidel, built in marine ply for speed-hound Tom Clark in 1965, was Ranger beaten.

Ranger has recently been restored somewhat beyond her earlier glory (no wooden decks or wooden spars), and spent Queen’s Birthday Weekend 2000 at the Auckland Boat Show, a swan among hundreds of powerboat geese. But how many of the visitors knew that she was more significant than KZ1, the “big boat” from the unsuccessful 1988 America’s Cup challenge that sits at the Maritime Museum entrance to the Viaduct Basin – or just what she represents? Certainly not the expenditure of large sums by rich men on building boats to be raced by professional crews.

But there have been other moments in the history of sailing in this country with a good claim to be defining. In design terms, it would have to be the advent of the Patikis in Auckland in the 1890s – those light, narrow centreboarders that carried a huge spread of sail, planed readily, and upset the apple-cart of the rating system of the time with their fantastic speed. Kidd and Co call the Patikis “the pariahs of the Waitemata”, and repeat the contemporary complaint that such a fast unrestricted design could contaminate other classes. Students of innovation will recognise the signs. A better design will not necessarily prevail, unless it can be accommodated into the existing framework. People are curiously resistant to the new and improved, especially if it tips up their prevailing notions.

The Patikis did better outside of Auckland, in places where there was no establishment to upset, such as the inner harbour at Napier, where “the combination of flat water and the stiff breezes off the Pacific was tailor-made for them”. Eventually they fell apart, one by one. Not until the light-displacement designs of Spencer and his successors in the 1970s did we see boats capable of such speed.

But somehow it isn’t speed that grabs the authors of Southern Breeze, nor the commitment to innovation and improvement that is such a distinguishing feature of our best sailors, designers, and boatbuilders – at all levels. Kidd and Elliott (the authors of Parts I to IV) are historians, concerned to collect and catalogue, to preserve the names and histories for the future. Perhaps for this reason the first half of the book is an almost indigestible pudding of boat names, owners, clubs, officials, and races, studded with glorious photographs, with the occasional sweet dab of character and context. It is partly that the story is so complex – the narrative is complicated by the developments taking place in different places, and by the overlapping histories of classes, clubs, designers and builders, and vessels. But simple editorial tools would have helped, such as a glossary of technical terms, a chronology, or a style that signalled to the reader more clearly where it was going. It is frustrating to have Robert Logan arrive from the Clyde with “enormous skills” but without ceremony, only to receive a proper introduction (befitting the greatest New Zealand designer and boat-builder of the 19th century) several pages later. While marvellously detailed, the first half of the book is hard going, and an armchair America’s Cup-watcher who thinks they understand sailing is in for some rude surprises.

But in the second half the texture opens up somewhat. This is probably because we are now within the range of human memory, where anecdote and recollections of character come into play. Many of the protagonists are still alive and available for interview, and so too are those who raced against them. The quarrels and questionable decisions of 50 years ago are explained even-handedly, and though the perspective is a bit too Auckland-centric even for my taste, the authors do attempt to describe the activities of clubs, classes, and sailors elsewhere. Where they let the reader down, in my opinion, is in not explaining the innovation process, especially in those centreboard classes that fostered it, the Qs and the Rs and the various Moths. Indeed, they are somewhat dismissive of technical innovation, describing the various features on the famous IA Myth, full-length battens, adjustable forestay, bending boom, and double-acting bilge pump as Peter Mander’s trademark “gadgets”, doubting whether they contributed to his success. The beautifully designed “gadgets” of another non-Aucklander, Hugh Poole, have entirely escaped their attention. Yet innovation, writ small or large, is at the heart of the story.

But it is easier to write about things that are well known and close at hand than about subjects that must be researched. Robin Elliott’s spirited summary of the recent revival of the M-class (thanks to a new Laurie Davidson design) is based on his own experience of fleet-racing on the Waitemata with up to 20 other Emmies, and he makes it sound very lively. The account of the recent years of the Zeddie is altogether more muted (“it survives thanks to small bands of enthusiasts”), but from my observation the Zeddie fanatics at Paremata Boating Club clearly don’t see themselves as teetering on the brink of extinction.

The final section of Southern Breeze, dealing with the last 40 years, has been written by David Pardon. A professional sports writer who edited Sea Spray for 18 years, Pardon knows how to tell a story. While his account focuses on the international racing successes of those years, from Chris Bouzaid’s thrilling One Ton Cup win in Rainbow II in 1969, to the recent America’s Cup campaigns, he manages to give a racy summary of the design and boat-building innovations that made it all possible – paying eloquent tribute to the wealth of talent at all levels, and acknowledging its origins.

He quotes sailor and sailmaker Tony Bouzaid, who won the World Half Ton Cup twice in Waverider (a Davidson design), on what makes New Zealanders such good sailors:

Well, we have the Hauraki Gulf, a fantastic cruising ground where the whole thing starts with kids sailing with their parents and getting a grounding from a very early age, learning how to sail boats, how to handle them without fear of making a mistake and capsizing.

Making a mistake and capsizing could be the theme of Tessa Duder’s anthology of writing by “seafaring Kiwis”. It is divided into four sections, “On Board”, “Working on Water”, “Drama at Sea”, and “Racing Ahead”. The third section is the largest, and includes storms, shipwrecks, enemy attacks, and cock-ups. Duder has done an excellent job of making her selection. Her extracts are not too short, and flow well from one to the next. Many authors were unknown to me (but provide a shopping list of titles for the next library trip), and others were a pleasure to meet again.

One of those is David Lewis, an extraordinary New Zealander who has done his fair share of single-handed sailing, and has contributed much to our understanding of Pacific navigation. Ice Bird, the story of his solo circumnavigation of Antarctica (including two capizes and a dismasting) is a tale of amazing courage and seamanship. I had remembered how he limped into Cape Town under jury rig, but forgotten the frostbite: “If it were not for my hands, how much more I could do, I kept thinking. But even after being outside only long enough to take a sun sight, I found myself shouting with the pain in my fingers”. (Lewis, incidentally, deserves more than a mention in Southern Breeze, but the “sidebar in Part V”, promised on page 145, has fallen foul of the editor’s pencil.)

One of Duder’s few omissions is Johnny Wray, author of South Sea Vagabonds, described by Kidd and Elliott as “the inspiration for a generation of Kiwi offshore cruisers”, a man who taught himself boatbuilding and navigation, and built his 34-foot square-bilge keeler Ngataki in the Depression from scrounged materials. Once launched, he sailed off in her and wrote up his adventures, becoming a national hero.

I read Salt beneath the skin over Easter, waiting for the weather to improve so I could go sailing. (It didn’t.) Fortunately the book was gripping. I belted through it to the end, and then wished I had been a little less greedy. My suggestion to Duder is to give us a second volume – but to broaden her scope this time, and include some fiction, as well as some of the other kinds of non-fiction, not forgetting a dollop of Johnny Wray. Preferably in time for Christmas.

Anne French is the Publisher for Te Papa Press, which published Grahame Anderson’s Fast Light Boats late last year. She owns a Townson 32 and a Sunburst, and has a third share in Saracen, Infidel’s little brother.

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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction, Review
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