Triumph, trials and tragedy in centennial yacht race

The Peninsula Cruising Club’s Canterbury centennial race from Wellington to Lyttelton, set off on this day in 1951.

Only one yacht finished the race and two were lost with all their crew.

Thirteen of the 24 starters were from the South Island including these three:

They were the Aurora, from Dunedin, the Galatea from Lyttelton and the Caplin  from Oamaru.

One of those crewing the Caplin,  was my father.

He kept a log of the voyage which recorded worsening weather.

Tuesday 23rd Jan, 1500 hours: Big jib tore when wind freshened . . . Heavy swell.

Wednesday 245h Jan, 1200 hours: Reefed mainsail again. Seas really mountainous . . . Caplin will not come about in heavy seas when under short sail. . .

1800 hrs: Wind gale force, seas breaching fully . Taking heavy pounding. In past 60 miles sailing have not gained any distance . . . Hove to.

Thursday Jan 26: Hove to all last night. Remained hove to. Did not need a sea anchor . . . Seas breaching badly but only one broke over us so far . . .

1600 hours: Weather forecast advised all shipping yachts in the area of Cook Strait or Kaikoura to take shelter. Decided to run for Cape Campbell about 40 miles away to leeward. Ran under staysail made rapid passage. Caplin runs beautifully.

2020: Cape Campbell light a-beam. Took 4 hours to tack our way round protecting reef. But nervous 10 minutes when the wind dropped completely. Considered starting engine. Wind returned with renewed fury. Dropped anchor.

2400 hours: Anchor started to drag, Broke seals, started engines . . .

Once they’d broken the seals and started the engine they were disqualified from the race. When the weather calmed they set sail and finally reached Lyttelton Harbour on January 30, a week after starting the race.

The race was won by the Nelson sloop Tawhiri. Windswift, from the Banks Peninsular Cruising Club, was second, although somewhat controversially, Dad wrote:

Windswift did not breach engine seals. Anchored in Kaikoura. Received help from fishermen and lay extra anchors. One of crew went ashore & was replaced. New sails taken on board. Only a very poor sportsman would try to claim second prize in these circumstances, more so after the loss of Husky had been confirmed.

Dad was not alone in his view. A newspaper report in the journal records:

“The committee has confirmed the Nelson yacht Tawhiri as the winner of the prizes for first and fastest times in the race,” said a statement issued by the committee of the Banks Peninsula Cruising Club which staged the race after a meeting last night.

“The committee has decided that under the rules of the Yacht Racing Association, the rules which governed the race, there was no other finisher,” the statement said.

But finishing at all was an accomplishment when two yachts were lost. The Husky was wrecked and all crew presumed dead. A second yacht, Argo, failed to make port and in spite of extensive air and sea searches no sign of the boat or crew was found.

Another race entrant, Astral,  was dismasted. A trawler, Tawera, took the yacht in tow but as the weather worsened the tow rope chafed through.

A newspaper report in Dad’s journal records the account of the trawler skipper, George Brasell:

“Astral was carrying a light and all we could do was to stand by alongside her and keep her in view. This was a tremendous task as it was blowing a full gale and a light was only visible when she topped the seas. My crew were tried to their utmost that night and did a wonderful job in trying to keep the Astral in sight. Visibility was very bad. We only picked up land once after leaving Lyttelton.

“About midnight on Friday the crew of the Astral signalled us to put oil on the water. We did as requested until daylight when we started to take the crew off by means of a line dragging each member through the water. Luckily the rescue was carried out successfully. I felt proud of my crew. The rescue was carried out at the height of the gale. . . “

The skipper and crew of Tawera were presented with Humane Society Gold Awards, the society’s highest honour, in recognition of their bravery.

An editorial in the Otago Daily Times of January 30 asked if the race should have been started:

Ocean racing is a most exacting pastime, and even in the best of circumstances, when all human skill and care have been called into play, it is a hazardous once. The sea and the air are truly elements of chance. The history of the classic sea-going yacht races is studded with narratives of accidents, perilous ordeals – and tragedy. . .

One question which clamours for elucidation is whether the race should have been started last Tuesday, when the weather was already deteriorating and the ordinary forecasts . . . were forbidding. . .

. . . Dangers allowed, for it is not in New Zealanders to eschew as element of danger in their recreations, this race should be a test of seamanship, not a struggle for survival.

30 Responses to Triumph, trials and tragedy in centennial yacht race

  1. Paul Tremewan says:

    I read with great interest your father’s journal, Ele. Participating in such a race and surviving certainly gives one an understanding and huge respect for the sea. We sailed in the 1979 Fastnet race where 17 people drowned, 15 competitors and two off an unofficial trimaran which was not allowed to enter. We survived, and like your father, our victory was to reach Falmouth with all crew… ( even although three of the seven were huddled down below, too scared to function).
    To adequately understand such conditions, I recommend Left For Dead, by Nick Ward, who was rescued from Grimalkin in the ’79 race. It took him 27 years before he was able to write the book. It contains some of the most accurate passages on what it is like to be at sea in such weather. To quote my old mate Dalts, ‘No use calling for Mum’!

  2. homepaddock says:

    Thanks Paul. The book sounds like a must-read. I googled it and found this interview with Nick Ward – http://www.stanfords.co.uk/articles/interviews/nick-ward-1979-fastnet-race-survivor,162,AR.html

  3. gravedodger says:

    As an 8yo with very limited perception of the magnitude of the unfolding tragedy I well remember the drama which was entirely portrayed by “The Press” on a daily basis. The loss of The Husky was confirmed early on in the tragedy but the fate of the Argo, from Wellington if my memory is accurate, was a time of diminishing hope as possible scenarios were gradually discounted and the loss was accepted by elapsing time and elimination of the possible avenues of hope.
    There was no local radio and of course no succession of talking heads “live” from some windswept place giving the “latest news” on TV. The Auckland Weekly with its shiny center pages of photos gave us a round up of the tragedy after it unfolded. We didn’t get the A W off the presses but it came from the neighbour and we then forwarded it to their relatives in the UK on a weekly basis.
    The journalists of those days almost certainly gave us a more accurate portrayal of what happened with the magic of the written word and actual pictures, not the dribble and photoshopped or archival pictures the the MSM use today as infotainment.
    Living her where the local yachts still have mishaps from extreme weather squalls in the safety of our beautiful harbour I still think at times of that whole man against the elements and the resulting loss of life event as a heroic struggle where in the case of the two lost boats man was defeated by nature. How I saw it at the time was something that revealed to me that adventure had risks and sadly the sea took those lives when it all went wrong. I don’t recall much of the analysis of the tragedy but I assume there were many inquiries made.
    As a footnote to your post the now late Mr George Brassell was an identity of this paradise I am privileged to enjoy as a place to live and among his history here he was the charter president of our Lions Club in 1976 and a noted local artist

  4. Alasdair Sime says:

    No doubt many of the people and boats involved in the 1951 Wellington Lyttleton race have have passed on but at least three of the boats are still afloat.
    Tawhiri was in Oamaru for about five years until a year or two ago was sold to a Nelson syndicate for restoration.
    Caplin is in Akaroa and Tawera was and may still be fishing out of Timaru

  5. Marion Atack says:

    I have read with interest the above, as I am the sister of the youngest sailor lost, Alan Baker aged 18 on the Argo. I have recently been trying to get some interest from the Wellington Maritime Museum to record this event, as we that know about it wont forget it, but 60 years on it is mostly forgotten.

  6. homepaddock says:

    Sorry to read of your loss, Marion.

    I hope the museum does something. It might be worth going to the local paper or radio station to generate publicity which could alert others with personal knowledge of the race.

  7. John Childs says:

    Hi
    My father was one of the crew on board the Tawera during the rescue, he was Arthur Childs.
    I have always felt that the men who took part in the rescue seem to have been forgotten in the New Zealand history books and should have been recognized more so in our history because up untill the yacht race tragedy of the English coast some 30 odd years later it was the worst Yachting disaster in the world.

    John Childs

  8. homepaddock says:

    John, sadly such bravery often goes unrecognised. Perhaps an anniversary could provide an opportunity for something to be done. It is almost certainly too late for a reunion of any involved, but maybe a meeting of their descendants could be arranged.

  9. Marion Atack - nee Baker says:

    I would love to see a meeting of those who are stll associated with the folk who were lost at sea, tried to get Maratime Museum in Wellington to do something, sent them copies of articles etc, no success. My brother and I are sitll here for Alan Baker, and while he was the youngest at 18, there must still be family members around.

  10. homepaddock says:

    Marion, it might be worth contacting media to see if you can find others, if they won’t do a story a letter to the editor might work.

  11. paul parsons says:

    i own the yacht senorita,also been called cyclone in past days i have been told by a past owner that it was in the 1951 yacht race

  12. Marion Atack - nee Baker says:

    The Wellington Maritime Museum contacted me about 3 months ago, and got from me all the paper clippings etc that I had, and they will put something together in remembrance of the race. If you have anything contact them, and that will also be a reminder. As my brother Alan Baker was the youngest in the race, there is still one of my brothers and myself here. We must be starting to get a bit thin on the ground though.

  13. paul parsons says:

    thanks marian thanks for the reply i will lookout for somethindg from the nelson marintine museum

  14. Rita Attwood says:

    Hello Ele & Marion
    I’m currently researching a potential TV1 documentary on the Centennial yacht race in 1951. It is an extraordinary day in NZ history that deserves its story told and men honoured. I would very much like to speak to you, and indeed anyone with relatives involved or themselves involved in the race. Please let me know if this is something you would be interested in and we can hopefully arrange a time to talk. You can reach me on rita.attwood1951@gmail.com
    Many thanks
    Rita Attwood

  15. Marion Atack - nee Baker says:

    Have emailed you Rita, would love to see this remembered,

  16. Marion Atack - nee Baker says:

    Please everyone contact Rita, at last the Race is going to be documented and presented.

  17. Rita Attwood says:

    Thank you Marion, looking forward to meeting soon. I am reading with great interest the extraordinary tales of bravery and tragedy regarding this race. I would love to hear from anyone with family members involved. John, I can see that your father Arthur was on the Tawera, what an incredibly heroic crew they were. If you were able to contact me I would love to hear more about your father. Alasdair, thank you so much for your email – I’ll be in contact later today.
    Thank you all so much – it will be a privilege to tell this story
    Many thanks
    Rita
    rita.attwood1951@gmail.com

  18. Brian Pickering says:

    My grandfather crewed on the Argo along with Alan Baker and others in the 1951 Wellington to Lyttelton race. My father also sailed in the race on the yacht Wakarere which took shelter at Kaikoura. I’ve been thinking about this tragedy lately as I am the same age my Grandfather when he dissappeared with the Argo. My Grandfather purchased the yacht Ailsa from Jack Baker. I have a photo of the Ailsa on which Jack has written details including the fact that he sailed the Ailsa from Picton to Boat Harbour in seven hours and twenty five minutes. I would love to hear from Marion, with any information regarding her family and mine.

    I have sent some information to Rita yesterday and will reply to her email later.

    Happy to see this project go forward, and am willing to assist with any way I can.

    Thank you

    Brian

  19. Marion Atack - nee Baker says:

    Hi Brian, I have today got together all the bits and pieces re the Race . We have always kept the info over the years, and now so glad we did. I will be seeing Rita on Monday, so the process is starting. Regards, Marion.

  20. Marion Atack - nee Baker says:

    HI Brian, I have always wondered about the Newspaper Article – between 1994 2004 – we were in Australia and Don sent it to me – re fishermen finding what they thought were the propeller and ballast of the Argo – but would not say why they thought it was the Argo. I contacted the newspaper from Australia but got no where. The find was on the cook straight side of T???Island in Queen Charlotte Sound. (I haven’t got my paper work with me – as it has gone to TV1 as they start off our documentary. )Perhaps we will find out more on this as well. Regards, Marion.

  21. Carolyn Kelly says:

    High. I am the daughter of Jack Young skipper and owner of the yacht Argo.I have made up a book of all the paper articles during the race and search for the Husky and Argo. My brother Stuart Young has a copy. It is so good that Rita Attwood is making a documentary of the race and I am looking forward to meeting her this week.
    Carolyn Kelly – nee Young.

  22. John Childs says:

    Hi Carolyn.

    My father was Aurther Childs who was on the rescue boat the Tawera and if it’s possible tae get a copy of your book I would be grateful.

    Regards
    John Childs

  23. judi o'cain says:

    Marion
    There is an awful lot of information that can be obtained from the NZ Archives on both the maritime inquiry and newspaper clippings
    Regards Judi

  24. PD says:

    Hi All.

    There’s a quality local book “Kaikoura Fishermen : Sore Hands & Bad Backs”Author: Pam Garbes .Which has info on this event or one similar.

    Can be brought from KK museum [ a new one which is due to open later in year ]

    Regards

    http://www.Kaikourayachtclub.co.nz

  25. Chris White says:

    Hi there. Thank you so much for posting this. I have a great interest in everything relating to 1951 so this is brilliant. Fantastic that your Dad took part. Very sad that some crews were lost. You also received such interesting feedback. I am going to reblog this if that’s OK.
    All the very best. Kris.
    http://www.the1951club.org

  26. Marion Atack - nee Baker says:

    We have had our wish, the story has been told. Many Thanks to Rita – Tv1 its crew and Peter Montgomery.

  27. Kerin Paterson says:

    Hi Marion
    I am the daughter of Charlie Paterson and Godaughter of Noel Brown of the Tawhiri. I also am glad to have seen the documentary and they have given us a copy to keep. My father also kept a scrapbook of all the cuttings which have been very interesting.
    Regards
    kerin Paterson

  28. Janice Swanwick says:

    Hi Brian and Marion,
    Clarence Pickering of the Argo was my grandfather Herbert Pickering’s brother, lost at sea the year I was born. My only remaining aunt remembers something of it. I have found it very hard to get info on this – did the documentary or the Welllington City to Sea museum display go ahead.

  29. Janice Swanwick says:

    Ah, I see documentary made, and google search now yields more.

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