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.

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