Some of the best voyages happen close to home. Just ask the clinker brigade. Jon and Barbara Tucker join an enthusiastic group of clinker boat lovers on an excursion up the Pelorus River.
It’s an important job, being mother-duck to a flotilla of 16 clinker dinghies, but you wouldn’t know it from the jaunty grin on Roy Jones’ face as he pulls back the throttle and looks aft. “Only thirteen. Bother.”
He plonks an orange flag alongside the red New Zealand ensign on his wide transom, and we relax while an array of small craft re-group around our stern. I’m impressed to see that all the rather aged occupants are wearing lifejackets.
“We’re determined not to have an incident”, explains Roy (Roysie to everyone here). “The negative publicity would really hurt the club.” He checks his cellphone in case there’s a message from the rear-guard vessel.
“Harold will let me know if there’s a problem back at the ramp. Last year one of our boats was impaled on a steel channel-marker behind Mapua – was making water and couldn’t motor off it.
“So the other seven of us got in around it and lifted it clear. Stuffed some rags in the hole and all got back safely. That’s how we operate – mutual support.” He omitted to mention that he had personally re-planked the damaged hull over the following fortnight. Roysie clearly isn’t one to blow his own trumpet.
We’re not far out from the launching ramp at Havelock Marina, on a rising spring tide, heading up the lower Pelorus River on an overcast April morning. It’s not our first trip with the Picton Clinker and Classic boat club – we had a fun day exploring Queen Charlotte Sound’s Grove arm a couple of years back, with a tour of the Outward Bound facilities thrown in. This club is well known for its variety of waterborne expeditions throughout the South Island. Already we can feel that this will be a fun trip.
Two distant small craft are rapidly approaching by now, and Harold Gratton, the rear-guard club captain, pulls alongside, green flag still flapping at his transom. One of the boats lost an impeller and had to pull out, transferring the crew into the hundred-year old Angelina (built on D’Urville Island for rowing shopping-trips to Havelock). A quick exchange of words, with Harold’s cheerful wife Noelene calling across the water, and the flags come down – we’re off again.
This flag protocol is interesting to see. Apparently in these noisy putt-putt dinghies, VHF calls are often missed so the time-honoured flags are not just nostalgia-driven. Most of the club members present were probably born in an era of signal-flags. Almost every member out today looks like a retiree, and many have chosen to downsize from keelers.
“The younger crowd these days tends to have a need for speed – clinkers are for us oldies who’ve got time to enjoy a more relaxed pace of life,” Roysie explains.
I see Barbara grinning as he speaks, pointing at Dick Hall (club commodore) and his wife Rita roaring up alongside us in a cloud of spray on their beautifully varnished lapstrake 1953 Lyman-designed runabout. Dick is the Mr Fixit on these expeditions, and thinks nothing of pulling down someone’s carburettor on a stricken boat while under tow.
The river begins to branch into narrow channels separated by low scrub-covered islands. Roysie points to a bend ahead: “Amazing to think that the old scows used to make it up here loading logs, eh?” We really feel like mother duck now, with a row of lovely small boats strung out behind us.
We have time to quiz him about the origins of some of these clinkers, and are surprised to hear that some are relatively new, including the one we are currently aboard, which Roysie built 10 years ago (he’s built 15 in the 15 years since retiring). Many are restored older dinghies, very much like the old putt-putt that I used to take floundering near Monaco when I was a kid back in the sixties.
Fred Westrupp built his gorgeous little Joel White lug-rigged clinker in time to launch on his 80th birthday. “It motivated us to stay active for years,” explained his wife Jocelyn later. “We worked out in a gym and pool twice a week to stay fit enough to go on these trips”.
Another ‘ancient’ club stalwart, Les Henson, takes his clinker dinghy fishing up Tory Channel three times a week, year-round. Chris Wilson bought his clinker to take fishing 55 years ago when he was only 15, and we admired the smart paintwork earlier back at the ramp.
It’s one of the things that impresses us about this club – the members keep their dinghies in great condition, but they certainly use them to the full.
This fact becomes very apparent as we reach the location that everyone has been talking about. The channel has abruptly shoaled, and we are sounding the depth cautiously with a boathook. Just ahead, Peter Murtons on Angelina gives a shout. “No go!” He’s wading in ankle-deep water among reeds on a barely-submerged gravel-bank.
Commodore Dick is setting a tide marker, and reckons there is nearly an hour until top of tide. As he speaks we see Angelina being dragged through the reeds, but Roysie’s mind is already made up. We nose into the bank and he puts the helm over. “There’s another channel ten minutes back,” he explains over the stutter of his old 100E Ford.
Only the shallowest-draft clinkers stay to drag across the shallows. Most turn and follow us, backtracking downstream. The side-channel would be easy to miss – a narrow tree-lined gulch of gloom-green water. Branches swoop across the water, creating a tunnel-like appearance. Ahead, a couple of shoal-drafters are working their way back towards us from upstream.
I look aft just in time to see the flagstaff nearly carried away by a branch as we duck and pull ourselves through a particularly dense tangle. Someone reminds us of Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, and we all laugh like a bunch of kids. This is fun.
It takes half an hour before 15 boats are mustered back in the main channel upstream of the reed-bank obstacle. We help the last of the shoal-drafters drag across the shingle-bank, and meander downstream to a backwater for lunch.
It’s a feast for the eyes as much as for the stomach, sitting on the bank with these gorgeous classics pulled up nearby. We can see why this club is popular with the wives as well as the blokes now. The scene is awash with camaraderie and goodwill.
Each cluster of picnickers has a story to tell – tales of expeditions to southern lakes, mudflat backwaters, historic sites, golden beaches, islands, remote light-houses and even to pubs up obscure rivers. We learn of the hours of toil that has gone into some of these impressive restorations.
Harold re-built a derelict Frostbite clinker dinghy by dismantling it and duplicating every rib, and winning ‘Boat of the Show’ for his efforts at the Classic Boat Show. Roysie built a replacement Whitehall pulling dinghy for John McConway after the original was destroyed in a fire. We learn that there are some 80 members around the South Island, most living in the Nelson-Marlborough region.
I’m particularly interested in the Club’s Gifting Protocol, and the concept of sweat equity. Whenever derelict but salvageable old clinkers are bequeathed to the club, these are distributed to members without boats, but remain under stewardship of the club for five years.
During this time the recipient should have earned sufficient sweat equity by restoring and maintaining it to be granted ownership, otherwise it will be returned to the club for redistribution to someone more deserving.
Meanwhile Roysie recently took his enthusiasm for facilitating the ‘Teach a Kid to Row’ principle a step even further, by building four 15-foot dories for the Picton Girl Guides at no charge, finding local sponsors to fund the materials. These are now getting plenty of use from Marlborough schools and youth groups too.
Harold does his bit for youth-boating in a different way, crewing aboard Spirit of New Zealand regularly: “One of the things that really keeps me volunteering is the fact that quite a good number of these teenagers really push themselves to achieve things they never imagined they were capable of doing.”
Suddenly someone points to a widening strip of damp gravel. The tide has begun to drop – time to re-embark and ride the ebb back to the Havelock Pub. “We’re a drinking club with a boating problem!” jokes Roysie. “We’re all too close to the grave to not have fun.” His tongue-in cheek comment does bring home an underlying concern though.
This club needs an infusion of slightly younger blood to keep up the momentum as the older stalwarts fall away. It is noticeable that there are no grandchildren aboard any dinghies today, only Millie the beagle. In Nelson Brian Kidson and Richard Winn are the relative youngsters (barely 60) who are constantly seeking out fresh routes for future expeditions, but there is ample room for other like-minded adventurous souls.
I’m astonished to hear that annual membership fees are pegged at $25. The reason is simple. With its modest little waterfront clubrooms leased from Port Marlborough at a peppercorn rental (furbished and maintained with volunteer labour, as is the club flagship Ruru), the club itself runs on sweat equity and local goodwill.
The extent of cooperation within the membership becomes apparent as we pull in to the Havelock launching ramp and the more agile members crowd around to help retrieval operations. Some wives are busy backing trailers to the water’s edge, while others stand in groups chatting comfortably. It has been a most enjoyable expedition, and for those who wish to linger, there’s still a little unfinished business up the road.
For more information about the club visit www.pictonclinkerclassicboatclub.nz/