Happy Days is here again

Sep 21, 2017 Boating history

After growing seaweed on a Whenuapai mooring for years, this historic pocket racer has been restored and is ready to race again. Harold Kidd has the story.

One-hundred-and-six years after she first hit the water, the 1905 Logan Bros 54ft gaff-cutter Rawhiti made her long-awaited relaunch at the Viaduct in Auckland in September.

Ten days later at the same spot, but at the other end of the spectrum of size, another restored classic yacht was launched. This time it was the tiny 20ft (6.1m) Happy Days, thanks to the efforts of Shane Appleton, a young man who has put his heart and soul into the job over the past three years,

Happy Days in her original configuration, being raced by Tony Armit in 1950

Happy Days in her original configuration, being raced by Tony Armit in 1950

Happy Days is a sweet little keel yacht that was built by Artie Perkins and his son John at their home in Northcote on Auckland’s North Shore in 1948. Artie was a highly skilled joiner by trade, and his family had been in business as staircase manufacturers for many years. He would finish his working life as a well-loved woodwork teacher at Northcote Intermediate.

Artie had been a yachtsman since arriving in Auckland as a 10-year-old from Stafford in England in 1907. From 1918 he gained a high reputation with his 16-footers Ben Machrea and Ben Bolt but he gave up competitive sailing in 1925 when he got married. After WW2, Artie started yacht building again. First it was centreboarders for his son John, then they graduated together to the pocket racing/cruising keeler Happy Days.

Artie looked overseas for design inspiration for Happy Days. His 16-footers had owed a debt to the Rudder magazine Sea Duck catboat one-design of 1915 by Fred Goeller, but this time Artie’s eye had been caught by a striking design in the September 1947 issue of Mechanix Illustrated magazine.

It was quite unlike the mainstream Kiwi keel yacht tradition of a hull built down to the keel, but was in the fin-keel style that Americans had used frequently since the days of their extreme ‘fin and bulb’ rating-cheater ‘skim-dishes’ of the mid-1890s.

It was the form used to design the steel 5-rater Thetis, built by Seagar Bros for Reg Masefield of Herne Bay in 1895, designed by William Seagar and O.B. Waymouth. A much more extreme version was A.T. Pittar’s Logan Bros-built Sunbeam of 1900.

Then there was another stream of chunky American fin-keel designs deriving from the popular home-build designs by Rudder magazine with its various Sea Bird permutations from 1900. That design was ultimately derived from the Chesapeake Bay vee-bottom skipjack working boats which were stable and easily constructed. It was the square-bilge element in early Rudder designs that revolutionised small centreboard yacht construction worldwide.

Outside Brian Helgate's workshop in 1950

Outside Brian Helgate’s workshop in 1950

The fin-keel element was picked up in New Zealand by only one designer/builder, Colin Wild. His 1933, 39-footer Tawhiri for Ralph Goodwin was (and still is) a very quick yacht and has a remarkable ocean-racing record. Wild followed her with the 28-footer Valhalla of 1945-6 for Ashton Spencer which also punched above her weight in the Auckland C (and later F) Class. Valhalla inspired a number of clones, now generically called ‘Val boats’.

Happy Days is a really tiny craft, and Artie and John enjoyed her nimbleness. She is 20ft overall (6.1m), 17ft 6in (5.33m) on the waterline, her beam just 6ft (1.83), she draws 3ft 8ins (1.12m) and has 15cwt (762kg) of lead on her keel. She sailed well in the E Class with the sail number E23 but, after a while, the Perkins found the accommodation inside rather cramped for cruising.

In 1950 they decided to build the bigger C Class keeler St. George and sold Happy Days to 17-year-old Tony Armit, who was cruising the inner Gulf with the 14-footer (4.27m) Gail (X6).

Tony raced Happy Days from time to time – an Anniversary Regatta, a Kawau race – but also did some extensive cruising, like a four-day trip with his usual crewmember John Denley to the Barrier, to the Town Basin at Whangarei for an ice-cream and back to Auckland. Tony replaced Happy Days’ original cuddy with a bigger cabin top which provided a great deal more room inside but still maintained decent aesthetics. Tony then decided to carry out a circumnavigation and commissioned a design from Bert Woollacott of the 28ft ketch he called Marco Polo, launched in 1953. In 1954-7 Tony and Tig Loe took Marco Polo on a three-year voyage around the world, winning the Vos Award for the most notable two-man trans-oceanic passage made during the past year.

Happy Days on a 1961 RAYC race to Islington Bay

Happy Days on a 1961 RAYC race to Islington Bay

However, to pay for the kauri used during the construction of Marco Polo, Tony had to sell Happy Days. When she was loaded on a Foden lorry for delivery to her new owner in New Plymouth, Tony had to break the news to the driver that there was a tunnel on Mt. Messenger and a detour through Whangamomona would be necessary.

The little ship later came back to Auckland to be owned by a radio announcer. Subsequent owners included Doug Johnson of Devonport and Shorty Mills of Tauranga.

But then another young man fell in love with the little charmer. In a curious parallel to Artie Perkins, Brian Holgate was also born in England, in Ilford, Essex, and arrived in Ponsonby in 1947 as an 11-year-old “pale Pommy kid”. He soon bought a 9ft (2.74m) clinker dinghy, rigged it out with a leeboard, bamboo spars filched from a nearby grove, a canvas sail and got his first taste of sailing off Home Bay, just west of the current site of the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

The dinghy gave way to a wide variety of yachts. Brian was sailing the cruising 18-footer (5.5m) Haze (V85) in 1960 with Ron Holland as crew when he bought Happy Days in Tauranga from Shorty Mills. The asking price was £450 but Shorty agreed to sail her up to Auckland for that.

Happy Days did well in Brian’s hands with Ron and Kevin Holland as crew, racing with Royal Akarana and Northcote-Birkenhead yacht clubs and cruising as far north as Mangonui. Like St. George, Happy Days got the nickname ‘Little Ranger’ which speaks volumes for the regard other yachties had for her. Extended cruising was challenging at times with several on board and a decent payload of amber fluid even with the cabin top, but Brian found that the little keeler always sailed well and felt completely safe in all conditions.

Happy Days on a NBYC race to the wade in 1962

Happy Days on a NBYC race to the Wade (Weiti) in 1962

Brian kept her moored off Sulphur Beach on the North Shore. By now she had gained an auxiliary, a 3hp Australian-built Simplex which Brian removed for racing and left in the dinghy as it was just a matter of removing six bolts and a bit of athleticism. There came the day, inevitably, when the engine slipped out of Brian’s grasp in transfer and went to the bottom. A dive into the shallow bay and it was up in minutes, whisked home and dried out.

But when Brian married Jean in 1964 he sold Happy Days to Robin Conway and occupied himself with house building for a while. Happy Days disappeared from his life when Conway sold her, heading to Waiheke for a while, and then to Dave Coker.

In 2007 Brian and Jean took part in a Classic Yacht Association launch trip to the Riverhead Pub and spotted Happy Days moored off Whenuapai with a metre of growth on her hull. Her owner Jimmy Zheng succumbed to Brian’s offer and she was in Holgate ownership once more. With help from his son Tim and his mate Harold Bennett, Happy Days was towed to Gulf Harbour and trucked home.

Brian’s aim was to restore her himself, but ill-health struck unexpectedly. He rang me, offering to donate the little yacht to the NZ Traditional Boatbuilding School at Hobsonville. He also threw in her excellent cradle, a tidy sum towards her restoration and paid for her transportation to the school.

The school decided to find an owner-restorer, and a likely candidate was already at hand. Seventeen-year-old Shane Appleton had been the ‘monkey’ aboard Jessie Logan, the lad we would send up the mast on the hoops or in a bosun’s chair to set the topsail. He had just left Mount Albert Grammar and was having a year off before starting university.

Shane got straight into the job with help from the energetic Jason Prew and kindly advice and overview from Robert Brooke, the director of the school. Shane’s parents, Bruce and Heather, did a major amount of the hard yakka, cleaning, scraping, sanding and painting.

But it wasn’t much fun working in the open so the boat was moved to Tony Stevenson’s Tino Rawa Trust workshop in Auckland. Rapid progress then took place, Happy Days sitting alongside Wairiki and Ngataki, and Shane getting input from expert tradesmen Marco Scuderi and Paul Tingey.

The aim was to have her in the water for Auckland Waterfront’s Heritage Week and Boat Show in September, and Shane made it with a couple of days to spare.

Happy Days ready for her relaunch at the Viaduct in September

Happy Days ready for her relaunch at the Viaduct in September

Shane Appleton putting his baby in the water

Shane Appleton putting his baby in the water

With her Tino Rawa Trust mates in the Viaduct

With her Tino Rawa Trust mates in the Viaduct

At the time of writing, Shane is about to sit his final degree exams at Auckland University so Happy Days has not yet had her first sail back in her 1948 Perkin configuration. He will probably use her solely for racing in the CYA’s B Division and for overnighting.

Brian and Jean Holgate are as pleased as punch with the restoration, the Tino Rawa Trust has added her to its team at the Viaduct, and yet another historic Auckland yacht lives again.

This article was published in the November 2011 edition of Boating NZ.