Rudder Cup: Night Run

Jan 29, 2019 Boating history ,General Interest ,Racing

A fleet of venerable launches tackles a night run around the rock and back. Lindsay Wright went along for the ride.

Home-bound commuters may have looked down from the Harbour Bridge and thought they were seeing some sort of maritime Christmas party.

But people with an eye for boats would have noticed that the 15 vessels milling around the upper Auckland Harbour were all different, mostly venerable and built of wood, with not enough plastic between them to host a neighbourhood Tupperware party.

The boats carried names like Meola, Trinidad, My Girl, Sterling, Ferro, Lady Margaret, Lady Crossley, Ronaki and others – representing decades of the country’s maritime history as work boats and pleasure vessels.

And on that Friday evening they were all lining up to embark on an overnight adventure from Auckland, around Sail Rock and back to Auckland.

The 10-minute siren sounded across the harbour and skippers began to eye the opposition as they edged their old launches towards the start line. Five minutes – and boats which had been keeping clear of the melee began closing in on the line.

BANG! – a black powder cannon belched fire and smoke from the breakwater beside the RNZYS – 15 throttles were eased forward and plumes of blue smoke ghosted from transom exhausts as the boats streamed towards North Head rolling wildly in their combined wakes. The 2018 Rudder Cup was underway.

It was the third time the race, for classic launches, had been run since 1908 when it was inaugurated to compete for a trophy donated by the US boating magazine, Rudder. The New Zealand Classic Yacht Association has taken the event on board – and long may it last.

In the wheelhouse of Trinidad we eight crew members kept our eyes peeled for the opposition as the fleet began to spread out and a muted debate was held as to just how close we could go to Devonport and North Head without incurring severe embarrassment.

Trinidad rumbled imperturbably through the night as, all around us, red and green navigation lights glowed through the deepening dusk.

“She’s got the same 6LX Gardner and Gardner gearbox that was put in from brand new in 1965,” says owner/skipper David Cooke. “It’s done about 8,000 hours but [Gardner engineer] Dave Shaw says it should do about 25,000 hours before we have to do anything to it.”

You have to love machinery like this. No vibration and quiet enough so we don’t have to raise voices to talk in the wheelhouse. The big grey Gardner rumbles through the night at 1,200 rpm, powering Trinidad at about 8.5 knots.

Trinidad was designed and built by Salthouse Boatbuilders at Greenhithe in upper Auckland Harbour out of three half-inch (12.5mm) skins of heart kauri. The original owner is said to have served on HMS Trinidad on North Atlantic convoy duty during WWII.

She has crossed the Tasman and cruised the Australian east coast. David and Barbara Cooke – who have owned her for 20 years – have circumnavigated New Zealand in her.

“She weighs 22 tonnes – that gives you a degree of confidence at sea,” says David.

She carries about 1,800 litres of fresh water and 2,000 litres of fuel – so neither fluid should be an issue for this 108-nautical mile sprint around the rock and back.

The race is run using a ‘sealed’ handicap system. Boat owners supply race organisers with their boat’s vital dimensions: (LOA, beam, draught, horsepower, weight etc) and an elapsed time is calculated based on these. The boat that finishes closest to her calculated time wins.

Launches race in the Veteran Class (launched 1918); Vintage (1919 – 1949) and Classic (1950 – 1978). They must be over 7.62m LOA and no outside assistance is permitted.

With the light loom of Takapuna to port and Rangitoto Light blinking on the other bow we carve through the light swell. At one stage I count seven position finding devices at work in the wheelhouse; the ship’s GPS plotter, a tablet with plotting programme and the rest are cell phones being brandished around to find the best coverage.

I wonder about the scow skippers who worked this coast year-round, in all weather, with a magnetic compass and charts. Unhandy boats, a press of sail – and probably very little sleep.

The Rudder Cup’s PredictWind tracking app is in constant use as we follow fellow competitors’ progress. Lady Crossley, a near sistership with two Gardners, sits off our port quarter before deciding that the shortest route is with the Kawau Island shore close aboard.

Another competitor decides to opt out and anchor at Kawau, but we rumble through the night – not the fastest – but certainly the most comfortable, I think smugly. Light gleams off the varnished trim – a boat like this is a tactile thing – it’s hard not to stroke the joinery.

Eight very experienced boating people can generate a lot of sea stories. Lit by the glow of instrument, navigation and smart phone lights we chat through the night as Sail Rock creeps closer on the plotter.

A coastal carrier comes into view on the port bow, deck lights ablaze and a spotlight flicking through the dark. We reassure the watch officer of our presence and course and advise him that there are another eight or so launches behind us steaming his way. We hear him later talking to other competitors including someone he calls a “f*****g idiot.”

What happens on the course – stays on the course.

Some boats have been sitting on 16 – 17 knots and we hear them report rounding the rock while we’re still hours away. But finally it’s our turn and the 138m-high pinnacle with a white skirt of shattering wave slop around its base slides by to starboard. It’s easy to see why early mariners mistook the pinnacle for a distant sail – it must have shocked a few who have cut it too close.

With wind and sea behind us, Trinidad rolls her way homeward and we speculate on our arrival time. I’m way out, but plus or minus 12 hours seems to rule the guesswork. We begin to work out tide flow and how that will affect us.

With six people in the wheelhouse I can dive below for a nap – which turns into a two-hour coma. I emerge as we steam past North Head, the rising sun warming Trinidad’s port quarter. Then the finish flag is ours. David eases the throttle and the Gardner settles back to a barely audible chuff. Within a few minutes we’re berthed and hosting our first guests from the quicker boats.

More sea stories in the making.