Rum racing on the Waitemata
Friday afternoon, the sun sparkling on the Waitemata Harbour. Across Auckland, people are clocking off, heading out to ‘meetings’ and taking advantage of working flexi-time. They’re off to the week’s most important appointment: the Havana Club rum race at the RNZYS. Sarah Ell joins the fun.
For Mark Roberts, rum racing isn’t just an occasional hobby – it’s a way of life. You might know Roberts by his almost universal nickname of Moulët, a tribute to his distinctive mullet hairstyle. Roberts has been sailing all his life, rum racing for more than 30 years, and is now out there every week, rain or shine, living the rum race dream.
He came home – four years ago – from eight years of working on superyachts, with the aim of buying a boat which could be a rum race champion.
“I wanted to go out and have some fun. Then I got an email saying this boat was coming on the market, and I’d bought it before I’d even finished reading.”
‘This boat’ is Extreme, a Rocket 31 designed by Jim Young. For Roberts, Extreme was his ‘dream boat’, and had had his eye on it ever since it was first launched in the early 1990s. He bought the boat with a largely silent partner and set about looking for sponsors to cover running costs. FS Trades, a division of specialist recruiting consultancy Franklin Smith, is the main sponsor.
Extreme certainly lives up to her name, and certainly turned a few heads when she was first launched. With an overall length of 29 feet 10 inches (a smidgen over 9m), she is 14 feet 7 inches (4.4 m) at max beam, with a massive open cockpit, flared sides and a lifting keel. She was the line honours winner of the Coastal Classic Division 4 for five years from 1993, and held the under 30-footer record up until 2009. Today we take sailing angles downwind under asymmetrics for granted; in the 1990s this was pioneering stuff.
None of these extras and fancy stuff for the rum race, though, thank you very much: it’s strictly main and jib for the races. Lidgard Sails is another of Extreme’s sponsors, providing a set of sails specifically designed for the rigours of rum racing i.e. reaching around the harbour.
“People laugh at me and say ‘you’ve got a race boat, why do you only go rum racing?’ To be honest, this way I get to do forty-five races a year, and most race boats might only do twenty,” he says. “I’ve done a lifetime of yacht racing –
I grew up at Bucklands Beach and raced a lot down there, too. I still take it competitively and I’m still competitive. But we have the most fun out of all the boats by far.”
It certainly looks like it, as Roberts flicks through the photos on his phone. The Christmas season seems to be a particular excuse for dressing up and general shenanigans – Jesus with a mullet, anyone? – but other dress-up themes have included Star Wars (on May 4th, of course), cowboys and cowgirls, pirates and pink tutus.
The rum race celebrating last year’s America’s Cup win was another big day: under cover of darkness, an exercycle was fixed in the middle of the cockpit, and one crew member dressed as a cyclor pedalled it around the course. It’s no wonder the Extreme team was given a special award for services to rum racing, fun and dress-up parties at the annual Squadron prizegiving.
Roberts doesn’t want to keep all the fun to himself, though; he has been asked by the Squadron about setting up a rum race committee, to get even more owners and sailors enthused, and “enhance the fun and festivities out on the water.”
When something sounds like this much fun, of course we had to try it out. I used to rum race quite often; working from home on a Friday often meant I could get away for a short-handed amble around the harbour on a friend’s Young 88. But the arrival of small kids kind of put paid to that, so it’s getting on for eight years since I had the pleasure of knocking off early for a Friday afternoon sail.
I couldn’t have picked a better afternoon for rum racing. Another 10° warmer would have been nice, but it is June. There’s bright sunshine and just enough breeze to keep us on our toes, without making us work too hard.
We’re not the only ones who thought today was the day. There’s a great turnout – 33 boats across two divisions, plus one multihull, ranging from a Piedy up to more serious race boats like Anarchy and Systems Thunder. It looks like a lot of people have pulled the get-out-of-work-early card today.
Ten of us are aboard Extreme this afternoon – what Roberts calls the ‘inner circle’ of regulars. He has a pool of about 40 casual crew members who come and go, depending on commitments and the occasion.
Among the crew tonight are Cat and Cat from the Squadron – events manager Catriona Stanton and operations director Catriona Bunce – and Squadron Youth Training Programme member Niall Malone. (Another regular crew member is Squadron rear commodore Aaron Young, grandson of Extreme’s designer Jim Young, but he’s on photo duty tonight.)
As we rig up on the dock, the important jobs are allocated: mainsheet, trimming, bar and DJing. The soundtrack for this cruise seems to be Solid Gold 80s, which is good enough for me. There’s a mix of experienced sailors, newbies learning the ropes, and those just along for the ride. “I want to involve everybody, but I still want to win,” Roberts notes.
There is just enough breeze to keep us moving in the prestart. We’re in the second division (E), up against some MRXs, the Flying Tiger 10 Tigga, and the Thompson 850 Rapid Ride. It’s going to be a bit light for one of those, but we get off to a good start, on a tight two-sail down to Stanley Point. Because of the relative lack of wind and proximity of dusk this time of year, we’re sent on the shortest course possible: reaching back and forth to Stanley buoy twice.
Roberts might have said he was in this for the fun, but it’s clear he’s pretty serious about the racing. It’s not until the second leg that things get really serious – the stereo gets turned down quite a bit too. With its lifting keel half-up, Extreme is tender, and crew weight needs to be moved in and out almost constantly as the light breeze comes and goes.
At the first mark we manage to get inside running on Namu and round in second place. So far so good. Now we just have to track down Rapid Ride.
It’s just an absolute pleasure to be out on the water. The afternoon light is fading on the city and, as the race progresses, the sun starts to set. I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be than cruising up and down the harbour on a race boat in the sunshine.
Actually, there is one thing that would make it better – winning. The stereo gets turned down and we start working our way into Rapid Ride. We’re still behind at Stanley for the second time, but slowly, slowly we are reeling them in. I think Mark knows we are about to pass them when he diplomatically hands over the tiller to me on the last leg; I get the pleasure of rolling them, then making sure they stay behind us all the way to the finish, as the sun sets beyond the Harbour Bridge.
Not that our efforts are appreciated or even noticed by the more social half of the crew; we are halfway down the last leg before one of the rail weight asks, “Where’s that guy in front of us?” We just point astern.
Race over and the hooter sounded, it’s time to pack up quick before it gets dark, and head for the Dinghy Locker bar for snacks, drinks and storytelling. (Roberts has also managed to secure the first berth on F pier, right by the squadron, so it’s a short walk to the bar.)
Not only have we won the rum for division E, we’re third on handicap as well. That means Extreme remains on top on line for the autumn series, with three more races to go, before the winter series begins.
It’s been a great experience, getting back out for a rum race and sharing Roberts’ enthusiasm for the sheer fun of sailing. I’d be happy to get the call up for some more Extreme fun anytime.