Seaward part four: Trans-Tasman Race
I confess that I started this series on 'Seaward' as a deliberate fishing expedition. Layer upon layer of anecdote and assumption have so clouded the origins of this remarkable yacht that it has become impossible to sort fable from fact.
If Seaward had plodded about life as a humble fishing boat and ended her days rotting away in the mud up some estuary there would have been little point in researching her, but that was far from the case. Seaward survives after doing much more offshore work than any other New Zealand yacht, even including Johnny Wray’s celebrated Ngataki. So I threw a stone in the pool and watched the ripples and the reflections of the ripples, and the information is streaming in from readers. Big chunks of her history are now firmed up. But first, let me begin to take you through her amazing exploits with Tauranga brothers Bro and Tony Benson.
When he returned with Seaward from Brisbane in October 1939, Dick Wellington volunteered for the Air Force and sold Seaward to Bruce Hart, another member of the coterie of Auckland yachtsmen which revolved around Johnny Wray and Ngataki. With his wife Margaret, Bruce lived aboard Seaward moored in Mechanics Bay, just off the yard of Lane Motor Boat Company and the clubrooms of the Royal Akarana Yacht Club where Bruce was Clubhouse Captain. Johnny Wray, now an RNZAF Flight Sergeant, skippered the fast launches that served the many flying boats that operated from their base in Mechanics Bay.
Jack Taylor remembers Bruce well when Seaward was hauled out for work at Lidgards towards the end of the war, being prepared for a Pacific voyage. He was employed by Lidgards as an improver shipwright, as tradesmen were in short supply during the war. Bruce was a great wag, for whom everything was an enormous laugh. However, in late 1945, Bruce sold Seaward and briefly owned the 36ft ketch Faugh-A-Ballagh built by Des Donovan and L. Dolores in 1938, which Bruce renamed Red Star, expressing his political leanings. He then set about building his dream offshore yacht, the husky 17-ton, 38ft double-ender ketch Saraband, a sort of super-Seaward with her great beam of 12ft. Having for some reason renamed her Sarong, Bruce and Margaret took off for Sydney on a world cruise in 1950. She was still in Sydney in 1955 and I haven’t followed her eventual fate.
Ron Wilkinson of Tauranga bought Seaward from Bruce Hart and sailed her back up to Auckland to start in the Auckland-Tauranga race on 22nd December 1945. The race start was delayed from 1400 to 1800 to allow her to arrive. The other starters were Vanitie (C12), the Tasmanian One Design built by Joe Slattery in 1922 and then owned by Mike Georgetti of Napier, Mandalay (A10), the big ketch built by George Andrews at Redcliffs in 1930, now entered by W.A. ‘Wilkie’ Wilkinson, the famous pocket-sized, foghorn-voiced proprietor of the Speedwell Yacht Exchange and former editor of New Zealand Yachtsman magazine, Red Star (B31) entered by Bruce Hart, and the 28ft shortender Wakanui (E34), built by Ryan Brothers in Whangarei in 1933, owned by my father until 1939. In fact, one of my earliest memories is of sitting aboard Wakanui off the beach at Mount Maunganui after her arrival in the December 1938 Auckland-Tauranga race. In 1945 she was entered by J.B. Cook.
Mandalay (A10), Wilkie Wilkinson’s able ketch
Abeam Port Charles the yachts suffered a heavy squall blowing straight down off Moehau. Wakanui’s rudder broke, forcing her to lower away and motor into Port Charles. She arrived in Tauranga a week later after making and fitting a new rudder. Vanitie was first over the line, Mandalay second, with Seaward close up after a big kite run to give her a handicap second. Subsequently Mike Georgetti bought Red Star from Bruce Hart and renamed her the more PC Trade Winds.
Peter K. (always known as ‘Bro’) Benson of Tauranga saw Seaward anchored at Mayor Island in 1947 and fell in love with her. Bro approached Wilkinson with the result that he and his brother Tony, both skilled engineers, were soon the proud owners. Bro was born in Waihi in 1923, the son of Samuel Thomas Benson, a Lancashire-born engineer who had served his time with Leyland at Preston.
Tauranga was a hive of yachting activity with strong links into the Auckland scene through the activities of Percy (Skip) Carter in promoting the Auckland-Tauranga race and the development there of Harry Highet’s 7-footer ‘Tauranga’ Class (later the P Class) as a vital youth trainer, along with a good Z Class fleet. Auckland supporters of the Tauranga Yacht & Power Boat Club included Wilkie Wilkinson and boatbuilder Fred Mann. This vigorous environment produced many fine yachtsmen including the Gilpin brothers, Jimmy Gilpin dominating the Tauranga Class nationally for several years.
The Benson’s first offshore race was the Auckland-Tauranga race of 1947. Entrants were Wilkie Wilkinson’s Mandalay, Frank Gresham’s new 40-footer Mata-atua (B9) built by H. Hayman to a Bob Stewart design on scratch, which it shared with the radically different Knud Reimer’s 30 square-metre Norseman (C48) entered by yachting maverick Des Skelton, and Wanderer (C53), T.L. Gedye’s Bert Woollacott-designed-and-built 31-footer, the yacht he had built the year before to sail home to England, a trip he abandoned after a severe knee accident. The field was completed by Seaward and Wakanui. With a good handicap, Seaward came in a good third behind Mandalay and Wanderer.
It had already been announced that Seaward was entered in the 1948 Trans-Tasman yacht race starting in Auckland on January 24. The Auckland-Tauranga race had been just a preliminary canter for her and the Bensons, whose crew consisted of Capt. D.S. McLeod of the NZ Marine Department as navigator, D. McLeod, Syd Brown, George Brown and R. Woodward, all of Auckland. Bro was a good navigator already but ceded that duty to Capt. McLeod.
Other entrants were Peter Luke’s yawl Wayfarer and the Halvorsens’ Peer Gynt from Sydney, F. and J. Livingstone’s 58-footer Kurrewa III from Melbourne, Te Hongi from Wellington, the American 26-footer Pagan, George Dibbern’s Te Rapunga, Mark Anthony’s 38ft gaff cutter Rangi (B16), the schooner Lady Sterling (A12) and Ken Pragnell’s US-built 31-footer Drifter. In the event, neither Te Rapunga nor Lady Sterling started while Te Hongi arrived in Auckland after the start and gamely started two days late. I remember well going at the age of 11 to North Head with my father to see the start, unaware of two strange things, firstly that one day I would own Seaward, and secondly that crewmember Max Carson on board the Sydney yacht Wayfarer was my father’s nephew (and my cousin), just one of many weird connections and resonances Seaward has for me.
Six days out, a cyclone hit the fleet south of Lord Howe Island, described by islanders as the worst for 50 years. The strong modern yacht Kurrewa III was almost capsized and suffered considerable damage from one gigantic wave which put her crosstrees under water. As she was the only yacht communicating by radio, serious fears were held for the smaller competitors. It turned out that Peer Gynt, too, was engulfed by a huge wave and almost capsized. However, after the storm came calms. On 3rd February Kurrewa III crossed the line first in Sydney, followed 5.5 hours later by Peer Gynt which won on handicap. The other entrants trickled in with similar tales of desperate battles with the sea.
After a detour, Capt. McLeod’s dead reckoning after the cyclone bringing up Newcastle rather than Sydney Heads, Seaward crossed the line in Watsons Bay, Sydney on 10th February. Seaward too had been hit hard by the cyclone and rolled twice during 60 hours hove to, while crew morale had become an issue, especially as Bro was rightly suspicious of the navigation. By then the non-arrival of Rangi was causing concern. Drifter, Pagan and Te Hongi had arrived with similar horror stories.
The Secretary of the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club, J.A. Kyd, formerly a prominent Auckland yachtsman from Howick, arranged for an RAAF Catalina to conduct a search for her to the south of Lord Howe Island. Tasman Empire Airways flying boats were asked to keep a watch for her. Bro Benson told the Sydney Morning Herald, “Rangi should have beaten us by days; she is a much faster boat”.
The Catalina search and later searches by four RAAF Avro Lincolns found no sign of her which raised concerns, but on 13th February Rangi was sighted off Cronulla by an RAAF Dakota in apparently good shape. However, damaged by the mid-Tasman cyclone and further battered by strong winds near Sydney and driven down the New South Wales coast by currents, the crew gave up and succumbed to the offer of a tow into Kiama by a friendly fishing boat. Such was interest engendered by the newspaper reports that Kiama was inundated with thousands of Sydneysiders coming to look at her. The Canberra Times thundered about the waste of public money. It all made great copy.
This article was published in the January 2013 edition of Boating NZ.