THE CITIZEN WATCH MATCH RACE SERIES, 1978 TO 1989
The early to mid-1970s was a glorious time for New Zealand keelboat racing. Following on from Rainbow II winning the World One Ton Cup in 1969, New Zealand boats won IOR Quarter, Half and One Ton Cups, Southern Cross Cup, a Sydney Hobart and a fifth out of 18 in the 1975 Admiral’s Cup.
However, while New Zealand sailors had proven to be world-class keelboat fleet racers, few had any real experience at match racing.
Match racing had been an integral part of the America’s Cup (AC) since 1871, but it was the founding of the Long Beach Yacht Club’s Congressional Cup in 1964 and the Royal Lymington Yacht Club’s match race series a decade later that established match-racing in identical yachts to a wider group of sailors.
Auckland sailor Jim Davern, who’d attended the 1972 Congressional Cup, instigated the first match-racing event in New Zealand the following year with Cavalier 32s, but this was a one-off.
In 1976, then-Chairman of the Stewart 34 Owners Association (S34OA) Bill Miller arranged and paid for a mould to be taken off his timber Stewart 34 Princess to enable Stewart
34s to be built in GRP. Keen to promote the class, Miller approached Peter Montgomery, then producing and presenting a weekly yachting radio show on Newstalk ZB.
“When Bill asked me to promote the Stewarts, I asked him what made them different from other race fleets such as the Mistrals, Javelins and Townson 32s.” Montgomery suggested to Miller that if he wanted to promote the Stewarts he needed something unique, such as match racing on the Waitemata Harbour.
Miller took this idea to the late Tony Bouzaid, a fellow Stewart owner and manager of Hood Sails NZ, and some weeks later the pair had organised a match-race event in Stewarts based on the Congressional Cup.
Bouzaid arranged the participation of six champion New Zealand sailors – Peter Walker, Stuart Brentnall, Ray Hasler, Ralph Roberts, Geoff Stagg and Ray Thompson – while Miller persuaded six Stewart 34 owners to lend their yachts. The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron (RNZYS) was asked to run the event on the water and an enthusiastic Montgomery promoted it through his radio show.
Held over three days in July 1978, the closely fought series was won by Peter Walker, with Stuart Brentnall second and Ray Hasler third. It was such a success everyone involved wanted to make it an annual event and, at Bouzaid’s suggestion, to invite top internationals.
Attracting internationals would require sponsorship, so Miller got busy raising the $15,000 required while Bouzaid persuaded international sailors Harold Cudmore, Ted Hood and Hugh Treharne to participate.
Then in February 1979, the New Zealand Yachting Federation (NZYF) withdrew their permission to allow sponsorship and, as a consequence, the RNZYS threatened to cancel the event.
By now Miller had raised half the money from five sponsors, the invitations to the sailors had been sent and accepted and television coverage arranged. The S34OA had a real problem: without the RNZYS they’d either have to fund the event themselves, or cancel it.
Hearing of their plight, the Ponsonby Cruising Club offered to run the event regardless of the NZYF’s stance, a brave call on their part. Ponsonby’s move caused the RNZYS to back-pedal and plead with the NZYF to change their stance on sponsorship.
The NZYF partly relented, but insisted that instead of the five sponsors already arranged, only one would be allowed.
Previously Miller had shown his sponsorship proposal to Montgomery, who’d in turn shown it to Doc Williams, then Executive Sports Producer of South Pacific Television (SPTV). Williams suggested SPTV could televise it live, an outstanding leap of faith on his part as live yacht racing on TV was then unheard of.
It had been planned to hold the series in the triangle between North Head, Bean Rock and Orakei, a position giving great visibility to shore-based spectators on both sides of the harbour. One day Williams and Montgomery were setting off from Westhaven in Miller’s yacht to reconnoitre the area when they bumped into the late Ken Lusty. Lusty suggested his friend Warwick Browne, Managing Director of Citizen Watches New Zealand, might be interested in sponsoring the event.
Browne’s Citizen Watches New Zealand was already sponsoring the International Jet Boat Marathon, which Williams had televised. Browne was approached with the proposal and within the month had agreed. The rest, as they say, is history.
The first Citizen series, April 27-29, 1979, was won by Roy Dickson, with sons Chris and Keith as part of his crew. The fiercely competitive Harold Cudmore came second and Walker third.
That first Citizen was a massive success and the sailors, sponsors, TV viewers and over 5,000 spectators were unanimous in their praise. Incidentially, the TV coverage had been technically challenging and at the time was the most expensive outside broadcast ever run in New Zealand.
The Citizen Watch Match Race Series became an annual event and over the next nine years would prove to be the most popular match race series in the world. The list of participating International skippers reads like a who’s who of yachting: Harold Cudmore, Ted Hood, Ted Turner, Rod Davis, Helmer Pederson, John Bertrand, Iain Murray, Paul Elvstrom, John Kostecki, Gary Jobson, Peter Isler, John Kolius and many others.
Several America’s Cup helmsmen of the era entered the event as part of their work-up programmes, a notable exception being Dennis Conner.
The event had a massively beneficial effect on countless young New Zealand sailors, including Chris Dickson, Russell Coutts, Brad Butterworth, Simon Daubney, Warwick Fleury, Erle Williams, Kevin Shoebridge and many others. However, while some successful sporting events are destined to run forever, others burn brightly for a time and then die. Sadly, the Citizen proved to be one of these.
Over the years the relationship between the S34OA and the RNZYS became increasingly testy. One ongoing issue for the S34OA was that, while they’d instigated the concept, obtained the sponsorship and provided the yachts, the RNZYS had essentially gained full control of the event. Also, while certain RNZYS personnel such as Jack Alison and Richard Endean were very supportive of the S34OA and the Citizen, their replacements in later years were less so.
Another issue was race damage to the yachts, which was supposed to be repaired by the RNZYS. However, this support sometimes proved difficult to obtain and some Stewart owners became increasingly vocal and reluctant to lend their yachts.
From the RNZYS’s perspective, while the Stewart 34s were reputed to be identical, in the early years especially some were more equal than others. Over time the S34OA worked extremely hard to make the Stewarts identical, for example employing the swing test to equalise weight distribution, but it seems the RNZYS didn’t always appreciate their efforts.
Early in 1988, with the goal of levelling the playing field, the S34OA commissioned Brett Blakewell-White to design the Stewart 34 Sprint – a standard S34 hull with upgraded rig, deck and foils especially suited to match racing. The S34OA arranged a sponsorship package to build a fleet of 12 Sprints and make them available to the RNZYS for the Citizen Match Race Series. This proposal was presented in May 1988 to the RNZYS, who were non-committal.
What turned out to be the final Citizen Watch Match Race series was held in 1989, and tellingly, the three podium places were won by New Zealanders – Chris Dickson first, Rod Davis second and Russell Coutts third. Incidentally, this was Dickson’s third win, which combined with his two third places made him the most successful Citizen skipper.
However, the RNZYS was already looking to drop the Stewart 34s for the 1990 event. The RNZYS had been in discussions with Beneteau, who’d offered to provide a fleet of 11 match-racing yachts for three years at no cost.
Learning of the Beneteau offer, John Street (Fosters),Kim McDell (McDell Marine) and Peter Walker expressed concerns that using imported yachts would impact on local boatbuilding. Eventually Street and McDell, with the support of key marine industry companies, offered to build a fleet of 11 yachts based on the Farr 1020 hull, with a new deck and updated foils.
After considerable debate the RNZYS accepted this proposal and the Farr MRX fleet, 50-50 owned by private owners and various sponsors, was built.
The MRX deal didn’t suit Browne as well as the Stewarts and he chose not to sponsor the 1990 event. Steinlager sponsored the 1990 event, and while the RNZYS continued to run a match race series for a few more years, it never generated the excitement and buzz of the Citizen-branded event.
With the benefit of more than 30 years’ hindsight, the Citizen series stands out as one of the pivotal events in New Zealand keelboat racing. Its legacy is threefold.
Firstly, the development of our sailor’s match-racing skills. Prior to 1978, these skills were rudimentary at best, yet by 1986-7 they’d been developed enough to mount a highly competitive challenge for the AC, which came within a smidgen of winning.
While there were several reasons for New Zealand losing against Dennis Conner in the Louis Vuitton Cup, a lack of match racing skills wasn’t one of them.
Secondly, the Citizen dragged the NZYF and the RNZYS – however reluctantly – into the world of sponsorship and professional sailing. Over the next decade, top-level, professionally-sponsored yachting campaigns would become commonplace and yachting was better for it.
The third key advance made possible by the Citizen was to bring live yacht racing to TV, which Williams and his team pioneered. Until then TV coverage had been cursory at best.
This is illustrated by the TV coverage of the 1983 AC when Australia II beat Stars & Stripes. Like many, I watched the final race of that AC series early one morning on a grainy black and white TV, with much of the footage coming from a blimp several hundred feet above the action.
Fast-forward to the 2018 AC and we’re watching ETNZ beat Oracle, with coverage from multiple cameras – on the helmsman’s shoulders, several positions on the boats and from drones just metres away, along with digital readouts of speed, course, VMG, distance to mark, accumulator pressure, heartbeats and much more. A stunning spectacle.
While Bill Miller, Peter Montgomery, Doc Williams, Warwick Brown, the late Ken Lusty, the late Tony Bouzaid and the other early participants had no grand masterplan in 1978, their ideas, passion, enthusiasm and commitment helped change the face of yachting forever.
Thanks guys – New Zealand yachting owes you.