The restoration of Corona
Corona is the best 26ft (7.93m) mullet boat ever built. I know that’s a bold statement, but I’m convinced it’s true, writes Robin Elliott.
Auckland’s famed ‘mulletties’ were developed from a variety of ‘smacks’ (an English term for fishing boats, that soon went out of use here) and used for mullet netting in the shallow estuaries in and close to the Waitemata Harbour.
Until the 1880s, mullet were abundant inside the harbour, but they vanished when steam and later internal combustion-engine launches became common as the propeller noise was supposed to have upset them.
From then on the catches were made around the coast south-east to Thames, downwind from town in the prevailing westerlies but, without access to ice, the smacks needed to be fast on the wind to get the fish back quickly to market.
The nets were set and raised over the stern which gave rise to a broad transom, while the shallowness of the waters coupled with a reasonably large tide range meant that the boats had to be built strong enough to take the ground frequently without problems. They also had to be able to handle a big catch, usually a tonne, and this required plenty of internal volume, so the mulletty evolved into a broad, shallow but fast centreboarder.
Their hull-form and high-peaked gaff cutter rig soon became attractive to yachtsmen for their virtues of speed and weatherliness. Apart from a couple of freakish rule-cheating ram-bowed centreboarders (Minx in 1882 and Masher in 1885), the first yacht of true mullet boat-type designed purely for racing was Manola, built by Chas. Bailey Sr in 1885 for William Holder. Manola was a 24-footer, (7.3m) then the most common size, and more mullet boat-pattern yachts soon followed her, including Isca by Robert Logan in 1886 and Mizpah by Bailey again in 1890.
By 1900 there were four recognisable classes of mulletties built in multiples of two feet, from 20-feet (6.1m) to 26-feet (7.93m) in overall length. The Ponsonby Regatta Committee felt strongly that the type had a potent future as a set of racing classes so long as they were protected from development, so it drew up a set of ‘Restrictions’ specifically designed to preserve their wholesome origins as fishing boats. The Restrictions came into force in 1902 and remained the standard throughout the heyday of mullet boat racing with only minor amendments.
Of the four original classes, the 20-footers (the N Class, 1922) were eclipsed by the 22-footers (the L Class), and the 24-footers (the I Class) by the 26-footers (the H Class). The big 26-footers died out as a racing class in the 1960s and dissipated, several back to their roots as fishing boats, a function for which they remained viable thanks to the Restrictions.
Today the only remaining mullet boat fleet is the L Class, fostered by the annual competition for the Lipton Cup, racing with Ponsonby Cruising Club from Westhaven in Auckland.
Corona was designed by Charles Collings and built by his firm Collings & Bell. Their yard was in St Mary’s Bay but these days it’s covered by the reclamation for the Auckland Harbour Bridge approaches.
Collings was a trained engineer who had worked for Robert Logan Sr. In 1902 he took over the design work for the well-established yard of James Clare, and the firm became Clare & Collings. Under this name it produced the best of the early restricted mullet boats of all classes. Collings soon became deeply involved in launch work, especially after the success of his ‘concave-convex’ style of hard-chine planing hulls for racing, fast cruising, game fishing and whale-chasing.
Mullet boat racing had become the number-one yachting participation sport in Auckland by the mid-1930s. Racing was intense between all the Auckland clubs (except the Squadron), while all four classes were capable of safe coastal cruising. A 26-footer had easily as much room inside as a 40ft (12.2m) keel yacht and could carry legendary quantities of bottled beer.
In 1934 Collings succumbed to pressure to crack the dominance of the Arch Logan-designed 22ft mulletties. His firm, now Collings & Bell, produced the outstanding 22-footer Tamariki which was followed by the even better Taotane in 1939. He then turned to the equally vigorous 26ft H Class, launching Corona in October 1936 for the Nunn brothers.
Corona was a powerful sail carrier. On her 10ft 6in (3.2m) beam she carried 900ft² (274.3m²)in her gaff cutter rig. Her mast was a towering 40ft (12.2m), and she had a 30ft (9.1m) boom, a 19ft (5.8m) gaff and a 15ft (4.6m) bowsprit. From bowsprit to end of boom she measured 45ft 6in (13.9m). Two and a half tonnes of lead ballast kept her reasonably stiff, standing in for the load of fish her ancestors would have brought home to market.
She was in a class of her own from the start and remained scratch boat in the fleet during the 18 years the Nunn brothers owned her. When the big 26-footers stopped racing, replaced by the huge post-war brood of nimble keel yachts, Corona drifted into the fishing industry, lost her rig and gained a tall deckhouse and a diesel.
Fast-forward 30 years, and Corona was a tired old fishing launch but still had her owner’s respect for her past as a crack racer. She was sold for $3000 to a group of three Ponsonby Cruising Club mullet boat enthusiasts – Ron Copeland, Lee Chambers and John Hogan – who persuaded the National Maritime Museum at Hobson Wharf in Auckland to restore her.
The trio, assisted by a number of volunteer boatbuilders, trued up her hull and re-ribbed her, but it soon became obvious that the museum could no longer support a restoration programme for the many historic craft it had accepted. Like many other museum craft, Corona went into long-term storage, not deteriorating greatly, but not going anywhere either.
In 2009, with the blessing and active support of Ron Copeland and Lee Chambers, the New Zealand Traditional Boatbuilding School at Hobsonville negotiated with the museum to take over Corona and complete her restoration.
School trustees Robert Brooke and Ian McRobie put in a great deal of research to ensure that Corona took to the water again as a faithful recreation of her original self. There were doubts over the cabin top which took some detective work to resolve. Robert Brooke had a copy of Corona’s original hull drawings which his father Jack had preserved after Collings’ death. Ian McRobie took the drawings to the renowned Auckland boatbuilder Chris McMullen for analysis. In a raking light Chris chanced to pick up Collings’ lightly pencilled outlines of her cabin top which were in complete accord with contemporary photographs.
Ian McRobie, a man of great leadership and outrageous humour, gathered a team of no-nonsense volunteers around him. Even at the young age of 80-ish, Ian put in a minimum of four days a week on the job with a core group, notably Morrie Ogden and Ian Stephenson. The school obtained a modest amount of funding and there were extremely generous contributions of work and materials from the trade, but the team of volunteers were the key, working hard because Ian McRobie made it fun.
Corona was re-launched on the top of the tide in early March from the old RNZAF flying-boat slip at Hobsonville. It was an unusual and rather dramatic day: the weather was superb, brilliant sunshine with a light breeze, and the crowd was much larger than expected. Civil Defence had warned of a tsunami following the earthquake in Japan the night before and recommended that people keep off the water. However, no unusual tidal effect was perceived during the launch, and in those early hours after the quake – when the extent of devastation in Japan was not yet known – the tsunami warning simply added spice to the event.
Corona sailed like a witch in the light breeze and got up to seven knots to surprise everyone and gladden the hearts of her restoration team. It was a great culmination to a magnificent effort. Nowadays she can be seen at Auckland’s Viaduct alongside Jessie Logan, Wairiki and a clutch of other fine classics sponsored by the Tino Rawa Trust.
Now, say the school’s trustees, what next?.
This article was published in the May 2011 edition of Boating NZ magazine.