Vintage Viewpoint: Trot Willets

Apr 18, 2017 Boating history

Devonport shipwright Arthur Willetts and his wife Sybil had six sons. This article by Harold Kidd is a tribute to their son Trot, a brilliant helmsman and a leading constructor of Auckland centre-boarders.

Albert Leslie Willetts was born in February 1900, the Willetts’ third son. Like all the Willetts family, he had a nickname. He was ‘Trotter’ or ‘Trot’, apparently because he was an active child and trotted about.
He also called himself ‘Alf’, so that his birth name disappeared from sight.

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During WW1 Trot was too young to go to France with his older brothers Phil and Farmer but, for the duration of the war, took over their role in racing and cruising the family’s mullet boat Waitere II and completed his apprenticeship as a housebuilder.

He sailed on other mullet boats and centre-boarders, earning a reputation as a crack helmsman at a time when there was an explosion in yachting throughout the country. After the Armistice, this explosion was evidenced in two new glamour classes of centre-boarders in Auckland, both 14-footers, the clinker-built, round-bilge Jellicoe One Design class, in 1922 becoming the X Class, and an unrestricted square-bilge concept which became the Y Class. Trot excelled in both.

The Jellicoe One Design 14-footers resulted from journalist W.A. Wilkinson commissioning a prototype, Desert Gold, designed and built by Charles Bailey Jr’s son Gladwyn in 1916 and sailed by Joe Patrick and Frank Cloke. The intention was that they would be sailed by ‘youths’ as trainers.

But the idea went viral after the war when yachtsman and popular all-round hero Lord Jellicoe became Governor-General of New Zealand and ordered a boat for himself, Iron Duke. The final ingredient was the donation of the Sanders Cup by Walker & Hall for competition between provinces, the yachting equivalent of the Ranfurly Shield.

It commemorated Lt. Cdr W.E. Sanders, the local hero of the Q Ship Prize. Sparked by this combination of a fine design and patriotism which Wilkinson promoted in the press, 14-foot yachting spread throughout the country in an intensely focussed way.

Trot soon became a favourite helmsman in the annual Auckland Sanders Cup trials and National contests. He was in the team of the crack Auckland boat Rona in 1924 and won as skipper for Auckland
in Avalon in 1929 at Akaroa. When Ray Clare had Percy Vos build Aileen for him in 1932 he had Trot as skipper in the trials and in the 1936 and 1938 Sanders Cup races, without success.

The Auckland Y Class had an interesting genesis. Wellington had produced some vital centre-board classes from early in the 20th century, among them a square-bilge 14-footer which had its origins in turn in the hard-chine designs that the influential American yachting magazine Rudder promoted, which were copied all over the world.

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Takina in the lead.

The Highet family of Wellington was a strong exponent of this type of easily-built but rapid centre-boarders and brought the type to a high degree of sophistication by the middle of WW1. George Honour, a Wellington waterside worker, brought the type to Auckland when he moved north during the war.

Aucklanders had sneered at what they called ‘flatties’ or ‘freaks’ but soon learned a lesson when these Honour-built boats ran rings around local dinghies and even gave the new Jellicoe boats a fright,
at a fraction of the cost. They became the boat for the new masses of youngsters eager to go fast on the water, as cheaply as possible.

Trot became involved in the establishment of these ‘flatties’ in Auckland, most of which had names starting with ‘Sea’, probably in recognition of the Rudder magazine’s series of centre-board designs like Sea Mew and Sea Wren.

Their home club was Akarana but most Waitemata clubs soon provided races for them. Trot built his own boat, Cupid, and raced her from March 1922 with increasing success, getting on top of the best George Honour boats like Sea Gnome. Cupid made his name as a designer and builder.

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In 1922 Trot married Vera McDonald. By 1926 they were living in Point Chevalier where Trot built houses. When the Depression hit, house-building came to a standstill, so Trot turned to dinghy work and built a number of excellent racing centre-boarders commercially.

He was a member of the Point Chevalier Sailing Club which had been founded in 1919 in that post-war yachting euphoria. The club was well set-up with club rooms at the end of the Point which earned funds as the venue for local dances.

Under Trot’s influence, the Point Chevalier club bred a couple of generations of top centre-board skippers like George McKeown, Ron Oliver, the Croads, Bernie Schmidt, Jimmy Davern and Gary Matthews to name a few.

Most of these made their reputation sailing boats designed or built by Trot. Trot also many times represented the club in the Lipton Cup races for 22-foot mullet boats in Varuna, Waima and others.

Trot’s Cupid was champion Y Class for several years. Some of the subsequent boats he designed or built to this class were Opah (1927), Lois for himself and Fay (1929), Demon and Mermaid (she cost £7/10/-) in 1932, Rebel (1933) and Challenge (1938).

George Honour branched out into square-bilge 18-footers with his Wizard of October 1922. She astonished with her speed and lit the bonfire for 18-footers in Auckland just a couple of months
before Arch Logan’s ‘patikis’, Squadron-sponsored high-class clinker M Class 18-footers Mawhiti and Matarere hit the water.

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In contrast to the patrician ‘Emmies’, the whole ethos of the cheap and fast blue-collar yacht went up a gear from the 14-footers with the new ‘V Class’. Inevitably, Trot rose to the challenge with a series of crack 18-foot designs starting with Drone for the Currey brothers (1925), followed by Belle (1926), Martha S (1932) and Riptide (1935) for Bernie Schmidt, Jewel for himself (1935), Irena (1936) and Takina, Tango and Lotus (1939).

Trot’s boats Irena and Riptide formed half of the four 18-footers taken to Sydney in February 1938 challenging for the ’18-footer World Championships’. While the Sydney skiffs, on their own harbour, outclassed the Kiwi boats, Trot skippered Irena to the best performance of the Auckland boats.

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In the winter of 1927 Trot bought the 1909 Logan Bros-built 16-foot open boat Mistral from the Manukau. The Willetts family had been connected to the boat since it was first launched. Arthur Willetts had raced her for its owner around 1912 and she had always been a favourite. Trot built a half deck on her and raced her like a new boat with much success in the S Class.

After dominating the class and having a lot of inexpensive fun, Trot sold her in 1931 to Jack Kyd of Howick. But his 16-footer involvement was not over; in 1938 he designed Reveller for Bob Clark and followed her with the absolutely stunning Escapade for Ron Oliver, a freakishly fast and beautiful yacht that gave 18-footers a lot of trouble.

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Trot Willetts built a huge number of boats of all descriptions in his career, including many of other men’s designs like the crack Idle Along Suzanne for Ross Croad in 1947 and the Zeddy Sapphire for Gary Matthews in 1955.

After WWII Trot went back to the X Class, building several including Diane for himself and Sonya in 1946, Gazelle (1948) and Desire for Ed Croad (1949). With Diane he won the Auckland Sanders Cup trials and then the Sanders Cup for Auckland in 1947.

When Arthur Willetts died in 1934, his sons presented a trophy, the Willetts Memorial, to Akarana Yacht Club for inter-club competition by 14-footers of all types. This became a yardstick for the virtues of each of the classes and improved them all.

Trot died in 1979. He was a taciturn man who shunned the limelight. His yachts and his yachting successes are his testament.