Bay watch

Even the weather chipped in to make the CRC Bay of Islands Sailing Week (BOISW) 2019 an extra-special event.

Further into the ranks of the marina, serious, muscled young crew in boat uniforms wrestled sails aboard the big racers. But at the Opua Cruising Club dock our team, with creaking knees and ready smiles, clambered into dinghies and puttered across channel to our entry.

In a world of mylar sails and hull forms that carry their beam all the way aft like a fleet of floating sumo wrestlers, Wetherly is more of a kindly, dowager aunt with her overhangs, tumblehome and shapely transom.

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“No,” Tony Kiff says, “it’s not a spelling mistake – it’s the name she had when we bought her in 1988 – and we just kept it.”

Appropriate maybe, for a yacht that was headed for a new home in a country where sheep outnumbered people 10:1.

Tony was working as an engineer at Camper & Nicholson and Wetherly, a Nicholson 45, had been launched from the same premises in 1972.

As their family grew, Nina and Tony decided to head south and with Sarah (12), Richard (11), Rebecca (9) and Tom (6) sailed out of the English Channel and westwards to the Caribbean.

From there, Wetherly transited the Panama Canal and cruised across the Pacific before fetching up in the Bay of Islands in 1992. Along with the shapely yacht and their comprehensive skill set, Tony and Nina Kiff also brought the beginnings of what would become a unique sailing dynasty to their new home.

Tom became a professional sailor with an impressive line-up of maxi boats and classic regattas in the Mediterranean and Caribbean on his CV. Richard is a sailmaker with an impressive history of Volvo Ocean races and America’s Cup campaigns.

Sarah is a secondary school PE teacher in Auckland and Rebecca, a midwife and intensive cardiac care nurse, has just returned from a cruise to the Pacific Islands with her eight-year old son.

But it’s Sarah, with a recent third placing in the Line Seven New Zealand Women’s Keelboat Championship, who’s helming today, steering Wetherly in the bay she knows so well, through the 116 entrants in the country’s biggest yacht racing regatta – CRC Bay of Islands Sailing Week 2019.

What has morphed into a very New Zealand event – a variety of vessels and crew sailing to their utmost among the stunning scenery of the bay – began with the Kiffs who still feature prominently among the all-volunteer organising team.

“We’d been to Cowes Race Week in the UK, and Antigua Race Week in the Caribbean and we thought: ‘why not hold one here?’” Tony explains.

So the couple recruited an organising committee and started work on a special sailing week held here in New Zealand with the great courses and clement weather conditions that the Bay of Islands had to offer.

Finally, in 2002, the BOISW was ready to race and the first boats began to jockey for position at the start line while, behind the scenes, the organisers were hard at work rustling up sponsorship. Each of the four Bay of Islands boating clubs loaned organisers $500 and the Far North District Council chipped in with a $5,000 grant.

“We had no money,” Tony smiles, “but luckily we managed to sign a sponsor up at the last minute so at least we could afford trophies.”

Since then the event has grown and this year had the largest-ever fleet.

“It’s an all-inclusive regatta – we don’t turn anyone away,” he adds. “It’s all about having fun, racing your boat.”

Entries range from teenage crews in Weta trimarans to professional sailors wielding TP52 racers. A healthy fleet of Young 88s hotly compete for honours and, at the outskirts of the pre-start jostle, I spot the former Bullfrog Sunblock which held the solo Tasman race record from 1986 to 2014, skippered by Ian Johnstone. She’s returned as Sea Cleaner and hangs back, waiting for a break to open up so she can exercise her impressive straight-line speed.

Olympic sailor Sharon Ferris Choat is sailing with her mother Pauline and daughters Sofia (10) and Victoria (5) in Black Swan – thought to be the only all-female crew in the 17-year history of the event.

On Wetherly we’re soon in the thick of it. Pre-race tension surrounds us like an electric field. Strident cries of “starbooooarrrd” resound around us, high-tech sails crackle in the tacks and winches grind with grunts and flailing elbows. Foredeck hands perch on pulpits in the bows, directing the helms-people with hand signals.

Sarah is calm and cool on the helm while Tony and I work the deck with Peter Barton (a life-long friend of the Kiffs), Nina’s cousin and an energetic and considered octogenarian whose father was the well-known English yachting author, Humphrey Barton.

“Hang on,” I think, “we’re three crew short.” Belowdecks, the missing crew are into a game of cards, intently studying their hands. “Oh, we’ll come up when the silly stuff has finished,” Nina smiles.

The start horn blares and the A Division boats are off, transoms heeling steeply as crews struggle to hoist reaching sails and head for the Ninepin. Each of the A Division fleet has taken a promising young sailor aboard to give them an opportunity to learn from the best. Sailing stars speckle the crew lists.

Smaller boats sail an inshore course and the big entrants do the full circuit – and there is a heavy weather alternative if the weather cracks up.

The pre-race manoeuvring suddenly becomes more demure and we make a good start on starboard then ease sheets and head east, carving through the smaller boats.

Crew numbers double when Nina, Rozanne (86) and Jean put the cards away and come on deck, settling into their regular sail trimming chores with an unspoken efficiency that comes with practice.

Thorfinn (5) perches in the pushpit to watch mum Sarah work her magic with the wheel. She helms with the innate sensitivity of someone who has spent time with the boat and Wetherly responds well – sails nicely trimmed and tell-tales streaming.

Tony is sometimes consulted for input – it’s his and Nina’s boat after all.

We have time for a yarn. “She’s about 14 tons all up,” says Tony. “I haven’t bothered to drain the tanks or anything.” So add 450 litres of fresh water (450kg) and 163 litres of fuel (about 140kg), spares, tools and provisions. “But we can cook a roast meal while we’re racing,” Tony laughs. “Not many of these boats can do that.”

Particularly the teenage pair with the Darth Vader sun protection on the Weta tri, who smile and wave as we slide past. That’s the wairua (spirit) of BOISW – it doesn’t matter what you’re sailing so long as you’re sailing as hard as you can.

Our next leg is a shy reach to pass Motukiekie Island. We round Ninepin rock gracefully and pick up a couple of boats struggling to hoist reachers. Another couple of lighter boats lose speed in the wind shadow of the 81m-high island but Wetherly’s tonnage keeps her moving through it.

On the short tacking session, clawing our way towards Renown Anchorage, Rozanne (Rosie) spends some of the time on the rail yakking. It’s the first time I’ve sat on the weather rail beside an 86-year old woman – and I thoroughly enjoy it.

The finish line is near Tapeka Point and we barrel through it like a maxiboat, hard on the wind and everything drawing to the max – Wetherly shouldering her way through the wind chop with our collective grey hair streaming flat to our scalps.

And smiles as big as a roaring lion’s.

LOCALS TAKE THE HONOURS

The cheer that erupted for Bay of Islands local Chris Hornell and the crew of his TP52 Kia Kaha at the CRC BOISW prize-giving ceremony was perhaps the loudest in the event’s 17-year history.

Kia Kaha nailed the top honour of the event – the South Pacific PHRF Championships trophy. And the crowd were clearly pleased to see this local hero – sailing an older TP52, with second-hand sails and an amateur crew – claim the win.

Chris Hornell says local knowledge helped “a little” but other factors were more important. “We had a good bunch of people, and everything we did turned to gold. Good conditions for our boat.”

Also competing in the A Division, Jim Farmer’s Georgia claimed a win on general handicap after three days of racing. With a dozen BOISW regattas under his belt, Jim describes the event as “the best regatta in New Zealand, for sure.”

In B Division, Icebreaker’s flawless performance in the first eight races came unstuck on the final race of day three, when she crossed the line early and had to turn back. But she’d done enough in the earlier races to claim a comfortable victory on both PHRF and general handicap.

No other Sports Boats could slay the Angry Dragon, which meant another raucous cheer at prize-giving for this Bay of Islands local boat, skippered by Stuart Wilson.

In the Weta fleet, Chris Kitchen’s Kitty claimed the win with a huge lead over the rest of the single-handed fleet, winning all but one race during the week. In the two-handed Weta division, R2D2 executed a similar performance with eight wins from nine races.

Ran Tan II claimed first place in Island Racing A division, while a regular Australian visitor to the event, First Picasso, took top position in Island Racing B. In Island Racing C it was Rum Jungle in first place, and Island Racing F was cleaned up by 4FoxSake.

Gambler secured the no-extras Island Racing D division, and the Island Racing E division saw some stiff competition with a fleet of seven multihulls competing. Ave Gitana eventually came out on top.

CRC BOISW will be back next year, in the week preceding Auckland and Northland Anniversary Weekend. The event’s organised and run almost entirely by volunteers, with over 60 people offering their time and energy to bring the regatta to life.

It’s also made possible with the generous support of sponsors CRC, NZL Sailing Foundation, Explore, North Sails, Mount Gay Rum, Luxury Real Estate, KZ Marine and Bay of Islands Marina. Many other local businesses also lend their support to the regatta through the provision of goods and services.