1939 was a big year for New Zealand yachting. Mr. Depression was well on the run.

Not only were even more major yachts and launches being produced but it was a vintage year for centreboarders too. The first international yachting event in this country since 1898 was about to be held on the Waitemata. In January 1939, apart from Hitler posturing in Europe (surely there won’t be another war?), and the Japanese army rampaging through China, all was well in Godzone.

Bill Couldrey’s reputation was soaring. Not only was he an incredibly good tradesman and an increasingly respected designer, but he was an intelligent and kindly man without the excesses of some in the trade. These virtues had impressed Arch Logan, who did not suffer fools gladly. Bill’s team at the Sulphur Beach yard consisted of his good friend Bert Ellis as foreman, Owen Peace and John McCormack – local Northcote men and Bill’s near-contemporaries.

The 18-footer fleet at Tamaki Yacht Club with crowds on the cliffs. Bill Couldrey’s Mamaru (V83) extreme right and to her left the series winner Manu II (M9).

The Australian 18-footers were due to arrive for the return match of the ‘World 18ft Championship’ for the J.J. Giltinan Trophy after our local 18s had been trounced in Sydney by the vastly different Australian skiffs in January 1938. About the only similarity between the two fleets was their waterline length.

The liner Awatea arrived in Auckland from Sydney on February 13, 1939, flying the burgee of the New South Wales 18-footer League from her foremast. She carried three of the top Australian skiffs, Taree, the holder of the title from 1938, St George and Malvina, the J.J. Giltinan Trophy, and the crack Sydney crews who were expecting a demonstration whitewash.

At the civic reception the next day, Taree was paraded up Queen Street to the Town Hall where the mayor, Sir Ernest Davis, gave a welcoming speech as a fellow yachtsman, indicating that the locals could learn a great deal from the visitors. For weeks the Auckland press had been building up the fearsome reputation of the Aussies and the fantastic performance of their yachts. The Auckland 18s were going into the competition as underdogs.

Bill and Gladys Couldrey.

But there was hope. There were new builds that showed promise in the special conditions on the Waitemata, significantly different from those in Sydney Harbour. The local 18s of the M and V Classes were lighter, carried less sail in a more efficient Bermudan configuration and were half-decked to keep water out. They were quicker to plane, and far easier to manage in the short Waitemata chop in the usual moderate westerlies, while the Australians, with their massive sail areas, up to 2000ft2 would be nearly unbeatable if the wind was light.

Bill’s run of crack round-bilge racing 18-footers, starting with Shamrock in 1935, then Limerick in 1936 and Mamaru in 1937, was now continued in late 1938 by Lanai for C.A. Armstrong and Jeanette for Jim Faire, the ultimate refinements of their type, designed to beat the Aussies.

The first race was held off Westhaven at 3pm on February 15, 1939 in a fresh westerly and a short chop. The three Aussies, Taree sailed by Bert Swinbourne, Malvina by Billo Barnett and St George by W. Hayward, were met with a large fleet of 20 local 18-footers, each nominated by a yacht club. In the local fleet were the Couldrey yachts Limerick, sailed by Spot Riley, Shamrock by G. Fearnley, Mamaru by Bill himself, Lanai by C.A. Armstrong and Jeanette by Jim Faire. The Arch Logandesigned Surprise, built by Bill Couldrey and Ben Mayall in 1924, was sailed by M. Paul. The favoured locals were Jeanette and Manu II (M9) designed and built by Arch Logan in 1929 and skippered by Gordon Chamberlin.

The 18-footer fleet at Tamaki Yacht Club with crowds on the cliffs. Bill Couldrey’s Mamaru (V83) extreme right and to her left the series winner Manu II (M9).
Bill Couldrey’s ad in the programme featuring Limerick.

The race had a congested start. St George got through the ruck to lead at the first mark, but gybed and capsized. Jeanette screamed downwind to take the lead but lost it on the beat back to Manu II which won by eight seconds. Taree was fourth, Malvina thirteenth – a great opening salvo from the New Zealanders. The headlines were: “AUCKLAND’S DAY—AUSTRALIANS OUTSAILED”.

For the second race it was estimated 100,000 people crammed vantage points around the harbour. St George and Jeanette swapped the lead for most of the race. At the last mark Billo Hayward in St George elected to go about in the freshening sou’wester rather than risk a gybe and another capsize. Jim Faire at the helm of Jeanette gybed inside and led across the line. Taree was third and Manu II seventh. But there were several protests; Jeanette was disqualified for clipping St George’s boom with her forestay.

The third and final race was held off Tamaki Yacht Club in a moderate sou’wester, again with a massive audience on the cliffs. Taree led from start to finish flying huge extras. Jeanette was second, two minutes behind, followed by Manu II, Malvina and St George. Swinbourne appeared to have retained the title handsomely. However, at the very last moment, Spot Riley of Limerick lodged a protest against Taree for a breach of port and starboard at the start. The protest was upheld, the final points were revised, and the series was awarded to Manu II, Jeanette was second, St George was third and Taree fourth.


The Australians exploded. Swinbourne said he would appeal. He refused to hand the trophy over for presentation. The Town Hall prizegiving was cancelled. A very angry bunch of Australian yachtsmen embarked on the Awatea with their boats…. and the trophy. Despite olive branch efforts by Sir Ernest Davis and George Dennes, Bert Swinbourne dug his heels in and refused to hand over the trophy. The row was eventually settled after WWII when Sir Ernest Davis presented the trophy to the Chamberlins at function at Westhaven in March 1946.


Jeanette’s performance cemented Bill Couldrey’s reputation as a centre-board designer and builder alongside Arch Logan. During the remainder of 1939 he built two more 18-footer near-clones of Jeanette: Marie Dawn for Chuck Auger for the Manukau, Athena for mechanic Len Elia of Hutton Road, Birkenhead. He also built Tamarus for coastal seaman and Rugby League player Vincent Axman, a raised-deck boat of a different type to the two Jeanette clones.

The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron commissioned Bill to design the ‘Squadron Dinghy’, a wholesome 9ft clinker sailing dinghy intended to be standardised around the RNZYS fleet as a yacht and launch tender. Bill built eight in total, but the war inhibited later development.

Manu II winning the first Giltinan Trophy race from Jeanette, February 1939.
Manunui at anchor.
Marie Dawn ready to launch from Bill Couldrey’s yard.

Bill also had secured a contract from Wiseman’s Sports Stores to design and produce runabouts. In 1939 he built for Wisemans four outboard 12-footers, two clinker and one veebottom and one inboard. He also built six 9ft dinghies for Jack Hodgson of Dunedin. Runabout production continued in a limited capacity, even during the first years of the war.

A large part of 1939 was devoted to the building of the launch Manunui for Percy Colebrook, a Remuera hardware merchant and well-known launch owner. One of his early launches was Mollie, built in 1911 by T.M. Lane & Sons for Capt. Somerville. In 1919 Colebrook commissioned a 44ft double-ender from Joe Slattery and named her Mollie. He sold the Lanes Mollie to Cecil Leys who renamed her Rongo. Later the second Mollie became Alcestis and still is in fine condition today as Raiona.

Manunui was a husky bridge-decker with dimensions 42’x 41’x11’x3’5” and fitted with a 55hp Benz diesel engine which gave a cruising radius of 900 miles at 9 knots, a serious virtue for a Pacific trip. Bill launched her from his slipway in Sulphur Beach on September 30, 1939, just 30 days after Hitler’s forces had invaded Poland and WWII was under way. Colebrook had a time to enjoy Manunui during the brief ‘Phony War’ that followed. Fuel rationing was put in place from August 1939, although a small amount was still available for recreational boating in the early period.

Manunui on her trials, September 1939.
The Squadron Dinghy.

After Pearl Harbour, the need to commandeer vessels suitable for patrol work increased. Manunui was taken over by the RNZN in early 1942 for patrol work in Fiji despite her German Benz engine for which the supply of spares had disappeared. It was clearly a very good engine. The Navy often replaced such orphan engines with American engines, normally a Chrysler petrol engine or a GM diesel, as supplied in great quantities to the United States Navy, if only to simplify spares in the field. In fact, the Benz continued to give good service after Manunui had been returned to the Colebrooks in 1944. Percy’s son Max had taken over ownership by 1944 and kept the Benz in her until 1962 when he fitted a 100hp Perkins diesel. I last saw her in very good order in the marina at Wellington where she has lived for several years. BNZ