ONE MAN AND HIS BOATS: Chuck Auger

A few weeks ago I spotted a tiny, battered trophy of a gaff cutter yacht in a box of miscellaneous items on a local auction site. Its sails were crudely attached. I won the auction and saw the inscription was “M.C.C. won by Sea Gnome R.H. Auger 1929”.

 I took the sterling silver model to a jeweller in Wellsford, near where I live. He reattached the sails and rigging correctly and gave it back to me beautifully polished. So what was the backstory to this little treasure?

Richard Henry ‘Chuck’ Auger was a force to reckon with as a centreboard yachtsman in Auckland for over 30 years from 1920, particularly on the Manukau where he dominated the racing silverware.

Born in 1898, Chuck Auger grew up living in Scarborough Terrace in Parnell, where his father was a bootmaker. He was early involved in yachting which was inevitable in the suburb of Parnell with its coastline from Mechanics Bay in the West to Hobson Bay in the east. Chuck started racing as a 13-year-old on the 26ft mullet boat Arawa then owned by W. J. Mann of Devonport. She had been built by S. Mills in 1903 and raced with North Shore Yacht Club.

Atalanta

There were other influences in Chuck’s career. First was the guru of 14-footer ‘flatties’, George Honour, who lived nearby in Lee Street. When he shifted to Auckland from Wellington during World War 1, George imported the Wellington concept of fast, cheaply-constructed, square-bilge centreboarders. Originally inspired by the American Rudder magazine’s Sea Wren, Sea Mew and similar hard-chine designs, the Highet brothers and their followers at Te Aro Sailing Club had heavily refined the type and were having excellent racing with them.

Just after World War 1 the flatties became a craze amongst Auckland’s youngsters where there were three vigorous 14-foot centreboard classes. As well as these square-bilge ‘flatties’ (later Y Class) the glamour class was the 14ft One Design Class (later X Class) of clinker round-bilge craft, sponsored by the popular Governor-General Lord Jellicoe and the ‘Handicap Class’ (later T Class) of round-bilge 14-footers, more or less unrestricted except as to waterline length.

Another second influence was Len Heard, whose confectionary business in his landmark building in Parnell was a major employer in the area. Chuck trained with Heards as a confectioner. Len Heard Jr, who came to run the factory, was an influential launch owner, yachtsman and, like George Honour, was a leading light in the Akarana Yacht Club (formerly the North Shore Yacht Club) in Mechanics Bay.

Shirlene

The first yacht Chuck owned was the round-bilge 14-footer Arawa (sail number 249, then T14) which he bought from R.G. Hutton and raced weekly during the season with all the centreboard clubs. In the 1921 Auckland Anniversary Regatta Chuck came first on line with Arawa on nine minutes handicap. He came third in the 1922 Regatta but first on line and handicap again in 1923.

Chuck married Alma Hazleman in 1922 and shifted to 5 Alba Road Epsom. Yacht racing became secondary. By 1927 Chuck had moved to 5 Quadrant Road Onehunga, close to the Manukau waterfront, and he had two sons. It was only a matter of time before he got back into yacht racing. In August 1927 he bought the crack square-bilge Y Class Sea Gnome (Y2) built in 1921 by George Honour for himself, the last and fastest of the 14-footers he built. She had won 10 firsts in 17 starts and the Akarana Champion flag in her first season. Eventually she was matched by Trot Willetts’ Cupid then, from early 1926, by the Arch Logan-designed Alert.

There were two yacht clubs on the Manukau based at Onehunga. The elder was the Manukau Yacht and Motor Boat Club (MYC) which had been founded in August 1891 as the Manukau Yacht and Open Boat Sailing Club, second in seniority in Auckland only to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. It catered for a wide range of yachting and launching events and had well-constructed clubrooms right on the harbour, which were gutted by fire in 1925.

The Manukau Cruising Club trophy awarded to Chuck's Sea Gnome in 1929.

The Manukau Cruising Club (MCC) was set up in February 1923 as a response to the senior club holding no yacht races in the aftermath of the war and set out to promote centreboard racing. By 1926 the two clubs were co-operating fully on fixtures and working well together. The Manukau had become an attractive scene for small craft.

Chuck belonged to both clubs and was an official in both over the years, together with his brother Percy (known as ‘Tewk’). Cupid was also sold to the Manukau, but it was Sea Gnome that immediately dominated the under 18ft centreboard classes. It was the MCC which awarded my trophy to Chuck in 1929 for winning its under 18ft Championship with Sea Gnome which also won the championship with the MYC. In fact, Chuck and Sea Gnome won both clubs’ under 18ft Championships every year until he decided to sell her in 1936 to G. Lloyd and move up to 18-footers by buying Atalanta, the glamour Waitemata 18.

Billy Rogers of Curran Street had built the round-bilge, bermudan-rigged Atalanta II (V57) for Bourne Wilson of Argyle Street in October 1934. In her first season on the Waitemata she was scratch boat and the best performer, originally sailed by Doug Rogers and brothers Bob and Fred Rogers, but they left to crew Billy Rogers’ crack 14-footer Vamp in 1935. When Chuck bought her in the winter of 1936 she easily became the Manukau Champion.

Marie Dawn lines

Moving ahead again, Chuck had Arnold ‘Bill’ Couldrey of Northcote design and build him a new 18-footer, Marie Dawn, said to be an improvement on Couldrey’s crack 18-footer Jeanette. Jeanette (V90) had been built by in late 1938 for 18-year-old Jim Faire of Herne Bay as an out-and-out racer with an eye to the ‘World’ 18-footer Championships against the Australian 18s for the J.J. Giltinan Trophy, coming up in February 1939. After a dispute-ridden series, the New Zealand 18 Manu won the title, with Jeanette second. Chuck was busy sailing 14-footers at this time (see Sidebar) but the glamour of the Aussie contest attracted him greatly.

Marie Dawn (V3) was almost complete when war broke out in September 1939. Chuck did the finishing work and had her in the water by November. With such a skipper and such a pedigree there was no doubt that Chuck would win all the races he entered – 14 prizes in 15 starts. He clearly had in mind a scoop in defending the Giltinan Trophy against the Aussies in 1940, but Hitler put paid to that. Probably because Chuck decided that Jeanette was as good a boat, he bought her and sold Marie Dawn to George Lepper of Northcote in 1943. Jeanette carried on winning the MYC Championship Cup for Chuck in 1947 and 1948.

From here on the Augers’ boat ownership becomes blurred as Chuck’s eldest son Richard Henry Auger Jr crewed with him and probably shared ownership. The final two yachts in this category were Shirlene (T76), a Jack Brooke-designed 14-footer owned between 1943 and 1946, followed by Escapade (S10), the crack 16-footer built by Trot Willetts in 1939, winning the MYC Championship Cup in 1951.

Arawa

Chuck was a legend on the Manukau. Trevor Canute, the current MYC Commodore, says that one of the older members tells the tale of how Chuck would arrive at the annual prizegiving, collect his many trophies, put them in a sugar sack then heave it over his shoulder to catch the tram home. BNZ

CHUCK’S SANDERS CUP INTERLUDE

The glamour 14ft class in New Zealand was the One Design or Jellicoe Class which was contested between provinces for the Sanders Cup annually since 1921. It was responsible for an outburst of fervour for centreboard racing throughout the length of New Zealand in which Auckland was frequently the also-ran.

The provincial yacht associations held selection trials every year to select a competitor for the event, held in rotation around the country in January. For 1936 the Auckland trials resulted in a win for Aileen, built by Percy Vos in December 1932 for Ray Clare. She was skippered by Trot Willetts in the 1936 Sanders Cup race at Auckland, but the contest went to Avenger of Canterbury, sailed by Elliot Sinclair. In 1937 Aileen was beaten in the Auckland trials by Endeavour built by Billy Rogers for Warwick Parkes and sailed by Doug Rogers at the contest in Lyttelton. Lavina of Wellington won.

Centreboard racing on the Manukau 1935. Cupid in the foreground.

In late 1937 Owen Cronin of Onehunga bought Aileen and put her in the Auckland trials for the 1938 contest against Parkes’ Endeavour and the veteran Iron Duke sailed by C. Dunsford. Cronin appointed Chuck Auger as skipper. Aileen won the trials in a fine display of sailing from Chuck. For the contest at Dunedin, however, the Manukau team decided on a heavy crew to counter expected strong winds. As a result, Aileen made a poor showing against the southern boats, especially Kitty from Wellington sailed by Nigel Blair, which won convincingly.

For the 1939 Auckland trials, Cronin entered Aileen again, this time skippered by W. J. Potter, while Chuck Auger skippered the ex-Wellington representative Clyde, built by Ted Bailey in 1928 and now owned by Claude Pickering of Onehunga. In his crew Chuck had his son R.H. Auger Jr as for’ard hand. The competition was the new boat Marjorie, built by J. Ewen for Warwick Parkes, Aileen and Endeavour plus the ex-Otago and Paremata Kia Ora, sailed by W.T. Matthews. Marjorie was selected but, again, the southern boats prevailed with a win to Huia of Canterbury. It was not until the Centenary 1940 contest held at Wellington that Auckland turned the tide with a win for Billy Rogers’ Caress.

Sea Gnome
Escapade

Boy Wells and Florence Part II

In last month’s issue Ian Wells had arrived at the point where his halfbrother Boy Wells of Whitianga was contemplating removing the concrete ballast keel from his 33ft keel yacht Florence and replacing it with lead to stiffen her up. He had retained the ton-and-a-half of lead from the family’s old gaff cutter Alice, broken up in the 1940s, but needed a lot more.

Ian continues, “The opportunity came in the late 50s. A yacht named Iona had been driven ashore and completely wrecked on most inhospitable rocks at the foot of a 60-foot cliff in Mouse Bay, on the western side of Great Mercury Island. Iona broke up and disappeared completely. I understand from his son Renn that Boy was anchored in Mercury Cove, honeymooning with his new bride Kath, when the grounding happened, and that he ferried the crew back to Whitianga.

When Boy decided to look into finding the lead, he did a search with facemask and snorkel over the transom of the dinghy (the Florence crayfishing technique) at the site pinpointed with the help of the genial Pat Mizzen, the island’s resident farmer. At low water he sighted the lead keel. Boy then negotiated with the insurers and for the sum of £5 he became the owner of this underwater treasure. It became the target for the next Christmas cruise…

Boy Wells.

The recovery was to face huge challenges, and this was where Boy’s immense practicality was displayed. How to cut the lead into manageable pieces was not the least of the challenges, and Boy travelled over the peninsula to Prices Foundry at Thames for advice. The foundry made him steel cold-chisel-like wedge implements equipped with handles, known in the art of blacksmithing as ‘sets’. Armed with a ten-pound sledgehammer and some brave volunteers to hold the implements in position, Boy was in business.

The plan was to drag the keel shoreward and cut the lead into manageable chunks as it emerged into shallower water. There was no anchor point for heaving tackle nearby, so Boy ran a long wire rope cable right up the cliff, over the spur, and attached it to a good-sized pohutukawa tree on the shoreline of the next coastal indentation. On the business end of the cable, he had an endless chain, secured to the keel – initially with a wire strop, later a cradle of chains, as the recovery progressed.

Iona.

It worked! Boy, a well-practised axeman after years of cutting and splitting puriri fence posts, removed the keel timbers with an axe as it reached shallow water. Then work began on the lead. The team soon got the hang of the cutting technology. The pieces of lead were loaded into the dinghy (kept off the rocks with some difficulty by an anxious oarsman) and ferried out to the anchored Florence. Each evening or morning, depending on the tide, the harvest of huge lumps of lead was unloaded onto the jetty in Mercury Cove. Amazingly, Boy swung that bloody great hammer all day – every day!

Florence had been generously provisioned for the trip, because Boy realised it would be hard work and that everyone would get hungry. But… that tucker ran out on the third day! Young Philip, then nine years old, was relieved of all other duties and designated ‘Principal Hunter and Forager’. He spent each day fishing, gathering crayfish, mussels and paua, mushrooms and anything else he could find. He reports that everyone was fed well, but we can’t confirm that!

Howard Pascoe (second from left) at his yard in Whitianga.

Lady Jocelyn, the regular supply vessel for Whitianga, was unable to keep up with the Christmas holidaymaker rush on the local grocers that season and so was helped out by the Auckland scow Success. It was Success that called into Mercury Cove en route to Whitianga with supplies for the farm, and Success picked up the lead, ferrying it to Whitianga.

And there it was – job done! Together with the contribution from Alice, there was more than enough lead for the Florence job. The only real cost was damage to one dinghy, swept onto the rocks by a rogue roller while being loaded, despite the best efforts of the oarsman.

The next part of the story is the pouring of Florence’s new keel. Howard Pascoe, the Whitianga boatbuilder, made the mould. Boy buried it in the sandhill in front of the farm homestead, ready for the big pour.

Iona’s keel is coming up.

Boy had read Johnny Wray’s account of pouring the keel for Ngataki. He set up a sturdy steel frame carrying 44-gallon drums, plumbed with brass stopcocks. He noted that Wray found that he needed a “very hot” fire. So, the lead pieces were put in the drums and the mother of all fires was lit. Shelterbelt logs, home firewood, the neighbour’s picket fence and whatever else came to hand went into it. The idea was to simply run the molten metal off into the mould.

But it wasn’t that simple… the brass stopcocks melted and the lead ran out and solidified as a thin layer of toxic groundcover! “Great balls of fire!” was one of Boy’s favourite expletives, and it must have rung out loud and clear just then!

The second try, with all-steel plumbing, worked though, and the keel was poured successfully. It was suspended behind the local tow-truck (with its front wheels touching ground almost frequently enough to maintain steering) and taken under cover of darkness to Howard Pascoe’s premises in Whitianga village! And Florence became a ‘new’ boat! BNZ

The keel has been secured with chains.

FLORENCE’S LEAD

Of all the components of a keel yacht, its lead is most eminently indestructible, valuable and recyclable. The provenance of most lead is unknowable, but Florence’s lead has a remarkable history. The oldest component is the part that came from the keel of Alice which I described last month as having been built by Robert Logan Sr in 1887 – probably at least a ton and a half.

The second component was the 32cwt of lead from the yacht Iona.

She was wrecked on Great Mercury Island in the early 1950s when owned by Jim Parker of Tauranga. She was a substantial French carvel construction 33ft keel yacht, built in Dunedin for George Currie as Annis in 1904 by Jack M’Lellan to a ‘fast cruiser’ design by Bailey & Lowe.

Annis was raced in Dunedin extensively then sold to Lyttelton in 1922. J. Waddell later bought her, renamed her Iona and shipped her north when he shifted to Auckland in 1927. She was allotted the sail number C10. She became wellknown for winning a challenge race against the crack 26ft mullet boat Celox and her entry in offshore races like the 1936 Balokovic Cup, which she won.

So, Florence’s lead keel has a clear, astonishing and unique provenance.

A hammer and wedge is used to cut away the lead.

POSTSCRIPT

Boy lost a brief but fierce battle with a very malignant cancer in 1966 – at the age of just 57. The will bequeathed Florence equally to the three boys, Renn, Philip, and John – the product of the second marriage and at that time still a child.

At the age of just 25, Renn suddenly now had full responsibility for the farm, plus his young family to keep him busy. He had little time for sailing! Philip had left home and travelled overseas to work as a professional diver, and John was just nine years old. So, Florence had little use – or attention – for some years. As John reached maturity the boys talked of what to do about Florence, the upshot being that in 1978 John bought out the elder boys to become her sole owner.

John brought her home to the farm, put her in a temporary shed and went to work on her. He replaced the rotting cabin sides and replaced some of the brass screws securing the hull planking – those on one side were in original condition but some of those on the other had terminal corrosion (they must have been a faulty post-war batch!) He built an interior from a couple of white manuka logs that he acquired and had milled, and he fitted sullage and water tanks in the bilges.

He had created his home!

Boy chopping away at the remains of the timber keelson to expose Iona’s precious lead.

He sailed her northwards toward the sun, settling down in the Bay of Islands and living on board for many months. In time he followed the winter maritime path well worn by so many Kiwi yachties, cruising Florence to the Pacific Islands. She behaved impeccably!

He undertook a major refit in 1991 that included strengthening the top of the mast so that he could rig her as a masthead sloop – as shown in the original sailplan he found. John says that she sails much better than with the three-quarter rig as built. He is currently working on another major hull refit, replacing some strakes and framing timbers. The deck beams, in particular, have suffered with age – curiously the deck was originally fastened with galvanised steel screws!

When the hull is rebuilt to his satisfaction, John plans to give her a protective fibreglass skin and an underwater layer of epoxy copper antifouling. He says that when that is done, she will be set to give another 50 years of pleasure. He is clearly a caring owner and very conscious of heritage values.

What a great outcome!


Re-ballasting Florence

Ian Wells of Wellington Point, Queensland, a former Kiwi, has sent this great tale to the Editor. It is too good to merely paraphrase, so here it is, pretty much as Ian sent it to us.

My grandfather, Charles Wells, was a postmaster who served in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Amongst his postings were Rawene on the Hokianga in the sailing ship kauri timber trade days, at Silverdale, when it as just a tiny hamlet on the Wade River, and finally at Whitianga, at the heights of the Coromandel gold days and the growing Coromandel kauri timber industry.

Father, Boy, his second wife Kath, and her mother Mrs Humphries

My father, Norman Wells. born in  December 1886, had learned a great deal about sail and small boats as a boy in his Hokianga days. Some nautical terminology stayed with him lifelong; he always 'pulled' a dinghy, a launch was pronounced "larnch" and a trip to the toilet was taken in order to 'pump ship’. He taught me how pull a dinghy and how to sail my P class and Zeddie to windward – especially in lighter airs, and he taught me well.

Soon after the family moved to Whitianga, Norman had an opportunity to buy some 300 acres of potential farmland backing Buffalo Beach some five or six kilometres from Whitianga village, and he did so, settling on the block in 1908. He was still a youngster, but he made a great success of it. He married – as one did! His bride, Virginia Lowe, came of burly whaling stock (oddly she had a strong puritanical streak) and they had five children: four girls and a boy who was also named Norman but was known lifelong as “Boy”.

Log rafts being prepared at Whitianga. S.S. Stella ready to make the tow to Auckland 1911.

Boy was big and strong – he grew to about six-foot-four (almost a foot taller than Father) – and was powerfully built. He had a vast practical knowledge, even though just a year or so at Mt Albert Grammar as a School House boy convinced him that academia was not for him.

By then the Coromandel gold activity was winding down and the kauri was king. A. H. Reed in his excellent book The Story of the Kauri sets out some of the incredible technology those timber-getters used before the advent of machinery in moving logs to watercourses and tricked them with ‘driving dams’ into floating down to the sea. Whitianga had a very big hinterland of mountainous kauri country and, although it had a very busy mill, many more Whitianga logs were rafted up and towed to Auckland for milling at the Kauri Timber Company mill in Customs Street East. I believe that the late Johnny Wray built his famous yacht Ngataki from a raft breakaway kauri log that he found and ‘rescued’ from a beach on an island in the Hauraki Gulf.

The Du Brie engine.
The Kauri Timber Co mill on the Auckland waterfront

Although, to my knowledge, Boy never actually worked alongside the timber-getters, he somehow acquired their amazing skills in rigging and the use of blocks and tackle. He was more than handy with a timber jack too. These skills stood him in great stead as a farmer in those pre-farm tractor days. Before hay-bailing machinery, he felled a tall pine tree from the shelterbelt each summer to become the mast with derrick, erected serially in several paddocks for haystack building. A very compliant old draught horse named ‘Pepper’ would walk backwards and forwards all day, every day, during haymaking time, pulling the loaded hay grab into the air, to be swung on the derrick into position and released on the growing haystack. These rigging skills and the gear used for that haymaking exercise were to be critical to the salvage project described later.

My father had an entrepreneurial bent. While running the farm he realised that catering to some of the needs of the bush workforce and the local mill workers had potential. He built a slaughterhouse on the farm and opened a retail butchery in the village and later a motor garage too. In later life he claimed to me that he knew “every nut and bolt on a Model T Ford!”

The KTC mill at Whitianga

This story really begins in the bad years of the Great Depression, when my father acquired an ageing small keeler from a local professional fisherman who had been swamped by debt. The boat was Alice, a gaff-rigged cutter of some 28 feet, which the family used for pleasure cruising in Mercury Bay and its wonderful environs. Later in that 30s decade, the marriage broke up and my father moved from the Coromandel, leaving Boy with Alice and to run the farm and the local businesses, which he did with great skill.

At the onset of World War 2, Boy hauled Alice up while he coped with farm labour shortages and his new commitments to the Home Guard. Sadly, post-war, Alice was found to have terminal dry rot. She was broken up and ignominiously fuelled the cooking range in the farm homestead. But her lead was kept safe ‘for a rainy day.’

Boy Wells in full Home Guard gear jumping the back fence.

In 1951 Boy succumbed to the urge to have another boat. He bought Florence, F65, a smart, recently completed short-ender. The Williams brothers had built her for themselves in Auckland and kept her on the Tamaki River. She was a comfortable boat in the spartan style of the day, and had the extraordinary luxury of an auxiliary engine, a lovely little magneto-fired Austin 7 that started on the first turn of the crank handle. Florence had no head (“complicated, dangerous, smelly things”), no electricity, no radio (we couldn’t tune into the legendary Port Charles marine radio broadcasts), and no refrigeration. Cooking was done on a Primus, but yes, it would handle a crayfish!

I had some great sails in Florence with Boy and his sons, and we would cruise the Mercury Islands and anchor up in Mercury Cove every Christmas time. But Florence was a little tender and laboured in good working breezes. There was an obvious reason for this. Built in the age of post-war scarcities her ballast keel was of concrete, not lead, and she had pig iron ballast inside the hull under the cabin floors. Boy wanted to give her a lead keel to have a stiffer boat that could handle a breeze and perhaps even sport a genoa and was looking for more cabin headroom by getting rid of the pig iron. BNZ

Alice in Wells ownership.

ALICE

Alice was designed by J.G. Trevithick NIMA, the Technical Master at Auckland Grammar School, for Charles Beavan of Calliope Road Devonport and built by Robert Logan Sr in December 1887 at his yard at the foot of Anne Street, Devonport in his customary ‘lifeboat’ triple- diagonal strip layered planking. Her dimensions were 28ft loa, 22ft lwl, 6ft 8in beam and 4ft draught and she was rigged as a gaff cutter. She was always copper sheathed in her early years.

Alice spent many years on the Waitemata, racing and cruising with the Auckland Yacht Club under Beavan’s ownership. The crack open sailing boat skipper Barlow Madigan was her normal race helmsman. When Beavan died in March 1898 Logan Bros hauled her out in their yard. In 1900 George Stewart bought her and raced her with Ponsonby Cruising Club, usually sailed by Tom Payne. She later passed into the hands of Stewart’s brother Sam who cut down her rig to sail her single-handed. He sold her in 1919 to H. C. V. Shearman. In March 1921 Shearman advertised her sale in excellent condition, “Moored Mechanics Bay; 1½ tons lead; price £100.” She was sold to “two bluewater sailors who have gone North in an extended cruise.” In late 1922 her 1914 wartime sail number of 68 was replaced with the Auckland Provincial Yacht Association alpha-numeric number E3 and she was owned by a Mr. Tangye.

There is little mention of her after this. In February 1926 there was a piece in the New Zealand Herald saying she was now owned in Mangonui and was hauled up in Freeman’s Bay having a 5hp Du Brie auxiliary engine fitted. The Du Brie was a single cylinder American engine using the piston and connecting rod of a Model T Ford. In 1927 and in 1928 she was for sale in the Auckland papers with perfect gear and a “new marine engine”. From here Alice was bought for fishing, like so many old warriors from her yachting past. She gravitated to Whitianga and the ownership of the Wells family. Boy Wells was a founder member of the Mercury Bay Boating Club with Alice in 1946 in company with Ben Bendall’s 28ft ketch Mangawai, but the years on the hard had proved too much for Alice.

Florence

FLORENCE

Florence was built by the Williams brothers at Panmure in 1949 to a design by H. E. (Eric) Cox of Christchurch, a very popular designer in New Zealand at the time. Her dimensions were 32ft loa, 26ft lwl, 8ft beam and 5ft draught. The most common car engine installation in yachts of this time was the 1172cc side-valve Ford 10 which was durable, easy to maintain and gave a very healthy 30bhp.

The 747cc Austin 7 engine in Florence was another typical installation of a cheap car engine. The Austin was smaller, lighter and produced a useful 17bhp. Its Achilles heel was its aluminium alloy crankcase which corroded rapidly if the owner did not take care to prevent it becoming part of an electrolytic cell.