In 1908 the editor of the American yachting magazine Rudder donated several trophies to yacht clubs around the world for offshore racing. Two came to New Zealand, one to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron and one to Otago Yacht Club.
The RNZYS decided to run a night race for motorboats on December 12, 1908, from the Auckland wharves, around Sail Rock and back, a distance of 108 nautical miles. It had the benefit of a full moon and a kind westerly.
The race was a huge success, with 14 entrants, of which 12 finished. It marked the coming of age of the motor launch as a serious, safe and efficient vessel. Line honours went to James Reid’s Seabird, but the handicap winner of the superb silver Rudder Cup was the Matheson brothers’ Maroro, itself a Rudder magazine design built by the Mathesons. Another entrant was the husky Bailey & Lowe double-ender Eliza which had engine troubles in the race.
Renamed Kumi, Eliza was subsequently owned for many years by the Whangarei Harbour Board. Kumi is now owned by veterinarian Haydon Afford who floated the idea to me of a centenary Rudder Cup rerun. I wrote two Boating NZ articles on the race. The vintage launch community became fired up with the idea; the Classic Yacht Association of NZ picked it up and organised it magnificently.
Boating NZ sponsored the race and there was great help from the RNZYS, the Coastguard and the Harbour Master. Steve Thomas, Seabird’s present owner, brought her up from Nelson for the race, with generous assistance from shipping, haulage and crane operators.
The race was just magic. 26 launches, two of them built in 1905, took part in a mass start off Westhaven at 1900 on Friday December 12, 2008. The Waitemata rocked with the wash of elderly hulls streaming towards North Head and then sweeping round into the Rangitoto Channel as daylight faded.
The relatively modern planing hulls soon cleared out. These hot ships were closely tailed by James Mobberley’s 36-footer Falcon, built by Lane Motor Boat Co for G.R. Chamberlin of Ponui in 1930. She was touching 17 knots as she thrummed through the night.
No one who took part will ever forget the thrill of approaching Sail Rock, standing sheer 455ft out of the sea, in the dark, just a gentle slop around its base, the rock echoing the roar of the engines. Kevin O’Sullivan, navigating Seabird, thrilled the fleet with his clipped, precise RT sked, “Coastguard, Coastguard, Seabird has rounded Sail Rock for the second time in a hundred years.” Skipper Steve Thomas says he felt builder James Reid’s presence with him.
Eliza/Kumi had engine problems again and there were other minor discomforts, but 26 old launches started and 25 finished. Tony Stevenson pulled Wild Duck out at Kawau for a refreshment break after some overheating and decided to stay once the top was off the rum bottle.
The prizegiving was another thrill. The extremely popular winner of the new Rudder Cup Trophy was the lovely 1918 Bailey & Lowe-built 45-footer Joan owned by Ray and Jill Russell. Seabird won the Veteran class, bettering her 1908 time by 90 minutes. Falcon romped in third overall, out-performing launches a fraction of her age in a magnificent performance.
That night the CYA rekindled the flame of launch racing, for so long a feature of Auckland sporting life, but which had died during the 1930s.
Ten years later, the CYA is running the race again, this December 14th. Entries are good, so look out for another mad spectacle at dusk on the Waitemata that night.