The Royal Akarana Yacht Club is one of New Zealand’s oldest yacht clubs and occupies a unique place in this country’s recreational sailing history. Throughout its 110 years it has been at the forefront of New Zealand yachting and particularly in its early years, had a huge influence over the way the sport developed in this country.
It began in 1895 at the North Shore Sailing Club over at Devonport, directly across the harbour from where the current clubhouse now stands. At the time, the only other yacht club on the Waitemata Harbour was the elitist Auckland Yacht Club (now the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron) and North Shore club was formed largely as a reaction to its exclusive membership policies.
The mixed bag of cruisers and open boats that North Shore put out were definitely not the sort of “yachts” that were encouraged at the AYC, as the Sporting and Dramatic Review of 21 November 1895 reported at the time “the boats are by no means flyers, but the fun will be there all the same.”
The clubs first commodore W.E. Bennett presented blue silk pennant embroidered with the letters “NSSC” for that first season’s racing. It was won by Wilkie Wilkinson’s fast mullet boat-type Hinemoa. This historic silk pennant, now 110 years old, hangs in the main lounge just above the bar.
As the club prospered and as sport grew in popularity, the mix of members and boats began to change. In 1898 along with a new club, the Parnell Sailing Club, North Shore promoted the Arch Logan designed 18ft 6in Restricted Patiki Class, which raced successfully for the next five or six years, and was New Zealand’s first properly established centreboard class. RAYC’s current class of vintage centre-boarders, the 18-foot M-class, are the direct descendents of this early “patiki” class.
That same year the club was deeply involved in New Zealand’s first major international sailing regatta, the Inter-colonial 1-Rater Championship, the feature event of the grandly titled North Shore Native Regatta, and won by club member Charles Bailey junior in his yacht Laurel, defeating six local boats, including Arch Logan’s Mercia and the two Australian entrants Bronzewing IV and Geisha.
In 1900 the club put its full support behind a new class of keel yacht, the 24-foot linear raters, built to the very latest international rating rule. Yachts were generally built as large as an owner could afford with very little attention to any rules or limitations. The 24-foot linear raters were a conscious attempt to create an affordable type that Club members of modest means could race and cruise the gulf. Six were built and along with the Restricted Patikis were the toast of the harbour providing the close racing deemed necessary for the sport to remain attractive, as well as being the only true yacht “classes” anywhere in New Zealand at that time. Several of these lovely linear raters, Matua, Miro, Bona, along with the two 26-foot linear raters, Janet and Queenie, are still sailing.
By 1901 there was a subtle shift in the club membership and at the 1901 AGM Charles Murdoch moved that the name of the club be changed to that of the North Shore Yacht Club on the grounds that there are now more “yachts” in the club than “sailing boats”.
Throughout all these changes, one person stood at the centre, W.A. “Wilkie” Wilkinson, who had been the prime mover in the formation of the club back in 1895 and had been its secretary ever since. The influx of moneyed yachtsmen into the club began to cause some friction. To the wealthy amateur, professionalism was abhorred and in the parlance of the day, anyone who made their living “on or from the sea” was a professional. This struck at seamen, sail makers, fishermen, boat builders, shipwrights, spar-makers, painters, dock workers, in fact, many of the foundation members fell into one or other of these categories. Several motions to ban “professionals” from the club were proposed and defeated, but the battle lines had been drawn.
At a very stormy 1905 AGM the entire executive of the North Shore Yacht Club, all the keel yacht owners, resigned en masse, went down the road to Bill Oliver’s shed and formed a new club, the Devonport Yacht Club.
Wilkinson and crack boat builder Charles Collings were all that were left at North Shore with any experience in running the club’s affairs. The club struggled that season and almost closed its doors but by the start of the 1905/06 season, Wilkinson was in place as Commodore and had the club cranked up and flying. Membership just grew and grew year after year and by the outbreak of war in 1914, the North Shore Yacht Club, driven relentlessly by Wilkinson, was far and away the biggest yacht club in New Zealand and ran up to nine and ten divisions on race day (including launch races).
Throughout all this Wilkinson, a printer by trade published a fabulous weekly newspaper, the New Zealand Yachtsman that ran for nine years from 1909 until 1918 covering news from all around New Zealand. The paper became a forum for discussion and development and was a huge influence in the way yachting and yacht clubs developed. Sadly, amid the paper shortages and deprivations of 1918, it bankrupted him. He closed his printing business, resigned his office at the club and went to work for the Auckland Star newspaper where he continued to expound on all things yachting under his famous by-line “Speedwell”, the name of his champion 24-foot linear rater that he had raced with the North Shore Sailing Club in back 1900.
The First World War pretty much stopped everything in its tracks. The club carried on throughout but others such as the RNZYS and Devonport Yacht Club went into recess. Devonport did not re-convene after the War, but in 1923 a new club was formed under the old burgee.
The quest for a suitable clubhouse site had occupied the AGM’s since the turn of the century and despite promises, nothing had been forthcoming. Finally, in 1922, a site was offered on the new reclamation at Mechanics Bay on the Parnell foreshore. At the AGM on September 29 1922, the club accepted the new site and shifted its operations to the southern shore and at the same time, approved a name change to that of Akarana Yacht Club, Akarana being a Maori translation of “Auckland”.
During the 1920’s the sport of yachting, particularly the small centreboard classes, boomed. Through his magazine and newspaper columns Wilkinson had championed the cause of the 14-foot One-Design, a type of cheap small racing yacht proposed by him and designed by Charles Bailey junior, with which to encourage young men into the sport. While there was a lot of sympathy for the concept not much happened until 1920 when the new governor, the war hero Admiral Lord Jellicoe, took and interest and bought one of the class for his own use, which he name Iron Duke (and today is on display in the National Maritime Museum in Auckland).
Suddenly everyone wanted to own a 14-foot One Design and the establishment of a national competition with a fine silver trophy, the Sanders Cup, put up by Auckland silversmiths Walker & Hall Ltd, the 14-foot One-Design, soon to be known as the X-class, really took off, becoming a national phenomenon and garnering more column inches in the daily papers than any other facet of yachting.
The X-class however, was not the only small centre boarder on the harbour, Akarana, and most other clubs also raced the 14-foot Square bilge Y-class, the 14-foot round bilge T-class, the 16-foot S-class, the cat-rigged 11ft 6in trainer Z-class, as well as the four restricted mullet boat classes, H, I, L and N.
In 1922, Akarana Yacht Club requested the establishment of the V-class for the growing numbers of square bilge 18-footers that were being built to designs by Club member George Honour, and these along with the new RNZYS restricted patikis, known as the M-class provided great racing for club members for the next two decades.
The vexing problems of a clubhouse however, dragged on and on, and with successive changes to harbour board and council committees, Akarana’s allotted clubhouse site moved, changed shape and occasionally vanished altogether from the various reclamation plans. Not until 1927 were the details finally hammered out and the clubhouse officially opened on November 21 1928, six years after they had taken that drastic step to move across the harbour.
The club now entered a period of consolidation where it strengthened its involvement with the harbour centreboard fleets, instituted outboard motor racing, and became heavily involved with the members of the NZ Division of the Royal Navy, based at Devonport. From 1930 onwards, a senior naval officer was always elected as the club vice-president.
Back in 1901 the Club had instituted its first Ocean Races, at the time little more than lengthy passage races but it had persevered and ran the early Auckland to Tauranga races through the mid 1920’s. With the establishment of the clubhouse, it now began to actively involve itself with visiting overseas yachtsmen. Each time a visiting yacht arrived in port, a flotilla of Club yachts and launches would be dispatched to meet the visitors outside Tiri and escort them into the harbour where they would be welcomed and made honorary members of the Club for the duration of their stay.
The goodwill this generated paid off handsomely. In 1931 the 130-foot schooner Northern Light arrived in Auckland. She was owned by renowned concert violinist Zlatko Balokovic who later gave concerts on the Auckland Town Hall. As an appreciation of the hospitality from Akarana, Madame Balokovic offered to present a cup for a 100 mile race, part of which must be sailed in the hours of darkness. This trophy, named the Balokovic Cup was first raced for in 1932 and is still the most prestigious event on the Club calendar.
In addition to its prominence among the centreboard fleets, Akarana had by now, assembled a hard core of dedicated blue water yachtsmen. In 1931 F.J. Bennell, the owner of the 42-foot Melbourne ketch Oimara challenged anyone in New Zealand to race him across the Tasman to Sydney. The challenge was accepted by Erling Tambs the Norwegian owner of the 40-foot cutter Teddy, at the time based in Auckland as a guest of the Akarana Yacht Club.
The Teddy was prepared for the race and crewed by members of Akarana. At the last minute, another club yacht the Rangi owned by W.A.E. Leonard, also entered the race. Akarana Yacht Club then put up a trophy, the Trans-Tasman Cup as a perpetual challenge trophy for pleasure yachts racing between Australia and New Zealand.
The race itself generated enormous publicity on both sides of the Tasman. Ocean cruising was hardly a commonplace activity at the time (it was dangerous); let alone an Ocean Race across the Tasman. Just under 14 days after she left Auckland Teddy crept across the finish line in Sydney to take line and handicap and become the inaugural winner of the Trans-Tasman Cup.
The success of the 1931 Trans-Tasman and the subsequent events established the Akarana Yacht club as the founder of blue water racing in New Zealand and the logical promoter of future off-shore Rangi, entered the first Trans-Tasman Race in 1931.
It had long been a cherished ambition to obtain a “Royal” prefix to the club’s name, and it was due to the clubs links with the Royal Navy, in particular with that of Lt. Commander Jack Lean RN, a strong supporter of the club, that the club applied for a Royal Warrant in July 1935. Following his return to England in 1937, he was appointed as Akarana’s representative to the Yacht Racing Association.
The royal warrant finally arrived in 1938. The most interesting point about the Royal Charter was the permission to deface the Blue Ensign with the naval, rather than the imperial crown. At the time, the only other club to be so honoured was the Royal Ocean Racing club in 1928. It would seem that the Club’s close relationship with the Navy and its commitment to blue-water racing, was recognised, and the honour granted accordingly
The Royal Akarana Yacht Club had arrived.
The first event under the Royal badge was the sponsoring of Billy Rogers’ crack 14-footer Vamp in the Australian 14-foot championships in Hobart being held as part of the Hobart sesqui-centennial celebrations.
Up against the best 14’s that Australia could muster, including the six-time champion Triad sailed by Bill Osborne, Vamp won two out of three races to win the Australian 14-foot Championship and become Royal Akarana, and New Zealand’s, first international yachting champion since Charles Bailey junior back in 1898.
The decade ended with probably the greatest display of yachting that Auckland had ever seen, when in 1939, six of the extraordinary Sydney 18-footers arrived to race the Auckland V and M class yachts for the world’s 18-footers Championship trophy. Every yacht club on the harbour entered at least one 18-footer, Royal Akarana entered two. The Club billeted the entire Australian team at the clubhouse, and provided a chef to cook meals and organised entertainments for the visitors.
The event itself was laden with controversy. Not only was the New Zealand favourite Jeanette disqualified after winning the second race that would have given her the title, but after the Australian favourite Taree had won the third and final race and clinched the title, a protest was lodged against her by the Akarana yacht Limerick alleging a breach of port and starboard just before the start gun.
Following a heated protest meeting at the RAYC clubrooms, Taree was disqualified and the Worlds 18-footers Championship trophy awarded to Gordon Chamberlin, sailing the little fancied M-class Manu for the Richmond Cruising Club. The enormity of those decisions paled into insignificance when the Australians, incensed by the disqualification of Taree, refused to hand over the trophy and took it back to Sydney with them. The parade up Queen Street and the Mayoral reception and prize-giving at the Town Hall was cancelled. Once back in Sydney, the owner of Taree still refused to hand the trophy back to his club and he and the boat were expelled.
World War II intervened the controversy vanished off the front pages. Finally in 1944 the trophy was returned but it was not until 1946, seven years after the event that the matter was resolved and the trophy handed over to the Manu crew.
During World War II the area surrounding the clubhouse was designated a defence area and access to the building was severely restricted but by 1945, access had been eased and the Club’s 50th anniversary was an unqualified success. More that 150 entrants were received for the days regatta with pride of place going to club founder Wilkie Wilkinson and his 42-foot cruising ketch Mandalay. Wilkinson had taken part in that very first race with the North Shore Sailing Club in 1895 in the Hinemoa. On board the Mandalay that day two other of Hinemoa’s crew, his brothers Alfred and Edwin Wilkinson.
The exact date of the club’s origin has been confirmed as 1895, of that there is now no question, but for many years the date of 1894 persisted as the club’s origin. Clive Power, RAYC committee member at the time, recalled that such was the argument waged at the time of the clubs 50th Anniversary that the committee compromised and gave an origin date of 1894, to appease one group, but held the Jubilee Regatta in 1945 to appease the others, hence the rather confusing dates on the Jubilee Programme.
In the winter of 1948 the whole Auckland yachting scene changed. For almost 30 years the centreboard fleet had operated on a “circuit” travelling to a different club each weekend. This was intended to maximise the revenues and to prevent clubs competing for yachts and splitting the fleet. Clubs only held races four or five times a season, but they would have the entire Waitemata fleet on their day.
Small boat sailing had boomed since the end of the war and with upwards of 200 boats each weekend at a single club, it was more than most administrators could cope with. The Auckland Yacht and Motor Boat Association, the governing body for Auckland yachting decided to split the racing between the Western Clubs (Ponsonby, Victoria, Richmond, Takapuna, Pt Chevalier) and the Eastern clubs, (Akarana, Tamaki, Kohimarama, Devonport, Wakatere) in the hope of easing the burden on club administrators.
Unfortunately it didn’t quite work our as planned. The bulk of the small boat fleet supported the Western clubs where the prize money was better and all those clubs in the Eastern division were hit by a sudden decline in revenues and several almost closed their doors.
Akarana was hit with a double blow. Not only did they lose the centreboard revenues, but the land that their clubhouse occupied was designated for expansion of the flying boat base and they were given notice to move. After some serious negotiation they accepted a prime site on the new Harbour Board reclamation at “Easthaven”, now known as Okahu Bay, and with the promise of £15.000 from the Harbour Board to finance a spanking new building, they vacated the Mechanics Bay site in July 1949 and sold the building.
As usual, red tape strangled the project. Without a home, Club members were forced to meet wherever they could and for a while Jim Lawlor’s fairmile Ngaroma became the unofficial clubhouse. The project foundered in a welter of changes to the plan, objections from the City Council and the refusal of the Ministry of Works to issue a building permit in variance of the original plans.
Finally, in June 1952, after the subject was raised in Parliament by the local MP, the project got the green light and at a special ceremony in October, Wilkie Wilkinson was asked to turn the first sod. Twelve months later, Royal Akarana Yacht Club held its 58th AGM in the new clubhouse.
During this time the club had yet again changed to survive. Royal Akarana entered the 1940’s primarily as a centreboard club, much like any other in Auckland at the time. By the end of the decade, it had all but re-invented itself, moving away from its heavy reliance on centreboard revenues and emerging from the chaos of the late 1940’s as a dedicated long-distance cruising/racing club with its primary emphasis on the husky short-end keelers and cruisers, many of which were being amateur built in back-yards all over Auckland.
The vast experience gained running Trans-Tasman races, Balokovic Cups and other long-distance races was put to good use. The formation of the Ocean Cruising division (OCD) in July 1951, followed by the inaugural White Island race that year strengthened the clubs influence in these areas.
The move to Okahu Bay, and a new building, coupled with the well publicised inshore and offshore distance race, brought a huge influx of new members (although being the only source of alcohol in a designated “dry” area did have its advantages too). For the next 40 years the Royal Akarana Yacht club would be confirmed as the “Blue Water Club”.
It did however have one last fling with centre-boarders. In the early 1950’s as this country made its first tentative moves towards international, as against merely trans-Tasman, yacht racing, a small group of yachtsmen had taken up the International 14, which at the time was on a short-list for inclusion in the Olympic games, and which was sponsored by Royal Akarana. Isolated as they were from mainstream yachting developments, the Akarana 14’s never really knew if they were competitive or not but an invitation to compete in a series of teams races against Canada and England and the “all-in” race for the impressive Prince of Wales Cup during Cowes Week in 1958 was sufficient incentive to embark on some frantic fund-raising to make the trip.
It’s a much longer story but suffice to say, to the amazement of the British, the kiwis came within an ace of capturing the teams event, and in the Prince of Wales cup race a few days later, Geoff Smale in Atua Hau, powered off the line into clear air and the rest of the 40-boat fleet never saw which way they went. She won by 6 minutes and 10 seconds, the biggest margin in the history of the Cup. To rub salt in the wounds, she won the ‘old boat’ prize as well.
The 14’s never made Olympic selection and most of the 14-foot sailors moved across en masse to the new Flying Dutchman class which had been selected for the 1960 Olympics.
Following on from the White Island race in 1951, the OCD then ran an Auckland to Whangaroa race in addition to a regular string of Trans-Tasman races, and in 1956 the first of many Auckland to Suva races. The Suva race was one of the clubs most popular races, attracting up to 70 entrants at times.
The OCD also sought to promote offshore cruising and promoted Akarana’s role in the movement, by the creation of the Blue Water Medal, to be awarded to the yacht making the most meritorious cruise to or from New Zealand in any year.
Its first recipient was Tony Armit owner of the 28-foot ketch Marco Polo that between 1954 and 1957 became the first New Zealand yacht to make a circumnavigation of the world. Marco Polo’s well-travelled and tattered RAYC burgee now hangs in the clubhouse.
The RAYC ocean races were supplemented by a string of long-distance coastal races that honed the skills needed for the longer ocean races but also had the added advantage of attracting a new breed of fast passage yachts into the club. In time the out-and out cruiser with shortened sail and anti-chafe “baggy-wrinkle” tied to its stays, gave way to a specialised breed of yacht that was equally at home in the ocean as it was charging around the inner gulf on a 130 miler.
The entry of Australia into the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s Admirals Cup in 1965 was the catalyst for a similar type of contest between Australia and New Zealand that became known as the Southern Cross Cup and once again was a training ground for New Zealand skippers and crew, as well as the proving ground for the up and coming designers such as Paul Whiting, Bruce Farr, Laurie Davidson and Ron Holland.
The story of RAYC’s role in these national and international offshore races over the next 20 years in Southern Cross, Pan-Am Clipper, and Kenwood cups is far too important to truncate it here and is best left to the comprehensive coverage in the clubs Centenary book “Home of Bluewater Sailing” (still available from the RAYC office). Suffice to say however that RAYC’s role in these events had a pivotal effect on the direction of this arm of the sport and the club can quite justifiably claim to have been a major influence in the success and recognition afforded to New Zealand yachtsmen abroad.
Akarana’s record in these competition is second to none but perhaps the jewel in the crown was the winning the Champagne Mumm Cup for the World Ocean Racing Championship in 1986.
Sadly, the cost of mounting such campaigns eventually became too onerous and the endless chore of fund-raising for yet another international regatta eventually took its toll, as did the continual rule changes and pressure for new boats on a regular basis place unreasonable demands on the pockets of yacht owners. RAYC’s last major offshore event was the 1988 Kenwood Cup, and while Club members would continue to participate as individuals, the mantle for off-shore racing passed to the RNZYS.
As Akarana withdrew from the international stage, the club began to change once more. The old guard moved on and the newer younger members, despite continual prodding from the older members who were still around, were not so interested in all that hairy-chested off-shore stuff.
The social changes, particularly those brought about by 7-day shopping and the changes brought about in modern family life where both parents often worked, encroached on the once sacrosanct “weekend”, and changed the way we did our sailing. The proliferation of small affordable cruisers, both power and sail, with all (or most) of the comforts of home put families out on the water where once it had been a predominantly male domain. Not all these newcomers made a successful entry into the world of sailing, but that aside, most of these newcomers didn’t bother with yacht clubs either, but just did their sailing or cruising as and when it pleased them with absolutely no need or inclination to follow race schedules or summer programmes.
Perhaps the biggest area of growth in the past decade or so has been the coastal cruising market which seems to have an almost evangelical following as the baby boomers give up their jobs and hit the water in the same way that their motoring equivalents, the “grey pilgrims”, follow the open road.
The club’s centenary in 1995 marked an end, as well as a beginning.
Today the great blue water keel yacht races are just part of a glorious past. In front of the clubhouse today you will find, Optimists, Cadets, 420’s, Flying Fifteens, sometimes a 49er, the odd M-class or two and the new International 18-foot Catamaran class. The fact that these are parked on the lawn in front of the club, an absolute no-no in days gone by, is perhaps an indication of how the club has changed,
It is perhaps ironic that today, in its 110th year and as they prepare to host the World Flying 15 Championships, that Royal Akarana Yacht Club has almost come full circle, having re-invented itself around the centre boarders and small boat fleets that it began with back in 1895.
All that is certain is that change will come again.
Okahu Bay in 1995.