New Zealand Classic

The Mahurangi Cruising Club is rootless, informal, and devil-may-care, but every January, it runs a classic-yacht race that's a genuine sight to behold. "Passage Notes" from our December 2007 issue.

New Zealand Classic

White on white: Lin and Larry Pardey raced their Thelma this year in the Mahurangi Cup, a classic-yacht regatta sailed annually on the Hauraki Gulf, off New Zealand¿s North Island.Herb Mccormick

Sometimes, without the slightest bit of forethought or planning, you find yourself at the right place at the right time. I reckon that such serendipitous moments happen a lot to sailors, who by nature and inclination are often on the move and always open to new experiences. But it was a business trip totally unrelated to boats and the water that brought me to New Zealand last January, and the last thing I expected was to end up in the middle of one of the most picturesque and pleasurable sailing experiences of my entire life.

Before that trip, I'd never heard of the Mahurangi River, the Mahurangi Cruising Club, or the Mahurangi Cup, but when I dropped old friends Lin and Larry Pardey an e-mail saying that I was rolling through Auckland for a few days, I received an instant reply. "The annual Mahurangi Regatta is happening that weekend," wrote Lin. "Get yourself up to our place on Kawau Island and come for a sail."

"Well, heck," I thought to myself, "since she insists. . . ."

Of course, the Pardeys need little introduction. In the world of cruising, they've been just about everywhere and seen nearly everything, and their books, lectures, and videos have inspired countless sailors to chase the horizon. Years ago, they swapped their first boat, the 24-foot Seraffyn, for a piece of rough waterfront property on Kawau's North Cove, and in the intervening time they've built it into a proper little compound that's a waterman's oasis, complete with a dock, shop, house, and office. There's a barge out front, a pier-side grid for bottom jobs at low tide, and a couple of moorings; the cove itself is a snug, all-weather anchorage.

The Pardeys call this boatyard, for that's what it truly is, Mickey Mouse Marine. ("A 3M company" notes the sign out front.) When I stepped off the ferry from the mainland, the first thing I saw was Larry and his friend Craig Compton putting the final touches on a new wooden spinnaker pole for the gaff-rigged tops'l cutter Thelma.
Though the Pardeys still own and love their 29-foot Taleisin, which has taken them safely across countless ocean miles, the boat is currently on the hard awaiting new adventures in Northern California. Thelma, which they acquired in 2004, is their New Zealand boat, a tidy little ship with a storied pedigree that they use for coastal cruising and to sail in classic-yacht regattas. Larry has been racing sailboats since he was a kid back in British Columbia, and his competitive fires remain stoked: Once a racer, always a racer.

I've done a fair bit of racing myself, but nearly all of it on contemporary, fiberglass boats. Thelma was something altogether different. Designed and built by Kiwi legend C.W. Bailey of fine, local kauri wood, she measures 34 feet on deck, with a five-foot draft and a beam of seven feet six inches. "She was launched in time for the 1895 Anniversary Day regatta in Auckland, where she was built," says Lin. "She raced one race, won it, then was put on a steamer and shipped to Dunedin, on New Zealand's South Island, where she raced and cruised for the next 70 years."

As we sailed from Kawau toward the starting line off the Mahurangi Heads, Larry informed me that I'd be navigating and trimming the mainsail. I wasn't too daunted by the former assignment-the course, just a few miles long, was basically a simple windward/leeward with a hitch around low-slung Saddle Island-but the latter made my mouth dry. After all, Thelma's main boom measured a daunting 24 feet six inches, and my experience trimming gaff-rigged mains was, well, zippo.

Luckily, Lin knows Thelma like the back of her hand and offered plenty of encouragement. And our other two crewmembers, Craig and his wife, Kay, were fine sailors who'd also raced on Thelma before. As long as I followed everyone else's lead, I soon realized, I wouldn't get myself in too much trouble.

The Comptons met the Pardeys in the summer of 2005 while cruising their Bristol Channel Cutter, Little Wing-named for the Jimi Hendrix song-in British Columbia's Desolation Sound. Craig, a craftsman and builder, and Kay, an architect, were on a monthlong holiday, and the Pardeys, aboard Taleisin, were bound for an appearance at the Seattle Boat Show. One thing led to another, and after the show, the Pardeys docked their boat for nine months at the Comptons' dock by their shore-side home on Washington's Bainbridge Island. The couples became close friends, and Craig and Kay were sailing their second Mahurangi Regatta when I came aboard.

"You could say that Lin and Larry have become our sailing godparents," says Craig. "We've become reinspired by them. We bought Little Wing in 1996 with the goal of going cruising. But by 2005, our careers, land ownership, and lack of inspiration-or possibly faith in ourselves-seemed to slow down our dream. Meeting the Pardeys put the wind back in our sails. I think what Kay and I love most about them is how openly human they are, warts and all. They fight on the boat just like Kay and I do!"

Now the Comptons are once again on track to venture into the Pacific. They planned on setting out for the Marquesas in August aboard Little Wing "come hell or high water," as Craig put it. But that could wait. First, we had a boat race to sail.

The Mahurangi Regatta attracts classic yachts of every size and description. The timing is perfect, for many sailing-crazed Kiwis take off every Christmas for a month of cruising, and they make the late-January event an annual stop on their way home. What a sight it was to see the fleet, over a hundred strong, jockeying for position on the starting line. The light-air start made for extremely close quarters, but Larry nailed it perfectly, and Thelma quickly broke free, making tracks in clear air.

We sailed a heckuva race, if I do say so myself, easily outpacing the boats in our class. Thelma's tops'l was a huge advantage, as her spread of sail was ideal in winds that peaked at around 10 knots. With her low freeboard, we whooshed through water just inches away. The sun was high and hot, and all around us were scores of well-sailed yachts. The scene made for a visual, sensual treat. Too soon, in the last of a dying breeze, we crossed the finish line one very happy crew. A tot of rum all around was the ideal capper to it all.

The sailing was great, but equally fun was the post-race party and prize giving, where we met many of the sailors whose boats we'd admired earlier that day. Hugh Gladwell's Hermes was one that had really caught my eye. The 53-footer, which Hugh describes as "a heavy-displacement fin-keeler, with a long fin and a skeg-hung rudder," was built of French carvel construction in Auckland in 1975. The "modern classic" Bruce Clarke design draws seven feet eight inches, has a 14-foot beam, and displaces 21 tons. And I can testify that she's very well sailed.
Hugh, a lawyer, was actually one of the founders of the Mahurangi Cruising Club. "It was about 20 years ago," he says. "A bunch of sailors were sitting around a campfire in Kawau Bay. Everyone was complaining about stiff, formal yacht clubs. So we decided to form one for the disaffected people. There'd be no funds and no clubhouse. We'd own nothing. There'd be no formal procedures, at all. A club that could be wound up in five minutes." Of course, when the Mahurangi Regatta became the club's signature event, it had to reflect the same attitude, or lack thereof. "The organization is fairly shambolic," says Hugh. "If the results blow away, we make them up afterward. We get a few complaints, but most everyone's used to it."

Despite the regatta's laid-back aura-or perhaps because of it-it's been an unqualified success. There are plenty of shoreside activities for kids or those who'd rather watch the racing from afar. Then everyone gathers after for drinks and chow ashore. "Along with the Tall Ships race in the Bay of Islands, it's the largest one-day classic-yacht regatta in New Zealand," Hugh says. "Everyone likes the informal nature, and it's a wonderful venue. The harbor here is sheltered in all conditions. And we've never cancelled because of bad weather, even with gale-force winds."

John and Sandra Gorter, who sail the striking 52-footer Iorangi, concur on all counts. "We've been coming for 20 years," says John, an Auckland land surveyor by trade. "It's a very social regatta, and it's really taken on a life of its own. We've had some interesting times over the years with the various weather. But it's a lovely area. You can always find some shelter."

As living proof that the sailing world is a tiny one, the Gorters are former owners of the Pardeys' lovely Thelma, aboard which they used to take the family on all sorts of adventurous, if somewhat cramped, holiday cruises. They moved up to Iorangi about nine years ago. "She was built in 1901 for Alexander Turnbull," says John, invoking the name of a famous turn-of-the-century Wellington merchant who bequeathed his library to the nation; today, Wellington's Alexander Turnbull Library is also the National Library of New Zealand. "Around 1905, he got in a bit of strife," says John. "The boat or the library had to go. He sold the boat."

Clearly, Iorangi has a long, colorful history, but by the time the Gorters bought her, she'd seen better days. "She was in rough shape," says John. "Just afloat." But John and Sandra are skilled, handy sailors with a passion for classic boats-Sandra, a journalist, has just co-authored an interesting book called Ranger: The Making of a New Zealand Yachting Legend, about a famed Kiwi raceboat-and they've lovingly brought Iorangi back to Bristol form.

Iorangi was hardly the lone boat with an interesting past. Another engaging vessel that elicited more than its share of double takes was the long, lean (and light green!) double-ender Fiery Cross. Of course, there was a great story behind her. It was almost as good as the one about her skipper.

New Zealander Gary Underwood is a close pal of author and Cruising World editor at large Alvah Simon (who'd sailed his rugged steel cutter, Roger Henry, to the Mahurangi Regatta and was crewing aboard Fiery Cross). The pair met some 25 years ago in the Solomon Islands, when Alvah heard about a crazy dim-dim, or white man, building a cruising boat in what, Alvah says, "was supposed to be a bone-in-the-nose primitive village on Malaita island." The not-so-dim dim-dim was Gary, and the boat was a 40-foot Herreshoff ketch that became Alice Alakwe.

With his partner, Beryl Sampson, Gary sailed the engineless Alice around the world between 1982 and 1988. "She was a 40-foot leeboard ketch with a freestanding Phil Bolger rig," says Gary. "A very simple boat designed for a circumnavigation in the trade winds. There were no through-hulls, nothing down below at all. We didn't want to dig a hole through the Indian Ocean. She sat up on top of the waves and did very well."

An architect by training, Gary has designed dozens and dozens of fascinating boats. He's fond of skinny designs. "If you want a bigger boat, make it longer!" he says. "Long, lean boats are just so easy for ocean passages. They're less stressful than boats that push mountains of water around."

It's no surprise, then, that Gary was attracted to Fiery Cross, which he and Beryl purchased with a partner a couple of years ago. In his book Sensible Cruising Designs, L. Francis Herreshoff promulgated the concept of a slim, canting-keel, 45-foot cruiser as the "ultimate sailing machine." In 1957, Kiwi designer Jim Young built the boat out of kauri wood; with Herreshoff's permission, he made some slight alterations to the design. "He added a foot of beam, fortunately, expanding it from six feet to seven feet," says Gary. "It made her somewhat habitable down below."

Though Fiery Cross was New Zealand's first canting-keel raceboat, after only a couple of years the boat was given a fixed keel to comply with the racing rules of the time. Now, Gary and his partner are breathing new life into the old girl, one project at a time. "We've repowered the boat and added a feathering prop. This year, we're taking the rig out; she's got a 40-year-old alloy spar. We paid about what it costs to buy a jet-ski down here to buy her, so we don't mind spending a bit. We're getting her up to snuff a little at a time."

There were no doubt a hundred more tales to be heard, but the sun was setting and Alvah's good friend, Jack Daniel's, was beckoning aboard Roger Henry. As we rowed back through the scores of anchored boats, one thing was obvious: They may not have a clubhouse-and who knows if they got the scores right?-but when it comes to throwing one fine waterborne gathering, the Mahurangi Cruising Club sure does get it right.

Herb McCormick is a Cruising World editor at large.