Meet Ron Paterson – 80 years a sailor!
“I’ve sailed all my life,” said Ron as he settled into his seat in the Wharf cafe, his back to the window so he wouldn’t be distracted by the passing boats.
Ron, born 31 October 1931, grew up with his family in Arawa ( now Awanui) Street on Birkenhead Point where his Dad worked from home as a civil and structural engineer. Ron went to Northcote College , qualified as an architect and now lives in Island Bay just along the coast from Kauri Point.
“My memories of sailing in Little Shoal Bay pre-War are hazy. In fact the memories of anyone over 80 are likely to contain ‘alternative facts! I have, though, sailed all my life! “
“My Father, Neville, had a beautiful 18 foot launch designed and built by Bill Couldrey about 1936: he used it for picnicking and fishing round Motuihe and Rangitoto and at the top of the harbour. The Christmas cruise was to the Wade Estuary south of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula.”
“Bill Couldrey was at the time Auckland’s best boat designer and builder, operating from his yard on the city side of Northcote Point.”
From those early days, I remember:
….sailing on ‘Lady Sterling’ a 48’ schooner owned by my Grandfather.
….a couple of lads taking me on my first small boat sail across to Hall’s Beach and back to Needles Eye in a 14 footer.
…. Gaff riggers lined up on the water-line at Hall’s Beach. There used to be an ‘at-home’ day at Hall’s Beach in the 1930s – the fleet was mainly X’s, T’s and Y’s and maybe a Wakatere ( a Jack Brooke design). I am not sure if there was a Little Shoal Bay Yacht Club .
…..that most of the small yachts were clinker-built and gaff-rigged. Some were hard-chine with heavy Kauri planking, half-inch bottom and three-eighth sides.
… Rex Bailey’s 18’ V class ‘Tiderace’ was housed in Ernest Bailey’s shed at Hall’s Beach.’ Tiderace’ and the Couldrey design ‘Limerick’, both finely-built carvel racing boats with about 400 sq ft of sail, were designed to give the Sydney skiffs a go for their money in the years before the Second World War.”
World War Two
“The sailing scene changed dramatically at the end of 1939 when most of the young men were called up to serve in the armed forces. Sailing boats were stashed away in sheds or under houses ‘for the duration’.
The East Coast beaches were totally out of bounds with barbed wire entanglements from end to end. A boom of piles, with a gap in the middle and closed by submarine nets at night, stretched from North Head to Bastion Point. All private boats entering or exiting the Harbour had large identity numbers painted on their hulls and had to pass close by the navy picket boat.”
Ron’s Sailing Experiences During The War
“In 1942, my Father bought ‘Wren’, a Frostbite dinghy, built by Harry Wilkins of Birkenhead. My cousin, Margaret Paterson, had a Frostbite, too and with another cousin, Alan Taylor, owner of a Couldrey built sailing dinghy, we sailed endlessly in Little Shoal Bay, but never beyond the ferry track so that we were always within sight of our parents at home.
Dad, with myself as for’d hand, raced our Frostbite from 1943 to 1945, sailing to whichever club was holding races. A typical Frostbite fleet was four boats, though the Z class could muster greater numbers.
The trend then was for yachties to belong to several clubs and to sail to a club when it was running a race. A club subscription cost about two and sixpence and Dad was a member of 6 or 7 clubs. Each weekend we sailed, raced and sailed back home, the trip there and back (often as far as the Wakatere Boating Club at Narrowneck, the Tamaki Yacht Club at Orakei or the Point Chevalier Yacht Club) as much of an adventure as the race. We always took one oar and a rowlock and rowed many miles into the tide.”
After The War
“At the end of the war, ‘demobbed’ young men with money in their pockets returned to sailing in large numbers. Sailing boomed!
A Summer Saturday morning would see perhaps six or seven boats of different classes rigging up at the tide-line in Little Shoal Bay, ready to race to wherever races were being held.
Nearly all centreboarders were amateur built and you could hear the tap-tap of hammers on copper rivets echoing late into the evenings. Vs, Ms, Ts, Ys, Xs, Zs, Silver Ferns, Frostbites, Idle-alongs and Ps became large fleets. Zeddies had to be split into two divisions.”
Craft and Crew Post-war.
“All the small sailing boats at this time were comparatively heavy, many with steel centre-plates.There were few sites to haul out and beach trolleys were of limited use in the muddy bays of the harbour.
Hardly anyone had a boat trailer. Don Winstone drew an admiring crowd once, when he brought his Frostbite on a trailer to Wakatere one race day.
Most boats therefore lived at anchor on the mud or, like most 18 footers, afloat on a mooring.
Preparing a boat for racing involved bailing a week’s rainwater out and then tipping her onto her side in knee deep water with someone holding onto the top of the mast so that she floated on her side deck. The rest of the crew then scrubbed or wiped growth and muck off the bottom. She was ready to race!
Crews were a bit of an issue. Most classes had minimum and maximum crew numbers – Vs three to five, 14 footers 3-4 and small boats 2-3, the number sailing depending on the strength of the breeze.That meant that someone was left behind in fine weather, but was very much wanted in strong winds when cold salt spray continually doused the crew – particularly the ‘heavy weather man’ sitting up forw’d.”
Ron’s Sailing Experiences Post-war.
“In 1945, I took over the Frostbite from my Dad and raced her till 1948. About 1946 I was surprised to be beaten by a boat called ‘Kiatoa’ sailed by a man called Jack Brooke ( the designer of the Frostbite class). I last saw ‘Kiatoa’ in the Auckland Maritime Museum!
Frostbites had become based at the Wakatere Boating Club at Narrow Neck, somewhat of an arduous sail from the Needles Eye and back. So we sold the Frostbite and I took to crewing on various boats, mostly as forward hand on my cousin Margaret Paterson’s Silver Fern. A female skipper? Most unusual! She was a good skipper and could beat most of the boys at the Herne Bay Junior Yacht Club where we usually raced. Margaret later married famed designer, Jim Young. I sailed with him a couple of times on his Sanders Cup winning X class ‘White Heather’ and, occasionally, with Alan Taylor on his skimmer, ‘Onelua’ and on a number of other boats.”
”Jim Young had his boat-shed on the tide-line in Little Shoal Bay at the bottom of Awanui Street.”
Building a Tornado, 1949
“In 1949, the International Olympic Committee voted to change the two-man Olympic boat from the heavy old-fashioned Sharpie (in which Kiwis Mander and Cropp later won gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics) to a light, modern, plywood, Uffa Fox design.
The design was heavily promoted in sailing magazines and was a real drawcard to ambitious sailors. The fixed two-man crew was an extra attraction. Jim Young promoted the idea and and number of us built a Tornado, 18’ 3” loa, 5’ beam, with a steel rudder and a swivelling steel centreboard, hard chine, quarter inch ply and, so, much lighter than contemporary boats.
The Northcote and Birkenhead Yacht Club decided to sponsor the class,and, though I had reservations at the time, I became interested and so began my association with the NBYC. About 10 Tornados were built, 5 based in Little Shoal Bay. I built one, as did friends, Jim Young, Rex Bailey and Bill Herald.
Faults soon started to show. The sail area was too much for two men on a boat with such a narrow beam. The steel centre-plate and steel rudder were cumbersome.
European sailors were unhappy about sailing a hard chine boat. Virtually all European small craft were professionally built more easily and more cheaply in fibreglass or moulded ply.
A competition was held and the Flying Dutchman was the result. The Tornado faded away. They raced only about ten times
My boat was never beaten! Jim Young recently told me he was a bit miffed by that!!”
Sailing Centres in the Late 1940s
“Before construction started on the Auckland Harbour Bridge, ruining that part of the harbour for sailing, Westhaven was the undisputed centre of Auckland yachting with the Anniversary Day and all other big regattas being held in the area of where the bridge now stands, with races starting and finishing in front of that line of new creamy-yellow club buildings.
Little Shoal Bay was the handiest North Shore location and the summer Saturday tide-line became a busy scene of flapping sails. Class champions like Spot Riley’s 18 footer, ‘Limerick’ and Jim Young’s X class ‘White Heather’ were based in Little Shoal Bay. The names of the boats and the people who sailed them out of Little
Shoal Bay would form a very long list Those missed from such a list would be rightfully offended.”
“In those days, the winner of a National Contest was the person who was the first to win three races. Not so much emphasis on points per race as there is today.”
Others based in the bay round this time included Teddy Fitz and his ‘Swiftsure’. Ted sailed her on the bay for more than 40 years. (Ron watched the remains of ‘Swiftsure’ being chain-sawn to small pieces earlier in 2018), Girl Guides had a long rowing boat. Sea Scouts who rowed and sailed an old navy cutter were pitied by those who sailed real boats.”
Ron Learns Old Seamen’s Skills
“Captain Perc Eady and rigger, Charlie Maynard restored the old sailing coastal trader, ‘Clifton’, in the shelter of Needles Eye Cove, giving a number of us young jokers some of those old seamen’s skills – splicing an eye in heavy wire, splice, grease, parcel and serve, always accompanied by an appropriate little ditty as a memory aid. Other skills – how to ‘cat the anchor’ , house the topmast’ or the uses of ‘shenam’, tar, pitch, Stockholm tar, and tallow. Lots of technology now gone.The ‘Clifton’ was finally restored to sailing order and featured on at least one Anniversary Regatta day (with my old mate Alec Darroch perched right up at the top end of the mains’l gaff!)”
The Annual NBYC Regatta
“Once a year the NBYC would hold its regatta. One of the Aspden’s scows, possibly the ‘Ethel Wells’ would act as flagship anchored between Northcote Wharf and Rona Buoy to form one end of the start- finish line.
This event was the only occasion I remember the NBYC operating. At this time I was the Secretary and Jim Young the Commodore. We used to hold the club meetings in an old shop along Queen Street, Northcote.”
Sailing in the Fifties and Sixties
“ I sold the Tornado to a chap from New Plymouth after 3 or 4 years and my sailing was overtaken by compulsory military training which included an initial flying training course at Taieri Airforce Station near Dunedin, followed by frequent visits to Mangere for further compulsory military training flying Tiger Moths – lots of aerobatics, etc.
University, tramping, overseas travel and family dominated my life for some years and in 1959 I travelled to the UK. Until I came back in 1961, I did little or no sailing.
Ron’s Later Sailing Days
“ There are few classes of small boats that I haven’t sailed in over the years .
P class and Zeddies, IAs, Frostbites and Silver Ferns, T, X Y, and so on…. During my Northcote College years, I sailed a Silver Fern with the Dickson brothers, Roy and Frank who lived in Northcote.
“I raced, cruised and just sailed on centre-boarders and keelers too numerous to list by name.
I regularly crewed with Jim Young who had built a 45 footer only 7 feet across and it could go! ‘Fiery Cross’ it was called, a long, very skinny very speedy double ender. She was the first yacht in Auckland to be fitted with a canting keel though it was never brought up to proper working order. She was not allowed to race using it so there was no incentive to make it work. In later years, I crewed on Bill Herald’s ‘Nefertiti’, a beautiful , fast 41 foot sloop designed by Jim Young and raced very successfully by Bill.”
I sailed from several clubs, and was never based totally in one spot. I had little involvement with the Birkenhead Boating Club once it formed in 1954 because I had other interests.
Later, when my son came of sailing age in the late 1970s, I became more involved as he progressed with the Northcote and Birkenhead Yacht Club from Optimists to Starlings, sailing in the NBYC events on Little Shoal Bay and on Lake Pupuke.”
Ron moved from being an architect to working as an architect- planner and then a Planning Inspections Manager at the old Auckland City Council, including a stint in the Gulf Islands – a nice job for an old yachtsman..
Ron’s sailing these days?
It is very obvious, talking to Ron about sailing, watching him smile as the memories flood back, hearing the enthusiasm in his voice as he talks of tides and gales and sailing friends, just how important yachting has been to Ron. He’s of an age when he could graciously retire from active involvement in boats with sails. That’s not Ron. He now sails radio controlled yachts having been introduced to them by Bill Herald and Dave Moore, with a new group of sailing mates learning to master a new class of sailboats.
Racing model yachts does not involve one being dowsed with salt spray or facing the difficulty of setting big spinnakers on the heaving and pitching wet deck of a well-heeled big yacht.
Ron Paterson as told to Ted Berry and Keith Salmon. December, 2018.