Phil Coveny: NBYC – 1981-1987 : The Club Gets a Home at Last!

Getting Hooked on the Sailing Life

What exactly is the attraction of  sailing, the elements  that lure people onto the water and can change lives?

Phil Coveny was just 8, growing up in Karori,  in  1950s’ Wellington, Often, Sunday afternoons meant a trip over the hill to the Paremata Inlet with extended family, and long afternoons, the adults sitting in his uncle’s boatshed, the kids in paradise.  Phil’s Dad, a Navy man during the War, lifted Phil into a row-boat one drizzly Sunday, dragged the boat down the launching ramp, pushed it off  and left him to it. No life jacket, no instructions, the most casual supervision. Three hours later, he returned.

“ I loved it, loved every second of it,” remembers Phil. “ The feeling of independence, the freedom, the feeling of being in charge. I just loved being on the water and I love it still to this day!”

Inevitable, then, that Phil soon joined the Sea Cadets in Petone, then moved on to the Heretaunga Boating Club whose nimble Idle Alongs and Zeddies and P class looked more fun than the clunky, slow Naval Whalers. He bought his first yacht, a Yachting World Cadet in 1961 and enlisted his brother as crew

Phil Joins the NBYC

In the 17 years  until he moved to Auckland in 1978, Phil graduated from apprentice to master sailor.  He moved from the Cadet to a P Class, but never got to like its  tendency to nose-dive. While still at school Phil built a NZ Moth, at the time very popular, then sailed a Cherub….. a three man X class and finally…… a Javelin which  replaced the X Class as the Sanders Cup Class. In his and his skipper’s  Javelin, Phil twice won the National Champs, at that time, as it had been  for many years, the premier small boat  two-handed sailing contest in New Zealand. 

Now married with three daughters, and working as a chemical engineer in Parnell,  Phil arrived in Auckland to settle in Coroglen Avenue, Birkenhead. He soon became a member of  the Tamaki Yacht Club, the centre for Javelin sailing in Auckland.

Oldest daughter, Jackie’s enthusiasm to learn sailing brought Phil to the Birkenhead Wharf  with his recently purchased glass Opti in 1981.

“ I just rocked up one day with Jackie, looking for somewhere local  for the girls to learn to sail. I remember getting a good welcome from Tony Barker. Can’t remember much else. The clubhouse was just a little shed with rudimentary facilities. There were  not many members and if you were a member, you were very likely to be on the committee.. I had the feeling that the club was struggling a bit in those days. There were a few Yachting World Herons, Optis and OK dinghies. I think the Idlealong fleet came later. We used to start races using a board stuck on the end of the wharf. Because of the lack of a real clubhouse, there were no social gatherings and the club activities were mainly based around the weekend racing.”


Big Changes!

A couple of years after he joined the NBYC, and now as  Commodore, Phil became a central figure in the acquisition of a large structure which was barged across the harbour  to become the magnificent clubhouse for the club and which changed the focus, direction and status of the club.

Word came to club members that Harry Julian, the Chairman of the Auckland Harbour Board, was prepared to sell what had been an amenities building of the AHB for $1 to the Club. The building was two storied with a lovely copper clad roof but in shabby condition. With the strong support of Anne Hartley, the then Mayor of Birkenhead and of Tony Barker the project took off.

Harry organised the floating crane to drop the structure onto the Birkenhead Wharf,  onto the foundations  that Phil played a large part in organising, designing a system to pump the sewage up the hill. No resource consent needed in those days!

The operation went smoothly enough, apart from the damage to the roof from the lifting strops. 

The dominating physical presence of the structure, though still basic in its interior fittings, with a ladder linking the two levels and a gravel floor, gave a huge boost to the club. New members flocked in. Phil as Commodore,  built up an excellent Committee to shoulder the load of renovating the new facilities.

This was a departure from prior committees, as Commodores had invariably shouldered too much load and wound up burnt out after three years. They would often go, never to be seen again. 

“ I was determined not to let this happen to me,” said Phil, “ and so was extremely grateful for my hardworking and capable Committee members. The influx of keen people was such that I even got to select people for the Committee on the basis of their particular strengths.’”

Phil recalls strong support from many members: Tony Barker, Keith Salmon, Peter Atkinson, Graham Lambert ( still sailing OKs, like Phil) Ted Berry, Roger Fenton, Paul Nield, Graham Thow, the late Tim Ridge……..

The Sailing Scene in 1980’s New Zealand

Yachting was very strong across the country at this time. In Auckland, the main clubs were: Tamaki where Phil sailed Javelins, Takapuna, Torbay, Glendowie, and Buckland Beach. Learn to Sail classes were  strongly supported by The New Zealand Yachting Federation and the influx of young sailors strengthened many clubs.

All the keeler clubs were very active, with large fleets participating in offshore races – to Fiji and to New Caledonia – and with keen participation in match racing. Chris Dickson was a top international competitor at this time.

“ I was involved in both offshore and match racing in those days. With a friend, Bryce Sommerville, we took part in many match racing contests in our Stewart 34.”

“ I also did many offshore miles, perhaps the most memorable were two voyages ( across the Atlantic, and then from Bora Bora to Samoa)  in a Birdsall 70’ But these were just two of many trips offshore in friends’ boats. “

Incidents to Remember from NBYC Days

“One thing I love about sailing is the people you meet. A couple of things stick in my mind. 

An unassuming guy and his wife were involved in the Club: he was clearly keen on sailing as he was building a big, solid keeler in his front yard. One day the Club was buzzing with questions. This guy, let’s call him ‘Lester’ had  finished his  keeler, launched it, left his wife and vanished. No-one would have suspected him of this. No-one in the Club ever saw him again.”

“ Then there was a story closer to home. Our youngest daughter, Helen, was learning to sail. Just nosing into the ramp, she was hit by a gust, froze up, and whacked into the transom of a fizz boat being hauled up onto a trailer. Crunch! The sturdy little Opti punched a hole right through the stern. The owner didn’t notice and drove up the ramp and up Hinemoa Street. I wonder what he said when he got home and had a look at the stern of his boat!”

Phil’s Sailing Life After NBYC

“ I left the Club around 1987, though I do recall bringing my 14’skiff down for a demo sail around 1990.”

“ I carried on sailing skiffs and keelboats until 2005, then solely in keelers until 2011 when I got back into sailing OK dinghies. And am still doing it, sailing from Wakatere enjoying close racing with many including Graham Lambert, an old NBYC friend from the 1980s.

“ I have had some great experiences sailing in World Contests – in France, Barbados, and at Warnemunde in the Baltic. The 2020 Champs in Sweden have been cancelled because of Covid 19 but I hope to go to Lake Garda, Italy , the El Dorado of dinghy sailors, for the 2021 Worlds.

“ I may not be quite as nimble as I was in my 20s and sail more conservatively, but have no trouble keeping up with the fleet especially in lighter breezes.

“ In February, 2019 I bought a 36’ Grand Banks style launch, heavy displacement ( 15 tons) and very comfortable. I look forward to years of voyages exploring the Hauraki Gulf in her.”

The Place of Sailing in my Life

“ Sailing has enriched my life and I intend to keep on sailing as long as I can. My love for the sea has never waned. I want to be close to the water, on it or under it. Yes, I enjoy scuba diving, too. 

“ I have met heaps of interesting people and have been lucky to have enjoyed many ‘no questions’ friendships with very supportive sailing friends.

“ Sailing has also given me the chance to visit exotic and fascinating places all over the world, places I am less likely to have visited if I had not been led there through sailing.


“ I am deeply grateful for all that sailing has brought me. I hope to have many more chances of challenging the wind and the waves. You can challenge the sea. You never tame it.”

Phil Coveny as told to Ted Berry

May 2020

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