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From The Drawing Board
by John Welsford

The Best Day Out in a Long Time
The 2005 Mahurangi Regatta
All photos from John Welsford - click thumbnails for larger version

Mahurangi is, for those who don’t know it, a wonderfully scenic estuary a bit up the coast from Auckland, New Zealand. Far enough away from the city to be mostly farmland, and well sheltered in most conditions.

I recall sailing there in the 60s, the old Sun, a George Honour designed V Class (18 ft on deck) Mullet boat, hard chined, centreboard, gaff rigged and almost half as wide as she was long was our boat. Skipper Adrian Ford was an apprentice sailmaker and we had a wardrobe of recut second hand sails that covered everything from staysails through ringtails, watersails and topsails but we could not afford an outboard.

One summer it blew like stink from the east for a month, making it almost impossible to get out past Slipper Island across the estuaries mouth and we spent that month just sitting at anchor, sailing the 10 miles up to Warkworth to resupply and sailing back, sleeping in the afternoon shade on sheltered beaches and making friends with some of the girls holidaying there.


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The George Honour designed and built the hard chined Vee class Mullett boat “Sun”. It’s a long time since I was sailing her and she’s had a really well done rebuild lately, nice and original, not overdone as these were not expensive boats. Note how wide these boats are!

This year I drove up and stayed with Lloyd Houghton, he of the scaled down Joansa rowing boat and the thousand kilometres under oars in one year. Lloyd lives not far short of Mahurangi, and in fact can almost see the estuary entrance across the bay from home, and we took “Alice” (the boat) up for a spin.

It was a good season for wind this year, and that weekend was no exception. When we got to the road into the beach where the Mahurangi Regatta is normally held there was a crew awaiting at the intersection to tell us that the event was to be based across the river at Scotts Landing as the conditions on the beach were very poor.

Lloyd Houghton at the oars on our way across to Scotts landing where the days events were to be held. Lots and lots of bigger boats anchored in the lee of the bay.
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So, we drove down there anyway, the parking at Scotts is tight, and with a crowd its impossible, someone told us that there were buses running from the shopping center a mile or two away, but you can't take a 14 ft rowboat on a bus.

While the water at O Sullivans bay was like the inside of a washing machine, the next bay around was more like it so we launched there and (with Lloyd at the oars) rowed across to the lovely bay next to Scotts where the small boat events were to be held.

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Lloyd out trying Seagull, its (counts on fingers) 14 years since I designed and built this boat, doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun.

Mahurangi can have up to 300 boats there on a good regatta weekend, and I figure that even with the lousy forecast and high winds there were 200 this year. Looking down from the top of the hill at the moorings is like seeing chocolate sprinkle on a big blue cake, just masses of boats, all kinds, but lots and lots and lots of classic and veteran boats. Lovely stuff, I have past years just spent the day putting around in a powerboat and taking photos.

A glimpse of the bay from on the hill above where we launched “Alice”. Wall to wall boats, most of them classics or veterans, most wooden and all wonderful.
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This time though, Paul Groom asked me to take the helm of Varuna (his Pathfinder) and skipper for the small craft race! Rusty,it’s a long time since I did any real racing. Mistakes? You bet but we still had a good time, new boat, untuned, controls set up for singlehanding, all the camping gear still aboard, so what, it was a great sail.

click to enlargeI didn’t mean to catch the back of this mans head, but it does convey the atmosphere on the beach at Scotts Landing, that’s Paul Grooms Pathfinder Varuna to the right waiting for me to take the helm ( thanks again Paul, good fun), a Light Dory partly obscured, Dave Perillos blue Navigator Jaunty ( follow his adventures at www.openboat.co.nz ) , and Craig Gordons Pathfinder Cavatina.

Varuna planes like a jet downwind, and smoked most of the boats around us once we got around the top mark, we won't mention that it was just as well she did as my tactical error cost us a lot going up wind, but we beat the two Vee class Mullett boats (including the old Sun, hi kiddo, shades of the past come back to haunt me!)

Dave Perillo in his Navigator, Jaunty, was rocketing around in the nasty stuff, his crew driving Jaunty while he stood up taking movies with a very expensive looking professional grade camera, a Selway Fisher 16 footer came out but did not make it around the first mark in the very brisk conditions and steep meter high seas, a group of guys in wetsuits with Mylar sails and imported Needlespar masts cleaned us out upwind, we chatted with other skippers as we surfed along going downwind, enjoyed the ride and then fell into a hole in the wind as we sailed behind a steep little island. It’s a place where local knowledge pays, it also pays to stay out of the way of the bigger boats, multihulls and 60 footers are a lot faster than we are on any point of sail and they are not too inclined to give us the right of way when racing even if they are supposed to.

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Dave Perillo after two days away sleeping on board Jaunty. Unshaven, unwashed, pouring freshly brewed coffee and feeling just great thank you very much.

But great, Varuna has potential, I do hope I get another try sometime, and watching the event from on the water is much more immediate than from on the beach. Back there Lloyd did not regain the rowing trophy that he has held in the past, but it was a good row. Someone is going to have to do some training to try and beat Howard Lush in his little tortured ply skiff, he’s almost got a stranglehold on the event.

Mahurangi is a really sociable event, all sorts of the country's yachting movers and shakers are to be found on the beach watching, and I was glad to catch up with a whole lot of them. We had fine food and a band playing, shady trees to sit under, a view across the beach to sparkling blue waters. When I am really old and doddery I’d like an armchair just “there” please.

An 18 ft Mullett boat, a descendant of the estuarine fishing boats of years ago, these beamy centreboard cabin yachts carry a huge amount of sail and are best sailed by young men with strong arms and hard heads.
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Wandering up and down the beach is great fun, the boats are worth a good look and I must say that the old Sun with a lot more years on than she had when I used to sail her was in much better condition as a now historic craft than we, two ragged teenagers, could keep her when she was only old and cheap.

There were 11 boats of my design there, among the forty or so small craft at the beach, its hard to tell you how much of a buzz that is, just inspirational to find so many of my “babies” out and about.

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Another shot of this lovely place, the fleet of boats anchored in the backgound is just the overflow from the area off the beach.

I really enjoyed having a chat with the builders and owners, all were having fun, and several performed well in the rowing races including my own original Seagull now in the hands of the Salmond Brothers taking out the two pair oar class for the umpteenth time in a row. Well done guys.

I came away seriously fired up, and got home with visions of a “trad” styled racing dinghy forming in my head for next year. Clinker built in lightweight ply, gaff rigged sloop with carbon fiber spars, self draining interior, full battened mainsail, twin rudders and all the go faster stuff.
Well, realistically I’ve a workshop and house to build, landscaping to do, two other boats to build that have to come first, and lots of design work on the books. But maybe for the following year?

Until then, its cruising in the Huffboat on the lake near here, and working at building us a place to live and work but gatherings like Mahurangi are what keep me sane.

Craig Gordons Pathfinder Cavatina close up, he’s done a really superb job of this, his first boatbuilding project. She’s gaff sloop rigged by the way and Pauls Varuna is a masthead sloop.
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A lovely A class gaff sloop up for the day, graceful and fast these old boats are fast enough to give the modern boats a very hard time.
Jaunty close in with the mizzen holding her head to wind enabling the coffee pot to stand up straight on the cooker. Varuna further out.
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Another shot of the beach from across the estuary, this was taken on our way out and more than half of the boats had headed off home. Just the best place to play with boats, will I be back next year? You bet!

All photos by John Welsford