Fair winds and following seas: The classic yacht gracing Auckland’s waters for nearly 90 years


Tawera’s crew readies the 1935 Logan-designed Bermuda-rigged sloop for the start of the 2022 Mahurangi Classic Yacht Race.

One of the world’s largest one-day regatta fleets sets sail every Auckland Anniversary Day. Among it, in a distinguished flotilla of classic boats, is a yacht that raced its first Anniversary Day regatta 87 years ago.

Words: Kate Coughlan  Photos: Tessa Chrisp

There was no instant love affair between seven-year-old Mike Mahoney and the ocean when he was pushed off to race in a P-class yacht by his older brother Eric at the Plimmerton Yacht Club in the 1970s.

Only a bribe of fish and chips kept the mutinous Mike on board.

Once the dread of cold water and capsize passed, Mike grew to love sailing and graduated to crewing as part of the Wellington keeler fleet on a yacht called Barnacle Bill, owned by the legendary sports and businessman Ron Jarden. In Wellington weather, racing Barnacle Bill was generally thrilling.

Helming Tawera, even in a race, isn’t arduous, as Christie Doolan proves with a glass of something chilled in hand.

“Ron, being Ron, was all about winning and went at it with all effort and little expertise. We used to smash that boat around Wellington Harbour, breaking stuff all the time,” says Mike, now an Aucklander of some 20-plus years and the owner for two decades of one of the country’s most admired classic yachts, Tawera.

“I don’t know why I like classic boats. I like classic buildings, and I like classic boats. I guess there’s a link. Why did I buy Tawera? An excellent question. My wife Tracy would probably like an answer.”

Mike Mahoney and regular crew member James Barr prepare to pull up the mainsail.

Tracy, who like Mike, grew up near Wellington but without the sailing family, knows exactly why Mike bought Tawera. “He’s drawn to anything old with classic lines,” she says. “Tawera isn’t his first classic boat. Before that, he owned another classic yacht, Helen, and he had a classic Daimler when we first met. He’s a man with a passion,” she says, “and a list — quite a long list — of boats that he’s owned over the years.”

Mike thinks he’s drawn to classic boats because of how they perform. “There’s a joy and purity in sailing these boats that is hard to explain. Perhaps it is being at one with nature, on the water, driven just by the wind? Out there in an 80-year-old boat, knowing that it will be good for another 80 years, is not an experience you have in modern plastic boats. It is funny how often Tawera will be moored in a bay next to a half-million-dollar Riveria or something, and people will drool over Tawera and ignore the modern boat.

The main saloon, restored by Mike and Tracy in 2002 with original teak and leather seating, is tall enough to accommodate Mike’s 1.94-centimetre frame without giving him a crick in the neck.

“[Tawera’s designer] Arch Logan was from Scotland, and at the time, the best yacht designers in the world were from Scotland. He designed by building a half model to get the lines right, then worked from that. No paper plans in those days. I think that’s why classic boats are aesthetically pleasing and sail as well as they look.”

A classic boat must have a classic decanter for the classic sailors’ tipple (rum, of course), and Tracy and Mike’s daughter Josephine Love gave them this beautiful wide-based Waterford crystal decanter. It is stable even if Tawera heels over in strong gusts. The photograph (above the decanter) is Tawera under sail in 1935.

Tawera was “fairly agricultural” when the Mahoneys bought it, requiring a stem-to-stern refit, including installing a new motor to ensure its safety and reliability. Mike and Tracy used to holiday regularly at their family bach in the Marlborough Sounds, which required Cook Strait crossings. Memories of a couple still raise hairs on Mike’s neck.

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“Once, I was by myself and going into Tory Channel on an incoming flood tide with a big wind following. I was doing 14 knots. That was hairy.”

The galley is kept very basic as the yacht is used mainly as a dayboat. “We only need a rudimentary galley, somewhere to make coffee, open wine and pour rum, and prepare a cold-cut lunch for the crew,” says Mike.

“Another time, we were going through Cook Strait in a big southerly, and a large wave dumped into the cockpit, and the poor girl waddled like a duck for five minutes until the water drained. If we’d copped another wave, we might have gone down. But, who knows? She’s survived 87 years so far.”

Mike and Tracy also enjoy being part of the classic yacht fraternity. “For me, much of the joy in sailing is the people, the friends you make,” says Mike. “They are people from all cross-sections of society, sharing a love of simple sailing; you wouldn’t know if someone has five bob or five million. It’s that kind of world.”

The Mahurangi Classic is a much-anticipated and enjoyed annual event, and sometimes Mike hasn’t a clue who will turn up as his crew. “We get the ones thrown out of the pub the night before,” he says. In the 2022 race, he was delighted to have on board some of his regulars — (from right) Christie, Thomas Pryor, Alexis Reeve, James Barr, James, Joe Lindsay (the trombone player from Fat Freddy’s Drop) and Nick Atkinson, (Supergroove’s sax player).

Tawera is a much-loved part of the Mahoney clan, which now includes another generation and nine grandchildren. But it isn’t an ideal family holiday boat. “It is okay with six berths, two heads and a shower so we can overnight on it, but we really use it to race and as a day-sailer.”

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Mike’s career in property development is now replaced by a new occupation he relishes even more. “Becoming a grandparent does carbon-date you a bit, but Tracy and I try to attend every school function, play and kindergarten show for each grandkid. It is part of life’s journey, and I just love it.”

No fancy wheel is needed for Tawera; the original bronze tiller still does the job.

In addition to Tawera, swinging happily on a mooring below Mike and Tracy’s Matakana home is another classic owned by the couple. Moerangi, a former fishing vessel (featured in NZ Life & Leisure, Jan/Feb 2016), was also designed by Arch Logan. She was launched in 1901 and is perfect for puttering around the harbour at eight knots with grandkids on board. “I love going down to the boat in the evening with one job in mind and creating six more while I am at it,” says Mike.

A SAILING BEAUTY

TAWERA 1935 LOGAN A18

Tawera, a racing keeler designed by Arch Logan and built by Colin Wild of Stanley Bay, was launched on 30 December 1935 as a 21st birthday gift for Scott Wilson (of the NZ Herald-owning Wilson & Horton family). Scott Wilson raced the yacht in the Auckland Anniversary Regatta in January 1936 and sailed it for many more decades.

Tawera’s construction is triple-skin kauri, and it was the last Logan-designed “big cutter” (50 foot on the deck line) and, to this day, is considered one of the finest examples of an A-class keeler of the pre-World War II era. Mike, who races Tawera regularly, says she is fantastic to race and still as competitive as any boat in the classic fleet.

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He is surprised at how little maintenance classic boats require. “Our rule is that if you do anything, do it well. That’s why there are 22 coats of varnish on the mast, for example. The systems are so simple — it’s not expensive like a Grand Prix yacht under pressure with terrific loadings. It’s just three skins of kauri held together with rivets and a mast. It’ll be good for another 100 years.”

FOR THE FUN OF IT

Auckland Anniversary Day Regatta

The country’s oldest sporting event was first held in September 1840, and it is now claimed as one of the largest single-day regattas in the world. In the early years, the racing included competitions between ship’s gigs, dinghies, whaleboats and waka as well as sailing and steam vessels. Some of the most exciting racing was between working vessels — fishing boats, centreboard mullet boats and scows.

Powerboats raced for the first time in 1903, and seaplanes in 1919. These days, there are races for waka, tugboats, dragon boats and radio-controlled (as well as conventional) yachts.

Races are held for the glory of winning.

Mahurangi Regatta

Ashore for the post-yacht race party at Scott’s Landing, Mahurangi Regional Park

One of the favourite events on the Auckland classic boat calendar is the annual Mahurangi Weekend, a combination of boating and land activities held on Auckland Anniversary Weekend. Alan Houghton, of the popular Waitemata Woodys website (waitematawoodys.com) says it is the biggest on-water wooden boat event down under. A fleet of beautiful classic boats of all kinds delights the shoreside crowd picnicking at Sullivan’s Bay in the Mahurangi Regional Park to enjoy the spectacle.

The picnicking crowd gathering at Sullivan’s Bay to watch the classic yacht race (getting underway opposite), which can reach up to 2000 people.

Often up to 90 yachts take part, with some arriving on Friday night sailing in the Devonport Yacht Club Night Race. The Mahurangi Yacht Club administers Saturday’s on-water activities, and the Friends of Mahurangi organizes the family-friendly on-land activities. They include competitions for everything from sandcastle building to tugs-of-war, three-legged races to egg and spoon races. An impressive sail-past parade of the classic boat fleet happens at 10.30am on Saturday, followed by various races. Expect a 12.30pm start for the premiere event, the Mahurangi Cup, in which the classic boat fleet sets out for a couple of circuits of Saddle Island, fighting it out for honour and glory. The regatta prize-giving happens at Scotts Landing that evening with a big-band barbecue party.

IN A CLASS OF THEIR OWN

What is a classic yacht? A classic is a boat designed and built before 1950 — yachts, launches, scows and dinghies. K classes constructed before the 1960s are included if made to the original 1940s design.

How many are there in New Zealand? The Classic Yacht Association (CYA) has 350 members, representing 200 boats.

What’s unique about the classic boat fleet? “Almost all the boats in the classic fleet were designed and built locally,” says a founder of the CYA, Chad Thompson of Auckland. “The unique longevity of kauri boats is a factor, as is the distance from Europe’s wars of 1914-1918 and 1937-1944, during which many old vessels were stripped of their valuable fittings and timbers. In New Zealand, our boats were laid up until their owners came back from war.”

Protected by law from export The Protected Objects Act (the previous Antiquities Act) protects artefacts such as Māori taonga, unique engineering objects and classic yachts from being sold abroad. Chad says it is reassuring that heritage yachts and boats are protected from being taken offshore permanently. If classic boats do leave Aotearoa waters, a large bond must be paid to ensure their return.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.

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