In 1951 an ocean race was sailed from Wellington to Lyttelton as a celebration of the Canterbury centennial.
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Leaving Wellington on 23 January in bad conditions, growing worse by the hour, the twenty yachts faced a severe southerly gale, which saw most of the fleet withdraw. The Wellington cutter Astral was dismasted and the crew saved in a dramatic rescue about 60 miles from Lyttelton, while the Banks Peninsula Cruising Club cutter Husky and the Wellington cutter Argo were lost with all hands.
The loss of ten lives made this the worst disaster in New Zealand yachting history.
The winner, and only boat to finish, was the sloop Tawhiri, of Nelson, built in 1933. The news flashed across newspapers around the country: “Beating up Lyttelton Harbour in spectacular fashion at the end of a gruelling journey, the Nelson sloop Tawhiri was first over the finishing line at 6.55am today in the Centennial ocean race from Wellington to Lyttelton.”
The Nelson Harbour Board issued a letter of “high praise” to the crew, and authorised the harbourmaster to meet the Tawhiri on her return to Nelson several weeks later.
Almost sixty years later, Tawhiri is back in Nelson after an absence of several years. At the time of the Nelson Yacht Club’s 150th anniversary in 2007, a group of sailing enthusiasts formed a trust to raise funds to buy the yacht from its Oamaru owner. They aimed to bring it home to Nelson, manage its restoration and make it the centrepiece of a recreational sailing venture for the region’s young people.
Local businessman, Tom Sturgess, sped up the process by stepping in and buying the Tawhiri, with the intention of leasing it to the trust for $1 a year. The vessel was sailed home and spent the winter in a Rogers Street shed, courtesy of Port Nelson Limited.
At the time of the 1951 yacht race, Tawhiri was owned by the late Noel Brown, who was a member of the family that co-founded Nelson’s Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company. Noel’s widow Velma has returned some historic memorabilia from the yacht to the trust, including Mr Brown’s club commodore’s pennant, and two ceramic mugs bearing the Tawhiri pennant he had commissioned during World War 2 while stationed in Italy. Velma, plus the widows of crew members Peter Cooke and Charlie Paterson, and the daughter of John Evans have banded together to install a memorial plaque to the 1951 race that will be part of the yacht’s restoration.
Note: Article first published in rePort [Port Nelson Limited report], December 2008, p.11, drawing on information in Tracy Neal's Sailors of 41o South : stories from the Nelson Yacht club 1857-2007
Updated May 13, 2020
Sources used in this story
- Neal, T. (2007) Sailors of 41o South : stories from the Nelson Yacht club 1857-2007. Nelson, N.Z. : the Nelson Yacht Club.
- The Nelson Mail
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Further sources - The Tawhiri
Historic Tawhiri finally back home in Nelson (2008, April 28). Nelson Mail , p. 02.
Neal, T. (2008, March 15). Fifty years on, famous yacht may return to Nelson. Nelson Mail, p. 02.
Neal, T. (2008, April 9). Historic yacht is on its way back home. Nelson Mail, p. 01.
Neal, T. (2008, August 20). Old sailing friends back on deck. Nelson Mail, p. 05.
Neal, T. (2006). The Tawhiri story. Boating New Zealand, (239), 56-57.
Neal, T. (2008, August 13). Historic yacht in need of funds. Nelson Mail, p. 3
Nelson boat leading in ocean yacht race (1951, January 25) Nelson Mail, p. 4
Ocean yacht race begins (1951, January 23) Nelson Mail, p. 4
Ocean yacht race won by Nelson yacht (1951, January 26) Nelson Mail, p. 4
Yachts sighted (1951, January 24) Nelson Mail, p. 4
- Ministry for Culture and Heritage.(2014).Wellington-Lyttelton yacht race tragedy. https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/wellington-lyttelton-yacht-race-tragedy
Tawhiri comes home. (2008, December). RePort. p.12.