Part 2: From Jellicoe to Rona

Following the presentation of the Sanders Cup early in 1921 by Walker & Hall Limited, `14-foot One-Design fever’ now raged in both Auckland and Dunedin as trials were held to decide who should represent their province for the inaugural championship of New Zealand. Yachting columns in the national newspapers, and particularly `Wilkie’ Wilkinson’s in the Auckland Star, were now given up almost entirely to the 14-foot class.

In Dunedin, trials between Heather, Squib, Valmai, Eunice and Gladys had resulted in Heather and Valmai being equal first after ten races. Valmai’s owner withdrew allowing Heather to be sent north. In Auckland, it was Lord Jellicoe’s Iron Duke that won through, despite some tough opposition from Nyria and Ola III. The prototype, Desert Gold, missed most of the selection trials.

At last the great day arrived. To Auckland’s shock, Heather, skippered by her owner Bill McCullough, easily won the first race by 1m 14s, despite Iron Duke’s professional crew of skipper Glad Bailey, George Tyler and George Dacre. But for a wind shift late in the race it would have been worse, for at one point, Heather was more than three minutes ahead.

Honour was somewhat satisfied the next day, when Iron Duke made the best of shifting breezes to win the second race, and did so again the following day, both with Lord Jellicoe at the helm. The next two races were in solid sou’westers, and again Heather showed the Aucklanders how to sail on their own harbour. She won the fourth race by a whopping 12m 25s and the deciding fifth race by 2m 7s.

Aucklanders had hardly got a look at the new trophy and it was already heading south.

Photo Courtesy of the Broad Bay Boating Club
Photo Courtesy of the Broad Bay Boating Club

The Commodore of the Otago Yacht Club, Mr A.C. Hanlon, struck the right patriotic note stating that `….. besides the honour of winning the Sanders Cup, they could take credit for doing what the Germans in all their strength had never succeeded in doing and that was beating Lord Jellicoe.’ The joke was `keenly appreciated’ by His Excellency.

Offers were made for Heather, but her owners refused at any price and she was railed back to a triumphant Dunedin reception, with Wilkinson lamenting that `.. Auckland’s inter-colonial reputation for building fast sailing craft has not been justified in this case….’.

Dispite the loss, the event was a huge success and the 1920/21 Waitemata season was capped off with Vice-Regal attendance at all the club prize-givings. Lord Jellicoe then temporarily relocated to Wellington, took Iron Duke with him, and sparked a similar 14-foot fever in the capital.

Wilkinson now undertook another typically single-minded campaign to have the One Design renamed the `Jellicoe Class’ in honour of the man who had attracted so much attention to it. In his weekly Auckland Star columns, he repeatedly made vague references to the `opinions of prominent yachtsmen’ who all apparently agreed that it was a good idea. Eventually, he ceased hinting at a ground swell of opinion and simply referred to it constantly as the `Jellicoe Class’, as did his good friend at the NZ Herald, George Laycock. With the press sewn up there was no argument, and the `Jellicoe Class’ it became.

During the winter of 1921, the Auckland yacht registration system was radically overhauled.
All yacht classes were grouped together under letters, the 14-foot One Design Class being allotted letter X. While now known everywhere else in New Zealand as Jellicoe Class, in Auckland, they would be known as the X-class.

The rash of new boats continued. Another nine were built in Auckland, which brought the fleet to 22. Dunedin built another three, while new fleets were begun in Wellington and Canterbury. By the time the challenge date closed in December, Otago had received entries from Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Southland.

After a several inconclusive races, Nyria, skippered by young Vic Lidgard emerged as the front runner in Auckland, but the Sanders Cup selection panel astounded the public by opting for the proven combination of Cloke and Patrick in Desert Gold. Wellington challenged with Iron Duke, Canterbury with Linnet, Southland with Murihiku, while Otago defended with Bill McCulloch and Heather.

In frustrating light conditions, Desert Gold retrieved the Sanders Cup for Auckland, but a dark horse in the form of Carol Hansen’s Muruhiku from Stewart Island, representing Southland, gave everyone a run for their money. With no points for placings, just wins being counted, Otago, Auckland and Southland were tied with two wins each going into the deciding seventh race. A hole in the breeze decided the race, and the Cup in Auckland’s favour but Murihiku’s effort, with little pre-race competition, gave an indication that the southern yachting centres were taking this new-fangled provincial competition very seriously indeed.

That winter, the Desert Gold crew was feted at every yacht club prizegiving in Auckland. Victoria Cruising Club staged an extravaganza at the Town Hall and even had Desert Gold and Iron Duke either side of the stage, fully rigged, and sails hoisted.

A similar gathering at the Dunedin Art Gallery left no doubt as to the effect the Sanders Cup was having in the smaller centres. An address by the Mayor of Dunedin lauded the crew of Heather as `all good sports’, and called on other provinces to see that Auckland did not retain the Cup.

`Several other speakers voiced their goodwill, after which Mr McCulloch was presented with an illuminated address and a purse well filled with notes ….. in the hope that the money would help build a new boat …. to regain the cup’. A gold wrist-watch, `suitably inscribed’ was given to Mr McCulloch’s wife and gold medals to each of Heather’s crew from the 1921 and 1922 contests. `On resuming his seat, Mr McCullogh was again cheered, the audience singing “For He’s a Jolly Food Fellow”‘.

What he would have got had he won?

Meanwhile, back in Auckland, a disturbing trend was emerging. While its administrators and supporters regarded scratch racing in one-design boats as the ultimate competition, it was difficult to achieve. The boats were not exactly the same, and nor were the abilities of their owners. In fleets of twelve or thirteen, it requires a hardy soul indeed to campaign a slow boat, week in and week out, for no reward. Most did not, and soon raced elsewhere.

Beginning with La Ola as early as 1917, unsuccessful One Designs often raced with modified sail area in the 14-foot Handicap Class, (renamed the T-class in 1921). As long as new hulls were being built, it was not a problem, but once that slowed, the Class looked very thin indeed.

Also, the first measurement problems had arisen, an aspect that would plague the class for decades. The original 1916 plans were relatively simple and in many instances called for maximum tolerances, but set no minimums. Several boats had variations of as much as 3 inches less in the width of the tuck, all quite legal under the rules and duly passed by their measurers.

The rules were strengthened by the Auckland Yacht and Motor Boat Association in April 1922, but in seeking their ideal of a strict one design class, they allowed that only boats now complying with the 1922 rules could race for the Sanders Cup. All hell broke loose.

Most of the Auckland fleet, including crack boats such as Nyria, could not obtain a new certificate without major reconstruction. Even worse, several sets of plans sent south, had not been amended, and boats had been built to them. Clarification was sought, and prospective owners put building plans on hold pending the outcome.

The AYMBA refused to budge. The winter of 1922 was taken up with meetings, threats, counter-threats, and a complete lack of will on the part of anyone to build new boats.
Auckland was on a collision course with the rest of New Zealand. For the first time, rumblings arose from the south of the need for a `Dominion Yachting Council’ to take over the Sanders Cup and control its rules and competitions. For the first time, but not the last, Auckland would ignore them.

There was genuine surprise at the strength of feeling `south of the Bombay Hills’, but the implication that all they had to do was build new boats, enraged not only the southerners but most Auckland owners as well.

The AYMBA huffed and puffed, and trotted out the Deed of Gift that vested the Cup in their care alone. Meanwhile in his Star column, Wilkinson continually invoked the `heroic memory of Lt.Cdr. W.E. Sanders VC, the bravest yachtsman the Dominion has ever known’, as a sterling example of the type of pluck needed to support the 14-foot class in its hour of need.

Both posturings had little effect.

Reluctantly, and under immense pressure from owners, clubs, and Provincial Associations alike, the AYMBA compromised and deemed all existing boats were eligible to compete in the next Sanders Cup. A sigh of relief went up around the country.

The Auckland selection trials were a foregone conclusion. Prominent RNZYS member, Alf Gifford had approached Arch Logan to build a 14-footer, but Logan refused outright (he remarked that `they would be nothing but trouble’). Surprised but undaunted, Gifford went to Charles Bailey junior.

Rona was launched too late to sail in the trials that saw Desert Gold selected for the 1922 Sanders Cup series, but for the rest of the season, with 18 year old Jack Gifford at the helm, she dominated the class. Her ten wins, four seconds and three thirds from 17 starts, tipped her as the next likely defender.

Much to Jack’s disgust, his father regarded the Cup trials as too important to be left to a youngster, and replaced him with the experienced Alex Matthews. Rona easily won the selection, romping home in almost every race. Even so, there was great concern over the perceived southern threat, and the AYMBA deliberated for several weeks over her crew. Eventually, Alex Matthews was chosen as skipper, along with NINE other nominated crewmen (including Jack Gifford, with Vic Lidgard as the light weather skipper). Overkill indeed for a three-man centreboarder.

The Cup races began on the Waitemata late in January 1923, with a surprise victory to the Canterbury boat Linnet sailed by Sam Sinclair. The next race was not much better, Tom Bragg in the Southland entrant Murihiku, taking the gun by 45 seconds from Vic Lidgard in Rona. All Auckland was worried.

The next three races were in fresh to strong breezes and Rona just blitzed the opposition, winning by margins of 3m 40s, 8m 39s, and 14m 14s. It was a comprehensive thumping. To Auckland’s relief, the Sanders Cup remained there.

Prior to the Cup races, the provincial delegates had agreed in principle to accept Rona’s lines as the basis for a strict one-design class, and thus remove any further arguments over rules. Her superiority during the contest swept away any misgivings, and the remit was passed before the end of the month. The Rona-Jellicoe class had been born.

Aucklanders, typically however, refused the unwieldy moniker and continued to call them, the X-class.

Sanders Cup articles curtesy of Robin Elliot and Harold Kidd