Part 3: Rona to Betty

The 1923 ruling to stabilise the Jellicoe Class around Rona’s lines was a sound move nationally, but achieved little in Auckland. The clear superiority of Desert Gold, Iron Duke and latterly Jack Gifford’s Rona had driven all but the keenest competitors into the handicapped T-Class, a class that Wilkie Wilkinson sniffily referred to as a `class for second raters’.

Just one new Rona-Jellicoe, the Queen March, was launched for the 1923/24 season. She was built by Baileys for Eliot Davis, brother of Ernest, and was named after his champion racehorse. With Alex Matthews as skipper, Queen March was thrown into the Auckland Sanders Cup trials against Joan and Rona. She failed to impress. Rona again dominated and won selection.

The previous season, Rona’s 18 year old skipper Jack Gifford was deemed too young to take on the heady responsibility of defending on behalf of Auckland, despite his domination of the pre-trial racing (interviewed in 1998, and a cheerful and alert 95 year old, that decision still rankles him). This time, the selectors opted to remain with him as skipper, he had won 22 out of his last 28 races, and even Wilkinson demanded that they `get a good man and stick to him’.

The 1924 Sanders Cup contest was held in Wellington. Opposing Rona was Canterbury’s Linnett, the redoubtable Murihiku from Southland, Peggy from Wellington and two new Rona-Jellicoe hulls, June, from Otago, and Konini from Hawkes Bay, the latter being manned by the veteran Hawkes Bay patiki men, Neil Gillies, Len Turville, and Allan McCarthy.

The first race was a disaster. A severe squall hit the fleet just after the start. All contestants were either planing at high speed, in trouble, or both, as one reporter described how `..Konini raced down Evans Bay, with her spinnaker skying to the top of the mast, and her bow completely out of the water. She tore along in this fashion and then ploughed under, spilling her crew in all directions.’ Only Rona survived. She continued on alone, beating back into the hard southerly breeze, carrying full sail and a four-man crew. Jack Gifford was not amused when the officials called the race off. Fittingly, Rona won the re-sail.

Murihiku took the second race. Rona won the third race but was disqualified for fouling both June and the starters boat. Gifford made no mistake with the next two races winning them by 36 seconds and the final, in light shifting airs, by a whopping 22 minutes from Linnet (although at one time Linnet was 12 minutes ahead of Rona!). Winning two consecutive Sanders Cups, firmly cemented Rona into Cup mythology as the first `super boat’.

While the other representatives returned to their provinces determined more than ever to win the trophy, Rona returned to a class still in disarray. Her triumph was feted as usual, and the trophy proudly displayed at homecoming `smoke concerts’ but Rona’s success belied the rapid decline of the Auckland X-class fleet. Only Rona, Iron Duke, Queen March and occasionally Idler saw out the rest of the season. The others were either up for sale, sold out of Auckland, or converted to the handicap T-Class.

In Auckland, unlike elsewhere, the X-class competed with a wide variety of other centreboard classes. The AYMBA and both daily papers towed a distinctly pro-X-class line, and the undue prominence given to the 14-footer at the expense of other far more popular classes was the cause of considerable backlash at club level.

As related in this column last month, the arrival of Lord Jellicoe had certainly been the main reason for the involvement of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. As Jellicoe himself became less and less involved, and the AYMBA’s intransigence over aspects of the rules alienated many yachtsmen, so too did the Squadron withdraw more from the X-class.

In 1923 RNZYS had adopted Arch Logan’s 18-foot Restricted Patiki class, a modernised version of the old Restricted Patiki (See Boating NZ August 1998). Logan had refused any involvement in the fashionable 14-foot class and his new patiki can be seen as a direct counter to what many saw were the excesses in the X-Class, that had taken it away from its original concept as a youth trainer.

The patiki, designated the M-Class, was intended to supplement the Squadron’s 14-footers, but inside two years it had replaced them. Being completely under Squadron control, the M-Class remained aloof from the arguments, pettiness, professionalism, and the many uncompetitive boats that dogged the 14-foot class, and many prominent squadron members supported it. Even Jellicoe himself, in a farewell speech had said (supposedly in jest), that his successor should take up the M-Class because `there are no blanks in this class’. Such a remark must have stung.

During the winter of 1924, Lord and Lady Jellicoe made their rounds of the various yacht clubs in preparation for their return `Home’. From the reported fond farewells, and the high standard of gifts presented to them, there was clearly a genuine regret, and a feeling that something quite special in New Zealand yachting was about to end. It was made more solid by a gesture that touched all Auckland yachtsmen, when Jellicoe gifted Iron Duke to his long-standing crewman Andy Carnachan.

In October that year Lord Jellicoe departed and with him, the spark went out of the Sanders Cup, particularly in Auckland.

The Auckland preparations for the 1925 defense on the Waitemata garnered little enthusiasm locally, although the provincial associations again mounted their intense and parochial challenges. Auckland’s defender, Queen March was never in the hunt. The Otago challenger Iona, skippered by Alf Wiseman sailed over and under everybody in three races out of four to win the Cup in the fastest series thus far, just one race being won by another contestant, the indefatigable Southlander Carol Hansen in Murihiku.

Iona’s win however, begat yet another round of controversy. She was not a `Rona-Jellicoe’, but was built to the old rules and permitted to race under the AYMBA’s ruling of the previous year. Did this mean (Shock! Horror!) the old designs were actually faster than the `Rona-Jellicoe’ type, the new class standard? For months and months this point was debated ad nauseum, the length and breadth of the country, prompting a brief revival of older pre-Rona boats.

Auckland’s waning interest in the X-class was briefly stirred by the news that class stalwarts Cloke and Patrick had commissioned a new boat from Baileys, to be named Avalon. Wilkinson’s columns in the Auckland Star were ecstatic. Rona had been sold, and was not nearly as competitive, and Queen March had proved an erratic performer. Such was the reputation of Avalon’s owners, that almost before she was launched, her selection was a foregone conclusion. The 1926 contest in Dunedin was eagerly awaited.

Otago defended with the champion Iona, but amid considerable dissent, as many felt that their newest boat Winifred, a true Rona type, was the better choice. Again, Napier challenged with Konini, Southland with Murihiku, and Wellington with Peggy.

Canterbury was last to name their representative. All their previous challenges had been Lyttelton based affairs, and their selection was expected to be between two new Lyttelton boats, Fred Morrison’s Secret and Sam Sinclair’s Linnet II, but things do not always go as expected.

A newcomer to the Sanders Cup Class, George Andrews from the Christchurch Sailing and PowerBoat Club, easily beat the other triallists in a boat designed and built by himself, named Betty. The Lyttelton factions were not amused.

In general, yachtsmen from `the Port’ scorned the `mud hoppers’ who sailed on the other side of the Port Hills with the tidal Estuary yacht clubs. It seemed inconceivable that an Estuary amateur could design, build and then sail his boat to victory over their professionally commissioned ones. Despite the fact that Betty measured, and was re-measured in every way, the idea persisted that somehow she was at best `a freak’, at worst, `not a true Rona-Jellicoe’.

The Canterbury Association delayed announcing their challenger but finally permitted Betty to represent them in Dunedin, with an assurance from her sponsoring club, that should she fail measurement, they would meet the cost of having her shipped down there. Such doubts would provide fuel for others.

Otago expected a strong challenge from Auckland and this was confirmed when Avalon easily won the first race in light and fickle breezes. The next race, in a stiff breeze, brought out the best, not only in Avalon but also Betty who fought board for board with her, both leaving the rest well behind. Avalon capsized in one of the many squalls that swept the course and left Betty to take the gun by over 12 minutes from Murihiku and Konini. Otago’s Iona retired with broken gear.

Under the contest rules, all provinces that had not taken a gun after three races were eliminated and when Betty comfortably won the third race, Wellington, Southland, Hawkes Bay, and the holders, Otago were cut from the series.

Now reduced to a `match race’, Avalon evened the score, winning the fourth race in a strong southwest gale. The fifth and deciding race, over a windward-leeward course six times around Castle Beacon, was a real thriller and regarded by reporters as `the finest race ever sailed for the Sanders Cup’.

In breeze that veered between south-west and south-east, Betty got away from Avalon and for the first five marks, held a narrow lead, never any more than 11 seconds. Avalon closed to a boat length, tacked on a lift and gained the lead, to be 34 seconds ahead at the next mark. She held that lead for three legs, but as the breeze increased, Betty whittled it away and came to within 3 seconds the flat run. Betty broke tacks as soon as they rounded and lifted away. When they next crossed, Betty had regained the lead and held a 22-second advantage. For the rest of the race, Betty `camped’ on Avalon, eventually taking the gun by 41 seconds, and with it, the Sanders Cup.

Delerium broke out. Betty and her crew were ` loudly cheered from wharf and steamers, whistles tooting’. A ferry steamer with Christchurch school children on a harbour trip passed her and `from the youngsters was eight vigorous cheers’.

Not only was it the first success for Canterbury, but George Andrews was the first to win the Sanders Cup in a boat designed, built, owned and sailed by himself.

In Canterbury, any acrimony over Betty’s selection was lost in the clamour. Ironically, the doubts that were now conveniently forgotten by Cantabrians were taken up wholeheartedly by others, particularly in Dunedin, where the poor showing of Iona and her early elimination, was a very sore topic.

The 1926 contest, once and for all, settled the argument over whether the strict one-design Rona-Jellicoe was superior to the older type, but the debate shifted and became more heated. What was a true Rona-Jellicoe? One Dunedin writer maintained that Betty could not be true because she was amateur built and even inferred that Avalon was an `unfair boat’.

Comments like that brought Wilkinson out in a foaming frenzy. He deplored the poor sportsmanship emanating from Dunedin and commended all the ` …real sports who join heartily with Auckland in giving Betty and her plucky owner, builder and sailing master full credit for his great exhibition of skill and endurance which won him the “blue riband” of Inter-Provincial yachting for 1926. Let us hear no more about “unfair boats”.

His plea had little effect. The great Betty controversy was now well under way and would be a lively discussion point for many years to come.

Sanders Cup articles curtesy of Robin Elliot and Harold Kidd