Alvah Simon - A spectacle of sail
The cannon fire from the bow of the Mason Bay reverberated through the waters adjacent to Russell in the Bay of Islands. A pageant of colorful sail charged towards the starting line of this year's Tall Ships Race and Classic Invitation, organized by the Russell Boating Club. Vessels from around the world, with their keels laid over a span of three centuries, from midget to mighty, be they cutters, ketches, schooners or sloops, all shared one thing in common - they harkened back to an era of true craftsmanship and elegance under sail.
The Tall Ships Race started back in 1976 when local yachties Gary Underwood and Bill Sellers decided they needed a way to include some of the classic overseas vessels into the local sailing scene. Originally organized as a two-mast only race with the minimum size of 30 feet, the inaugural event saw iconic vessels such as Utiekah III, Lady Sterling, Wanderer, and Franda vying for that first trophy. Al Chipman's Fearless, a John Alden schooner re-rigged as a ketch was the first winner and came back to claim the trophy again in 1988.
Designed as a reaching race to best suit the strengths of the schooner rigs, the original course ran out to the Nine Pin and back. But the event proved so popular that additional courses and classes were included. The Classic Invitation, as the title indicates, is a selection of suitably interesting or historic vessels of any number of masts and a minimum of 22 feet' (to include the Mulleties and Piedies).
This expanded participation and popularity, and the race has grown to become not only the defining event of the Russell Boating Club but a valuable draw for the entire town of Russell. The race has been run every year since its inception thanks to the tireless efforts of such local legends as Joe Cotton, who had that rare ability to get everyone pulling together. From the first running of the event until his death he organized a gargantuan hangi for up to a thousand participants and spectators.
In a tribute to his legacy a new trophy is now named after him. Over the years these trophies have taken on historic and nostalgic meaning. Two are adorned with scrimshaws by Bill Sellers; no small thing for Bill is a world renowned artist.
The event has drawn famous vessels from around the world, among them the William Fife designs Cambria and Mariella, Bud McIntosh's Appledore, the elegant Nina, and Kialoa II
While the organizers aspire to keep the event low key and friendly, and that it is, it is still a proper race that brings out the competitive juices in most if not all of the skippers. The rules are as simple as can be - start on time, use the International Regulations For Preventing Collision At Sea, and protests are forbidden.
The brigantine Breeze, the topsail schooner R. Tucker Thompson, and Lion New Zealand contributed to a shimmering cloud of sail on the horizon. From ultra-high-aspect to long and low gaffs almost every imaginable rig was represented.
Ponsonby Scow took the Tall Ship Line Honors. The handicapped results ended with the cutter Banksea claiming First Place, Lucille Second, and Cora Third. Cora also took Firsts in the Gaff Rigged and Timber Boat categories.
Not surprisingly, Lion New Zealand took Line Honors in the Classic Invitation. The Handicap winners were Charlotte Rose First, followed by Ponsonby Scow and Kotahi.
Incredibly, even at 103 years old, Cora was by no means the oldest participant. Undine, built by the Fuller Brothers in 1887, saw a rough life acting as the original milk boat for the area, carrying general cargo and mail, serviced the gold rush and then was used hard fishing. But even she is eclipsed in age by the Pilot Cutter Iris, built in 1864. The race inspires continuity and heritage and is becoming inter-generational. The Reremoana, owned by the Hope-Lewis family, has started in every race since the event's inception.
In keeping with the theme of Golden Oldies, the band playing in the clubhouse was led by none other than eighty-plus year old Alan Orams, famed designer, boat-builder, and apparently a man of many talents, for he strums an awfully good guitar.
This is a classic event in every sense of the word. The location is splendid, the fleet is simply sublime, and the racing is all on. It is the hope of the Russell Boating Club that they can lure some of those classic Baileys and Logans up from Auckland to keep this a true Spectacle of Sail for many years to come.