Saturday, 1 June 2013

Mosquito Fleet: The Thorndon Dinghy Sailing Club

A Thorndon Dinghy Sailing Club race in progress. Source: Wellington Museum of City and Sea
The Thorndon Dinghy Sailing Club (TDSC) was organised in 1903. Both it and the Te Aro Sailing Club  (formed 1907 - more on this club in a later post) grew out of the demise of the Arawa Sailing Club, which started to fizzle out in 1901/02. There were several causes identified for the demise of the Arawa Sailing Club: it had tried to spread itself too thinly across classes for 14 and 18 footers, half raters and keelers; it had not rewarded regular entries, and youngsters became disenchanted by being priced out.

Younger potential members didn't bother to join the club and mucked around on their own account with yacht tenders with a spar and often not much more than a bedsheet for a sail. It was felt at the time that youth should be organised for their own safety and to learn to sail properly for the good of the sport (keel yacht racing in Wellington at that time being in a slump). It was senior members of the Thorndon Yacht Club and Port Nicholson Yacht Club (PNYC) who appear to have been the main drive behind the formation of the club. These men were owners of crack racing yachts: Mills a founding member of the PNYC, commodore (1903-1905), and owner of Rainbow (and later Iorangi); Turnbull a recent commodore (1899-1901) and owner of the Iorangi; J. S. Swan, soon to be Commodore (1906-1907). McLean was owner of Waitangi, and Renner who within a few years would buy a share of Waitangi, was owner of the 2 1/2 rater Muritai (Rogue), Georgeson and Bucholz were also yacht owners and  regular office holders of the PNYC.

Club picnic. Source: Freelance 26 Mar 1904
TDSC therefore started out well organised. There was a series of three scratch races in the calendar, to be raced on Saturdays (at that time still part of the working week for most people), based purely on who could go the fastest, and a handicap series to be raced during the summer months on a Wednesday evening. Handicap racing used the Mark Foy system, so competitors sailing a dinghy of any quality could compete, and know exactly how they had done as they finished. Each of the races was for a particular trophy, so there was plenty of opportunity for a variety of winners. In addition, each boat received aggregate points for a placing, which added up to a winning trophy at the end of the season. This was to encourage entries each week to stay in the running.

Thorndon Yacht Clubhouse ca. 1900
Wonder of wonders, the TDSC also had a clubhouse. The Thorndon Yacht Club (more a social club and place to store gear for yachtsmen than an active sailing club) was the only boating club in Wellington at the time with its own dedicated premises - a shed on Waterloo Quay. It was made available as a clubhouse for the TDSC. The site was abandoned in 1906/07 when reclamation landlocked it and the shed was removed to Thorndon Esplanade.

Oeo. Source: Alexander Tunrbull Library
The 1903/04 TDSC season opened on 11 November 1903 with a win for Waitangi, sailed by Baggett. She was likely namesake and tender for the yacht, as she was owned by McLean. In all, 12 races were got away that summer, with a fleet of about 12 boats. They were a real mish-mash, with some flighty names like Tilikum, Gee Whiz, and Moki (owned by fisherman Frank McKeever). Within two years most of them had been dropped from the lists.

1904/05 was the first full season, with 36 members and twelve boats. Healthy racing was had and of course, people's sporting blood got up, with the result that purpose-built racers were commissioned. The first of these was the Oeo built to order by Logan Bros. in Auckland for Stirling and Jones. She first began racing towards the end of the season in 1905, and carried all before her. It was now all on.

Source: Alexander Turnbull Library
The 1905/06 season saw the membership double, and new boats, most notably Rona, Irex and Vera joined the lists and Oeo had some competition on her hands. She still generally came out on top. However, Edwin (Ted) Bailey was brought on to race the under-performing Vera late in the season. She started winning consistently, managing to pull off a third placing on season aggregate.

The next few years belonged to Ted Bailey. For the 1906/07 season, he built the Zel for L. Palmer. Bailey helmed her for the three-race Saturday series, and won them all. The Vera, now he had shown how she could be sailed, won the season aggregate trophy. These two boats, along with the Irex, shared the top three spots for both series. Logan's Oeo, though placing reasonably well at times, was already out the back door.

Source: NZ Yachtsman 23 April 1910
The 1906/07 season saw the membership increase to over 100 members. The annual social had over 200 attendees, entertained (as for the previous year and several to follow) by Miss Hawthorne's String band. It became a tradition to display the winning dinghy of the championship series full-rigged on the stage.
A sculling race was organised by the officers of the club for the Port and Starboard watches of the training ship Amokura. The future looked bright.

In 1907/08 arrived Ted Bailey's Thelma. He sailed her himself, and as scratch boat won the aggregate series. Oeo had obviously had a kick up the backside the previous season, and came away the victor in the championship series. However only Oeo, Zel and Thelma had entered. Oeo was advertised for sale at the end of the season, in August 1908.

Source: NZ Yachtsman 01 Aug. 1914
Ted Bailey had a particular talent for fast racing dinghies. His Zel and Thelma, as well as his handling of Vera made him the go-to man in Wellington small boat racing. He also built several small racing keel yachts, including Lizzie in 1909 (as scratch boat, 11 firsts, 7 seconds, and 2 thirds in her first 21 races with PNYC). Bailey continued to build champions, including the 14 footer Nan in 1910 - scratch boat for the Te Aro Sailing Club until the war. He continued this form into the 1930s with the X class Lavina, which became national champion in 1937.

Despite the dominance of Vera, Zel and Thelma, racing was still good. Wednesday evening Mark Foy racing was still hotly competed, and that each race win resulted in your name on a trophy almost guaranteed a result for most competitors over the season. The club donated a trophy for the Amokura's Port vs Starboard watch race, and closer relationships were forged between the various clubs. This year the first sheds at Clyde Quay were made available -  the Thorndon Dinghy Sailing Club leased number 44 and sought to dispose of the the shed at Thorndon Esplanade to free up debentures.
Postcard showing the first row of sheds at Clyde Quay. Source: Gavin Pascoe

Bailey's Thelma won both the aggregate and championship trophies during the 1908/09 season, Blowfly and Zel sharing first and second for both series. Oeo won the other Blue riband event - the Oates Challenge Cup. For two years these boats had been untouchable, and the club imploded. At the AGM in 1909 it was decided to plan only half a year ahead. Only four boats registered for racing: Rona, Zel, Blowfly and Vera.

Nan. Source: Wellington Museum of City and Sea
It may be considered that the failure of the club was due in the main to the same reason the Arawa Sailing Club fell apart - wealthy men commissioning swift boats which destroyed competition for the people the club was designed to attract - young people wanting to have a go. This was undoubtedly a major factor. However, Like the Arawa Sailing Club before it, most of the youngsters were swept up as crew for the keel yachts, which had seen a renaissance once Clyde Quay was built, and there was once again a safe place to moor large private vessels (reclamation of the late 1890s and early 1900s had destroyed previous sheltered mooring sites at Thorndon and Te Aro). Some of them, like the Scott Brothers (Wairere) and the younger Moore brothers (Mahina, renamed Romp) purchased their own yachts. Others, like Frank McKeever, left to live the domestic life. McKeever got married and moved to Paremata, where he became active in the Paremata Boating Club during the 1920s racing his 20 foot launch Moki (which now sits in my garage awaiting reframing). Ted Bailey had obviously dominated the class and decided to move on to beating the fourteen footers of the Te Aro Sailing Club. To this end he built Nan in 1909 or 1910.

It may be argued that the Thorndon Dinghy Club was actually a great success, in that it did indeed, create new, skilled and confidant yachtsmen - they just moved on and sailed yachts. The club's failure lay in not attracting new members.

One of the final and most significant actions of the Thorndon Dinghy Sailing Club was to use leftover funds to commission a trophy named the Thorndon Dinghy Club Challenge Cup, to be competed for by other centreboard racing clubs of the region. This trophy was hotly contested for decades.

Source: NZ Yachtsman 02 July 1910
The NZ Yachtsman magazine, inspired by the Thorndon Dinghy Sailing Club and another club for 10 footers in Auckland, the only two fleets for ten footers in the country, in June and July 1910 published lines, sail plan, and structural drawings of a ten footer to encourage a one-design element to the class. It was too little too late however, as both clubs were winding up. It's interesting to note that at first blush, the design looks very like Ted Bailey's Thelma - high wooded, beamy and bluff but with a fine entry at the waterline.

The only record of any boat being built to this design was in Evans Bay in 1913 by a man named Forbes, who also at the time owned Bailey's Thelma. Forbes departed from the construction plan, using an internal diagonal skin rather than ribs (was Thelma built thus?). Another unnamed person in Evans Bay took on the Blowfly (by no means a shabby boat).

Interrupted by the war, plans to resurrect the class came to nothing, but these were among the first murmurings of the creation of the Evans Bay Yacht and Motor Boat Club, created in 1919, well known for the quality of its centreboard racing into the 1960s.

Source: NZ Yachtsman 16 July 1910

Source: NZ Yachtsman 09 July 1910

I created a few tables while researching this article, of officers, fleet and placing for each race reported by the newspapers. There are a few inconsistencies in spelling, etc., but if interested, you can see them here


  1. Thanks Harold Kidd for the extra info below:

    1. J Scott was racing Scotia at Paremata in 1923, still the same boat I think.
    2.Thelma, Vera and Zel, at least, were built by Ted Bailey.
    3. Oeo and Blowfly were built by Logan Bros.
    4. Bert Aldred probably built Irex, just as he built the 18 footer of the same name.
    5. Bailey & Lowe built Rona.
    6. With respect, the class failed not so much because of the wealthy men ordering the boats from the top Auckland builders but more because Ted Bailey dominated the class on the water. It was the old story of the skilled tradesman/helmsman having it all over the part-time sailors, no matter how good their boats. The paradox of Corinthianism which killed many a class and a club.

  2. there is great saying that good things always comes in small packages.
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  3. Glad you enjoyed them. It's interesting how such old photos speak to people even if they've never raced a Moth. The old hair and clothing styles, the old cars and background references are universally interesting. Sailing NYC