Most of the stellar yachting careers of New Zealand’s America’s Cup sailors began in humble seven-foot boats—a class now a century old—designed by a Public Works employee who couldn’t swim, and who was too hard up to build anything larger.
There’s a flurry of activity at the Kohimarama Yacht Club in Auckland. New sails crackle as they’re unfurled for inspection, and small boats swing from electronic scales, determining weight to the nearest 100 grams. All around, a retinue of officials, young sailors and anxious parents scrub their chins.
Outside, a storm beats against the sea wall, casting spray over Tamaki Drive. Of all the boats to take sailing in these conditions, a P Class would be about the last on the list. They’re tiny, powerful, hard to sail upwind, and terrifying to sail downwind, largely on account of the propensity of the design to bury its nose and head to the seafloor.
“Talk to anyone who’s sailed a P Class and they’ll say the same thing,” says Andy Kensington. “If you can sail a P, you can sail anything.”
Kensington is vice-commodore of the club and father of two kids, Rowan and Sean, who are competing this week in the most established regattas for small-boat sailing in New Zealand—the Tauranga and Tanner Cups.
“It teaches kids boat handling and seamanship, how to get a difficult boat around the course. When they’re done, they’ll be able to sail anything, and won’t be scared of anything.”
For 99 years, the P Class has been an important stepping stone on the slow, hard rise to prominence for New Zealand’s leading yachties—from Peter Blake to Peter Burling. But as the international Optimist class has become more popular and modern families fill their weekends with other activities, the P Class fleet is fading. Nevertheless, it remains the trainer-of-choice for young racers, because the little boats lack every convenience that makes other boats easy.
The first time I went sailing was in my mate Barry Brickell’s P Class, off Cheltenham Beach, in the balmy summer of 1950.
I followed Barry’s instructions to set up the mast, the rigging, to bend the sail on to the spars and to hoist it into the wind. Then, my first solo sail from Cheltenham: wading out with the boat on her beach trailer into the cool, clean shallows, sliding her into the water. She was like an eager animal, bridling at the painter to get herself sailing.
I shipped the rudder and tiller and leapt aboard over the stern, pushed the tiller away to steer across the breeze, and slammed the centreboard down to complete the little yacht’s delicate balance—above water with the sail, below water with the rudder and centreboard—then bore away before the light westerly.
The sail billowed full, the mainsheet tugged in the puffs, the stern wave cackled at the transom, spray came over the bow as she butted into the waves. It became a team effort, the boat and me, like this little ship was teaching me.
She was a knockabout, not a racer. Maurice Brickell had built Tangaroa—named for the Māori god of the sea—for the benefit of his family of two boys and two girls. The little boat served them well over many years, teaching them to handle themselves in the world of tides and wind, and gave them an enduring love of the sea. Particularly Barry, who later became a leading potter and the constructor of the Driving Creek light railway in the Coromandel.
Barry and I spent the whole summer of 1950 crammed into that little seven-foot hull, culminating in our big cruise. Our first port of call was McKenzie Bay, by the lighthouse on Rangitoto. We carried Tangaroa up the beach, turned her on her side, propped the masthead on driftwood and slept under the sail, with holes dug in the sand for our hips.
We woke soon after dawn, with curious wallabies clustered around the boat, then sailed around the north of Rangitoto to the Noises, dodging through the reefs to Otata islet, where we camped another night on the beach in front of Captain Fred Wainhouse’s cottage.
With knees pressed together in the tiny cockpit, we sailed to Woody Bay on Rakino, where we were chased by bulls, and on to Motutapu, where we spent another night on the beach at Islington Bay.
At daybreak, with the weather deteriorating, we sailed around the south coast of Rangitoto back to Cheltenham, dodging Navy frigates charging up the channel and oil tankers pushing great mountains of water before them.
The P Class offered quite enough summer’s adventure for any 13-year-old. It was our first taste of absolute independence—and a rich introduction to a lifetime of yachting.
Since civil engineer Harry Highet designed and built the prototype at his home in Whangarei following his return in November 1919 from the First World War, the P Class has played a crucial role in training New Zealand boys and girls in the basics of sailing.
Highet was short of money—he had just married and built himself a house—so his first craft was half the length of his previous projects: a seven-foot cat-rigged square-bilge with a tiny cockpit. The rest of the hull consisted of buoyancy compartments, because he couldn’t swim. The result was an astonishing, unprecedented, almost comic vessel.
Highet demonstrated the new seven-footer, Mascot, at the Onerahi Regatta on New Year’s Day, 1920. Bill Waddilove, his brother-in-law, described what happened: “A tiny, midget boat, accommodating a six-foot yachtsman who weighed every pound of 13 stone, sailed up to the flagship of Onerahi regatta, the S. S. Clansman. When close alongside, our genial giant stood upright, then on to the gunwale. The expected happened, and the craft turned a ‘sixer’, precipitating the occupant into the wetness. Then the unexpected happened. The crew gave a mighty heave, turned the craft upright, hove himself in, and sailed away within 20 seconds of the capsize.”
The Onerahi demonstration caused a stir among Whangarei yachtsmen. Arthur Pickmere persuaded Highet to build a boat for his 14-year-old son, Hereward, which was launched in November 1920. This led to four more boats being built for other boys. Led by Hereward, the Whangarei boys developed a Swallows and Amazons technique of cruising and camping, by pulling the boats up on the beach and putting them on their sides to form a laager. The masts and booms supported their sails to become a neat communal tent.
Highet had built Mascot purely to get himself on the water cheaply and without drowning, but after two revisions, he realised it had become something else—a safe, if challenging, basic training system for youngsters, not only for racing but for handling capsizes.
When Highet transferred to Tauranga in 1923, he took his midget yacht with him, presenting the Tauranga Yacht and Power Boat Club with a seven-footer, Roselle. In the spirit of the day, she was raffled, and six months later, the club formally adopted the design as its fourth class for racing. Ten more boats were built. Early boats were often funded by prominent club members and loaned to young boys and girls, a practice that carried on for years.
“Ten or eleven little boats, all painted differently and looking like so many fluttering butterflies, all got away at gunfire, and keenly contested every yard of the course,” wrote Auckland Star yachting correspondent W. A. Wilkinson of a regatta in 1925. “It is just the boat for the youngsters, who frequent the bays and beaches on our harbour during the summer holidays, and get afloat in all sorts and conditions of craft, from tin boats to punts made from benzine cases.”
Highet provided copies of his plans all over the country and many were built, if not exactly to his plans, then at least in their spirit. In Wellington, J. B. Dukes built them half a dozen at a time for £10 each.
The class failed to take root in Auckland until 1941, when the Ponsonby Cruising Club adopted the little boats to train youngsters to sail, while normal club activities were suspended due to the Second World War. The club is responsible for the class letter ‘P’, which echoed the Ponies of the Ponsonby United Rugby League Football Club, from whom the Ponsonby Cruising Club drew many of the boys that it wanted to teach to sail. (In fact, P1 was named Pony.)
The club offered evening classes in sailing rules, knots and splices, care of boats and sails, boat construction, and sailing techniques. By the end of the war, the class was firmly established at Ponsonby, with a large number of boats at Kohimarama, too. In 1952, there were more than 140 boats registered in Auckland alone, and the Ponsonby Cruising Club could proudly boast of having trained more than 170 boys. Little by little, Auckland’s ‘P Class’ appellation became the recognised name for the type throughout the country.
There have been refinements over the years: lighter hulls—first plywood and then glass-fibre—carbon-fibre spars, and sail control with a vang, a cunningham and outhauls. But the P Class still rewards tuning, tactics, physical skills and endurance as much today as it did a century ago. No more so than in the all-comers’ Tauranga Cup, first awarded in Wellington in 1940, and the inter-provincial Tanner Cup, first sailed in 1945, on which are engraved the names of New Zealand’s yachting heavyweights—Russell Coutts, Chris Dickson, Murray Thom, David Barnes, Dean Barker, Craig Monk, Ray Davies and Peter Burling.
January 6, 2018. The storm of measurement day has eased to a moderate gale for the first race of the Tanner Cup. Clouds brood heavy over the city and a stiff southerly drives white horses before the green Waitematā chop.
Now far from shore, 39 P Class yachts look like a flock of origami birds, delicate white triangles jostling for position at the start line. The hooter sounds, and they set off in unison, slicing to windward. Perceiving some advantage on the other tack, the young sailors put about one by one with a crackle of Dacron, cutting a new angle to the other side of the course.
Each manoeuvere has been practised across weekends and summers, over a century of racing in these tiny, temperamental little vessels.
The fleet converges on the top mark and turns, screeching downwind, towing a wake of spume. The young sailors stack out the side, attempting to balance the many forces on the little boat. Those who succeed pirouette around the bottom mark and start the loop over again. Those who fail wind up into the wind, or career into a crash gybe, though the result for both is usually the same—a capsize and the loss of a dozen places in the race.
“They’re really hard to sail,” says Seb Menzies. “There’s more to do than in other boats. They’re more dynamic, you’re always doing something. You learn a lot about sail shape and what each control does.”
Jon Bilger won both Tauranga and Tanner Cups in the P Class in 1984 and 1985, then went on to represent New Zealand at the Olympics and into a career in America’s Cup sailing. His daughter, Stella, has graduated from Optimists into the P Class this year.
“I can see her learning so much, and learning so much more quickly. You need to keep the boat flat, you need to understand the controls—the cunningham, the kicker—and how they affect the trim of the boat. They’re a lot less forgiving than Optimists, and a lot harder to sail well.”
“I was shorter than the other guys so it was harder to hike, but it’s really good when you smash them,” says Stella, who was sailing Supertramp, a boat Jon built with his father Jock in 1982. The hull caused some hysteria within P Class circles due to an unconventional 3.5-millimetre camber in the usually flat surface—but for Stella, it’s just part of the history of the class. “It was quite cool that Dad sailed this boat and now I’m sailing it,” she says. “But the most funnest thing about the P was how fast you can go. I like sailing downwind the most—and upwind.”
The Tanner Cup is a regatta of six races, followed by a marathon 10 races for the Tauranga Cup. As the event proceeds through race after gruelling race, the weather gradually improves, as do the skippers. Seb Menzies won two of the Tauranga Cup races, but had his share of challenges, including getting tangled in the anchor of a patrol boat on the start line of the sixth race. Ultimately, he won the Tauranga Cup by a single point.
David Buchanan placed second for both cups, having raced consistently—other than two crash gybes in heavy weather, which put him at the back of the fleet for the first two races. Eventually it was Nathan Vince—who had trained four nights a week leading into the event—who won the Tanner Cup, again by just one point. “It could have gone either way,” he admits.
Today, Vince’s P Class Runaway sits in a shed, like those of his cohort of young sailors, awaiting a decision on whether he races another year in the P Class or moves into a two-person 420—the stepping stone to Olympic classes. The fate of the P Class hangs in the balance, too. Is it a transition to other things or the vehicle for the greatest lessons kids will ever learn?
Ultimately, says Jon Bilger, it doesn’t matter. “What I love about sailing is that it’s a sport for life. You’re learning so many things that are useful in life. Like how to deal with things outside your control—you’re fighting against competitors, and you’re fighting with the elements too. It’s like giving the keys to a car to a 10-year-old—there’s so much judgment and independence. There’s just nothing else like it.”