This great story was written by Club member James Hollings, owner of Cantilena, a Townson Moonlight design.
Bruce Askew was well-known as a capable naval architect able to turn his hand to a wide range of craft, as Gavin Pascoe has so eloquently explained in his recent article.
What many may not know is that he was also a designer of a very successful Wellington racing yacht, one that came close to making the famous 1971 One Ton Cup New Zealand Defence Team alongside Rainbow and Wai Aniwa and Young Nick.
In 1969, Chris Bouzaid had pulled off a sensation by yanking the One Ton Cup, regarded as the Formula One of international yacht racing, from under the noses of the fancied Germans in their own front yard off Heligoland.
New Zealand had to defend it in 1971 in Auckland, and lots of Kiwi yachties fancied their chances of making the three boat team. Wellington businessman Brian Barraclough was determined to have a crack, and commissioned Askew to build him a winner.
Askew’s design was Crescendo, a uniquely Kiwi, and even Wellington take on the infamous IOR rule that demanded beamy, heavy windward sloops with massive genoas and small mains. At that time the crack U.S. designers Sparkman and Stephens were the gold standard, producing sleek aluminium cats such as Wai Aniwa, now moored at Chaffers.
Crescendo was an interesting mix of old and new. Old-fashioned in build, with ¾ inch Kauri planks laid over ribs at about six inch centres; something between a fin and full length keel; a separate skeg and rudder; and a novel rising scoop in the coachroof that gave her the look of the crescendo accent in music. At about 8 tons, she wasn’t light, but in the right conditions, with the right crew, she was a very fast yacht for her size.
There must have been high hopes in the Wellington yachting scene for the Capital challenge; Barraclough was well known as a hard-driving skipper, as captured by Denis Glover in this poem, which for some reason I can recite by heart:
There was a sailor called Barraclough
Who could never sail quite fast enough
Rough tough bloody stough
But all bluff.
Perhaps that last line was a comment on the One Ton Cup trials, because unfortunately, Crescendo was not quite fast enough to make the NZ team. But I recall being told that she was only about 5 percent off. Not bad for a brand-new yacht, competing against not only the world’s best, but also local legends such as Des Townson’s Moonlight, which also narrowly missed out also.
Barraclough made up for the disappointment by going on to a highly successful period in Wellington racing. You get a glimpse of just how hard he drove Crescendo, from an account of the 1972 Wellington to Akaroa race in the local Akaroa newspaper, quoting from Crescendo’s log.
“The race started in a 35 knot northerly, gusting 45 knots …In Cook Strait we ran into short, steep seas from 6-8ft, and this was the wildest part of the trip. We logged 13.8 knots, and were still carrying a kite and there was a slight increase in wind strength. Broached and jibed and had to cut guy rope to get spinnaker off. ‘Bloody exciting’, Barraclough recorded. “Crunch” Chris Crawford and Rory O’Shea took turns on the helm and called the waves to each other to keep Crescendo surfing down them.”
Crescendo led the fleet all the way, winning in 31 hours 25 mins, beating her own race record, set the year before, by a massive 27 hours 59 minutes.
There is a great set of photos of the crew in Akaroa after the race, featuring Bruce, who must have sailed with them, looking relieved and slightly shaken after his race with the indomitable Barraclough.
Barraclough sold Crescendo in about 1974, to my father, John Hollings. I can still remember, as an 11 year old, going on a test sail around the harbour with Brian. My brothers and I were wide-eyed as Rory and Crunch slung the boat around, bottles of DB rolling in the bilges. I remember Barraclough confiding that the trick to sailing the infamously broachable IOR boats downwind was to “keep her on a knife edge”.
He was right though; Crescendo under full spinnaker downwind in anything over 20 knots was a wild beast; not easily manoeuvred unless you wanted a full broach. As we were to discover when an unfortunate A class catamaran skipper tried to go about under our bow and ended up minus one hull. Ouch.
Upwind, Crescendo was a machine – like the best of those IOR boats she could point high and carry a lot of sail and keep going hard in heavy weather. Curiously, it was in very light wind that she came into her own. Something about her hull shape made her exceptionally easily driven, and she had the weight to generate enough momentum to generate apparent wind when many other bigger yachts seemed to stop. I have clear memories of ghosting past the much longer Whispers II downwind with our floater spinnaker.
More than that, she was also a comfortable and very safe cruising yacht, in which our family had many happy summers in the Sounds and Tasman Bay. A beautiful sea boat, very comfortable at anchor, and with a real warmth and spirit about her that all our family remember fondly.
She seemed to me to embody something of the spirit of Bruce; understated and immensely capable and reliable. I think he was really proud of Crescendo, as he often came sailing with us. I have one clear memory of rowing him ashore at Evans Bay. Obviously at something of a loss to what to say to a 12 year-old boy, he was silent for most of the journey, before remarking:
“The trick to wooden boat building is to find a piece of wood, then walk around the boat until you find a place where it might fit.”
Like her designer, Crescendo was a remarkable piece of New Zealand yachting history; an era when anyone could give it a go, and some wonderful things happened.