We are sorry to learn of the passing recently of Hon. Life Member Bruce Askew. Bruce joined the Club in 1946, and remained an integral Club member. Never taking senior positions, he nevertheless worked behind the scenes in committee roles, particularly in the sailing committee and acting as measurer and safety inspector. He is most well-known of course as a boat designer of great dexterity, and his hand can be seen in many of the boats which have passed through the Club register over the years. He was a joy to be with and listen to, and will be sorely missed.
In a 1973 article Dave Pardon challenged himself to sum up Bruce Askew in one word. The word he came up with was ‘versatile’. It’s definitely a good one. Bruce has designed all kinds of vessels since his first keeler hit the water in 1950, including dinghies, racing and cruising yachts, and launches of all different sizes for all different kinds of jobs. His design has extended into houses (including his own), a private astronomical observatory, and sundry other things for industrial purposes: packing cases, cradles, etc. He also got to work on Plimmer’s Ark when it was excavated in 1999!
To the word versatile, I think I would add ‘playful’. Bruce had a playful personality. He liked tinkering and, like most very intelligent people, had a habit of giggling to himself at some little joke which could take days to catch up with.
Bruce’s main concern in whatever he designed was that it should first and foremost be reliable and completely seaworthy. This no doubt is due to his early training with Athol Burns and his exposure to the lore of the Island Bay fishermen. Bruce once found a teak door from the Wahine wreck on the beach. He made that into a dining room table – perhaps it acted as some kind of memento mori, though he was as far as possible from being a morbid man.
Bruce is descended from the family of Askews who ran small trading vessels around the Marlborough Sounds and the West Coast during the 1800s. Born and raised in Wellington, he took to the water right away – his father owned several boats, including Atalanta, and Bruce cut his teeth in the P-class as a boy. In 1948, teenager Bruce and his mate Dick McMorran (Kimbo’s dad) took Atalanta out and were showing off to some girls (Bruce’s own words), when he ran Attie up onto some rocks. No-one was hurt and there was no drastic damage done. His dad took it remarkably well, though suggested it might be time Bruce got his own boat.
Bruce was an apprentice builder, and had helped his dad rebuild Atalanta, so had some good joinery skills and access to some tools. He began hanging around Athol Burns’ workshops at Craft Construction at Balaena Bay. Burns took Bruce under his wing and gave up an evening per week to teach Bruce about the theory of boat design, giving him plenty of reading matter as well. It was through his experience with Burns, and what he saw in the working boats, that Bruce developed his emphasis on designing truly seaworthy boats.
During his building apprenticeship, Bruce spent a lot of time at Island Bay, building a baithouse for the Italian fishermen there. Conversations usually featured “boats, weather, building techniques, boats, tides, the price of fish, boats, engines, the weekend rugby, boats, materials, and so on”. Bruce had his first foray in paid boatbuilding work when he made a tiller and rudder for Joe Muollo for which he received his first bottle of wine. Bruce would spend a lot of time hanging around Island Bay, getting involved with the work and the community. All of this gave him a keen sense of what the tides can do, when they might do it, and how to read the weather. “Never trust an Easterly” was one of the mantras of the fishermen at that time.
Karu was launched in 1949/50 when Bruce was 18. She was a Bermudan rig, with a square section hollow mast – the first in Wellington, and a masthead rig at a time when most were fractional. Masthead rigs soon became standard for offshore boats until Bruce Farr changed it up again in the 1970s.
Karu was entered in the 1951 Wellington to Lyttelton race. Bruce was on the event organising committee, and on the morning of the race start, warned the committee that he thought the weather – at that moment a bright day with a light easterly – did not bode well. The older heads did not take the upstart seriously, and the race went ahead.
Bruce had read the conditions well: Karu was first to weather Halswell, and get out of the heads, where the boys found a big slop and not much wind. They carried on for several hours before Bruce made the decision at Baring Head that something was not right, and withdrew from the race. Shortly after, becalmed at Pencarrow, the yacht Joy came past with George Brasell on board who told them he thought something very bad was coming. As Karu had no engine, Joy took them in tow back to Wellington. Only the canny East Coast seaman and the young guy who listened to the Island Bay fishermen felt the coming of NZ’s worst yachting disaster.
Bruce sold Karu soon after to pay for his wedding and new household. She is now a liveaboard boat moored at Seaview.
His next drawing was the Pandora, which was his favourite yacht design. When he had the opportunity, Bruce purchased her and did a lot of sailing. She is now owned by John Schuyt and can be seen out and about around Wellington.
Bruce’s sideline in boat design grew during the 1960s and 70s, and he got a reputation for being able to do anything – in fact that was his preference. Can you design me a 60 foot steel cutter? Sure! An IOR quarter tonner? Why not? A runabout? A Cabin Cruiser? A commercial fisher? A fantail steam launch? A gaff cutter? A dinghy? Can you convert what I have into something completely different? What about a troop carrier? Or something for the physically disabled? Yep, bring it all on, sounds fun.
And that’s what boating was to Bruce: Fun.
Bruce designed some great boats, but you’ll not hear his name used in the same breath as Townson, Stewart, Farr, Young, Spencer, or Wagstaff. Those guys designed amazing racing boats and could include an eye for the occasional cruise, but they never had the range in designing for timber, concrete, steel, as well as composites, and in such wide variety. His is a name which should be more associated with Lidgard, Collings, Le Huquet, and Burns. Bruce enjoyed a good race, but first and foremost in his mind was to build an efficient vessel, that won’t let the sea kill you without a fight.
Below are some examples of Bruce’s work over the years. You will also see more, in very large format, on the walls of the Moore Wilson’s wine beer and spirits outlet at Kenepuru. You should check it out some time.
You can always judge the quality of a draughtsman by the way they draw with a free hand. Bruce’s drawing of Rona done with a fine pen in 1967 is pretty hard to fault – the deftly drawn curve of the forestay, the pressure in the jib and staysail halyards, as well as the bowing gaff on the reefed down main perfectly render the power and speed which is generated reaching in a good Wellington blow. Bruce later drew a detailed rigging plan for John Palmer’s full restoration during the 1980s. He also did the same in more recent years for Rogue, Lizzie, Atalanta, and no doubt many others
Kokotahi This boat was commissioned to act as a support boat for Evans Bay Yacht and Motor Boat Club in 1975. The was required to be tough and versatile. Designed by Bruce and built in Gisborne. She is still in service in the role for which she was designed and has pulled off some incredible feats in her day.
What Bruce Askew had to say about the design (Sea Spray June 1975):
“The sailing committee produced a list of requirements that leaves little designing to be done, i.e.
hard chine for stability moulded construction glassed over to reduce maintenance, sufficient draught
to minimise drift, diesel power with a large propeller for a good static pull (the proposition is for a
Volvo Penta MD2B with 3.42:1 box driving a 530mm prop). The brief also calls for at least two lying
down and low-sided self-bailing cockpit large enough to start a yacht race from.
“My contribution to the requirements is the inclusion of buoyancy material arranged to maintain
stability when swamped, plus, of course, the general configuration.
I have chosen an undeveloped hull as I feel that any time taken in fitting diagonal planking (boards,
not ply) is more than offset by the simple framing.
“The raised foredeck is sharply tumbled home to assist visibility and windage and she should make
7kn in most conditions… including an Evans Bay NW chop!In general this is a more simplified version of the little fishing/cruising launch I designed a few years ago and I can imagine it having appeal as a family launch, subject to a few minor modifications.”
A troop carrier Bruce and his partner Les Evans had lined up a very lucrative contract with the Australian Government for this vessel, from which a fleet might be built to work the Eastern seaboard from Tasmania to PNG. The contract fell through with a change to a less belligerent Whitlam government and a burgeoning oil crisis in late 1973.
Pandora Bruce’s second yacht design. His humour comes through in this construction drawing with the large lockers allocated to the storage of Rum, Whisky, Gin and Brandy.
Atalanta proposed sail plan. Bruce has drawn several proposals for Atalanta, including sail plan, her lines, and structural plan for a centreboard arrangement should we want to revert back to that (her original) configuration. It’s a somewhat conservative plan in area, but does mean that she will be able to carry full sail for a lot longer in both heavy and lighter conditions: very well suited in short, for Wellington.
Bruce was been a great supporter of the Wellington Classic Yacht Trust, since he first started clambering over Lizzie when she arrived at Evans Bay in 2010. He was a great mine of information, and freely gave sage advice in all areas and in all stages of her restoration.
This carried over into Atalanta. Of course he had a personal interest in her, going back all those years to when he worked on her with his father as a boy. Bruce explained some finer points of her history, including what he did and didn’t like about her various configurations. Bruce took her lines, drew an appropriate gaff cutter sail plan, and also a plan with specifications for a centreboard configuration, should the Trust want to revert to that (the original) format. All of this he did for free.