Hal Wagstaff was born in 1930 in Wellington. He was a scion of the successful boating family which had been co-founders of the Evans Bay Yacht and Motor Boat Club in 1919.
Hal trained in Wellington as an architect. His interest in design widened as he became involved with Len Southward’s Redhead during the late 1940s. From Southward he received hands-on experience in developing hulls for speed, and Hal became the secretary of the Speedboat Squadron at about the age of 18.
From an early age, Hal carried the nickname “Hurricane Hal” which some put down to the fact he was not the best racing sailor. This may be true when compared with his brothers, in particular Eric and Gary, but is hardly fair, as he had his own successes, not least winning the Cherub nationals as a crewman in Frolic, a boat of his own design in 1955. Frolic was built exceedingly light and included an experimental and rule-bending mast of composite ply and kahikatea.
Hal was not afraid of experimenting and put those experiments into real practice. Throughout his life he designed, built, tested, and tweaked over and over at an extraordinary rate. His quick mind, which retained knowledge, fuelled his energy which was also well suited to administration, where he made it the highest realms in international sailing. He was more than a “whirlwind” of activity, and the monicker of “Hurricane” well suited him in this respect.
Not surprisingly, given his family’s previous success with the class, Hal’s first design was for an X-Class for his brother Warren. Built by their father, she was named Volant. He followed this up by designing and with his crew, building a highly experimental (though still within tolerances) X-Class which, with its bluff bow section, was aptly named Bulldozer. Another unusual feature for a boat of this class is what appears in photographs to be a concave, or wineglass, tuck. Other X-Class boats were built to his designs through to the 1960s.
In 1954 Hal entered the competition to design the new X-Class. His design came second to Graham Mander’s.
Hal had a good friendship with the Mander boys, having billeted with them when he went with his brother Warren to Christchurch in 1945 for a regatta. Over the years the Wagstaff family returned the favour by billeting the Manders when they visited for regattas at Wellington and the Paremata Easter regatta.
This relationship with the Manders helped cement an interest in the design and development of small centreboarders in Hal. Hal had already begun designing them: his first was named Comment (1951), which he came second in the Leander trophy regatta in Christchurch in 1952. In 1958 the Evans Bay club supported the Manders’ effort to make the R-class a national class. In 1959/60 Hal designed Chamois, which won three national contests (Leander Trophy) in a row for different Wellington crews. Chamois formed the template of what became generally known as the “Wellington type” R class.
Hal went on to design the first International Moth in New Zealand, which he named Puriri. The rules for the Moth class gave plenty of room to play in, which suited Hal. Puriri was successful, and the plans were soon highly sought after. He eventually sold around 300 – one of which, even made it as far South as McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, where she was taken out for a sail by a helicopter pilot with the US Coastguard In 1965 Hal’s brother Gary won the National Moth Class championship in the Wagga Wagga, designed by Hal and built by his brother Gary.
During the 1960s Hal also began designing keelboats. Aside from an effort made as a 16-year-old which was never built (oh, to see those drawings!), his first design was basically a stretched out R class, named the Shiralee. She won both the Evans Bay and RPNYC B class championships in her first season. She later became well-known under the ownership of Allan Martin of the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club. In 1968 he won the competition run by the Royal Akarana Yacht Club for a ½ tonner design. Boats built to this design had quite a few victories. The most well-known local example is the Karamea. He went on to design other boats to the IOR rule, culminating in the Harmonic 24 going into production through the 1970s and early 80s. Hal also designed the very quick 8.5m Arabesque, the Compass 790, and a swathe of boats which generated a lot of interest, particularly in Japan in the late 1970s and 80s, where he sold many boats.
Hal first became involved in administration as an officer at the Evans Bay YMBC and the speedboat squadron from the late 1940s. In 1956 he became involved in Olympic team management, and continued to do so for decades to come. During the 1960s he joined committees of the New Zealand Yachting Federation (now Yachting NZ, he became president in 1989), and represented NZ at the International Yacht Racing Union (now the International Sailing Federation, he became vice president in 1994 – the highest rank held by anyone from the Pacific rim).
In 1981 Hal became a qualified international judge and officiated something over 50 international events in both centreboard and keelboats, including the Whitbread challenge.
All this led to him being awarded many accolades from sailing bodies around the world. He was awarded an OBE for services to the sport in 1985.
Hal was a man who insisted that things always be done right but was never bound by convention. He maintained his bright intelligence and involvement in the sport up to the time of his death, and definitely lived up to the name “Hurricane” Hal.