A Short History of Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club


The Early Days

The roots of the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club go back to the days of the Regatta Committee, which was first convened in late 1840, and annually thereafter, to organise events on the water to celebrate the anniversary of the colony. Events usually consisted of swimming events, sailing and rowing competitions between the smaller trading vessels, and a variety of whaleboats and workboats. Local Iwi would participate with waka races.

As the yachting pastime gained popularity through the 1870s, the committee found itself convening sailing races, predominately challenge racing for high stakes between two vessels, with increasing regularity. The races between the centreboarders Pet and Red Jacket are the most famous of these.

Members of the regatta committee convened to create a club to look after the interests of local yachtsmen, resulting in the establishment of the Port Nicholson Yacht Club in 1883. Governor General Sir William Jervois, who had been met and escorted by a flotilla of yachts from the short-lived Wellington Yacht Club when he arrived earlier that year to take up his position, was elected Commodore. He retained the office until 1887.

The 1890s were a watershed period for yachting in the region. The club adopted the rating rule developed by Dixon Kemp in 1887 for the Royal Yachting Association which left any remaining measurement rules evolved from commercial vessels behind. Boats were now pure racing machines. The top vessels were built at the rival yards of Bailey and Logan in Auckland. Many fine yachts raced in the Club during this period still survive, including Waitangi (Logan 1894), Rona (Logan 1893), Atalanta (Bailey 1894), Viking (Logan 1890), and Rogue (Bailey 1892).

The New Zealand Yachting Association – the country’s first national Yachting body – was created in 1891 and centred in Wellington, with the Port Nicholson Yacht Club acting as the authority for yacht and other sailboat racing events. From 1893 when it took over the full running of local regatta events from the Regatta Committee the club administered inter-provincial regattas which were held on Anniversary days in Wellington, Lyttelton and Auckland. In 1896, through the efforts of the Governor, The Earl of Glasgow, the Club obtained the Admiralty Warrant to fly the Blue Ensign. Harbour racing was popular with the citizens of Wellington and was watched closely. Tack-by-tack reports appeared in the local press during and after racing.


The turn of the century saw a sharp decline in the Club’s affairs. The overheads of running the big regattas, no less in competing in them, were crushing and they had fallen away by 1900. Perhaps the greatest factor in this local decline was the loss of protected mooring sites at Te Aro and around Pipitea point due to land reclamation, which made owning a large yacht a particularly risky prospect. In response, a delegation of wealthy yachtsmen campaigned and largely financed the building of the marina at Clyde Quay, which opened in 1904. It was the first such facility built in this country for the express use of recreational vessels and became the city’s yachting centre. The first tenant was the Viking, at the time owned by the Freyberg brothers, the youngest of whom was swimming champion, later war hero and Governor General, Bernard, for whom the swimming pool adjacent to the marina is named.

In 1906 the Te Aro Sailing Club was set up by teenaged and young men (there was one female member – Lalla Ward), with the support of senior PNYC members and local boatbuilders. Many of the most successful boats were hard-chined fourteen footers designed and built by the Highet brothers from their home at Evans Bay, where their father worked at the patent slip. The youngest, Harry, went on to design the P-Class after the war.

Yacht owners would largely draw their crews from the ranks of the new club, but their support in the development of young sailors had the effect that as they began earning some money, they wanted their own boats. This led to a reinvigoration of sailing in the region, as teenagers and young men began building small keelers between 20-25 feet, of designs generally drawn from British or American yachting publications, or purchasing racing boats somewhat past their prime. They created their own club (Te Ruru Sailing Club) in 1910/11, and raced during evenings – being for the most part clerks and workshop men, they had to work on Saturdays. The club also had a very busy social calendar. They involved their sisters and girlfriends by creating the first regular programme of women’s racing, where each vessel must have a female skipper on the helm; a concept that the Port Nicholson Yacht Club also adopted at this time.

All clubs began to flourish with this influx of new boats and young members. A regular social calendar was developed at PNYC, and its first offshore race took place in 1911. It was a successful concept, and offshore racing was a regular part of the calendar after the First World War.

One of the most dramatic changes of the early 1900s was the development of the motor launch. So popular had these power-driven vessels become that the Port Nicholson Motor Boat Club was formed in 1908 and the following year boasted 58 members and more than 30 launches. Races and other events were run by the Port Nicholson Yacht Club for the launches, including a race in which they had to be first rowed then towed by dinghy and finally motored to the finish line! The club operated more like an association, and folded when the National Power Boating Association set up a branch in Wellington in the early 1930s.

When war came in 1914, a huge number volunteered, and the three sailing clubs, the Te Aro, Te Ruru and Port Nicholson, merged in November 1915. It was reported in the annual report of 1919 that out of a membership of 130, 54 members had seen overseas service. Those at home kept things going, however.


The Club received its Royal Charter in October 1921.

Yacht racing between the wars was largely dominated by the yachts from the Le Huquet yard in Auckland. From around 1910, they had been bought up by Wellingtonians due to their superior heavy weather capabilities. These included Ailsa, Wairere, Wairere II, Viola, Galatea and Marangi. All but Wairere and Viola are still sailing local waters. The huskier boats from the yards of Logan and Bailey such as Iolanthe, White Heather, and Nanette also performed very well in the heavy weather during this time.

The Port Underwood race of the 1929–30 season was the first to be reported by radio. A wireless set was installed in Marangi by the Wellington Amateur Wireless Club and reports of the race’s progress were relayed through 2YA.

In December 1930 the well-known 26ft 6in Club yacht, Windward, made passage to the Chatham Islands crewed by I P Rollings, C A Steele, A H Irwin and D A Graham. Unfortunately Windward failed to reach Wellington on her return voyage. She was last sighted sailing in heavy conditions in Palliser Bay and is believed to have been lost close to home.

The depression of the early 1930s was felt by the Club, as it was by everyone else, and a serious decline in revenue and membership led to the curtailment of many social activities and the reduction of prize money. This cast gloom over the Club’s 50th anniversary in 1933.

The economic situation opened opportunities for again incorporating small boat racing and the development of young sailors.

The club was the first in the country to set a regular programme of racing for the 7-foot Tauranga class, later known as the P-Class. The club also hosted the first inter-provincial competition for the Idle Along class in 1936. Designed by Petone resident Alf Harvey in 1927, the class quickly grew to be the most popular in the country from the 1930s through to the 1950s, and was seen as a development boat between the P and X classes.

The Sanders Cup, the interprovincial 14 footer class, later known as the Rona/Jellicoe, then X class, was considered the blue riband event from the 1930s through to the 1960s. The club had a long association with the competition, having sent entrants since its second year when in 1922 Grafton Bothamley won the right to represent the Wellington province and skipper Governor General Jellicoe’s boat the “Iron Duke”. A serious focus went into campaigns during the 1930s, with the result that representatives from RPNYC, Evans Bay YMBC and Heretaunga Boating Club won the cup for Wellington in 1931, 1937, and 1938, in a decade otherwise dominated by Canterbury.

World War II

World War II affected the Club greatly. In the first year more than 100 members were in the forces and more were joining. Several well-known members were taken prisoner by the Japanese when Singapore fell, and spent the duration in Changi prison. They were Bill Mellor, Jack Maddever and Hugh Herd. Many more were lost in the European, African and Pacific theatres, including previous Vice Commodore Clive Highet, whose P44 was shot down over Rabaul in 1944.

At the outbreak of the war, a naval militia (Naval Auxilliary Patrol Service, or NAPS) was set up by private launch owners, led by Noel Manthel. Based at Clyde Quay, it patrolled the harbour and entrance. When the American forces arrived in New Zealand in 1942 the NAPS were disestablished and the Clyde Quay boat harbour was turned over to them. All craft other than those requisitioned for defence service had to be removed from the marina. Among the vessels kept here were landing craft destined for Tarawa and Iwo Jima.

Throughout World War II the Club operated in temporary premises provided by the Evans Bay Yacht and Motor Boating Club, and only returned to the old Clubhouse adjacent to the site of the Freyberg Pool when the Americans left at the war’s end. A serious lack of fuel curtailed launch activities in the years following the war but a small amount of fuel was eventually made available to enable boaties to keep their engines in order.


At war’s end, the club moved back to its previous premises, at the Freyberg pool end. The upper level of this and two other large buildings constructed by the US Navy were requisitioned by the government and turned into a hostel for men.

In 1946 Norman Thomas’s Ilex crossed the Tasman to be the first New Zealand yacht to compete in the Sydney to Hobart race. His son Roydon, 13 at the time, remains the youngest crewman to participate in the race.

Tragedy befell the club during the 1951 Wellington-Lyttelton race, which saw the loss with all hands of the Argo and Husky. Ten lives were lost, and only one vessel of a fleet of twenty managed to complete the race. It remains the single worst yachting disaster in New Zealand’s history, and many tales of real heroism arose in the prevention of what may have been an even worse tragedy.

The Club’s main concern in the early 1950s was to obtain a new clubhouse and there was much fundraising activity including the selling of “Special Life Memberships” at £25 each. With support from the Harbour Board, tenancy of one of the three buildings left by the US Navy was negotiated in 1956. After extensive renovations, including the demolition of the other two, the building was opened as the new clubhouse on 1 November 1958, on the site the present clubhouse uses.

The opening of the clubhouse marked a sharp increase in the number of members and new boats. In 1966 the old clubhouse, since refurbished to house the Sailing Academy, was converted to separate sheds to accommodate dinghies (known as the Coene sheds in memory of a US commander who was sympathetic to club interests during and after the war). Also a marina was constructed at Evans Bay, providing much-needed sheltered berths for the growing fleet of keelers and large launches.


The Club’s next major development was the construction of the slipway in the boat harbour, which greatly improved hauling out facilities. At the time the slipway was covered by the Coene Sheds and keelers had to be slipped stern first with their masts just ahead of the shed roof. A contract was let to demolish the top storey of the Coene Building, and to open up the slipway leaving the sheds either side intact. These sheds were used to house the fleet of centreboard yachts of the day and are now used for dinghies, general storage and the Club RIB.

The start box at Point Jerningham was built in 1968, which greatly facilitated centreboard racing and windward/leeward race management.

In 1960 Pat Millar brought the Sanders Cup back to Wellington and defended it successfully for the next two years. Hugh Poole maintained Wellington’s 1960s domination of this class, winning it over four consecutive years from 1967.

Success in small boat racing continued when in 1976 Hugh Poole, Chris Urry and Gavin Bornholdt won the National Soling title in Auckland in Hugh’s yacht, Solitude, and went on to represent New Zealand at the 1976 Olympics. Hugh Poole and Hal Wagstaff were members of New Zealand Olympic yachting teams, and Hal Wagstaff was elected President of Yachting New Zealand from 1989 to 1991.

The late 1960s and 70s saw local yachtsmen extend themselves on a more regular basis and in more numbers in blue water cruising and racing.

In the summer of 1968 the 45ft Matuku (Kem Cox) struck a whale in the Tasman Sea and sank. The crew were rescued after drifting in their life raft for five days.

In 1973 seven Club keelers competed in the Auckland to Suva race, with Geoff Stagg’s Spencer 45 Whispers II winning on handicap. He followed this up in 1975 in the Whangarei to Noumea race when he took Division A Honours in his Spencer designed IOR yacht, Whispers of Wellington. Nine Wellington yachts took part in this event.

Ron Jarden represented New Zealand with his yacht Barnacle Bill as part of the New Zealand Admiral’s Cup team in 1975.

Altair (Stan Moore) and Carina (Bob Holford) competed in the Sydney to Hobart race, while three Club yachts competed in the Whangarei to Noumea race with Takohe (Lance Gatehouse) being lost on the return voyage.


In 1983 the Club celebrated its centennial and so began another phase of its development. The time had come to review the Club’s tenancy of the clubhouse and its relationship with the Wellington Harbour Board. At that stage, the Club had no apparent legal title to the clubhouse despite alleged “gentlemen’s agreements” concluded many years earlier. The question of the clubhouse’s ownership demanded resolution. The Club finally purchased the clubhouse in 1986 for $21,000 with a 60 year on-site lease.

No sooner had the ink dried on the lease document than plans were drawn up to completely rebuild the Club’s newly acquired building. In May 1987 the builders moved in. The official opening by the Governor-General took place on 29 November 1987 when the entire Clubhouse including restaurant, wardroom, offices, conference room and associated facilities were opened to members. The remarkable transformation was due to some innovative fundraising involving the introduction of corporate memberships.

At the May 1991 AGM the Club’s Executive Committee launched stage one of the “Sailing Development Programme” concept. The aim was to provide advanced training of yachtsmen and the first step in this programme had been taken in July 1991 with the purchase of a 5.8 metre RIB, Te Aro, to support on-the-water activities. Stage two of the Sailing Development Programme was launched on 3 July 1993 with the opening of RPNYC Sailing Academy, a full-time sail training amenity for the Wellington region.

Originally based at the north end of the Overseas Terminal, the Sailing Academy operates two purpose-designed and built Muir 8.2 keelboats for on-the-water tuition. In 1998 the old Clubhouse at the eastern end of Clyde Quay boat harbour was completely renovated and the Sailing Academy relocated there with purpose-built training and administrative facilities. Sir Peter Blake was the guest of honour at the official opening in November 1998. This facility is a credit to those Club members, including our late President Alan Martin and Penny Kerr, who volunteered time and money to provide a world-class yacht training facility.

In 1993 the Club became an active participant in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race (now the Volvo Ocean Race) for the first time. The 7th of November of that year saw the launching of Grant Dalton’s New Zealand Endeavour jointly flagged out of the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club and the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. New Zealand Endeavour went on to finish as top Maxi and fastest yacht overall in the 1993-1994 Whitbread.

At 1400 hours on Sunday 4 December 1994 the Mayor of Wellington started the historic first leg of the inaugural Tasman Triangle Yacht Race. The race was run in conjunction with the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia and the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania and incorporated the 50th Anniversary Sydney to Hobart Classic Yacht Race. This was the first time that the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club has participated as an organising club in a major blue water event. The Tasman Triangle attracted 11 entries with a significant showing from Wellington.

The overall winner of the event was Lindsay England and the crew of Whispers II. Whispers II was also placed third in the Veterans Section of the 1994 Sydney to Hobart race.

In the course of 1994 the Club and the Wellington City Capital Development Agency successfully bid to host the British Telecom Global Challenge fleet. The fleet comprised of 15 one design steel hull 60 foot yachts which were to circumnavigate the globe against the prevailing winds and currents. The fleet arrived in Wellington late in 1996 and departed in February 1997. This was the first time that the Club has hosted a round the world yacht race.

Te Aro was replaced in 2001 by a new, purpose-designed, 8m Naiad RIB, Te Ruru, substantially funded by the New Zealand Community Trust.

In 1999 Stewart Thwaites brought the Club its first real success in the Sydney to Hobart by winning in IRC handicap both Division A and overall fleet result with Starlight Express.


In 2003 Thwaites took his efforts at the Sydney to Hobart Race to the next level by commissioning Zana, later renamed Konica Minolta, in a bid to win line honours. He came second in a very close race, by only 14 minutes, to Skandia. The following year she was forced to retire while in the lead due to gear failure in very rough conditions. Half of the fleet that year were also forced to retire in dramatic circumstances. Thwaites continued to campaign her in Australia and New Zealand. He won the Auckland to Noumea and Auckland to Tauranga races in record time. Later in 2005, Konica Minolta won the Auckland-Suva race in two days, smashing the record held since 1989 by 28 hours.

May 2003 saw the biggest Club blue water fleet since the Tasman Triangle leave Wellington for the Auckland to Musket Cove (Fiji) race. Starlight Express, Andiamo, Pretty Boy Floyd and Kahukura II all represented RPNYC. Konica Minolta, Te Manawa and Gucci competed in the 2005 Auckland Suva race, and Ladymink competed in the 2006 race.

In 2007, Carl Jackson circumnavigated the South Island in his 100 year old racer Marangi.

In the ownership of Brent and Deb Dewhust, Gucci has probably put more distance under her keel than any vessel in the Club’s history. In 2015 Gucci left for the Pacific and has put thousands of miles under the keel.

The Youth Sailing Scheme, established in 1992, saw a return to serious efforts to develop a love of sailing, teamwork, and strong sailing skills in Wellington over the long term. In 2014 the Scheme’s sailors achieved both first and second place in the NZ Youth Match Racing Nationals, and have since put in consistent placing results in national and international competition.

2014 also saw success for the Club’s big boats when Tony and Vesna Wells’s Blink won the Elliot Trophy for line honours in the two-handed round the North Island race (sailed by Tony Wells and the boat’s designer Rob Shaw), with Wedgetail coming third on IRC corrected time. Blink competed in the Auckland to Fiji Race in 2016 and was 3rd monohull on line (behind the V70 Giacomo and 88 foot Shaman). Three Club boats competed in the 2017 two-handed RNI being the 40th anniversary of its incepton by Sir Peter Blake : Blink with husband and wife team Tony and Vesna Wells, The Guarantee with Geoff Herd and Phil Gurnsey, and Wedgetail with father and daughter team Meric and Rebecca Davies. Cook Strait was capricious for the arrival of the second leg into Wellington, becalming the leaders to drift in the tide for hours then whipping the chasing pack with gales. Blink finished as the overall winner of Division 1 and again won the Elliot Trophy for overall fastest time.

In 2015 the wardroom was refurbished in partnership with Wellington Hospitality Group. As part of the project the restaurant area at street level was completely made over and reopened as Coene’s Bar & Eatery – named after the Commander of the US forces based at Clyde Quay during WWII.

From 2016 Line 7 is once again primary sponsor of the Port Nicholson Regatta, reigniting a relationship which began with the first running of the event in 1999.


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