RPNYC and WWI, plus the Highets

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Minutes of the Port Nicholson Yacht Club state that out of a membership of 130 in 1917, 54 members were away at war.

They include Kenneth Cole, owner of the Ethel, a good looking chap with a taste for ladies of easy leisure, who after the Samoa campaign of 1914 was sent to France where he won the Military Medal. He was killed in action at the Somme in 1918. Also Colonel J. J. Esson (Wylo), mentioned in dispatches from Gallipoli, invalided back to NZ in 1916.

Some, like Rifleman Keith Mitchell (Nancy Stair), who spent three years in the front lines of Gallipoli, France and Belgium, suffered no worse an injury than a twisted ankle while playing football. Roland Ward of the Te Aro Sailing Club survived in uniform only a couple of weeks. He was declared missing in action, presumed dead (later confirmed by board of enquiry) at Gallipoli.

Others died of complications while recuperating from wounds or gas exposure. In 1918, George Beaumont (Atalanta) died of pneumonia in a military hospital in Egypt, as did Philip Gannaway whilst in hospital in Wales.

NZ Yachtsman 10 June 1916

As was common, many brothers joined up: These included Walter and Eric Brooke-Taylor, who had built and raced Amai with their father: Walter concealed a compound fracture to his leg sustained before embarkation, but was discovered, declared unfit, and discharged while en-route for Egypt. Eric was diagnosed with neurasthenia (shell shock) in 1918. Brothers Miles and George Hamill who raced the Highet-designed Redwing with the Te Aro Sailing Club, and later owned Ailsa with the Port Nicholson Yacht Club, joined the Ambulance Corps and did service in all major fronts (though George missed Gallipoli – his transport was torpedoed en-route). Brothers Robert, Gilbert, and Harry Highet all saw extended front line service, and survived (More on the HIghets below). The Freyberg family did not fare so well (see article).

The Highets

The Highets were a migrant family. They arrived in New Zealand as assisted immigrants in 1879, though by 1886 they were in Wellington living by the patent slip at Evans Bay where the father Thomas worked his trade as an iron moulder. Three children were born in the UK, six in NZ.

The boys gravitated to the water. Their first boat was Skipjack – judging by the name, a hard-chined centreboarder of the New England type which belonged to the eldest, John (Jack). The type set the tone for their design preferences.

The boys raced their boats with the Arawa Sailing club, the eldest boys Jack, sailing his own hard-chined 18 footer Maroro, and Gilbert “Gibb” their fourteen footer Rewa, also of their own design and build. Jack’s skills as a helmsman soon became apparent. It was felt that if you put him on the helm of any boat, he could be relied on to come away with a win. By the end of the 1890s he was sought after in the big money keelboat races of Port Nic.

The Arawa Sailing Club wound down around the turn of the century. The Highet boys were among the founders of the Te Aro Sailing Club (1906), which was generated for youngsters to develop their boat design and sailing skills. It was supported and sponsored by yacht owners who drew their crews from their ranks, and boatbuilders Charles Bringans and Ted Bailey. A great rivalry between this club and the Heretaunga Boating Club on the other side of the harbour, established also in 1906 along similar lines, developed.

The  Highets revealed their genius for hard chine yachts in the years running up to 1915, designing and building the 14 footers MC, Redwing, Kiatere, and Gee Whiz (sailed by Bob in the Nelson region). The youngest, Harry, designed the Kiatere. Harry also designed a yacht which was published in Oscar Freyberg’s column in 1910. However he ended up building Seabird, a hard-chined keelboat design published in the Rudder magazine, with his best mate Bill Waddilove. They felt it was rubbish and had no qualms about selling her shortly after. This was the only keeler built by a Highet, and was broken up in 2008.

Three brothers, Bob, Gibb, and Harry volunteered during WWI. Bob and Gibb were with the first landing at Gallipoli, and later fought in France and Belgium for the duration. Harry joined in 1916, and got a commission. One of his men in his memoirs thought him a good officer, though a rough diamond, and his mates struggled to understand how Harry HIghet made Lieutenant.

Harry survived Passchendaele, one of only seven of twenty-three officers in his battalion to do so. In 1918 He was awarded the Military Medal for his actions at Cambrai. Harry was at a loss to explain what it was for, and put it down to his Colonel having the right connections, wanting a few war heroes under his command.

Harry Highet in 1916

After the war, everyone went back to work in ‘proper’ jobs. In his spare time Harry toyed with the idea of a safe 7-footer with built in buoyancy compartments which any boy could build, sail, capsize and right by himself. He built a few prototypes, and came up with what was to become the P-class.

Harry continued to design square-bilged 14 footers into the 1940s. They were mostly sailed by Gibb’s son Clive, who designed the sail plans for the boats. Clive had a critical sense of the give and take of boat design, knew what he wanted from his boats, and how to get it out of them. Clive was the inventor of the handicapping that some readers may remember: 200/N+1 (where N=the boat’s placing). Among these 14 footers were the Putorino (1929), designed by Harry when he was working in that district in the Hawke’s Bay. Putorino was built of cedar, only ¼” thick, with a view to beating Ted Bailey’s crack Nancy at the 1930 Paremata regatta. Using a tent fly as a spinnaker, Putorino gave her a spanking.

Putorino was followed by Impudence (1934) and Innocence (1939), both raced as RPNYC boats (Clive was a rear commodore), but also with the Evans Bay Yacht and Motor Boat Club.

In 1938 Impudence was taken to Tasmania for a regatta. She and the Auckland vessel Vamp carried all before them. Impudence was sold upon her return to Ponsonby owners. Innocence was looking good in creating a name for herself as World War II broke out.

Clive joined the RNZAF flying P40s. He was shot down over Rabaul in 1944 and never seen again. Harry sailed his last race in 1945, and died in 1989 at Waikanae.

Royal Hobart Centenary Regatta – 1938

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