A Brief History of the Trans-Tasman Race

It’s been said that if you put two sailing vessels together with a common destination, it becomes a race.  This seems to have been the nature of the Trans-Tasman.  The “first” Trans-Tasman yacht race was held in 1931.  It had four yacht clubs involved, only three boats and skippers that apparently didn’t agree on where the finish line was.

When I first learned that Leda was the first New Zealand Yacht to win line honors I had a vision of this contest rivaling the defeat of the U.S.A. for the America’s Cup in 1983.  My ego was somewhat deflated when I first read accounts of the Trans-Tasman Race history to discover that it was not held on a regular schedule, often had few yachts involved and had not actually taken place very many times.  

I comment often about my youthful enthusiasms needing some years of wear to take off some of the sharp corners.  What really emerges when one takes time to look at these histories are amazing stories of people who were keen on yacht racing and the dedication they had to the sport.  The fact that they were few makes it all the more remarkable.

It is impossible for me, having grown up nearly a world away, in a younger generation and having not grown up in yachting tradition to fully comprehend what this may have meant in terms of national pride in 1951.  I know that thousands of people turned out to watch the start of the race and that it was followed keenly in the news.  I also know that Dooley, Kit and Erica where proud of the accomplishment, but because of temperament  and the perspective of four decades, tended to downplay its importance.  Yet, when the stories were told, a certain light in the eyes let you know that it had in fact been a grand adventure.  

As I’ve looked for histories of the various Trans-Tasman races I have discovered that it was not always from Auckland to Sydney.  I’ve discovered that there seems to be disagreement between sources on the number of times it took place.  I’ve also had some trouble documenting the yachts involved.  I will leave a detailed history to those who are better equipped to seek out the details.  Below are the years that I know of with a few details about each event as I know them.

1931 – Oimara (Australia), Teddy (Norway), Rangi (New Zealand), won by Teddy.  Sailed Auckland to Sydney.

1934 – Te Rapunga (Germany), Ngataki (New Zealand), won by Te Rapunga.  Sailed Auckland to Melbourne.

1938 –  Wayfarer (New Zealand), Aurora Star (New Zealand).  The race was abandoned due to a storm off North Cape.  Wayfarer limped back into port with damage and Aurora Star was blown so far off course that they started their motor to put in at Lord Howe Island.  After arriving in Sydney weeks later they discovered they would have won the event had they not used their engine.  A lucky series of events I suppose for Leda’s claim as first New Zealand yacht to win line honors.  The intended route was Auckland to Hobart.

1948 – Kurrewa III (Australia), Drifter (New Zealand), Wayfarer (Australia), Peer Gynt (Australia), Rangi (New Zealand), Seaward (New Zealand), Pagan (USA), won by Peer Gynt.  The first of three consecutive wins and four overall wins by the Halvorsen brothers.  Sailed Auckland to Sydney.

1949 – For some reason I am having difficulty finding information about this race.  I only know of its existence due to numerous accounts of the Halvorsen brothers having won twice in Peer Gynt.  I’ve not discovered a list of yachts, nor can I be certain of the route sailed.  Some histories do not credit the 1948 race as being part of “the series” as well.  It is unclear to me as why this is.  I suspect it might be due to which yacht clubs where involved, or not involved, as to whether it was recognized as an official race.  I’ve contacted some of the yacht clubs that might have been involved and find that records from that era are scarce.

1951 –  Southern Maid (Australia), Solveig (Australia), Tara (New Zealand), Leda (New Zealand), Rangi (New Zealand), White Squall (New Zealand), Hope (New Zealand), Ghost (New Zealand), Sea Wolf II (New Zealand), won by Solveig.  Sailed Auckland to Sydney with Leda taking line honors.  Third consecutive win for the Halvorsen brothers.

The Cup presented to Leda

1952 – Ladybird (New Zealand) Kurrewa III (Australia), Lahara (unkown), other entrants (if any) unknown as of the time of this writing, won by Ladybird.  This race was apparently Hobart to Auckland.  Ladybird is the first New Zealand yacht to win this event.

1954 – Ghost (New Zealand), Tiahoa (New Zealand), Hope (New Zealand) Nina (New Zealand), Black Rose (New Zealand), Ranganui (New Zealand), Snow Goose (Australia), Wraith of Odin (Australia), Kurrewa III (Australia), Te Rapunga (Australia), won by Tiahoa.  This race was held Auckland to Hobart.  Te Rapunga had an all woman crew for this event.

1961 – This race was won by the Halvorsen brothers in Norla (Australia), their fourth win, but as of this writing I can find little to no information to document other entrants.  

Histories seem to agree that this was the last Trans-Tasman Race of the era.  Sailors apparently decided Fiji was a much better destination.  Promises of palm trees and warm trade winds will do that I suppose.

My brief handling of this history is not to suggest there are not a lot of amazing stories to be told about these events.  The names of the yachts above include many vessels that are legendary.  The people who sailed them have their own fascinating stories.  I’ve enjoyed very much the research it took to give this brief report.  The history of the Halvorsens, George Dibbern and his yacht Te Rapunga,  Johnny Wray and Ngataki, and Ladybird and her impact on a young Peter Blake just to name a few.  

I suspect that better histories than I have discovered by searching via Google exist and should I become aware of them I will be happy to share.  There will be readers of this who are much more knowledgeable than I.  To them I apologize.  The effort has been worth the time for my own enjoyment.  Perhaps I will be lucky and fill in a piece that someone else has been searching for.