1951 Trans-Tasman Race

This race is better detailed through the news articles available in the Digital Archive.  I will instead give a brief overview here along with a few of the oral histories that had been shared with me.  

By 1951 Leda had been campaigned in races around New Zealand and was gaining notoriety.  The 1240-mile race across the Tasman was going to be her biggest event and challenge to date.  Nine yachts and nine veteran crews.  A crowd of thousands to watch the start of the race.  I can hardly imagine the thrill it must have been. 

The Halvorsen brothers, racing in Solveig, were yachting legends by this time.  It is my understanding that they were also responsible in some manner for arranging the celebration and award ceremony that was scheduled to take place in Sydney after the finish of the race.   Apparently there was a strike taking place in Sydney that was causing a shortage of beer.  I’ve tried to find information regarding this via the internet and it would seem that in those years this was a fairly common occurrence and so singling out this particular event has been unfruitful.  So along with all the other preparations for the race, the Halvorsens are reported to have purchased enough beer in Auckland to provide for the event.  Their yacht, Solveig, being 36-feet in length was deemed as too small to carry the quantity of beer required for the event.  Instead they packed it all into Leda’s stores.  It’s unclear to me how much beer is really required for such an event.  I’d hazard a guess that a bunch of yachties who just sailed over a thousand miles might require more than a few.

Front, left to right: Dooley Wilson, Kit Wilson, Terry Hammond, Erica Wilson, Sandy Wilson.
Back: Arthur Wratten, Frank Gray, Harry Gray, Keith Coleman

The race started in fine weather and Leda put on a good show to the north end  but the yachts were all becalmed a number of times after entering the Tasman.  Often within shouting distance of each other, at one point the crew of the Solveig was invited over for a dance.  Leda had a phonograph on board and Dooley was an avid collector of jazz.  I can imagine that Artie Shaw was playing and could be heard across the water.  As near as I know, the Solveig crew did not indeed join them on deck for some dancing, but it makes for a romantic image.

Leda, having two women on board for the race would have provided a much nicer environment for dancing than most yacht crews of the day.  Kit and Erica were proving themselves to be valuable members of the crew.  The news articles in the Digital Archive make a lot out of this aspect of the race.  Many of the comments made are cringe worthy by today’s standards.    It’s true they were pretty much viewed as galley slaves.  They were in fact the first women to participate in a Trans-Tasman Race.  I met both women.  There was nothing about either one of them to suggest that they were not competent and keen to compete.  But more about that in the section, Kit and Erica Wilson.

The Can Opener Incident was made famous by the news coverage it got.  One might wonder about Leda receiving newspapers that gave reports of the location of the other boats.  However in a twist of irony, Sandy was the yachting reporter for the Auckland Star.  One of the daily duties included a report to the paper detailing the race, so the reports in the paper of vessel locations originated from the yachts reporting to Leda so that it might be printed.

The wind came in spurts from different directions.  The yachts were either seeking wind or shortening sail.  Eventually Leda’s lead was overtaken by Rangi, a vessel with a long history in the Trans-Tasman.  When the wind eventually blew up into storm conditions contact between the vessels was lost and during the last leg into Sydney nobody knew who was actually in the lead.  It was not until Leda was met at the finish line that they discovered they were indeed the first one home.  

Solveig, finishing some 14-hours later won on corrected time, the third consecutive win for the Halvorsen brothers.  But wait!  What happened with the beer?  I was aghast when the story of the beer was told to me.  I said something to the effect, “They won on corrected time?  Leda should have been given special consideration in handicap for carrying all the beer!”  Dooley’s reply to that was, “Don’t take it too seriously.  We didn’t.”  For all I know the extra ballast helped her waterline length.  I’ve always liked that aspect of the story.  It gives me the impression that despite being keen competitors that the adventure, the fun and the party were really more important.  Probably good lessons to live by.