Some of New Zealand’s most illustrious grand prix sailing professionals have been taking time out from America’s Cup and ocean Maxi campaigns to devote time to reviving a modest 12ft dinghy class dating back to the 1950s. The Cherub Class was originally designed by John Spencer, who sparked a wave of plywood boats built in New Zealand backyards. It enjoyed a long period of popularity for its high-performance/low-cost appeal but eventually faded from the scene in the 1990s.
Now it is back and growing in popularity with new boats being built and old boats hauled out from under dusty tarpaulins and brought back to life. The impetus for this revival came when Mike Sanderson, whose America’s Cup, Volvo Ocean Race and Maxi racing credentials are well essayed, went looking for a sailing project he could do with his sons Merrick and Tom. Rather than just buying into a production one-design class Sanderson wanted something old school, which would allow for tinkering and tweaking, experimenting with new ideas and exploring the mysteries of what makes a boat go fast. It should also be fast, with a trapeze.
Trawling through online buy-and-sell sites, he discovered a Cherub advertised at NZ$1,800… and so it began. News quickly spread – ‘we posted a few videos online and it went gang-busters’. A little over two years later and a remarkable rebirth has occurred.
As of late last year, the rush to join the fun saw 11 new boats under construction, with a number of restorations underway. Attention was further sparked when Dean Barker teamed up with his daughter, Mia, and Ray Davies with his son, Hugo. In February 2021 Yachting New Zealand proudly reported that the North Island Cherub Championships had been won by the Barker father-daughter combination, with the Sanderson father-son pair second.
‘It was the first Cherub event in this country in more than 20 years. It featured a different format from normal that saw crews take part in a mixture of fun and friendly race types, including triangle courses, a 3nm windward-leeward course and a reverse handicap race,’ according to the YNZ bulletin.
Le Mans starts, with kids running down the beach, destination races and other initiatives have since been introduced to keep fun high on the agenda. To help foster further growth Sanderson then commissioned Dan Leech to design a CNC-cut plywood kit. He himself had two of these professionally built and imported a container-load of nine Cherubs from Australia to provide restoration stock.
As CEO of Doyle Sails, Sanderson offered loft support while Southern Spars and Ronstan also came to the party – as did an ice-cream sponsor! Meanwhile, Team New Zealand tactician and head coach Ray Davies set about building one of the Leech kitset boats in his garage with his son, Hugo. Davies has history in the class and campaigned Cherubs in the 1980s. Back then his first boat was built in the family garage with his father’s help.
‘In fact, four different pairs built boats out of the same moulds in our garage, one of which won the Nationals,’ Davies recalled. ‘It was great to repeat that father-son involvement with the next generation and fantastic that my dad was around while Hugo and I were building ours. ‘During the build we could see we were going to come in a bit overweight. Then we learned there were some cheap foam and carbon panels available, so our boat is a bit of a composite hybrid with plywood and carbon. We managed to come in at the minimum weight of 51kg. The class rule, as Spencer wrote it, did not specify materials, so fortunately it is pretty wide open in that regard.’
The result is a growing fleet comprising all-plywood originals to full carbon/foam newcomers with hybrid mixes of both in between. Unlike most of the other parent-child combinations, the Davies pair have 10-year-old Hugo on the helm and Ray on the wire.
‘We have set the boat up with two long tiller extensions, so I can assist from time to time, mostly on the downwind legs. These boats are pretty quick, not quite as fast as a 29er but not far off.’
The set-up has proved quite deadly. In December, as one of the closing events of a year-long celebration of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s 150th anniversary, a unique event was staged for dinghies to compete in the Bridge to Bean Race, negotiating the always choppy waters between the road bridge spanning the Waitemata Harbour and the distinctive Bean Rock Lighthouse at the harbour entrance. In the Cherub fleet the Davies duo took the honours, with the Sanderson pair close behind. Dean and Mia Barker actually crossed the finish line first but discovered they had inadvertently taken a short cut… Davies was sympathetic. He too had navigational issues: ‘The course was actually a bit confusing, but it was an awesome event. It was similar to the Bridge to Bridge Race in San Francisco – a fantastic idea.’
The Davies combination followed this victory by also taking out the Northland Championship title this January. Merrick Sanderson finished second, sailing for the first time without his father, who was immobilised after a knee operation. Brad Marsh, another Volvo Race veteran and current operations chief on the SailGP circuit, took Sanderson’s place at the helm.
While this revival of a historic New Zealand class and particularly its wholesome focus on family participation has been welcomed, it is not without its tensions. Inevitably rapid growth and a high degree of publicity around prominent figures in the class bring with them different perspectives and agendas. This emerged in the wake of the Northland Championships when Allan Roper, a longtime Spencer disciple and Cherub stalwart, declared he was stepping away. Roper has designed and campaigned a number of Cherubs and his son, Tim, actively competes at a high level in the class. He has built his own carbon and foam Cherub to his father’s design. Initially Roper wrote approving articles welcoming the class revival and Sanderson’s role, but he now says he does not like the direction it is taking. This follows a Facebook post from Sanderson announcing the formation of the NZ Family Cherub Owners’ Association ‘to help promote, govern and organise these family-oriented Cherub events just as we have been having for the last 12 months, but with some more structure and a strong forward plan.’ The thrust of Roper’s objection is not perfectly clear, but it seems to be against ‘pro sailors’ taking over a venerable class then just as quickly disappearing again, ‘leaving others to clean up the mess’. Sanderson and Roper go back a long way.
Roper encouraged and mentored Sanderson’s early sailing and would often pick him up from boarding school to drive him to regattas. Sanderson is grateful for that support but is not backing away from his current involvement with the class: ‘What we have done is very cool but it was never about reviving the Cherub Class for its own sake. I am using Cherubs to fill a gap in parent-child sailing in New Zealand. ‘Allan Roper feels a strong responsibility to the Spencer legacy and I understand that. But the fact is that when I bought an old Cherub a couple of years ago the class had died in New Zealand and Allan has acknowledged that. I will always defend my vision for family sailing over the history of the class. I won’t apologise or back down from that. For me it is about getting a wide spectrum of combinations – adults with kids, two kids, two adults, husbands and wives, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons – to do fun regattas using Cherubs as a tool.
‘I am very respectful of the Cherub history in the 1960s to ’80s,’ Sanderson adds, ‘but I am not going to be bound by Spencer’s concept for the rest of time and I am not going to be bullied by New Zealand’s Cherub legacy.’
Invoking All Black captain Richie McCaw’s philosophy to always leave something better than when you started, Sanderson notes: ‘Even if we walked away right now the Cherub would be in a far better position than when we began. It was completely dead. We now have about 30 Cherubs sailing in New Zealand and more in build or under restoration.’
Not that Sanderson is contemplating walking away any time soon. He sees himself having another couple of years sailing with Merrick, by which time his oldest boy will be ready to step up to 29ers. Then Tom, now aged 10, will be ready for his turn.
Meanwhile, Ray Davies is confident that with a bit of diplomacy emotions can be calmed. ‘Mike Sanderson is doing a fantastic job with a lot of passion. We just need to keep everybody together and talking to each other. We are only trying to keep it fun and all about the kids. There is 99 per cent buy-in from the owners on the direction it is taking.’
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