Editorial and Imagery // Ivor Wilkins for the Breeze Magazine (official magazine of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron) – Wired leads wire to wire to the Three Kings Race prizes.
With the northern capes of New Zealand reduced to a faint outline low on the horizon, the Three Kings Islands rise up as dark and forbidding sentinels at the turbulent confluence of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea.
Although conditions at this isolated outpost were relatively benign for the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s Three Kings Race in early April, the opposing NE and SW wave trains created challenging conditions and gave notice of great forces at work at this junction between two oceans.
Just two weeks earlier, the fishing vessel Enchanter had encountered massive seas in the area and floundered with the loss of five lives. And, with cyclone Fili lurking in the north, there was a powerful sense of a need to tread carefully in a place that always demands the upmost respect.
The Three Kings Race – last staged by the RNZYS in 1978 – was one of the signature events of the club’s 150th Anniversary celebrations. Delayed because of the Covid pandemic, the event initially drew close to 40 entries, but revised schedules and changed circumstances reduced the number of starters to 20 – 16 in the fully crewed division and four in the two-handed division.
The course took competitors from the start in front of the RNZYS to the Three Kings, rounding the entire group to starboard and then back to the finish at Westhaven, a distance of some 500 miles.
Leading into the start, the forecasts changed daily, but finally promised southerly quarter winds all the way up the North Island east coast, obligingly shifting easterly around North Cape for the northwesterly slant to Three Kings and continuing round to SW for much of the passage home.
In reality, it followed the script, although the winds tended to be at the upper end of the forecast range for much of the race, presenting brisk and occasionally challenging sailing, particularly in the far north. Wired, the much-campaigned Bakewell-White TP52 skippered by Rob Bassett, took up position at the front of the fleet inside the Waitemata Harbour and never relinquished it for the remainder of the race, commanding an extraordinary sweep of all the prizes in the fully-crewed division: 1st on line, 1st on PHS, 1st on PHRF.
“We had a good race,” Bassett acknowledged with typical understatement. “We had a pre-race plan and pretty much stuck to it. We went wide early, sailed outside Tiritiri Matangi and outside the Hen and Chicks, fast reaching and hitting speeds in the high twenties.
“I have done a hell of a lot of miles on the boat and we have a good idea of what it likes. We sailed to the conditions, mostly with a Code Zero and small staysail. We did not run spinnakers at all – we would have blown them to smithereens.”
Following a delayed start at 4.55pm, the fleet soon found itself racing north through a dark night. “It was pitch black, with no moon and we were steering by the numbers,” noted Carl Whiting on the Davidson 55, Emotional Rescue.
“Conditions were quite challenging, but we were entertained for about an hour with a pod of dolphins around us. They were jumping out of the water, so close we could feel the splash on board. They were like torpedoes through the water, with their tails lighting up the phosphorescence. You only see that sort of thing when you are doing this type of offshore racing – very special.
“Approaching Poor Knights, it became much windier than expected.” Running with a masthead spinnaker, Whiting said it was difficult to see the waves ahead. “We were often heeled well over as we came off waves.
“It was quite a difficult night and we were not surprised to see some boats withdraw.” Five boats retired, including one of the pre-race favourites, V5, which never made it out of the Waitemata Harbour after developing engine problems.
Several of the skippers remarked on the dolphins and phosphorence, including Nathan Williams on Mr Kite, a Cape 40 canting keeler, which had an excellent race, frequently clocking 20-24 knots and finishing 2nd on line behind Wired, ahead of several much larger yachts. Mr Kite was also 2nd on PHS and 3rd on PHRF, behind Hamish McLaren’s Omega.
Approaching the Poor Knights Islands on the passage north, Mr Kite switched from a furling Code Zero to a gennaker. “We carried that from 10pm on the Thursday night right through to 3pm the following afternoon as we came in towards Three Kings.
“We had more breeze than we were expecting, that’s for sure,” he said, “but nothing we couldn’t manage. It brought us up the coast nice and quickly, which meant we were able to go around Three Kings in daylight, which we were not expecting.”
Mr Kite normally sails with five crew, but work commitments meant one had to drop out. “We sailed with four, rather than bringing on somebody that we didn’t know. We have done a lot of two-handed racing, so it was no problem. We ran a rolling watch, basically with at least two on deck all the time and somebody switching out every hour.”
Another outstanding performance came from Shane Bellingham, who made a clean sweep of line and handicap victories in the two-handed division. Sailing the Thompson 38, Titanium, Bellingham and his crew, Ben Beasley, were always up with the bigger front runners; their finish time back in Auckland would have placed them 4th overall on line in the fully-crewed division.
Bellingham, in fact, intended racing with a full crew, but most had to withdrawn for various reasons, leaving him with Beasley, who is an RNZYS Youth Programme graduate. “I hadn’t sailed with Ben before,” said Bellingham. “He contacted me to ask if he could join the crew for the race. When everybody else pulled out, I decided to just go with Ben. He proved very handy, good value.
“The running conditions heading north suited us,” Bellingham added. “We get up planing before the bigger boats, which kept us in the game. Having said that, sailing two-handed does limit our ability to trim fast.
“After North Cape, the sea state was very lumpy and confused. We tore our K2 spinnaker halfway between North Cape and Three Kings. We probably should have taken it down four or five hours earlier. We switched to a fractional kite for the rest of the way, but we had 120 miles of very fast sailing under spinnaker, which was awesome.”
The highlight, of course, was the Three Kings rounding. “It was quite eerie and menacing approaching the islands,” said Carl Whiting. “We called it Jurassic Park.
“We went round the West Island in the last of the daylight and left the final island in the dark.” Emotional Rescue was fourth to make the rounding, in close company with Equilibrium (Graham Matthews’ Marten 55) and behind Wired, Mr Kite and Titanium. The remainder of the fleet rounded in the night, with the backmarker clear by 4.30am.
The best strategy after the Three Kings rounding was to tack immediately back towards Cape Reinga and then put in a couple of tacks to North Cape. Bellingham on Titanium pushed quite close inshore and found a significant lift in flat water.
Up ahead of them, Nathan Williams had taken a similar line, but not as close to land and kept a close watch on Titanium’s gains. “They took about 15 miles out of us on that leg to North Cape,” said Williams. “Nice for them, but a bit disappointing for us.”
Emotional Rescue took a different approach and paid a steep price for heading further offshore after Three Kings. “It was a tactical error,” Whiting admitted. “It was really rough, with the boat slamming hard in the dark, tough on board with everybody getting pretty tired.”
After all the drama offshore, the most familiar patch of water, from Rangitoto to the Harbour Bridge, was a complete contrast – slow work upwind in very light conditions.
As always, there were races within races and although the prizes go to the front-runners, there were other triumphs and moments to savour.
In the late afternoon of Sunday April 10, General Committee member Mike Malcolm texted a screen shot of the Yellow Brick tracker to friends. It showed five boats – Matewa (Charles Hollings, Xp44), Bird on the Wing (Mike Malcolm, Beneteau 50), Niksen (Marc Michel and Logan Fraser, Dehler 30), Katana (Nigel Garland, Sunfast 3600) and Kick (Brendan Sands, Elliott 1050) – sailing up the harbour together after nearly four days of racing to finish within 15 minutes of each other.
For Carl Whiting, a lifelong sailor, a Star world champion and three-time America’s Cup veteran, the run from North Cape to the Three Kings was “one of the best day’s sailing in my life”. He added, “It was very special to do that in our own backyard, on my own boat and surrounded by my friends.”
“It was amazing sailing really,” Nathan Williams agreed. “This type of long offshore racing is really good. Absolutely I think we should do it again. There is not enough of it.”
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