Barkers 1972June 2, 2019

The men who stare at boats


Ever wondered what those huddles of blokes with their tiny yachts are up to? Alex Casey hit the Onepoto pond to find out. 

This story originally ran in Barker’s 1972 magazine.

It was a 250,000-year journey to get to one perfect moment in Onepoto Domain on Auckland’s North Shore. All that needed to happen was a volcano erupting, a crater forming, a lake freezing and unfreezing. Then the evolution of human life, the subsequent voyage to faraway lands, and the development of modern technology. Crucial steps, all leading to surely one of the funniest things that has ever happened: a man pushing another man into a putrid pond for beating him in a radio yacht race.

The New Zealand Radio Yacht Squadron meets every Sunday afternoon, by the pond inside Auckland’s oldest volcanic crater, to race their miniature yachts. They’re 1989 America’s Cup replicas, I’m told, and they cost around $700 a pop. “I used to have real boats,” grins club president Richard Plinston from beneath his cap, “but then I got married.” There are several series throughout the year, with many coveted, full-size trophies to be won.

Just like boring old regular-size boats, the smaller models are powered by the wind and steered by the angle of the sails and the rudder, all controlled by a handheld radio device on shore. “It’s all about practice,” says Richard. “Knowing how to sail helps, but mostly it’s just a matter of doing it until you get better.”

Photo by Sylvie Whinray

Later that day, I would take one of the club boats out for a spin, promptly crashing it into the jagged edge of the pond and chipping some paint on the hull. Thankfully, nobody pushed me in.

Currently boasting 18 members, the NZRYS appears to be pretty tranquil when I arrive for their match race day. Cicadas fill the silence as 10 or so members slather on sunblock and tweak their boats on the grassy knoll next to the pond. “As you may note, we’re not youngsters,” says Richard. “Most of the people here are retired or at least semi-retired.” Another member, John, leans over to translate. “Plenty of old farts here.” The socks were pulled high, to be sure.

Everyone brings their own boats and there are four extras belonging to the club, donated by members before they moved into retirement homes. “We have had members join in their 20s and 30s, but what always happens next is they get married, have children and never come back.” They had one teenage boy join a few years ago, but it was not to last. “Like all 14-year-olds, they move onto the next thing pretty quickly,” says Richard.

Because, sadly for 14-year-olds, good things take time. Richard reckons he got the hang of radio sailing in about six weeks. Terry, a 10-year member, says it took him two years to get the basics, and he’s still baffled by some of his fellow yachties to this day. “Secrets? There must be some but I haven’t found them yet,” he says, eyes following a yacht named Toxic streaking across the pond. “I just don’t know what they are doing that makes them so much better than me.”

Photo by Sylvia Whinray

When the races begin, the skill level becomes clear. I’m told to watch out for George as the top dog, the one to beat. You can tell he’s serious because he has a special transparent weatherproof cover for his radio control that nobody else has. Richard presses a button on a small speaker, and a pre-recorded man’s voice begins to count in monotone. A hush falls over the already very hushed group. It’s a 60-second scrap for position.

“This is where it gets dirty,” someone mutters behind me.

It did get dirty. Literally. Terry’s yacht hit a patch of weed, slowing it down dramatically. George pulled away, gliding around the coloured markers and securing yet another win in eerie silence.

“I couldn’t get anywhere near him,” sighs Terry, slumping onto the park bench next to me. “Got a win, George?” a man with a clipboard yells. “What do you think?” Terry yells back. A young family stop on the path to take a look, their toddler gargantuan next to a moored yacht.

Photo by Sylvia Whinray

Despite his own frustrations, Terry maintains the club has very little rivalry between members. I reminded him of the infamous story I had just heard about the man pushing another man into the pond. Terry admits that things can get tense. Sometimes his hands will shake for minutes following the end of a race. Richard later tells me that some people can fall in by accident.

“You concentrate so much on where the boat is going that you keep walking straight and then you’re in the pond.” I guess that explains why one of the club members turned up in a rash shirt.

The big question that remains is: why radio yachts and why now? “I basically retired and was looking for something to do,” says Terry, who worked as a cabinet maker. “I quickly got bored of playing golf twice a week.” Sapphire is his yacht, which he named and painted blue to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife. The boat is now half blue and half red – no reflection on the marriage, I hoped. “Oh don’t worry, the wife’s still here. She’s gone shopping today. She just likes getting me out of the house.”

Richard has a history with sailing after building boats and learning how to use the wind on gliding trips with his father, who was in the Air Force in the 1950s. “I didn’t want to get into full-size boats again, so this is much cheaper.” He’s been president of the club for 12 years, joking that he can’t pass the duties off to anyone else. However begrudging he feigns, you’ll still find him at the pond two hours early on a Sunday. “You run out of parking,” he explains, “so I come at 12 because that’s when people leave for lunch.”

Photo by Sylvie Whinray

In summer, the club can garner a bit of an audience, which is why they frequently hold family-friendly fun days. “We get lots of people coming around here at the moment,” says Richard, “it’s a very popular park.” On one side of the lagoon is a field used for Aussie Rules and cricket, and on the other an extremely popular cycle track. Hundreds of people can pass the huddle of men in a day. That huddle remains year-round, come rain or shine. “The only time we don’t sail is if there’s lightning around – a lightning strike on one of these boats wouldn’t do them any good.”

When each race day is finished – around 4pm – Richard heads home and starts writing his report of the day’s races, complete with beautiful colour photographs. It’s a thankless task with a demanding deadline – the members like their reports in front of them by 7.30pm that same night. “I get the odd email at eight o’clock on Sunday night asking ‘Where’s the report?’.

I just think ‘Bugger off, I’m busy,’” Richard says, batting an imaginary email away with his hand.

I would later find the report online from our day together, complete with detailed highlights and even a candid, slack-jawed photo of myself. Graciously, there was no mention of my horrible performance on the water. “Eleven members were at the pond for the racing,” the summary read. “There was quite a good wind strength from the north-east but it did shift about which gave advantage to those who could work the shifts and still keep cover on their opponent.”

The author in the newsletter, getting owned

On a less uplifting note in the report, the north end of the pond continues to smell bad. Monitoring the conditions of the Onepoto pond is yet another of Richard’s many voluntary responsibilities. The pond is the only one of its kind in Auckland – specifically protected, since 1993, for radio yachting use. “It means we can

get the trees managed to stop obstructing the wind, and they can’t put up buildings,” he says. The presence of algae is an ongoing problem for the club, as is the water level that rises with the high tide of the nearby estuary.

Richard single-handedly figured out how to solve both issues by, like another president, actually draining the swamp. It’s a complicated process involving flaps, gates, valves, chains and early mornings. “I sometimes come down at two in the morning, when the tide changes, to flush the pond and bring the water back in.” His innovation keeps the pond level as well as filling it with salt water, killing the algae that has slowly been taking over for years. Thankfully, the resident eels don’t mind.

During downtime there are charming moments of conversation between the members. “Whisky? Gin?” one of the men jokes to the group, offering up his BPA-free water bottle to quiet chuckles. “We’ll happily put our boats aside and chat to each other no problem,” says Richard. “I’d say we are generally a pretty social bunch.” Do they spend any time together when they aren’t sailing? “No,” says Richard. “I don’t because I’m anti-social.” Terry agrees.

“It’s a good bunch of guys out here for sure – I just prefer to keep it to the pond.”

Keep going!