By Rebecca Hayter
First published in NZ Yachting special issue, 2012
Republished in memory of the no-bullshit John Street, who loved and propelled the classic yacht movement in New Zealand.
They call him Bulldog. For 50 years, he has been fuel in the machinery of Auckland’s waterfront. He has seen buildings fall to bulldozers; companies prosper through boom times and stagger through recessions, market crashes and government policies. He has seen New Zealand-made boats and their crews achieve international stardom.
John Street, 76, NZ Order of Merit for services to yachting, has a watertight memory that retains names, dates, places and conversations. He remembers what has been lost to the carelessness of time. Several times, he has moved without hesitation to save a New Zealand classic yacht that is important to our maritime history; one, he brought back from Australia; another, from Europe.
Not that Street spends time on nostalgia. Ask him what it means to save a classic yacht and he says, “I don’t know. The people who believe in the latest development probably think the classics are a bunch of old rubbish, but the modern boats don’t have the same character.”
The trophy cabinets of New Zealand yacht clubs record the rivalries of yachts racing from the late nineteenth century onwards. Many of those yachts are still racing each other, but they’ve faced other battles. World wars have seen them work for their country; owners have built ugly cabin tops to gain headroom below decks and stepped the simple Bermudan rigs of modern sailing boats.
Those which have been restored are once again as their designers drew them. They carry the vast expanse of gaff-rigged mainsails, topsails in silhouette and the long booms that need three crew to sheet them in. Once more, the eye sweeps their low profiles. Gold-leaf, applied by craftsmen brought out of retirement, gleams beneath their sheerlines.
A major factor in their longevity is New Zealand kauri. Its clean-grain, resin-rich timber has an inherent resilience and it planes as smoothly as silk. In the hands of skilled boatbuilders, such as Scottish immigrant Robert Logan Snr who developed the strong triple-diagonal construction highly resistant to rot and damage, it created boats that now comprise one of the oldest, most authentically restored fleets of classic yachts in the world. Logan’s descendants and the Bailey family of boatbuilders, with others, laid the foundations of boatbuilding in New Zealand.
“I always had a huge admiration for wooden boat builders,” Street says. “It’s a real craft and while modern carbon fibre and structural engineering are design perfection, they don’t require the same skills. Anyone can operate a bloody roller and roll resin or carbon fibre or whatever. It’s a man-made material, whereas wood is something that’s really living. It requires craftsmen to make it into a boat.”
As a young man, Street thought his destiny lay in farming but after his elder brother Roger died in a farming accident, his mother wanted her family in safer work. In 1952, Street’s father joined the Auckland chandlery, A Foster and Co, and later bought it. Street joined in 1959, aged 23. Every Monday, he took the order book to maritime businesses in Beaumont Street.
“Percy Vos would come down the stairs which are all still there. He always had on a dark suit and a homburg hat. Percy would say, ‘Well you know where the store is, Street. Fill up the shelves. Don’t overfill them or I’ll send the whole bloody lot back to Fosters.’”
After a long absence, Street returned to the Vos Building in 2010.
“All the machines are still there, the boilers are there, the steam blocks are still there, the globs of glue are still on the floors, the old pictures are still there, the tools are all still there and I’m bloody certain Percy’s ghost is still there.”
After his father’s death, Street took over Foster’s, supplying equipment such as rope, deck winches, rigging, compasses and cleats. Customers included champions: Chris Bouzaid, Sir Peter Blake, Grant Dalton. Street knew them all, plus tug operators, shipping and customs agents, bankers.
Below street level, Foster’s dungeons remained famously in the late nineteenth century; they smelled of sisal. The staff didn’t change much either. By the 1990s, one had been there for more than 60 years, having taken time off for the Korean War. Street would tally 47 before selling Foster’s in 2006.
In 1979, Street’s bulldog tenacity took on Piggy, Prime Minister Rob Muldoon, who had introduced the Boat Tax to fund Think Big. Muldoon levied a 20% tax on every new boat, including boats under construction. Orders were cancelled overnight; boatbuilding companies fell like yachts on a hardstand in a gale. Street stormed frequently to the Beehive; fists slammed on tables. Finally, National was voted out in the 1984 snap election and the Boat Tax disappeared but New Zealand’s yacht production industry has never recovered.
Has anyone ever intimidated him? “No,” he says, as though it’s a pointless question.
He was a founding trustee of the Maritime Museum, but he believed that classic boats on display tell only part of the story. Boats deteriorate if not used; if they are being used they need maintenance. The old salts teach the younger crew the skills to maintain them and sail them so the boats will continue to be well looked after.
“It’s important you get young people involved,” says Street. “Imagine: Arch Logan working on a boat and then you’re working on it.”
Since 1995, the Classic Yacht Association of NZ has encouraged many owners through restorations of classic boats and run racing and cruising events, but some of the most important yachts were priced well beyond private ownership.
In 2002, the yacht Waitangi, 76ft overall, came up for sale in Melbourne for $800,000, reduced to $600,000 if sold to New Zealand. She was launched in 1894, the last significant build from Robert Logan Snr. Waitangi had dominated racing in Wellington before being sold in the 1950s to Australia. There, she acquired some ugly modifications, including a Laminex interior, and deteriorated before a syndicate rescued her and undertook a $1m, well-researched restoration for her centennial in 1994.
Eight years on, she was in danger of being sold to Europe. The Protected Objects Act 1975 identifies New Zealand classic yachts as protected objects and it is illegal to export them, but the act didn’t protect Waitangi because she was already out of the country.
Street headed to Melbourne, with television broadcaster Bill McCarthy and boatbuilder/designer Max Carter. McCarthy was there to record history; Carter, to survey Waitangi’s distinctive black hull. Street took a Westpac cheque as a deposit having got a loan from his bank manager, formerly a junior bank clerk when Street’s father managed Foster’s. Waitangi came home with Wilhelmsen Shipping for half price. As always, Street was using his contacts.
After acquiring Waitangi, Street founded the Classic Yacht Charitable Trust, which enabled him to apply for funding from the Lion Foundation and Lotteries Commission. He gathered a team of skills: Bill McCarthy; Max Carter; Bruce Tantrum, classic yacht expert; Tony Blake, classic yacht skipper; Robin Bailey, marine journalist; Gavin McGregor, problem solver; Iain Valentine and Larry Paul, classic sailors.
Then Street’s phone rang again. Thelma, the largest surviving Arch Logan yacht at 73 feet overall, was for sale in St Tropez. Thelma has, as Street puts it, “a hell of an interesting story”.
Launched in 1897, she was built by Robert Logan’s sons Robert Jnr, Arch and John, and designed by Arch when he was 32 for marine merchants William and Alfred Jagger. In 1941, an inexperienced sailor bought her and, with only one crew, sailed without permission from New Zealand.
“How two guys sailed it, I don’t know because it’s a big powerful boat,” says Street.
Thelma’s crew were arrested in the Pacific and brought back to New Zealand as conscientious objectors. After the war, Thelma went to the American navy. For 30 years, she was an officers’ play boat. After several owners, she underwent a misguided restoration which ripped out her interior and original Maori carvings. “It was just a crying shame,” says Street.
In late 2006, Tony Blake spotted her in St Tropez. The owner was asking 200,000 euro. A UK syndicate was circling.
Street, Carter and McCarthy boarded an international flight. There follows a long story in which they met up with a friend in Monaco, got lost … There’s even a cameo role for Dennis Conner at St Tropez, and a French travel lift operator who refused to lift Thelma for survey until he discovered they were Kiwis, not Poms. But the result was that Thelma returned home by ship, after 70 years.
She underwent an extensive restoration by Horizon Yachts in Silverdale, Auckland. Alongside her was the 24-foot Gloriana, the first boat built by the Logan sons, which Street had also acquired. “They built her by candlelight,” he says. “She’s tiny, but she was never beaten for 25 years.”
In restoring the classics, authenticity is total, says Street.
“Except that we don’t caulk them; we spline them with kauri splines and epoxy glue so they will last forever. If the Logans had had epoxy glue, they would have used the stuff. Caulking is just an endless exercise in maintenance.” Yachting historian Harold Kidd researches the original configuration of each yacht. There are no electronics or winches because they are not authentic.
The Cato family has gifted the 1906 Frances, built by Arch Logan, to the trust. It has also acquired the 40ft tug Te Hauraki, built for the Auckland Harbour Board in 1920 as a safety vessel for the racing classic yachts. Some of the purchase costs and most of the maintenance have been paid by Street following his sale of Foster’s in 2006. He plans to build up the trust’s capital fund to $1m so that the interest funds the fleet’s maintenance. The marine industry has given generously too, in kind, as members acknowledge Bulldog’s contribution over 50 years.
The next big restoration will be Ariki, “the ultimate of the Logan boats”, Street says. He likes the evolution: Waitangi: 1894; Thelma: 1897; Ariki: 1904. “Waitangi is as heavy as hell on the helm. Sometimes you need two people plus a block and tackle to hold the tiller. Thelma is quite light on the helm and her mast is much further forward compared to Waitangi so the balance in three years had developed significantly. Waitangi’s got a clipper bow, and Thelma and Ariki haven’t so there was obviously a development over that time.
“Ariki’s hull is basically sound but the varnish work is knackered so there are probably cracks where rain has got into it and caused rot.”
Following a six-year, bureaucratic process by Street and others, guided tours will soon visit a heritage marina of classic boats near the newly developed Silo Park in Auckland, and to classic boats undergoing restoration in the Vos Building. All the machines are still there, the globs of glue are still on the floors…
John Street photographed at the relaunch of Waitangi in 2013 by Rebecca Hayter.