Celebrating 75 years of sailing

“All these children being trained to sail, they are going to be feeding into ocean vaka voyaging, super yachting, Olympics and regional competitions which is all pretty cool and very rewarding, because there’s a lot of voluntary work involved”.

It was with 12 old dugout fishing canoes sporting quirky sails made of flour sacks painstakingly stitched together and some keen Kiwi expatriates that a sailing group started on Muri beach in Rarotonga.

Seventy-five years and a few cyclones later, the Rarotonga Sailing Club has become one of the country’s most successful, community spirited, sporting clubs training hundreds to sail.

Like those determined stitches on the early flour sack sails, and sturdy sennit ropes made from coconut husk by Palmerston islanders living in Panama village at the time, the club has edged its way into regional sporting history books, raising the profile of the code with big achievements from small beginnings.

Most of the expatriate men who founded the sailing club worked for the New Zealand administration that managed the affairs of the Cook Islands at the time. Several went on to marry local women – many of their descendants are still on Rarotonga, some carrying on the tradition of sailing and teaching youngsters.

So in the 1940’s with heavy fishing canoes and long sweep oars instead of tillers, the good, keen Kiwis and a few locals, would race to Titikaveka – to Fruits of Rarotonga and back to Muri. All good fun that went on until WWII brought about a break in sailing activities for the first and only time in its colourful history.

Life-member Ian Forbes wrote that in 1949 club member and shipwright, Ron Powell ‘put together a masterly kauri planked eighteen-foot replica of a sailing canoe with handmade canvas sails he and his crew member Kari Master had stitched together by hand. This canoe was so superior to all the more heavily built dugout canoes that it out sailed all the other sailboats’.

A fire in 1998 that destroyed the two storey clubhouse and all the sunbursts stored underneath the building devastated members. It was back to square one in every sense of the word as all records, memorabilia, trophies and framed photographs were completely destroyed. These included minutes dating back to the 1940’s. Long serving members have taken to writing their recollections of the RSC history so that the club’s long, interesting and valuable contribution to Rarotonga history is preserved.

Before the days of clubhouses, members would park their heavy sail boats on Muri beach. Forbes writes: “The eighteen-foot outrigger canoe was a large and heavy beast to lift up and down the beach. Even though we used the coconut frond stems laid out on the beach to slide the boats on, many backs were damaged in the hard work of bringing the boats ashore above the high water mark for storage. In 1958 a severe storm with tidal surges of mountainous waves crossing the reef at Muri washed away, or smashed, during the night, almost all the outrigger canoes stored on the grass above high water mark. Only a few canoes survived this storm. However sailing continued on with some of the older dugout canoes brought back into service”.

It was then decided that building new plywood canoes with better sails and equipment would result in faster racing. It did. Again these boats would be parked on the beach. Again another cyclone came and wiped out the entire fleet.

Undefeated by yet another setback, members decided another type of boat which could be easily moved to higher ground and placed safely away in racks would be far more sensible, cyclones being a fact of life in the Cook Islands.

It was also time to upgrade from the tin shed to a proper clubhouse. A lease was negotiated with landowner Papo Kekena for the beachfront land on which the existing RSC stands. The money to build was raised through debentures taken out by members and over many weeks of working bees the new clubhouse was built.

Ian Forbes recollects: “A dozen or so large coconut trees were still growing when the clubhouse was completed. Don Dorrell produced for the working bee a new-fangled chainsaw. All the trees except one were safely felled and rolled away. On the official opening day another working bee decided to fell the only remaining coconut tree to make way for more parking. Don Dorrell took up the challenge with many hands on ropes in a strong onshore breeze and with his trusty chainsaw felled this tree right through the new clubhouse. The opening of the Clubhouse with all it new bar facilities and now more flexible drinking privileges provided by the new Resident Commissioner, Olly Dare made a very successful evening with the coconut tree still where it fell”.

With limited other places to have a drink and socialise, the club became quite the party centre of the island. A truck full of people would leave town on Saturdays for Muri for sailing and socialising. Full of happy, tipsy sailors the truck would return everyone home at night.

It was probably in 1970 that the club competed in its first international event, the then South Pacific Games held in Tahiti and sailing a ‘fireball’ yacht. Forbes who competed, wrote of that race: ‘My sailing mates believed that we had cracked it having a real `fireball’ yacht to practice with before we went to Tahiti. Alas we were done like a stuffed turkey by the French who had sailed these extreme conditions outside Point Venus for two years with the assistance of the French Navy’.

During the construction of the Rarotonga international airport in 1972, Ian Forbes paid twenty-five pounds for the no longer needed wooden airport control tower which stood on 12 metre high steel pipes. The structure stood for many years on Muri beach as an ideal starter’s platform overlooking the whole lagoon.

It was during this time that Sunbursts were introduced. The two person, 12 foot long Sunbursts equipped with sails and a spinnaker were much more involved. The club called them ‘father and son boats’, and being New Zealand class, members could compete against visiting Kiwi sailors. The RSC grew from strength to strength, membership increased and so did the drive to teach young members, says Peter Heays who has served a total of 12 years as club commodore (each term is two years). The club can boast a distinguished history of commodores – judges, a former prime minister, community and business leaders.

Plywood optimists were brought in for seven to 16 year olds, before the club advanced to international class fibre glass boats which were much more manoeuvrable, faster and lighter. It was from here that the young ones began to make the clubs’ mark in international competition. It was also the real morphing of the RSC from being an adult social club to a training ground for youngsters and nurturing them through to international events. Heays says the RSC is now a community club with four times as many kids as members, plus the regular adult sailors. “The success of the sailing club over these years is that it’s gone from being a club for expats and the occasional local to being a community sports organisation”.

In the last 10 years the club has taken to sailing over the reef in the open ocean. “Which is why our kids do so well internationally because they aren’t afraid of waves, high winds or sharks…they’re used to it all now. But back then it was ‘oh @#!% there’s sharks out here”.

Still popular with expatriates in Rarotonga on contracts, local membership at the RSL has swelled to the point that Cook Islands Maori kids are the majority. Up to a hundred children can be seen on Saturday’s learning to sail and the RSL has encouraged local schools to participate in their training programmes.

Heays recalls the young RSL teams being at international competitions in New Zealand and people asking who the Maori kids are. “There would be 300 boats at the start line and people would be asking ‘who are these Maori kids here, how come they’re sailing’. They didn’t know about our Cook Islands kids sailing, and our kids loved that”.

“Sailing is expensive in New Zealand and very few Maori New Zealand kids are involved in the sport. A parent is looking at $7,000 to start a child sailing in New Zealand whereas here it’s free, the club pays for everything, our kids are really into it’.

In the teams racing events, Heays says the RSC kids would speak Cook Islands Maori so they couldn’t be understood. Meanwhile, competing teams would be telling each other what to do in English, ‘which our kids understand so we would win more races than we probably should’ve because of that advantage’.

The RSC has discovered over the years that sailing is a sport where girls are inclined to do better and dyslexic children tend to be excellent sailors. Heays says three of the RSC top young sailors in the past ten years have been dyslexic – ‘while they’ve struggled at school, when it comes to sailing they’re just champs, sailing takes a lot of brain work’.

Sponsors made it possible for RSL to bring in seven Open Bic’s for older children who have competed in New Zealand regattas and have performed extremely well.

As a 50th anniversary project, club members built an outrigger canoe with sails. It was this model that long serving member Thomas Koteka used to construct an upgraded version with a more modern tiller and sails. Heays says it was Koteka’s dream to see the canoe back in the RSC racing class again. Called the Tangaroa 18 class, the club now has 11, with Koteka building the first seven in his garage.

It was seven years ago that RSC did a full circle and came back to using canoes. All thanks, says Heays to Thomas Koteka having a ‘vivid dream one night and deciding the vaka should be back in class again’. Over recent years the RSC has formed a partnership with the Cook Islands Voyaging Society. Heays said the club is working with the Voyaging Society to try and establish a way forward for young ones who can progress from RSC to a career path in ocean voyaging vakas.

Heays gets excited talking about the career possibilities that superyachts open up for young Cook Islanders. The club is working with superyacht captain Max Cummings – the vision being to get as many young Cook Islanders possible in the superyacht industry. Heays says having the support of Captain Cummings is extremely valuable as he grew up on the tiny northern island of Manihiki and appreciates how the industry offers many opportunities for young Cook Islanders.

“All these local children being trained to sail, they are going to be feeding into ocean vaka voyaging, super yachting, Olympics, regional competitions which is all pretty cool and makes it all very rewarding, because there’s a lot of voluntary work involved”.

Back to the 1998 fire. No one is quite sure how it started in the middle of the night ‘it could’ve been the kitchen, it could’ve been the wiring’. Heays says the wooden building had been penetrated by salt and was very dry, ‘it just exploded’.

“We had to start all over again”.

With insurance, the RSC was able to negotiate a pay out that helped purchase new equipment that had been lost in the fire and rebuild a slightly smaller building. The new clubhouse, also home to Sails Restaurant, opened in 2000.

But with a new clubhouse, new equipment and very few boats due to the fire, a mayday was sent out asking for boats to be donated or sold cheaply. The club ended up with seven from New Zealand which were bought by members. The RSC now has 14 sunbursts stored racks and another 12 stored in containers for team racing.

Every three years the RSC holds the Electron class world champs attracting up to 40 competitors. “People call it boys with their toys but it’s all quite serious, we’re always up there in the top three’, says Heays with a grin. The Electron class has been part of club competition for 15 years.

Thus, the RSC, the longest established club on Rarotonga celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2015. Affected by WWII, two cyclones, a fire, being the social venue for island nightlife, changing over the years from being an adult orientated organisation to one which has trained hundreds of children to sail and love the sport and having limitless community spirit, the RSC is certainly the country’s most eventful and successful club.

The Rarotonga Sailing Club welcomes all visitors and Saturdays are a good time to catch the action and maybe a sail as well.

Rarotonga Sailing Club at Muri
Teaching young children to sail
Laser champion
Teams racing
Tangaroa (vaka) class
The old days
Everyone is welcome
Bic Class yachts on the lagoon