Start of the Wellington to Lyttelton yacht race on 23 January 1951.
Twenty yachts left Wellington bound for Lyttelton in an ocean yacht race to celebrate Canterbury’s centenary. A race had been sailed the opposite way in 1940 to celebrate the capital’s centenary. It was expected that the yachts would take between 1½ and 5 days to complete the journey. But a severe southerly storm on 24 January saw most vessels withdraw from the race or be disqualified for using their engines. Only Tawhiri officially finished the race. Two yachts, Husky and Argo, were lost along with their 10 crew members.
Shortly after the race began one of the favourites, Restless, was dismasted and forced to withdraw. The other 19 yachts crossed Cook Strait in fair weather and an easterly wind. Later that afternoon Joy withdrew from the race. Its skipper, experienced seaman George Brasell, later said that he felt ‘there was something wrong, and we got out of it before it arrived’.
That evening the wind turned southerly and by the follow evening a severe storm had developed, with gale force winds and heavy seas. Most yachts returned to Wellington, found shelter along the coast, or rode out the storm at sea. Tawhiri arrived in Lyttelton at 6.55 a.m. on 26 January – three days after the start of the race. The vessel had also won the race celebrating Wellington’s centenary in 1940.
George Brasell, the captain who chose to turn back early in the race, skippered Tawera, the trawler that rescued the crew of Astral. He and his crew were later honoured by the Royal Humane Society of New Zealand for displaying ‘gallantry, seamanship and endurance of the highest order’.
On the morning of the 26th Astral, one of several yachts not heard from since the storm, was sighted from the air. That afternoon a fishing trawler, Tawera, reached the dismasted yacht and managed to get a tow line to it. After several hours the line was lost but the trawler stood by the yacht throughout the stormy night. At daybreak on 27 January a decision was made to abandon Astral. Its crew jumped one by one into the sea and were hauled to safety on board Tawera.
Two other missing yachts reported in on 27 and 28 January, but two others, Aurora and Argo, remained unaccounted for. The wreckage of a third, Husky, was found near Owhiro Bay, Wellington. Its four crew members were presumed lost.
On the afternoon of 29 January Aurora reported to an overseas freighter that it was on its way to Lyttelton. Only Argo – with six crew members – remained missing. The official search for the yacht was called off later that evening, the search authorities advising that they had covered the areas where it was likely to have been. They agreed to resume the search if ‘strong evidence of the Argo’s possible whereabouts’ emerged.
There were reports that Aurora hoped to head to Lyttelton to collect second prize. But, like many others, it was disqualified from the race for having used its engine following the storm. Assuming that others had already collected first prize, the crew of Aurora broke the seal on their engine to try to put in to Napier to reassure family and friends. Once the storm abated and they confirmed their position they resumed their journey, eventually putting in to Kaikōura on 1 February after running low on food.
The search resumed in early February after faint radio signals, believed to be from Argo, were picked up north of East Cape. On 6 February a life buoy and a cushion believed to belong to Argo were found at Palliser Bay, Wellington. The search was finally called off on 12 February following a two-hour conference of the various organisations involved. The Minister of Defence, T.L. Macdonald, said that ‘it is a matter of regret to me as I feel it will be to all New Zealanders that this very extensive search by air and sea did not give any positive results’. The RNZAF and civil aviation operators had flown 114 sorties over 460 hours and 165,000 square nautical miles (566,000 sq km). Nothing had been seen of Argo. The search efforts had cost the RNZAF alone £70,000 (equivalent to nearly $5 million in 2011).
Some friends and family of the missing crew members subsequently mounted private searches, but these also met with no success.
On 29 and 30 May 1951 a magisterial inquiry was held into the loss of Husky and Argo. This found that a collision with another yacht, Nanette, early in the race, had carried away Argo’s bobstay, reducing its seaworthiness. The yacht had probably foundered on either the evening of 23 January or the 24th, and no later than the 27th. A similar time frame was suggested for Husky’s demise. The inquiry made a number of recommendations for the future conduct of ocean yacht races.