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Classic-yacht pioneer still hoisting the sails

Flagstaff Team

Saltwater in his veins… Chad Thompson has been sailing on his yacht Prize since he was a nine-year-old / Pictures LizWaters

Recently made a life member of the Classic Yacht Association he helped found, 70-year-old Chad Thompson still sails the graceful 1920s-era vessel his family bought in 1941. He tells Helen Vause about his love for the sailing craft of yesteryear – and appreciation for the high-tech yachts of today.

For a day, two Italians from the Luna Rossa Prada America’s Cup team had their eyes on a different prize.

Far from the high-tech world of Cup racing, they were in the heart of a fleet of classic boats tucked in at Mahurangi for a spectacular annual regatta and racing over Auckland Anniversary Weekend.

Surrounded by gleaming timbers, brass and craftmanship, the air thick with the stories of these classic old vessels, the Italian pair had joined Chad Thompson and the crew of Prize, amid what is probably the world’s largest turnout of classic boats.

“They loved it,” says Belmont resident Thompson. “It would have been a very differ- ent scene for them, but all these classic boats together have to be a pretty stirring sight and experience for anyone.”

For those like 70-year-old Thompson, with a liberal dose of saltwater in their veins, many of these boats are a lifetime passion.

Prize is a bit of a youngster among the fleet, but she’s been cutting a fine figure on the harbour since the 1920s. And she was in the hands of the seagoing Thompson family long before Chad and his siblings were a twinkle in a sailor’s eye.

Prize is a Charles Bailey A-Class classic. Not counting her bowsprit, she is 13.1 metres long. Launched in 1923, she caused a bit of stir in well-heeled, yacht-owning circles, more than holding her own in the racing scene of the day.

And in the last couple of decades, it seems the world has fallen increasingly in love with the sight of Prize and her gracious century-old sisters under sail.

In the war years, like most of the glamour fleet in the city, Prize was laid up for the duration. But Thompson’s grandfather Alf was a sailing man who had his eye on Prize for his boys, who had already been racing mullet-class boats from when they were barely in their teens.

The Thompson family is said to have paid £700 for Prize in 1941. Bressin Thompson, Chad’s father, had her racing on the Waitemata to success after success.

In the mid-1950s, she took out the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron points prize five times, four in consecutive years – a feat said not to have been bettered yet.

By the time he was nine years old, Chad was sometimes deemed sailor enough to be part of the Prize crew, but maybe not on those days of near gale-force southerlies when only the keenest of racers would brave a day on the sea.

Over the years, Prize had seen a couple of modifications to her sailing rig. But in 1976, when the squadron changed the rules on spinnakers, the Thompson family weren’t up for another change and dropped out of racing in favour of family cruising.

Chad and his sister Mary-Ann had an idyllic childhood, spending weekends and long sum- mer holidays sailing the Hauraki Gulf, getting to know every anchorage and the boating community of the day.

“It was a wonderful way to grow up and we all just loved getting away on Pride,” says Thompson, just back from a weekend sailing off Waiheke with offspring, including grand- children, who are equally enamoured of the beloved family yacht.

“We had none of the luxuries and convenience food boaties have these days. But I remember great big dinners and a lot of happy times away. And of course we didn’t have the longer-range forecasts we can get these days. So sometimes, if the weather turned, we’d be stuck out the back of Great Barrier Island having a marvellous time and not able to get back to school,” laughs Thompson. “ That was just what boating families did – we worked with the wind and the weather.”

Back in the 70s, nobody thought of Prize and others like her as “classic”.

By the 90s, says Thompson, words like ‘old clunkers’ started to be applied to Auckland’s kauri craft by those who wanted newer, faster and lower-maintenance yachts and launches.

The old boats were becoming less popular – some were falling to bits – and mostly they were seen as just a cheaper option for a new generation to get into boating.

“Some people just thought they’d had their day. And of course they couldn’t compete with the new models for getting out around the gulf in a hurry. Plenty would have thought you were nuts to want to work on them.”

But Thompson had absolutely no interest in trading Prize for a newer, faster model. He thought she had decades of great sailing ahead of her – and he was pretty confident there would be lots of like-minded boat owners who would agree with him about boats in Prize’s age group – and those quite a bit older.

“We are lucky in New Zealand that boats of this age can have a very long life. It’s the combination of kauri and our temperate climate that keep them strong and dry.”

Thompson figured the future for the old boats lay with having a club of their own. In 1995, with John Gorter, Hamish Ross and Greg Scorpas, he formed the Classic Yacht Association (CYA) and put out the call for other ‘old boat’ owners to sign up.

They were soon joined by fellow enthusiasts and regular meetings attracted vigorous turnouts as their numbers grew.

The year before the CYA came to life, Prize underwent a major restoration, emerging as a strong, dry, nearly new vessel. In the following years, more old boats were brought back to life through painstaking restoration, often diligently assisted by Thompson and others.

Today, the association has 320 members and 250 boats. They are well connected to groups overseas and some of the finest of the fleet have featured proudly in glossy international publications.

Every year, the association has a calendar of around 25 events and the Auckland public are lucky enough to be treated to the glorious sight of the sails and fine lines of boats such as Waitangi, Little Jim, Ariki, Rainbow, Rawhiti, Thelma – and of course Prize. As often as not, Thompson is in the thick of the organisation before taking the helm of his old favourite.

“We do best sailing amongst ourselves and not mixing it with modern yachts, because the way we sail is different,” says Thompson.

“We sail through the water while they bump along over the top. And anyway, they’re a bunch of screamers,” he laughs.

These days, not so many classic yachts are left still languishing in backwaters, awaiting restoration. Although there are plenty of tired old launches that are ripe for revivial, he says.

“But bringing an old boat back is a huge job. It can be a big strain on family relations because it can take over your life.”

For his tireless efforts over the last 25 years, Thompson was recently made a life member of the CYA. And he’s delighted that years ago he made the decision to quit the family business of producing wheelchairs to make the world of classic boats his life.

He has had 20 years of marketing and running charter vessels. He’s also put his formidable skill and experience to work teaching others to handle their own boats, of all types. It’s a whole other challenge, he grins. He’s far too discreet to tell tales, apart from one reference to some blokes who’d over-imbibed and capsized their dinghy.

“Some people just want to be confident of getting out of the marina safely. Others are complete beginners. I’ve never been totally flummoxed but there have been a few challenging moments.”

One piece of advice is common to all, he says: “Get your forecasting right and go with the weather. Go where the weather will let you.”

In her current life, 98-year-old Prize is lined up at the city waterfront with the rest of the gleaming classic-charter fleet.

Not all her admirers want to take it slowly under sail, and some have been known to drop in to a rendezvous spot by helicopter, just for a taste of old times on board.

While Thompson and friends may sail clear of modern vessels, the foiling yachts of the modern America’s Cup have him as awed as the rest of us.

“They are fantastic. There is so much talent and design and new technology in them that it has to impact our boats of the future. So much is learned from these boats.”

When the shiny Cup fleet of 2021 is tired and replaced with the newcomers in a few years hence, Prize will have celebrated her century, and be sailing on to plenty of future birthdays.

“There’s no reason she won’t long outlast me,” says Thompson.

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