The Tawhiri


In 1951 an ocean race was sailed from Wellington to Lyttelton as a celebration of the Canterbury centennial.

Tawhiri comes home crewTawhiri and crew upon finishing the historic 1951 Lyttleton race (l-r Noel Brown, Peter Cooke, John Evans, Charlie Paterson)
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Leaving Wellington on 23 January in bad conditions, growing worse by the hour, the twenty yachts faced a severe southerly gale, which saw most of the fleet withdraw. The Wellington cutter Astral was dismasted and the crew saved in a dramatic rescue about 60 miles from Lyttelton, while the Banks Peninsula Cruising Club cutter Husky and the Wellington cutter Argo were lost with all hands.

The loss of ten lives made this the worst disaster in New Zealand yachting history.

The winner, and only boat to finish, was the sloop Tawhiri, of Nelson, built in 1933. The news flashed across newspapers around the country: “Beating up Lyttelton Harbour in spectacular fashion at the end of a gruelling journey, the Nelson sloop Tawhiri was first over the finishing line at 6.55am today in the Centennial ocean race from Wellington to Lyttelton.” 

The Nelson Harbour Board issued a letter of “high praise” to the crew, and authorised the harbourmaster to meet the Tawhiri on her return to Nelson several weeks later.

Almost sixty years later, Tawhiri is back in Nelson after an absence of several years. At the time of the Nelson Yacht Club’s 150th anniversary in 2007, a group of sailing enthusiasts formed a trust to raise funds to buy the yacht from its Oamaru owner. They aimed to bring it home to Nelson, manage its restoration and make it the centrepiece of a recreational sailing venture for the region’s young people.

Tawhiri, 1951Tawhiri, sweeping in through the Cut, Nelson Harbour
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Local businessman, Tom Sturgess, sped up the process by stepping in and buying the Tawhiri, with the intention of leasing it to the trust for $1 a year. The vessel was sailed home and spent the winter in a Rogers Street shed, courtesy of Port Nelson Limited.

At the time of the 1951 yacht race, Tawhiri was owned by the late Noel Brown, who was a member of the family that co-founded Nelson’s Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company. Noel’s widow Velma has returned some historic memorabilia from the yacht to the trust, including Mr Brown’s club commodore’s pennant, and two ceramic mugs bearing the Tawhiri pennant he had commissioned during World War 2 while stationed in Italy. Velma, plus the widows of crew members Peter Cooke and Charlie Paterson, and the daughter of John Evans have banded together to install a memorial plaque to the 1951 race that will be part of the yacht’s restoration. 

Note: Article first published in rePort [Port Nelson Limited report], December 2008, p.11, drawing on information in Tracy Neal's Sailors of 41South : stories from the Nelson Yacht club 1857-2007

Updated May 13, 2020

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  • The 1951 Canterbury Centennial Yacht Race was the subject of an episode in TVNZ's "Descent From Disaster" Series 2, and can still be viewed on TVNZ On Demand.

    Posted by Anne McFadgen, 09/03/2016 3:38pm (8 years ago)

  • As the brother of Charlie Paterson, Tawhiri crewman during the 1951 race and friend of Noel Brown etc, I remember very well theWellington/:Lyttelton race and the storm that swept over the boats. My family and I were never in the least worried about the safety of Tawhiri and its crw because we had absolutre faith in the boat and its skipper and knew that it was merely a matter of time until they reached Lytteton. Tahiri was a great boat I occasionally sailed on and all its crew members wonderful and skilful yachtsmen e can still be proud of for what they did in that nightmare race.

    Posted by Alistair Paterson, ()

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Further sources - The Tawhiri



  • Historic Tawhiri finally back home in Nelson (2008, April 28). Nelson Mail , p. 02.
  • Neal, T. (2008, March 15). Fifty years on, famous yacht may return to Nelson. Nelson Mail, p. 02.
  • Neal, T. (2008, April 9). Historic yacht is on its way back home. Nelson Mail, p. 01.
  • Neal, T. (2008, August 20). Old sailing friends back on deck. Nelson Mail, p. 05.
  • Neal, T. (2006). The Tawhiri story. Boating New Zealand, (239), 56-57.
  • Neal, T. (2008, August 13). Historic yacht in need of funds. Nelson Mail, p. 3
  • Nelson boat leading in ocean yacht race (1951, January 25) Nelson Mail, p. 4
  • Ocean yacht race begins (1951, January 23) Nelson Mail, p. 4
  • Ocean yacht race won by Nelson yacht (1951, January 26) Nelson Mail, p. 4
  • Yachts sighted (1951, January 24) Nelson Mail, p. 4

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