The Bay of Islands will be transformed into a sea of sails this weekend as one of the highlights of Northland’s boating calendar returns to the waters off Russell.
The annual Tall Ships Regatta will see more than 80 mostly classic sailing boats race around the Bay in a variety of divisions, before contestants return to Russell for one of New Zealand’s biggest hāngī and a night of revelry and swapping sea stories.
The event, now in its 48th year, is hosted by Russell Boating Club.
Club commodore Bruce Mitchinson said he expected entries to be roughly on a par with last year, when 86 vessels took part.
The race would start at noon on Saturday off Russell wharf with the distance likely to be between 14 and 18 nautical miles, depending on conditions on the day.
The tall ships division was open to vessels of two or more masts and more than 30 feet on deck, while the classic invitational was dedicated to historic vessels.
In past years some boats had dated back to the late 1800s.
A separate junk-rig division would be offered for just the second time, while an all-comers division was open to any sailing boat as long as it measured at least 22 feet on deck.
The only square-rigger expected this year – the kind of vessel people pictured when they heard the words “tall ship” – was the Northland-based R Tucker Thompson, a 60-foot gaff-rigged top sail schooner.
Mitchinson said not much wind was forecast, especially at the start, so it was likely to be a sea breeze race.
“But if we can get to a sea breeze of 15 knots, that’s perfect.”
Most competitors would complete the course by about 4.30pm, in time for the 6pm prizegiving at the club’s Matauwhi Bay headquarters.
Mitchinson said the event was a celebration of sail and a chance for old sailing buddies to get together every summer as much as it was a race.
It was also a chance to admire each other’s lovingly restored boats.
“Going around the course you see all kinds of boats and rigs. No two boats are the same. It’s a great get-together, ideal for people who sail up to the Bay of Islands in summer and want something to do,” he said.
“But that said, a lot of people do take it quite seriously. We have the same people coming back year after year trying to win the prize.”
The post-race festivities were as popular as the race itself.
Up to 700 hungry sailors and spectators would feast on one of New Zealand’s biggest hāngī – watching the crew uncover the cooking pit was a spectacle in itself – while two bands, one acoustic, the other playing rock covers, would keep the crowd entertained until well into the night.
Mitchinson said the regatta was the club’s biggest fundraiser of the year.
“It’s all run by volunteers and everyone puts in a lot of hard work. All the long-standing members muscle in, and that makes it feel like a real family affair,” he said.
“Our little club is unique, and we enjoy having visitors come to see our little part of the world. It’s quite magic.”