The life of Flea

How the 1963 Corn­well Cup was won.

Boating NZ - - Contents - BY MATT VANCE

In 1963 the win­ning Corn­well Cup team from Auck­land had aboard a for­ward hand by the nick­name of Flea. Bob Har­ri­son Lee was his of­fi­cial name. It was a name that not only rhymed well but also de­picted the job de­scrip­tion of a Z class crew ad­mirably. It was the for­ma­tive years of a young man’s life and it was to take him in some un­ex­pected di­rec­tions. The in­take of 1959 at Taka­puna Gram­mar had some in­ter­est­ing and tal­ented sailors in its tech­ni­cal stream. Bob Har­ri­son Lee had his first taste of sail­ing muck­ing about in sabots be­fore meet­ing Mike Men­zies – or Milo as he was known to his school bud­dies.

Mike was a su­perb sailor and got on well with Flea; it was the start of a great friend­ship and a fear­some sail­ing com­bi­na­tion. “The Men­zies were a great fam­ily and they took me in as one of their own when Mike and I started sail­ing Z class to­gether,” says Har­ri­son Lee.

“We were deter­mined to get the Corn­well Cup back for Auck­land be­fore we reached the cut-off age of nine­teen. Mike’s dad be­came our un­of­fi­cial coach and would fol­low us around the course in his Matangi launch mon­i­tor­ing our every move.

“Mike was a great tac­ti­cian and my job was to con­cen­trate on the sails and trim­ming the spin­naker. We spent hours get­ting our timings and mark round­ings worked out and oc­ca­sion­ally we had fun drag­ging off the Devon­port ferry.”

These were the days when the class pro­gres­sion for New Zealand sailors was P Class, Z Class, Idle Along and 18-footer. With ev­ery­one fo­cused on the same pro­gres­sion the e com­pe­ti­tion was in­tense.

The Z class had just gone from hav­ing ing the gunter rig to the Ber­mu­dan sin­gle e mast, but the hulls were still Kau­ri­planked and heavy as hell. Z 14 Tantrum um was one of the first ply­wood boats built and it was the boat in which Mike ke Men­zies and Bob Har­ri­son Lee won the he 1963 Auck­land tri­als.

In the Corn­well Cup it­self, sailors s were ro­tated through all of the boats s and al­lowed only to bring their suit of sails with them for the du­ra­tion of the he con­test. This was be­fore the days of mass pro­duc­tion in fi­bre­glass, which al­lowed the one-de­sign rev­o­lu­tion and it was a fair way of reg­u­lat­ing the arms race that can oc­cur with such high in­ten­sity com­pe­ti­tion.

Things were look­ing promis­ing for the Auck­land rep­re­sen­ta­tives un­til Mike Men­zies came down with hep­ati­tis a week be­fore the com­pe­ti­tion in Tau­ranga. “We were both dev­as­tated as we had put in a power of work to make this hap­pen. It was our last chance to win as Mike was to turn nine­teen not long af­ter,” says Har­ri­son Lee. With some light­ning-fast or­gan­i­sa­tion and only a week to train, train Flea be­came the for­ward hand for the run­ner-up tri­al­list Lind­say Lind Subritzky in the im­mac­u­late Robin Dew-built Tantrum.

Th They not only won the Corn­well Cup back for Auck­land but Tantrum T won the most points of the re­gatta un­der her mul­ti­tude mult of skip­pers. “It was fan­tas­tic, a boy’s dream come true…it is also prob­a­bly why I failed School Cer­tifi­cate!” says Har­ri­son Lee.

Not long af­ter this win, and at his fa­ther’s in­sis­tence, Bob Har­ri­son Lee ob­tained work as a teleprinter me­chanic at the Auck­land Post Of­fice. His de­sire was to go to sea and train as a ship’s diesel en­gi­neer, but his fa­ther had fol­lowed this ca­reer path and was keen for his son to avoid a pro­fes­sion that can be hard on fam­i­lies.

We were deter­mined to get the Corn­well Cup back for Auck­land be­fore we reached the cut off age of nine­teen.

Af­ter win­ning the Corn­well Har­ri­son Lee mi­grated to the South Is­land to con­tinue work­ing as teleprinter me­chanic with the Christchurch Post Of­fice. His sail­ing took a back seat as he turned his at­ten­tion to the hills. It was a diet of trout fish­ing, deer hunt­ing and motorsport that filled the gap.

In the moun­tains he found other out­lets for his ge­nius. While the rough-neck cowboys of the he­li­copter deer re­cov­ery era roared over­head, he qui­etly used car in­ner tubes (in­flated with a bi­cy­cle pump) in the gut cav­ity of culled deer as an easy way of get­ting them to float down the river to the base camp.

It was in Christchurch that he met his wife-to-be, Heather, and with a young fam­ily in tow, he was sent to Raro­tonga on sec­ond­ment to in­stall a telex com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem for the open­ing of the new In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

On re­turn­ing to New Zealand there had been a rev­o­lu­tion in pol­i­tics. Roger­nomics was the new or­der and the first wave of pri­vati­sa­tion was aimed squarely at Tele­com. As a tele­graphic and data tech­ni­cian for the com­pany he was one of the first to face the axe.

Tak­ing his re­dun­dancy and a keen eye for de­tail, Har­ri­son Lee took the un­likely path of set­ting up a merino sheep farm in Cen­tral Otago. In a small space of time he had worked out how to pro­duce ul­tra-fine, high-qual­ity merino wool of 13 mi­crons and was at the fore­front of pri­vate wool auc­tions, dig­i­tal wool clas­si­fi­ca­tion and dig­i­tal sales data record­ing.

“We only pro­duced six bales of wool a year, but it was highly sought-af­ter for very ex­pen­sive Ital­ian suits and Ja­panese dowry blan­kets.”

These days the sailor they called Flea has re­tired from the farm to a quiet sub­ur­ban life in Ash­bur­ton to be close to his fam­ily. At 75 he still has the youth and spark of a good for­ward hand and the keen mind of an in­no­va­tive busi­ness­man.

With­out doubt it was his work ethic and his keen eye for im­prove­ments honed on the un­com­fort­able side decks of Zed­dies that over­came some big chal­lenges in life. He is a fine ex­am­ple of the power of sail­ing over hep­ati­tis, re­dun­dancy and School Cert in ac­tion. BNZ

ABOVE LEFT Corn­well Cup win­ners – Flea and Lind­say Subritzky.

BELOW Bayswa­ter proved a hot train­ing ground for fine­tun­ing Z 14 Tantrum.

ABOVE Mem­o­ra­bilia from the mo­men­tous event.

OP­PO­SITE Flea and Lind­say in full cry.

FAR LEFT Tantrum in a more docile mood. OP­PO­SITE TOP Milo Men­zies and Flea – Milo missed the ac­tion af­ter con­tract­ing hep­ati­tis. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM Launch­ing at Bayswa­ter. LEFT Milo and Flea in Lo­tus. BELOW Flea as a merino farmer.

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