The life of Flea
How the 1963 Cornwell Cup was won.
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.