Fun in rum

Fri­day af­ter­noon, the sun sparkling on the Waitem­ata Har­bour. Across Auck­land, peo­ple are clock­ing off, head­ing out to ‘meet­ings’ and tak­ing ad­van­tage of work­ing flexi-time. They’re off to the week’s most im­por­tant ap­point­ment: the Ha­vana Club rum race at


The fun is Oblig­a­tory. The truth about rum rac­ing.


For Mark Roberts, rum rac­ing isn’t just an oc­ca­sional hobby – it’s a way of life. You might know Roberts by his al­most univer­sal nick­name of Moulët, a trib­ute to his dis­tinc­tive mul­let hairstyle. Roberts has been sail­ing all his life, rum rac­ing for more than 30 years, and is now out there ev­ery week, rain or shine, liv­ing the rum race dream.

He came home – four years ago – from eight years of work­ing on su­pery­achts, with the aim of buy­ing a boat which could be a rum race cham­pion.

“I wanted to go out and have some fun. Then I got an email say­ing this boat was com­ing on the mar­ket, and I’d bought it be­fore I’d even fin­ished read­ing.”

‘This boat’ is Ex­treme, a Rocket 31 de­signed by Jim Young. For Roberts, Ex­treme was his ‘dream boat’, and had had his eye on it ever since it was first launched in the early 1990s.

He bought the boat with a largely silent part­ner and set about look­ing for sponsors to cover run­ning costs. FS Trades, a di­vi­sion of spe­cial­ist re­cruit­ing con­sul­tancy Franklin Smith, is the main spon­sor.

Ex­treme cer­tainly lives up to her name, and cer­tainly turned a few heads when she was first launched. With an over­all length of 29 feet 10 inches (a smidgen over 9m), she is 14 feet 7 inches (4.4 m) at max beam, with a mas­sive open cock­pit, flared sides and a lift­ing keel. She was the line hon­ours win­ner of the Coastal Clas­sic Di­vi­sion 4 for five years from 1993, and held the un­der 30-footer record up un­til 2009. To­day we take sail­ing an­gles down­wind un­der asym­met­rics for granted; in the 1990s this was pi­o­neer­ing stuff.

None of th­ese ex­tras and fancy stuff for the rum race, though, thank you very much: it’s strictly main and jib for the races. Lidgard Sails is an­other of Ex­treme’s sponsors, pro­vid­ing a set of sails specif­i­cally de­signed for the rigours of rum rac­ing i.e. reach­ing around the har­bour.

“Peo­ple laugh at me and say ‘you’ve got a race boat, why do you only go rum rac­ing?’ To be hon­est, this way I get to do forty-five races a year, and most race boats might only do twenty,” he says. “I’ve done a life­time of yacht rac­ing – I grew up at Buck­lands Beach and raced a lot down there, too. I still take it com­pet­i­tively and I’m still com­pet­i­tive. But we have the most fun out of all the boats by far.”

It cer­tainly looks like it, as Roberts flicks through the pho­tos on his phone. The Christ­mas sea­son seems to be a par­tic­u­lar ex­cuse for dress­ing up and gen­eral shenani­gans – Je­sus with a mul­let, any­one? – but other dress-up themes have in­cluded Star Wars (on May 4th, of course), cow­boys and cow­girls, pi­rates and pink tu­tus.

The rum race cel­e­brat­ing last year’s Amer­ica’s Cup win was an­other big day: un­der cover of dark­ness, an ex­er­cy­cle was fixed in the mid­dle of the cock­pit, and one

Roberts might have said he was in this for the fun, but it’s clear he’s pretty se­ri­ous about the rac­ing.

crew mem­ber dressed as a cy­clor ped­alled it around the course. It’s no won­der the Ex­treme team was given a spe­cial award for ser­vices to rum rac­ing, fun and dress-up par­ties at the an­nual Squadron prize­giv­ing.

Roberts doesn’t want to keep all the fun to him­self, though; he has been asked by the Squadron about set­ting up a rum race com­mit­tee, to get even more own­ers and sailors en­thused, and “en­hance the fun and fes­tiv­i­ties out on the wa­ter.”

When some­thing sounds like this much fun, of course we had to try it out. I used to rum race quite of­ten; work­ing from home on a Fri­day of­ten meant I could get away for a short-handed am­ble around the har­bour on a friend’s Young 88. But the ar­rival of small kids kind of put paid to that, so it’s get­ting on for eight years since I had the plea­sure of knock­ing off early for a Fri­day af­ter­noon sail.

I couldn’t have picked a bet­ter af­ter­noon for rum rac­ing. An­other 10° warmer would have been nice, but it is June. There’s bright sun­shine and just enough breeze to keep us on our toes, with­out mak­ing us work too hard.

We’re not the only ones who thought to­day was the day. There’s a great turnout – 33 boats across two di­vi­sions, plus one mul­ti­hull, rang­ing from a Piedy up to more se­ri­ous race boats like An­ar­chy and

Sys­tems Thun­der. It looks like a lot of peo­ple have pulled the get-outof-work-early card to­day.

Ten of us are aboard Ex­treme this af­ter­noon – what Roberts calls the ‘in­ner cir­cle’ of reg­u­lars. He has a pool of about 40 ca­sual crew

...this way I get to do forty-five races a year, and most race boats might only do twenty.

mem­bers who come and go, de­pend­ing on com­mit­ments and the oc­ca­sion.

Among the crew tonight are Cat and Cat from the Squadron – events man­ager Ca­tri­ona Stan­ton and op­er­a­tions di­rec­tor Ca­tri­ona Bunce – and Squadron Youth Train­ing Pro­gramme mem­ber Niall Malone. (An­other reg­u­lar crew mem­ber is Squadron rear com­modore Aaron Young, grand­son of Ex­treme’s de­signer Jim Young, but he’s on photo duty tonight.)

As we rig up on the dock, the im­por­tant jobs are al­lo­cated: main­sheet, trim­ming, bar and Djing. The sound­track for this cruise seems to be Solid Gold 80s, which is good enough for me. There’s a mix of ex­pe­ri­enced sailors, new­bies learn­ing the ropes, and those just along for the ride. “I want to in­volve ev­ery­body, but I still want to win,” Roberts notes.

There is just enough breeze to keep us mov­ing in the prestart. We’re in the sec­ond di­vi­sion (E), up against some MRXS, the Fly­ing Tiger 10 Tigga, and the Thomp­son 850 Rapid Ride. It’s go­ing to be a bit light for one of those, but we get off to a good start, on a tight two-sail down to Stan­ley Point. Be­cause of the rel­a­tive lack of wind and prox­im­ity of dusk this time of year, we’re sent on the short­est course pos­si­ble: reach­ing back and forth to Stan­ley buoy twice.

Roberts might have said he was in this for the fun, but it’s clear he’s pretty se­ri­ous about the rac­ing. It’s not un­til the sec­ond leg that things get re­ally se­ri­ous – the stereo gets turned down quite a bit too. With its lift­ing keel half-up, Ex­treme is ten­der, and crew weight needs to be moved in and out al­most con­stantly as the light breeze comes and goes.

At the first mark we man­age to get in­side run­ning on Namu and round in sec­ond place. So far so good. Now we just have to track down Rapid Ride.

It’s just an ab­so­lute plea­sure to be out on the wa­ter. The af­ter­noon light is fad­ing on the city and, as the race pro­gresses, the sun starts to set. I can’t think of any­where I’d rather be than

cruis­ing up and down the har­bour on a race boat in the sun­shine.

Ac­tu­ally, there is one thing that would make it bet­ter – win­ning. The stereo gets turned down and we start work­ing our way into Rapid Ride. We’re still be­hind at Stan­ley for the sec­ond time, but slowly, slowly we are reel­ing them in. I think Mark knows we are about to pass them when he diplo­mat­i­cally hands over the tiller to me on the last leg; I get the plea­sure of rolling them, then mak­ing sure they stay be­hind us all the way to the fin­ish, as the sun sets be­yond the Har­bour Bridge.

Not that our ef­forts are ap­pre­ci­ated or even no­ticed by the more so­cial half of the crew; we are half­way down the last leg be­fore one of the rail weight asks, “Where’s that guy in front of us?” We just point astern.

Race over and the hooter sounded, it’s time to pack up quick be­fore it gets dark, and head for the Dinghy Locker bar for snacks, drinks and sto­ry­telling. (Roberts has also man­aged to se­cure the first berth on F pier, right by the squadron, so it’s a short walk to the bar.)

Not only have we won the rum for di­vi­sion E, we’re third on hand­i­cap as well. That means Ex­treme re­mains on top on line for the au­tumn se­ries, with three more races to go, be­fore the winter se­ries be­gins.

It’s been a great ex­pe­ri­ence, get­ting back out for a rum race and shar­ing Roberts’ en­thu­si­asm for the sheer fun of sail­ing. I’d be happy to get the call up for some more Ex­treme fun any­time.

LEFT If you need help with sail­ing the boat, ask some­one else – we’re busy.OP­PO­SITEEx­treme – the Rocket 31 de­signed by Jim Young.

LEFT When the se­ri­ous rac­ing’s done it’s time for some se­ri­ous fun.

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