Benn Gunn

May 12, 2018 | Passages

A fibreglass H28 cruising yacht which left New Zealand four years ago, vaguely aiming at Australia, arrived back in Auckland on the 30th November after going right round the world – the first New Zealand H28 to do so.

A small flotilla of yachts from the H28 Owners’ Association welcomed the long-distance traveller at the entrance to the Tamaki Estuary. Ben Gunn, a 9- metre keeler jointly skippered by young Wellington lawyers Tony (MA) Ray (27) and Kevin (KM) Oliver (28), berthed at Half Moon Bay Marina in the estuary with Messrs Ray and Oliver apparently wondering what all the fuss was about.

Included in the welcoming committee were the General Manager of Half Moon Bay Marina Ltd, Mr Peter Walkden, (all H28s are sold through the Half Moon Bay Marina) and the Managing Director of Compass Yachts of Henderson, Mr John Maurice. Compass Yachts has recently completed its 257th H28 – by far the biggest run of any New Zealand production boat.

The two Wellingtonians bought their H28, the 26th built, at hull and decks stage in 1973 and finished it off in Wellington over the next months. Then, their law exams completed, they set sail for Australia (“because it was big enough and we thought we though we could find it…”) in October, 1974.

Ben Gunn was equipped with a diesel auxiliary, an inflatable life raft and a bleeper for emergencies but no radio transmitter. It was not until they reached Sydney 16 days later that they set about equipping the vessel with proper water tanks to replace the 25, two gallon plastic bottles they set off with. And 16 days of holding the tiller persuaded them to rig self-steering gear.

From Sydney they found their way to Darwin where they were called to the Bar, shortly after the disastrous Northern Territories hurricane. “All the other lawyers had blown out of town,’’ says Tony. The lads’ legal qualifications were enough to get them a little work to keep them in bread and butter. “We worked wherever we could.”

From Darwin to Indonesia, then out into the Indian Ocean and the only bad time in four years of sailing when they encountered a full gale and mountainous seas for two days. But everything on the H28 held together and, indeed, in four years of sailing it suffered no structural damage.

Their only mishaps were to the self-steering gear which was struck by another yacht and, after three years, two sails blew out…the only replacements necessary in the voyage.

“It was a completely standard boat,” said John Maurice as he brandished a huge bottle of champagne to welcome home the travellers. “I didn’t even know they were going round the world.”

The pair spent some time around the coast of South Africa then rounded the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic and headed north and west to the West Indies. There followed 18 months of cruising on the east coast of North America between Nova Scotia and the Bahamas.

It was in the Bahamas that Kevin met his wife of two months, Lee. Kevin flew from Fiji in September to marry Lee in her home town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And Lee, after taking a good look at New Zealand on a flying visit in July, was in Auckland to welcome Kevin as he sailed in.

In Marblehead, Massachusetts, (the yachting centre for Boston a few miles away) Kevin and Tony had an unexpected encounter with Miss Muriel Vaughn, the former secretary of the late Francis Herreshoff, doyen of boat designers and creator, in the 1940s, of the original wooden H28.

Miss Vaughn expressed surprise that a “plastic” boat had travelled so far without any problems (Herreshoff – one of the great traditionalists – had always expressed distaste for fibreglass) and Kevin and Tony were invited to the Castle, the old Herreshoff home, to inspect some of the original drawings and designs.

Miss Vaughn bade them farewell with an admission that, for a “plastic” boat, Ben Gunn had indeed done very well.

The homeward trip through the Panama Canal and on via the Galapagos Islands was conventional and – apart from a wedding along the way uneventful, according to Tony and Kevin.

Tony, after four years, has some words of praise for the H28. “It’s quite a credit to the builders that they can build a comparatively inexpensive stock boat that can be sailed round the world.” Tony’s previous yachting experience had been with a tiny P-class and with a Moth…but he found the H28 no more difficult to sail. Kevin had never ventured outside Wellington Harbour and taught himself navigation from a book.

And now? It’s back to Wellington for the three of them and the less-pleasant task of looking for work.

Reproduced from the 1980-81 Yearbook of the H28 Yacht Owners’ Association