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Illustrated Guide to Christchurch and Neighbourhood

Early Boating Days in Canterbury

page 109

Early Boating Days in Canterbury.

The numerous and important alterations and improvements which have been invented and made of late years in the model and build of both racing and pleasure boats, and the appliances connected therewith, will show much more apparently if taken in view and compared with such as were commonly in use only a few years back. Outriggers are comparatively a modern innovation so far as we are concerned, and sliding-seats upset nearly all pre-conceived ideas of the bodily movement of an oarsman. A new swivel rowlock also seems to be a recent feature, and although I am not personally acquainted with its working, from its description I have my doubts if it is not an improved revival of an obsolete idea. I may say the same of sliding-seats, having myself used a double-width thwart for the purpose, and afterwards heard that Clasper or Renforth did the same years before on the Tyne.

Situated as we are, so far from Home, and bearing in mind that the distance has been theoretically shortened—say from three months to one day, since the early days—it must reflect creditably upon us to have so promptly adopted these latest improvements; for although the comparison between now and over twenty years ago to a modern oarsman may be somewhat ludicrous, there cannot have been lacking a good show of British pluck in these colonies to keep pace with the stride of advance as made at Home.

It will be my endeavour, in this sketch, to show some of the early difficulties which had to be contended with in initiating the pleasant exercise and pastime of rowing in Canterbury, and the efforts made to put it in its present proper place among the many other athletic diversions to which the Colonial Britisher is naturally prone—or, in other words, to the manner born. In attempting to do this, "memory must be my eloquence." It might be an easier task to look up old files of newspapers and give a lengthy abstract from the reports of regattas, with names of competitors and boats—and I may have to refer to some of the more important of these events—but having myself been something of a boating man in my time, I prefer, with the assistance of other "old files," likewise on the shelf, to jot down approximately reminiscenses of occurrences, which may still be interesting, and also tend to show that the present tolerably easy-going club ménage was not arrived at without some uphill work being performed by the pioneers. The early boating days of Canterbury may be said to date back for about a quarter of a century, page 110when the watermen of Lyttelton entered into hot emulation, for pride of place, both in rowing and sailing. A few whaleboats were also to the fore, some being manned by Maories, and if one or two ships happened to be lying in the stream, the material was ready to hand to constitute an interesting regatta.

So far as Christchurch was concerned a few small craft traded up to the Bricks wharf, which was within a stone's throw of the present "Star and Garter;" I have heard that a whaleboat got up as far as Dean's estate, at Riccarton, but it was before my time; as Inwood's (now known as Lane's) mill would have offered a serious impediment. I have, however, some fifteen years ago, carried a canoe round this, and also round the dam at Wood's mill, at Riccarton, and paddled the whole length of the Avon, from its tributary, the Wairarapa, to the sea.

To return to Lyttelton, at the time just mentioned and for some years after, it faced an open bay, there was no breakwater to lend its friendly shelter, and the sou'-west rollers came merrily across the harbour, dashed their waves without hindrance against the face of Norwich Quay, and showered their spray across the narrow roadway—there was no reclaimed ground then—to the row of houses fronting the briny, notably to the verandah of the Mitre Hotel, where, at the time, both skippers and land lubbers, interested in nautical events, did mostly congregate—and hereby hangs a yarn;—mine host of the Mitre was a character in his way, and had earned the soubriquet of "Hard a Starboard," consequent on his navigation of a craft bound from Port to the Chatham Islands. It is generally and generously supposed that the bold skipper succeeded in circum-navigating the entire group, but after a rather lengthy voyage, owing probably to adverse winds, coupled with the too frequent use of—well say this one word of command, viz., "Hard a Starboard," which was to the skipper as infallible as the "Pax Vobiscum" of Friar Tuck, in Ivanboe, the first land sighted was Lyttelton Heads.

However well adapted for sailing, and such rowing events as I have named, the harbour was much too open for light gig races; a small T jetty, the piles of which may form part of the foundation of the present Post Office, being the only wharf accommodation fronting the town, and although occasions happened when even the similitude of the millpond was allowable, there has always been some risk for light gigs or the—to oarsmen in training—even more unpleasant danger of being "put off," as a record of the swampings and postponings would tend to show; nevertheless, the higher class of rowing, if it page 111may so be called, found its place in the programme as far back as 1860 or 1861.

The red letter Lyttelton event has, I believe, continued to come off yearly ever since that date on each succeeding first of January or there about, and the opportunity should not be overlooked of mentioning the public spirit which has invariably been shown by commanders of ships in placing their vessels at the disposal of the local committees, to say nothing of the liberality so often extended to a long list of visitors, and the similar liberality of the elected commodore of the Regatta, who often put his hand in his pocket to the extent of some hundreds, in order to ensure the success of the particular event, and extend a like hospitality to all comers.

The combined attractions of course drew many visitors from the city of the plains and surrounding country, but the "Hole in the hill" was only just commenced, and the Bridle-path or the road vid Sumner, and the Zig-zag were obstructive; after crossing the Heathcote ferry on Dale's punt, which traversed the river a few chains above the present swing bridge, foot passengers usually chose the former route, while cavalcades of horsemen might be seen turning to the left, skirting the estuary to the Shag Rock, and making a halt at Day's Hotel at Sumner as a half-way-house for a refresher for man and beast before encountering the ascent to reach the Zig-zig; vehicles of any description were, of course, like angels' visits.

The Lyttelton Boating Club was formed about this time (although there were sundry fours, the property of sundry owners, competing at the earlier regattas), their first gig, so far as I can bring to mind, being imported, and called the "Planet," she stood the string test, although I do not think the same could be said of the "Snowdrop," which followed shortly, and scored many a win for its plucky crews, the blue and white never losing an opportunity of shewing their colours (I notice that at a meeting lately held, some members of the L.B.C. were hauled over the coals for wearing magenta and black instead of red! ergo I conclude this must be another L.B.C., composed of men who know not blue and white, and are not aware of the hard-earned honours won by its wearers; doubtless the veterans, Cuff, Cameron, Roper, and others, will enjoy their smile). Christchurch, even in its baby days, could not, of course, keep out of the racket, and it fell on the broad shoulders of Dan Reese (I beg pardon, I should have said D. Reese, Esq., the present M.H.R. for Stanmore) to form the first representative crew. He, with the assistance of R. McDonald and some others of his fellow-craftsmen, set to work, and in their spare page 112time succeeded in putting together a first-class inrigged gig. She was very light, being built of spruce, about twenty-eight feet in length, and painted black. The latter fact, coupled with the intention to keep her dark, probably caused her to be named the "Black Eagle"—a name sounding more of a continental than a stern and wild Caledonian descent. For if I remember rightly the crew had all competed at regattas held on the Clyde and elsewhere; there being nothing to contend against on the Christchurch river, their ambition was to enter for the Lyttelton great annual event, nothwithstanding the apparent difficulty of getting there. There was a story, with perhaps a spice of truth in it, that the "Black Eagle" was rowed round by way of Sumner to the Lyttelton Heads, and being nearly water-logged, attempted a landing at the present pilot station, which was then in use as a quarantine ground. The piratical-looking craft was ordered to "stand off," amid the waving and yelling of the temporarily imprisoned immigrants, for fear of communicating yellow fever, or whatever the sickness may have been. The result is unknown, but as it is not on record that the population of Lyttelton was decimated at the time, the possibility remains that this is only a yarn, and that the Imperial Bird safely arrived at its destination, per Bruce's cart, via Sumner. That she did duly arrive in Lyttelton is a fact, won every event for which she could be entered, and—with coming distrust of both salt water, quarantine, and zig-zag—was shouldered triumphantly by her gallant crew of North Britons, who, with foot upon their adopted tussocks (with the builder, McDonald), carried her over the hill to the Heathcote Valley. Mr. D. Reese may fairly be acknowledged to be the father of rowing in Christchurch. I am not aware that his crew was constituted a club for some time afterwards, but it was so eventually, and from it—owing to a split in the camp—the first Trades Club (the present T.R.C. is only of recent formation) was started by Mr. S. P. Andrews, who built the "Alpha," a four-oar, which was shortly relegated to Kaiapoi; and then the "Alarm;" both boats doing good service for some years, but neither of them very tip-top. The old "Black Eagle," after standing severe work, and well earning many prizes, was cut down, or, rather, shortened, into a pair-oar, the crew building a superior boat with the same name, in order to keep up with the pace of the period.

These two boats formed the nucleus of the Avon Rowing Club, with a commodious shed on the river bank adjacent to that of the C.R.C.

In the meantime (March, 1862), the Christchurch Boating Club was started, more for exercise and amusement than for page 113pot hunting; this, of course, without any slur against those who had previously contested for honour and glory at an earlier date. The Club purchased a four-oar, the "Christchurch Maid," a good practice boat, and tolerably fast, as things went in those days; she was built by a man named Able, and came in first at a regatta in Port, but by time allowance for length of keel only scored third place. This barbaric custom was partly modified by limiting gigs to thirty feet in length, and before long the "any description" of gig, inrigged or outrigged, disposed of the difficulty. A crew in the "Maid" performed this year the somewhat foolhardy feat of rowing from Christchurch down the Avon and Estuary, managed to find a passage between the rocks, avoiding the Sumner Bar, and so out to the Heads and up the harbour to Lyttelton, some twenty-five or thirty miles; after a rest, the start back for home was made, very much against the advice of the watermen, and others, as it was getting toward evening, and was quite dark before the Heads were cleared, where the "Maid," after narrowly escaping being smashed on a big rock, which stands out somewhere below the lighthouse, had, to say the least, penty of sea room; there was a long swell on but no curlers; it grew overcast and dark as pitch, but, after keeping well out off Taylor's Mistake, the cox at length perceived the glimmer of a friendly light at Sumner. Pulling on quietly, approaching to where the "harbour bar was moaning," the light was lost sight of; a dip into a trough and a six foot curler over the stern floored the crew and filled the boat, two of the crew jumped out, one on either side and steadied the boat, while two or three more breakers broke over her, washing boat and cargo ashore, and landing them safely on the long beach a few yards beyond the Cave rock. The bar had fortunately been missed, or the crew would have probably lost the numbers of their mess; as it was the external wetting was duly qualified with internal ditto, togs were dried, the "Maid" re-launched inside the bar, and pulled safely up to Christchurch without further catastrophe. The erratic disposition of some members of this Club is manifested at the present time by a very curious old record, which may be seen on one of the doors of the old wool-shed at the Steam Wharf on the Ferry-road, beyond Woolston. It was written in chalk, more than twenty-two years ago, and is even now readable, giving abbreviations of the names of a crew of five, together with their weights, viz., 12st. 81b., 12st. 51b., 12st. 4llb., 11st. 61b., and 10st. 61b.; there are also the names of another crew of the same year with weights, 13st. 131b., 13st. 51b., 12st. 41b., 10st. 41b., and 10 stone.

The Christchurch Club was duly constituted with officers, page 114members—working and honorary—a code of rules, and three boats. Its early minutes are extant, giving particulars of these, with a permit from the Council, signed by G. Gordon, Town Clerk, to build a shed on the River Avon Bank, not far lower down-stream than the present Fire Bigade Station, in Chesterstreet. But, owing to various causes, this was not accomplished. Business took some of the most active members away, two sailing to the West Coast on an exploring expedition, whence only one returned. I allude to the lamented death of Mr. Claude Ollivier—the oldest son of our well-known R.M.—in August, 1862. The Club soon after lapsed, but from its ashes two new clubs sprang up, and have continued to progress up to the present time.

The Canterbury Rowing Club, which was inaugurated by Mr Harman, the Messrs Blakiston, and others, and the Railway Rowing Club, by Messrs Holmes and Richardson, and their staff, were both started within the next two years. The former obtained the use of a river frontage near Ward's Brewery on the East Belt, erected a commodious boat-shed, and at once began, to procure the nucleus of a fleet, which has been increased or renewed year after year, and now stands second to none in the colony; and although it has not, probably, a record of as many first-class wins as some other clubs, it must be especially gratifying to its founders to look over the ever-varying list of members that have taken a college training and many honours in this rowing school, to the fulfilment of the anticipations and hopes of twenty years ago.

An equally pleasant record may be noted for the Union, née Railway Club, which built its first house at Opawa, on the Heathcote River, owning the old "Christchurch Maid" and the "Blue Bell"; and getting R. MacDonald, who built the first "Black Eagle," to turn out a gig named the "Express" from his yard. The "Lurline" was soon afterward furnished to order by Edwards, of Melbourne; and another four-oar unfortunately was smashed on the voyage from Australia.

Before the tunnel was opened, a branch line ran to Ferry Mead, and this Club inaugurated the first regatta there in the upper waters of the Heathcote Estuary, where it was held for two or three years with great success. The membership of the Club having been opened to others than the railway staff, it was thought advisable to alter the name from the "Railway" to the "Union." as previously mentioned; and another shed was built; on the Avon, adjoining that of the C.R.C. The wins of this Club have been numerous, and it has been a capital training school. page 115Like the C.R.C., it has grown, to a first-class establishment, and also having some hundred members, with property over £1000 in value.

The exigencies of the City Council for a roadway on the river bank caused, in time, the removal of all the boat sheds from their time-honoured position near the Brewery.

The "Canterbury" purchased a piece of land on the opposite bank, and the "Union," following suit, but on the city side, and a little higher up, sheds were built—or rebuilt— and a visit to them and their custodian (Mr Rees) is worth the while of any one interested in modern aquatics.

In speaking of the old time, I can only make a short mention of the Heathcote Rowing Club, but this would be a pleasure, if only to honour the names of its Captain, Mr. F. Pavitt—truly one of the foremost in the athletics in Canterbury—and his confrère, Mr. J.W. Davis. Both these gentlemen are now in the North Island, and the flag they oft have fought under—the old red, white, and blue—now droops in forsaken sorrow on Heathcote's turbid flow, or rather ebb.

The Waimakariri's eccentric current has been the scene of many a "pulling hard against the stream" contest, and the hospitality of the late Dr. Dudley, and the many kindnesses and attentions of members of both the "Kaiapoi" and "Cure" Clubs will be pleasant in the recollection of us old fogies and more recent visitors that have taken part in them.

I think the Northerners have most frequently taken honours on their own river, but I remember the Railway Club scored a win with the "Lurline;" and a "Westland crew won on one occasion. They were labouring men, and it is said they went into profitable training while putting down sundry artesian wells. I think that Hearn (who has lately been talked about in the North Island as likely to pull a match with Hanlau) was a victor over Dawson, our local sculling champion, on this river. "White, however, I think, beat Hearn in the North, and Dawson beat White, in Wellington, in 1873. This reminds me I am getting on to a comparatively late date, though I may mention that the four-oar Interprovincial, held at that place, and in that year, caused much excitement. Three Canterbury crews showed among the entries, viz.—Lyttelton, Kaiapoi, and a crew selected in Christchurch; Dawson and a brother of D. Reece being in the latter, another Trades Club man, and one from the Canterbury, making the four. The boat was the "Sabriua," belonging to the Union Club, and was without a cox., being steered to glory by Dawson (No. 2.) with pedals and wires. By the way, I page 116remember the strands of the tiller-lines were cut in several places, while the boat was under cover in Wellington, but a friendly slip of paper, with "Look to your tiller-lines" pencilled on it, called due attention to the fact, and prevented an ignominious and cruel defeat. There was heavy betting, and the win of the "Sabrina" caused the dabblers in the hot-pot to burn their fingers; in other words, as Te Whiti once observed, the "potato was cooked" with a vengeance. This partly resulted from the fact that the local, and many of the visiting crews, were weather-bound at the Hutt, and had to train on billiards and dumb-bells, while the Christchurch crew were in Wellington for a week, taking a six o'clock run to the top of Mount Victoria and down again, then a header and rub down at the Te Aro baths, and two good rows daily in the harbour; brisk walks; plenty of beef and porter at the Empire Hotel, where the crew put up (added several lbs. weight of muscle per man); no smoking; no anxiety; no business; but a kindly feeling of brotherhood, and mutual confidence, completed the training régime, which I respectfully submit for the use of those who wish to pull well together, and earn laurels for themselves and their clubs.

The best regattas have for some time been held in the Estuary, with the winning post near Sumner, and this cannot be alluded to without thought of arduous work done by Mr J.S. Mon[unclear: illegible]k, and the Pilot, Mr J. Day—the former for his kindness and accommodation to crews and boats, and the latter for the time and exertion given in the difficult task of flagging out the courses. Sumner makes a capital place for training, but many a good race has been lost here and elsewhere, owing to the lack of knowledge of mud banks, currents and tide. There is a splendid course for nearly three miles at the top of high water, and it is smooth at the first ebb with a north-easter blowing, but at low water the channel is devious, and the essence of mud-flats abominable.

When first I saw the Estuary I thought, "What a splendid chance for reclamation!" With locks at the mouths of the two inflowing streams, and locks at the Shag Rock, the beetling cliffs shifted in part to the North Spit, the canals from the rivers washing away the Bar, steam dredges excavating docks, and forests of shipping and thousands of acres of land occupying the waste of waters! It has not happened yet; we must wait a little longer. And now my space is filled. These sketchy reminiscences have brought up many more, but I will leave them now, only hoping that it may be long before rowing becomes a page 117lost art, and that the pluck and honest manliness it induces may continue to be manifested from generation to generation.


Christchurch, 1885.