Primary Trainer

Early adventures in the P Class yacht

I waited for the coach to finish. He moved magnetic triangular boats around a whiteboard to indicate wind angles, sail trim and the variations of rudder movement. I glanced out to the water. The waves were short and steep, dumping themselves unceremoniously on the boat ramp. My red P Class, freshly rescued from a pile of leaves in my uncle’s backyard, sat on a trolley nearby. Its rust-streaked sail slapped in the breeze.

At Maraetai Beach, where I grew up, sailing was the national sport. All the kids tried it at least once and all the parents went to the club on Sunday night for fish and chips and a handle of Lion Red. There was no pub and only one restaurant in Maraetai – the sailing club was the cultural, culinary, social and sporting centre of the town. And at the centre of the club was the P Class.

The first P Class boat was designed by New Zealander Harry Highet in 1923. A fleet quickly formed at the Tauranga Yacht Club and it became known as the ‘primary trainer’ (hence the P) for kids under 14. Post World War Two, the class took off across the country and Maraetai was no exception. On Saturday mornings, the carpark was often too full to launch all the boats and late comers lined up along the beach around the corner. My friend Josh, who lived at Omana, preferred to sail his P Class around the headland to the startline just to avoid the congestion.

Things have changed since then. The P Class isn’t as popular as it used to be, having been overtaken by newer, sleeker boats. It was always heavy for a seven foot boat and the plywood needed regular sanding and painting. But the main drawback was the handling. The P Class sailed like a bathtub, a dangerous and unpredictable bathtub, and, as a result, my main memories of them are of terror. On my first try I was dumped in the sea, spluttering in a tangle of ropes and sail fabric. The second and third times weren’t much better. In fact I don’t remember enjoying my P Class much at all in the early days. It was flamboyant and tippy and it took quite a few months for me to learn the basic boat-handling skills needed to get keep it upright.

Despite the difficulty, come Sunday I was keen to push my boat down to the club and give it another go. There were moments in between the dunkings that made it worthwhile. On the odd occasion, I managed to trim the boat properly and it would slip between the waves, rather than bashing through them. And then there was the race at the end of the day. Once or twice I even passed another boat, although my heavy hull and antiquated wooden mast meant it was a short lived victory.

There is a mythology that has been built up around the P Class – that somehow our sporting success in sailing, particularly the America’s Cup, is down to the difficult early training it provides. Peter Blake, Russell Coutts and Dean Barker all sailed in them. I’m not sure that sailing a P Class ever made me a better sailor, although maybe that’s because I was happier mucking around on the beach than fine tuning my technique for the racing circuit.

Having said that, there was one weekend camping trip I remember that provided me with a taste of real seamanship. It was a rough day and the two hour trip to the island was directly downwind from home. The waves felt huge, although in reality they were probably only about three feet high. As the boat was picked up by each wave, I had to lean as far as I could over the transom to stop the nose from digging in and catapulting me out. A couple of times it did start to go under and my rudder began to lift out of the water. Somehow, I had just enough weight to bring it back down at the last second. Larger two-person dinghies skipped past, barely touching the waves. Some circling back to make sure I was okay before speeding off again.

Eventually, I made it to the island, wet and tired but with the respect of the other kids, some of whom had given up halfway across and taken the offer of a tow from one of the support boats. I think I might have learnt something that day. Not how to win the America’s Cup or an Olympic medal, but that I’d taken what I could from that difficult little boat. It was time to move on to something bigger, smoother and easier to sail.