The tale of the 2015 Waikato Seagull Race

The tale of the 2015 Waikato Seagull Race
words & photos from Adrian Pawson

You wont hear me say this often, but I hope where ever you are today that its cold & raining, because today’s post is a perfect excuse to light the fire, make a cup of tea (or something stronger) & relax. Its a long one, I could have split it across 2 or 3 posts but its so good it deserves to read in totality.

Some of you will recall that last year I posted the story of Adrian Pawson & James Ledingham’s assault on the legendary Waikato River annual Seagull outboard race. (details here
While Adrian works at the very pointy end of the marine industry & his tools of trade are a laptop & carbon fibre he’s a bit of a renaissance man & woodys would be impressed with his workshop/garage – the ex Robert Brooke Frostbite ‘Kiteroa’ currently takes pride of place alongside the carbon fibre, 2 times race winner ‘Paris Hilton II’.

I’ll let Adrian tell the tale of this years race, he is rather a good wordsmith 🙂

There are some photos at the end. Enjoy
ps just by including the name of boat – Paris Hilton II, should do wonderful things to the google numbers on ww 🙂

While most Kiwi’s enjoyed 4 days of well-deserved Easter holiday, the 31st edition of the ‘Great Annual Waikato Seagull Regatta’ was underway down the Waikato river. Last year my buddie James and I battled to race the ultra-high tech but notoriously unreliable Seagull powered ‘Paris Hilton Mk2’ from the base of Karapiro dam to hoods landing (Waiuku) 88 miles down the Waikato river. Last year we had a few mechanical problems to put it politely. But like in any long distance race or offshore event, the bad memories were quickly forgotten and we found ourselves once again loading the van with spare parts, large quantity of tools and 2 stroke oil to keep our un-trusty Seagull going and Paris Mk2 securely strapped to the roof.

The week beforehand, we realised that we hadn’t yet engraved our trophy from the previous year, so James was put in charge of this task. I was pretty confident in our abilities and suggested to James that we might like to engrave our names for 2015 in advance, as one line of text was going to be $25 where as a second line was only $5 extra. However James convinced me that this would be extremely bad taste and we should perhaps hold off for the moment. Whatever you say James, just trying to save us a bit of time and money…..

Like last year, the start of the Waikato race has been a sticking point with our friends at Mighty River Power. It’s fair to say that Seagull outboards aren’t exactly the first choice of machinery for the general boating public, hated by environmentalists and pretty well anyone for that matter. Mighty River Power however detests our leisurely trip down the river far more than most. We acknowledge that our motley bunch of unwashed sea dogs are an eccentric bunch, and somewhat unconventional in some respects, but we’re friendly enough and only insist on occupying the 49% privately owned space at the bottom of the dam for one morning once per year. We’re also not entirely convinced that this is a major inconvenience to their shareholders. We have been doing this for over 30 years now without incident or injury after all. Sure, in years past there has been some friction. Gates may have been plasma cut from their foundations or locks tampered with… But this year Mighty River Power must have got a tip off and they really went out of their way to shut our event down. The river access gate was locked and they had taken it upon themselves to invest in 3 security guards to stand watch to make sure we wouldn’t get through. This development did present a problem with regard to our most direct access route. A decision was made that a couple of the more diplomatic Seagullers should park their boats and trailers in the access road carpark and draw the attention of, and if need be communicate with the security guards. As expected these negotiation didn’t go so well. There was categorically no chance that we would be given access to the dam access track. However our pseudo negotiations did create enough of a diversion for the remaining 28 cars, trailers, boats, contestants, support drivers, 2 dogs and 3 campervans to pass unobstructed through a sympathetic private land owners gate 50m up the road from the heavily guarded Might River Power ‘public access’ gate. Of course this alternative thoroughfare was organised weeks beforehand, and arguing with the guards was purely for comic value.

Once down at the river, the starting sequence played out normally as in previous years. 2.5hp dinghy class went first at 8am, followed by the 2 man 4.5hp classic Bermudan class and the 4.5hp standard dinghy class at 9am, then the 4,5hp modified dinghy class along with the 20’ international Bermudan class at 9:30. Last to leave were the highly modified Seagull unlimited class and the Seagull sport class boats at 10am. These crazed individuals do over 20 knots, so they have to give the rest of us a head start.

Generally the starts got off smoothly. Starter cords were pulled, wound and pulled again, blue smoke filled the still morning air, babies cried and dogs slipped their collars to escape the racket. Highlight of the 20’ class start was ‘Chilly Dog racing’ whose engine malfunctioned and started first pull! This was somewhat a surprise for all involved, not least to the skipper of the Chilly Dog. The boat took off with only a borrowed 10yr old child aboard. The skipper motivated by hysterical shrieks from the child’s mother dived and got a hand on the transom, only to be towed off the beach and into the race. Things weren’t looking healthy at this point for this team Chilly Dog, however on-board Paris Hilton Mk2, things under control and the shit fight unfolding behind us was merely bonus entertainment (Skipper and child were both fine btw)

Paris Hilton Mk2 shot off down the rapids, seagull in full flight and screaming at 5100rpm with the grace of a blender full of billiard balls. Our signature trail of blue smoke the only sign of where our sleek 20’ craft had once displaced the murky waters of the mighty Waikato. From last year’s efforts we knew we were fast and as long as the motor kept working we were going to be looking good. We flew through Leamington pool, under bridges waving to the riverside cows and a few well-wishers.

Meanwhile 150mm below waterline, oil silently leaked from our gear box, a fault previously identified, but due to factors beyond our control (mainly laziness) this mechanical fault remained a ticking time bomb…. We had built a handsome lead by the time the revs started to drop. We were overcome by a certain sense of dae ja voo and we immediately knew what was happening. To our credit his time we had tools and some spare oil at our disposal, but more importantly we had a plan! A suitable landing beach was sighted and we prepared ourselves for a landing. Fortunately our chosen destination was sand rather than mud so the whole process was quite straight forward. Boat beached, speedo and fuel line unplugged, main pin out, motor on sand, then remove the oil plug. Next you tip the water out of the gear box and shake the engine a bit to get the last drops, then jam the oil squirter in the hole and squeeze.  It is worth mentioning that at some point during all this James dropped the engine pin spacer bushes and these were quickly declared ‘lost’. So we had to settle for a bit more vibration, which was annoying, although let us feel far more positively through our backsides when we had weed on the prop.

Once we were back up to revs and again heading in the right direction all seemed to be going to plan. We ate our packed lunches (thanks James) and cleared weed off the prop a few times. We debated when we were going to be overtaken by the modified class boats and tried to guess how far ahead of the20’ competition we might be. James dutifully pumped the gas squisher every half hour, while I tried my best not to run us aground. We pulled over once more when we again lost revs due to the gearbox dropping its guts. This time we were intercepted by a tinny captained by a very talkative local fella. He stopped on our little beach to offer his advice and share his stories of how his father used to have a Seagull and how it was by far the worst piece of machinery he had ever owned. He though it highly amusing that we were in a race. Generally he said, a dinghy on the side of the river sporting a seagull outboard is pre-requisite for a rescue. So he was there to offer us a tow. Mildly offended we assured him that we were 100% in control and we were merely undertaking routine maintenance. Yes, perfaps the Seagull engine does have a reputation with regard to reliability and lack of power output and yes our carbon fibre boat was perhaps a little overkill for the application, but there was a lot at stake here you see. We stopped him mid-sentence and advised that in spite his doubts, in 25 seconds we would be leaving this beach to continue our pursuit of Seagull race glory.

One of the more humorous tasks during a +4 hour day in a Seagull racer is the unavoidable process of taking a leak. For obvious reasons relating to performance, Paris is narrow and quite low wooded. These design characteristics don’t tend to make taking a wee an easy task. For every action on Paris there must be an equal and opposite reaction. This means if one crew member takes a leek to port, the same must happen to starboard. So as you can imagine this is a balancing act requiring a certain level of coordination between crew members. In terms of keeping it out of the boat, length is your friend, and it’s a good idea to wiz aft aligned with the prevailing headwind. We got better at this as the race progressed. Early attempts were not what you’d call synchronised or elegant. (Which reminds me, I need to show the boats sponge a splash of Detol when I’ve finished writing)

Against all odds we crossed the Rangariri bridge in a time of 4 hours, 19 minutes. That put us 30 minutes ahead of the damp and slightly worse for wear Chilly Dog Racing Team. We packed up Paris and made a B-line for the Rangariri pub. There we had a cool glass of Waikato Draft and an $11 seafood basket with a cheesecake for desert. We then left the pub for the North End motor lodge where we needed to prepare the next day’s fuel brew. My dear partner insisted on talking to me and asking me completely unrelated questions while I was trying to decant fuel in the tank. Of course this made me lose track and I promptly lost track of the mix ratio. Seagulls run on a 10:1 2 stroke mix. Mixing at 8:1 would mean more smoke than an Aussie bush fire, where 15:1 at the RPM we’re running would result in a premature seizure. The mystery mix batch was abandoned and went in the car. My Toyota, for a modern vehicle seems to run surprisingly well on 10-ish:1. For the second attempt at mixing, I manage to get her go away and talk to James. James likes talking to girls, so a win-win situation for both our fuel mix accuracy and James’s social life. Fuel was mixed and we decided as a precaution to swap over to our spare gearbox, which we suspected was actually better than out #1 race box. With that last minute change complete and the chores out of the way, we got stuck into the whisky and recounting the stories of the day. So far so good for the Paris Mk2 come back tour!


We got up at sparrows fart 7am because it’s better to be an hour early for the start than 5 mins late. But when the corrections for the end of daylight savings were applied, we were very much on the too early side of things. However that gave James time to assembly another one of his wonderful packed lunches with homemade sandwiches, buttered hot crossed buns, apples, chocolates and drinks. James is well suited to the lady jobs, so I left him alone to do his thing. The seagull sea dogs took pleasure teasing us and saying that the heaviest thing on our boat was our lunch bag. They were close to being right, although we didn’t care because we were going to deal them lesson in seagulling for a second day in a row, whilst eating tastier lunches than what they had on hand.

We went through our normal checks, tightening all the lose bolts on the seagull and loading in the various tools and spares etc into Paris. Finally got Paris in the river at 8:50am, 15 mins before our start time. This wasn’t before a near catastrophic incident with the van threatened to put us out of the race…. This came about when James was doing his best to back the Southern van and trailer out of the ramp area. To be fair it is a tight spot under the bridge there. James was watching the trailer and the bridge and the people standing around watching him. He wasn’t however watching the grass verge where our beloved Paris was delicately parked. I saw it happening. James was going to back over the transom of our boat! I yelled out, but it was too late. There was a bang and he hit her. The engine was broken off its mounts and the gearbox and prop hit the ground. Pieces of aluminium were broken off and the whole system was now quite wobbly. F**K James! The van door opened and I ran over to assess the damage. By some miraculous stroke of luck the fragile carbon transom of the boat seemed to be intact with the jacking and tilt control systems seeming to have escaped unscathed. Most of the damage was limited to our long suffering Seagull. Poor James, sharp co-ordination and spatial awareness don’t seem to be a common strength in persons over 6’5”. Composure was regained and spare parts located and fitted to replace those not a bit worse for wear. Fortunately the damage was reparable.

Once in the water we started off easy, keeping just enough revs on let our trusty Gull warm to operating temperature but without oiling up the plug. With 3 minutes to the start one seasoned old sea dogs managed to maroon their boat on a clearly visible sand bar in the middle of the river. They parked it pretty hard and got stuck managing to block up the engines water inlets in the process.

There was a lot of steam and shouting from other competitors: Andy!!! Stop the motor!!!! The beauty of a seagull is that you can run them dry at full RPM without risking damage to the pump or cooling system. Seagulls have a solid vane centrifugal water pump you see. Until you get them hot enough to weld the rings to the walls of the block, they seem to deal with dry running quite well! During all this drama the race had started. James had been keeping an eye in the clock and had directed me to make a course for the bridge. Because of this we came away smelling of roses with a 2 minute head start on the fleet! Years of yacht racing had taught us to keep an eye on the flags and this had paid off on our pursuit to break the international 20’ Bermudan class race record. By the first bend we had 300m on the next boat! Money for jam!

The river between Rangariri and Mercer is notorious for sandbars, logs, shallows and the occasional car body. We later heard that one of the other light weight composite boats managed to hit something submerged and tear a foot long hole through their hull. The seasoned sea dog captain casually shifted a foam pad over the hole and sat on it for the next 3 hours so he could finish the race. – A true testament to the calibre of sea men who compete in this event!

On Paris we were also struggling to avoid hazards. On several occasions there was debate as to what various disturbances on the water meant. Was it a gust of wind or ripples over a sand bar? At one point we managed to get boxed into a narrow channel, which rapidly disappeared. That meant getting out of the boat and pulling her through the shallows to deeper water. Where exactly this deep water was located was always cause for debate. Then there were the hidden snags. Depending on how fast the river is flowing in a particular area determines how far after the snag the water shows turbulence. Sometimes this could be up to 20ft behind the problem area. In areas of widespread turbulence, avoiding these snags was more luck than skill. On the good ship Paris we do much better with luck than skill. And with that thought in mind the skies opened and it started to bucket down. The rain was torrential. No chance to read the water or what might be happening under the surface. So we straight lined the shortest possible course through the next few bends and generally hoped for the best, at full throttle of course. How we never hit anything hard remains a mystery to me. This rain went on for about 20 minutes and we bailed the boat as we went. The rain marked the end of the most hazardous part of the second day. It was plain motoring for the next 25 miles.

Sure enough, 2.5 hours has elapsed and we were surprised that our spare box was holding oil so well. Maybe this one was better than our race box? 10 mins later that idea was put to bed as 5100rpm became 4800 and then 4500. This box shared a failure signature similar to a lithium ion battery. Strong till the very end, then the wheels completely fall off the waggon in a very short space of time. Things were looking marginal on the good ship Paris We barely made the next duck shooting platform, nursing her in at 50% power just to save our now oil-less box. This particular platform was an improvement on the one we chose last year. This one didn’t have nails to keep the shags off. So it was a pleasant stop, and without attracting the attention of any friendly locals we made a smooth refill and within a couple of mins we were back up to 4950rpm. 5 mins later burrs on the gears smoothed off, we once again found out magic 5100rpm!

The race was ours to lose at this point. Catastrophic mechanical failures aside, all we had to do was not get lost navigating the hoods landing delta. This is easier said than done as there are a surprising number of small islands and turnsin that part of the river. In years past, some seagull racers have become helplessly lost in this area and even ended up outside Port Waikato! Fortunately, the event organisers had enlisted coast guard and a few other private boats to anchor up and hold signs pointing to the correct channels to get us to hoods landing. Other than collecting a lot of weed on the prop, we found our way to the finish and with a time of 3h 14m, adding that to our first days’ time of 4hrs 19m gave us a 7h 33m total! This secured the outright record for the 20’ International Bermudan Class! The previous record was 8h 24m. It was another 25 minutes before the second 20’ class boat came in. Again it was the Chilly Dog team, the bridesmaid for the second year running!

Prize giving was once again in the lavish quarters of the Waiuku Cosmopolitan club. The Lion Red flowed and the buffet dinner was surprisingly tasty. Boobie prizes were issued, Mr Chilly dog and then our own poor James hauled up before the crowd to explain their f**k-ups. Then came the treat of the weekend. An hour long professionally produced film about a pack of old geezers who insist on racing dinghies with woefully out of date outboard engines down a river somewhere. Presented as a romantic comedy and featuring many of those present in the room at the time, the film was a massive hit with the sea dogs. There were offers of cash and enquiries as to when it would be in the cinemas, although we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves just yet! Submissions for the NZ film festival close in a couple of weeks so we’ll see how we go. My partner and I have been working on this film for a couple of years now, with a little bit of help from the notorious Mr Houghton. Maybe there can be an exclusive Waitemata Woodies private showing some day.




7 thoughts on “The tale of the 2015 Waikato Seagull Race

  1. Pingback: Seagull outboard racing on the Manukau Harbour. This Sat. 14th | #1 for classic wooden boat stories, info, advice & news

  2. Ian & I read this in the car outside the Tarata Hall which gives a wifi signal free .
    good write-up Adrian – very amusing. Laurel


  3. A few of the Seadogs are planning a Seagull trip down the whanganui river in a few months. It’s not a race, just a pleasure cruise. I’m thinking we’ll leave Paris at home and take the Frostie instead. If any of you guys have a suitable boat and would like to borrow an engine, I have one to lend. It will be more or less reliable.


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