Sailor reflects on shattered dream

By Denise Montgomery

It was meant to be John Pryor and Jill Hetherington's season of sailing. Their time would be spent on the water in their treasured 1939 C-class keeler, the last boat by legendary designer Arch Logan, enjoying the fruits of five years' labour to restore the tiny classic boat.

They soaked up admiration at the work they'd had done on her, much of it at the Sandspit Yacht Club by Colin Brown. The 72-year-old 32-footer had been stripped back to bare wood, her timbers replaced with kauri, her tatty exterior revarnished and repainted, and her sail refitted. The little beauty had been given another life.

Over Auckland Anniversary weekend she took part in a regatta on the Saturday and won a trophy.

She'd then set sail in the Classic Yacht Association race from Mahurangi to Auckland where she was first over the line and first on handicap for the B Division.

But all that glory was gone in less than a minute on the Monday during the Auckland Anniversary Regatta, when she was T-boned by the 18m yacht Anteaus, which was sailing under motor. There was little wind and Gypsy was travelling at 2-3 knots, near Princes Wharf between the Hilton and Stanley Point.

The Anteaus was estimated to be doing between 5-10 knots, with Charles St Clair Brown at the helm. He was returning to his berth in Westhaven after several weeks of sailing.

St Clair Brown is well known in New Zealand yachting - son of the man often described as the father of yachting, the late Don St Clair Brown. He's the former owner of Maximus, and has decades of sailing experience.

"I knew we had right of way," says Gypsy owner John Pryor, who was at the tiller on the starboard side.

"I looked up and saw Antaeus but I believed it was altering its course. So I turned away and kept doing what I was doing when we were blindsided.

"I managed to leap clear. Jill didn't. She was in the cockpit on the port side and didn't see it coming. I started swimming to her and grabbed her. She couldn't swim, she was too badly injured. The boat immediately sunk."

Ms Hetherington was trapped in the cabin wreckage and had gone under the bow of Antaeus, which was unscathed.

Horrified onlookers in one of the busiest sections of Auckland Harbour on the busiest day of the year say the classic yacht took less than a minute to go down.

"It was like being in a Mini and being hit by a truck," said Tony Stevenson, another yacht owner.

A witness on the Origin reported to the Auckland Harbourmaster that his boat was on starboard tack, like Gypsy, when he saw the Antaeus bearing down. "From my vantage point I could tell that the Antaeus and the 32ft yacht were on a collision course and called out and whistled to the skipper of the Antaeus..."

But it was too late - the large yacht hit the smaller one, just aft of the cabin area.

Mr Pryor says Antaeus skipper Mr St Clair Brown threw a life ring and jumped into the water to help.

"He also came up to the hospital with clothes. We had nothing, it all went down in Gypsy - wallet, keys, phones - and they had to cut off Jill's clothes.

"He just said he didn't see us, which is pretty obvious because he would have stopped if he had."

The damage to the yacht was devastating, but the impact on Mr Pryor and Ms Hetherington even greater. "Jill is far from right," says Mr Pryor. "She suffered a broken pelvis, lacerations to the head. I actually keep reflecting on how lucky she is to be alive.

"We can't stay on Kawau [Island] where we live and work, because she has to have physio twice a week. I have to drive her everywhere."

He says the couple have had to rent an apartment in the city to attend medical appointments, and have incurred thousands of dollars in expenses.

Mr St Clair Brown said in a statement to The Aucklander he was sorry. "I have expressed my condolences to Ms Hetherington on several occasions and I remain sympathetic to her, wishing her a full and speedy recovery from the injuries she sustained during the accident."

The Auckland Harbourmaster investigated the collision and drew both skippers' attention to rule 22 that requires both parties to avoid a collision [see panel]. Despite being under sail, vs motor, Gypsy's owner was also given a warning.

Antaeus' fine was $200 - the largest Auckland Council can hand down. It's the same fine as not having a vehicle registration on the road.

The Aucklander asked Mr St Clair Brown if he agreed with the penalty. "Regrettably I am unable to comment on the questions you have put to me about the accident ... because the matter is in the hands of my insurers."

Mr Pryor looks at his boat with mixed emotions, torn between wanting to save her and casting her adrift. "When I first sailed her she was a ratty old boat but I could see the beauty beneath," he remembers.

Now she sits splintered at the Auckland Traditional Boatbuilding School in Hobsonville.

She was located by sonar, dredged from the bottom of the sea, and carted ingloriously there to give him time to think. He'd first bought the boat off Trade Me in 2008. She'd been advertised for $40,000, but he spent at least $100,000 restoring her.

In the state she's in now it will cost an estimated $350,000 to get her back on the water. "I have to make a decision. So many people have offered to help but it's a tough decision and a lot of money.

"Charles St Clair Brown would have to come up with a significant amount of money for us to even be able to think about it and that's something we might pursue. She could be rebuilt, definitely. I turn 65 next month. We were supposed to be enjoying her together, not facing this. This was supposed to be our season. If she were to be rebuilt that's another two years at least.

"Some people say, 'Just buy another boat and move on'," he says ruefully. "I go from the extremes of wanting to do that and wanting to save her ... she's a classic and I was very, very fond of her.

"She's occupied a large part of our lives and is a special boat. And she had captured many hearts too, people have been in touch saying how much she meant to them."

Mr Stevenson understands his fellow yachtie's dilemma: "It's not like a modern-day boat and you can go and get another one off the shelf. You can't - these boats have a massive amount of heritage about them and it was the last boat that Arch Logan built. She has great provenance.

"It will be a massive build to restore. What they are worth from a heritage point of view and to restore versus what they are worth on the market, well you will never get your money back. That's not why you restore and sail them."

Mr Pryor says Ms Hetherington will go with whatever he decides to do. It's just that right now he doesn't know what that is.

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