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Top yachties turn out at Westlake Boys to celebrate Geoff Smale's life

by Richard Gladwell on 19 Apr 2011
Geoff Smale and Ralph Roberts lead the fleet on their way to win the prestigious Prince of Wales Cup off Cowes IoW in 1958. SW

A group estimated at 800 friends and family turned out today to honour former sailor of the Year and Olympian, Geoff Smale, who was killed in a light aircraft accident in the top of the South Island on Saturday 9 April.

Those attending the celebration of Smale's life included top sailors from the early and mid 1960's through to the current era including several America's Cup winners, current America's Cup crew and race officials.

Held at the prestigious Westlake Boys High School,appropriately alma mater to many of New Zealand's top sailors, the service was conducted by long time friends and crew member, Ralph Roberts who doubles as a marriage and funeral celebrant.

The gathering was addressed initially by Geoff Smale's wife, Shirley, children Chris and Felicity and granddaughter. They touched on the man, husband, father and grandfather they knew.

International sailing commentator, Peter Montgomery covered Smale's many sailing achievements and read messages from two fellow competitors in the 1958 Prince of Wales Cup, former ISAF President, Paul Henderson (CAN) and Laser designer, Bruce Kirby (CAN). Noting that Smale's unassuming personality masked a razor sharp intellect, which manifested itself in so many ways, be it in sailing brilliance, an sail-engineering idea or invention or just some comment that he picked up on and expanded. Montgomery concluded with comments on Geoff Smale's total humility and the fact that no matter how average a sailor you were, Geoff Smale always had a ready smile and was genuinely interested on how YOU were and were getting on, and never focused on himself and his many achievements in life and sailing.

Phillip Littlejohn spoke of the development of the Technology Park at Smale's Farm, including the weekly pizza meetings held each Tuesday at 5.30pm in the prefab which doubled as a project office for the construction of the campus. He told of Smale's compassion for workers and sub-contractors on the construction site ensuring all were happy with the work being done and that they were paid on time; and how the red sheds, dubbed the Smales Farm 'corporate headquarters' where Geoff and his brother Jim had spent their whole working lives were only finally removed in 2007, when they retired. The site which had started off as a quarry became a concrete crushing recycling plant, after Smale picked up the idea during a visit to US in 1965.

Roy Granich, a former winner of the prestigious Tanner Cup told of how Smale would come over from his Flying Dutchman sailing and talk with the young P-class sailors, and also how later in life he competed against Geoff Smale in the radio yachting classes, appeared in front of him during a protest hearing, and how he and Smale worked together on the racing rules for radio controlled yachts.

Harvie Lockie told of Geoff Smale's introduction to aviation, at the age of 82 years old, and how the Olympic yachtsman confessed to understanding a little about aerodynamics when the principles of flight were explained to him. Such was Smale's competence and knowledge of flight, that even though he had just four years experience, most who did not know his background thought he was a retired 747 captain, Lockie explained.

Past Commodore of the Murrays Bay Sailing Club, Kevin Brown told the group that Geoff Smale was the Patron of the Club, which has produced several America's Cup skippers and many Olympic sailors from its junior programs. He spoke of Smale's sailing values and contribution over many years to the many foundation stones and development of the Murray's Bay Sailing Club, which for many years was completely dominant in small boat sailing success.

It is only recently when many of the ideas developed at Murray's Bay have been taken onboard by other clubs that they too have achieved a similar level of success.

The almost two hour service was concluded by Ralph Roberts who told of how he first met Geoff Smale, as a young electrician sent to a job at the quarry which Smale turned into a sailing aerodynamics lesson using a Finn sail, a pile of sand and his then new wife's new vacuum cleaner. When Shirley arrived unexpectedly to catch Geoff in mid flight - wanting to know whether that was really her new vacuum cleaner he was using in the sand pit, and how come he was pleading ignorance as to its use around their home?

It was time for a judicious exit, Roberts decided, leaving the Smales to sort out their domestic issues. And so began a sailing relationship which took them to Cowes to win the 1958 Prince of Wales Cup, then the most prestigious two handed sailing trophy in the world, the Olympic Games in 1968 and several 'tours' of the international sailing regatta circuits plus several national championships.

After the service most of the group retired to a cafe at Smales Farm where many sailing acquaintances were renewed between sailing friends/foes some of whom had not met for 30-40 years.

Geoff Smale is survived by his wife Shirley, sons Andrew and Chris, daughter Felicity and grandchildren.

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