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Geoff Smale- Sailor, Sailing Scientist and Sailing Engineer

by Richard Gladwell on 11 Apr 2011
Takapuna (Geoff Smale and Ralph Roberts) on her way to winning the 1968 Olympic Trials in the Flying Dutchman class at Pakatoa Island. He was awarded New Zealand Sailor of the Year in 1968 SW

Geoff Smale (86), who died in a light aircraft accident on Saturday, was one of New Zealand's most intelligent sailors combining that rare mix of engineering ability, original thinking and great sailing ability.

He did not start sailing until relatively late in life at the age of 21 years, and first rose to fame with a win in the prestigious Prince of Wales Trophy in 1958 sailed off Cowes Isle of Wight. Three crews left New Zealand, with Smale and crewman Ralph Roberts winning the then most prestigious small boat trophy in the world.

The group that made the expedition to England, then turned their hand to the new Flying Dutchman class in the 1960's.

In the 1964 FD Trials the New Zealand fleet was the most competitive in the world. The trials staged off Brown's Bay, and were led after seven races by Ian Pryde (also subsequently killed in a plane crash). Smale and Roberts led after races eight and nine, however another combination of Helmer Pedersen and Earle Wells came through to win selection, after the tenth and final race.

Smale and Roberts and several of the rest of the FD fleet continued training against Pedersen and Wells to ensure that they were the best they could be before they left for Sagami bay, Tokyo.

Pedersen and Wells went on to win the Gold Medal in the class, which was New Zealand's second ever Gold medal in Olympic sailing.

In the 1968 Olympic Trials it was Smale and Roberts who got the nod from the Selectors after a convincing win in the trials conducted at Pakatoa Island, which was then a holiday resort.

They went on to finish eighth in the Olympics at Mexico, a placing which did not reflect their true ability, as many expected the duo to take a medal at least. However it was the year of Rodney Pattison and crew Iain Macdonald-Smith (GBR) who came onto the FD scene in the super-boat Superdocious and were a level above the rest of the fleet.

In 1968, Smale was awarded the Sir Bernard Fergusson Trophy as New Zealand Sailor of the Year for his win in the Olympic Trials and development of the Rothmans Father and Son class.

Smale had been a long time stalwart of the Murrays Bay Boating Club, and one was a key member of the team who developed the club from a beach boating and fishing club into one of the major forces of New Zealand sailing. One of his projects was the development of the Father and Son class, which was designed for the purpose which its name suggests, capable of being sailed by a father and son and also used with an outboard for fishing or being rowed. Smale developed a radical rig for the craft which featured a pre-bent mast and fully battened sail, which also rotated and was held in the boat by just three stays. It looked unorthodox but worked superbly.

The RFS as the class became known was also sold as a kitset, through Farmers chain of retail stores - with a cleverly engineered building system that used the delivery crate as a building base.

He continued to compete in the Flying Dutchman class into the late 70's - an almost 20 year career, and sailed Takapuna in the 1977 Nationals along with Roberts as his crew. In his latter years, Smale moved into remote controlled sailing in which he again was highly successful as a competitor and designer, builder, sailmaker.


He established the yacht pond on the shores of Lake Pupuke alongside the family quarry and was one of the enthusiasts behind the development of model yachting or remote controlled yachting in New Zealand.

Smale ever the engineer, designed and built most of his own sails, for all his yachts from the remote controlled yachts through to his Flying Dutchman.

He pioneered the use of hydraulics to control stay tension in the Flying Dutchman class, running the system for several years, unbeknown to other competitors,before switching to more conventional systems.

He also developed the 'spike cut' as a means of radiusing sail panels to provide the greatest control particularly over luff tension. He patented the idea and was then involved in litigation with a major sail making organisation, following the 1987 America's Cup over their commercial use of his idea.


Geoff Smale attended Takapuna Grammar School, on Auckland's North Shore, and went on to study engineering at Auckland University.

The Smale family had long owned a area of farmland on Auckland's North Shore, alongside the now northern motorway, along with a quarry which Geoff operated in conjunction with his brother Jim, working out of a rough tin shed on the site, until well into their seventies, when the quarry was shut down.

After resisting numerous attempts to develop the farmland, the Smale family, led by Jim and Geoff, settled on a gradual development of what is now a technology park accommodating some of New Zealand's top companies in a campus type development, more common overseas.

Smale continued with an enthusiasm for sailing right through his life.

Flying, which was eventually to claim his life, was a natural progression for him, even though he obtained his licence at 82 years old. His understanding of aerodynamics was rivalled by few, and Smale had the additional ability to think about what was happening whether it be in the pilot or helmsman's seat.

Geoff Smale treated life as one big learning experience in which the ideas and experimentation were just as important as the success.

There was no such thing as a failed experiment - he learned from everything. But the competitor in Geoff Smale hated coming second, even though he always had a smile on his face, and a friendly word of congratulation.


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