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Graham Mander, designer, engineer and sailing champion dies in his 90th year

by Richard Gladwell/ 19 May 04:54 PDT 19 May 2021
Graham Mander and Andy Holland R Class © Mander Family Archives

Graham Mander who passed away in early May was the last of a generation of New Zealand sailors capable of designing their own boat, and building it, engineering the fittings, and then racing their creation to a national championship win.

Manders sailing career and achievements in many ways mirrored that of the prodigious Bruce Farr, who made his mark in designing, building and racing dinghies before becoming l'enfant terrible of international yacht design in the same way Graham Mander had a couple of decades previously as he moved through the NZ national classes. Mander was to racing dinghies what Farr became in keelboats.

Graham "Happy" Mander also compares well with the legendary English designer/builder and innovator, Uffa Fox, who preceded the New Zealander by a decade or two.

Passing away in his 90th year, Mander was the second of three brothers from the First Family of Canterbury sailing, winning 12 national titles in six different classes, including back to back wins in the rare double of Tanner and Tauranga Cup wins in the P Class, and a hat-trick of wins in the 14ft X-class.

Of the three brothers Graham Mander is better known for his record wins in national championships, while his older brother Peter, who passed away in 1998, is celebrated for his international successes, including a Gold medal in the Sharpie class at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, and a World title in the 18ft skiffs sailing in Fiji, with Graham as part of the crew. Graham twice finished runner up in Olympic selection trials in the 12sq metre Sharpie class in 1956, and again in the Flying Dutchman class in 1968. He went to the Mexico Olympics as a travelling reserve. The youngest of the three Mander brothers, David also acquited himself well, winning the Tauranga Cup (P class) in 1949 and the Cornwell Cup (Z class) in 1952 as a skipper, and the Leander Trophy (R class) in 1957 as a crew.

"His record is unique among New Zealanders, he being the only man to have won every trophy of importance as a skipper, from seven-footers to the Sanders Cup; moreover, he did it all before he was twenty-four," his elder brother Peter, New Zealand's first Olympic sailing Gold medalist, wrote in his biography "Give a Man a Boat".

"As a 6 stone (38kgs) 13 year old who had never sailed a P Class he was lent the Hi Ho by George Andrews to represent Canterbury in the 1945 Tanner Cup in Wellington," recalled Bret de Thier, a protégé of Manders who went on to represent New Zealand at the Olympics, Little America's Cup and Admirals Cup.

"Graham finished second, winning two races. In each of the following two years he won both the inter-provincial Tanner Cup and the inter-club Tauranga Cup. He won 12 national titles in major classes, 11 before age 24."

"No other New Zealand yachtsman has achieved that feat."

"Because of the disparity in our ages he travelled up the ladder after me," Peter Mander continued. "Partly because I'd left my own scar on yachting and because he bore the signs of pre-eminence, people saw him approaching and many of them went out of their way to give him a going-over.

"I escaped that sort of treatment largely because people didn't foresee my success, and even if I did not always know, I've been told I gave an impression of assuredness, a self-confidence that was not lightly assailed. Graham, on the other hand, is quiet and gentle. He not only was bounced, but, being sensitive, let his tail down and for some time wondered whether he was playing a sport-which he has always done with uncompromising honesty and integrity - or becoming involved in power politics.

"In our youthful ignorance we ribbed him when he was feeling low and when he understandably showed sour reaction we called him "Happy". The nickname has stuck and, to show us up for the louts we were, there isn't today a sour note in his make-up."

Provincial warfare

The three Mander sons, Peter, David and Graham, between them aggregated a record of three international championships wins, including an Olympic Gold Medal and 24 New Zealand National titles in eight different classes of yacht. That was in an era immediately after World War 2, before the existence of what is now Yachting New Zealand. Class rules were administered and controlled by a single club and the legitimacy of "innovations" were argued at national contests.

Most national titles were sailed between provincial representatives who had to win their province's selection trial before being allowed to go on and compete for the national title, usually in an eight boat fleet. Sailors graduated through the major trophies, starting with Tanner and Tauranga Cups (P class - single handed under 15yrs), Cornwell Cup (double handed Z-class under 19 years), Moffat Cup (three crew Idle Along),Sanders Cup in the 14ft X Class (three crew) and Leander Trophy 12ft 9" double handed R class. Graham Mander is the only New Zealand sailor to have won all six national titles as a skipper, and in four of those classes did so in multiple years.

National and interprovincial competition then was as intense and cut-throat as any contemporary international competition. Provincial competition was intensified by the actions of provincial delegates who accompanied each crew arguing over class rules in the restricted classes. Being the high-priest of dinghy engineering and design some of Graham Mander's innovations sparked "discussions" that spanned several years of competition before being accepted as legal.

The Manders and others like Jack Cropp, also realised the advantage of light boats, and had access to a spruce-like timber found only on the west coast of the South Island. While class rules did specify minimum hull weights, being able to home-build down these weights while maintaining structural strength was a black art that few mastered. However the advantage of a minimum weight, strong hull was significant if the boat was to take maximum advantage of its crew's righting moment, and promote planing on the off the wind legs.

"Today’s top sailors are amazing, but to me the Mander brothers take the overall honours as they were the total package," de Thier reflected.

"In the development R Class Graham would design a boat like Frenzy then build it to the highest degree of "graftsmanship", pushing the class rules to their limit. He would make the rudder and centreboard, sew the sails, make all the spars, make innovative fittings in stainless steel, tune the boat and then race it to national honours, along with Andy Holland as crew. He was a thorn the side of Aucklanders and Wellingtonians for many years."

["Graftsmanship" is an euphemism for the skilled art of tweaking class design restrictions to achieve an optimum hull shape, rather than just building down the middle of the allowed building tolerances. It also takes in customising aspects of the boat to suit its crews' physique, sail plan, foils and rig, and bringing these together in a single design concept. The trick of the designer/builder/engineer/sailor was to bring these optimisations together in a single concept which usually resided in the builders head rather than on formal design drawings, then accurately build the hull to take advantage of the tolerances, and hit minimum weight. A theodolite was frequently used to set up and check the hull shape during building.]

The Manders sailed in an era before self draining cockpits, and developing pumps or venturi bailers to drain bilge-water, while the crew continued to hike hard, was another area for innovation and later confrontation between Graham Mander and the controlling club's measurers and the provincial delegates. They were always keen to strike out any advantage devised by the Manders, and Graham in particular over the winter off-season.

The Dream Factory

"When I was about 12yrs old and mad about boats I had the biggest break a budding young sailor could wish for", Bret de Thier recalled. "My parents moved from Sumner back to St Andrews Hill and two doors away was the Mander’s shed at the back of Graham and June’s section and that’s when I first met Graham."

"I clearly remember early visits to the Mander’s shed as I called it. It was a long, but modest weatherboard structure, but to me it was a wonderland of innovation and craftsmanship with sails and spars from earlier campaigns slung up in the roof trusses, the smell of wood shavings and marine glue, rudders and centreboards being made and always at least one yacht being built or current ones being modified.

"There were shelves of kauri and kahikatea, tools of all types and a sewing machine for sail making. In the parking lot outside our gate was Quest, Graham’s 12 sq m Sharpie, an almost daily inspiration to me every time I passed it."

"I’m sure I must have made a nuisance of myself ducking in to talk with my hero after school but he always made time to talk about what he was making, but most importantly, explaining why. This was the modest and generous Graham we all came to know. Throughout is long sailing career and until quite recently, he made time to talk to people and help tune their rigs or discuss tactics."

"Back in his sailing days there was no going to computer modeling", de Thier said. "Graham had a very analytical mind and an amazing, intuitive understanding of cause and effect and what made yachts sail fast. He passed on many little tricks.

"Once when Steve Moffatt and I were overseas rigging up our Tornado before a very windy race I remembered Graham saying to reverse the top three or four full-length battens so that the thin ends were at the leach so that it opened out. The Tornado rocketed.

"I also recall him unpicking an R Class mainsail seam and re-sewing it a few millimeters tighter to close the leach and greatly improve light to medium wind performance.

"No rushing off and buying a new sail for him. Understand the problem and solve it with a simple, functional and often innovative solution was Graham’s approach.

"On reflection I think it was this ethos I sub-consciously picked up on early and ran with in my design career," de Thier said.

Two boat testing wins Olympic Gold

Olympic selection was twice a close run thing for Happy.

The Mander brothers Graham and Peter built the Sharpies “Jest” and “Quest” as two of the four boats built for the 1956 Olympic campaign, in “the shed” at Quarry Road.

As with a couple of the current day Olympic campaigns, and also the 1964 Gold medal win in Enoshima, Japan, the two brothers developed and tuned the unfamiliar boats competing against each other and the other Canterbury boat.

The two brothers and their respective crews, Jack Cropp and Tiger Wilson, competed in national selection trials with the elder Mander and crew Jack Cropp prevailing by just a single point.

Graham Mander continued with his Olympic aspirations, when the 20ft Flying Dutchman was chose as the doublehanded Olympic class to replace the gaff rigged Sharpie. However he faced an uphill battle given the strength and depth of talent in the Auckland Flying Dutchman fleet. However the FD was a boat fiddlers dream - rewarding those who set their boat up carefully, and could adeptly tweak the settings while racing.

Geoff Smale and Ralph Roberts were selected for Mexico in 1968, with Graham Mander being selected as the travelling reserve.

Mander along with a big crew Don Nixon (6'4" and 14stone in the old money) surprised the Auckland fleet finishing second in the Olympic trials, heading off Ron Watson, Jock Bilger, and'64 Gold medalist Helmer Pedersen.

As in the '56 Trials in the 12sq metre Sharpie, Mander was unlucky to miss FD selection. He and Nixon led three races going into the final leg, one by a margin of over three minutes, however the quality of the fleet was such that the boats astern would split tacks,with little to lose, and take their chances on striking paydirt in the shifty puffy conditions off Pakatoa Island (then a resort off the eastern end of Waiheke Island). Mander and Nixon won won race and finished fourth in four others, in the seven race series. They scored two 4th placings in their other two races in the 21 boat fleet..

Mander along with Mick Fisher, sailed the tune-up boat against Smale and Roberts. Mander had to substitute for Smale in the Olympic invitation race, after Smale contacted the local version of "Delhi belly" known as Montezuma's Revenge. In the crowning point of his short Olympic career Graham Mander won the invitation race on Sagami Bay.

The regatta was won by British sailing legend, Rodney Pattinson - the first of his three Gold medals in the FD.

"Graham was always called "Happy" because he had a different attitude and was always wanting to share his knowledge," Roberts recalled. "In a team fashion, Graham would only discuss a race if he won, as in his view coming second, didn't make it."

"So many kids benefitted from Happy's teaching, that Canterbury was always a threat nationally."

For the 1976 Olympics in Kingston, Canada, Graham and Peter went on to help establish the Olympic 470 class in Canterbury by buying a boat and competing together, while recognising their competitive days in Olympic class centreboarders were over.

After a brief “retirement” Graham bought a Sunburst which he sailed locally in his 70s, before switching to becoming regular at Victoria Lake in Hagley Park as a member of the Christchurch Model Yacht Club - racing his radio-controlled J Class.

"While his 88 year old eyes made finding the wind shifts a little more difficult to detect, he remained “in the zone” while racing, with his his singular concentration perhaps contributing to an unplanned swim in the lake on one occasion", recalled his son John.

He passed away a year later, and was the last of the three Mander brothers. David Mander passed away in 2019.

Outside of sailing Graham Mander had a 40 year career with the Union Steam Ship Company, retiring as a Stevedoring Accountant.

"Graham did not have professional qualifications, and his design and build skills were self taught or through learning from others – his father Stan (a qualified Accountant) was inventive and innovative, building three boats of his own and must have influenced and challenged his sons", recalled John Mander.

"For Graham winning yacht races was not about beating other people but building, tuning and racing his boat to its maximum potential and by spreading his knowledge he raised the overall standard of sailing", said Bret de Thier.

"His brain was always in overdrive and challenges constantly motivated him."

"I learnt more about sailing and boats from Graham than from anyone else or from reading all the books. He was also a great tactician.

"Every time one walked away after a conversation with Graham one was a little bit wiser."

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