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Tokyo2020: Enoshima was a happy hunting ground for the Kiwis at '64 Olympics

by Richard Gladwell/ 1 Aug 2021 06:08 PDT 2 August 2021
Pandora hitched alongside the hired fishing smack, after winning New Zealand's second Olympic Gold medal at Enoshima in 1964. © Roberts archives

Just under 60 years ago, New Zealand won its second ever sailing Gold medal in the 1964 Olympic Regatta staged at Enoshima.

Tomorrow, we will know if New Zealand sailors are able to emulate this feat.

Back in 1964 there were just five Olympic classes - three of them keelboats. USA won medals in all five classes, but no Gold medal.

Most of the developed sailing countries chose their representatives from national selection trials.

New Zealand did this from a big fleet of Flying Dutchman contesting the Olympic Trials at what was then Murrays Bay Boating Club, on Auckland's North Shore. The 19ft 10" Flying Dutchman, with a roller genoa jib, was in just its second Olympics.

The trials were a big deal with all the top centreboard crews competing including Ian Pryde and Jack Hansen, Jock Bilger and Mick Fisher, Helmer Pedersen and Earle Wells, Laurie Davidson, Graham Mander, Ralph Roberts and Geoff Smale and many more.

They sailed on the water used for the 2000 and 2003 America's Cup and where American Magic capsized in the recent Prada Cup.

The series was notable for a mid-race storm in which only three boats of the 30 strong fleet finished - with the rest being rescued, retrieved from surrounding beaches and in one case being picked up by a passing freighter.

It was a closely fought series with Helmer Pedersen and Earle Wells beating Geoff Smale and Ralph Roberts by just a single point to get the nomination for Tokyo.

As has happened in a couple of New Zealand Olympic classes lately, the rest of the fleet supported the Olympic representatives - with Roberts and Smale regularly turning out to train against Pedersen and Wells, as the Kiwi winter approached.

Pedersen had been the travelling reserve to Ralph Roberts, in the Finna class, at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

The team manager that year, was Don St Clair Brown, the Godfather of New Zealand Olympic sailing, who shipped his own boat to Tokyo along with Pedersen and Wells' boat the gold-painted Pandora.

British crew Keith Musto and Tony Morgan were the pre-series favourites. "They hadn't been beaten in Europe for several years, and the rumour was that they had brought packages with them in which to take the Gold medals home," Robert recalls.

"We had a couple of practice races in which everyone was allowed to compete. Don Brown and I sailed together - and we had a narrow win in the first race, and easily won the second.

"Musto and Morgan came over - wanting to know who was representing New Zealand - whether it was Helmer and Earle or Don and I. Don's retort was that "we were just the mugs here to train them!"

A typhoon came through three days before the start of the regatta, and as we have seen this week, the breeze was light. Helmer and Earle finished 16th in the 21 boat fleet in the first race. In the second the Kiwis were recorded as DNF, after hitting a mark.

"Helmer was so annoyed with himself that he wanted to get on the next plane home. But I told Brownie that we needed him when the breeze came in later in the week.

"We agreed that I would take over working with Helmer and Earle."

Pedersen and Wells won the next race, Race 3 but finished third in Race 4, with Pedersen's compatriot Hans Fogh (DEN) winning that race. Pedersen had not felt entirely comfortable with beating the Danish crew. "It was a race they should have won, and Helmer and Earle had strong words after the race," Roberts recalled.

Pedersen had been the bridesmaid to Denmark sailing great, Paul Elvstrom in the Finn class and realised that if he was going to advance he had to leave his native Denmark, and started work in New Zealand in the late 1950's as a roofing contractor. Initially he started sailing Finns, but switched to the Flying Dutchman, sailing a boat purchased for them by Well's boss Bill Stevenson, who was also the manager for the whole of the NZ Olympic team.

But Helmer, despite wearing the Silver Fern, was still a Dane in his heart. "That (Race 4) was really Helmer's defining day, when he decided that he was now a New Zealander, not a Dane."

Going onto Race 5, Roberts and Wells worked on the boat, while Pedersen, a serious chain-smoker went through a packet of cigarettes, watching from the balcony above.

"Then he rushed down saying, "we've got to go, or we'll be late!"

"There we still two items to be checked - one was done very quickly. The other, a forestay check required Earle to climb up under the foredeck - only to find the seven-strand forestay wire was being held together by just two strands.

"We replaced that and they went out and won the next race."

"We had a great regatta after clearing the air on those points," Roberts recalled.

"After six races, we knew we had the bronze.

At breakfast before the final race, the mind games continued with Keith Musto coming over to the Kiwi table and saying that he'd leave Helmer and Earle to sort out the bronze and silver medals, with the Danes and Americans, because he was taking the Gold.

"Brownie replied, "how can you make that assumption when you couldn't even beat us, and we are only the practice crew!"

Despite being the manager, Helmer and Earle had banned Brownie from going on the water to watch any of the racing in the FD, or seeing any of Pedersen and Wells' three wins.

"We got around this by hiring an old fishing boat and going out to watch the final race, but told Brownie had had to stay below decks and out of sight."

"He was put in the fish hold."

"Before the race Helmer and Earl told us that if they saw that Brownie was aboard, they'd just sail ashore. They came past about three times, but never saw him.

"In the final race, Musto match raced Melges and Bill Bentsen (USA), leaving Pedersen and Wells to sail alone."

After the Kiwis finished fourth, and won the Gold Medal, St Clair Brown emerged for the fish-hold, copping a choice Danish oath from Pedersen, in front of the heir to the Japanese Imperial family (now the Emperor of Japan).

New Zealand only competed in two of the five classes. 1956 Olympic Gold medalist Peter Mander sailed in the Finn class at Enoshima, finishing 4th overall in the 33 boat fleet.

Despite winning the Olympic Gold medal, Pedersen and Wells continued to compete in Pandora, but never won another major regatta.

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