Tue, Jan 10, 2023 9:18 AM

Powering the Seagull obsession


Tessa Jaine

Te Hoire Seagull fleet motors into Havelock

Every Kiwi boatie has a relationship with British Seagull outboard motors. Love mostly, sometimes less than that. With reason, they’ve been called both the best and the worst outboard motors in the world. But like so many iconic items of ‘character engineering’, British Seagull outboard motors command extraordinary loyalty from their devotees. Alex Stone explores the allure of this outboard motor and the famous Te Hoiere Seagull Fleet outings.

The Smith family at Havelock – patriarch Graham, kuia Sharyn and sons Jason and Vinnie – own around 200 British Seagull outboard motors in their sheds. Exclamation mark. Make that a couple more.

“How does it feel to part of an eccentric outfit?” I asked Vinnie. “Mate, it’s way worse than that,” he allowed. “It’s a full-on obsession.”

And here’s the thing, theirs is not the biggest Seagull collection in New Zealand. This accolade currently goes to Graeme and Jan Keegan of Waitara in the ‘Naki (yes, where all the hard case characters come from). They also run a business called Simply Seagulls, supplying spare parts and free advice to the many other Seagull fans throughout the country. They meld the business with a retirement life on the road, sharing their campervan with their stock of Seagull bits and pieces. The business, says Jan with classic Kiwi understatement, “Is pretty casual.”

They were instrumental in getting going an epic 140km multi-day Seagull event down the Waikato River – held every year at Easter. The longest Seagull-powered voyage in the world. They also run Seagull races at Waitara on the estuary there. The Waikato rally is now run by John Chricton and Ross Ledger. The tradition lives on. Indeed, gets stronger and more famous every year.

Captain Splash and Archie.

Previously, the country’s biggest Seagull collection – 480 motors – belonged to an ‘old fulla’ in Taupo, says Graham Smith. When that collector passed on, Graham bought 30 from his collection. As you do.

The Smith’s remarkable collection of British Seagulls is in various states of repair: some running well, almost purringly (which is a surprising thing, to anyone who knows Seagulls), with polished, gleaming brass fuel tanks and custom fittings attached; some hidden under dust covers, awaiting further ministrations; some in scattered bits; others draped in tinsel in a reverent window display at Graham’s workshed/office, just off Havelock’s main street and opposite the pub. A one-and-a-half horsepower sweetie, that says Graham, “You could make a milkshake with it.” Some, surprisingly, brand new.

We met Graham in Havelock earlier this year, while on a loose sailing circumnavigation of the North Island, via the Marlborough Sounds and Akaroa. And Lesley and her camera could not resist the call to return to photograph the October Te Hoiere Seagull Fleet event. Twenty-five boats were there to greet her.

Previously when we visited Vinnie’s own shed, true to family form, he was busy tuning up the two new Italian-manufactured Seagulls he had secretly bought for mum and dad for a special anniversary present. Just in case they didn’t have enough already…

Trouble was, in small town gossip – an inadvertent text message that someone-not-supposed-to happened to see – Graham and Sharyn already knew about the surprise gifts. No matter. Always room for more Seagulls in the shed.

Alice and The Admiral.

All this enterprise finds its focus in the very popular Seagull outboard events, held five times a year, where the Smiths and another 30 members of the local Te Hoiere Seagull Fleet – plus other Kiwi Seagull enthusiasts from far afield – charge around a loop course up Te Hoiere, the Pelorus River delta, under a tunnel of willows on crystal clear water, round a turning mark above a shingle bank, and back downstream via another arm of the river delta.

The rules for these events are simple: any boat is allowed, the more oddball the better, as long as it is powered by a British Seagull outboard. Each day has a dress-up theme, which the contestants take to outrageous heart, mixing and matching with their obligatory lifejackets. And colourful home-made banners fluttering from each racing boat are a must. Other custom refinements include steering arms at the end of rope and pulley systems, and sometimes, ingenious re-fueling systems that mean the skipper won’t need to stop in mid-haste en-route.

The Te Hoiere Seagull Fleet days are big events in Havelock, and this normally quiet little town becomes a-bustle with colour, as the boats parade down the main street, flags flying, then are launched at the slipway by the mussel factory at the head of the marina. As the Seagulls are fired up, the spectacle naturally becomes somewhat muted with a haze of blue two-stroke smoke – and sometimes blue language too.

In the event itself, apart from prizes for just about every conceivable category, contestants are all aiming for a public dressing down by the Havelock harbour master for exceeding eight knots in the marine approach channel – but so far no-one has received this particular distinction. The greater challenge is simply to finish the race. About half the fleet didn’t on the day of Lesleys’ photo safari.

Instead, they usually de-camp to the local historic pub for a solid post-race yarn. And a frosty beer or two.

The prize-giving, presided over by Sharyn, who is as colourful a character as Graham, also is a feast of real Kiwi cuisine delights: crayfish sharing the table with pāua and whitebait fritters. And asparagus rolls. And cheerios. And lollies. All for a good cause – says Sharyn “Our charity we support is the Nelson/Marlborough Rescue helicopter. They are a lifeline for our Pelorus communities, which covers a vast area, many settlements that are accessed by boat only, especially since the recent flooding and slips in the area.”

The Fleet has five events during the year, with different courses on Te Hoiere Awa river/estuary and around Twiddles Island, approximately 16km, with different themes.

The Spring event is the ‘Booty Run’ with theme ‘Pirates/Wenches and Wahine.’ This year the race was also the Nuk Memorial Run, to honour the life of one of the fleet’s beloved members.

December sees the Annual Christmas Extravaganza, a Christmas parade from the Seagull workshop to the launching ramp. This year’s theme – Christmas/country of origin. With trophies for first boat home, first team, first lady and tamariki.

Then again, an outing in February 2023. The theme is ‘Māori and Early Settlers.’ Naturally members are encouraged to dress in the theme, with prizes donated by sponsors.

The course goes under the two bridges on Te Hoiere estuary/river - Awanui and Popes bridges. Good vantage points, as is the turning basin.

Sharyn’s race report for the October outing reads in part: “Several break downs on the way, apparently reported that a couple of boats were running on high octane water, with a bit of rust mixed in. Our support video boat also needed a support boat to continue around the course. Mysteriously, the orange marker for the willows disappeared and a few boats went straight ahead before they were called back.

“The rapids at the top of the island, caught out several boats, broken springs and un-cooperative motors, Shady Lady (Sharyn’s own bright green boat) hitched a tow, with Wakavale, passing a few boats which had broken down. Around the corner at Kowhai Terrace, was the landing spot for five of the boats, who ended up either getting towed in, or a vehicle came and picked them up (including Captain Splash and Archie his crew).”

Under fire! Every race has a different theme.

The broken springs she mentions are the sacrificial pins that snap when the propeller hits an underwater obstacle. They’re very necessary in this race – along with a healthy dose of luck, or just a prayer the motor keeps going.

It appears being small and light also helps with Seagull outboard events. The fastest at this outing was young Caleb Huddlestone in his boat Sonic.

The wrap for the event, in Sharyn’s newsletter: “Warning in advance, all boats will be required to have a flag. No flag, I will fine the boat, and the crew will be required to do a song at the after-match function.”

So that’s the message to all planning on joining Te Hoiere’s Seagull Fleet.

It’s certain British Seagull outboard motors, and ultra-keen enthusiasts, will never die – well in this far-flung corner of the once-was-Empire anyway.

Keep an eye on the local Seagull Fleet’s outings at https://www.havelock.net.nz/TeHoiereSeagullFleet.htm

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