By Graeme Duckett (Taranaki Daily News, March 02 2013)
As early as 1870, waka and whaleboat racing in the Waitara River were very popular. The annual regatta held at New Year was, for many, the most notable event of the year with its picnics and sporting events.
Great rivalry between regiments in the Taranaki forces after the Land Wars saw good prize money for the various water sports, as well as events such as target shooting, rugby and cricket matches and horsemanship.
Each small settlement near the coast had a team of rowers eager to compete. Maori canoes came from Waiongana, Waipapa and Motonui to compete against the Manukorihi canoes. Waitara and Tikorangi fiercely competed to win local rowing events.
Thomas Leedom, an hotelier in the early settlement of Waitara, organised an event that included horse races, foot races, jumping in sacks, racing blindfolded and hurdle and canoe racing.
The late Len Old of Waitara described the action. "We raced single-handedly in proper Maori river canoes and had to paddle as hard as we could, and hurdle a V of timber floating in the river. It took a lot of skill and determination to perfect it."
From early morning until well past noon the road between New Plymouth and Waitara was hidden from sight by clouds of dust, raised by holiday seekers heading for the regatta.
The usually quiet little town, known then as Raleigh, was in commotion from daybreak, as Maori from all around the district assembled to take part and watch the annual sports events. Regatta Day was a serious business for the organisers and bookmakers were forbidden from taking bets inside the enclosure of the events.
Novelty events such as swimming obstacle races, tub races and an event called the greasy boom were, by all accounts, hilarious. For the greasy boom, a pig was placed in a box on the edge of a greasy pole and suspended over the river. If a contender caught the pig he could keep it. The obstacle race consisted of a swim from the old rowing club sheds, 50 metres upstream to the bridge, climbing a rope on one side of the bridge, diving off the other side and swimming to the finish point.
For the tub race, a wooden barrel was cut in half and the competitors were provided with one paddle each. The first to the other side was the winner.
Each year, the three local clubs would enter and other crews would travel from Tongaporutu and Mokau, often by boat.
The late Arthur Andrews of Waitara, said, "We were fit in those days; we would row to Mokau or New Plymouth in the whaleboats, compete and then row home."
The Tikorangi and Clifton Rowing clubs were formed in 1888, 11 years after the Waitara Boating Club was formed in 1877. The Tikorangi club formed in 1880. In the early days all races were in whaleboats and men trained hard because good prize money was offered.
The first clinker-built rowing boat, with a sliding seat, was bought by the Clifton Rowing Club in 1907 and a Best & Best-made boat was added in 1908. Whaleboats continued to be popular and included female crews who first competed in 1884. But by 1913 the whaleboats were discontinued in favour of the "riggers".
In 1914, World War I put an end to the regattas and the Waitara Boating Club was disbanded in 1919. The plant was given to Clifton.
Staunch supporters, like Harry Spurdle, kept the boats and equipment in good condition, and raised funds for their upkeep, until the end of the war. Otherwise, when Waitara's soldier oarsmen returned, the plant would have been sold.
Before and after WWI, Clifton had an exceptional senior four crew comprising of J Hayward, brothers Mick and Jack Cain, and Frank Richards. They had notable successes at outside regattas, claiming victory over some of New Zealand's best oarsmen at the time.
Between 1918-21 there was a resurgence of interest in rowing and from 1921 it was the most popular sport in Waitara, with membership increasing dramatically. Almost every able-bodied man, married or single, became a rower. Clifton, at this time, only owned two practice clinker fours, plus a few derelict whale boats. The local regattas had fizzled out in favour of trophy races and up to 10 and 12 crews could enter. With only two practice boats a winning crew had to row up to four or five races in a day with heats, semifinals and finals. Dinners and socials followed the trophy days and the social event of the year was the Rowing Club Ball, when trophies won during the season were presented. Participation outside Taranaki during 1921-1930 was spasmodic and confined to the Wanganui regattas.
In 1930 the decision was made to revive the local regatta. Speedboat races were included in the day's events and proved very popular. Support was received from the Wanganui Clubs and crews from all over the North Island competed.
Just before World War II Clifton Rowing Club reached its zenith, when it won the New Zealand Championship fours at Wanganui in 1938, with TG Fowler, Barry Old, Frank Olsson, George Topless and coxswain M Crow. This crew was unbeaten for two years.
In the third season, the stroke, Tom Fowler was overseas on active service, and his seat was taken by George Topless and Ossie Sampson came into the crew. The 1938-39 season was a proud one for Harry Spurdle, the club's only secretary since it began. To mark his 50 years of service the champion fours won, and the Roope Rooster, the emblem of the New Zealand Champion Fours, adorned the club's masthead.
During World War II the club went into recess and on the soldiers' return home, they found the boats were dry and leaky and oars brittle. The boat shed and dance hall were in dire need of work due to lack of maintenance. It was decided the club should sell the premises for what they could get and move to new premises across the river where it is today.
For a while, the keen members of the club carried on, but it soon became apparent the club was in dire straits. At first, progress on the new clubrooms and boat sheds was slow, but with the efforts of a few staunch members, money was raised and progress was steady. About 1500 voluntary man hours were put into the new building until it was opened in 1951. A drive was made to obtain more boats and oars to generate new interest to prospective members. All the boats were clinker-built construction and a new plywood-built boat was bought.
But things were on the up and the golden era arrived during the 1953-54 season, when membership rose abruptly, justifying the previous hard work. Coaching and administration was carried out largely by the pre-war rowers. In 1956 there was still only one plywood four-boat, and as crews broke their status, successes became almost an embarrassment when they resulted in the club having more than four oarsmen in any class. Other clubs came to its assistance lending boats for events as required.
In 1956, two members of the club, Ray Laurent and Peter Lucas, were selected in a crew to take part in trials for the Melbourne Olympics and they shifted to Wanganui for training. After a series of trials the two were selected in the crew comprising A Tong, D Gemmell and C Johnson and the club gained its first Olympic oarsmen.
At the Wellington regatta in 1957 the senior fours comprising Pat Montgomerie, Peter Lucas, Ray Laurent, Terry McKeon and John Hide (coxswain) won the New Zealand Championship, raising wild hopes of the championships on Lake Karapiro. And that too was added to their list of wins.
Notable citizens of Waitara involved in the club's history and successes include WR Johns, the club's president for many years, and Harry Spurdle who was secretary for 51 years, George Marshall who became a selector and coach from 1904, Perce Jones, lifetime supporter, starter and judge, George Topless untiring support and coach, Fred Chittenden, administrator and invaluable supporter.
Many others have contributed to the club's success, including Susan Fahy, Bruce Keith, Ray Laurent, Pat Montgomerie, Rami Watson, Peter Lucas, Noel Graham.
The club continues today with keen interest once again being shown in rowing. So, perhaps we will once again see the "Roope Rooster" adorn the flagpole at the clubrooms in Waitara.