Granny's Shoebox - by Gun Caundle
Nothing motivates Jimmy Gilpin more than a challenge. Shortly after retiring he was told, “The reason you don’t get back into sailing, Jimmy, is because you will get beaten.”
At the age of sixty-seven, Jimmy Gilpin stepped back into a three-metre sailing boat after 45 years away from competitive sailing. In the 2006 National Championships for the ‘Zephyr’ class, he finished an amazing fourth from 83 competitors.
Circa 1950. Below the iron girders of the rail bridge at the end of Elizabeth Street in Tauranga, boys pull on manila ropes and peer at varnished masts on small boats. Cotton sails are hoisted slowly. Wooden trolleys with wooden wheels creak and squeak as young sailors hobble the small yachts toward the water.
In rolled-up trousers and an oiled fabric jacket stuffed with kapok, a young lad steps into Jimmy G, a seven-footer Tauranga class, and kicks it out from the beach. Ten years old and weighing 4½ stone (29kg) dripping wet, Jimmy Gilpin has a gift for sailing a boat around a harbour quicker than any other boy. Sitting high up on the bank above, a thickset man with field glasses looks on.
An old army hut sits at the back of a quarter-acre section at 43 Fourth Avenue, the bedroom for Ted, Stan, Matt and Jimmy. Granny lives in the two-bedroom house at the front with the boy’s parents. A linesman for New Zealand Post & Telegraph, Jim Gilpin is staunch working class, a tough character who had played halfback for Bay of Plenty and Thames Valley. Enid is the homemaker, mother and referee of four boys. Jimmy, the youngest son, has a beguiling smile. He describes himself as ‘a spoiled and cheeky little bastard’.
He bought his first yacht when he was ten years old. It cost £25. Jimmy had £5, mum, dad and his brothers put in £15, and Granny closed the deal with £5 from her shoebox.
The Tauranga Cup and Tanner Cup is one of New Zealand’s most prestigious yachting contests, the holy grail for young sailors and their clubs. The selection trials to represent the Bay of Plenty in the 1950 contest were disappointing for the Tauranga Yacht and Powerboat Club. Favourites Bob Cruden and Gary Denniston didn’t fire. The trials were won by an eleven-year-old second-year sailor, Jimmy Gilpin.
Wearing a double-breasted black suit with a severely parted ‘short back and sides’ haircut, the Bay of Plenty yachting delegate Mr T. MacKay introduced himself at 43 Fourth Avenue. Jimmy stood listening behind the door.
“I will be accompanying the boy to Christchurch,” the delegate told Jim and Enid, “and although he won the trials to represent the Bay of Plenty, he won’t win the Tauranga and Tanner Cup contest because he is too small.”
“That may be so,” replied the ex-halfback, “but I’ll guarantee you, Mr. MacKay, he will do his best”.
That reply formed a major part of Jimmy’s character.
Gary Denniston’s boat Charm was finished like a piano. He offered it to Jimmy to use for the contest.
Before Jimmy left with Mr. MacKay for Christchurch his dad told him, “No matter what anybody tells you son, you are the equal of anyone – and remember, a Gilpin never ever gives up.”
After a practice race in Christchurch, Jimmy knew he could win the contest. But he was homesick and he had boils. He had never been further than Katikati hot springs and never away from mum and dad.
Cars were few around Pleasant Point Yacht Club. The young sailors were about to launch. A taxi pulled up, and all heads looked toward it. Jimmy saw his mum and dad getting out. Granny’s shoebox had much to answer for.
Jimmy returned to Tauranga the youngest sailor ever to win the Tauranga and Tanner Cups. The Bay of Plenty Times took an extraordinary step in making a twelve-year-old boy the subject of an editorial column entitled ‘The inspiration of youth.’
Jimmy Gilpin won again the following year in Tauranga.
When he won in Picton for the third time, donation boxes were placed around Tauranga businesses. The Mayor, Mr. L R Wilkinson, presented Jimmy with a gold Omega Seamaster watch. All New Zealand’s top sailors learned their craft in the seven footer Tauranga Class or ‘P Class’ as it in currently known. Jimmy Gilpin is the only sailor ever to win the Tauranga and Tanner Cups three times.
At 17, Jimmy won the ‘Frostbite’ class National Championship title with his brother Matt as crew and ballast. At 22 he won the ‘Moth’ national championship title, beating Helmar Pedersen, who three years later won an Olympic yachting gold medal at Tokyo. That was Jimmy’s last major sailing contest for many years.
Jimmy passed through Tauranga Primary and Tauranga College with a ‘could do better’ report. The first upward step on Jimmy’s career path was branch manager for Farmers’ Trading Company in Te Kuiti. He boasted Colin Meads as a customer. The next rungs on the FTC ladder were Whakatane, Tauranga then Hamilton, all ‘achieved with excellence’. During this time he married Marie and they raised four children.
Shortly before he retired Jimmy was at a fundraising function at the Glenview Club in Hamilton. Among the nobility and the reknowned, Colin Meads was barbecuing sausages with the Mad Butcher. “Excuse me, sir,” says Jimmy looking up at the big bloke. “I don’t suppose you remember me?”
Replying after a quick glance down, “Of course I do, you were the little prick at Farmers’.”
“In his youth, he had a raw talent never before or again seen in New Zealand yachting and, if only that talent had been nurtured and developed, there is no doubt that the name Jimmy Gilpin would be as well known internationally as are those of Peter Mander, Ralph Roberts, Russell Coutts, Chris Dickson and Sir Peter Blake.”
Paul Titchener, yachting historian,
author & first mayor of North Shore City.
Author’s note: I would like to acknowledge Jimmy Gilpin for supplying the major part of the content.
Bay of Plenty Times, January 22, 1951: ‘The inspiration of youth’.
The History of the Tauranga Yacht and Powerboat Club, edited by Marion Smith.
The New Zealand Marine Scene, October 1996.