First Fiji Race – MAY 1956 – Aboard “Ngaroma” as Escort Vessel

“Ngaroma” was an ex-navy fairmile owned by Jim Lawler, at the time the Commodore of the RAYC.

“Ngaroma” at Kingfish Lodge, Whangaroa, C.1953 – Jim Lawler, Skipper.

“Ngaroma” at Kingfish Lodge, Whangaroa, C.1953 – Jim Lawler, Skipper.

Ex ML Q 402 Commissioned 1943-1945

Displacement: 85 tons
Length: 112 ft (34 m)
Beam: 18 ft 3 in (5.56 m)
Draught: 4 ft 10 in (1.47 m)
Propulsion: (Two 650 bhp (480 kW) Hall-ScottDefender petrol engines)

Replaced with a pair of 8 cylinder 160h.p. Glennifer diesels.

Speed: (20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph)

Cruising speed now 8 Knots!

Fuel 2000 gallons.
Range: 1,500 mi (1,300 nmi; 2,400 km) at 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph) ?? To Fiji ++!!
Complement: 16 (later increased) There were 10 of us aboard.

Removed post Navy:
Sensors and processing systems: ASDIC
Armament: (for 1940 Sub Chaser) 1 × 3-pounder Mk I gun 1 × twin 0.303 in machine guns
12 depth charges
Armour: Wheelhouse plated

Ngaroma also worked with Iris Moana, another  ex-fairmile, on the Waiheke run until both ships were sold to Singapore between 1987 and 1992.

“Ngaroma” had undergone very few changes since her Navy days. The armaments had all been removed and her Hall-Scott engines replaced with the Glennifer Diesels but she still had the small high speed rudders. Steering in a sea way was not easy! Below decks she still had the large mess deck forward with folding bunks for the crew and the long dining table. Aft of this was the galley on the Starboard side and across the short passage the radio room & Engineers cabin. The radio was the size of a wardrobe and from what I recall, worked about as well!!

Aft of a solid water tight bulkhead was the engine room and aft of another bulkhead were the “State” room and officers’ cabins. We had bunks in the state room but ate forward in the mess deck!!

Towards the stern were the store rooms one for food and the other, full width, for ship’s gear. Communication from the wheelhouse to the Engines was by bells and voice pipes to the Engineer below! Not the best way to negotiate the reefs but the voice pipes were handy for calling the complement to dinner!!

Above deck were the wheelhouse and the flying bridge. The framework for awnings had been erected and there were the wooden life rafts (no modern life rafts in the 1950’s) and a couple of small boats but the decks were mainly clear. My 12ft yacht, the Silver Fern Pierre”, was stowed on the aft deck complete with emergency supplies. My father was prepared to do a “Captain Bligh” and cross the Pacific in a small open boat should the emergency arise!!


Ngaroma signaled the start at Orakei and after seeing the fleet on their way returned to the dock to offload spectators and complete the loading of supplies.

1956 start of the Auckland to Fiji Race hosted by Royal Akarana Yacht Club

1956 start of the Auckland to Fiji Race hosted by Royal Akarana Yacht Club

The race started in perfect sailing conditions with a gentle southerly spinnaker breeze and a sunny sky. There were few signs of the stormy conditions that were to hit the fleet in the next two days!

There were 13 starters 4 of which withdrew, which wasn’t surprising since none was longer than 36 feet (7.9m). If some of the boats had been able to foresee the approaching storm they probably would have turned back!

“Lady Pat” did not start.

“Kehua” ended up on the beach near Whakatane – all the crew were OK.

“Aoma” withdrew and returned to NZ.

“Reliance” also returned to NZ and set sail again  22nd May, heading for Suva.

Such was the outcome that the Minister of Marine ordered an enquiry into the general conduct of the race.

On Sunday Ngaroma  cruised north stopping overnight at Kawau. On Monday the trip to Whangarei was wet and already stormy! Visibility was poor and the wind was northerly. A compass course was steered for Bream Head. The run up the Harbour took 2 hours against the tide and she finally berthed at the Whangarei Town Wharf at 4.30.It was Monday evening and Ngaroma had arrived to pick up the rest of the crew – my father and me!

Even then we had no knowledge of the severity of the brewing storm and no reports had been received from any of the yachts. They had all sailed over the horizon – next stop Suva!! However boats in the fleet were already hove to and several, unknown to others, had decided to return to NZ.

It was 1956 – No GPS, No “tracker”, Minimal to no Radio Communication and NO Updated weather forecasts!!  NO WORRIES!!

May 15
At Whangarei Wharf – Our gear was loaded aboard including my yacht Pierre and Dad’s ex-army ZCI radio. A radio “expert” came to sort the ship’s radio and replace the aerial that had fallen down on the trip north but it still refused to work for the rest of the voyage!!! 

(I had new wet weather gear – a half-length “Dry as a Bone” oilskin!!  There was no fancy nautical gear available. Life jackets were “May Wests” or cork & kapok “pillows”! Harnesses? What were they?)

May 16 |
We were aboard early and stowed the rest of the gear. Cast off at 08.25. Passed Onerahi 09.05, the Frenchman 10.30 and into a NE Gale. The seas were already very rough and the winds were 40 – 45 knots from the ENE and freshening. From Tutukaka we were accompanied for some miles by porpoises and from Whangaruru to Cape Brett the winds were gusting 70 knots and increasing! The waves were up to 7 metres and because of the conditions we stayed well out to sea and rounded Cape Brett about a mile off shore. Cape Brett light reported gust of 70 knots – Hurricane force on the Beaufort scale, and the seas were BIG! They were breaking over the saddle below the light, a very rare occurrence and it was already very gloomy! We cleared Red Head at 17.30 and tied up alongside Russell wharf at 19.30 for the night a black night with screaming gales. Radio reception was zero and yet I still don’t recall any concerns about the fleet or wondering where they were!

May 17
Thursday: Tidying ship, away 10.45, Ninepin 11.35, Noon at Needles, Matauri Pt 13.00, Kingfish Pt 14.08, Whangaroa wharf 14.20. 14.32 moved to Totara North Wharf, Saw Trevor & George Wild re radio. Tidying wheelhouse & gear, Back to Whangaroa wharf for night.

The weather was fine, the seas and gales had calmed considerably and all looked hopeful for a good trip from the morrow. Even after a new valve was fitted and all was ok’d the ship’s gigantic radio was still proving useless and there was still no news of the fleet. Only “Port Charles” on the Coromandal came through “LOUD & CLEAR” on occasions! No cell phones in those days and even land lines from Whangaroa were scarce.

Dad was in communication on regular sched’s on short wave 3500 – 3700 to various Hams around the world but not the race fleet! He received a message from Whangarei about 21.30 stating that all was OK. Did this include with the Suva yacht fleet?  MV “Ngaroma” worked 2045 & 2182 when it worked!

May 18
Away 06.35, Kingfish Pt 06.55, Jellico Pt 07.00, Ririwha Reef 07.20, Course N, 08.05 Course NE, 10.15 Course N, Various Radio broadcasts, Short steep sea, Mod E, Heavy Roll.

May 19
Saturday: Conditions improving. Easterly roll, Continued to roll our way north. Vis. v.good, air warm, Seas warming up.

And did she roll!! Being so long and narrow with very little draught there was not much resistance in the water but she was a great sea boat and one could well imagine her as a submarine chaser during the war or a whale chaser post war. On deck she was dry as the seas rolled under or passed her. Thick pea soup served scooped up in big mugs was the menu as NOTHING would stay on a plate!!

There was still no contact with the fleet and via the Ham contacts they received the message that Suva would try to contact the fleet and pass on any messages. Likewise they were asked to pass any messages on to the RAYC.

May 20
Our position 500 miles N of Whangaroa, SE roll, Light N. wind, Warm to Hot.

Sunday the wind was a light nor’ east and the swell had eased so the pea soup gave way to bacon & eggs for breakfast! And at last! Kiri had managed to speak to Glennis on the ship’s radio! They were concerned about US on Ngaroma during the storm! They too had no news of the fleet and as they were the favourites to win, were they leading?? It was presumed most of fleet 200 – 300 m West of Ngaroma’s position

Navigation: In 1956 there were no GPS or Sat.Navs! Ngaroma had aboard 3 sextants, (including Dad’s original that he had used in the early 1930’s while surveying the Fiji Islands) a chronometer and several watches which were checked when possible against the time signals! Longitude was fixed by the time of Sunrise and mid-day sights were used to fix latitude. “Martelli’s Tables” were used as a short and simple way of fixing our position. Our position was also fixed by full astronomical methods but, without the computors of today, it was out with the log books and notebooks. For some of the crew this was an opportunity to master navigation – sometimes positions identified were in the same part of the Ocean!

May 21
Monday was fine and warm with a light nor’easter – Listening to Suva Radio. “Reliance” leaving tmw for Suva, please keep a look out, sig. RAYC. Well on way- all well on board.

May 22
Tuesday – Rolling on!!  Suva radio loud now.   Theoretically we were 185 miles south of Cape Washington on Kandavu Island which we should sight by daybreak on Wednesday!

Roy & Violet Lidgard on watch

Roy & Violet Lidgard on watch

May 23
Wednesday: hove to, vis., very bad, at 6.0 a.m. Rain clouds cleared, Course NE – 8 knots, Cape Washington vis. Ahead, Course N 70 E, 1.30 p.m. sighted “Wanderer”, Washington light 1.30 p.m., Course N16E for Suva, 6.30 p.m. course N, Suva entrance 8.10, Berthed 8.35 p.m. Visitors. (To Cable & Wireless Office & sent message home.)

Because of the poor visibility and the probable proximity of land and reefs we hove to until dawn. We could smell coconuts and fire smoke and heard the breakers on the reef – imagination! But when the rain clouds cleared there was Cape Washington and then “Wanderer”. We had intended to spend a day at Kandavu to touch up the paintwork but not knowing which yachts had already arrived – “Wanderer” was not favoured to win – we altered course for Suva. Notified Suva on 2045 via NZ Air Force at Lauthala Bay.

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Suva entrance 8.10, Berthed 8.35 p.m.- 

Five days rolling along from NZ by Fairmile averaging 8 knots!!

When we stepped ashore to send messages home by Cable the wharf was most unstable and we crawled up the steps to the Cable & Wireless Office much to the amusement of a local policeman!!

May 24
Most of day at Suva Yacht Club, “Wanderer” arr  2.a.m., “Matuku” 4.0 a.m., “Nina”, “Edelweiss” p.m.

As the fleet crossed the finish line I copied their finish times and as I already had the Handicap correction factors I calculated their corrected times – as you do!! I wanted to know who was winning! I was told to “Carry On, thanks!”  Prior to the start of the race I had helped one of the measurers calculate and record the Handicaps. At home I had a “Chaff Cutter” wind-the-handle calculator, the latest model! In Suva I had log books!! No calculators as we know them today & certainly no fancy “programmes”! The elapsed time in days, hours, minutes and seconds was converted into Minutes & decimals of. This was multiplied by the 4 figure correction factor (Using Shortrede 7-figure logs!) and re-converted to days, hours, minutes & seconds!! My results were accepted!!

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May 25
Working on log, charts etc, cleaned instruments, p.m. Launched & rigged “Pierre” and sailed round to ship. Evening – to Yacht Club..…

These days were spent sorting and tidying the gear, working out the results and socializing!!

Sailing “Pierre” gave respite from the tropic heat and was a great way to see Suva harbour.

May 26
Sailed “Pierre” across to club.  Light E – very hot.

May 27
Sunday: Away 9.15, Aboard Ngaroma (loaded with club members and visitors)  for trip to Nukulau – swims etc & visited yachts, sailed in “Pierre” to Makaliva, Picked up by Ngaroma & towed to Suva. Ashore for dinner & night at Harness’s.(Ted Harness was the Harbour Master.)

Picnic at Nukulau Island

Picnic at Nukulau Island

Lauthala Bay, inshore from Nukulau, was the base for the NZ Sunderlands which were still flying the “Coral Route” and was also the NZ Air Force base. We were joined by a number of NZ families on their Sunday picnic.

May 28
Visited United States Submarine “Pomodon SS-486”.

Pomodon was launched in 1945 as a conventional World War II Fleet Type submarine but had been converted to  “Guppy” type, essentially a high speed, attack submarine. We joined the crew aboard who showed us every corner including the bunks between the torpedo tubes!!

May 29
Watched submarine leave, Visited Govt. House & Botanical Garden & Museum……

May 30
PRIZE GIVING NIGHT: Dance & Items at club till 3.30 a.m.

Wanderer (Tom Buchanan) won the inaugural 1956 event in 11 days, 12 hours, 33 minutes from Matuku (John Lidgard).

May 31
To Govt. House Garden Party 4.30 – 5.45. ….

Fiji was still a proud and very traditional member of the British Empire!

June 3
Sunday: Left for Beqa 9.10, anchored Raviravi 11.40, crowd ashore, swim on reef and at ship, away 3.45, Berthed 6.23.

Another picnic day aboard “Ngaroma” to the island of Beqa with friends and families from the Yacht Club and some of the kiwi crews. Beqa is the home of the firewalkers!

It was now time to move on. Some of the yachts set sail for New Zealand hoping for a better trip home while others carried on cruising. Aboard Ngaroma we too sailed for a cruise of the islands via inside channel to Nukulau Passage, Naselai Lt, Levuka on Ovalau Island, Wakaya, & Koro.

Back in Suva on Sunday, race day at the Club, and we sailed on Tamatea – A20 which was then owned by Heath Hemphill of SYC.

After another cruise on Ngaroma to the northern Lau group and across to Somosomo and Taveuni we returned to Suva and sailed home to NZ aboard the USSCo ship Tofua. 

Janet Watkins, (Nee Pickmere)



AH Pickmere & J.Watkins (nee Pickmere) Diaries and Radio Log –ZL1AOQ.

Seaspray  July 1956 for Report, Official statement & corrected placings from the RAYC.

Seaspray July & August 1957 for report of Ngaroma trip by H.S. White.