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The flawed genius of Roydon Thomas


Roydon Thomas was the son of Norman Thomas, a well-known yachtsman of Wellington. Norman owned two famous vessels in his time: the schooner Huia and the Logan-built Ilex. Both of these had distinctive fiddle bow profiles, which appeared in Roydon's designs years later.

Roydon appears to have had two great drives in his life: The sea, and alcohol.

Roydon Thomas (centre), and Frank Ballinger (left) on board Shemara during the early 1960s

Roydon served his apprenticeship under boatbuilder Athol Burns at Norman Thomas' business Craft Construction at Balaena Bay. He was a skilled draftsman, and in 1954 produced a set of plans for a 23-foot keeler. The first built was called Shemara. Built by Frank Ballinger at his home in Grafton Road, she was launched at Balaena Bay in 1958. The completed vessel was nursed down the hill from Roseneath to the sea on greased timber poles, a wing, and a prayer.

Shemara was heavily constructed in inch-thick NZ kauri planking on jarrah. She was fitted with a Stuart Turner inboard auxiliary. She stands up to a breeze very well, though she’s a bit slow to get going. The vessel was briefly noted by Sea Spray magazine, which predicted great things from Roydon. Shortly after, Roydon built his own boat to the same design, and named her Gazelle. He planked her with cedar, and did not add an inboard auxiliary. This made her very light. Frank’s son Trevor remembers Gazelle sailing right past under Shemara’s lee in the lighter airs, and she did extremely well in Cook Strait races.

Gazelle holds the record for winning the Island Bay race of longest duration. In a race that usually took around 3-4 hours on average, the fleet was becalmed mid-channel. One by one the auxiliary motors were turned on as people gave up and went home. Having no engine, and declining a tow, the crew of Gazelle threw out their anchor, opened a bottle of rum, and waited for the wind to arrive - which it did around 24 hour later. After that time limits were set on race durations!

Shemara is still based at Clyde Quay in Wellington, while Gazelle was sold to an owner in Australia around 2002, where she remains.

Shortly after, two more vessels built to the same design but beefed up to 28 Feet: Ondine, built by Phil Hartley and John McDermott at the Hartley home in Balaena Bay, and Charmaine. Ondine was built so strongly and so well, that after being run aground on Wellington’s South coast, then recovered by a bulldozer, the worst of the damage was two sprung planks.

A distinguishing feature of many of the Thomas yachts is the “fiddle” or “clipper” bow. This design element in the 1960s was beyond old fashioned – it was a positive anachronism! Perhaps the fiddle bow was included in honour of his father’s vessels, or maybe he simply felt they better suited cruising yachts. The truth is probably a measure of both.

Vessels with this design element include La Panache, which divides it’s time between Wellington and Waikawa (She is not a pure Thomas design – Phil Hartley maintained that the builder made a lot of changes to the hull), Malaguena (a variation of the Trekka design), built for his brother David for a Pacific cruise in 1968, and Tamariki, which now has a home in Auckland.

Roydon Thomas is remembered by most as always cheerful, red faced, with thumbs hooked in his braces. Most stories about him involve drink.

The greatest story attached to Roydon Thomas is perhaps the time in 1966 he and some friends blew up and sank a fishing trawler in Evans Bay. The full story was an open secret for many years around the waterfront, until his sister-in-law spilled the beans wider in 2007. It makes a great read

Roydon Thomas died aged 39, on July 20, 1971 by drowning, in the Wellington harbour.

Below is a list of plans known to exists in 2011:

July 1954, 23 ft Bermuda Sloop, Shemara 1958 & Gazelle Sep 1958
Jun 1960, 28ft Bermudan sloop for B Barraclough, [Charmaine & Ondine?]
Jul 1965, 26 ft sloop for David Thomas, Malaguena Dec 1967
Apr 1967, 22ft fishing boat, [Fulmar?]
June 1968, 28 ft Chatham Dory, Westwind June 1969
Jul 1969, 51ft trawler,
Feb 1970, 36ft cutter for P Turner, Possibly the 36ft ketch built in 1984, La Panache and possibly Tamariki

Gavin Pascoe