John ‘Jack’ Brooke and youth sailing in New Zealand
By Rebekah Clements
If you’re a young Kiwi sailor (or were!) it’s likely you’ve spent some time in a boat designed by John Balmain Brooke, known as Jack. Always concerned with making sailing as accessible as possible, he designed some of our most well-known and loved sailing boats including the Frostbite, Sunburst and the Spirit of Adventure.
Born in Devonport, Auckland in 1907 Jack was part of a generation shaped by both the Great Depression and two World Wars. At times his family struggled financially and he helped to pay for his engineering degree by building and selling canvas canoes, which were all the rage on the North Shore in the 1920s – ‘their bright reds, blues, greens and yellows were all over the North Shore beaches. It was therefore inevitable that a Canoe Club should be formed.’
And so the Wakatere Canoe Club was created – Jack and both his sisters were among the founding members. To begin with the club fleet consisted of paddling canoes only, but several sailing canoes were soon built. Early members of the club include recalled sailing over to Rangitoto for midnight picnics, and of the Brooke household being taken over for canoe construction.
By the early 1930s the Wakatere Canoe Club was well established and Jack was teaching engineering at Seddon Memorial College.
Despite the Depression some members of the Club were keen to create their own class of sailing dinghy. Based on a design by Jack, the WAKATERE was a light-weight 14 footer that could be built out of plywood by an amateur for under £10. Club members spent the winter of ’32 mass producing these and by the following summer 39 were complete, with 18 taking part in the inaugural class race at the Anniversary Regatta.
Wakatere One Design Class being built in the old YMCA Hall which was Wakatere's first clubhouse, September 1932. Photo courtesy of Wakatere Boat Club.
Brochure: plans and specifications Wakatere One Design Class, New Zealand Maritime Museum Collection, 1990.69.3
After a cyclone destroyed most of the WAKATERE fleet, a new design was needed – something a little more robust but also well within reach of the club’s amateur boat builders. This time Jack looked to the clinker-planked Frostbite dinghies that were becoming popular in the USA and England. Gordon ‘Oatie’ Miller, one of the foremost clinker builders in Auckland at the time and a fellow club member, worked with Jack to create a local model. By 1950 there were over 250 Frostbite sailing dinghies in New Zealand.
Frostbites racing at the National Championships, 1950s, either Hamilton or Huntly. Photographer unknown. Gift of Don Nicholson. New Zealand Maritime Museum, 2012.7.29.
The Frostbiter, the monthly newsheet of the Wakatere Boating Club, August 1954. New Zealand Maritime Museum Collection, 1989.8.4. When this issue was published the Wakatere Boating Club was entering its 28th season.
In 1964 the Auckland Weekly News celebrated its centenary and marked the occasion by commissioning Jack to design a general purpose dinghy for its readers. These plans were published in the paper, week by week. The Sunburst, as it was named, was immediately popular as a stable and manageable vessel that was affordable to build. Because she was ‘easy to sail and hard to capsize’ she became especially popular with families and for new and young sailors. The class was used for the inter-secondary schools’ yachting championship for many years. 5,000 Sunbursts had been built by the late 1990s. It is still popular, particularly with Sea Scout Groups around the country.
Magazine: Southland Sunburst Owners Association Vol 1. no.3 1974-975 season, New Zealand Maritime Museum Collection, 10580d
Lower South Island Scout Regatta at Lake Dunstan, Labour Weekend 2013. Photo by Michael Davies.
Jack Brooke designed over 250 yachts over the course of his career, and built many himself. He continually worked to make sailing accessible to anyone with the time and inclination. The Wakatere Boating Club he helped to establish and grow is still a vital hub for family sailing on the North Shore.
With thanks to the Wakatere Boating Club and Don Brooke for their assistance.
Read more about Jack Brooke and his work:
Wakatere Boating Club 50 Years: Record of the Golden Jubilee of the Wakatere Boating Club, edited by J. Brooke, N. Coleman, G. Jackson, 1976
The Jack Brooke Story: A Celebration of a New Zealand Amateur Yacht Designer by Harold Kidd, available from the Bill Laxon Maritime Library