Building Northland's tall ship

In Northland, there is a rather remarkable tall ship, the R. Tucker Thompson. This is the story of her building and eventual transfer into a Trust.

The story of the R. Tucker Thompson starts, as a few will know, with Robert Tucker Thompson, a native Californian who arrived in New Zealand with his young family in January 1971. The warmth and sailing in the north appealed to Tucker, who had had a long association with tall ships, so he found land in Whangarei Heads was found and he set about building an unusual house designed by Graeme North and set into a hillside, using poles with a ferro-cement roof. Once that was finished, it was time for another project. The NZ government was encouraging the expansion of the fishing industry. The obvious thing to do was to build a boat that could go fishing, but incorporating some of Tucker's love of tall ships. There was land below the house on the water's edge which had sufficient room for a good sized boat to be built. Tucker and son Tod began working. The plating was not quite complete when Tucker became ill and needed a heart operation. He was 49 when he died.

Meanwhile, the hull which need a few more plates welded on, was acquiring a patina of rust. Tod was unsure whether he wanted to take on the project, but after some serious thinking decided to finish the hull. Russell Harris and Tod had met while working on the rigging of the “Bounty” and they formed a partnership. 27 years later, the Tucker returned to Little Munro Bay, her spiritual home.

The hull was moved to Russell's home at Mangawhai Heads, where Tod and Russell with a myriad of family, friends and others worked together, with a fair amount of Kiwi ingenuity, until the ship was finished. The ship was launched by Tuckers widow and Russell's mother, with full Maori protocol with Kaumatua Mac Taylor blessing her on 12th October 1985. She was named in honour of Tucker.

In October 1985, she came to the Bay for her first “Day Sail season”, joining Fullers Cream Trip and the Cape Reinga coach trip as one of the earliest adventure tourism products in the Bay.

On 5th November 1986 she headed off for a circumnavigation to take part in the First Fleet Re-enactment, to celebrate Australia’s bi-centenary in 1988. This amazing round the world voyage started naturally in England, so the ship went via the Panama Canal, across the Atlantic encountering one of the worst storms in living memory for many in October 1987 before departing on the epic voyage in company.

She returned back to the Bay of Islands on 5th November 1988 to continue her career in tourism day sails. A few forays up to the Pacific took place between 1989 and 1993 to Tonga, Rarotonga and Tahiti with Tod selling his share in the ship around this time. In 1995 the ship set sail in company on a voyage to Mururoa in French Polynesia to protest against nuclear testing. The Tucker played a pivotal role, taking over the command role once the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior was captured.

In 2002 the Tucker embarked on a voyage to Japan and Korea, Canada and down the US West Coast to take part in the ASTA West Coast Tall Ship's Challenge, making friends along the way. A second visit to Canada and the US West Coast followed in 2005. 

By this time, the much travelled small but plucky tall ship from New Zealand had made friends throughout the world, but she was 20 years old and Russell, at 65, was approaching retirement. Selling the ship, even if a buyer could have been found would have meant that the R. Tucker Thompson may have disappeared from our horizons forever. So an alternative plan was worked on.

The ship was to be transferred into a not-for-profit charitable Trust, so that she could be retained in Northland and used for the benefit of Northlanders, particularly for young people by growing the number of winter sail training voyages, which had been established in 1996. This would see governance of the ship transferred to a Board of Trustees, still including Russell, with day to day operations being looked after by management. This would allow all his knowledge and passion to remain with the ship and retain his involvement, but remove the burden of responsibility for operating the ship, so he could step back and let others take the helm.

So on 4th June 2006, that’s what happened. The ship made a symbolic journey from Opua to Russell Kororareka, where children from schools throughout Northland were collected. Bishop Ben Te Haara blessed the new venture and the youngsters helped sail the Tucker back to Opua (under Russell's watchful eye of course) where the new Trustees met, and took ownership of the Tucker on behalf of the Trust.

The R.Tucker Thompson, a plucky little tall ship from Northland, represents all that is best about this region; creative spirit and a can do anything attitude, her building is a testimony to those who make things happen and get things done. Today, she still offers visitors to the Bay of Islands her iconic day sail, still serving the same scones and cream tea she was famous for all those years ago (the recipe incidentally is from the original Edmonds Cook book published in 1908). But now her role is even more important, as between Easter and November she uses the money made from tourism taking youngsters from Northland on life changing voyages. Voyages that show them that they too can achieve their dreams, pick up the challenge and achieve what they believed was seemingly impossible.

Fair winds to all who sail in her!

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