Ian Gibbs, one of New Zealand’s top offshore owner/skippers, has died at the age of 87 years.
In a 20 year period Gibbs, competed very actively and with considerable success in major international regattas in the offshore rating classes – principally in Half-Tonners, and then in Admirals Cup classes, sailed from Cowes, Isle of Wight. The now defunct Admirals Cup was widely regarded as the World Championship of offshore racing.
Gibbs skippered the top individual boat in the 1981 event and sailing a charter boat was top New Zealand competitor in the 1983 Admirals Cup. He was well performed in four Half Ton Cups.
He launched his offshore career in the Half Ton Cup boats, building two but converting the second from a centreboarder to a fixed keel boat after changes to the International Offshore Rule (IOR). His best place was third overall in the 1979 Half Ton Cup in Holland.
All told he commissioned four Half and One Tonners and chartered two others. Ian Gibbs skippered and helmed in four Half Ton Cups, two Admirals Cups and four Southern Cross Cups, which included the Sydney Hobart race, – being forced out of two of these in extreme conditions.
The son of an accountant and tax specialist, Gibbs was born in 1928 in Christchurch, the elder brother of well-known businessman and entrepreneur, Alan Gibbs. He did his early sailing in small boats from Christchurch and Akaroa, competing against the Mander bothers.
He graduated as a mechanical engineer from the University of Canterbury, and was variously an engineer, farmer, developer and entrepreneur. Ian Gibbs was involved with his brother in the development of the first New Zealand production car, the Anziel – engaging in a long battle with government bureaucracy, before giving the project away.
Earlier, in conjunction with his father TN Gibbs and Sir Keith Holyoake, who later became Prime Minister of NZ, Ian developed the Kinloch resort and marina from the part of the Whangamata No 1 station, purchased from Gibbs’ employer, New Zealand Forest Products, in 1953. The marina, New Zealand’s first, opened in 1965.
Ian Gibbs purchased a farm/station at Upokorau near Kaeo, Northland which he owned for the remainder of his life.
His offshore campaigns began in 1974 when he purchased the Farr designed Half-Tonner Titus Canby from Rob Blackburn, renaming her Tohe Candu. He skippered her to a second South Pacific Half Ton Cup victory, and then shipped her to the Half Ton Worlds in La Rochelle, finishing eighth overall in a very competitive fleet.
He owned a second Ron Holland design Half Tonner, Measure for Measure, which he sold and then commissioned his third Half Tonner, a Whiting design, Candu II which he sailed in the 1976 Half Ton Cup in Trieste, Italy, finishing 6th. For the 1977 Half Ton Cup in Sydney he commissioned a Farr design, the first of a long line of Swuzzlebubbles – named after his daughters’ pet names – Swuzzle and Bubble. Gibbs placed third in the world championship.
Gibbs became a driving force behind the 1981 Admirals Cup campaign by the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, commissioning the 39ft Holland minimum rater Swuzzlebubble. Along with Stu Brentnall’s sister ship, Wee Willie Winkie, and Evan Julian’s ‘big boat’ Inca, they made up the three boat New Zealand team, competing in the five race series out of Cowes, Isle of Wight.
Teams were restricted to one per nation with 48 boats representing 16 national teams competing in the event that consisted of three inshore races, an overnight Channel Race and concluded with the Fastnet classic.
An excellent fourth place in the Fastnet was sufficient to lift Swuzzlebubble from seventh in the individual standings to lead by just one point from top English boat, Victory – skippered by top Olympic sailor Phil Crebbin. Swuzzlebubble had also performed very well in the Channel Race – in what was a ‘big-boat’ event. The team finished 5th overall.
Gibbs returned for the 1983 Admirals Cup, with a charter boat – the now Irish owned Wee Willie Winkie, finishing in a creditable 10th on individual scores in a team which comprised Shockwave (Neville Crichton) and Lady Be (Peter Blake).
He had a third attempt in 1985, forming a boat building company to build two Farr designed sisterships, also minimum raters – Swuzzlebubble V, and Epic Lass. After a series of trials in the Hauraki Gulf, the selectors opted to take Epic Lass (Peter Walker) and selected Canterbury Export (Roy Dickson) ahead of Swuzzlebubble V.
Gibbs was more than upset over the decision, as he had built the design to be optimised for the light English summer conditions – with a minimum waterline length boat, minimum stability and large sail area. She quickly lost her advantage in the fresher breezes of the Hauraki Gulf, which favoured longer boats with less sail area. The selectors stuck by the on-the-water results instead of trying to mimic the English conditions.
He campaigned Swuzzlebubble V – repainted white and re-named Swuzzlebubble 6 to throw off any selectorial shadow and trialled for the 1985 Southern Cross Cup in Sydney, in which she was selected in the top of two three boat teams. However she was not optimised for the Southern conditions and suffered from the same shortcoming off Sydney and in the Sydney Hobart that she did in Auckland. She also sailed in the 1987 Southern Cross Cup.
He then campaigned in the Southern hemisphere until the 1993 Sydney Hobart race when he entered Swuzzlebubble VIII (the Davidson design ex Beyond the Thunderdome). The fleet was hit by a severe storm on the second night with gusts recorded of over 70kts. Swuzzlebubble was rolled and broke her mast. Gibbs was badly injured, and they withdrew motoring back to Eden, where she was written off by her insurers. 66 boats withdrew from the race.
Gibbs was intensely proud of his Admirals Cup win – coupled with the purchase of Swuzzlebubble by the CEO of Volvo.
Below decks Gibbs had commissioned crew member Bret de Thier, an Olympic Finn representative and lecturer in design at the Auckland University’s School of Fine Arts to devise an aesthetically pleasing, practical and ergonomically designed interior which expanded the space frame of the Holland design.
The effect was both stunning and very practical, as well as being lightweight – and in marked contrast to either the very minimalist interiors or excessively heavy alternative adopted by racing boats of that era.
de Thier and his small team looked hard at the ergonomic needs of the racing crew and came up with a fresh approach that impressed the executives from the top of the line Swedish car manufacturer, noted for its design innovation and approach to technology.
Cookson Boats gave effect to the courageous design concept, setting the New Zealand marine industry in the international spotlight. Gibbs comments at the time proved to be prophetic.
‘Competing in events such as this, which are accepted world wide as being the top end of the sport, are important to New Zealand’, Gibbs told New Zealand Yachting magazine.
‘There is a large element of technology involved now in building and rigging boats such as Swuzzlebubble. There’s applied technology and a wide use of technological products. These must be areas in which countries like New Zealand should strive to succeed, particularly in the current world situation.
‘I think New Zealand must perform well in these high technology fields in much the way that Sweden, Norway and Switzerland have. New Zealanders are capable of doing so.
I’m proud to have been associated with the standard of her construction. That two of Sweden’s leading industrialists should choose to purchase Swuzzlebubble, well before she became top boat in the series, must be a great credit to New Zealand and the ability of the builders and engineers who put the boat together.
‘The people who bought her could have afforded anything. They could have built and campaigned a new boat. But they bought Swuzzlebubble.
‘They are men controlling two of Sweden’s most significant industries and the fact they bought a New Zealand boat won’t fail to be recognized on a wide scale.
A similar interior concept was used and extended by de Thier’s colleague, Bruce Woods on the impressive interior of Peter Blake’s Whitbread maxi, Lion New Zealand.
Gibbs was a colorful character who was also a keen mountaineer and had several lucky escapes in his life.
In one, during after being out for an evening in a cafe in La Rochelle, Gibbs bet a crew member Ross Guineven that he could beat him back to Tohe Candu. Guineven took off the long way to the boat. Gibbs thought he knew a short cut and leaped off the seawall expecting to land on the dock a few feet away. Unfortunately, he had forgotten about the 6-metre tidal range and had a serious fall onto the dock below.
Gibbs became teetotal in the last decade or so of his life, and reunited with his wife who pre-deceased him.
He is survived by Swuzzle and Bubble.
His life will be celebrated on Monday afternoon in Auckland.