On New Year’s Day of 1902 it has been reported that the entire population of Ōtautahi Christchurch decamped and took to the trains, tunnel bound for the annual Lyttelton Regatta. Competitive rowing and yacht racing were early sporting traditions throughout the Australasian colonies with Lyttelton’s first rowing regatta being held within 6 months of the First Four Ships’ arrival – on 24 May 1851 to celebrate Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s 32nd birthday. It was not until 1862, however, that the Lyttelton New Year’s Day Regatta was formally established in the town's water sports calendar. While well attended by ‘holidaymakers’, it only became popular with the greater Canterbury region after December 1867 when the railway tunnel opened up public transport to the port town. And then in the years following, the annual New Year’s Day Regatta grew to become the colony’s largest aquatic sporting festival!
On this particular New Year’s Day in 1902, upwards of 10 thousand or more Cantabrians gathered along the wharves, foreshore, on the hotel balconies and in the sideshow alleys, to witness the yachting, rowing and swimming contests. Unfortunately for the yachts, while the day was beautifully fine and sunny there was no breeze to speak of, and thus not much of a sailing spectacle either, with the assembled racing yachts reportedly laying “idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean”.
This unhappy circumstance did not apparently affect the mood of the festivities which grew brighter as the afternoon wore on, quite possibly in anticipation of its … explosive climax. We’re not quite sure when this particular Lyttelton tradition began or ended, but the public spectacle of submarine explosions at the Lyttelton Regatta were recorded from the 1890s through to at least 1911. On this Regatta day a sacrificial vessel, the Ocean Bird, had been specially prepared by one Captain Falconer and his torpedo corps.
Around 3 PM, the thronging festival crowds were alerted to the impending explosive finale beyond the harbour moles by a raging fire and plumes of smoke rising up from the doomed ship. After some 30 minutes, by way of an electric cable connected from the breakwater through to the mine laid under her hull, Captain Falconer tripped the switch and the Ocean Bird was literally blown to smithereens in a loud explosion and giant water spout accompanied by the rousing cheers of the people.
While the New Year’s Day Regatta and its submarine explosions appear to have faded in importance sometime before WWI, the Lyttelton sailing tradition has remained an important part of the port's history. With the original Canterbury Yacht and Motor Boat Club being established in 1921, its successor, the Naval Point Club Lyttelton, celebrated the centenary of club sailing in Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour with a regatta in November 2021. And we look forward to the 3rd season of the international SailGP in Lyttelton next year from March 18-19, 2023, with or perhaps without a spectacular submarine explosion?
See also Geoffrey Vincent, The Great Aquatic Events of the Plains: Regattas and Rowing in Canterbury, 1850-1890 | Journal of New Zealand Studies – https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/INFORMIT.664277779349119