Page 1: Biography
Willetts, Albert Leslie
Yacht designer, builder and racer; cabinet-maker
Willetts, Alexander William
Yacht racer, building contractor and inspector
This biography, written by Jason Corkin, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 4, 1998
Alexander William and Albert Leslie Willetts were born at Devonport, Auckland, on 15 July 1893 and 22 February 1900 respectively, the second and fifth of ten children of Methodist parents Arthur John Willetts and his wife, Sybil Beeston. Their father was a well-known designer and foreman shipwright at George Niccol's shipyard. The brothers spent their childhood at Stanley Bay, and attended Devonport School. They soon took up their father's pastime and became enthusiastically involved in yacht racing. During the First World War William served with the New Zealand Field Artillery.
Known as 'Farmer', William rose to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s as one of Auckland's outstanding mullet-boat skippers. Ironically, in yachting parlance Farmer was a derogatory nickname for a bad sailor, but he had earned the name while holidaying on his uncle's farm as a boy. In yachting circles he was renowned as a helmsman of stable, unflappable character. He began racing as forward hand on the 16-foot S-class yacht Mistral, and soon gained helming experience on his father’s mullet boats, the 24-foot I-class Waitere I and the 26-foot H-class Waitere II. In 1919 he became the owner of Waitere II and continued to skipper the boat with great success. Over the next eight years he claimed 10 championship flags and over 80 first prizes. In the Auckland–Russell–Onerahi coastal races he achieved three firsts and two seconds in five attempts. At the pinnacle of his dominance he claimed 13 wins in one season. He sold Waitere II in 1927, making room for other developments in his life.
On 27 April that year William Willetts married Gladys Isabel Moore, a typist, in Auckland; together they raised a son and a daughter. They lived initially at Sandringham, then Mount Eden and finally Orakei. William worked as a building contractor until 1936, when he became an inspector for the Housing Construction Branch of the State Advances Corporation, one of the first appointed under the Labour government’s state-housing programme.
From 1934 to 1939 he concentrated on racing 22-foot L-class mullet boats, at a time when this class provided Auckland’s closest competition. Asked to skipper the new Tamariki, he obtained 30 wins in just three seasons, including four victories out of five starts in the class's premier event, the Lipton Cup. In his best season he secured 23 prizes, including the Lipton, Savory and Anzac Points cups. He was an active member of the North Shore (later Akarana) Yacht Club, Tamaki Yacht Club, Manukau Cruising Club and the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.
While William was dominating Auckland's keen mullet-boat competition, his brother Albert 'Trotter' Willetts became one of New Zealand's outstanding small-boat racing skippers. (His nickname derived from his childhood habit of trotting rather than walking.) A member of Akarana Yacht Club and Point Chevalier Sailing Club, Albert earned a reputation as a highly motivated yet calm and collected individual. A cabinet-maker by trade, he later became a self-employed boat builder and designer. His skills helped him to design and construct many competitive yachts in the 14-foot X and Y classes, the 16-foot S class and the 18-foot V class.
On 18 October 1922 Albert Willetts married Vera Constance McDonald, a machinist, in Auckland; they were to have two daughters and a son. The same year he built and skippered the champion Y-class Cupid, before swapping this boat for further success in the larger S class. He won the premier small-boat event, the Sanders Cup, in 1924, 1929 and 1947. Albert's involvement in international V-class racing gained him wide acclaim. Chasing greater competition in this developing class, he again displayed his excellence as a designer and builder of fast boats. In Irena, which Albert had designed and built himself, he competed in the 1938 World’s 18-Footer Championship at Sydney, finishing fifth – New Zealand’s best performance in the series.
William Willetts died at Green Lane Hospital, Epsom, on 25 October 1957, survived by his wife and children. His brother Albert died on 23 May 1979, seeing out his final days at Laingholm, Auckland. He was survived by two daughters; his wife Vera had died in 1977. Between them the Willetts brothers collected many of New Zealand's most prestigious yachting titles, confirming their status as champions of the most competitive sailing classes from the 1920s to the 1940s.