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Spotlight on: Thomas Fewtrell

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In the latest of a new regular feature shining the spotlight on the New Zealand yachting community – and the people at its heart – we talk to Thomas Fewtrell.

The 18-year-old grabbed headlines on Sunday when he, along with twin brother Jacob and his friend Carter Stringer, rescued a man from Waitangi River as Cyclone Gabrielle lashed the region with gale-force winds and rough seas.

While relieved this story had a happy ending, Fewtrell - who is the boats manager at Bay of Islands Yacht Club and a competitive 29er sailor - realises it could have been very different. 

How did events on Sunday unfold?

We were down at the club at high tide, checking on the club boats as the water was breaking all over the lawn where we normally store them due to the cyclone.

A lady came into the club quite panicked. She said her husband was up the river in a dinghy, that one of his rowlocks had broken and he was being blown up the river towards Haruru Falls.  

He was only going about 50m from the boat ramp to his yacht but as soon as the rowlock broke, he started drifting and he was soon more than 500m up the river.  

I got Jacob and Carter,  who are also members at the club, and we grabbed one of the safety boats. We had to take the tractor down to the public ramp further up the river, as the waves were over the top of our ramp, and we couldn’t use it safely.  

We got to the guy about five minutes later. He was stuck in some mangroves and was very tired, standing in chest-high water holding onto the dinghy with one hand and keeping his phone above the water in the other. We pulled him onto the boat and towed the dinghy back to shore.    

Your actions have been called heroic…   

I didn’t think much of it, really. I’m a commercial skipper and I know these club boats pretty well, so even though conditions weren’t the best – the swells in the Bay were over 4m on Sunday - I was never in any trouble and I was confident we could get him out.

I have had to tow broken boats before, but I have never needed to get to someone straight away.

Thomas Fewtrell and two other young Bay of Islands Yacht Club members rescued a boatie from Waitangi River.

Thomas Fewtrell and two other young Bay of Islands Yacht Club members rescued a boatie from Waitangi River.


How did you get involved at the club?

I am from the area and I’ve been sailing here for ages. Two and a half years ago we got a new fleet of safety boats and I felt they weren’t being properly taken care of, so I started doing it myself.  

After that I joined the General Committee as the boats manager. I like the job. It’s nice to give something back to the club.    

Are you from a yachting family?

Yes, I am. My mum (Debbie) sailed an Olympic campaign for Britain. My dad (Chris) was also  part of the America’s Cup scene.  I started sailing when I was about 6, so I guess you could say I have saltwater in my veins.    

What is your earliest sailing memory?

The reason I got into sailing was the school holiday programmes at the club during the summer months.

A lot of my real close friends, at that age, were from the yacht club and our friendships just kind of evolved from there.

Thanks to our great coach Robbs Hielkema I have been an active  member ever since. 

Are those same friends still involved in sailing?

Many have moved on to other things, unfortunately, but the club has been doing plenty to get teenagers back into the sport - through things like learn to sail programmes.

I’m not sure why there seems to be a drop-off in numbers around the age of 16.

The [Covid-19] lockdowns didn’t help but recently the interest has definitely picked up again. We’ve now probably got around 100 sailors in the club sailing programme. 

How do we get the younger sailors back and keep them?

I think making sailing as fast and as fun as possible is important. Last weekend, we hosted the O’pen Skiff nationals and we saw a few young sailors who had switched to windfoiling jump back into their skiffs for that event.

Foiling is bringing more young people into sailing and keeping them interested.

At the club we have plenty of windfoilers and just in the last year or so we’ve seen more kids getting into that.     

What are your future plans?

I just finished school (Kerikeri High) and at the moment I work for Bay of Islands Adventures.

They do jetboating and we take people around the Bays in a glass bottom boat and out to the hole in the rock. 

I have done a lot of dinghy sailing and have been sailing 29ers competitively for five years – all the nationals and the Aon clinics.

I enjoy four boats myself  - a 29er, a 3.7, a 6m fishing boat and a 23ft trailer sailor. 

I’ve never really raced keelboats and that’s something I’d like to do. 

In my career, I am keen to work my way through my skipper endorsements and find work on bigger boats.