t09 Tom (Tekapo)
Thomas Sydney HOWES. Tom was born 1924. Along with brother Vic he went to high school in Timaru and on the way home they had a reputation for nicking the coal off the Fairlie Flyer for the farm. He was described as the “Playboy Uncle” – fancy free. He had a nurse girlfriend but never married. Aged 19 he joined the RNZAF in 1944 during WW2. Part of his training was in Canada but WW2 ended.
Whilst at Camp Delta near Woodbourne, Uncle Tom trained with Edmund Hillary and helped Hillary with the start of his famous mountaineering career, by climbing with him on his first mountain – Tapuaenuku in Marlborough just before Tom turned 20 in August 1944.
He was the real ’tomboy’ adventurer type who took risks. In 1959 aged 35 he took up an advert for American actor/ magician John Calvert to crew his ocean going ketch the ‘Sea Fox’ from Darwin to Sydney. This was a 24 metre ketch purchased from Henry Ford. The cargo included Tarzan’s chain smoking chimp Jimmy!
After leaving Darwin, off Arnhem Land, Calvert reported they were taking water and likely to sink. Calvert made things difficult by not being able to give his exact position. A RAAF plane found the ketch on the second day of the search. There was much speculation and controversy with the whole saga and international publicity. Calvert took movie pictures of the crew manually pumping and ordered them to work faster to make it look more dramatic. Eventually a RAN tug, Emu, was sent out and took the ‘Sea Fox’ in tow, heading for the Methodist mission at Elcho Island. When the ketch finally got to the island it was taken into the shallows and beached.
Calvert collapsed and when flown back to Darwin he was confronted by some former crew members. He hotly denied allegations that the whole affair had been a publicity stunt, blaming a faulty sextant for the inaccurate reports of his location.
Calvert and his circus then flew off to Sydney to perform. After the saga, Tom stayed with us in Christchurch which I remember well, as he roomed with me. I never let him sleep as I wanted all his stories. I remember he had lots of sores which mum treated – I believe from the chimp.
Mostly, Tom was a farmer at Opawa Downs then Levels Valley. I remember my cousins daring him to do the ‘ton’ in his Ford Fairlane on the Levels straight. That was mph in those days! He was a best friend of Eric Batchelor of Waimate who became one of New Zealand’s most decorated soldiers.
However, Tom was not to survive the next water tragedy 6 years later. He was the boatman for the family picnic on Lake Tekapo that claimed his life on 23rd January 1965.