Commentator Peter Montgomery revolutionised the media coverage of yachting. Detractors accused him of never using one word where three would do and of being able to find high drama in a tug tying up at a wharf, but possibly only his boyhood idol, rugby commentator Winston McCarthy has had as much impact on the sport he covered.
Montgomery’s career coincided with yachting’s ascent into a major national obsession, thanks to Whitbread Round the World races, Olympic successes and America’s Cup triumph. As he told the Listener in 1990, “yachting took off in this country and, as a broadcaster, I went with it”.
Born in Kaitaia, Montgomery spent his childhood in Dunedin where he became a “sports broadcasting junkie” under the spell of Winston McCarthy and short wave coverage of Australian racing and cricket, and American baseball.
He was educated at Kings High in Dunedin where his school mates included All Black Chris Laidlaw, journalist David Beatson and, most notably for his future career, sports commentator Bill McCarthy. He enjoyed sporting success as a junior Otago sprint champion and rugby rep.
In 1965, Montgomery moved to Auckland. As injuries began to curtail his sporting career, he took up sailing. I became an all-consuming passion. “I realised yachting was, if you’ll excuse the expression, a sport for a lifetime. Generations mix easily on the boats”.
Montgomery would later observe that “there was always a broadcasting demon in me waiting to get out” but it took him time to find his calling. While he threw himself into Auckland’s sailing community and built up his knowledge of the sport, his days were spent working in, and later managing and owning, car dealerships.
He also frequented the Royal Hotel, watering hole for Radio New Zealand’s Auckland sports team which included Bill McCarthy. In early 1970, RNZ was short of commentators to cover the World OK Dinghy Championships. McCarthy reputedly tried unsuccessfully to interest ten other people in the role, before approaching his yachting obsessed ex school mate. With no broadcasting training, Montgomery passed an audition on the pre-tournament competition, and his career survived missing his first live cross signal.
Six months later he was covering Chris Bouzaid’s defence of the One Ton Cup, and he never looked back (he has also done his share of rugby work, including half-time interviews for a 1972 match against Australia, during the first All Blacks test televised live in NZ). As early as 1980, Listener journalist Sue McTagget was describing his commentaries as “a blend of technical jargon, sensible interpretation and somewhat lyrical observation”. Over the years, that “lyrical observation” could be delivered at a velocity that saw him nicknamed the “screaming skull”. But no-one has ever doubted his passion for his sport, or his ability to find drama on the flattest of millponds.
Determined to find an audience outside yachting’s inner circle, he never forgot Bill McCarthy’s advice to pitch his commentary at a mythical “little old lady with the blue rinse and white tennis shoes in Riverton”.
Montgomery says he never sought to be a big time heavy on the radio and, for years, commentating was a part time occupation even if his commitment was never less than total. Increasingly, he found his way on board ocean-going racing yachts. He was on Lion New Zealand with Peter Blake as it won the 1984 Sydney to Hobart in conditions so bad that two-thirds of the fleet withdrew. Despite an epic bout of sea sickness, Montgomery managed to coin one of his most memorable phrases when he described the waves as “liquid Himalayas”.
By 1987, a downturn in car sales coincided with overtures from Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand to take up sports broadcasting full time.
His love affair with yachting had seen him pay his own way to his first America’s Cup in Newport, Rhode Island in 1977. He was in Freemantle behind a microphone as New Zealand began its involvement with the Auld Mug, and he covered the losing campaigns in 1988 and 1992 before Team New Zealand beat Dennis Conner and Stars & Stripes in San Diego in 1995. His immortal finishing line exclamation “the America’s Cup is now New Zealand’s cup” came to him in his motel at 5am on the morning of what became the winning race of the series.
Montgomery was now synonymous with New Zealand yachting and the Yachting Federation awarded him the Bernard Ferguson trophy for NZ Yachtsman of the Year in 1990. Less orthodox recognition followed in 1992 with a cameo in Wind, a Hollywood feature film based around the America’s Cup starring Matthew Modine and Dirty Dancing’s Jennifer Grey.
Montgomery was awarded an MBE in the 1995 Queen’s Birthday Honours.
He has covered 11 America’s Cup regattas, nine Olympic Games, 11 Round the World races and numerous international regattas. Away from the waves, Montgomery hosted weekend sports shows on Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport and for two decades was a fixture at rugby matches at Eden Park as a sideline commentator. He stepped down from the role in 2013, at the age of 70.
Profile written and researched by Michael Higgins.
Dylan Cleaver, ‘It's the bold man and the sea’ - Sunday Star Times, 13 February 2000, page A5
Greg Dixon, ‘Interview’ - Metro, February 2003, page 22
Wynne Gray, ‘Sideline role defined by PJ's passion’ (Interview)– The NZ Herald, 30 August 2014, page B25
Suzanne McFadden, ‘Destined for a watery rave’ – The NZ Herald, 14 October 1999, page D34
Terry McLean, ‘Mr Yachting’ – The Listener, 23 January 1988
Sue McTagget, ‘Sea Service’ – The Listener, 28 March 1981, page 97
Tony Reid, ‘Oh buoy!’ - The Listener, 17 September 1990, page 4
Andrew Sanders, ‘Montgomery commands the airwaves’ – Sunday Star, 5 April 1992, page C1