Commentator Peter Montgomery revolutionised 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 success and Kiwi triumph at the America’s Cup. 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 shortwave coverage of Australian horse racing and cricket plus American baseball. At Kings High in Dunedin his schoolmates included future All Black Chris Laidlaw, journalist David Beatson and, most notably for his career, sports commentator Bill McCarthy. He enjoyed sporting success as a junior Otago sprint champion and rugby representative.
In 1965, Montgomery moved to Auckland. As injuries began to curtail his sporting career, he took up sailing. It 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 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 OK Dinghy World Championships (the OK Dinghy is a single-handed sailing dinghy). McCarthy reputedly tried unsuccessfully to interest ten other people in the role, before approaching his yachting obsessed ex school mate. As Montgomery writes in this piece on his career, and the growth of local sailing coverage, he initially said no before agreeing to fill in. With no broadcasting training, he debuted during the pre-tournament competition, and survived missing his first live cross signal.
Six months later he was covering Kiwi Chris Bouzaid’s defence of the One Ton Cup. Montgomery has never looked back (he has also covered rowing and rugby, including half-time interviews for a September 1972 match against Australia, during the first All Blacks test televised live in New Zealand). As early as 1980, Listener journalist Sue McTagget was describing Montgomery's 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 has stayed true to 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 aimed for the big time on the radio. For years, commentating was a part-time occupation, even though 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 race, in conditions so bad two-thirds of the fleet withdrew. Despite an epic bout of seasickness, 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. Overseas offers would follow.
Montgomery's love affair with yachting had seen him pay his own way to his first America’s Cup in 1977, in Newport, Rhode Island. Since then he has provided live commentary of every America's Cup race involving a Kiwi boat, starting with KZ-7's first race in the Louis Vuitton Cup on 5 October 1986.
After covering the losing campaigns in 1988 and 1992, he was there for Team New Zealand's historic 1995 victory over Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes in San Diego (he also narrated this documentary on the winning campaign). 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 the winning race of the series. In 2015, The Sunday Star-Times voted it the most memorable piece of Kiwi sporting commentary of all time.
Montgomery had become synonymous with New Zealand yachting, as both a commentator and interviewer. In 1992 the NZ Yachting Federation awarded him their highest honour, the Sir Bernard Ferguson Trophy. Less orthodox recognition followed in 1992 with a cameo in America's Cup movie Wind, which starred Full Metal Jacket's Matthew Modine and Dirty Dancing’s Jennifer Grey. In 2015 he presented an episode of series Descent from Disaster, on a tragic 1951 yacht race which saw ten die. In 2021 he became only the third journalist or commentator chosen to be inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame.
To date (March 2021), Montgomery has covered 13 America’s Cup regattas, 10 Olympic Games, and all 13 Round the World/Ocean Races, as well as numerous international regattas. Away from the waves, Montgomery hosted weekend sports shows on Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport. For two decades he was a fixture at Eden Park rugby matches; he relished the freedom of having "the best seat in the house", roaming the sideline. He stepped down from the role in 2013, at age 70, but was back to commentate on the 2017 and 2021 America's Cup for local radio.
Montgomery was awarded an MBE in the 1995 Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Profile written and researched by Michael Higgins; updated on 10 March 2021
Dylan Cleaver, ‘It's the bold man and the sea’ - The 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' – The Sunday Star, 5 April 1992, page C1
Unknown writer, 'The "voice Of The America's Cup" PJ Montgomery Joins Newstalk ZB, Gold AM And IHeartRadio To Lead 36th America's Cup' (press release) Scoop website. Loaded 11 December 2020. Accessed 9 March 2021