05 March 2014

History of Sailboat Racing in New Zealand {Disclaimer: This Might Be Boring}

Classic Boat Regatta in Auckland
Auckland is known as the "City of Sails" and has more boats per capita than anywhere else in the world. Sailing is an integral part of the Kiwi DNA. Even Kiwis who don't have their own boat could be found cheering Emirates Team New Zealand on in the America's Cup. As an expat in New Zealand, I thought I should find out a little more about the history of sailboat racing here. So I turned to my trusty book New Zealanders and the Sea and did some reading. You can also find a version of this book online at the Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand site.
The first thing I learned is that there was a distinction between the types of boats that the rich and not so rich folk used in the early days. Yachts had multiple decks with some quarters down below and were owned and raced by rich blokes. Sailing boats were the domain of the working man and were smaller, without decks and open to the elements. Of course we still have a distinction today - there are the mega-yachts and then there are the boats the rest of us sail on.

Regattas became quite popular in the 1870s and both yachts and sailing boats participated in the races in various classes based upon length. Another boat, known as the mullet boat, hit the racing scene as well. Mullet boats were around 24' long with a centerboard (which provided stability) and had a broad transom for fishing nets. The mullet boats were rigged to sail fast back to Auckland with the prevailing westerlies in order to get the fish back to market. Mullet boats did so well in racing that they became exclusively racing boats by 1900. You can still find them racing with the Ponsonby Cruising Club today. They also have their own website which you can check out here.

With the passion for racing developing in New Zealand, boat building became increasingly sophisticated. Specialist yacht builders sprung up, especially in Auckland, along with chandlers, sail makers, riggers and other trades. The Kiwi boats were superior to those built by the British (whose boats were built according to the Thames Rule and thus deeper and narrower and more difficult to navigate). New Zealand even began exporting boats to Australia in 1875. Boats built during this early period were often made out of the native kauri trees which resist rotting in sea water. You can even find boats built before 1900 still safely sailing in New Zealand waters.

The golden age of keel yacht building took place from 1892 to 1905 in Auckland as a result of demand for "raters", which were yachts built to overseas racing rules (although international racing was really unlikely at this point in time). The Logan and the Bailey families were the principal builders with fierce rivalry between the two. Raters and other similar boats were built to a high standard with multiple skin construction and made out of kauri wood. And for that reason, you can still find a large number of these boats still sailing today with the Classic Yacht Association.

These weren't the only boats being raced at the time. Pātiki (meaning flounder in Maori) were small, fast unballasted centerboarders with hulls that could plane and were popular in Napier. Dinghies were also raced in parts of New Zealand. Motor launches emerged in the early 1900s, but true yachties dismissed them as "stinkboats" and remained loyal to the sailboat.

Racing continued to grow in popularity in part due to the new X class boat which was a 14-foot unballasted, open centerboard dinghy which hit the scene in 1916. Wealthy folks commissioned X class boats to be built, like World War I hero and New Zealand Governor General Lord Jellicoe's boat the Iron Duke, and raced them in the Sanders Cup (named after an Aucklander lost in naval action during the war).

Two other popular classes of boats developed during this time. The Takapuna Z class was a 12-foot square bilge boat which were raced by kids under 19 in the Cornwell Cup. The 7-foot Tauranga P class was developed in 1920 and used as training boats, as well as raced in the Tanner Cup. If you're wondering what's with all the letters, they came about when the Auckland Yacht and Motor Boat Association set up a system of registration. First, boats were given permanent sail numbers, but as the number of boats grew they changed to a system of letters in 1921 from A-class for keel yachts to Z-class for Takapuna dinghies. And my favorite, O for "odds and sods". After World War II, racing became even more popular as people found themselves with more money and leisure time at hand and centerboard classes continued to be the big thing on the racing scene.

Boatbuilding and racing continued to develop and change in New Zealand with the introduction of new materials. Plywood and various types of glues developed during World War II and were used to build cheaper sailboats and build them more quickly. Kiwis have a reputation for being do it yourselfers and making anything out of whatever they have at hand and this showed up in boatbuilding. Your average Joe started making their own sailboats out in their front gardens. Unfortunately, by the 1990s, the do-it-yourself boatbuilding tradition started dying out but you can still see many of the home grown boats, as well as the old Kiwi classics, out there sailing and racing today.

When I reread this I didn't laugh so it is probably a bit boring. But Scott takes nice photos, so maybe that will make up for any yawning you may experience.

Reference: For more information and some great pictures of old sailboats, see Harold Kidd's article 'Sailing and Windsurfing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12.

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