New Zealand's first canoe club was Tainui Canoe Club, formed in 1881 in Wellington as a branch of the Royal Canoe Club in Britain founded by Captain John MacGregor, whose touring exploits in the original “Rob Roy” established canoeing as a sport. The use of Maori canoes was declining in New Zealand at that time, and no Maori influence can be detected in the modern sport.
W. FitzGerald, eldest son of James Edward FitzGerald, and a leading figure in Tainui Canoe Club, was the first sporting canoeist to shoot White Horse Rapid in the Manawatu Gorge, a feat considered daring in those days. He used a papier mache canoe, a forerunner of the modern competitive canoes moulded in veneer and fibreglass. Among his longer trips was a pioneering cruise down the Ruamahanga River and across Lake Wairarapa to Palliser Bay, sailing back along the coast to Wellington. Other pioneer canoeists of the same period were G. Mannering and M. J. Dixon who cruised down the Waimakariri River from Bealey to Kaiapoi in canoes hired from the Avon boatsheds, Christchurch, and G. and J. Park, who voyaged up the Taramakau River, across the mountains, and down the Hurunui River to the opposite coast, whereupon G. Park continued by sail to Kaiapoi. The Park brothers were the first sportsmen to canoe Cook Strait, crossing in 1890 from Mana Island to Queen Charlotte Sound and thence down the coast to Dunedin in 14 ft canoes. The first canoeist to cross the Strait solo was a 16-year-old Wellington boy, H. Shearman, who paddled and sailed from Mana Island to Cape Koamaru in 1896 in a tiny craft only 12 ft long. Some of the biggest rivers in New Zealand, including the Clutha and Buller, were pioneered in recent times by G. Hutchinson travelling solo in an inflatable rubber dinghy. He is also one of the few canoeists who have crossed Cook Strait solo. Using a short canoe with auxiliary sail, he took over 24 hours on each leg of his double crossing in 1953–54 from Petone to Tory Channel and back to Mana Island.