Story: Canoeing and rafting

Page 2. Canoe clubs and competitions, 1920s–1960s

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More canoe clubs

Another canoe club was formed on the North Shore of Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour in 1926, and around 1930 the Rover Canoe Club, based in Hamilton, began exploring the reaches of the Waikato River. Rob Roy and Canadian canoes were used alongside home-built craft, including ‘tin cans’ made of corrugated iron.

These clubs went into recess after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, but many more were set up from the late 1940s. In 1950 the New Zealand Canoe Association (forerunner of the New Zealand Recreational Canoeing Association) was founded.

Wartime influences

During the Second World War, the armed forces used folding frame kayaks made of plywood and covered with rubber fabric. After the war, folding canoes, both imported and home-made, became popular. The Foldcraft Company was the first local manufacturer, from 1962.

Surplus air force inflatable rubber dinghies proved versatile after the war. They floated over rocks and logs and were used to survey rivers unsuitable for canoes, such as the Clutha (1948) and the Buller (1952). They were also used to explore the treacherous Mōtū River in the Bay of Plenty. Although the Mōtū had been tackled in wooden boats in 1920 and 1935, it was truly conquered by rubber rafts in the 1950s. The sport of rafting had arrived, but faded temporarily as the dinghies wore out in the later 1950s.

Running the rapids

A pioneer raftsman recalls running a Mōkau River rapid in 1951: ‘Three bedraggled volunteers crouched quivering in the stern. The photographic vultures hovered eagerly over their prey. “They’re off!” The boat tipped stern foremost over the first rock fall. She swept towards the fall. “Turn her round!” But there was no chance now, the crew were too busy hanging on. Still stern first, she entered the foaming race, took the turn at the bottom, dropped over the narrow fall, boat and crew disappeared in the mass of foam, to pop up and relax in the mirror-like pool below.’ 1


Some of the post-war canoeing clubs focused on exploring rivers, but others were interested in competition. The first national championships were held in 1955. Flat river racing took place on the Whanganui River at Aramoho, and there were slalom events in the Manawatū Gorge. Competition influenced canoe design, as people realised that the performance of home-designed craft was too variable. Local canoe builders began to copy the designs of veneer and fibreglass racing canoes that had been imported.

In 1965 the first canoe race down the Whanganui River from Taumarunui was held. Involving 224 rapids and overnight camping, it was compared to Britain’s famous Devizes to Westminster distance race. Contests between New Zealand and Australia began the following year.

  1. ‘Frolics on the Mokau’, White Water: Canoeing in New Zealand 1, no. 3 (1954–1955): 3–4. › Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Canoeing and rafting - Canoe clubs and competitions, 1920s–1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Sep 2007, updated 18 Jul 2016