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Powered water sports

by Peter Clayworth

Since New Zealander Bill Hamilton developed the jet boat in the 1950s, the country has dominated jet-boat racing. New Zealanders are also strong competitors in other powered water sports including power-boat racing and water skiing.

Power-boat racing

Power-boat origins

Motor boats powered by internal combustion engines were developed in the 1880s. They were manufactured by inventors who also worked on early motor cars. The two key factors in increasing power-boat speed were powerful propulsion systems and streamlined hull design. Power boats were used mainly for a wide range of private recreation activities, rather than competitive racing. From the 1910s the wide availability of outboard motors (which are mounted outside the hull of the boat) greatly increased the public use of motor boats.

In 1905 the newly formed New Zealand Power Boat Association, based in Auckland, had 60 members and 28 registered boats. Similar associations were formed elsewhere, sometimes affiliated to yacht clubs. While some traditionalists scorned power boats, many early power-boat enthusiasts were also yachtsmen.

Boating bet

On 30–31 January 1909 the Eliza raced the Seabird from Auckland to Russell and back, a distance of around 240 nautical miles (444 kilometres). The race was the result of a £50 wager between Henry Hopper Adams, the Eliza’s owner, and James Reid. Reid’s Seabird was first across the finish line in the inaugural Rudder Cup race, held the previous month. The Eliza, commanded by Captain Edward McLeod, won the Auckland–Russell race in 30 hours 35 minutes, at and average speed of 8 knots in very stormy weather.

The early races

From the early 1900s organised power-boat races were held in New Zealand harbours, such as at Nelson in 1903, Waitematā in 1904 and Lyttelton in 1906. Races were often associated with larger regattas involving yachting and rowing. Cups and prize money gave an added edge to competitions. The Rudder Cup for long-distance ocean races, donated by the American Rudder magazine, was first contested in December 1908. Other races were held on inland waters. Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson region became a popular venue from the early 1920s, and races were held on the Waikato River by the late 1920s. Power-boat races on harbours, lakes and rivers drew large crowds of spectators.

Cup races

The E. C. Griffith Cup is the annual Australasian Championship, open to all inboard-propeller-driven boats (where the motor is enclosed within the hull). The first race was held off Manly, New South Wales, in 1910. The Griffith Cup was won by Australians until 1949, when Len Southward, in Redhead, won it for New Zealand. Southward held the cup until 1960, when fellow New Zealander Bill Stevenson won driving Mystic Miss. Australians held the cup from 1963 to 1989. Since then the honours have been shared across the Tasman.

Len Southward, DIY champion

Len Southward, vintage-car collector and motor-sports enthusiast, was a significant figure in New Zealand power boating. He built his own speedboat, the Redhead, in 1947–48. Southward drove Redhead to victory in the Masport Cup every year from 1948 to 1958, apart from 1956. He also held the Griffith Cup from 1949 until 1960. On 22 February 1953 Southward drove Redhead to a speed of 101 miles (163 kilometres) per hour, becoming the first person in Australasia to exceed 100 miles (161 kilometres) per hour on the water.

The A. E. Baker Cup, contested since 1965, is an Australasian trophy for hydroplanes – boats designed to skim over the water’s surface. Australian boats originally dominated this competition, but from 2001 to 2012 the Baker Cup was won by New Zealand boats.

The Masport Cup is the principal New Zealand championship race event for power boats. It began in 1925, when the cup was donated by Mason and Porter (Masport) Limited.

In the early 21st century races for the Griffith, Baker and Masport cups were held on inland waters, such as Lake Karāpiro in Waikato.

Offshore racing

Organised offshore power-boat racing had its New Zealand debut in 1964, with a 100-mile (161-kilometre) race on Auckland Harbour. From the 1970s these races became the domain of specially designed offshore power boats, often powered by outboard motors. As of 2013, the New Zealand Offshore Powerboat Racing Association held a New Zealand championship consisting of a series of offshore races around the North Island. Most were at sea, but one set of races was held on Lake Taupō.

Thundercat racing

Thundercat racing involves tunnel-hulled inflatable boats with outboard motors. There are four types of thundercat racing.

  • Surf-cross is held at surf beaches in shallow water near the shoreline. Boats race several laps of a rectangular course which runs parallel to the shore.
  • Speed circuit is raced on flat water such as lakes, on a course marked by buoys.
  • Long haul is long-distance racing on rivers, lakes, or along the coast. These races can cover 100–200 kilometres.
  • Surf haul was devised in New Zealand in 2004. Races usually involve two legs of 60 kilometres in each direction, with boats remaining within 200 metres of the shoreline.

Jet-propelled water sports

Jet boats and competitive sport

New Zealander Bill Hamilton developed the first practical shallow-water jet boat in the 1950s. Jet boats are propelled by a jet of water thrust from the back of the boat, rather than by a propeller. From the beginning jet boats were used more for private recreation than competitive sport. New Zealanders pioneered using jet boats for thrill-seeking tourist trips on wild rivers such as the Kawarau, Dart and Shotover.

In 1956 Hamilton entered one of his boats in an 80-kilometre race on the Waikato River, from Mercer to Hamilton. From the 1960s jet boaters began holding races and rallies. Rallies tested a range of skills, including negotiating slalom courses, boat manoeuvring tests, first-aid techniques and speed trials.

Marathons are races over several days, either on one river, or on a number of rivers and lakes. The first New Zealand jet-boat marathon, held in May 1970, was a three-day event on the Waikato River, Lake Taupō and the Whanganui River. Races and marathons continue to be held on North and South Island rivers, with the nature of each river testing different sets of drivers’ skills.

Airborne jet boat

New Zealand driver Mark Cromie describes a crash during the 2012 World Jet Boat Championship on the Clearwater River in Idaho, US: ‘We just hit a green wave that was bloody high, launched [the boat] airborne about 30 feet and landed in the next wave. Believe it or not the motor didn’t stop.’1 Cromie and his navigator Richard Maunder were uninjured, but their boat The General was too damaged to continue racing.

In 1978 the first world jet-boat rally, held in Canada, was won by New Zealander Reg Benton. The world jet-boat rally is held annually, alternating between rivers in Canada, Mexico, the United States and New Zealand. In the early years of competition New Zealand boats dominated. By the 21st century the honours became more evenly shared between New Zealand and Canada, while a US boat won in 2012.

Jet sprinting

The sport of jet sprinting originated in New Zealand during the early 1980s. Jet boats, each with a driver and a navigator, raced around a designated course in a section of braided river. In Australia, which doesn’t have braided rivers like New Zealand’s, specifically designed shallow water tracks were dug for a race course. This system has since been adopted in New Zealand. Jet sprinting now regularly takes place on tracks at Meremere, Gisborne, Hastings, Whanganui, Featherston and Timaru.

Jet-ski racing

Jet skis or personal watercraft are craft that are ridden or stood on, and are usually designed to carry two or three people at most. Racing can be on a closed or short course, where riders race around a buoyed course. These can be set up in flat water or in areas of surf. There are also endurance races, sometimes covering distances of more than 150 kilometres. The Jet Ski Nationals, a series of closed-course races, are held annually.

World championship jet sprint races have been held since 1988. In the early years most competitors were New Zealanders, but by the mid-1990s more Australian and US boats became involved. The sport continues to be dominated by New Zealanders, with drivers such as Rodney Pohio, Peter Briant and Peter Caughey winning many local and international competitions. In 2012 New Zealanders Leighton and Kellie Minnell won the World Superboat Jet Sprint category, while fellow Kiwis Reg and Julie Smith took the World Jet Sprint Group A title.

    • ‘Crash sets back jet boat races, but boats back on Clearwater today.’ The Spokesman Review, (last accessed 11 January 2013.) Back

Water skiing

Water skiing, invented in the United States in the early 1920s, was adopted in New Zealand by the late 1920s. Most water skiing is recreational, but there are a number of types of competitive skiing.

Water-skiing competitions

Water-skiing competitions consist of three events:

  • Slaloms, where skiers pass through a course with a gate at each end and turn around all of six turn buoys. The skiers start at their own chosen speed and rope length. After each pass through the course the boat speed is increased by 3 kilometres per hour, up to 55 kilometres per hour for women and 58 kilometres per hour for men. The rope length is also shortened with each pass. Points are scored for each successful pass.
  • Tricks, where skiers perform a series of flips and spins. These are carried out over two 20-second passes. Maximum points are scored by blending speed, agility and trick difficulty.
  • The jump, where the skier gets three attempts to jump as far as possible from a ski ramp.

New Zealand sends a water-ski team to the Asian Australasian and Oceania Waterski Championships, which are held every two years.

Barefoot skiing

Barefoot skiing is done without the use of skis. To hold the skier upright boats travel at higher speeds than for conventional water skiing. Barefoot competitions consist of slaloms, tricks and jumps, as in standard water-skiing competitions. At the 2012 World Barefoot Championships in Texas 16-year-old New Zealander Georgia Groen became world champion at women’s tricks and won a silver medal in the jump.

Water-ski drag racing

In water-ski drag racing skiers race on a single ski designed for high speeds. Water-ski drag racing is a minor sport in New Zealand, but is very popular in Australia and the US. Boats may tow a single skier each, while in a ‘two up’ each boat tows two skiers. Races may be on rivers, lakes or in the ocean. Circuit races involve laps, while river races usually go between particular points and then back again. In New Zealand the most significant race is the annual Bridge to Bridge Water Ski Classic, which has been held on the Waikato River since 1984.


In wakeboarding the rider stands on a wakeboard, a very short broad waterski, while being towed by a power boat. The rider uses the wake created by the power boat as a ramp for jumps and aerial tricks. In competitions wakeboarders are awarded points according to the skills and the degree of difficulty involved in their tricks.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Peter Clayworth, 'Powered water sports', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 March 2024)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 5 September 2013