Story: Sailing and windsurfing

Page 1. The early years

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The sport of yachting had its origins on the River Thames in 18th-century England, where it had royal patronage. It did not become widespread until the second half of the 19th century.

Yachts and sailing-boats

In New Zealand, as elsewhere, there was initially a strong distinction between yachts and sailing-boats.

  • Yachts were decked craft, and therefore quite large, with a little accommodation below. They were built for and raced by the wealthy.
  • Sailing-boats were undecked, open craft, built by or for the working man and generally under 8 metres long.

There was, at first, an element of social-class distinction in the two types of sailing.


Sailing for sport had its origins in New Zealand in the period of colonisation, after 1840. Contact between coastal settlements largely depended on sailing-boats, and small open craft were vital to the working of the ports.

Every major port began to hold an annual regatta, usually on the anniversary of its founding. There were races for local trading vessels and for open sailing-boats. They were patronised by the fishermen and boatmen of the port, including a large number of Māori at first, especially in the North Island.

By the 1870s the regattas were highly organised, with sizeable prize money. They were popular, and many people would place bets. Sailing became a spectator sport.

Peach boats

The open sailing-boats which played a big part in early Auckland anniversary regattas were called peach boats. They were used by Māori to bring peaches, vegetables and other produce from the Hauraki Gulf to Auckland.

The first yachts

During the 1870s, as regattas became more popular, the first yachts appeared. They were built exclusively for racing. Open sailing-boats also raced, and were built in various classes based on overall length. Recreational cruising began, especially around the islands of the Hauraki Gulf.

Mullet boats

In these years a new type of fishing smack, the mullet boat, was emerging in Auckland. The main use was in netting mullet in the shallow Thames estuary, south-east of the city.

They were half-decked boats about 24 feet (7.3 metres) long, with a centreboard. This prevented lateral motion, allowed the yacht to sail upwind, and provided stability. There was a broad transom stern over which to work the net. Crewed by two men, they were rigged to sail fast back to Auckland - despite the prevailing westerlies - to get their catch of about a ton of fish to the waterfront markets without spoiling.

In time the mullet boats were refined to become fast and weatherly (able to sail into the wind), ideal for competition in the Hauraki Gulf. By 1900 they were being built exclusively for racing. Until the Second World War they were a prominent part of the racing fleet, with their strongest base in Auckland’s working-class suburb of Ponsonby. A small number still race with the Ponsonby Cruising Club.

How to cite this page:

Harold Kidd, 'Sailing and windsurfing - The early years', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Harold Kidd, published 12 Jun 2006, updated 1 Jun 2016