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.
In New Zealand, as elsewhere, there was initially a strong distinction between yachts and sailing-boats.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite the long economic depression in the 1880s, yachting became an important sport in the four main ports: Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton and Dunedin. It also appeared in provincial ports such as Nelson and Whangārei.
From the 1870s, regattas and clubs promoted yacht and open sailing-boat racing. The Ponsonby Regatta Committee was set up in 1879, and there were proper yacht clubs in the English and American model, such as the Auckland Yachting Club (1871) and Wellington’s Port Nicholson Yacht Club (1882). Match racing set boat against boat for wagers, or among several for sweepstakes. This fostered racing for both participants and spectators. Increasingly the participants were middle-class youth rather than Māori and European watermen.
Many large keel yachts were built, while the open sailing-boat classes reached a peak of development. Sporting yachtsmen began ordering mullet boats built for racing, to a finish of yacht quality. When they were past their peak there were ready buyers for them in the fishing industry. There was a large interest for some years, too, in the worldwide craze for the clinker-built (with overlapping external planks), wood-decked Rob Roy sailing canoe.
Specialist yacht builders set up in business, especially in Auckland. It had a generally good climate for the sport, and cruising grounds for the bigger boats in the Hauraki Gulf and along the Northland and Coromandel coasts. As the centre of the timber industry and the Pacific Islands trade, the city had chandlers (equipment suppliers), sail makers, riggers and other necessary businesses.
In 1988, 100 years after it was built, the Akarana was restored by the New Zealand government and presented back to the Australian people to mark their bicentenary of European settlement.
The native kauri is a light, strong timber, exceptionally resistant to rotting in sea water. Many kauri yachts built before 1900 are still in good condition. New Zealand boat builders began using a multiple diagonal-skinned, frameless construction, introduced by Robert Logan. Most of the hull was kauri, making for a strong, durable structure.
New Zealand builders continued to turn out safer and more usable craft than the British, whose rules led to yachts so deep and narrow as to be difficult to sail.
Yacht building was also stimulated by the export of boats across the Tasman. The first export, Thomas Niccol’s Secret, was sailed to Australia in 1875. The success of Robert Logan’s Akarana (1888) brought prestige and pride to New Zealand boat builders. By the 1880s the family firms of Logans and Baileys had begun a long and productive rivalry.
As the economic depression started to ease in the early 1890s, New Zealand yachtsmen ordered yachts known as raters, built to new overseas racing rules. They were keen to have the same type, even though truly international competition was unlikely.
From 1892 until 1905 there was a golden age of keel-yacht building in Auckland – mainly the international 2½-raters, about 35 feet (10.7 metres) in deck length, and 5-raters.
The two principal builders were the Logan and Bailey families. Robert Logan and Charles Bailey both worked with their sons. The rivalry between the family businesses was intense, and racing improved the yachts. Each season, both produced new 2½- and 5-raters that engaged in fierce competition and caught the public’s imagination.
By the mid-1890s Australian yachtsmen, who came to Auckland to purchase second-hand raters, were commissioning new yachts from Logans and Baileys. Within a few years New Zealand’s yachts dominated keel-yacht racing in Sydney, just as its racehorses were beginning to shine in Australian thoroughbred racing.
Auckland’s first yacht race open to competitors from outside New Zealand was in the summer of 1898–99, at the North Shore Native Regatta and Aquatic Carnival. The event featured races by waka taua (Māori war canoes) and an ‘intercolonial championship yacht race’. Only two Australian boats entered, and the races were marred by the weather – there was no wind for the first two and a screaming northerly for the third.
The large number of raters and similar yachts built from 1890 to 1913 remained the major yachts in Auckland and other ports, especially Wellington, for another 40 years. The majority still survive because of their strong multiple-skin construction, the lasting qualities of kauri timber, and the love and care lavished on them by their owners. These boats are the core of the fleet maintained by the Classic Yacht Association.
A smaller craft was the pātiki (meaning ‘flounder’ in Māori). These small unballasted centreboarders were fast, with hulls that could plane. They became very popular in Napier. Other open sailing-boat types dwindled to New Zealand classes of 16-foot, 14-foot and 10-foot dinghies. They were raced at the Sumner estuary near Christchurch, and at Dunedin, while Wellington had active dinghy sailing, venturing into square-bilge designs by 1900.
By the 1890s there were yacht clubs in Auckland, Onehunga, Wellington, Nelson, the Christchurch estuary, Lyttelton, Dunedin and Invercargill. They organised racing outside the regatta days. From 1900 the number of clubs increased, especially in Auckland. Apart from a brief period of New Zealand championships (1892–96), yachting remained largely a local sport.
The one threat to the rise of yachting was the motorised launch. The first internal combustion engines were hard to start, heavy and unreliable, and used fuel that was a fire risk. But by 1905 only the last problem remained. While yachting had always been restricted to men, families increasingly took part in recreational boating.
A number of builders switched their energies to the new motorised craft. Yachties, however, dismissed them as ‘stinkboats’, and yachting quickly recovered its confidence.
Between the first and second world wars yachting progressed at a remarkable rate.
Many more people participated thanks to a series of small centreboard classes that provided fast and exciting competitive sailing at a reasonable cost. All were built locally, although some were influenced by overseas designs.
Perhaps the most significant factor in the nationwide yachting fever was the introduction of an unballasted 14-foot open boat, a centreboard dinghy, with a restricted design. Promoted by New Zealand Yachtsman magazine in 1916, it was taken up by wealthy patrons.
In 1920 the yachtsman Lord Jellicoe, naval hero of the First World War Battle of Jutland, arrived in New Zealand as governor-general. He had a boat, Iron Duke, built to the design, and took a great interest in the class. The response around the country was phenomenal.
Dunedin yachtsmen challenged Lord Jellicoe to a race in Auckland, and a trophy was donated – the Sanders Cup. It was named after an Aucklander, Lieutenant Commander W. E. Sanders VC, who died heroically during the First World War.
After the Otago boat Heather won the first challenge in 1921, the cup became one of the foremost sporting trophies and a focus of yachting activity, especially outside Auckland. In the 1920s and 1930s, Canterbury tended to dominate. These boats were known in Auckland as X-class.
Before 1914 it was believed that any yacht could be recognised by ‘the cut of its jib’. The Auckland Yacht and Motor Boat Association, formed in 1913, pushed for a system of registration. At first, yachts were given permanent sail numbers in blue bunting. But as the number of yachts rose, the system changed in 1921 to letters: from A-class for keel yachts to Z-class for Takapuna dinghies. O was for ‘Odds and sods’.
Another local class that became national was the 12-foot 6-inch, square-bilge Takapuna class (in Auckland, the Z-class). This became very important in youth training as the major competition, the Cornwell Cup, was exclusively for boys or girls under 19. It was the fastest crew, rather than individuals, who won the cup.
The 7-foot Tauranga (in Auckland, the P-class) was developed by Harry Highet in Whangārei in 1920, and became popular in Tauranga. This safe little boat served as a trainer for thousands of children, and is still a viable class. Its popularity was bolstered by national competition for the Tanner Cup.
Other centreboard classes that achieved some national following included:
It is said that 100,000 spectators watched the 1939 Giltinan Trophy competition. Many new yachting clubs appeared, including at least 10 in Auckland, where the Westhaven seawall provided safe mooring, and four in Wellington. Others sprang up from Whangārei to Dunedin.
From the mid-1920s a few new keel yachts were built. Ten years later, as New Zealand recovered from the economic depression, the numbers surged. Many fine yachts were designed by Arch Logan and built by Colin Wild and Arnold (Bill) Couldrey.
In 1938, the ultramodern yacht Ranger ended the long reign of the Logans’ Ariki (1905). It was to dominate Auckland’s first-class fleet until the 1970s. Ranger was built by the Tercel brothers, of Dalmatian working-class background.
Overseas yachtsmen visited frequently, fostering a passion for offshore sailing. Casual challenges from these circumnavigators resulted in a series of ad hoc trans-Tasman races which, after 1945, developed into regular events.
After the Second World War, as prosperity and leisure time increased, New Zealand yachting boomed as a participant sport.
At the lower level, the centreboard classes blossomed. For a while pre-war designs like the Idle Along, the Silver Fern and the Zeddie (Z-class) remained popular. In Auckland, the glamour classes were the racing 18-footers, the V- and M-classes.
Once shunned, overseas designs – particularly those of Uffa Fox in Britain – began to gain popularity. The first to catch on was the International-14. An English example of a deep-chested planing hull, it triggered a revolution in the unrestricted classes, especially the 12-foot Pennant class in Auckland, the 12-foot 9-inch R-Class in Canterbury and the 18-foot V-Class in Auckland. The Moth class also eventually attracted a large following.
Plywood, and glues developed during the war, transformed construction. Leading the change was the fast 12-foot Pennant-class Cherub, from maverick Auckland designer-builder John Spencer. The plywood craft could be built cheaply and quickly by talented schoolboys. Soon it had its own class. This was the death knell for the heavier New Zealand centreboard classes of the previous 35 years.
The new techniques spread to the 18-footers, and soon these lightly built and lightly crewed yachts were sweeping the field in the V-class.
It was the age of the do-it-yourself yacht builder. The most popular craft were the 7-foot plywood P-class dinghies, on which thousands of youngsters learned the art of sailing. In Auckland these new light boats were the plaything of people in the suburbs, leaving the Westhaven marina to the larger keel yachts.
Appearing in the 1960s, the safe, easily rigged and inexpensive trailer-sailer could be towed to lakes or harbours. With bunks and air-mattresses in the cockpit, it enabled a family holiday.
In the 1970s ferro-cement, then fibreglass, were used to build speedy boats – from Lasers and Sunbursts to multi-hull catamarans. Crews began to use trapezes to get their weight further out from the side of the boat.
In a 2001 survey, 50,000 adult New Zealanders had sailed in the previous month, and 150,000 in the previous year – about the same numbers as had played rugby. 70% of the regulars were male, and 60% lived in the greater Auckland region. In 2005 there were 125 clubs, with 30,000 members.
By the 1990s, the do-it-yourself sailing tradition was dying. Busy city dwellers were learning on comfortable, expensive keelers rather than in the P-class. Advances in sails and in equipment, such as powerful winches, opened the way to smaller crews and family sailing. More women took part in yachting, but increasingly it also became the domain of the well-off.
New keelers in a range of modern designs overtook the fine old Logan and Bailey yachts. A prominent local designer was Bob Stewart, while Arthur C. Robb from Auckland’s North Shore had become successful in England.
Increasingly keelers were designed for offshore racing and cruising in local waters, or in the Pacific or even further afield. The Hauraki Gulf, Bay of Islands and Marlborough Sounds became favourite cruising grounds.
In 1952 a New Zealand Yachting Federation (now Yachting New Zealand) was formed to administer the national classes and prepare for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, at which Cantabrians Peter Mander and Jack Cropp won a gold medal in the Sharpie class.
Eighteen months later, Geoff Smale and Ralph Roberts won the Prince of Wales Cup in the International 14 class at Cowes, England.
In 1964 New Zealand won a second Olympic gold medal when Helmer Pedersen and Earle Wells won the Flying Dutchman class at Tokyo.
Subsequent Olympic golds have been won by Rex Sellers and Chris Timms (Tornado) and Russell Coutts (Finn), both at Los Angeles in 1984; by Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie (470 Women) at London in 2012; and by Peter Burling and Blair Tuke (Men's 49er) at Rio in 2016.
The outlook of New Zealand yachtsmen and designers became increasingly international and eclectic from the 1950s. Nouméa, Suva, trans-Tasman and coastwise races such as the Labour Weekend Coastal Classic from Auckland to the Bay of Islands tested keel yachts and their crews to the limit.
There were some tragedies; yachts disappeared, foundered through whale strikes, or piled ashore in terrible weather. In the 1951 race from Wellington to Lyttelton, 10 people lost their lives. But there was rapid improvement in standards of design and construction of boats and their gear, in safety standards and in seamanship.
Three Kiwi yachts entered the 1967–68 Southern Cross Cup competition, which included the Sydney–Hobart race. Chris Bouzaid’s entry, Rainbow II, won the classic ocean race and came second overall.
In 1968 Rainbow II was shipped to Germany for the One Ton Cup, and gained second place. In 1969 it won the event. New Zealand was emerging as a major force in world yachting.
New Zealanders heard about the success of Chris Bouzaid’s team in the One Ton Cup on 21 July 1969 – the same day that the first moon landing was broadcast. Some New Zealanders glued to the radio were unsure which was the more important achievement.
Young designers experienced in the centreboard classes began designing keel yachts of an international standard. Prominent among them were Laurie Davidson, John Spencer, Ron Given, Alan Warwick, Jim Young, Hal Wagstaff, Alan Wright, John Lidgard and Des Townson.
In 1979 the government introduced a 20% tax on boats. As boats built for export were exempt from the tax, some entrepreneurs developed this market. Expertise in infrastructure, design and materials, and unrivalled standards of workmanship, took New Zealand yachts to the cutting edge. These new designers included Bruce Farr, Ron Holland, Paul Whiting and Greg Elliott.
International success turned amateur yachties into professionals. Kiwi men and women worked internationally, crewing in high-profile events, including the Whitbread Round the World race. With the rise of sponsorship, boats displayed corporate names and logos.
In 1980 Ceramco New Zealand won line and handicap honours in the Sydney–Hobart race. Designed by Bruce Farr, the yacht was skippered by Peter Blake. In the 1981–82 Whitbread race, Ceramco broke its mast in the South Atlantic while in contention for line honours. The team flew a new mast to Cape Town and the yacht completed the race.
Blake’s subsequent career as both an offshore yachtsman and ambassador for the sport was outstanding. His multihull Steinlager 1 won the round-Australia race in 1988, and Enza won the Jules Verne trophy for a world circumnavigation in 1994. Blake won the 1988–89 Whitbread in Steinlager 2, while Grant Dalton won it in 1994 in New Zealand Endeavour.
New Zealand’s advances in design, construction and seamanship led to the next step: a challenge for the America’s Cup.
The America’s Cup is the world’s premier yachting trophy. In 1983 Australia II made the first successful challenge to US dominance since the cup was won by the schooner America in 1851. Some nautical New Zealanders sensed an opportunity to take it from the Australians.
Preparing for the competition involved many top sailors, designers and builders, raised public awareness and enthusiasm, and put New Zealand’s yachting prowess in the international spotlight for many years.
New Zealand’s first challenge in 1987 was mounted by a group led by merchant banker Michael Fay at Fremantle, Western Australia. The radical fibreglass yacht, New Zealand, did well in the preliminaries but was beaten in the finals of the Louis Vuitton challenger series by the US Stars and Stripes. Sailed by the inimitable Dennis Conner, Stars and Stripes went on to take the cup back to America.
In 1988 another challenge was fought out in San Diego by two freakish boats – New Zealand’s enormous KZ1 and an equally inappropriate catamaran helmed by Conner. The ensuing court battles served only to forge agreement that an appropriate class of yacht should be used in the future.
The 1992 challenge in San Diego resulted in a narrow defeat of the New Zealand boat NZL20 by the Italians in the challenger finals, and the cup remained in the US.
In 1995 there were two Kiwi boats at San Diego, Chris Dickson’s NZL39 and Black Magic, skippered by Russell Coutts for Team New Zealand led by Peter Blake. Black Magic lost only one of 43 races, led round all 30 marks in the finals series, and trounced Dennis Conner's Young America 5–0.
During the 1995 finals of the America’s Cup in San Diego, syndicate leader Peter Blake wore red socks which he believed brought good luck. Caught up in the enthusiasm of the finals series, many New Zealanders donned red socks.
By the turn of the century the radio yachting reporter, Pete Montgomery, was a household name, and the base for the teams at Auckland’s Viaduct Basin proved a major attraction.
The defence of the cup in Auckland in 2000 was a clean-sweep victory for Russell Coutts and NZL60. The key team members then split up very publicly so that, for the second defence in 2003, the spark had gone out of Team New Zealand.
Team New Zealand’s defender had serious structural problems and the Swiss Alinghi, which was skippered by Coutts, took the cup.
In 2007 Team New Zealand again competed for the America’s Cup. The team won the challengers’ Louis Vuitton Cup but was defeated by Alinghi in the finals, 5–2. It was a very close contest, with the last race lost by just one second.
In 2010 Larry Ellison’s BMW Oracle racing team lodged a deed-of-gift challenge to the Alinghi syndicate and defeated Alinghi in a best-of-three series. The Oracle team chose to sail the 2013 cup in San Francisco Bay in revolutionary and very fast catamarans. Emirates Team New Zealand’s boat Aotearoa, skippered by Dean Barker, easily won the Louis Vuitton challenger series. The New Zealand team were leading Oracle 8–1 and on the brink of victory before Oracle, with radical changes to their boat and improved crew work, came storming back to win the next eight races and retain the cup 9–8. Many of the sophisticated components on both boats had been made in New Zealand.
Oracle defended the America’s Cup on Bermuda’s Great Sound in 2017, racing smaller catamarans with six-man crews. These were able to foil continuously (keep their hulls out of the water at all times) and attained freakish speeds. Aided by innovative ‘cyclors’, who replaced traditional grinders as the source of power for trimming the sails and other manoeuvres, New Zealand – helmed by Rio Olympic champion yachtsman Peter Burling – comfortably won the Louis Vuitton Cup before trouncing Oracle 7–1 to regain the Auld Mug.
With Peter Burling again at the helm, Emirates Team New Zealand successfully defended the trophy in 2021 in Auckland, winning the America’s Cup series against Italy’s Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli 7–3. The crews sailed spectacular 75-foot foiling monohulls which exceeded 50 knots (93 km/hr) in favourable conditions.
Windsurfing (also known as boardsailing) became possible with the advent of new materials in the 1940s. The sport was born in Pacific Palisades, California, where a group of sailors, surfers and skiers sought to devise a craft combining the best elements of all three sports.
In 1969 Hoyle Schweitzer and Jim Drake succeeded. The hull was a plastic shell filled with polyurethane foam. A fibreglass mast and sail was joined to the board with a pivot that could move in any direction. The rider steered by tilting the mast and sail rather than by using a rudder as on a boat.
The first windsurfers arrived in this country in 1973, and in the summer of 1974–75 John Bangers produced the first New Zealand board. The New Zealand Boardsailing Association was set up in 1980 and organised races. The sport became more popular with the development of short boards which could cope with bigger waves.
From the 1980s New Zealanders began to make their mark:
As with boat sailing, the international success of New Zealand windsurfers kindled further interest in the sport.
Windsurfing is a minority sport, with only 300 club members in the early 2000s, but it attracts enthusiastic devotees. They are to be found in harbours (especially Auckland and Wellington), on lakes such as Wakatipu and Wanaka, or on the coast in Bay of Plenty and Taranaki. The premier event is the slalom nationals, which is hosted by a different centre each summer.
Some participants focus on going fast – up to 45 knots – while others are interested in freestyle acrobatics. In 2018 there were eight windsurfing clubs and associations, and about 50 retailers catering for the sport.
Anderson, Grahame. Fast light boats: a century of Kiwi innovation. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 1999.
Elliott, Robin, and Harold Kidd. The Logans: New Zealand’s greatest boatbuilding family. Auckland: David Ling, 2001.
Endean, Bill. Classic New Zealand yachts: four decades of successful design, 1950–90. Wellington: GP Publications, 1992.
Johnson, David. New Zealand’s maritime heritage. Auckland: Collins Bateman in association with David, 1987.
Kidd, Harold, and others. A southern breeze: a history of yachting in New Zealand. Auckland: Viking, 1999.