Alexander Turnbull Library

The cup

While carbon-fibre catamarans hydrofoil around America’s Cup courses, the roots of New Zealand yachting were formed around another prize. The Lipton Cup—donated by Sir Thomas Lipton, who made no fewer than five challenges for the Auld Mug—actually stands two inches taller than the America’s Cup, and this year at least, attracted more entries. It has been the prestige annual event of the Ponsonby Cruising Club for nearly a century, held under the shadow of the Auckland Harbour Bridge. In a good year, 10 ‘mullet boats’—22-foot ballasted centreboard yachts directly descended from 19th-century fishing boats—face the starter. Even if the shores are no longer lined with spectators as they were in the 1920s, the event remains a major sporting occasion, right at the core of the city’s culture.

Written by       Photographed by Jocelyn Janon

Far from any allusions to the America’s Cup, the crew of Tamatea work frantically in a Mt Wellington backyard to prepare the boat for the much anticipated Lipton Cup race. The steel centreplate has been re-cut to a novel shape, modelled on the wing plan of a Spitfire. It was finally put back in the water just two weeks before the race, then lifted and modified again to stem a bad leak. Even skippers of competing boats donated days to ensure the boat was ready for race day.
Mullet boats leave their outboards on the dock in a bid to save weight, and instead hoist 700 square feet of sail to the power of the wind. Auspiciously, they were towed out of the dock in front of the Ponsonby Cruising Club, Westhaven, in the order they were to finish in.
Mullet boats leave their outboards on the dock in a bid to save weight, and instead hoist 700 square feet of sail to the power of the wind. Auspiciously, they were towed out of the dock in front of the Ponsonby Cruising Club, Westhaven, in the order they were to finish in.

Saturday, March 23, 2013, dawned fine and clear, with a light breeze and brilliant sunlight winking off the Waitemata. The 92nd annual race for the Lipton Cup had attracted seven entries.

Valeria was the oldest boat registered for the race, designed and built in 1913 by Arch Logan. She took part in that first race in 1922 when owned by James Dickson of Northcote, and won it, entered by the Vic­toria Cruising Club, whose flag she bore again in the 2013 race. Aboard this year was James Dickson’s son, renowned yachtsman Roy Dickson—and father of Chris Dickson, skipper of five America’s Cup chal­lengers—a testament to the Dickson yachting dynasty as well as to the genius of Logan and the merit of the mullet-boat restrictions that have kept Valeria’s hull competitive. Admittedly, she has a modern high-compression rig, alloy spars and state-of-the-art sails on her century-old hull, but these concessions to modern technology are what have kept the class flourishing and the Lipton Cup a genuine test of yachting skill.

It was evident right from the starter’s gun. Enormous mainsails bent to the breeze, and the mullet boats slipped into the incoming tide, rolling plumes of white foam peeling from their bows.

Tere Kanae won the scramble to the first mark, but Orion soon assumed the lead, followed by Valeria and Tamatea. The course traversed 21 nautical miles of the Waitemata over four hours, including some 20 mark roundings and dozens of spin­naker hoists and drops. And yet Tamatea elbowed her way to the front in the final legs, winning over Orion by just 22 seconds. Valeria, more than half a century older, was barely a minute further back. Three different boats had held the lead at various times, though the four other entrants were behind the leading three in a dying breeze.


The Lipton Cup is one of New Zealand’s oldest sporting trophies still being contested. So what has made the mullet boat such an enduring class, and so important to the foundation of New Zealand’s celebrated marine industry?

The type of fishing craft later called a mullet boat arose from the miscellaneous ‘smacks’ that were used to net the mullet that once abounded in the shallow waters of the Waitemata and the estuaries to the east, usually no further than the mouth of the Wairoa (Clevedon) River. By 1870, a style of boat was emerging, its form fitting its function. Because the Waitemata runs east-west from its mouth in the east, and the prevailing wind is westerly, the boats had to sail efficiently to windward to be able to get back home with a fresh catch in good time.

The common characteristics of this new type of smack were a shallow draught, a plumb stem and a broad transom stern (called a ‘tuck’ locally), a steel centreplate and a handy gaff sloop or cutter rig of up to 400 square feet. They were half-decked; that is to say they were open except for a fore­deck, narrow sidedecks and a short after-deck. Most boats were around 24 feet overall with a beam of seven to eight feet. They were constructed of a single skin of local timbers, usually kauri, originally on sawn frames, but from about 1890 they were built on moulds with steamed frames. The centrecase divided the mullet catch (usually a ton, or some 5000 fish) into halves. The crew of two men, and sometimes a boy, slept under the foredeck if they were out overnight. Cooking was rudimentary, usually in an old five-gallon paint tin cut down for the purpose.


Mullet boats were once called “slave ships” on account of the very manual crew work, and the occasional requirement for the skipper to use a block and tackle to handle the enormous loads on tiller. But while they remain extremely physical boats to sail—even with a crew of six—modern technology, especially winches, have made them safer and easier to handle.

The broad stern was necessary because the long mullet nets, which were about two metres deep, were put out and brought in aft. After reaching the fishing ground, one hand propelled the boat in a large arc with a pair of huge sweep oars while his mate lifted the ‘barn-door’ rudder aboard and paid the net out over the tuck. Each tide, the nets were lifted and, when a full catch of 40 dozen was aboard, a dash was made to the fish market at the foot of Queen Street. Fish merchants took the majority of the catch for retailing and for canning, but many fishermen sold their catch from the boat to the general public, a set of scales slung under the boom.

Additional refinement came about because the smacks were used for racing. Colonial Auckland was sporting and betting mad, an artefact of the colonial character. Auck­land’s Anniversary Regatta in late January each year was a magnificent spectacle and other regattas soon followed. All these regattas provided races for fishing boats, includ­ing one for “tuck-sterned, centreboard, half-decked fishing boats”. The prize money was considerable—£15 for a win was a handy amount in the 1870s, roughly equivalent to an entire catch of mullet—with the added incentive of side bets on a boat’s performance. But the betting was the major attraction for the public. All the evils inherent in gambling arose: boats ‘pulled’ by their helmsmen, others ‘nobbled’ by their competitors, fisticuffs and brawling. And so the smacks got quicker and quicker, often fitted with a complete new rig for racing.

Soon, Auckland amateur yachtsmen realised that, with a ton or so of ballast, the mullet boat not only offered cheap but exciting racing in a craft that was moulded by Auckland conditions, but also could carry five or six crew and provi­sions for a summer cruise, including legendary quantities of bottled beer.

Built by Arch Logan in 1913, Valeria is emblematic of the mullet boat design. Nearly 100 years old, she remains competitive due to class restrictions and a modern, high-compression rig. Yet the philosophy remains largely the same as when they were raced as fishing smacks in the 19th century—maximize the sail area. With a fully battened square-top mainsail and an 800-square-foot spinnaker that almost doubles the sail area downwind, they can still expect to beat most modern designs of the same length.

The landmark boat of the non-fishing type was the 24 footer Manola, built by Charles Bailey Snr in 1885, with cotton sails and wire rigging, hauled up after every race and treated like a racer. She was joined by an increasing fleet of racing half-deckers. These yachts raced alongside their working sisters, often swapping roles, the racers being sold to fishermen when their racing career faltered, and the fishing boats being bought from fishermen by amateurs and fitted with bigger rigs and cotton sails for racing. This cycle went on until the 1920s.

Little by little, the fleet of these ‘half-deckers’ grew, establishing a vital group of entry-level racing yachts for amateurs, particularly those from the working-class suburb of Ponsonby, a milieu which nurtured many great sports­men who played rugby in winter and raced yachts in summer.

The prominent mullet-boat builders were Charles Bailey Snr, James Clare, Garnaut, Perrot, Robert Reid, Jack Drum­mond and Robert Logan Snr, although every Auckland builder turned them out. The majority were 24 footers, although there were variants at 22 and 26 feet. The term ‘mullet boat’ stuck to the type, replacing ‘smack’ in common usage by about 1895. Shortly afterwards, there were clear signs that the type had a limited future as a fishing boat. The teeming mullet had been almost fished out, leaving only deeper-water species to target. The fishing industry was turning to much larger keel and centreboard yachts and oil-engined auxiliaries for line-fishing and netting; steam trawlers modelled on those used in the North Sea were about to appear.

Around the turn of the century, there was an upsurge in interest in yachting in Auckland, just as there was all over the world. Several new yacht clubs were formed: the North Shore Sailing Club in 1895, Parnell Sailing Club in 1898 and, most important of all, the Ponsonby Cruising Club in 1900. All catered specifically for the mullet-boat design. Two more strong mullet boat-oriented clubs closely followed, the Victoria Cruising Club and Richmond Cruising Club, both sited in Ponsonby bays. Ponsonby, indeed, was the hotbed of mullet-boat development, the leading exponent of which was Clare, who had his boat-building yard in St Marys Bay.

The long-established Ponsonby Regatta Committee set restrictions for the three distinct classes of mullet boat then emerging and encouraged yacht clubs to adhere to these. Scantlings, maximum beam, minimum ballast, type of construction and form of rudder (barn-door only) were restricted, but not sail area. The intention was to preserve the integrity of a type which had demonstrated its whole­someness over the preceding 30 years. Predictably, the history of the restrictions was one of controversy and pol­iticking between rival clubs, but their influence has pre­vailed in most respects to the present day.

Exciting developments in mullet-boat racing took place between 1903 and the outbreak of World War I. The con­struction of keel yachts was faltering, partly because of oversupply from a building boom in the 1890s but also, because of the rapid rise of motor launches, now increas­ingly sophisticated and reliable craft, which attracted the wealthier yachtsmen. It was confidently predicted that sail-driven yachting itself would largely die out just as the horse and gig had. But the mullet-boat fleet increased rapidly in all three classes, and two new variants appeared, the 20 and 28 footers.

Joseph Slattery and George Lepper prepare Ranee, a 24-foot mullet boat built by Slattery, off Northcote Point, over which the Auckland Harbour Bridge now crosses.

All these racing mullet boats were demanding to sail. ‘Weather helm’—the propensity of a yacht to round up into the wind—was often atrocious because of the press of canvas and because the rudder was not permitted to project below the keel. It was reasonably common to sink one while racing. Four sank in the 12 months from March 1921 alone. After the 1914–18 war, the mullet boats retained their devoted following, but the 20, 24 and 28 footers were fading away as serious racing classes. Both the 22 and 26 footers were regarded as the closest Auckland had to class racing, but there wasn’t yet a prize to match the enthusiasm of the contestants.

The Ponsonby Cruising Club appealed to the tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton for a suitable trophy. He was a grand figure in yachting at the time, having electrified America’s Cup competition from 1899 to 1930 with five challengers called Shamrock in attempts to wrest, for Britain, that most famous cup of all from the New York Yacht Club. In an attempt to appear ‘established’, members of the nascent Ponsonby club were photographed before the newly built Esplanade Hotel at the foot of Victoria Road, Devonport, and included the picture with their letter.

Lipton’s response could not have been better.

The cup he presented in 1921 was wrought by the same silversmith who had designed the America’s Cup, stood two inches higher, and was worth £250—a stag­gering sum at the time, making it by far the richest trophy in all New Zealand sport.

The first race was held in April 1922 with six entries, and has been contested every year since. It had a huge influence on the survival of the 22-foot mullet boat in preference to the other classes. Indeed, by the end of the decade, the 20s, 24s and 28s were no longer racing entities.

A new set of 22 footers were built in the 1920s but only one, Marie, built by the Lidgard brothers, challenged the pre-war boats for a while. Arch Logan designed four new boats, but Valeria—built by his own hand in 1913—was hard to beat. Even the 22- and 26-footer fleets dwindled during the Great Depression but, with the new-found prosperity of the mid-1930s, a large number of new mulletties appeared, fifteen 22 footers and four 26 footers.

High-tech Mylar sail cloths are now employed on the leading mullet boats—Orion II (above), Tamatea—replacing canvas, Terylene and even Dacron fabrics. In the classic period, spinnakers were cut flat for leading and had to be sheeted to weather of the forestay, an extraordinarily dangerous set up which led to many sinkings and some deaths. Modern double-luffed spinnakers and asymmetrical gennakers still prove a handful in a breeze, and more than half of the fleet racing today has been to the bottom of the harbour at some time.
High-tech Mylar sail cloths are now employed on the leading mullet boats—Orion II (above), Tamatea—replacing canvas, Terylene and even Dacron fabrics. In the classic period, spinnakers were cut flat for leading and had to be sheeted to weather of the forestay, an extraordinarily dangerous set up which led to many sinkings and some deaths. Modern double-luffed spinnakers and asymmetrical gennakers still prove a handful in a breeze, and more than half of the fleet racing today has been to the bottom of the harbour at some time.

Head and shoulders above the rest of these boats were those designed by Charles Collings (who had taken over Clare’s St Marys Bay yard) and built by his firm, Collings & Bell: the 22s Tamariki (1934) and Taotane (1939) and the 26 footer Corona (1936). Some of the new boats dabbled with Marconi rigs, but the successful boats were among the last Auckland hold-outs of the gaff rig, albeit high peaked and wonderfully tuned.

After World War II, the two viable classes continued where they had left off in 1939 but, gradually, the 26 footers with­ered; no new boats were built and they had vanished as a serious racing class by 1960. Since every yachtsman seemed to want his own boat in these postwar years, it was hard to find and keep a crew for these ‘slave ships’. And then, unlike the 22 footers, they did not have a trophy with the magnificence and tradition of the Lipton Cup to maintain interest in the class.

The 22 footers continued to flourish. New boats were built from 1946 onwards, but inevitably there were changes to the rig to Bermudan for efficiency and changes to the hull shape, if only subtle ones, keeping within the ambit of the restrictions. Cruising cabintops gave way in the serious racers to half-decked hulls with no cabin, reminiscent of their fish­ing-smack forbears. More than 30 new 22s have been built since 1946. Five of these were fibreglass clones of Taotane and were very successful, but most were new approaches by contemporary Auckland designers such as Martin Robertson, Bo Birdsall, Chris McMullen, Dave Jackson and Greg Elliott. Nowadays, the best of modern technology is used in the rigs, but at the other end of the spectrum, in many a backwater, among the mangroves or hauled out in a shed, there is an anonymous ‘mulletty’ still giving good service for cruising or fishing despite being over a century old. Welcome Jack, a 22 footer built in 1885, was recently seen afloat up the headwaters of the Waitemata at Beach Haven, proof that a piece of history could be quietly awaiting discovery in the very next bay.

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