Pt 1.35: Growing the silver fern; NZ dinghy sailing to 1950


14 Footers race along Wellington’s waterfront. To the left is one of the one-design X Class; in the centre what seems to be one of the little known but influential local 14 foot restricted class hard chine boats, sometimes known as “flatties” or “scows” despite their conventional bow. To the right is a boat sailed by one of the Wagstaff family. Hal Wagstaff, in typical NZ style, grew up to became a successful yacht designer. From the New Zealand Maritime Museum

New Zealand is perhaps the only country that has a book that really covers a nation’s dinghy sailing history.  “Southern Breeze; a history of yachting in New Zealand” was written by Robin Elliott and Harold Kidd, who probably rate as the world’s best sailing historians. I’ve relied a fair bit on Southern Breeze for this post, as well as the work of Gavin Pascoe of and Alan Houghton of Waitemata Woodies.

If it seems like I’ve given NZ’s early dinghy history little attention, it’s not because I don’t believe it’s worthy of note – it’s just that going into further detail would end up just echoing or leaning on the work of people like Elliott and Kidd. For more information on NZ sailing, go buy their books!


Size for size, sailor for sailor, probably no country has had the same impact on our sport as New Zealand.  At the dawn of organised New Zealand small boat sailing in the 1880s, the colony – for such it was at the time – had a population of only 500,000 people and a depressed economy. Even as late as the 1930s, the population was just 1.5 million – roughly as many as Detroit, Hamburg and half that of Greater Manchester. But despite this scarce populace, scattered across two islands, New Zealand was already growing the roots of a sailing culture that was to lead the world in the 21st century.

The pioneering spirit, small population and isolation meant that the typical New Zealander had to become a thrifty do-it-yourselfer; the sort of person who would design and build their own boat rather than call in a professional. The country was also fiercely egalitarian and socially progressive; it was the first nation in the world to give women the vote (although for some reason there does not seem to have been a strong tradition of sailing women) and one of the first to provide an aged pension.

New Zealanders imported some sailing canoes from England and built their own versions, but after a brief period of popularity they seem to have been replaced by dinghies. Perhaps New Zealand’s cruising grounds were too rought for canoes? Photo – “Rob Roy canoes in Pelorus Sound” by Arthur Thomas Bothamley. Goodman, S C (Mr), fl 1975 :Photograph albums and loose prints. Ref: 1/2-062578-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Sailors seem to have recognised that the sport could not thrive in such a climate if it appealed only to the wealthy. Perhaps even the way they applied the term “yacht” to 7 footers as well as 60 footers showed the egalitarian attitude. “Not for us the attitude; ‘If you consider the cost you can’t afford to be a yachtsman” wrote Peter Mander, NZ sailing’s first Olympic gold medallist and a man who, like many middle-class professionals, built his own boats. An attitude like that seems to have led to features like an emphasis on boats that the typical person could afford to build and race, regional support for the top sailors, and the widespread use of golf-style arbitrary handicapping to ensure that even the less competent sailors and those with older boats or those not built to the edges of the loose class rules felt that they still had a chance to win.

Despite the home-builder emphasis, New Zealand was the home of some outstanding professional boatbuilder/designers who optimised the superbly durable and light local timbers and exported boats across the globe. Led by the Logan and Bailey families, they proved that they could out-design the products of men like Fife and Watson. Later generations of professional New Zealand designers like Bruce Farr, Russell Bowler and Laurie Davidson, almost all from the local development dinghy classes, were to go on to reshape yacht design at the end of the 20th century.

As in other countries, New Zealand classes were divided along geographical lines. In the north of the country around Auckland were warmer, well protected waters, world-class cruising grounds and moderate winds that encouraged cruiser/racers and development classes with big rigs. Down south, in places like the famously windy capital city of Wellington and the cities of the South Island, dinghies often faced higher winds and colder and more restricted waters that favoured boats with more conservative dimensions. It often lead to a split between the classes sailed in Auckland and those sailed in the other regions and cities.

As Kidd and Elliott explain, the first major type of centreboarder to race in New Zealand was the “open boats”, which their peak during the early to mid 1880s. They were at their strongest in Auckland, where for some time during the decade they were divided into three classes by overall length; up to 13ft, up to 16ft, and up to 20ft. They normally seem to have been fairly conservative boats with low-aspect rigs and the graceful wineglass stern of a typical oar-and-sail boat.

Open Boat to cut
Open Boats, cropped from a montage in New Zealand Graphic 4 July 1903. The caption refers to them as “a once popular style”, indicating that they had faded out of popularity. This shot shows their low-aspect lug rigs and slim lines. A portion of NZG-19030704-28-1 from the Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

There are few photographs of the open boats. Southern Breezes includes a couple of shots, but we can also get a feel for their design by looking at the famously successful 25 footer Pet, created by Charles Bailey Snr in 1877. Boats like Pet were not beamy over-rigged craft like the sandbaggers or the Sydney open boats; Pet for example was a moderate 7ft5in wide. Her lines, which can be seen at the Wellington Classic Yacht blog, show a deeply Veed hull with a high wineglass stern. She had 1500 cwt of sliding ballast, and a “ram bow”, designed to get around the system of measuring boats by their length on deck. Pet was later modified by being half-decked and fitted with a yacht-style counter stern, and it is in this form that she can be seen in the photograph below.

Like their great boatbuilding rivals the Logans and many other New Zealanders, Charles Bailey Snr was of Scottish extraction. To me, in details like her shifting ballast, general proportions and lines and the drag to the keel (ie the way it deepens aft) Pet may show hints of a connection with the long-keel open racing boats that had been developed in Scotland since the mid 1800s.

Pet pic
Pet after her conversion from a transom-sterned open centreboarder into a yacht. From “Progress”, Vol VI, Issue 6, 1 April 1911 through Papers Past


The American catboat/sandbagger type had a strong influence on New Zealand’s dinghies, as it did in every major sailing country. The odd thing is that in New Zealand, the type arrived many years after it changed the face of boats in Canada, France, Germany, Australia and (to a lesser extent) Britain. It wasn’t that the New Zealanders were anti-American; they happily adopted the US leeboard scow schooner as the inspiration for their own trading scows which formed the backbone of the coastal trading fleet. But for reasons unknown they don’t seem to have been influenced by catboats until 1897, when two American cargo ships were caught in a severe gale off the NZ coast. Both captains called it the worst storm they had ever experienced; “nothing but white seething foam as far as could be seen” they told the newspapers when they staggered in for repairs.  The barque Sea King was kept afloat only by her steam-powered pumps when she made it to New Zealand, where she was repaired by the Bailey family, whose skills earned high praise from the ship’s master, Captain Pearce.

Pearce (or Pierce; accounts of the day differ) obviously knew about shipwrighting, for he seems to have made a hobby of boatbuilding on board. The previous year, he had built the lug-rigged 24 ft Half Rater Alki, described as “clinker built throughout of white cedar, and rather dishy in appearance” while sailing Sea King from Puget Sound to Sydney.

When repairs were completed and Pearce and Sea King finally sailed out of Auckland, they left a little boat that Pearce had made on the trip from San Francisco. She came into the hands of William Logan. Many years later, Robin Elliott somehow tracked down two photos and some details of the little boat, which had been named after her mothership.  “Little more than 14 feet long, she was low-wooded, flat in the floors, very beamy for her length, and half-decked with a cat rig” he wrote.  To the sailors of Auckland, used to conventional yachts and the narrower and deeper Open Sailing Boats, this seems to have been something of a revelation; “nothing like her existed on the Waitemata at the time” says Elliott.

Elliott believes that the little catboat Sea King inspired William Logan when in 1898 he created the class that became known as the “Restricted Patikis”. The Restricted Patikis (the name means flat-fish or flounder in Maori) were a beamy 18ft 6in short-ended clinker centreboarder that fitted the Half Rater category under the L x SA rule (hence the alternative title of Restricted Half Rater) but with dimensional limits that would ensure they stayed as a big dinghy type rather than developing long ends and slender lines like the normal Half Rater. Arguments over the class rules killed the class by 1904 – a common problem for many years in New Zealand, where there were rival clubs, regatta organisers and sailors who rarely agreed on rules and their interpretation – but as Elliott says, they had become the first properly organised class in the country and had led the way in promoting the concept of the flat-bottomed, wide-transom centreboarder.

An early Restricted Patiki as shown in Auckland Weekly News, 13 Aug 1898. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18980813-4-4

At almost the same time that the Restricted Patikis appeared, the first of lightweight fin-keel Raters turned up on the Waitemata. The early highlight was the 1898 Intercolonial Championship for One Raters, where Bailey’s Laurel took the prize but Logan’s unlucky Mercia proved herself the fastest boat. Both boats were quickly sold to Sydney, where they regularly raced with success against the 22 Foot Open Boats. One of the fleet, incidentally, was the clinker-built Maka Maile, of an unknown US design – given that clinker Raters of American design were rare and that we know that Pearce had spent time in NZ after building a Rater, perhaps he could have been the unknown designer.

Like all the major sailing countries, New Zealand went through a Rater craze in the 1890s. Miru was a Half Rater designed by the Scottish master Willie Fife. Although Miru looks like a conservative boat by Half Rater standards, the Rater class proved to be too weak to survive in the howling winds of Wellington, which sits on the southern tip of the North Island.Yacht Miru. Ref: 1/2-046786-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington,


As Kidd and Elliott note, Mercia effectively became the prototype for a flat, light-displacement unballasted breed of Rater or scow style centreboarder that Logan exported as far afield as South Africa. After the Restricted Patikis died out, these Rater type centreboarders took over the Patiki label. These “unrestricted Patikis” proved themselves too fast for Auckland’s Waitemata harbour; they were ruled out of most yacht races to stop them from making the cruiser/racers and deep-keelers obsolete. These days it’s common to condemn the sailors and clubs that excluded the unrestricted Patikis, but they were essentially a very big and fast dinghy in an era when Auckland’s racing scene centred around passage races to the beautiful cruising anchorages of the Hauraki Gulf was a mainstay of Auckland yacht racing. Given the attractions of Gulf sailing there was probably no way that the typical Aucklander would swap their cruiser/racers for a big stripped-out day racer, and racing the unrestricted Patikis against dual-purpose cruiser/racers was probably about as fair as racing a windsurfer against catamarans or skiffs against sportsboats. If the unrestricted Patikis had been allowed to race against the Mullet Boats and keelers and win everything, many of the stunning classic yachts that Kiwis now cherish may never have been built.

Some of the unrestricted Patikis moved to the shallow waters of Auckland’s other harbour, the Manakau, where they were no deep keelers or cruiser/racers to complain. Their other refuge was the lagoon near the east-coast city of Napier, where they found the perfect combination of flat water and strong sea breezes. Here the tales of the Unrestricted Patikis became not just legendary, but (as with the 18 Footers and Z Jolle of the time) sometimes frankly unbelievable. The last of them were 27 footers that could be lifted by two men and, men swore, sailed at 40mph.

' Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19191127-45-1 Patikis in Napier
The unrestricted Patikis on the lagoon at Napier. Note the width of the stern sections. Auckland Weekly News, 27 Nov 1919. ‘ Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19191127-45-1 ‘

The era of the unrestricted Patikis effectively ended in 1931, when an earthquake levelled the city and lifted the bed of the shallow lagoon two metres or more over an area of about 40km2. Like so many other boats inspired by Raters, the lightweight structure of the unrestricted Patikis could not survive the pounding their flat bows received when they were forced to sail on the ocean; as Kidd and Elliot say, “one by one the great boats fell apart.”

The “mullet boat” Celox roars down the harbour. The mullet boat is a beamy, firm bilged and big-rigged half decked centreboarder normally about 22-24ft long, with a barn-door rudder. As the name suggests, the mullet boats had developed from the local fishing craft, and the leisure and working craft often raced together and switched roles. As Kidd notes, “small inshore fishing boats all around the world tend to have broad similarities because of their function”, and the mullet boat was not too different from craft like the American catboat or sandbagger, or Australia’s Couta Boat. However, the mullet boats seems to have undergone a separate line of development. The mullet boats (which carry around a tonne of ballast) are of course no dinghy, but up until WW2 they were a mainstay of Auckland racing and many accounts imply that they helped keep centreboarders built to class restrictions, rather than keel yachts built to rating rules, in the forefront of NZ sailing. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
Mullet Boat lines.


After the Patikis faded, the open centreboarder lived on in classes like the Auckland 16 footers; undecked boats initially limited to a maximum beam of 6ft, four crew and 180ft2 of working sail, although as often happened in Auckland some clubs and regatta associations applied different rules. Within a few years, some 16s were carrying ballast (and winning) and others set up to 300 sq ft of sail. Shortly before WW1, the type died out; a victim, Elliott and Kidd believe, of rising costs.

Christchurch with Swallows
Sailing in Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island, is divided between the open waters of Lyttelton Harbour and the very narrow and shallow estuary, where this photo was taken. The estuary is the site for many of the events in my favourite sailing book, Peter Mander’s autobiography Give a Man a Boat. This pic shows some of the local scows that were raced before WW1 in classes of 30 footers (aka “skimmers”) and simple 14/15ft “Punts” for boys and amateurs to build and sail. At least one of the ubiquitous Rudder Swallows also raced. Robin Elliott and Harold Kidd say that the Christchurch skimmers influenced Jack Brooke, one of New Zealand’s top designers. George Andrews, a champion in many classes and a prolific amateur boatbuilder, was another major influence on NZ’s dinghy scene in the first half of the 19th century. Credit: “Moncks Bay, Christchurch, featuring clubrooms of Christchurch Sailing and Power Boat Club. The Press (Newspaper) :Negatives. Ref: 1/2-040908-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/29943878″


The two main cities of Auckland and Wellington each had their separate restricted classes of 14 Footers and 10 Footers in the early 1900s. The Auckland 14 footers pictured in Southern Breezes look like the same style of conservative yacht-tender type as the British boats that were to become International 14s, but the class died when professional boatbuilders dominated the trophy lists. Meanwhile, in the Wellington men like the Highet brothers were developing a separate breed of hard chine (“square bilge” in NZ language of the day) 14 footers. According to Elliott and Kidd, many of the Wellington boats were heavy influenced by the chine designs in the American Rudder magazine, especially the 14ft Sea Mew. Exactly why the Sea Mew had such an influence is unclear, but given the later development of NZ design the key factor may have been its exceptional beam of  6ft 8in.


The Rudder hard chine designs may also have been the last important and distinct overseas influence in New Zealand dinghy design for some time. As with so many other countries, from WW1 to the 1950s New Zealand design developed its own distinctive style. Even when the Kiwis took on the Australians during this period, they did so by racing two distinct national classes against each other, rather than by merging one class into another or adopting a foreign class.

When Wellington sailor/builder George Honour moved to Auckland in 1918 he introduced the type of hard-chine boat that Wellingtonians had been developing to a city where hard chine boats had previously been rare. Enthusiastic reports that spoke of Honour designs “as light as a feather” planing at great speed seem to have been exaggerated, but they were fast, quick and cheap to build, and an inspiration to young sailors short of a pound. Honour’s boats were the basis for the 14 foot long “Y” class and the 18 foot long “V” class – one of the ancestors of the 18 Foot Skiff. For a brief period in the 1930s, as many as 35 Y Class could start in a single race in Auckland.


The V-Class 18 Footer Surprise, designed by Arch Logan. ‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-5587’ 

Damn, Surprise looks like a nice boat! I know little about her and it’s apparent that in some conditions her flat hull and severely-angled chines could be problematic, but she looks like an economical, versatile and very fast boat with a very wide and flat stern for her era. Based on the performance of other top V Class boats of her era she would have been able to keep up with the 18 Foot Skiffs of Sydney much of the time, but while they were just expensive flat-water racing machines Surprise could also take part in races to the islands of the Hauraki Gulf, the world-class cruising area outside Auckland.

This division of similar development-class boats into different classes according to the shape of their bilge became a Kiwi characteristic; authorities like Kidd and Elliott and veteran New Zealand dinghy champ Graham Mander believe that it was considered that the hard-chine development classes should be left for juniors and amateur builders. Ironically, the loose rules often allowed the hard chine boats to carry bigger rigs and often they  were faster than the “aristocratic” round-bilge boats of similar length.

After WW1, New Zealand developed a veritable alphabet of development or restricted class dinghies, often combining a hard core of racing machines with fast cruising dinghies or half deckers. Rules were simple; normally just a length limit and a restriction on sail area. The V Class for example was (at least initially) had only two rules; a maximum length of 18ft and a crew of between three and five, which effectively limited the area for some time until a limit of 400 sq ft was imposed. The T class and Y Classes were both 14 footers restricted to 250 sq ft of sail; one round bilge, the other hard chine. Canterbury sailors were developing what became the R Class; 12ft 9in long and with 110 sq ft of sail.

The scow-like 14 foot T Class Sassy in 1947 shows the variety of boats that raced in the restricted classes. ‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1360-Album-251-17-11’


In many ways it seems to have been an ideal formula. The fact that weight, beam and other details were normally unrestricted meant that designers could experiment, and the hard chine hulls in some boats made such experiments comparatively cheap. The classes that shared a common length seem to have been able to race together fairly successfully, despite their other differences, which may have reduced the problem of keeping a fleet of critical mass together. What simple restrictions they did have were enough to stop designers chasing ever-diminishing returns by going to the extremes of length or sail area like the Suicides, frei Renjollen or Sydney’s 18 Footers.

M7 Marlin
The “Emmy” Marlin in a classic M-Class pose. The “Emmys” are an 18ft long restricted class, modelled off the old Restricted Patikis. Like many Auckland boats, the Emmys were often used for weekend cruising around the beautiful Hauraki Gulf outside the harbour. Marlin was designed by Laurie Davidson, who started his designing career in the class and went on to become one of the world’s greatest yacht designers in the late 20th century, known for offshore world champions like Waverider and his share in NZ’f first America’s Cup winner. All of the New Zealanders who played such a big part in yacht design in that era, including Bruce Farr, Russell Bowler and Ron Holland, came from dinghies.


The Wellington 10 and 14 footers, the Christchurch skimmers, punts and Rs and Auckland’s alphabet soup of Ts, Ss, Ys, Ms, and Vs all had one thing in common – they were basically restricted to one region. The class that was to finally break the pattern of short-lived or localised classes was born in 1918. W A Wilkinson, who had been trying to years to kickstart a one design dinghy class, had Glad Bailey draw up a clinker 14 footer as a junior boat. From the outside, the “X Class”, as it became known, looks pretty much like a typical but stubby version of the clinker one-designs that could be found along the coast of many countries from Britain to Italy, but it quickly proved to be the fastest 14 foot dinghy of its time in Auckland.

Iron Duke, owned by Sir John Jellicoe and named after the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet, was the boat that launched the X Class into prominence. Jellicoe was an active dinghy racer as well as the national head of state.      Photographer uknown : Yacht Iron Duke sailing in Wellington Harbour. Ref: PAColl-8624. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

One of the first of the Xs was then bought and raced by Sir John Jellicoe, the Governor General (national head of state) and commander of Britain’s Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland. In Australia and in New Zealand, vice-regal sponsorship was a significant seal of social approval for a sailing contest. With performance and social status on their side and a national championship trophy (the Sanders Cup) dedicated to a national hero, the “boat for boys” suddenly became New Zealand’s blue-ribbon national dinghy class. “Nothing else came close to it in importance, nationally” write Elliott and Kidd in Southern Breezes. “Such was its stature that, for almost 40 years, newspapers around the country devoted as much space to the Sanders Cup in the summer as they did to rugby’s Ranfurly Shield during winter….the sport had never had such a high profile nationally.”

T and X
The X Class national titles were the blue ribbon event for NZ dinghy racing for much of the mid 20th century and were sailed across the country. Above are Xs and T-class restricted 14s in Auckland. As late as 1940 there are accounts of the more restricted X Class beating the Ts and Ys when the two fleets started together. Below is the Southland entry struggling in the howling breezes common to Wellington.
X Class in Wellington

Credit top: New Zealand Herald Vol LXXI, Issue 21776, 16 Apr 1934, from Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand; Credit above: “Southland X-class yacht Murihiku, Evans Bay, Wellington, [ca 1921]Reference Number: PAColl-5927-19Southland X-class yacht Murihiku, Evans Bay, Wellington, circa 1921. Photographer unidentified;  National Library of New Zealand Evening Post Collection.


Measurement disputes were de rigeur in the early days NZ dinghy racing, and the Xs were no exception. After some controversy, the original loose rules were tightened into a true one design; then loosened into a development class; then when fibreglass arrived in the 1950s, the class became a one design once more. With three or four men in a 14 footer carrying a moderate-size rig, the X Class was soon seen in Auckland as a rather outdated boat (although quite capable of beating the less-restricted 14s at times) but in the smaller cities and regions it represented the chance take on the sailors of NZ’s largest city in a fair match – and to often beat them. In the words of Peter Mander, who proved that he could win in the most high-profile of Auckland’s classes as well as the “national” types, “the Xs were never particularly numerous, but in a life full of incident and adventure they did attract the best.”

Lines of the early X Class. To my eyes it appears beamier, much fuller in the ends and significantly flatter than most comparable overseas boats – no surprise since it had to support the weight of four men and often sailed in breezy conditions – but still with significant rocker right aft. While some sources claim that the X Class was ahead of its time compared to dinghies from other countries, the many photos I’ve seen show no evidence that they were doing anything apart from planing on a square run in strong winds, which dinghies from other countries could also do at that time. NZ dinghy sailing legend Geoff Smale told me that the NZ boats were much more limited in their ability to plane than Uffa Fox’s International 14s, which could plane in much lighter conditions and when reaching as well as running.

The Sanders Cup was open only to a single boat representing each province. It may seem strange to modern minds, but given NZ’s small population, small number of wealthy individuals and undeveloped transport, it was a logical step that was followed by all of the national classes until well after WW2. “The early centreboard boats were intended largely for sailing on home waters and when they came ashore most of them would travel little further than the permanent slip near the end of a mechanical winch wire” wrote Peter Mander. “The boats were not intended principally for contests which would involve travel, time off work, freight, money. When contests began only one boat from a whole fleet would represent a province, many of whose yachtsmen would contribute to a common pool to meet the expenses of the lucky representative crew.”

The X Class became the leader of a quartet of national classes that were to dominate much of NZ dinghy sailing until the 1960s. While the X Class wasn’t dramatically different from the sort of boats you could see in many other countries, the three smaller national one designs showed the evolution of a distinctive style.

Idle Along from M7 Marlin page
A few updated Idle Alongs still race, and seem to still go downwind fast in a breeze. That boom is longer than the hull. This pic from the page of the M Class Marlin, photographer unknown.

The first step down from the X was the Idle Along, a boat in which beam and stability were pushed to the limits for good reasons. The Idle Along’s home was the capital city of Wellington, squeezed between mountain ranges and Cook Strait which separates NZ’s two islands. Wellington is said to be the world’s windiest city – it has an average annual windspeed of 14.4 knots and up to 233 days of gale force winds in a year. When amateur designer/builder Alf Harvey created the Idle Along as a fast general-purpose boat, he ensured it had the stability to handle Wellington’s howling winds by packing three crew, a low-aspect rig, flat hard-chine sections, and the enormous beam of 6ft on an overall length of just 12ft 8in. It’s widely claimed that Harvey modelled the foils and rocker profile from a dolphin he caught, measured and released, which may explain the boat’s length and the steep rocker right forward.

Spencer idle along profile
The Idle Along’s huge beam and unusual rocker made it a distinctive boat, but the wide stern was already a characteristic NZ trademark. This version of the plans is by John Spencer and show the later plywood version. As with the other NZ national designs, the plans and rules for the earlier version were not very detailed, which caused massive disputes when competition heated up and builders started to explore the boundaries of design. Before plywood was introduced, Idle Alongs weighed 400lb or more; the days of lightweight Kiwi designs were still to come.

Spencer idle along sections and plan

Harvey also ensured that the Idle Along had fore and aft buoyancy compartments, making it a safe, practical day cruiser. The Idle Along was cheap, versatile, tough, stable and fast by the standards of the day and by 1939 it had become the most popular boat in the country outside of Auckland, which remained loyal to its local development classes.

Robson, Edward Thomas, 1875-1953. Robson, Edward Thomas, 1875-1953 : Photograph of Idle-Along dinghies, Worser Bay, Wellington. Ref: PAColl-9008. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. a caption
The cheap, safe and versatile Idle Along design was picked up in Australia, where it was sailed in Williamtown in Melbourne (above) and in Hobart as the Kiwi class. It may have been the first racing class that was not made in the UK or USA to be adopted by another major sailing country.


Zeddie and IA from Give a Man.png
The Kiwi sailors of the era could not only build and sail championship boats – they could even illustrate their rival’s books. This drawing of the Zeddie and Idle Along was done for Peter Mander’s autobiography “Give a Man a Boat” by the multi-talented Bret de Thier, an Olympic sailor, academic, architect and designer. Give a Man a Boat remains my all-time favourite book on sailing. Reproduced with permission of Bret de Thier.


The national youth or intermediate class was the 12ft long Takapuna, also known as the Z Class or Zeddie after its sail insignia, which was born in 1920. Like the Idle Along, the Zeddie was a characteristically Antipodean boat. It was cat rigged, but it carried the characteristic Australasian “flattie” spinnaker on a long pole. A typical Zeddie of the 1950s weighed about 300lb; the lightweight era had yet to hit New Zealand. Like many Australasian boats of its era, with its flat hull and low-aspect rig the Takapuna compromised on light wind and upwind performance in the name of high speeds downwind. As former Z Class champion Peter Mander wrote “the lively little craft reached extraordinary speeds with a beam wind. Each season would bring its crop of authentic tales of how they had passed boats of up to eighteen feet when the wind was fresh and the boats were on a broad lead (ie broad reach) in the hands of skippers who knew what they were doing”.


Zeddie upwind
The Zeddie. Cropped version of this pic.

The national junior boat was the 7ft Tauranga P Class, which was to go on to take a stranglehold on New Zealand junior sailing. The stubby little boat was developed from 1920 by Harry Highet, one of those who had developed the hard-chine 14 Footer of Wellington. Highet was a non swimmer, and not surprisingly he gave the little boat extensive decking and buoyancy tanks. In an era when many boats would barely float after they capsized Highet’s design had obvious attractions, although it took until about 1945 before it made big inroads into the Zeddie’s dominance in Auckland.

With its long boom and conventional stem (instead of the pram bow of most small trainers) the P Class is a challenging boat and notorious for nosediving. “This great little boat is a big reason that New Zealand has produced so many good sailors” wrote Russell Coutts. “They are much more demanding boats to sail than the Optimist or Sabot and they are one of the most difficult boats to sail downwind in strong winds because they frequently nose-dive…’s such  a complicated boat in terms of balance, sail shapes and tuning that there’s no doubt that if you can master it you can sail almost any boat.”

P Class sketch
This sketch of the P Class appeared in the Auckland Star newspaper for 21 September 1935.  The emphasis on watertight compartments is interesting; such extensive buoyancy were not common at the time.
P Class on old car
Who needs roofracks when you have running boards and a P Class? Pic from the Tauranga Yacht and Powerboat Club site.
P Class kid havin fun.jpg
After 90 years, the P Class can still get over 35 competitors to national championships. The little boat has produced an amazing list of legendary sailors, including Graham Mander, Russell Bowler, David Barnes, Peter Blake, Chris Dickson, and gold medallists Russell Coutts (Finn), Jo Aleh (470), Polly Powrie (470), Barbara and Bruce Kendall (Lechner windsurfers), Blair Tuke (49er), Peter Burling (49er) and Rex Sellars (Tornado). Pic from the Tauranga Yacht and Powerboat Club site.


Silver Ferns
Not every NZ boat was a hard chine one design or a development class. The round-bilged clinker one design Silver Fern (the name refers to the floral symbol worn by national sporting teams) was a late ’30s junior class designed by the master boatbuilder/designer Arch Logan. They brought a number of prominent Auckland sailors into the sport (including Laurie Davidson) and gained a foothold in other areas but never caught on nationally, apparently due to being more expensive than the hard chine one designs.
The Wakatere class of Auckland in the early 1930s (above) only lived for a couple of years. It was intended to be a light, cheap boat to replace a class of Canadian canoes with leeboards and rigs. Designer Jack Brooke was inspired by the Punts of Christchurch, and to my eyes his flat-rockered design appears well ahead of its time; sort of like a proto-baby-Fireball. Unfortunately, given the materials of the era it was too weak for the rougher Auckland conditions, which underlines that there was a good reason that boats used to be heavier than modern ones. Brooke replaced it with the very different Frostbite (below) inspired by the American dinghies of the same name. While the light, modern-looking Wakatere died quickly, in the 1950s and ’60s the slower but versatile Frostbite was a major class and one fleet still remains, 80 years on. Pics from Wakatere Boat Club’s site.


While the X, Z, IA and P were becoming accepted as national classes, two of Auckland’s indigenous development classes were attracting some “international” (or at least interdominion, to use the old term) attention.  In 1938, New Zealand sent a team of “V” Class 18s and an “M” with an enlarged rig to the first “world” title for 18 Footers in Sydney. They were fast and high upwind, but could not compete against the vast rigs of the Australian boats downwind.

The following year, the contest was held in Auckland. In a shock result, the M Class Manu – a cruiser/racer that sailed over 20 miles across the open Hauraki Gulf each weekend to race – won the first race in heavy air. In the last two races Manu sailed consistently while the best of the V Class and the Sydney boats capsized or were disqualified, and the “Emmy” became the only boat with a cabin to win the 18 Foot Skiff “world championship” trophy. Sadly, her owners never got the trophy – the Australian defending champion refused to hand over it over for years, even when he lost an appeal and was chucked out of his own club. The story ends happily, for Manu has been found in dilapidated condition and restoration awaits.

Perhaps a more symbolic event occurred when two of Auckland’s 14 footers went to race in the 1938 Australian 14 Footer championships. The round-bilge clinker hull T Class Vamp won the contest, defeating the “unbeatable” Triad. The other NZ boat, the snub-nosed hard-chine V Class Impudence shocked observers with her planing speed but was erratic, winning one race in the regatta by ten minutes but trailing the fleet home in other events. Writers like Frank Bethwaite have claimed that this was a victory for the light and efficient Kiwi boats against the over-crewed Australian displacement boats. Such commentators seem to have missed that the days of the giant Australian 14s were long over. The Australian boats in Hobart were all just 5ft wide, dramatically smaller than Vamp, which was 6ft 4in wide. The Kiwi boat had trimmed her upwind sail area slightly (from 240 to 220 sq ft) to match the Australian rules of the day. Judging from the slim evidence of the few available photos and reports it appears that the Kiwis usually carried three to four crew while the Aussies carried four to five.

The victory of Vamp, and the outstanding performance of Impudence downwind in planing winds, may be a symbol of the development of the New Zealand stream of dinghy design. For years, Australians had also been trying to develop lighter boats, but they had done it by reducing beam as well as sail area.  The New Zealanders had developed lighter boats, but they had also increased their beam so that they could carry lighter crews but still produce enough hiking power. At least in the conditions in Hobart (where the water is flatter than on the 14s strongholds of Melbourne and Adelaide) the Kiwis had found the faster option, and the future was to prove them right.





“New Zealand seems to be the only English-speaking country that has a national history of the sport of dinghy sailing”:- The only Australian national sailing history concentrates on big yachts and 18 Footers and manages to deal with major dinghy classes like Sharpies, Lasers and 14s in a sentence or two.

achts I Have Known.PROGRESS, VOLUME VI, ISSUE 6, 1 APRIL 1911 – Pastime’s sliding ballast ejected through her topsides

“By the 1890s, the open boats had largely faded out”:- They seem to have survived longer outside of Auckland. The Daily Star newspaper from Otago, in the south of NZ, shows pics of a champion 20 foot open boat as late as 1908, although its clinker construction, fuller stern and gaff rig make it appear quite different to the Auckland boats as detailed by Elliott and Kidd.

“Wellington is said to be the world’s windiest city”:- TBA One official meteorological report says that Castlepoint, about 100km away, gets 50 knot gusts about every third day!

“clinker built throughout of white cedar, and rather dishy in appearance”:-  Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 15 Dec 1896.

“Little more than 14 feet long, she was low-wooded, flat in the floors, very beamy for her length, and half-decked with a cat rig” Emmy p 20

“For a brief period in the 1930s, as many as 35 Y Class could start in a single race in Auckland”:- NEW ZEALAND HERALD, VOLUME LXV, ISSUE 20056, 20 SEPTEMBER 1928

The V Class for example was (at least initially) had only two rules”;-  NEW ZEALAND HERALD, VOLUME LXXV, ISSUE 23156, 30 SEPTEMBER 1938

“the Xs were never particularly numerous”: Mander and O’Neill, p 23.

“Exactly why the Sea Mew had such an influence is unclear”

It appears that two Rudder 14 footers may have been confused. It’s sometimes said that the Sea Wren inspired the Wellington hard chine boats, but the Sea Wren was a Schock-designed round-bilged catboat, with very little in common with the Wellington boats. the Sea Mew was a hard-chine boat available in cat and sloop form, which appears to be very similar to the Wellington boats.

Sea Wren sailplan.png


Sea Wren lines.png



Above – the Sea Wren plans from The Rudder, December 1907, p 887. Below, the Sea Mew plans from The Rudder, November 1916, p 512. The round bilged Sea Wren is very different from the Wellington boats that can be seen in photos like these, whereas the hard chine Sea Mew is quite similar to the Wellington boats. Some NZ papers also refer to a “Sea Mew” class in Christchurch, and Mander also refers to them.
Sea Mew Rudder 1916 sailplan.pngSea Mew lines






The P is also problematic because it is so hard to handle that, as Coutts went on to say, “in some ways the difficulty of the boat…drives some kids away”. Peter Mander called it “basically unsound in design”; ‘Give a Man a Boat’ p 262.


I’m still tracking down information on the 14 Footer nationals, which were part of a larger regatta. It appears that Vamp had an unbeatable lead on points after two races and was 4th in the last heat, which was won by Triad. counted those heats, but the 14s did the later races associated with the regatta. Vamp scored two firsts and a fifth in the last heat of the regatta. Impudence was 8th in heat 2 and last in heat 3, but ended the associated regatta with an easy win in which she planed as fast as the 21 Footers that were also having their national titles. Triad scored 2,2,1.

It’s quite possible that Vamp, having already won, was taking it easy in the last heat. It’s also possible that Triad was more consistent. However, the future trend of design was to indicate that the beamier “kiwi style” was the way to go.

See for example The Advertiser (Adelaide) 18 and 25 Feb 1938; Advocate (Burnie) 19 Feb 1938;


Yachting in Port Nicholson.PROGRESS, VOLUME VI, ISSUE 6, 1 APRIL 1911



As late as 1940 there are accounts of the more restricted X Class beating the big-rigged Ts when the two fleets started together.”;- See for instance



Author: cthom249

A former sailing journalist and magazine editor, I was lucky enough to grow up in Sydney, one of the world's sailing hotspots and to win national and state championships in classes like J/24s, Windsurfer One Designs, offshore racers, Laser Radial open, Windsurfer OD Masters, Raceboard Masters and Laser Radial Masters, to get into the placings in a few other classes, and do a few Sydney to Hobarts.

One thought on “Pt 1.35: Growing the silver fern; NZ dinghy sailing to 1950”

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