Mullet boat races

Local Māori were in charge of fishing in the early days of Auckland, but as more immigrants arrived fishermen from other countries entered the trade. They were unused to the Waitematā and Manukau Harbours’ estuaries and tidal flow, and from the 1860s a vessel suitable for these conditions began to evolve - the “mullety”.

The mullet boat had a shallow draft with a lifting centreplate keel, a broad beam for carrying the day’s catch, and enormous sails. There was no refrigeration at that time - after fishing overnight, the boats would be raced back to port and their haul of mullet, snapper and tarakihi sold straight to the public at Queen’s Wharf or the Devonport Ferry Terminal.

Auckland’s early yachting community was made up of people wealthy enough to have both leisure time and the funds to own a yacht. But as a middle class emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, mullet boats began to be raced for pleasure. They ranged from 20 to 28 feet, but it was the 22 foot ‘L’ class that became the sport’s standard. From the early 1920s, L class mulleties competed for the coveted Lipton Cup, donated to the Ponsonby Cruising Club by grocery-and-tea-magnate Sir Thomas Lipton.

In these glory days of the mullet boats, the Lipton Cup was hot news. Bookies collected bets from crowds gathered along the quayside - it was as popular as betting on the horses. The winning mullety became the uncrowned King of the fishing fleet for the following year.

Auckland writer Miles Hughes captured the thrill of a 1920s race in his novel Richmond Road:

     “As the time for the starting gun approached at nine o’clock, the other boats began to converge on the start line off the Ponsonby Cruising Club clubhouse in St Mary’s Bay…..The beach and cliff tops were lined with people, and so too was the deck of the clubhouse. We jockeyed for position, watching for signals. Boats came close together and then veered off. Insults and catcalls were shouted across the water, as sails flapped and cracked about us with each boat trying to keep behind the starting line.
     A flag went up from the clubhouse, signalling we had three minutes before the gun. The wind vane at the top of the mast was flicking around this way and that in the fluky winds in the lee of Point Erin….We would want the spinnaker up as soon as possible once the race started and I had the sail ready to hoist and clipped onto its pole.
     The boom of the cannon resounded across the water and Joe immediately steered the boat straight out from the cliff. The hull canted over as it filled, the bowsprit pointing straight towards O’Neill’s Point….
     ‘Prepare to gybe,’ called Joe.
     The boat pivoted about on its axis, crashing over onto its opposite side as the boom swung over with a solid thwack behind me. I let go of the mast to step forward to grab the forestay and pull the headsail around while Albie pulled in the sheet and madly winched the mainsail tight. I then began hauling on the downhaul to raise the spinnaker. Albie came dashing forward to lift the pole up. In seconds the sail had filled and set and the familiar surge took over the boat. We fair flew up the harbour towards North Head.” (pages 162-163). 

People have sometimes commented that the mulleties name could be changed to reflect its new fortunes as a racing boat. But, as Noel Mitchell said in his book Mullet Boats ‘n Quotes: “That anyone should wish to hide the identity of these popular racing yachts seems inappropriate. It is far more fitting that the name should be retained for all time, thereby perpetuating the memories of the humble fishermen who were directly responsible for introducing this splendid type of craft nearly 100 years ago.”

Mullet boats are still raced today, and you can read more about their history on the Mullet Boat Racing website. Papers Past is a great source for reading reports on mullet boat racing and in particular past Lipton Cup races

This post is the latest in our series on 1920s entertainment in Auckland; previously we've covered wrestling and cinema. This series of posts is based on the display we have installed outside the Central Auckland Research Centre on the second floor of the Central Library. Come up and find out more about other popular 1920s entertainments like cabaret, Luna Park, fishing and sporting gals.

Author: Leanne, Central Auckland Research Centre