The regional boating clubs around the country are hidden gems. Let’s start with A for Akaroa. Story by Alex Stone.

A gaff-rigged cutter of sublime beauty, its sails, its cordage, its hull, its entire being in fact, crafted from sterling silver. It’s the most impressive sailing trophy that’s held in New Zealand I reckon. Apart, perhaps, from the America’s Cup.


Only this one is here to stay. But right now, it’s behind glass, in a cabinet in the Akaroa Yacht Club. It’s for a race – not one for the faint-hearted – that’s somewhat in abeyance. Last competed in 2012, the Wellington-to-Akaroa yacht race, like many regional sailing events requiring some commitment, some time, some emotional investment, has been partly forgotten.

In the post-Covid world, where we New Zealanders may re-discover what really rings our bells – when we re-configure our stress and compromises – well then, I reckon the trophy for the Wellington-Akaroa yacht race will come out of its closet again. We owe it to ourselves not to overlook such authentic down-home challenges.

The Wellington-to-Akaroa race was first held in 1966. In fact, the Akaroa Yacht Club was established initially, purely, for the running of this single yacht race. No wonder it had such a fine trophy. Only, it didn’t have a clubhouse then. The building, originally a boat shed, was gifted to the club by larger-than-life local (and Christchurch) character Ces Stephens in the early 1980s.

But first, they had a race to run. Eleven yachts entered the inaugural Wellington-to-Akaroa Yacht Race. The winner was the Lyttelton gun boat of the time, Calypso, with an all-local crew.

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There were stories aplenty from that race. The owner of Caprice, Wellington-based and the other main contender for line honours, suggested that Calypso had used the fuel that was on board.

“The only fuel we had,” was Calypso’s reply, “was beer.” In fact, Calypso’s motor seldom worked. In keeping with the flavour of the event, Spree’s crew of four were all farmers. (Incidentally, the district was then at the height of a boom in the export of cocksfoot grass seed – top quality.) Among them was Kit Grigg, who has farmed thereabouts all his life; and has become the club’s de-facto historian. We had fun poring over the pencil-on-paper calculations he still has in a notebook, outlining the handicaps and corrected times (long multiplication) for the yachts in those early races.


Still, it was a tight finish to that first race, with Calypso and Caprice crossing tacks as they beat up into Akaroa Harbour, and to a hero front-page picture in the Christchurch Press.

After the race, thoughts turned to a shore base. Ces declared from the deck of his boat Lady Barbara, “We need a clubhouse.” Local architect Colin Pilbrow was roped-in to square things up. He did a fine job – the clubhouse has ample storage space, the best hot showers, a killer pub, and full-width decks with a view to die for. For the alterations, Kit milled macrocarpa he had on his Hickory Bay farm. By 1985, the club had its flash clubhouse. In the early years of the big race, arriving crews were billeted in Akaroa family homes. The finishes of those races would find Kit – and most of the crews’ wives – sitting all night on the main town wharf.

Ah! A dock for the clubhouse. Let’s just say “some piles happened to fall off the back of a Council truck” (my informant must stay anonymous), and by the next sunset, were upright, in a not-so-straight line in the water extending out from the clubhouse deck.

The day we were there, the Sunday race boats were tied up, while post-race analyses raged on in the bar. Lesley and I were surprised to see the race starting from a line extending from that wharf, and finishing there. Which resulted in some tricky course-making and tacking in between the moored yachts. Like a number of clubs in Canterbury, Akaroa has quite a few Young 88s regularly racing. Meltdown, skippered by canny Gil Smith (we saw him finding puffs and lifts right up against the shore, and among the moorings) is usually the one to beat. Only, on that day Armalite a Ross 930 had beaten them across the line by half a length – literally!

The good folk of Akaroa Yacht Club miss those old days of the big race, and the occasional cruising boats that came down here too. Says commodore Patsy Little, “We used to enjoy offering them hospitality. The modern cruising boats are too well-equipped with showers and washing machines on board. We wish they’d pull in here instead and share a few yarns.” So, we did.

Akaroa Yacht Club stalwarts.

We found that the lovely little town of Akaroa had re-invented itself post-Covid – and post the controversial days of cruise ship visits, sometimes four a day. Most locals hated the ‘Disneyland madness’ they brought about. But cruising yachts? Always welcome.

As for the local economy, there are four companies doing tours of the bay, the two marine reserves, with the added bonus of (always) spotting the rare Hector’s dolphins. We were in the bay for a week and every day, all the dolphin tours boats went out – including the 100-year-old sailing ketch Fox II. Only this time, they were all filled with Kiwi visitors. All good.

The marine environment appears very healthy. We saw so many Hector’s dolphins, it’s hard to think of them as rare. Steve Dawson, a marine scientist who monitors research there, tells me there are about 15,000 alive – but all endemic to this coastline. Another feature is the prevalence of what the locals call whalebait, clouds of tiny-lobster-like krill that paint the water in moving blobs of red.

Akaroa Cruising Club changed its name to Akaroa Yacht Club in 2012, the year the Wellington-Akaroa Race was last sailed in its own right. The club retains a connection though, as a port-of-call in the triangular Wellington-Napier-Akaroa Race, which keeps going.

Says Kit, “While there are no plans to run the Wellington-Akaroa race currently, if enough interest is shown by Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club and others, it could well be re-activated.”

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But I opine that it’s time that impressive silver trophy breaks from its shackles in the trophy cabinet of the Akaroa Yacht Cub. Those silver sails need to be contested for again. So, what do we all say –Akaroa Yacht Club – and the extraordinarily beautiful bay it finds itself in – is surely a place worth racing to?