The origins of the mullet boat – part 2

Sep 21, 2017 Boating history

Robin Elliott started tracing the origins of the Auckland mullet boat in Vintage Perspectives in Boating NZ, October 2011, with a description of the methods used by fishermen in the 1880s to net the then-abundant mullet, mainly in the shallows around the estuary of the Wairoa (Clevedon) River, east of Auckland.

It was generally thought that the supply of mullet and other fish species was inexhaustible. In fact, there was such abundance that there were several cases reported of yachts losing buoyancy and almost foundering in the midst of dense schools of sprats or kahawai.

The ram-bowed Bailey 24-footer Masher in later life, after sprouting a counter stern

The ram-bowed Bailey 24-footer Masher in later life, after sprouting a counter stern

By 1885 the mullet boat had become a recognisable type on the Auckland waterfront. In Part I of this series I described it as:

“A straight-stemmed, tuck stern, centreboard boat with a gaff sloop or cutter rig, usually 24 feet overall with a beam in the range of 7ft 6ins to 8ft 6ins, a full length keel, and a transom-hung barn-door type of rudder. It had full sections for load-carrying but maintained a fairly fine entry forward and a fair run aft to ensure speed in getting the catch back to town fast.

“The boat was half-decked with a cuddy forward to provide spartan overnight quarters for the two or three man crew. Despite its utilitarian purpose, the mullet boat had evolved into a handsome craft, a classic case of form following function.”

The term ‘mullet boat’ was only just coming into common usage at the time and was probably pejorative at first,
but I’ll call them mullet boats from now on anyway.

But as a viable type commercially, the mullet boat had barely 30 years of life left in it. By 1915 the local stocks of mullet had collapsed and although the mullet boats grew auxiliaries and soldiered on as oyster boats and even turned to line fishing, their place was taken by the petrol-engined ‘oil launches’ that Auckland boatbuilders were turning out in huge numbers. Many were derigged and converted into power boats.

Fortunately for the mullet boat, it would continue to flourish because of the way the sport of yacht racing was conducted in Auckland. Throughout the latter quarter of the 19th century the only opportunities for racing against other yachts was in the Anniversary Regatta and the North Shore, Judges Bay and Ponsonby Regattas.

From 1887, the Auckland Yacht Club – which would morph into the New Zealand Yacht Squadron in 1901 and get its Royal Warrant a year later – ran yacht races on a reasonably regular basis. Then there were sweepstake races between several yachts of the same type and challenge races between two boats to settle who was the faster and better. All these events attracted heavy betting, especially the challenge races, and all were popular public spectacles in the small colonial port that was then Auckland. Side-betting, stakes and wagers were very high and the races were well publicised, grabbing the attention of Aucklanders in the same way that high-profile sports do now. The money that changed hands in these ways provided a feedback mechanism which kept new yachts being built and raced.

Fisherman Charlie Nelson, one of those 'professionals'

Fisherman Charlie Nelson, one of those ‘professionals’

Betting is an ugly concept in relation to yachting nowadays, but in those difficult days of New Zealand’s ‘long depression’ that lasted roughly from 1880 until 1892, it was betting that made yacht racing commercially viable for the crack boats and provided paid employment for the crack skippers and crewmen.

Apart from a few talented amateurs like Tom Henderson, Walter Jones, Charles ‘Barlow’ Madigan and Arch Buchanan, the crack skippers were all professionals and included boatbuilders like Charles Bailey père et fils, Jack Bell, Robert Logan Sr, Alf, Joe and Sam Warbrick and especially the best of the fishermen like Joe Gallagher, Ike and Joe Hunt, Charlie Nelson and Danny Holland, all of whom knew the harbour and Gulf in all conditions like the backs of their hands.

Several of these men had sporting hero status in the community at the time. Some were ‘half caste’ and formed the core of the ‘New Zealand Native’ rugby teams that toured Australia and England in 1884 and 1888. Many of the best yachtsmen also excelled at a wide range of other sports including rowing, swimming, athletics, ‘pedestrianism’ (competitive walking) and rugby, although they rarely played cricket as it clashed with the yachting season. Far from being a marginal sport in Auckland’s early colonial years, yacht racing was of central importance.

The Garnaut-built 22-footer Waimoa of 1900

The highlight of the regattas was usually the ‘Second Class Yachts, 6 tons and under’ race where the few true pleasure yachts competed against the mullet boats which were dressed up with longer spars and larger, lighter canvas for the occasion and dominated. However, the Anniversary Regatta of 1880 was a turning point. Robert Logan, keen to make his mark as a yacht constructor, produced two freakish yachts for the race: Jessie Logan for himself, and Arch Buchanan’s Lala II. These counter stern, centreboard twins revolutionised the class. Indeed, Jessie Logan only lost two races in her career in Auckland, once when she was ‘pulled’ to lose for murky betting reasons and once when the class was expanded in 1884 to seven tons to admit the new Tawera.

I mention these non-mullet boats because the heightened competition they brought to the Second Class race did breed improvement and was a direct influence on the development of the racing mullet boat. It’s also fortunate we are today able to see Jessie Logan in the Tino Rawa Trust collection at the Viaduct in Auckland, a time-warp straight back to the 1880 regatta.

Mullet boats were initially welcome in the regattas and with the Auckland Yacht Club, competing against yachts of the same size, but creeping Corinthianism soon took over. The Auckland Yacht Club restricted entries to members who were ‘not in the trade’ and refused to allow ‘professionals’ to skipper yachts. The regattas next had separate classes for fishing boats, yet it was obvious to all that as a yacht, the mullet boat had enormous virtues in its ability to carry sail, stand up to Auckland’s often boisterous easterlies and westerlies, to reach and run well and, above all, to be built at relatively low cost.

As well, if it became unsuccessful in competition, there was always a ready market for it in the fishing industry, so, from 1880 onwards, Auckland boatbuilders began turning out more yachts of mullet boat-type for pleasure use than ever before.

In the first part I mentioned two newly-built bona fide mullet boats: Joe Gallagher’s Hewson & Melville-built Mignonette and Italian fisherman John Lomey’s James Clare-built Italy. Hewson & Melville were mainly known as builders of the fast open sailing boats of the time and keel fishing boats, but most of their mullet boat-types were for pleasure. Just prior to the 1880 Anniversary Regatta they built the 26-footer Glance for C. F. Featherstone of Lucas Creek, then Sybil for Mort Fairs in December 1880. In 1882 it was the ram-bowed Minx for Walter Jones, in 1885 the ram-bowed Sylvia for Percy Dufaur, and in 1889 the ram-bowed Matea for Walter Jones – after he had sold Jessie Logan to Wellington – but none of these approached Jessie Logan in performance.

The only true fishing boats they built were Penguin for John Angelo in 1881, Belle for Joe Gallagher in 1883, which was replaced by Mignonette in 1885.

Mrs Lushington on the beach at Mahurangi. On her side is Robert Logan keel yacht Muritai. Behind her is the 1881 mullet boat Belle, converted to a deadwood keeler

Mrs Lushington on the beach at Mahurangi. On her side is Robert Logan keel yacht Muritai. Behind her is the 1881 mullet boat Belle, converted to a deadwood keeler

Lupe, a 26-footer built by James Clare in 1898, She was soon converted into a launch

Lupe, a 26-footer built by James Clare in 1898, She was soon converted into a launch

Prior to 1900, James Clare was probably the most prolific of the mullet boatbuilders and most were fishing boats. A partial list would include: Arrow (1880), Lifuka (1883), Black Swan (1884), Italy (1885), Vavau and Rosie (1889), May Queen and Startle (1890), Malanoa (1891) and Lupe (1898).

Jack Drummond built many too: Irene (later Asta,1887), Venice (1889), Minnie (1890), Kotiro (1892) and Nellie (1894).

Frank Perrott built Camille and Welcome Jack in 1885. Hubert Garnaut built Britannia (1887), Clio (1890), Cynisca
and Undine (1894) and Waimoa (1900), and there were many more mullet boats built by individuals like Sam Dove’s Pastime of 1899.

Charles Bailey Sr. had by far the biggest reputation for centreboard craft so it was fitting that he should produce the best mullet boat of the 19th century, the 24-footer Manola. Bailey had built Ethel in 1884 for fisherman Danny Holland and the ram-bowed Masher for Walter Jones in January 1885, but Manola for William Holder was a totally different proposition. From her launch in Easter, 1885, she was the very first mullet boat built exclusively for racing. She was kept at Judges Bay, hauled out on the beach after every race to dry out, and blackleaded before she went in again. Her rigging and sails were of the finest materials available and she was handled by top skippers, usually Barlow Madigan or Charlie Nelson. Bailey built several more mullet boats before 1900 – Astroea (1887), Mizpah (later Hinemoa, 1890) and Swift (1892) – but none achieved the consistent victories of Manola.

Chas Bailey's invoice for the construction of Manola

Chas Bailey’s invoice for the construction of Manola


In 1886 Robert Logan was commissioned to build a Manola-beater. His Isca of December 1885 for Willie Wilson of the Herald was a 24-footer like Manola but failed to match the Bailey boat. However Logan’s counter stern centreboarders in the Jessie Logan mould, like Ariel (1887) and Tangaroa (1890) and his sons’ Corinna (1893), were more successful.

In the next edition of this occasional series I will describe the remarkable, indeed exponential, increase in the Auckland mullet boat fleet after 1900.

This article was published in the February 2012 edition of Boating NZ.