The origins of the mullet boat

Sep 21, 2017 Boating history

Unique to Auckland, this small centreboard yacht has trained and influenced generations of Auckland yachtsmen. Robin Elliott explores its origins.

I’m frequently asked by Boating NZ readers about ‘mullet’ boats, and why they are called that.

Aucklanders tend to take them for granted as part of the local scenery, keel yachtsmen in the hallowed halls of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron tend to sniff at them, but the mullet boats or ‘mulletties’ have done an enormous amount for New Zealand yachting, both as a training ground for its yachtsmen and as a background inspiration to generations of yacht designers, from Arch Logan to Des Townson.

This small ballasted centreboard yacht is unique to Auckland and descended directly from a type of small fishing boat from roughly 140 years ago. Although fishermen had used ‘smacks’ of various types for catching mullet since the 1850s, the term ‘mullet boat’ didn’t come into general use until the mid-1880s.

Mullet was then considered a great delicacy when fresh off the boat. Huge shoals would swarm in the shallow waters of the estuaries around Auckland and were thickest from May to July. They appeared to breed all year round but it was hard to tell in those days when ‘research’ was limited to anecdotes. Few spent fish were caught because it was thought they made for deep water.

The earliest image I have ever found of a mullet boat, a small one, about 1885

The earliest image I have ever found of a mullet boat, a small one, about 1885

Mullet had to be caught in nets, while most other commercial fish species were caught with hook and line. Line fishing was done by bigger boats called ‘schnapper boats’ of 7-15 tons in displacement, often looking like keel yachts in form.

By 1880 the boats used for harvesting mullet had pretty much crystallised in form and become a recognisable type: 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 good speed when getting the catch back to town.

The boats were half-decked with a cuddy forward to provide spartan overnight quarters for the two or three-man crew. The crew used one or two pairs of long sweeps for propulsion in the light and when setting the net. Despite its utilitarian purpose, the mullet boat evolved into a handsome craft, a classic case of form following function.

In the 1880s there were around a dozen active mullet boats which moored at Wynyard Pier on Breakwater Road, across the railway lines from Parnell Rise to the new station in Queen Street on Auckland’s waterfront. Wynyard Pier has long since disappeared under successive reclamations and is now buried below Beach Road, between the Station Hotel and the bottom of Emily Place.

The boats usually worked in pairs, each boat using a net of 180 fathoms (330m) in length and 8-feet (2.4m) deep with cork floats on the top. They rarely went more than 20 miles from Queen Street, a favourite place being in the estuary of the Wairoa (Clevedon) River, 36km to the south-east. Once the crew spotted a school, the sails were dropped and the boom brailed right up against the mast to clear the decks.

The fishermen sold their mullet to the general public off the wharf, to fish-smokers and to fishmongers like Albert Sanford, and Frank Williams, an Italian from Naples who had anglicised his name. Both these dealers also maintained fishing boats of their own.

The other customers were several large-scale mullet canning operators who had considerable commercial and political clout. Prices varied but were generally between 3-5 shillings per dozen, depending on size, a considerable sum at the time. A good catch was between 100 and 200 dozen, so a fresh catch of well-sized mullet was a valuable commodity at up to £50 a trip.

In 1886, canning operators Ewing & Co. persuaded the Fisheries Department to declare a closed season on mullet during the months of December to February without, it seems, presenting any facts to justify the action except that they had stopped canning themselves, voluntarily, in the cause of ‘conservation’. The fishermen snorted at this, pointing out that flies and heat-spoiling were so bad in those months that canning operations were impossible anyway.

To report on whether or not there really was a shortage of mullet, and to describe the methods the mullet boat men used to catch mullet, the by-catch and the actions


Mullet boat407

Frank Williams was a mullet tinner as well as a fishmonger and fishing boat owner of predators like sharks, one journalist undertook a fishing trip to the Wairoa River. He chose to go with two vocal fishermen, Joe Gallagher and Ike Hunt, who expressed the view that if mullet were in fact diminishing in quantity, then “the water must have been uncommon thick with ‘em once.”

Both Joe and Ike were well-known and well-loved characters around the waterfront. Ike was much sought-after as a helmsman for the bigger keel yachts during major races. The trip was made aboard Gallagher’s 24-footer, Mignonette, recently built by Hewson & Melville at their yard alongside Wynyard Pier.

Mignonette had an eventful three days, venturing out into a strong wind that persuaded John Lomey not to accompany them in his Italy, and sent the schnapper boats Toroa and Malena running home. It was too rough to set the nets off Maraetai so they spent an uncomfortable night sheltering in the dubious lee of Flat Island (now called Motukaraka Island).

The next day was spent sailing about in mist and rain without spotting the elusive mullet. Another night off Flat Island and the dawn broke fair and still. A three-mile pull on the sweeps to Duder’s Point, Umupaia, got them amongst their ‘finny prey’.

“Joe now took the oars and pulled our craft in a semi-circle, a quarter of a mile in length, the length of our net, whilst Hunt paid out the net (of a 4½-inch mesh) over the stern, where it disappeared from sight beneath the blue water… the net was all out, and a sinker, a piece of pig-iron fastened to it, and a pause of a quarter of an hour took place.

“Taking hold of the net rope, one end of which was attached to the upper or corked edge of the net, one could feel the ‘twig, twig’ of numerous fish as they struggled in its fatal folds.

“Just then, a shark got in the net. ‘Better have the net up,’ and Hunt takes his place in the stern and hauls it in, taking up the bottom and top edges at once, thus forming a bag-shaped receptacle into which any fish which disentangled themselves at the moment of leaving the water fell, and were saved to us. Joe kept the boat in position, that is, with her port quarter to the incoming net by means of the oars, and I lent a hand at taking the fish from the meshes.”

Another cast later, there were 13-dozen mullet aboard and it was decided to do some netting in the shallows using a “little flat-bottomed punt” with a shorter small-mesh net on which the corks could be seen, indicating large catches by their frantic bobbing. The mullet were driven into the net by the splashing of their oars. This method quickly scooped out 60 dozen. As the day wore on they went out into the bay and set the big net, working until 11 o’clock that night in a blaze of phosphorescence from the mullet.

“We now bowled away for home, the wind getting less and less till it finally left us altogether off Rangitoto, when we had to out oars again, row the rest of the way, reaching Auckland at five o’clock. Our freight being the only lot of mullet in the market, fetched a fair price, the small fish fetching 3s 6d per dozen, the larger ones 5s and 5s 6d.”

The journalist’s conclusion was “that there is no likelihood of the number of mullet in our harbour being appreciably affected by the fishing at present carried on for many years to come.”

But he was wrong. Mullet eventually all but disappeared from the Hauraki Gulf under various pressures: other fishing fleets being set up at Thames and Coromandel, the increased disturbance from propellers as steam and petrol-driven launches proliferated, increased pollution caused by sewage and runoff from the city and suburbs and, most of all, the advent of steam trawlers which hoovered up the Gulf’s fish for Sanfords.

In a future mullet boat installment, I’ll show how the ugly duckling mullet boat was transformed into a swan and took flight as the yacht of both the working man and the banker.

An idle day on the water; a c1900 mullet boat has lost the sweeps of it's forebears

An idle day on the water; a c1900 mullet boat has lost the sweeps of it’s forebears

Manola, a 24-footer built by Chas. Bailey in 1885, the first of the racing mullet boats

Manola, a 24-footer built by Chas. Bailey in 1885, the first of the racing mullet boats

Hunt reported drowned

In February 1887, mullet fisherman Ike Hunt was reported drowned when his boat Margeret was found floating bottom up off Motuihe Island in the Hauraki Gulf after a storm. Affectionate obituaries immediately appeared in the Auckland newspapers.

However, he had clung onto a pair of oars, drifted past Flat/Motukaraka Island and eventually washed up on Maraetai Beach, 6-7km away.

He then calmly proceeded to take a couple of days to walk back to Auckland. The subsequent reports expressed astonishment, saying “the strangest thing of all is that although Hunt is a half-caste, he cannot swim a stroke!”

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