The outstanding example of the indigenous Kiwi centreboard yacht is the mullet boat, derived from a fishing smack but developed by 1905 into a set of highly competitive racing classes. But mullet boats carried considerable ballast, initially to replace the load of fish they were designed to catch and carry to market. In this article I am dealing only with our unballasted centreboarders, initially open clinker dinghies.

The concept of racing evenly matched yachts has been around a long time. There are several approaches to the problem of how to prevent the best boat and/or the best skipper and crew winning all the silverware all the time, which is the kiss of death to the sport. The All Blacks seem close to that position right now, in the Southern Hemisphere at least.
The first solution, with randomly designed yachts, is to handicap them on the basis of their design characteristics by various complex formulae, or on their past performances, and give them a time penalty in respect of the others in the race. The second is to make the yachts as uniform as possible so that the only major variable in performance is the skill of the skipper and crew.
There are degrees of uniformity of design and construction ranging from the monotype on one hand, where design and construction are rigidly controlled like the Takapuna Class (Z Class) of 1921 or the Zephyr Class of 1956 and, on the other hand, the 1922 to 1970s Auckland letter classes which had much looser rules in which the two main parameters were overall length and sail area. For example, the T Class were round-bilge 14-footers and the Y Class were square-bilge 14-footers with nominally restricted sail areas of 220 square feet, but no effective mechanism for measuring.
The centreboarders racing in this country from the 1870s were highly developed ‘open sailing boats’ in various classes based on overall length and were very similar to the boats racing in Australia, where they became known as ‘skiffs’. Betting and wagering were important ingredients of the sport. Since most boats carried ballast, the dodge of illegally shifting ballast from side to side on each tack was prevalent. In the United States, where the practice was allowed, the boats were called ‘sandbaggers’. In fact, ballast shifting persisted through the early years of mullet boat racing so that ‘fairplay men’ had to be exchanged between boats.
In 1898 came the first recognisably ‘modern’ class of home-grown unballasted centreboarders, the 18ft 6in patikis. Even then, these clinker half-decked yachts were inspired by an American ‘half-rater’ owned by Capt. Pearce of the American barque Sea King which put into Auckland in distress after a rough Tasman crossing in 1897. Pearce sailed the little boat to Takapuna and back in phenomenally fast times which staggered the locals; clearly it was their first experience of seeing a yacht on the plane. The yachtsmen of Parnell were so impressed that they formed the Parnell Sailing Club to sponsor the type as a restricted class. Logan Bros built five and other builders another seven or so.

The patikis were initially highly successful, but it was not to last. The Logans built the best boat of the first batch, Rambler, initially owned by Dexter & Crozier, the agents for Rambler bicycles (and cars later) and then by Roy Wilson who dominated the racing. In late 1904 the Logans built Dottrell, the ultimate 18ft 6in patiki, for Roy Wilson.
She eclipsed the rest of the fleet. But it was in vain for the Parnell Sailing Club was already in recess. The surviving boats were soon scattered all over the country. In 1922 Arch Logan reincarnated them for the younger Wilsons as the 18ft M Class patikis, sponsored by the Squadron.
During the late 1890s Wellington yachtsmen produced some fine 14-footers, many of them of square-bilge construction inspired by the designs promoted by the influential American yachting magazine, Rudder. But the first true class racing in the capital was in the Thorndon Sailing Dinghy Club’s 10ft clinker open sailing dinghies from 1903. They were of restricted design with a cat rig of 130ft2.
By 1905 new boats were arriving from Auckland built by Bailey & Lowe and Logan Bros, while Ted Bailey of Wellington built several of the best and was the crack helmsman of the class in his Vera and Thelma. At the height of their popularity the club had over 100 members and 12 boats entering their evening races. But by 1910 it was all over. The crack skippers and the crack boats just kept winning and the thrill was gone.
Auckland had a turn at class dinghy racing next. Almost in the Thorndon model, the Waitemata Sailing Dinghy Club was established in 1907, but planning to race two classes, a 14-footer and a 10-footer on the lines of the Thorndon boats. The design parameters and scantlings were quite tight for the time: 14ft loa, 5ft 6in beam and 135ft2 of sail. The prime movers were some stars of the Auckland yachting scene, Tom Henderson, C.P. Murdoch, J. C. Webster, W.H. Oliver, Tom Inglis and young Scott Colville.
Tom Henderson had Tyler & Harvey design and build him the first of the 14-footers, Rita. Only two 10-footers were built but the 14s became a ‘mushroom class’. The club held races every fortnight in the 1908-09 season, fielding up to eight 14-footers. But by the 1910 season it was all over and the fleet disappeared from Auckland, although many were snapped up by owners in Kawhia, where they were joined by boats built by the Neilson brothers locally, and continued racing for several more years.
The next class, the famous Sanders Cup/Jellicoe/Rona/X Class 14-footers resulted from the efforts of one of Auckland yachting’s greatest movers and shakers, W.A. (Wilkie) Wilkinson, a printer who had a broad view of yachting, not only locally, but internationally.
Wilkie established our first yachting magazine in 1908, the New Zealand Yachtsman. Boldly, he published it as a weekly and, unusually for the time, loaded it with photographs. The collapse of the patikis and then the WDSC dinghies as racing classes upset him. As early as the winter of 1912 he published plans of a restricted 14-footer drawn up by J.R. Cameron of Dunedin. It was a wholesome stem-head gunter sloop-rigged clinker boat, the Yachtsman 14, but nothing came of it.

After World War I broke out in August 1914 and then Gallipoli in 1915, it became evident that the sport of yachting was in decline and something of a frippery. Wilkie turned to recording the history of New Zealand yachting in his magazine, thankfully, because vast quantities of material would otherwise have been lost. He could see, too, that the sport had to be kept alive during the war.
Most keel yachts and many mullet boats were hauled up “for the duration,” “owner gone to the Front”. It was imperative to involve youngsters more. Wilkie determined to not only promote a new dinghy class for youth but also to ensure that it got the rules and infrastructure that would prevent its collapse.
In 1916 Wilkie commissioned Gladwyn Bailey, Charles Bailey Jr’s eldest son, to design a clinker 14-footer along the lines of the 1912 effort. In concept, if not in detail, the new boat was also a reprise of the WDSC 14-footer but intended to be so promoted and so controlled that every boat would be, as near as practicable, identical in performance.

Deteriorating wartime conditions made it difficult to get the design going, but Baileys built the prototype and launched her in January 1917. They named her Desert Gold after a famous racehorse of the time, like the contemporary brand of tobacco. This was a class that set the whole of New Zealand on fire in the post-war years. Despite controversy and politics, it survived until the modern era. More next month.