After a few Covid-induced false starts, the Ponsonby Cruising Club was finally able to celebrate its Centenary Lipton Cup regatta last month, more than a year after the actual milestone. Still, the 2021 event proved that the ‘mullet fraternity’ is alive and well, and ready for another 100 years.

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The Lipton Cup is New Zealand’s oldest yachting trophy competed for by the same class – the 22ft L-Class yachts commonly known as ‘mullet boats’. Fittingly, some of the vessels racing on Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour today are themselves over 100 years old – and surprisingly competitive.


In addition to its impressive vintage, the regatta should also be recognised for its remarkable ‘resilience’. There are few events – local or international, across any sporting code – that can rival its uninterrupted legacy. The Lipton Cup has been sailed every year over the last century – WWII and Mother Nature’s fickle moods notwithstanding.

All of which underscores the vast tract of history and tradition wrapped up in the mullet boat fleet. Beginning with the handsome trophy itself. Fashioned by the same makers of the America’s Cup (Garrard of London), the Lipton Cup is an ornate piece of hardware, standing about a metre tall and fabricated from 3.5kg of silver.


It was donated to the Ponsonby Cruising Club (PCC) by Sir Thomas Lipton in 1920. A keen and very competitive sailor, he liked promoting the sport in even the most far-flung corners of the British Empire. He left it to the locals here to decide which class of yacht would be used to compete for the trophy – the honour fell to the 22-foot L-class mullet boat.

Competition to lift the Cup in triumph at PCC’s annual regatta is always fierce. Confusingly, the event is segmented because the mullet boats themselves have evolved over the years, varying in length and rig. Today they are broadly divided into four classes: N class (20ft), L class (22ft), I Class (24ft) and H class (26ft). Any boats not fitting these dimensions fall into the O class. Most sport aluminium Marconi rigs, though others carry the traditional gaff rig. PCC is the administrator of the class.

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This year’s event attracted 13 boats. Corona (H18) triumphed among the gaff riggers, taking line and handicap honours. Orion II (L53) – from PCC – prevailed in the Interclub competition, taking line honours, with Tere Kanae (L47 – Taikata Yacht Club) winning on handicap. Corona (H18) triumphed among the gaff riggers, taking line and handicap honours.


Ron Copeland – a former PCC commodore (and walking-talking mullet boat encyclopaedia) believes more than a hundred mullet boats were built over the years and estimates only 40 or so remain – mostly at PCC. Some have suffered the ultimate indignity – a conversion to an engine-powered launch. Sadly, many of the survivors are in desperate need of a little TLC.

Mullet boat? This humble species of fish doesn’t sound like a particularly grand or appropriate association for such a fine piece of silverware. “They’re known as mullet boats because they were originally designed for fishing – and mullet in particular – around the shallow estuaries of the Hauraki Gulf,” explains Copeland.

“Crewed by two men, they were simple vessels built to carry plenty of fish – beamy and flat-bottomed for stability, with an iron plate centreboard and about a ton of internal ballast. But they carried a prodigious amount of sail. The boats that got to Auckland’s downtown wharves first – where the fish were weighed and sold – obviously stood the best chance of turning a tidy profit.


“That need-for-speed evolved into fierce competition among the crews, and when engine-driven fishing boats eventually replaced the sail-powered vessels, the mullet boats lived on as a recreational racing class. They were all kauri constructed, though in later years a handful of fibreglass hulls were produced.”

Copeland has a deep association with the mullet boats – he has sailed on many, restored a few and has personally saved some from certain oblivion – he knows the fleet’s history intimately. “Valeria – built in 1913 – was the winner of the inaugural Lipton Cup, but the most prolific winner was Tamariki (1934). She won 20 races from 21 starts – pretty impressive stuff. Every mullet boat is different, reflecting the skills and whims of its builder. Tamariki’s builder, Charles Collings, got the equation just right – she became a legend.”


Inevitably, many of New Zealand’s crack designers and builders of the period got involved with mullet boats as the racing become more competitive – the list includes the Baileys, Logans and Collings.

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While the mullet legacy includes plenty of colourful drama – Copeland reckons most boats in the fleet have been underwater at some point in their lives! – it’s fair to say New Zealand’s yacht racing heritage owes much to those competitive fishermen.

Long may the mullets continue. BNZ