Most of us got a bit bored during lockdown and bought a few things online that we really didn’t need . . . but a grand prix race boat? That’s pretty hard to hide in the back of the wardrobe. Sarah Ell investigates.

Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron commodore Aaron Young wasn’t the only one. His mate and former commodore Steve Mair did the same thing, and now two other Kiwi owners have got in on the act. Four near-new Melges 40 one-design race boats have found their way downunder and are forming the basis of a new 12-metre division on Auckland Harbour.

The Melges 40 was designed by Spaniard Marcelino Botin and Botin Partners Naval Architects. Five boats were built by Premier Composite Technologies in Dubai, and the new class was supposed to ‘revolutionise’ one-design racing, with a circuit of windward-leeward, owner-driver regattas around Europe set up to alternate with the TP52 circuit. But after the first boats were launched in 2017 the circuit never really got off the ground, and the project fizzled out.
Still, for every crisis there is an opportunity, and that came in the form of affordable, barely-used race boats looking for a new home. Young’s brother Steve, who works for Southern Spars in Europe, told him several of the boats might be available at a good price, so Young got in touch with a couple of the owners and made ‘a cheeky offer’. “Twenty-four hours later, the deal was done,” he says.
And then he told his wife? Young laughs – “Well, actually no – she found out a bit later.”

Young’s enthusiasm was infectious, and the next person to sign up was Mair, who felt he had reached the end of what he wanted to achieve with his Bakewell-White 37 Clockwork, after three years of campaigning, culminating in winning the 2020 Round the North Island race on PHRF.
“After we finished the RNI it was just back to the same old, same old, and I realised we were still just a 37-footer trying to beat 40-footers,” says Mair. “I didn’t really have any more goals to achieve with the boat.
“We’d done a Saturday winter series race [between lockdowns] and broke a couple of things. I’d been talking to Aaron about his boat, and I decided then and there to put Clockwork on TradeMe. It sold within days, and we decided we’d buy the Melges that same night.”
Young’s boat came from Sweden – it was originally called Inga – and features the outline of a shapely Swedish lass on the winch covers. Mair’s boat is from near Genoa in Italy (it started life as Stig). Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the boats were packed up and shipped in July, with Young commissioning Checkmate in late September and Mair launching the replacement Clockwork right before her debut race, the Coastal Classic.
Since Young and Mair started the ball rolling, two other local owners snapped up two of the three remaining Melges, and the fifth boat has gone to Australia. John Cobb’s Sikon also competed in the Coastal, while Howie Spencer’s Menace was last to arrive, after being held up by shipping strikes in Sydney.
Newly launched the boats cost around US$1.5 million but it’s fair to say the Kiwi owners picked them up for considerably less. It has been a bit of a lucky dip in terms of what came with the boats: Inga (now Clockwork) came with 23 sails and a container full of spares; Mair’s boat had plenty of good sails but not so many accessories. “We basically didn’t know what we were getting till they got here,” Mair says.
The four boats will form the core of a new ‘40-footer’ racing division at RNZYS, covering performance boats from around 35 to 42 feet, similar to the Super 12 class on Sydney Harbour.

Young at the helm of Clockwork.

“That 40-foot size is really where it’s at – it’s always been a popular size in New Zealand over the years,” Young says. “We had some discussion with the other 40-footer owners who wanted to set up their own division. We needed to get six boats to get our own start but we’ve currently got nine, and we think we can get 12 or so.
“It’s a good size – you only need eight or nine crew rather than 13 or 14 for a 50-footer – they’re easier to manage, lower loads on everything and less expensive overall to run.”
Originally Young and Mair’s plan had been to keep their boats the same and run a two-boat programme, but other owners have different goals so the fleet won’t remain truly one-design. So far though their performance seems very equal, although Mair’s crew came out on top by four minutes in the Coastal.
Checkmate is named after one of the first boats Young remembers sailing with his father – a One-Tonner launched in 1977 and designed by his grandfather, the legendary Jim Young. Jim Young passed away in June, but he knew the new Checkmate was on the way.
“I did tell him just before he died that I was getting back into a racing boat, and he said ‘I hope it foils’. I said I didn’t manage to get a foiling boat, but it is a canter. He replied that it was lucky I was commodore of the squadron, because they banned him when he was sailing Fiery Cross!” This was New Zealand’s first-ever canting keel boat, a boat well ahead of its time which Young designed and built in the late 1950s.

At first glance, you can tell these boats mean business. Unfettered by the need to measure well under IRC, they’re designed to go fast rather than rate well against other types of boats. With very low freeboard, no cabin, twin rudders and a powerful hull shape, it has a deep, canting keel and a very large sail plan to take advantage of the stability this provides. The mainsail is 72m2, number one jib 49m2 and the gennaker 200m2.
The cockpit is huge – basically the whole width of the boat – and open. The traveller runs across the transom, and there’s a grinding pedestal behind the tiller to provide extra power to the rear winches.
There is no interior to speak of, just a carbon fibre shell dominated by the wet box for the canting keel. Lines and sheets run below deck to keep the working area clear, and rope tails are kept tidy on drums down here too.
The boats were ostensibly designed for windward-leeward racing, but with a canting keel and twin rudders they also reach at pace. Mair and Young have both added a North Sails FR0 (fractional code zero) to their inventory to cover off the reaching involved in much harbour and coastal racing out of Auckland.
Getting ready for a Wednesday night race takes a bit more prep than setting up your average boat. Because the yachts are not antifouled, they live on floating cradles which are pumped up and down. Sail selection is critical – each jib covers only a small wind range – and at this early stage there are lots of systems to sort out and get to know, including the push-button hydraulic canting keel.


On the night we go for a sail, there’s a 15-knot northerly – the most breeze the boat has been out in here so far – and we are hoping for some good rides. We get a sense of the acceleration and speed potential in a few good puffs but unfortunately it softens throughout the race and in the end we don’t get the thrills we hoped for.
The following weekend, however, Young and Mair both went out for a Gold Cup race and racked up speeds of 20 knots on a reach under the FR0. You get the impression that things happen fast and the crew will have to be on their toes – and be prepared to get quite wet.
The first big showdown will be the CRC Bay of Islands Race Week in late January, where all four boats will line up on windward-leeward and bay racing courses. In the meantime, the new owners and crews are getting to grips with their new weapons, sailing evening harbour series, rum races and the Gold Cup inshore series – and having a lot of fun tackling the new challenge.
“The great thing for me is we’ve got the same crew we’ve had for ages, and that’s a big part of it and what I find most enjoyable,” Mair says. “The boat’s just a way to get a group of good people together and have a good time.”

*A note on pronunciation: we Kiwis tend to say Mel-jess or Mel-jizz, while Americans say Melgus. And is the plural therefore Melgees or Meljesus?