Ben Mayall was well-known as a competitive centreboard yachtsman just before and after the Great War. The Mayalls and the Couldreys were Northcote families who gained strong connections with Arch Logan, the wizard of Ngataringa Bay, across on the eastern shore of Shoal Bay. By Harold Kidd.

Ben was the seventh son of master mariner Capt.

George Mayall of Northcote and his wife Annie, who had 11 children in all. Born in Lancashire in 1852, George Mayall emigrated to New Zealand with his family around 1870 where they initially had a sheep farm at Tryphena, Great Barrier Island.

George married in 1877, obtained his master’s ticket, and by 1883 the family were at Thames. His career included spells as master of the scows Portland and Alert and as first mate of the Bailey & Lowe-built ketch Edna, part-owned by the Couldreys.

Ben was born at Northcote in October 1892 and left Northcote School at 13. He went to sea, probably on his father’s commands. At the outbreak of WWI in August 1914 he was ashore working at the Colonial Sugar Company at Chelsea. In March 1915 he volunteered for the Army. Ben took part in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on the Somme. On 15th September 1916 he was part of an advance across no-man’s-land to the German lines, supposedly with the support of the first tanks to see fighting. They failed badly.


His service record says “While advancing from German 1st line to 2nd line, was wounded by Machine gun bullet in left shoulder. In a few minutes arm felt useless. Admitted to No 1 N.Z.G.H.” The bullet had entered the right side of his chest and exited through his left shoulder. It was a ‘blighty’ for Ben, but 650 of his comrades died and 2,000 were wounded in this brief action, men walking into massed German 7.92mm MG08 (‘Spandau’) machine guns.


After an operation at Hornchurch Hospital to remove nerve endings from scar tissue, mobility in Ben’s left arm improved. He arrived back in Auckland on the hospital ship Maheno in May 1917. He took work as a carpenter and later became a house builder. He married Francesca (Francie) Denz in 1918.

The paired marine suburbs of Northcote and Birkenhead on the north shore of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour were breeding grounds for yachtsmen with their ready access to sheltered bays and their proximity to the yachting hubs at Freeman’s Bay and St. Mary’s Bay on the south shore of the harbour. Sulphur Beach, where he lived, had several boatbuilding establishments. Ben Mayall could not escape becoming a yachtsman.


No doubt he crewed with many of the local yachtsmen, but the earliest record of him as a yacht owner was with the 16ft open boat Zephyr. Ben raced Zephyr with success from 1913 with the harbour yacht clubs that raced centreboarders at the time – Victoria, North Shore, Ponsonby and Richmond. When Ben enlisted in 1915 he put Zephyr up for sale.


Once he’d returned from his convalescence in England and married Francie, he renewed his passion for centreboard yachting. The current crazes on the Waitemata were for 14-footers, both the square bilge ‘flatties’ and the clinker round bilge ‘14ft One Designs’ that became the Jellicoe or X Class.

But Ben decided to remain in the 16 foot class, a class almost unrestricted except for waterline length, which was active at Victoria, his home club. He commissioned a square bilge yacht from Arch Logan, across Shoal Bay, to race competitively with the existing 10-year old 16 footers. Arch’s concept was radical.

Ignoring waterline length but mindful of weight, he worked on the brief that Ben’s yacht would be the lightest but fastest boat racing in the 16 footer class. Sea Urchin was a square bilge yacht with an overall length of only 14ft 6in but with a newfangled, tall bermudan rig, then called a ‘marconi’ rig, after Sgr Marconi’s tall radio masts of the time.

Victoria Cruising Club

Ben’s first race with Sea Urchin was Opening Day on 15th November 1919. The reduction in waterline length and weight was not an immediate success, but when the top pre-war 16 footers (Atangaiti, Mistral and Mascotte) changed hands, Sea Urchin became scratch boat at Victoria for the 1920 and 1921 seasons.


In late 1921 Ben advertised Sea Urchin for sale from his home in Stafford Road, Northcote. She took a while to sell because she didn’t fit into the rather rigid framework of local length-classes, despite her Logan heritage. F. Simpson and Roy Cutforth of Whangarei bought her. They probably eventually sawed six inches off her stern to race with the Whangarei 14 footers.

Ben had built a new yacht, again of radical design by Arch Logan. Secret was an 18ft round bilge centreboarder of the V Class. Ben had interested help from 15-year old Arnold (Bill) Couldrey who had started an apprenticeship with top boatbuilders Bailey & Lowe at their big shed and yard at the southern end of Sulphur Beach.

Secret’s most striking characteristic was a raised foredeck, designed to provide more comfortable cruising conditions below than the usual Auckland 18, but without sacrificing speed for racing. Again, she carried the efficient bermudan rig that Logan knew was the rig of the future. It was a yacht in which Ben could race competitively in weekends and he and Francie could comfortably cruise the coastline in holidays.

Ben launched Secret in February 1922, too late for the Auckland Anniversary Regatta. In the Victoria Regatta in March she performed so well that she finished ahead of three 22 footers and all the 20 footers. She was soon on scratch in her class with most of the Auckland clubs. Ben and Francie cruised as far north as Russell and spent a lot of time in Waiheke waters.

During the winter of 1923 Ben and Bill Couldrey built another radical Arch Logan design, to dominate the racing V Class. This was Surprise, an 18ft square bilge yacht, a refinement of the George Honour style of 18 footer, then the rage. Like Arch Logan’s landmark 18ft M Class of December 1922, Surprise was bermudan-rigged. She became scratch boat as soon as she was launched in January 1924.


The Auckland Star described her: “Surprise … is easily the most shapely boat in this Class, her coat of neat grey showing her to advantage. She makes little fuss under the bow when running …” Mayall and Couldrey won the Auckland Anniversary Regatta Championship flag in 1926 with Surprise and she had many more victories in her career, which lasted until the 1950s. She too cruised as far north as Russell. Bill Couldrey continued sailing her with great success until 1931 by when he had designed and built a line of 18 footers that dominated the class.

By September 1926 Secret had been eclipsed for racing by Surprise and a new breed of 18 footers. Ben was moving on and had her for sale. He commissioned Arch Logan to design him a new yacht. The NZ Herald of 4th December 1927 reported that “a new keel yacht is being built by Mr B. Mayall of Northcote … the boat is well advanced and her owner expects to have her for the Christmas holidays.”


In fact, it took another year to get her launched from Sulphur Beach. This is the yacht with which Ben and Francie are most closely associated, Owhanga. Ben built her over two years at home in his spare time. She was a pretty, spoon-bowed short ender. Her overall length was 27ft, waterline, 22ft, beam, 8ft6in, draught, 4ft6in. Naturally, she had the bermudan rig that was now displacing the gaff rig in most keel yachts being built.


The Auckland Star said: “…she is a good job. When launched, in spite of the fact that she has been out in the open for five weeks getting her lead cast and other necessary work done, not a drop of water came in.” Francie had done all the puttying and painting.

The couple sailed north on Christmas Eve. They entered the Onerahi Regatta on 1st January 1929 with a poor set of sails, obviously unable to afford a new set. By September 1930 they had their new sails and had installed an auxiliary engine, a 7.5hp A2 Model Kelvin sleeve valve engine with a Kelvin propeller.

Over the next 40 years Ben and Francie did a modest amount of racing, usually in the Anniversary Regatta and the NorthcoteBirkenhead Regatta, with the occasional club race, often with Royal Akarana Yacht Club. But cruising was their lifestyle.

In 1947 they moved to Surfdale on Waiheke Island where Ben carried on as a builder. Ben died in July 1985 at 93 and Francie in 1989 in her 100th year. They had sold Owhanga in 1968 but she is still afloat, I understand, a lasting memorial to Ben and Francie Mayall.

Owhanga under sail