As Team New Zealand flew to victory on Auckland Harbour in early 2021, they were reinforcing this country’s enthusiasm for and mastery of fast, light boats.

Ever since the early days of recreational boating here, Kiwis have been mucking about in skiff-style boats, their lightweight construction and flat-bottomed hulls making them all about speed and thrills.

Designer John Spencer, the king of plywood, brought the world the Cherub and Javelin classes in the 1950s and 60s – both easy to build at home and guaranteed to provide both thrills and spills – while the highly competitive 12 and 18-foot skiff classes have attracted those who like to experiment and push boundaries. Today, despite the concentration on Olympic classes, the introduction of production skiffs such as the 29er and 49er, and international competition pathways for young sailors through classes like the Optimist, there’s still a bunch of hard-core Kiwis who are out there sending it in skiffs.

One of the biggest revivals recently has been in the Cherub class. This 12-foot, two-handed planing dinghy was designed by Spencer in 1951 to compete in the Pennant class, but soon became a class of its own. Its simple construction and ‘bang for buck’ saw it become popular here, and in Australia and the UK, although local fleets had waned since its last major revival in the early 1990s. Now it’s on the way back, thanks to a bunch of enthusiasts including former round-the-world sailor Mike ‘Moose’ Sanderson, who sails one with his son Merrick.

Sanderson’s current Cherub Vamoose, photo Tasman Rowntree.
Vamoose. Photo by Tasman Rowntree.

“I was looking at options boat-wise for something fast, easy and fun to sail with a single trapeze that I could take my then 10-year-old son sailing in,” Sanderson says. “He wasn’t loving his single-handed sailing and so I really just wanted something we could go hooning around in.”

During one of the early Covid lockdowns he found an older boat for sale on TradeMe, “bought it sight unseen and had it kindly delivered to the Auckland border. We did it up in the garage and a couple of weeks later the first Vamoose Cherub went sailing.”


Sanderson says at that stage he had no intention of trying to rebuild the class, but once he posted some pictures of the new boat, it sparked a lot of interest from other families wanting to get their kids out on the water.

“We have really promoted the class to be able to cater to a wide variety of crew make-ups: mums and dads with their kids either crewing or driving, husband-and-wife teams, young couples and youth crews. The boat does a fantastic job with a wide range of weight combos, but the ultimate option is a lighter helm and a taller, heavier crew, so this really helps promote female sailing, which is fantastic.”

Mike Sanderson and son Merrick sailing Vamoose 1 – photo Chris Marsh.
Mike Sanderson bought an older boat off Trade Me for himself and his son, did it up and the first Vamoose went sailing.

In keeping with Spencer’s DIY philosophy, new kitset-build options have been developed, including one on which Sanderson has worked with Christchurch designer Dan Leech. The New Zealand Cherub Owners Association is organising regattas around the country and ‘have a go’ days to encourage more people to enter the class.

“Kiwis like to tinker with boats, that’s just in our DNA. Most of the Cherubs in the New Zealand fleet have become part of the family, having displaced the car from the garage with a few having made it into the living room! A few of us joke that after putting the kids to bed we often go down and just check that the Cherub is OK for the night,” Sanderson says. “The other thing which makes it so special is the history. I don’t think we have ever been on the ramp or beach rigging up the Cherub and not had someone stop and reminisce about their Cherub experience.”

Also springing from the Pennant class but appealing to more technically-minded sailors is what was initially known as Q Class but are now more commonly called 12-foot skiffs, 12-footers or just 12s. Class stalwart Tim Bartlett, now in his 70s, has been sailing them most of his adult life.

“All sailors like the thrill of speed but the skiff sailors tend to be tinkerers and, with fewer rules than most, the 12-foot skiff offers endless possibilities to try different things,” Bartlett says. “We encourage anyone with a pulse to join us but it’s fair to say that many of us have been in the class a long time. That said, there is a growing number of younger guys who appreciate the boats and the culture.


New boats are still being built – Chris Skinner launched a new 12 a year ago – but different shapes don’t seem to be the answer to speed, Bartlett says; the most popular hull design remains the Brendan Egan/Jim Walsh ‘WOOF’, the first of which contested the 1997 Interdominions in Auckland. Quarter of a century on, of the 28 starters at the 2023 Interdominion, 23 were Woofs or slight modifications of the hull shape.

One of the biggest influences keeping the class lively is regular competition with our neighbours over the ditch. Kiwis Alex Vallings and Sam Richardson are the current Interdominion champions (Vallings has won the Silasec Trophy seven times, twice as crew and five times as helm), and Bartlett says the relationship is very important to keeping class competition alive.

“That’s partly because of the enjoyment of a bigger fleet but also the enduring friendships that are developed on the way. An annual international contest means the class always has a series to build towards,” Bartlett says.

Auckland’s Royal Akarana Yacht Club is the class’s main base, having merged with the long-standing Auckland Sailing Club, first established in 1963. ASC was also the home of the even larger and more outrageous 18-foot skiffs. The 18s, with their gigantic rigs, excessive amounts of sail and tendency to crash spectacularly, had a huge public following in the 1950s through to the ’80s, with Kiwi sailors like Bruce Farr, Terry McDell and Don Lidgard engaging in a design arms-war with their Aussie counterparts. Today’s 18-foot skiffs have come a long way from their origins more than 100 years ago, when the Sydney boats used to carry up to 15 crew and 300m2 of sail, but they’re still a vibrant part of the Sydney sailing scene, with their massive wings, huge rigs and three crew on trapeze.

The high cost of campaigning these extreme boats has meant very few Kiwis have dabbled in the class in recent years; the team sailing Honda Marine (Dave McDiarmid, Matt Steven and Brad Collins) won the coveted JJ Giltinan trophy off the Aussies three years running between 2018 and 2020, but haven’t been back since due to Covid disruptions.



However, a team of enthusiasts based at the RAYC are trying to get more teams sailing, and hope to send four crews to the 2024 event, and on to Lake Garda in Italy for the Mark Foy Worlds. Three second-hand boats are currently available for crews to take up without having to make a major financial investment, thanks to the support of Graham Catley, a longterm supporter of the 12 and 18-foot skiff classes. Sponsors are being secured to cover the costs of logistics and promoting the fleet, and a workshop is being set up at Akarana for tinkering and the inevitable repairs.

Skiff supporter Suellen Hurling says the goal is for one day to run the “JJ” series in Auckland once again – although seeing as the Aussies don’t like letting the trophy out of their sight, it might be a big ask.

“We have got a younger generation coming through, and they want to go fast,” Hurling says. “These boats are just cool – cool to sail and great to watch. When you see one launching out of the water, you know what the crash is going to be like. They’re definitely not for the faint-hearted.” BNZ

Xs and Rs

Fourteen-foot racing boats have also had their time in the limelight over the years, developing in various forms in early 1900s into the X class. Yachting historians Harold Kidd, Robin Elliot and David Pardon record that in the mid-twentieth century, the fourteen-foot one-design class was so dominant, “for almost 40 years, newspapers around the country devoted as much space to the Sanders Cup in summer as they did to the Ranfurly Shield in winter.” With the decline of the old-style X class in the 1960s, a John Spencer-designed 14-footer, the Javelin, took over racing for the historic Sanders Cup, first contested in 1921. Manawatū Javelin sailor and class secretary David Brown says the current fleet is spread out across the North Island, with boats in Northland, Auckland, Tauranga, Gisborne, Napier, Manawatū and Wellington. The next Sanders Cup will be held in November at Lake Rotoiti, with Wellington the defending champion.

“The latest boat in our fleet was built in 2018, and we still have another in construction,” Brown says. “The class is so versatile, with skippers weighing 60–100kg and the same for crews, and the boats remaining competitive with the rigs able to be tuned to match. We have had a lot of father-son combinations, usually with the son on the helm, and the range of ages the Javelin caters for is also well spread, with some in their mid-teens and some in their mid-sixties. “The Javelin offers fantastic skiff sailing – a little more forgiving than the 12s and 18s, but will still spit you out when you make a mistake.”

Another hangover from the letter-class days is the R class, originally developed in Canterbury in the 1950s from the T class of the 1930s and still hanging on by its fingernails. Not exceeding 12-foot 9-inches (3.9 m), and with very few class rules and restrictions, it always attracted experimentation. In its heyday was a hotbed of innovation.

“The idea that the hull length and sail area were pretty much all that was needed to set a level playing field was very appealing to the do-it-yourself amateur designers, builders and tinkerers who thrived on trying new ways of making a sailboat faster,” says long-time R sailor Steve MacIntosh. “The simplicity and non-prescriptive nature of the R class rules allowed and encouraged boats to be built very quickly and cheaply by ordinary do-it-yourselfers. Some built a new boat every winter, ensuring a good supply of very cheap secondhand boats.”

Class racing secretary Paul Roe says even with the introduction of foiling a few years ago, only around three or four boats are still sailing regularly, but a fleet still gathers annually to contest the Leander Trophy, named after a famous World War Two warship. February 2024 will see the 74th Leander competition, and the 30th anniversary of the sprint series which started in 1994.