Mullets a lifelong passion
At the end of every summer for the last 90 years a fleet of mullet boats can be seen in the Waitemata Harbour racing for the magnificent Lipton Cup.
The hotly contested trophy stands taller than the America’s Cup and was forged from sterling silver by the same British jewellers as its famous counterpart.
Donated to the Ponsonby Cruising Club by tea-baron Sir Thomas Lipton in 1922, the cup boasts intricate patterns of winged mermaids, tiny seahorses and is topped by a sculpture of a miniature yacht.
Throughout the year it resides alongside more modest trophies in a glass cabinet at the Westhaven-based club.
But each March it comes out for the Lipton Cup race.
David Nigh, a life-member of the club’s mullet boat committee, credits the cup with keeping ‘‘mulletie’’ culture afloat.
‘‘The 22-foot class has survived because of that trophy, the Lipton Cup,’’ Mr Nigh says.
‘‘That is what has kept them alive.’’
Now in his older years, Mr Nigh was first hooked into mullet boats as a fresh-faced 13-year-old.
‘‘I was fishing off Ponsonby wharf and this chap came down the wharf with a sail and a dozen beer. He told me to give him a hand, so I grabbed the beer. I ended up going sailing on the Marika, which was quite a big thrill.’’
Since those days he has owned three mullet boats, two of which were custom-built.
Unique to the Auckland region, mullet boats are a working-class boat said to have originated around the 1880s.
The vessels range from 18 to 26 feet in length and are characterised by their flat bottoms and disproportionately large sails.
‘‘They probably carry the most sail area for their size in the world,’’ Mr Nigh says.
Because of their ability to travel in the shallows, the boats were originally used to sail up estuaries and net mullet fish.
The fishermen would race back to shore to obtain the best price from the markets.
Sailors soon realised the nimble crafts were the perfect racing boat, and held regular races around the harbour and to the surrounding islands.
It was in the early 1920s that Sir Thomas Lipton announced he would be gifting six bespoke cups to clubs around the world.
Sir Thomas was a devout sailor and unsuccessfully attempted the America’s Cup five times.
His efforts earned him a specially designed cup for ‘‘the best of all losers’’ and made his tea brand famous.
The Ponsonby Cruising Club members employed a little trickery to obtain one of the donated trophies from Sir Thomas for its mullet boat races, Mr Nigh says.
‘‘The story goes they lined up outside the Esplanade Hotel in Devonport, which was a flash building in those days, and so he got this photo and thought it was very impressive. But the real yacht club was an old tin shed in St Mary’s Bay.’’
Since 1922 the cup has been presented to the winning team of the annual race.
Traditionally the winners drank rum from the trophy, says life-time committee member Kevin Gunn.
Mr Gunn says the practice is frowned upon these days, but that didn’t stop 2012 cup winner Rob Algie and his six-strong team from giving it a go.
‘‘We drank rum out of it once all the old guys left,’’ Mr Algie says, conceding that the wings caused a bit of a problem.
Mr Algie fell in love with mullet boats about nine years ago after reading a book about them.
He says the challenge and camaraderie is what makes racing the boats so fun.
‘‘They are just such hard work,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s like a good game of cards, if you mess up you really mess up. No one wants to go swimming, but you get pretty close sometimes.’’
Mr Algie co-owns a kauriplank mullet boat called Tamatea with three other young men.
He had attempted winning the Lipton Cup on other boats a few times, but it was in the 2012 race with Tamatea that he finally snagged the cup.
‘‘It was like one of dreams.’’
Despite having the Lipton Cup race ticked off his bucket list, Mr Algie says he won’t be walking away from mullet boats anytime soon.
‘‘There is a legacy of rad old dudes that have kept racing, who have been at the helm in their 80s. So I can see me going for a while.’’
Smooth sailing: Right, 22-foot mullet boat Tamatea took first place in the 2012 Lipton Cup race. Sterling silver: Left, the prestigious Lipton Cup was gifted to the Ponsonby Cruising Club by Sir Thomas Lipton in 1922.
Race day: Mullet boats take over the Waitemata Harbour on race day.
Life members: Kevin Gunn, left, and David Nigh were hooked into mullet boats as young men and are now life-members on the mullet boat committee.