Back to top anchor
Close main menu
Open main menu Close main menu
Lipton Cup

Lipton Cup about to hit century mark

Issue date

Whether it was by cunning or cogency, no one is really sure, but the Ponsonby Cruising Club were given a magnificent trophy in 1920 that will be contested for the 100th time next month.

The 100th running of the Lipton Cup takes place on March 20, when the biggest fleet in the event's recent history is expected to compete.

The Lipton Cup is New Zealand’s oldest yachting trophy competed for by the same class. The race is sailed in 22ft L-Class yachts, commonly referred to as mullet boats, and some of the race fleet are now well over 100 years old.

The Lipton Cup trophy was made by the same London silversmiths who made the America's Cup and donated by Sir Thomas Lipton, who in 1905 was made a vice president of the Ponsonby Cruising Club. The club approached him for a trophy, and he had the Lipton Cup made.

This is where facts are a little sketchy.

It was said that club members sent a photo, perhaps cunningly, of the committee standing outside Devonport's Esplanade Hotel and that Lipton was suitably impressed by what he thought was their clubrooms that he created such a striking trophy. Others say Lipton recognised something of himself in the working-class membership of the Ponsonby Cruising Club.

Lipton was famous for challenging for the America's Cup five times and dubbed by the Americans as the "world's best loser" for his sportsmanship and determined efforts to win the Cup.

The only stipulation Lipton put on the trophy was that it was competed for by a specific class so the Ponsonby Cruising Club settled on mullet boats and raced the inaugural Lipton Cup on April 8, 1922.

It has been raced every year, even during World War II and even in 2020 when Covid-19 derailed many regattas (it was delayed from March until December).

Valeria, which was built in 1913, won that first race and, amazingly, will not only be a starter next month when it's hoped up to 20 boats will compete but will also be competitive. Valeria last triumphed in 2015 and was fourth last year.

Valeria has won the Lipton Cup seven times but Tamariki remains the most successful boat, with 13 wins. 

Initially mullet boats were, as the name suggests, used as fishing boats in the late 1800s. Crew needed a fast vessel to race back to the Auckland wharves to sell the mullet they had caught in the Hauraki Gulf and the 400 square feet of cotton sails on a high peaked gaff rig meant it was one of the fastest boats in the fleet.

Many of the skippers of the fishing boats were in demand as mullet boats became popular racing boats and their place as pleasure and racing yachts was further heightened when engine-powered fishing boats emerged in the early 1900s.

Mullet boats were soon the highest profile racing boat on Auckland Harbour, with up to 70 mullet boats in five classes from 18-26 feet racing regularly.

As many as 37 mullet boats competed in the 1924 Auckland anniversary day regatta and numbers were still strong 25 years later when nearly 30 boats took part.

One of the most notable Lipton Cup results was in 1928 when Valeria and Varuna finished in a dead heat, even after four hours of racing, and in 1940 all racing on the harbour was cancelled because of stormy weather - except the Lipton Cup.

One fairly well-known sailing trophy will be decided next month, when Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli battle for the America's Cup.

It is high-tech sailing but soon after there will be a race to illustrate cutting-edge sailing of a century ago. And it still takes cunning to win.

  • See here for more information on the Lipton Cup.