Motor boats powered by internal combustion engines were developed in the 1880s. They were manufactured by inventors who also worked on early motor cars. The two key factors in increasing power-boat speed were powerful propulsion systems and streamlined hull design. Power boats were used mainly for a wide range of private recreation activities, rather than competitive racing. From the 1910s the wide availability of outboard motors (which are mounted outside the hull of the boat) greatly increased the public use of motor boats.
In 1905 the newly formed New Zealand Power Boat Association, based in Auckland, had 60 members and 28 registered boats. Similar associations were formed elsewhere, sometimes affiliated to yacht clubs. While some traditionalists scorned power boats, many early power-boat enthusiasts were also yachtsmen.
On 30–31 January 1909 the Eliza raced the Seabird from Auckland to Russell and back, a distance of around 240 nautical miles (444 kilometres). The race was the result of a £50 wager between Henry Hopper Adams, the Eliza’s owner, and James Reid. Reid’s Seabird was first across the finish line in the inaugural Rudder Cup race, held the previous month. The Eliza, commanded by Captain Edward McLeod, won the Auckland–Russell race in 30 hours 35 minutes, at and average speed of 8 knots in very stormy weather.
The early races
From the early 1900s organised power-boat races were held in New Zealand harbours, such as at Nelson in 1903, Waitematā in 1904 and Lyttelton in 1906. Races were often associated with larger regattas involving yachting and rowing. Cups and prize money gave an added edge to competitions. The Rudder Cup for long-distance ocean races, donated by the American Rudder magazine, was first contested in December 1908. Other races were held on inland waters. Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson region became a popular venue from the early 1920s, and races were held on the Waikato River by the late 1920s. Power-boat races on harbours, lakes and rivers drew large crowds of spectators.
The E. C. Griffith Cup is the annual Australasian Championship, open to all inboard-propeller-driven boats (where the motor is enclosed within the hull). The first race was held off Manly, New South Wales, in 1910. The Griffith Cup was won by Australians until 1949, when Len Southward, in Redhead, won it for New Zealand. Southward held the cup until 1960, when fellow New Zealander Bill Stevenson won driving Mystic Miss. Australians held the cup from 1963 to 1989. Since then the honours have been shared across the Tasman.
Len Southward, DIY champion
Len Southward, vintage-car collector and motor-sports enthusiast, was a significant figure in New Zealand power boating. He built his own speedboat, the Redhead, in 1947–48. Southward drove Redhead to victory in the Masport Cup every year from 1948 to 1958, apart from 1956. He also held the Griffith Cup from 1949 until 1960. On 22 February 1953 Southward drove Redhead to a speed of 101 miles (163 kilometres) per hour, becoming the first person in Australasia to exceed 100 miles (161 kilometres) per hour on the water.
The A. E. Baker Cup, contested since 1965, is an Australasian trophy for hydroplanes – boats designed to skim over the water’s surface. Australian boats originally dominated this competition, but from 2001 to 2012 the Baker Cup was won by New Zealand boats.
The Masport Cup is the principal New Zealand championship race event for power boats. It began in 1925, when the cup was donated by Mason and Porter (Masport) Limited.
In the early years of the 21st century races for the Griffith, Baker and Masport cups have been held on inland waters, such as Lake Karapiro in Waikato.
Organised offshore power-boat racing had its New Zealand debut in 1964, with a 100-mile (161-kilometre) lap race on Auckland Harbour. From the 1970s these races became the domain of specially designed offshore power boats, often powered by outboard motors. As of 2013, the New Zealand Offshore Powerboat Racing Association holds a New Zealand championship consisting of a series of offshore races around the North Island. Most are at sea, but one set of races is held on Lake Taupō.
Thundercat racing involves tunnel-hulled inflatable boats with outboard motors. There are four types of thundercat racing.
- Surf-cross is held at surf beaches in shallow water near the shoreline. Boats race several laps of a rectangular course which runs parallel to the shore.
- Speed circuit is raced on flat water such as lakes, on a course marked by buoys.
- Long haul is long-distance racing on rivers, lakes, or along the coast. These races can cover 100–200 kilometres.
- Surf haul was devised in New Zealand in 2004. Races usually involve two legs of 60 kilometres in each direction, with boats remaining within 200 metres of the shoreline.