New Zealand - a sailing nation

New Zealand sailors have claimed, over the years, most of the top international sailing trophies including the America's Cup and Whitbread Race.

Examine any international yachting racing crew, and there's usually a New Zealander on board - for a small country, New Zealand is disproportionally represented at major sailing events as Kiwi yachtsmen take their places in teams from around the world.

Over the years, New Zealand sailors have won most of the top international trophies - sometimes several times over - including the America's Cup, the Whitbread Race, the Admiral's Cup, the Kenwood Cup, the Southern Cross Cup, all the Ton cups and various others.

At a conservative count, New Zealand yachtsmen have won more than 60 world titles and - with 18 medals - yachting is also the country's most successful Olympic sport.

There's no simple answer to the secret of New Zealand's sailing successes but there are some defining factors: dedication from an early age, constant exposure to strong local competition, and a highly competent marine industry, all help nurture active sailors and play their part.

New Zealand - an island nation
Geography also has to do with it. As an island nation, New Zealand's maritime traditions are deep rooted - from the earliest Polynesian settlers who migrated across the mighty Pacific, and the Europeans who voyaged from the other side of the world. ­ New Zealand's rugged terrain and relative isolation also demanded self-reliance.

Dependent on the sea for trade and communications, New Zealanders were forced to build seaworthy, reliable boats and to develop a deep understanding of seamanship.

No part of New Zealand is far from the coast and, from its thousands of bays and coves, New Zealanders venture forth from an early age in all manner of boats.

Auckland is known as the 'city of sails', and an often quoted - though difficult to prove - statistic is that there are more boats per capita in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world.

Do-it-yourself Kiwis
New Zealand is known as a nation of do-it-yourselfers, and home-built boats are commonplace.

Unlike other parts of the world, sailing in New Zealand has never been an elitist pursuit. Many of New Zealand's top sailors began their careers in boats that emerged from hours of devoted labour in garages and backyard sheds.

The late Sir Peter Blake, for example, whose sailing successes included the America's Cup, Whitbread Race and Jules Verne trophy, tested his mother's patience and ruined her flower beds by building his first boats in the family garden.

Boat designer Bruce Farr, whose yachts have won most of the world's top yachting silverware, first produced lightning fast dinghies and skiffs in the family shed.

Many others have similar stories. Peter Lester, formerly high performance director for Yachting New Zealand, came from a similar background and went on to reap international success competing and coaching.

"Easy access to the water and boats, a temperate climate and a vast coastline all play a big role in the development of our sailors," Lester says. "It is a very natural part of the New Zealand experience to go to the beach and play in or on the water."

Yachting New Zealand seeks to identify new and emerging young talent at regattas run by the network of more than 120 sailing clubs around New Zealand.

Unique P-Class dingy
Any discussion of New Zealand's sailing success inevitably turns to the unique locally-designed P-Class dinghy.

Quirky, cramped, difficult to sail, often maintained to furniture-like standard, the P-Class is generally cited as the fountainhead of New Zealand sailing.

This technical little single-hander has launched the careers of most of New Zealand's top sailors. It features in the stories of Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker, Chris Dickson, Sir Russell Coutts, Sir Peter Blake, Peter Lester, Grant Dalton, Leslie Egnot ... the list is endless.

Every weekend, keen Kiwi families set off to regattas, their car trailers laden with P-Classes, sometimes stacked four on top of each other. On shore, parents fuss over the rigging, launch their offspring off to do battle, then wade back to pace up and down the beach while muttering instructions.

Promising young sailors compete at top P-Class events where competition is intense and invaluable lessons learned. From the P-Class, the progression follows a line of dinghies leading into the Olympic classes.

Royal NZ Yacht Squadron youth programme
The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, based in Auckland, introduced a youth programme in 1986 that was designed as a gateway to transition promising young sailors from centreboarders to keelboats.

The programme was born out of the 1986 - 87 America's Cup in Fremantle, where it had become apparent that there was limited training and preparation of young people to follow in the footsteps of elite sailors.

Hundreds of young sailors, male and female, have passed through the programme, learning keelboat handling skills in both fleet racing and match racing formats.

The programme, which has been emulated at other New Zealand clubs, operates on a 12-month cycle with a rigorous training curriculum that includes more than 200 races. Students race in a fleet of 10 identical Elliott 6m yachts - waterborne hot-rods that require premium boat-handling skills.

Graduates of the RNZYS programme are in high demand for senior keelboat racing, and are well represented at the top of international racing, including Team New Zealand and other syndicates.

In a sense, New Zealand is becoming a victim of its own training success, where its own trophy collection is now threatened by fellow New Zealanders who, having progressed through the local ranks, have emerged at the top of their sport ­ to be snapped up by teams from rival nations.

More information

NZ yachting hero - Sir Peter Blake

NZ's sea-going love affair

New Zealand & the America's Cup