An idiosyncratic man and his idiosyncratic boat.
There aren’t a lot of gaff-rigged, double-ended ketches with aft wheelhouses on the New Zealand coast, so the Kelvin sticks out like a kahawai in a goldfish bowl.
And veteran skipper, Dave Jones, is reticent to talk about himself. But once the conversation shifts to the Kelvin, or wooden boats, his words flow in a flood-tide of facts, figures, adventures and yarns.
“Steve Carey built her in 1929 at Carey’s Bay in Port Chalmers,” he begins. “She’s 1¼” (32mm) kauri planking on, I think, Japanese oak ribs. The backbone, keelson, engine bearers and other structural pieces are hardwood – and she’s fastened with copper rivets.”
She’s not that much older than me, the 82-year old skipper adds. He’s well-known for his daily breakfast fare of porridge and garlic but hesitates to credit this for his longevity and vigour.
About the time Kelvin was nearing completion, a local farmer, Alex Gunn, was diagnosed with lung problems and was advised by his doctor to breathe plenty of fresh sea air.
“So he bought the Kelvin,” says Dave. “Her first engine was a petrol-fired Kelvin – which apparently wasn’t too reliable – but at least the boat got a name from it.”
Like most boats of her vintage, Kelvin is long (42’4” – 12.9m) and slim (10’3” – 3.2m beam) and draws five feet (1.5m) with a slippery underwater shape to get the most from the moderate horsepower engines of the time.
A venerable Bolinder two-cylinder oil engine which developed about 30hp replaced the troublesome Kelvin – and enabled her to ply her trade as an open cockpit day boat fishing out of Port Chalmers. Later she was converted into the first small trawler in Dunedin.
For years Kelvin fished that unforgiving coastline, skippered by Edward Athfield. “I still keep in touch with his daughter, Edna Wheeler,” Dave says. “She’s about 100 years old – but can still remember Kelvin being launched.”
After years of work the Bolinder finally called it quits and snapped a crankshaft while working at Long Beach, Blueskin Bay. Dave fossicks around Kelvin’s aft cabin for the original logbook and flops it open to a well-thumbed page. “Towed out of surf by FV Awatea (R.d.ledgerwood skipper) after main crankshaft broke,” reads the laconic entry. Too few words to fully describe what must have been a fairly harrowing rescue. “It was the first of the Kelvin’s nine lives,” Dave says. Her next power plant was a 371 GM diesel with
3.5:1 transmission – the GM’S 113hp was more suited to her role as an inshore trawler and she was sold to well-known Timaru fisherman, Don Latimer, who fished her for the next 20 years.
“The story gets a bit vague after that,” says Dave. “She had various owners and engines and was used for scallop dredging, line fishing and trawling until she ended up in Nelson. I’m amazed by the number of people who come up to us and say they used to fish in her.
“In 1989, she was coming back into Nelson cut in thick fog – no radar. They heard on the VHF that a merchant ship was also coming into the cut – so they pulled over to give her room. But they went too far and Kelvin smashed up on the boulder bank. The boat sat there, grinding up and down for a week or so, while negotiations with the insurers dragged on.
“Her starboard side was stoved in – they salvaged the engine and cut off the wheelhouse – but it floated away.” When the boat was finally dragged off the jagged boulders she sat beside a wharf in Nelson with the tides flowing through her. She was declared a total loss.
Meanwhile, a young boatbuilding apprentice with an eye for sweet hull form and a love of traditional wooden vessels began to take an interest in the battered veteran. Tommy Poynton had been raised by Dave and his partner Kathy Mead at Whakatahuri in the Marlborough Sounds. It was an upbringing immersed in boat culture; boats being worked on, discussed, critiqued and sailed.
“He was keen on being a boatbuilder,” Dave recalls, “so I rang [Nelson wooden boatbuilder] Jack Guard. “Well,” Jack said, “I don’t really need an apprentice right now – does he know about boats?”