The Philip Wilson Story
Philip Wilson’s one of the best Auckland boatbuilders of the modern classic era. He’s built many fine timber boats over his career, many penned by Alan Wright. This is his story.
Born in 1951 in Feilding, Wilson was attracted to boats from an early age. He bought his first, a Plylite 2.4m pram dinghy, aged nine for £18 earned from delivering newspapers. When his friends began sailing P Class dinghies, he converted his pram into a sailing version before building his own P which he raced at Manawatu Sailing Club.
Wilson wanted nothing more than to be a boatbuilder and prior to leaving school in 1967 he wrote to a number of Auckland facilities seeking an apprenticeship. He didn’t get a single reply, which disheartened him a bit.
Following a suggestion, he approached the late Geoff Woodfield of Fleetcraft Marine, who took him on and the pair became good friends. Fleetcraft, incidentally was a division of the Palmerston Extension Ladder Company and is now owned by Woodfield’s son Bruce. Besides ladders, the company also builds oars under the Gull brand.
Over the next four years Wilson gained a solid grounding in plywood production boatbuilding and repairing clinker runabouts. As part of the apprenticeship, he had to attend annual three-week block courses at Auckland’s Technical Institute, now Unitech.
Peter Peal and Alan Wright were his course tutors, and Wilson made a good impression on both when he passed top of all his block courses and won Apprentice of the Year in his final year, 1971.
During all this time Wilson had been building a Wright 32, a bigger, offshore-capable version of the Nova 28, in a shed at his parents’ house in Feilding. With the hull turned over and closed in, Wright came down for a look.
He was sufficiently impressed at Wilson’s workmanship to offer him a boatbuilding partnership, predominately to build his designs. It made good business sense for both: Wright would have someone he trusted to build his designs, while Wilson would have good backing to break into the Auckland boatbuilding scene.
So in 1972 Wright and the 21-year old newly-qualified boatbuilder founded Philip Wilson Boatbuilders. Within weeks they’d received an order for a Wright 36 Nerissa, then a second 36 and two Wright 32s, plus fitting out the first half dozen of the GRP Tasman 20s to kick-start Glyn Jones’s Tasman production operation. Wilson and Wright’s partnership was so successful they shifted to bigger premises within five months.
The next 13 months were hectic. Besides building new timber yachts Wilson fitted timber interiors to 36 GRP Variant 22s moulded by Sandglass Productions. On average, this saw a finished Variant leaving Wilson’s factory every 10 days. “It was the heyday of production boatbuilding,” he recalls. Wright remained a shareholder in the company for the first 18 months then withdrew to enable Wilson to assume sole charge. The pair continued to enjoy a close relationship which endures to this day.
When Variant sales slowed, Wilson built Nova frame packs consisting of laminated frames, backbone, stem and transom. These packs enabled many amateur builders to kick-start their Nova construction.
Wilson built the first Tracker 25 hull, but when Wright decided this was too low-wooded, he built a second with more freeboard. This became the plug for the production moulds for the GRP version. Besides the Tracker, Wilson also built the plugs for the Tropic 15 and Monarch 17 trailer yachts, all of which sold in large numbers.
As a separate business, Wilson founded Marauder Yachts to build the Marauder 28. The first GRP Marauder was exhibited at the 1978 Auckland Boat Show, and Wilson came away with 12 orders.
Meanwhile, one of Wilson’s ex-employees, Bruce Hopwood, had bought Sandglass Productions to build GRP Trackers. Seeking to expand, Hopwood approached Wilson to buy the Marauder operation and the pair signed a contract less than two weeks before Rob Muldoon implemented his now infamous 20 percent Boat Tax.
At the time Wilson was renting 1,114m3 of factory space, had 25 staff, and was at full capacity building a Lotus 10.6, two Lotus 9.2s, a 12m Carino and a Farr 38.
Unfairly, the Boat Tax was applied retrospectively, so the virtually finished Lotus 10.6 had the 20 percent tax applied even though it had been started many months earlier.
It was hugely difficult period. Orders dried up completely and Wilson lost most of his experienced staff and struggled to pay the rent. Fortunately his landlords – three Anglican ministers – kindly allowed him to pay his rent over time, interest free, which took him two years. The moment his lease was up, Wilson moved into a small shed on Hillside Rd.
“The Boat Tax taught me a valuable lesson: nothing lasts forever. We’d been on a pretty good roll till then and were starting to earn some decent money, but with the stroke of a pen we were cut off at the knees. We became very wary from then on.”
Things picked up in 1981 when Wilson finished a Farr 38 from a Compass Yachts-moulded GRP hull, which became Warringa. The client was car dealer Hugh Berry, who was so pleased with
Warringa he gave Wilson a brand-new Fiat 131 as a gift. The following year, Berry ordered a Farr 44 from Wilson, which became Wirruna, and upon her completion gave him another new car.
“Those two jobs got us going again,” says Wilson. “Hugh was my best-ever customer.”
In 1982 Wilson started building the Laurie Davidson-designed Grand Prix, a 14.3m fast cruiser developed from Riada and Riada II. Kauri construction was specified and Wilson eventually found seven kauri trees for sale in the bush two miles from the nearest road. After a great deal of work he was able to fell and transport these to Lane’s Sawmillers, who told him one of the trees were the largest kauri they’d seen in 50 years.
Wilson, Colin Henwood and Mike Pearce built Grand Prix over 13 months, the hull being planked with one skin fore and aft, covered by two diagonal skins, then glassed.
“It’s a fantastic way to build a yacht. Actually she [ Grand Prix] was the most satisfying yacht I ever built. We had a free hand, the three of us had worked together for years and we all knew what we were doing.”
After this he built the Farr 38 Magic Dragon, two Wright 11s, Quiet Riot and Tuxedo Junction, and three GRP Lotus 1280s.
Then with a partner and an investment syndicate, Wilson built a four-building commercial complex. One was intended for himself, the other three as investments. He finished the complex the day before the 1987 stock market crash, leaving him with no work and two empty buildings. Wilson survived, but it was another tough couple of years.
Wilson’s first decent contract after this period was building the Alan Mummery-designed, 45’ IOR racer Icefire, built for Malcolm Learner. Constructed in GRP composite, Icefire has since been sold in Australia where she is still being raced.
Wilson’s next projects were completely different; fitting out a steel Denis Ganley yacht and then three Wright sailing cats for the charter industry. Wilson also built the deck plugs for the Wright power cat produced by Mcdell Marine, and fitted cruising interiors to two 50’ IOR race yachts, Will and Champosa.
In the early 1990s, Wilson and Wright built two Wright 650 Sports yachts, which they eventually gifted to the Gulf Harbour Yacht Club for youth training.
By now Wilson had built over 160 boats, 142 of them being Wright designs. But after 27 years in business he’d had enough and in 1999 he closed his boatbuilding doors and sold off all his plant. Was this a sad day? “It was a fantastic day and I was really happy!”
It was time for something less stressful. Wilson skippered a power cat for the 2000 America’s Cup before founding a boat hire business using six Fi-glass runabouts. By 2005 he’d had enough of the dramas of hiring runabouts to the general public, so he sold
them off and set up two Pelin launches, a Challenger and a Ranger, as bareboat charters.
Besides doing all the maintenance on both launches, Wilson’s picked up a few tricks to avoid dramas. From his phone, for example, he can pinpoint each launch at any given moment as well as its speed.
Thanks to his reputation he’s picked up some interesting projects, for example overseeing the fitting out of Graham Kendall’s Elliott 12 yacht, Austral Express, in which Kendall successfully circumnavigated via the Northwest Passage. Wilson also manages the maintenance and operation of the 22.8m luxury charter motor yacht, Escapade.
As a retirement project, Wilson has nigh finished restoring a Seacraft 17’ runabout. This particular boat has history, being built by Seacraft especially for the Queen Mother’s 1963 visit to New Zealand, which unfortunately was cancelled at the last minute.
After discovering the Seacraft in a shed in Northland, Wilson has restored the hull, cabin and interior. The major outstanding job is installing twin Toyota engines and V-drive gearboxes.
Wilson’s story mirrors the up and down nature of New Zealand boatbuilding of the modern classic era. From the heyday of production boatbuilding in the 1970s, to the horrors of the boat tax, the share market collapse and other events, only the strong and determined remained afloat.
Unlike many, Wilson survived those events and was able to retire on his own terms. The reasons for this are many and varied, yet they hold lessons for any boatbuilder today. Excellent boatbuilding skills, a solid work ethic and good financial nous are all essential, but as Wilson has demonstrated you need more.
A supportive wife, excellent partnerships, an affable nature, work flexibility and a willingness to go the extra mile for customers are equally important. And, as demonstrated by recent events in the USA, it pays to have a plan B for when government unexpectedly changes the rules.
During his career Wilson created a reputation for quality. The many fine timber craft he has built will remain his legacy to New Zealand boatbuilding for many years to come. B
The first Tracker. Yes, they could be towed.
ABOVE: Wilson with his Plylite pram and self-built launching trolly in 1961. RIGHT: Wright 11 Quiet Riot