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.

Boating NZ - - Retrosr And Classics - Photos cour­tesy Philip Wil­son and John Mac­far­lane

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

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