Last month’s column explored the danger New Zealand faces in losing its traditional timber boatbuilding skills – they’re not being passed onto the next generation. For a nation renowned for its hands-on, practical skills, how has this happened?
A heritage facing extinction
There are several reasons, not least is that the current generation of parents generally aren’t doing anything like the amount of DIY their own parents did. Three to four decades ago the sight of a hull-and-deck being finished off at home was commonplace, as were owners carrying out major home extensions and maintaining their own cars.
Today’s parents rarely tackle these DIY projects and so their children don’t have role models from whom to learn these practical skills first-hand.
This trend’s aggravated by a schooling system which over the past few decades has encouraged students to favour university rather than a trade. A complicating factor is many schools are struggling to recruit technology teachers to teach practical skills, a concern as most technology teachers are now aged over 50.
Another related influence can be traced back to 1992 when the National Government replaced the 1983 Apprenticeship Act – a time-based, fairly regimented apprenticeship system – with the Industry Training Act, a more flexible, industry-led apprenticeship system.
There’s still debate over the success of this change: unquestionably, while the current system works well in training specialist skills for sub-industries, it has limitations with regard to general skills.
For example, a boatbuilding apprentice under the old system would have been taught everything from lofting to building, through to launching a boat, including building its interior, installing engine(s) and other onboard systems. These days, a boatbuilding apprentice might only be trained in one specific skill, such as laying up GRP, gel coat polishing or installing fittings.
Of course, the issue of teaching specialised, segmented knowledge as opposed to a solid grounding in all aspects of a particular trade isn’t unique to boatbuilding; nationally the trend is towards specialised sub-trades.
Many businesses find it more profitable to train someone over a few months to perform one specialist skill and have them performing at full speed, rather than train someone for four years before they’re fully operational.
A more mobile, less loyal workforce has only reinforced this trend – why spend four years training an apprentice only to lose them to another company? Many companies have ceased apprenticeships for this reason.
Sadly, this approach, while seemingly more profitable in the short term, inevitably leads to a lowering of skill levels which has massive long-term costs.
Taking this thought further, examples of taking short-term gains regardless of any long-term cost is endemic in politics, business, building, construction, finance, health, the planet and its environment. Given that, it’s hardly surprising apprentice training has taken a back seat in many industries.
Bringing these thoughts back to traditional timber boatbuilding, this industry’s reached a crossroads. Should timber boat enthusiasts accept this industry is a dinosaur and let it go, or should this crossroads be treated as an opportunity to change course?
If the New Zealand marine industry is happy to see traditional timber boatbuilding die out, nothing different is required because that’s happening right now. But if we’re to save traditional timber boatbuilding as a viable trade for the future, the issue needs to be addressed in a coherent, integrated manner. We need to increase the market for traditional timber boatbuilding. In short, multiply or die.
The fact that there are thriving traditional timber boatbuilding centres in Hobart (Australia), Port Townsend (USA) and South-west England shows what can be done.
Picture for a moment a vision of what Auckland could offer timber boat enthusiasts within a decade. It’s 2029. Auckland’s rapidly developing a worldwide reputation as an excellent place to own, use, build and restore wooden boats, or to learn traditional timber boatbuilding.
A fleet of several hundred traditional timber boats – power
...if we’re to save traditional timber boatbuilding as a viable trade for the future, the issue needs to be addressed...
and sail – are in regular use on the Waitemata Harbour and Hauraki Gulf. There are racing and cruising events throughout the year, promoted and organised through sophisticated, electronic social media.
This is supported by an organised, structured system to recruit children, teenagers and adults to experience classic boating. Thanks to this, the myth that yachting’s only for rich people is changing and people are realising anyone interested in classic boating can be involved for no more input than their time and energy.
Much of the classic boat fleet is maintained from a working waterfront yard within Westhaven Marina, staffed by professional boatbuilders and their apprentices. This yard’s open to public viewing. Upstairs, apprentices are being trained in traditional timber boatbuilding and there are regular block courses in these skills for both local and overseas students. There’s a fleet of classic timber boats moored in an adjacent marina.
A bigger boatyard is located in an industrial area for larger, more extensive timber boat restorations and new builds. Some of the projects within this yard have been shipped here from overseas. Allied industries for traditional boats – metal casting, spar makers, sailmakers, engineers, riggers and a timber mill – are set up locally.
A dedicated team actively seeks overseas restoration projects and arranges the shipping of the boats to and from New Zealand to make it as painless as possible for their owners.
Auckland hosts two flagship events to promote and support traditional timber boats. The first is an annual classic yacht sailing regatta, which has become part of a world circuit and attracts a strong local fleet with solid overseas support.
The other is a biennial (every two years) timber boat festival, which fills the viaduct with more than 300 traditional timber boats, from square-rigged ships to dinghies and everything in-between.
Besides the boat displays, the festival offers technical seminars and hands-on workshops about timber boats and the skills to build, restore and maintain them.
A marine museum adjacent to the Viaduct hosts a special display of New Zealand’s maritime history.
These ongoing promotions have lifted the visibility of timber boats and increased their value. Owning a timber boat, even restoring one, is seen as a viable alternative to purchasing a new imported GRP boat.
AN IMPOSSIBLE VISION?
Not at all. While creating this vision from scratch would be an impossible undertaking, most of the individual components within this vision already exist right here in Auckland:
The boats – the Classic Yacht Association (CYA) currently has around 260 classic timber boats on its register and there are many others not on that register which would qualify. Many of these boats have a fascinating and documented history
The people – besides a massive pool of knowledgeable, experienced and passionate owners and sailors, Auckland’s blessed with a number of world-class timber boatbuilders and other associated marine trades
The training – as mentioned last month, the New Zealand Traditional Boatbuilding School has been running since 2006
The organisation – the CYA has a current membership in excess of 300 and is closely associated with the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron (RNZYS)
The history – for a relatively young country, New Zealand has an incredibly rich and diverse maritime history that’s been extensively researched and documented
The location – the Hauraki Gulf, one of the worlds’ great sailing playgrounds, is right on the doorstep of the Waitemata Harbour. Allied to this, within walking distance of each other is the Viaduct, the Percy Voss Yard (more on this next month), the New Zealand National Maritime Museum, Westhaven Marina, the CYA and the RNZYS
The events – the CYA already runs a full programme of classic boat events, power and sail, plus an annual sailing regatta. There are two other annual regattas including the Auckland Anniversary Regatta, which has been running since 1840. With a little planning, a biennial timber boat festival could slot nicely between these existing events
The local market – absolutely integral to this vision is an organised system to recruit the younger generation, who will be needed to take over the existing fleet of classic boats. Recruiting is a numbers game: expose enough youngsters to classic boats and those with the passion to become the next generation of owners, crews and boatbuilders can be identified, mentored and trained
The overseas market – the classic timber boat movement is world-wide. The biennial Australian Timber Boat Festival in Hobart (more on this next month) has 225,000 attendees over four days, half of whom come from out of Tasmania or from overseas.
Auckland is blessed having many of the individual components of this vision already in place – what’s lacking is the master plan to assemble them into a coherent system to futureproof traditional timber boatbuilding. BNZ
RIGHT Rawhiti back on the water after her restoration.
BELOW One of the most recent restorations – Ariki.
ABOVE Legacy technology needs legacy skills to maintain it.
BELOW Classics in full cry.
RIGHT Another critical skill in danger of disappearing – caulking the old hulls.