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Dreamboat Builders & big fish stories

Opinion

Long summer days invite a frenzy of activity on the ever changing marine vista of Hawke Bay with leisure craft, recreational fishing vessels and yachts heading out for day trips or in pursuit of the big ones that don’t get away.

Keith Newman01 February 2020

BB51

Further out on the horizon are powerboats, leisure cruisers and a growing forest of mainsails as visitors and locals weave with the changing winds. The fleet includes many locally built craft, testament to a low-key but world recognised artisan and hobbyist boatbuilding industry.

On the commercial side, Senator Boats started in 1997 by Wayne McKinley in Onekawa pioneering alloy pontoon boats; including a global first with its Sealegs fitted heavy duty all-wheel drive amphibious rig.

Brian Firman’s Profile Boats has created a niche for rugged casual or serious fishing craft, while husband and wife team Jason and Tristin Dickey are creating award-winning aluminium hulled superyacht style mid-range boats.

Jason Dickey laughs, wondering out loud, how Hawke’s Bay could ever have developed a boat building industry and such a strong boating community. 

“It’s against the odds. It’s not like we have one of the most outstanding stretches of water. It’s rather challenging and there’s not a lot of islands to go boating to.”

Launching points

Between Mahia and Napier or south from Porangahau to the Cape Coast  typically requires a beach launch and because of the gravelly shore and thump and dump of the waves, preferably an aluminium hull.

For shelter and protection there are ramps at the Napier Sailing Club or Hawke’s Bay Sport Fishing Club at Ahuriri, and trailer floatation launch and retrieve from Clifton Marine Club.

The Napier Sailing Club, founded in 1891, is one of the oldest in the country with moorings at a premium as boat lovers from larger centres migrate and claim their place.

Havelock North-based David Cranwell waited four years for a pylon mooring which has been on hold for an additional three awaiting his 1950s L. Francis Herreshoff twin sail 28 ft double ended Rozinante yawl.

Jason and Tristin Dickey. Photo Tom Allan.

He’s dreamed of launch day since finding the design plans in a Rudder magazine 40-years ago. When BayBuzz called in November he was still sanding, painting and assembling the cockpit to complete the job begun by master boatbuilders. 

David, a horticultural consultant and “finder and a minder”; supplying wine and apples for one of the biggest supermarket chains in Europe, admits he’s a terrible yacht club member. “I pay my dues and that’s about it.”

Wainamu (water sandfly), the only one of its kind in the country, is a day sailer … “a crazy dream” … with a narrow 6ft beam comfortably seating six and expected to be launched “around Christmas”. 

So where will he take her? “Nowhere … out for a couple of hours, sail around, come back, have a glass of wine and talk about how great it was.”

David is only one of dozens of Hawke’s Bay hobbyist boat builders or restorers, bringing life back to classical pieces of boating history because they appreciate what has become a dying art.

Boatbuilders in demand

The Pandora industrial area is home to Profile Boats and Dickey Boats, who’ve both gone through major growth spurts in recent years with customer demand pushing them to the max.

Jason and Tristin Dickey are into quality not quantity having built about 100 high-end aluminium hull leisure boats with a team of about 35 people. 

Dickey Boats produces its Semifly range in 45’, 36’, 32’ and 28’ models, a smaller custom range of trailer or dry-stackable boats and its ocean-crossing LRCs (Long Range Cruisers), all tailored to customer requirements. 

Clients might pay anywhere from $200,000 to $2 million and most orders are word of mouth.

The company has orders for one range running into 2022. Most sales are outside the Bay; and a growing percentage exported to Switzerland, Sweden, the Bahamas, Europe, Australia and the Pacific.

Neighbouring Profile Boats recently signed with Excel Boats of Union City, Tennessee, who searched the world looking for a partner to produce at least 1,000 ruggedised boats for use on the ocean and large lakes. Boats will be built under licence at a new US factory. 

Thrill of the catch

Growing demand including orders from Australia and Fiji forced Firmans Marine Centre and Profile Boats at Prebenson Drive to add a new 500sqm shed in December. 

When company owner Brian Firman wants time on the water it’s often on his private launch moored at the HB Sailing Club or a Profile 735 Platinum for fishing expeditions around the Bay.

If you’re connected into Hawke’s Bay’s boating and fishing networks the word soon gets out about ‘what’s being caught where’ and when the snapper are in close or the kontiki guys and surf casters are doing well, says Brian. 

As a youngster Brian recalls the thrill of spinning for kahawai off Westshore bridge with his father Ray and purchasing a small dingy with a 9.8 hp Mercury motor at age of 13-years for boat fishing.

That led him into the boat building business and many years of competing in events including the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council Nationals.

Nothing has yet topped the adrenaline rush of an energy draining two-hour battle to land a 406 kg black Marlin off the Hole in the Rock in the Bay of Islands in 2001. Brian dropped his 37 kg line off the back of charter boat Striker during a tournament with his struggle captured by a documentary crew; crowds gathered at the weighing station and it was “all over the TV” that night.

It was “a once in a lifetime fish for sure”. He remains hopeful for another outing as spectacular. 

“Still on my bucket list is a broadbill … a big deep water swordfish … probably the hardest fighting fish you would catch on a rod and reel.”

Brian is heartened that recreational fish stocks appear to be replenishing after he and others, including lobby group LegaSea, campaigned against commercial overfishing.

Luxury in aluminium 

Jason and Tristin Dickey’s happy place is also on the water. Jason, originally from Taradale has always had a passion for fishing and power boats and Tristin who grew up in Whakatane is a keen sailor. 

“We like people who are excited about their boats and we love the water — sitting on a surfboard, kayak or on a boat with family or clients.”

Jason spent many years as an engineer aboard superyachts sailing the great oceans of the world, where he took a strong interest in design and became aware of a gap in the market.

His goal was to design and develop smooth riding 30-60-foot launches with an aluminium hull; a niche between the American fishing boat market and harbour boats for lakes and waterways for entertaining and family use.

The couple returned to live in Auckland in 2005 working on their plan between career commitments; Tristin as senior human resources manager and Jason on three-month contracts as chief engineer on a 180 foot superyacht owned by an un-named American businessman.

With a prototype design and the

need for construction space, they relocated to Napier and began work in an old Ahuriri woolshed while looking for more permanent premises.

The Dickeys took a risk, invested their savings and bet on their future. In May 2007, only weeks after they’d competed their Dickey Semifly 28’, it was delivered to the Hutchwilco Boat Show in Auckland.

Design efforts awarded

Their efforts were rewarded when their alloy design with ‘plumb’ bow (vertical to the water) and luxury superyacht finish took out the national award for best aluminium fishing boat of the year.

Within seven months they had completed a commission for a larger Dickey Semifly 32 and the orders kept coming. 

In 2011 they moved to a larger 2,200 sqm site in the Pandora industrial area, expanding the factory three times since. 

Jason thinks like a shipbuilder with Dickey Boats structured from day one to use the same engineering whether it’s a 22 or 65-foot boat. Leading edge automation and computer numerically controlled (CNC) technology ensures aluminium panels are precision cut for each design.

Today the focus remains on the quality finish with everything done on site from aluminium cutting and shaping to cabinetry, flooring, upholstery, teak decks and electrical and plumbing work. Recently a new paint shop was added.

By 2014 they had produced 50 boats and were fitting smart CZone technology that displays all the boat’s systems on an iPad to monitor and manage navigation, communication and pumps or select the desired mode for fishing, cruising or night use. 

Most Dickey Boats are trucked off to new owners around the country although there are times Jason does an ocean trip with the owners, crossing the Tasman or to the Pacific Islands.

There have been many boat shows and memorable awards from the Hutchwilco NZ Boat Show and boating magazines. 

“It’s nice for the ego but I’d rather see a happy customer. The awards, however, are important for our team, a third-party acknowledgement that they’re doing good work.” 

Dickey Boats workshop. Photo: Tom Allan

Little moments worthwhile

Jason credits wife and business partner Tristin as the business brains behind the success of Dickey Boats. “We have a lot of similarities but different points of view, there’s good creative tension and times we both need bringing back on track.”

People come to Jason and his team because they think outside the square and while there have been big successes, it’s the little moments of achievement that make it all worthwhile. “Every problem has multiple solutions, the challenge is to come up with a really good one.”

No matter how successful that fix or invention might be, he says it’s important to “keep doing the core part of your business really well and not let little side projects take you off the path”.

The Dickey Boats team is now taking a deep breath. “We’re busting at the seams … Growth takes a lot of energy and we’re in catch up phase.”

Besides, finding enough talent for further growth is a real challenge. “There’s a massive shortage … we’ve run out in New Zealand … in the short-term we have to find people from overseas.”

Meantime, he says there’s a huge responsibility for businesses like Dickey’s to invest in apprentices to develop the right boatbuilding skills for the future.

Raising the profile

Firman’s Marine and Profile Boats is also battling to meet existing customer demand and on the lookout for skilled people, mainly welders and fabricators, to add to its 33-strong team.

The family business started with a service station in the 1950s, adding a caravan centre in the 1960s, then a marine section. 

When the caravan business was sold in 2000, Brian Firman became sole owner of Firmans Marine Centre, which today sells Buccaneer and Quintrix boats and Yamaha and Mercury marine products.

Sister company Profile Boats, acquired and redesigned by Firman’s from 2008, delivers a range made in Hawke’s Bay. 

“We develop the hull and put packages together, fit them out in the right way with the right motors for going off the beach, off Napier or taking it to Taupo. We rig the package to suit the purpose,” says Brian. “We fit cray booms on the side, rig them up for game fishing with poles or extra lights if they’re around the lake edge … radar and radios … the list is longer than your arm.”

Profile are mainly trailer boats although they recently delivered a big commercial cray boat and a few dinghies, including models that can be taken down to the beach on quadbikes.

Key design factors are speed, stability and practicality. “Lake people are more into speed while sea people are more into practicality, having things that work at sea when fishing or diving.”

Firman has navigated a 10-metre alloy boat delivery from the Bay of Islands to Norfolk Island which took 25 hours and then there was the three-day epic delivery of a 65-foot Ekman 65 Powercat from the Bay of Islands to Brisbane.

The market has been particularly buoyant for the past three years indicative of a strong Hawke’s Bay economy with a high percentage of Profile Boat sales over the Internet. 

Locals buy a few recreational fishing boats but most go out of Hawke’s Bay. “It could be tradies or anyone who has a bit of spare money” including, he says, a small but growing number of women.

Shapely slice of history 

The journey to get David Cranwell’s dream sailboat on the ocean has been driven by sheer determination, immense patience and a Siren-like allure as his shapely historic vessel nears completion. 

It’s “form and function” that captivates David, who appreciates art and owns classic and modern Citroen cars. “I’m not mechanical but I love the design and that goes for the boats as well. There’s some ugly ones on the water but people love them to bits.”

It’s been a sentimental journey, a nod to his ancestry with the 28 ft 1950s yawl named Wainamu after his great grandfather’s wooden tugboat which once towed rafts of kauri logs down Henderson creek to the mill at Freemans Bay, Auckland in the 1880’s. 

His uncle Trev planned to build a Herreshoff 28 (H28) in the 1950s; gathered the kauri for the ribs, hand adzed the pohutukawa keel, then got married and sold it.

After wondering how to progress his 40-year old design plans, David was spurred to action by a 1998 magazine article on the H28 written by master craftsman Doug Hylan in Maine, the home of world famous Herreshoff boats.

He ordered a kitset frame from Hylan and after the container arrived the parts, pieces and even the skills to complete the job began to come together.

Piecing it together

David’s preference for kauri, one of the best in the world for boatbuilding, was a long shot as it was scarce and costly. Following a conversation with Peter Yealands, one of his main wine suppliers, he got a return phone call that seemed like an answer to a prayer.

Yealands had purchased a Blenheim vineyard years’ previously when the former owner was building a 50 ft fishing boat which was now overgrown with box thorn. “Did I want some kauri for that boat?”

It was going for the price of removal so David and Clive-based cabinet maker and wood wizard Peter MacLean flew down to examine it. “It had beautiful inch and three quarter kauri planks … exactly what was needed.”

Ian Emerson of Emerson’s Transport bought the three tonne of timber and a massive West Australian Karri keel back to Hawke’s Bay on a backload.

Over several weeks the thousands of 31/2 inch Silicon bronze screws holding planks to the ribs were removed at David’s Havelock North shed. Pretty soon he knew he’d need expert help to secure the planks to the complex hull shape of his H28.

Someone who claimed to have the right skills botched it even further, so he called on Robert Brooke “the doyen of all things to do with wooden boat building in Auckland”.

Brooke’s advice was “put a chainsaw through it and burn it … find a builder to work with” or get in touch with Sicilian-born Marco Scuderi, master wooden boat builder in Helensville, “who will build you a boat you’ll be proud of”.

Marco started from scratch with the kauri planks and timber from the old keel milled by Andrew Watts in Waipukurau to became the cabin sides, cockpit coamings, cabin roof beams and cabin and cockpit floor.

A gift of two 44 gallon drums of recycled lead was built into the 1.5 tonne keel; specially made bronze fittings were imported from the US and square timber found for the mainsail and mizzen.

Sculpture takes shape

Brian Firman Photo: Tom Allan

In mid-2019, after five years away, the Herreshoff Rozinante 28’ returned to Hawke’s Bay. “Marco’s worked magic,” say David, running his hands over the long sweeping lines of the hull. “She’s beautiful … a piece of sculpture.”

When BayBuzz visited there were still parts to put in place and much puttying, painting and piecing together for the quality fit out he’s been dreaming of.

He’s similarly proud of another piece of marine memorabilia, the 18 ft Norwegian sailing clinker, Oslo Jolle designed in 1936 and built for his father John Cranwell and the family in 1958 from plans he acquired in America.

It’s the boat he learned to sail in — recovered from a leaky shed in Parnell — completely restored by Peter MacLean with David sanding, painting and finishing it with 13 coats of varnish. 

He concedes Hawke’s Bay is too dry and it needs to be in the water far more often than it is, but he’d never sell it. It’s a family heirloom, the only one of its kind in New Zealand and “another beautiful testament to form and function”. 

David’s next project is restoring a 100-year old pre-WW1 8 ft clinker dinghy with the owner’s name still on a bonze plate on the transom. “It needs major work but she’s a piece of New Zealand maritime history.” 

Brian Firman won’t say what his next project is but admits he’s “always working on something” and while Jason and Tristin Dickey are at production capacity they admit there’s a new model in R&D they’re trying to keep under the radar. 

There’s something about boatbuilders. While still working on current projects they always seem to be imagining the next, perhaps learning from the last or letting their creative imagination go wild like the changing winds on Hawke Bay. 

Keith Newman01 February 2020

BB51

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