Zoom-Zoom discovers how a combination of unique history and geography has contributed to New Zealand’s prowess as an innovative boat building nation 

Story Naomi Arnold 

As a water-locked country, New Zealand has always been a boating nation. First, Polynesian voyagers travelled here in great fleets of waka (canoes) and in 1350 settled in Tāmaki Makaurau, the Māori name for the Auckland area. 

Boats were also essential for early European settlers, to enable passage and trade in a rugged, muddy, bush-clad country – and there was plentiful strong, straight native timber available to build them. 

Add in a benign climate, a plethora of beaches and stretches of thrilling open water, and you have a recipe for a world-leading tradition of sailing and boat building, from the humblest of watercraft to multimillion-dollar superyachts. 

Some of the world’s most cutting-edge luxury yachts have been built in Auckland, such as Vertigo, the award-winning 67.2m (220 feet) ketch designed by naval architect Philippe Briand and styled by acclaimed French design house Christian Liaigre. It was built by Henderson’s Alloy Yachts, and went on to win Sailing Yacht of the Year at the 2012 World Superyacht Awards and Best in Show at the Monaco Yacht Show.

Alloy Yachts also produces luxury motor yachts, such as the Motor Yacht of the Year award-winner Loretta Anne, a sumptuous vessel designed for a Canadian businesswoman and well-suited to the tropical Bahamas with its shallow draft.

How did a country at the bottom of the world become so good at building superyachts? Auckland yachting author and lifetime sailor Brian Peet believes boatbuilding is in our DNA. He calls the war and post-war years of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s as “the golden era” of the country’s boating and maritime activities, which, coupled with Olympic yachting success, helped build a foundation for maritime expertise. 

With significant import restrictions on materials that were freely available overseas, and having lived through two world wars and a Depression, Kiwis were thrifty and innovative. The restrictions helped to further cultivate a strong self-reliant streak that was already inherent in the New Zealand psyche. 

He says locals would read international boating magazines and try to replicate what they saw in those pages at home, by either building it or copying it, or inventing their own creations. He remembers one keen local yachtie who ran a shoe shop and would scavenge stainless steel offcuts from the rubbish bins of fridge manufacturers. He then made up his boat fittings in a metalwork night class, before returning to the fridge company and politely asking if it could weld them up. 

Peet says this can-do philosophy and a sense of design finesse has been reflected in local boat builders and their apprentices ever since, despite increased wealth and a vastly more diverse selection of materials.

Although the rest of the world has caught up with Auckland expertise, traditional tradesmen and craft are still a feature of Kiwi-built handmade yachts. For many who choose a custom-made boat, it isn’t just a toy, or even a family connection, but something deeper. It’s a means of freedom, escape, independence, joy and a sense of being close to nature. Those feelings run deep for both client and boat builder. 

“THE AUCKLAND-BASED SALTHOUSES NOW FOCUS ON PRODUCING COACH BOATS - FAST AND AGILE WORKHORSES FOR THE YACHTING WORLD”

 

One of the foremost families on the Auckland boat building scene is Salthouse, a name which has been part of New Zealand maritime heritage for more than 60 years. Brothers Bob and John Salthouse began building boats in the early 1950s, with Bob setting up on his own in 1983. Both brothers died in 2019, after building more than 1,000 boats between them, most of which are still on the water. 

Today, John Salthouse’s original business is run by his son Greg and wife Delayne. It has built 85-foot luxury yachts, high-tech carbon-fibre race yachts and high-speed tenders/chase boats for Emirates Team New Zealand’s AC72s – those signature Catalyst 45s subsequently became popular with superyacht owners. It's even built a vaka based on a traditional Polynesian design for the Pacific Voyagers Project. 

“I grew up with all sorts of boats,” Greg says. “I went through the dinghy scene, Sunbursts and so forth, and dad took us cruising every year up and down the coast. I was brought up sailing every weekend and have been around boats all my life.

“It was a great life, growing up on a boat, and now we do the same with our kids. It’s great family time too – they can’t get away from you on the boat that easily.”

After 15 years continuing his father’s philosophy of building “something a little different”, the Salthouses scaled down the business to focus on producing coach boats, fast and agile workhorses for the yachting world. The Catalyst 45 builds passed to Lloyd Stevenson Boatbuilders (LSB) – another Auckland boat builder that’s found success with traditional care and techniques. 

At Lloyd Stevenson, spokesman Luke Hill says that the luxury custom boats the company produces become part of not just the client’s family, but also the LSB family itself. Staff know all the boat names and their owners, and the company holds beach barbecues and client events every year. And when the boat sells, the business’s aftercare goes along with it.  

“Once you have one of our boats, we’ll stick with you for life. In some ways, it’s like a stewardship of them,” Hill says. “Lloyd still looks after those boats and does the maintenance, care, antifouls and servicing that goes with it. It’s certainly cool to see a product coming back 25 years later and still in good shape. There’s a lot of satisfaction in building something that will outlast all of us.” 

LSB began operating as a two-man band in 1985 and the business has since grown to encompass nearly 50 staff. Over the years, it has launched 66 boats, working in composite materials and fibreglass while holding on to the traditional craftsmanship of wooden boat building. One of its most head-turning projects has been building four tenders for Sailing Yacht A, a Phillippe Starck-designed superyacht and one of the world’s biggest. 

Considering the many months or years it takes to build a boat, with tens of thousands of man-hours involved, each is a huge investment of care from the team. 

“It’s one of the businesses that is keeping the traditional craft of boatbuilding alive.”

AMERICA'S CUP

The next instalment of the world-famous 169-year-old yachting competition is set to be held in Auckland between 6 and 21 March, 2021. The geography of Auckland allows the race to be held in unprecedented proximity to the city (see the video below). The America’s Cup will see the title defender, Emirates Team New Zealand, racing against the winner of the Prada Cup, the Challenger Selection Series. The winner will be the first team to score seven points in what’s set to be another nail-biting series of match races. 

AMERICA'S CUP

The next instalment of the world-famous 169-year-old yachting competition is set to be held in Auckland between March 6 and 21, 2021. The geography of Auckland allows the race to be held in unprecedented proximity to the city (see the video below). The America’s Cup will see the Defender, Emirates Team New Zealand, racing against the winner of the Prada Cup, the Challenger Selection Series. The winner will be the first team to score seven points in what’s set to be another nail-biting series of match races.