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Master craftsman ends an era of Devonport boatbuilders

Flagstaff Team

Boatbuilding in Devonport dates back 170 years. Kevin Johnson, the last of a long line of local involvement in the industry, closed the doors at his Wynyard St premises last month after 50 years. He spoke to Rob Drent.

More time for cruising… Kevin Johnson hopes he will have more time to get out on the water himself now he has retired from full-time work

Kevin Johnson is one of those rare blokes who started building a boat in his backyard and actually finished it. The fact he did it in his teens was as good an indication as any that a 50-year boatbuilding career beckoned.

Johnson had started a boat building apprenticeship as a 17-year-old with John Gladden in Milford. He was living with his grandmother at Mozeley Ave, Devonport. “I was keen as mustard in those days,” he recalls. He worked for Gladden by day, and by night was building his first keelboat, a 28ft Alan Wright Nova, in his grandmother’s back yard.

“I’d get home from work and she’d feed me and then I’d be out the back, working on the boat, I’d do this seven days a week.”

Luckily he didn’t have to look too far for Sue, his future wife. They met at the Milford Marina Hotel, which was run at the time by Kevin’s stepfather. She was also working at the John Burns Marine Shop. “I reckon he was only keen on me because I could get cheap boating gear,” laughs Sue.

She seemed happy enough with Kevin’s passion for boatbuilding. “Sue would come down and help me paint the boat,” he recalls.

When it was finally finished, they christened her Troika, “after a restaurant we had gone to where we had a really expensive meal”.

They married in 1976, and settled in Devonport, in a family home on King Edward Pde, where they still live today.

Kevin went into business on his own account in Wynyard St – at first in the building that now houses Firefly – mainly building Sterling 26ft boats.

Boat house… Kevin Johnson initially built boats in a house on Wynyard St.

From 1981, he operated from his site at 7 Wynyard St, which originally had an old house on it. Johnson set about building boats inside and erected a factory in the back yard.

However, the boats starting getting bigger, forcing Johnson to get creative. He started to take out windows in the house to fit boats in, and eventually had to build a lean-to at the front to house a large boat.

“I wouldn’t be able to do it today with all the compliance and building inspectors about.”

In the end the house had to be pulled down to get a 46ft boat out.

“Nothing was wasted though. Locals came down and recycled all the bay windows… everything went,” remembers Sue. Few knew that a factory had been built behind the house. This was extended in 1984 to create the Kevin Johnson building that exists today.

Johnson was born in New Plymouth, but his parents moved back to Devonport when he was aged around seven. He went to Bayswater Primary and Belmont Intermediate, and finished his schooling at Rangitoto College. His love of maritime life was fostered sailing P Class dinghies at Murrays Bay Sailing Club and Frostbites at Wakatere Boating Club.

Looking back on his boatbuilding career, he describes it as a “rollercoaster”.

He “survived” the 20 per cent boat tax introduced by the Muldoon Government in 1981, which he maintains crippled the boat building industry in New Zealand.

“It was a forerunner to the introduction of GST… if it was five per cent it may have worked.” The 20 per cent charge on a new boat was simply too much for most people, especially as it was backdated 10 years.

“If it hadn’t been brought in, we could still have a good industry today.”

The tax was administered by the Customs Department. A Customs officer called to inspect Johnson’s newly constructed 34ft boat Sneak Away. Such was the rancour around the tax, the Johnsons made him hunt around for his own dinghy to view the vessel.

Johnson continued on, generally with two or three staff, sometimes up to eight, on big builds. He designed and built five launches from 37ft to 46 ft, more than 40 large boats and “lots of little ones” in Wynyard St over 44 years. Crowds would gather when a boat was coming in or going out. Some owners came back for their second or third boats. His largest yacht was a 56ft Angelo Lavranos design. He also built a series of power cats from Allan Wright designs.

Over the years though, competition from prefabricated imports arriving from the likes of France and China effectively stalled the boatbuilding industry here.

“You can import a boat for less than we can buy the materials for – you just can’t compete.”

The last yacht Johnson built was a 10.6m Lotus five years ago, and the last new build was a power cat three years ago.

Since then, it has largely been refits and repairs to yachts – something Johnson hopes to continue in his “semi-retirement”.

“I’ve had a lot of clients for years and plan to keep on helping them out.”

While boatbuilding was tough financially, the Johnsons loved living and working in the local community. Customers became friends, and it was an ideal place for son Andrew to grow up. As a boy he would sail over to Mission Bay with a mate for McDonald’s or an ice cream.

Adventures were had as well. When the Johnsons had a yacht moored at Westhaven, Andrew, aged around 10, would set off in a yacht from Devonport to Rangitoto with a cellphone on hand for emergencies, and the family arrange to meet at Islington Bay.

On one occasion Sue received a muffled call from Andrew who was obviously in some sort of trouble. Marine authorities were notified
and a rescue started. But it all ended well with Andrew, who had suffered a broken rudder, waving down another yacht and being towed to Islington Bay.

When Kevin and Sue arrived, Andrew was “happy as Larry” on a boat with one of Peter Blake’s crew, says Sue.

Unsurprisingly, the Johnsons have no plans to sell up and move. They live along the waterfront which 120 years ago was the site of numerous boatbuilding enterprises. Their home is also near the Devonport Yacht Club, where they have been long-time members: Kevin was Commodore in 1990 and Sue, the club’s first female commodore, in 2010. Mary Therese, their boat of the past 27 years, is moored at Bayswater, and they hope to do more extended cruising trips now they are free from the demands of a fulltime business.

Kevin has no dreams of yachting in the Mediterranean or overseas, happy with what New Zealand has to offer: the Bay of Islands, Great Barrier, the Coromandel. “The Hauraki Gulf is amazing as well,” he says.

“We will go where the wind takes us,” adds Sue.

Andrew, who did a boatbuilding appren- ticeship with his dad, but opted for a police career, has a two-year-old son, Finn, and another grandchild on the way, so there’s now babysitting duties to fit in.

Finn has already identified a strip of coastline as his and “Poppa’s beach”.

Johnson says: “I’ve got a lot of tidying up to do after we left Wynyard St. I’ve got a list for the house and the boat.”

But he’s not complaining. “I go for a half- hour walk every morning. Devonport’s a great place… the view of the sun rising over Cheltenham – it’s pretty good.”

This article originally appeared in the 29 January 2021 edition of the Flagstaff. Read online here.

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