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Sailing back: The saga of Auckland’s Vos boatyard restoration

Rod Marler is so passionate about the Vos boatyard, he is eyeing it up for his own office when it’s finished in the summer of 2018. But then, he concurs, so might half of creative Auckland. And most likely too, it will be THE place for events and functions, especially when the America’s Cup boats arrive in New Zealand.

The Vos wooden boatshed and slipway reaches into the water on reclaimed land in Hamer Street at the edge of Wynyard Wharf.

As Auckland’s last remaining wooden boatyard, it’s unique.

The Vos boatyard was established in the 1930s by the enormously skilled and entrepreneurial Percy Vos, who forged his business Vos & Brijs Boats against the odds and created one of the best known and most successful boat building brands in the country. Vos was one of the early greats of New Zealand’s marine industry, a trail blazer for future tradesmen and business owners. Not only was he renowned for the quality of his boats – from large ferries and tugs to pleasure craft, yachts and dinghies – but he was also a brilliant businessman. A sartorial gentleman with high standards in a cut-throat world, he was highly respected by all who came into contact with him.

Vos and students.

All of Auckland’s commercial fleet was built there, as were some of New Zealand’s most well-known racing boats. Masts were still being made in the shed until comparatively recently, until the 1980s. By sheer luck, it has not been demolished unlike much else original from this industrial maritime era.

Marler doesn’t mince words; “It’s a rumpty old building, he says. “But it oozes charm and personality.”

With a soaring skeletal timber structure that resembles the upturned hull of a boat, it’s a cool character space with a brimey industrial atmosphere that transports you back to the days when the area bustled with maritime activity. The old tracks to the water from the slipway, platforms, the old furnace for bending timber, pulleys and the original motor that pulled up the boats, they’re all still intact. And thankfully, a maritime engineer who has inspected the site says it won’t take much effort to get everything operable again.

At the end of 2017, the boatyard is in the midst of restoration.

Marler is clearly enthralled with the boatyard, now owned by Panuku, and the possibilities it offers for the future. “You get the same kind of feeling you get as when you walk into a medieval church. You go in there and you can almost smell the guys working there. There’s the coal tar and the wood. It’s incredible, like a snapshot in time, almost like the men have just dropped their tools and walked out.” Marler who grew up in St Mary’s Bay remembers the Vos boat shed at the bottom of his garden and seeing his own family boat being worked on there. “I used to wander down and explore that whole area as a young fella. It was incredibly dangerous but wonderful.”

“You can tell people about it. But when they walk in, they go, ‘now we get it’. You open the big sliding door at the end, look down the slipway to the water out to the west and it’s just amazing.”

The project has been around five or six years from the time when Panuku was Waterfront Auckland. “Waterfront Auckland held it out as a very special place; a bit of a treasure. But there was never any money to do anything with it. “The Percy Vos Charitable Trust was formed around 2012 by a group of passionate people who just wanted to preserve this place without doing too much to it. Making it safe and usable as a working wooden boat slipway, was always their vision. Buildings are best used. We want to keep work on it minimal and not destroy all the good stuff that makes it special.” 

Vos Boatshed in its heyday.

Once it’s completed, the only modern part will be the kitchen facility for functions, bathrooms and things like the glass doors, fitted so observers can walk past and look inside at craftspeople working on the old boats. Even the old iron cladding will be replaced by used corrugated iron from demolition yards.

“The Trust set themselves up to lobby Waterfront Auckland to support the project, which we did,” says Marler. “Then we had a design done by architects Fearon Hay and used it to convince Council to get money from the Built Heritage Fund to get the project underway.”

Panuku has already held a couple of functions there but since the project director Villy Kotze got involved with conservation architects Matthews & Matthews, they discovered old asbestos cladding needed to be scraped away before starting the restoration.

$2.5 million worth of funding will facilitate stage one which involves making the boatshed building compliant and structurally sound, to a state where it can be occupied as a usable function space with tenants as well – both of which will provide funding for further work. As more funding becomes available and the leases make it possible, stage two will get the slipway up and running so Panuku can get classic wooden boats in there to be worked on. The idea is for the space to be as interactive as possible. 

Vos Slipway.

To make it happen, Panuku is keen to keep the Trust operating, because most of the members are or know classic boat owners. “There’s a good interface there,” says Marler. “They were very active in the early days.”

Concept designs are ready to go and from there, the project will step into the detailed design phase then work will begin. Kotze estimates the first stage will take around eight months and the whole project will be completed next summer. The cavernous space will be compliant for around 150 people.

As there is nothing else like it in Auckland, it will be a unique venue and a major tourist drawcard.

The Vos shed will also be a fitting memorial to Percy Vos, who no doubt would appreciate the dedication he has inspired for a major restoration that has been a long in the making. The boatyard will sit alongside a contemporary shipbuilding space owned by Sanford Limited, the fishing company, providing an elegant contrast between the character-filled original and the sophistication of the new.

A version of this story originally appeared on the Ray White blog.
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