Vestiges of traditional boat building alive and well

Posted at 11:08am Monday 11 Jan, 2021

The boatyard has some 50 craft on site.

Pam and George have an impressive collection of tools.
Pam and George have an impressive collection of tools.

The boatyard is nestled among mangroves at Tramcar Bay.
The boatyard is nestled among mangroves at Tramcar Bay.

Wilson family descendent Jess Hunt still sails on the Hope.
Wilson family descendent Jess Hunt still sails on the Hope.

The Tara Iti was brought home to be restored.
The Tara Iti was brought home to be restored.

Jonathan Killick

In the briny backwaters of Tramcar Bay on Leigh Road, the maritime history of Mahurangi is being preserved thanks to a boatyard held together by a community's appreciation for traditional craft.

A short walk down an unmarked gravel driveway and along a narrow sandspit reveals a fleet of small craft afloat at the water's edge.

Viewing the wooden sheds – workshop walls lined with traditional tools and network of sail boats under repair – is like taking a step back in time.

As I approach, a local man leaves carrying a short length of kauri and caulking tools he has borrowed to finish work on his timber boat a short distance down the road.

Boat builders and present custodians of the yard, Pam Cundy and George Emtage, are kept busy with the many project boats on site.

The kauri planked 37-foot (11-metre) Coulthard launch Tainui is currently housed in the main workshop.

“She recently had her newly-restored 5LW diesel motor craned through the boat shed's roof and carefully lowered into place over her engine beds,” Pam says. “We have sistered new laminated white oak ribs throughout the hull as part of the refit.”

Pam and George are also working on a 26-foot (eight-metre) bilge keeler, named Tara Iti, which was built in 1966 and owned by Captain Ronald Matheson, of Mathesons Bay.

“The boat yard is very much about looking after local boats and Tara-Iti's story is a good one,” Pam says.

Captain Matheson started working on the mail run to Hautaru/Little Barrier when he was 15, eventually becoming a master mariner, skippering traders through the Pacific Islands.

The Tara Iti was his pride and joy but was sold from his estate when he passed away in 1976. Then, 40 years later, his grandson Peter Wrathall chanced upon it in a shed in Helensville.

A man had been restoring the Tara Iti but wasn't able to finish the project, so Peter purchased it and returned her home to Whangateau to be completed.

Meanwhile, a shed with ti tree rafters, built at the yard some 100 years ago for the Wilsons of

Whangateau, still holds together, along with a small launch they owned named Hope.

Originally named Weka, the boat was built sometime around 1900 for the Morrison family of Mahurangi.

It was used to pull freight barges on the Mahurangi River to Warkworth where fruit cargo was loaded on to steam ships, such as the SS Kawau, and taken to Auckland markets.

The boat was bought by Herbert Wilson and passed on to his son Arthur, of Coxhead Creek, who used it to deliver mail to Great Barrier Island.

According to his descendent Braid Cochrane, it was renamed Hope because he “hoped to go fishing, hoped to catch fish and hoped to make it home again”.

The boat has remained in the Wilson family for around a century and, thanks to the preservation of the boatyard, their descendants are still able to take it for outings. Not only do Pam and George keep the forgotten skills and knowledge of traditional boatbuilding alive, they also document as much of the maritime history that passes through their yard as possible.

“For me, researching the history of a vessel is just as important as the physical repairs,” Pam says.

Pam has been working on a library with all the documents she collects about the boats of significance that arrive.

“In many ways, the yard is a last standing vestige of its type,” Pam says.

“Many boat builders have shifted to industrial estates and they hardly make use of the types of tools used here.”

What remains is a strong community of boat owners, maritime enthusiasts, sailors and fishermen who can share stories and sail boats out of Tramcar Bay.


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