Please select your home edition
Lloyd Stevenson Catalyst 45 728x90px3 TOP

John Spencer Exhibition celebrates the contribution of a great designer

by Richard Gladwell/ 8 Nov 2020 14:35 PST 9 November 2020
John Spencer - the Plywood Magician - Exhibition - November 2020 © Richard Gladwell /

One of New Zealand's great designers and boat builders, John Spencer was the focus of the annual exhibition by the Rino Tawa Trust in conjunction with Spencer's archivist Peter Tait.

Held opposite the Emirates Team New Zealand base in the Viaduct Harbour, the display featured a range of memorabilia along with many examples of his dinghy designs.

Spencer was one of the group of Kiwi designers, including Bruce Farr, Jim Young, Des Townson began designing racing dinghies. They ran a boat building business to complement their designs, and evolving their dinghy design expertise across into keelboats and usually powerboats. However boat-building was only a means to an end, and all rounded out their careers as full-time designers. They all developed their own style, which like all good design has remained timeless.

Spencer began his design and building career on a full-time basis at the age of 22years, and became known as the "Plywood King". He designed almost exclusively in plywood believing that it was a much under-rated boat construction material. As well it achieved several of his objectives - to allow people to have fast cheap boats, that could be built at home.

His first serious design in 1951, was a for a 12ft two-man racing dinghy, later known as the Cherub, which became an international class, followed by the 11' 6" Frostply, 14ft Javelin and the 10ft 6" Flying Ant (a junior two hander which initially used a P-class main, a jib and spinnaker). The Cherub, Javelin and Flying Ant have all moved away from the original Spencer design to become internationally sailed classes to restricted design rules.

One restored Cherub was on display, with a group looking out other old Cherubs that could stand a new lease of life. One (a foam and glass hull) has been rescued from being used as a sandpit, and when cleaned out was good for a refit, which included retaining the original hull, fitting new bulkheads and plywood deck - and a cheap ready to sail new boat.

Spencer was also responsible for a range of keelboats (mostly all in plywood) beginning with the 35ft Scimitar and moving up to one of the worlds classic racing yachts, the 62ft Infidel designed for Tom Clark as a Ranger-beater. Clark commissioned a 73ft ocean racing maxi Buccaneer, which raced internationally with reasonable success. The 47ft Whispers II for Geoff Stagg in Wellington, was a hard driven offshore racer from the Spencer drawing board. The 70ft schooner New World was built for San Francisco based George Kiskadden after the construction of a 24ft test boat.

Spencer operated a boatbuilding business in Browns Bay from which Infidel and Buccaneer both emerged along with along with a host of smaller yachts. It was always a fascination to wander past the usually open shed door on the way to footy practice, and see the state of progress of the latest of Spencer's progeny.

Spencer was one of the characters of the design and sailing world, becoming more garrulous, and pleasantly eccentric as he aged - both process were greatly aided by a glass of gin, a packet of smokes, and his potent home brew. He was a prolific writer - doing a monthly column for Boating NZ and previously Nautical News. Surprisingly it was always very difficult to get his to write about his own designs, he was much more at home writing about the current state of the sport and his view of that, or where it should be headed. His copy always consisted of multiple pages of reasonably clear handwriting - usually without any crossing-out - and on paper which always looked "well-handled". Clearly all were produced with the assistance of at least one of his three fuels, but he always had a great and unique perspective - which was often counter to the current culture.

John Street, who knew Spencer for over 50 years told of the summons he would get from Bruce Leybourne, then editor of Boating NZ, when "Spence" came down from Kerikeri to deliver his latest column and was in need of an audience. Street said the phone call from Leybourne usually ran along the lines of "Your mate is here and wants you to come and have a drink." "What state is he in?" "There's one empty bottle of gin and there another half empty." That was about 10am and Street promised to be there around 4.00pm.

Street rounded out a series of anecdotes about Spence with a final story.

"Max Carter rang me up a couple of weeks before Spence died, and asked if I wanted to go up and see him.

"I said "No I don't want to see him, he's a walking skeleton, and I'd sooner remember him as he was". Max said - "well I'm going and I'll give you a report when I get back".

Carter, one of New Zealand's great boatbuilders, arrived up at Spencer's plywood house in Kerikeri and was asked by Spencer "Max, I want you to build my coffin, because I'm not going to be here much longer. There's some plywood behind the stairway, there - we'll use that."

"I'll lie down on a sheet and you can draw a line around me - so you can get the right size."

"And go and get some manila rope for the handles, I don't want any of that shining new plastic stuff."

According to Street, John Spencer was the first to use the furling luffspar - using a section of Sunburst mast extrusion, with Spencer designed top and bottom fittings. The furling device was fitted to his 25ft Stiletto design created in 1967.

The Tino Rawa Trust has produced its usually excellent book on Spencer's sailing and design life available along with others from

Related Articles

Westlake win Harken NZ Secondary schools title
WBHS ‘Green' team win the 2021 Harken National Secondary Schools Keelboats title The Westlake Boys High School ‘Green' team have won the 2021 Harken National Secondary Schools Keelboat Championship after winning the decisive final race of the regatta at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. Posted on 10 May
Happy yachties enjoy a fast Auckland-Tauranga race
Cracking sailing conditions down the east coast of Coromandel made for a quick race south. The Farmer Autovillage Auckland to Tauranga Centennial Yacht Race/Rally was held recently on the weekend of the 26 th , 27 th & 28 th of March. Posted on 21 Apr
Big fleet of 70 boats for 65th Zephyr Nationals
70 boats for 2021 Zephyr dinghy sailing class yacht coveted national championship The 2021 Zephyr dinghy sailing class yacht coveted national championship is being held at the Manly Sailing Club, Whangaparaoa, Auckland 9th to 12th April. Posted on 9 Apr
The incredible record of a Tauranga bred sailor
Brian Petersen has sailed plenty of ocean miles, and his next target is a race home to Tauranga. The incredible record of a Tauranga bred sailor, current owner of “V5”, a TP52 entered in the Farmer Autovillage Auckland to Tauranga Centennial Yacht Race starting at 0900 on Saturday 27th of March 2021. Posted on 9 Mar
Join the Tiwal inflatable dinghy adventure circuit
The Tiwal owners community can look forward to a series of rally style adventures this summer. New Years Eve, 2021 and it is near perfect weather: My partner and I left it till 5pm to decide to sail our TIWAL dinghies to Rangitoto Island and climb to the top for the midnight fireworks show. Posted on 19 Feb
High Performance Yacht Design Conference: sign up
Part of the events schedule of the America's Cup is the 7th High Performance Yacht Design Conference In the middle of the busy schedule of events surrounding the America's Cup, Auckland will once again play host to the High Performance Yacht Design conference. Posted on 19 Feb
America's Cup: Test your knowledge against the TAB
Fans now have the opportunity to test their America's Cup knowledge against the TAB's bookmakers Fans now have the opportunity to test their America's Cup knowledge against the bookmakers at the TAB and maybe make a return of a few lazy dollars. The TAB explains how they set the prices, and how these have changed since the America's Cup World Series. Posted on 12 Feb
Immaculate Elliott 1600 Tourer offered for sale
This Elliott 1600 is brilliantly set up for short-handed sailing and is ready for new owners. Greg Elliott's Tourer series are some of the most sought-after boats in New Zealand and the world. For cruising – be it coastal or trans-oceanic – they are as good as yachts get. Posted on 27 Jan
Round-the-world solo sailor steers clear of fears
A change in plans means solo sailor Elana Connor is helping Kiwi kids in foster care to go sailing. A change of plans for round-the-world single-handed sailor Elana Connor means she's helping Kiwi kids in foster care to go sailing - as she also seeks to 'demystify' the sport for women. Posted on 26 Jan
Entries open in French Bay Regatta
French Bay in Titirangi is is a hidden gem that those that know and love the bay already appreciate. Entries are now open in the French Bay Regatta on Saturday 13 February. Posted on 25 Jan
C-Tech 2020 C-Tech 728x90 BOTTOMUpffront 2020 Foredeck Club SW FOOTERRooster 2020 - Impact BA - FOOTER