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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

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