Story: Shipbuilding

Page 3. Modern shipbuilding

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After the Second World War, local yards built small vessels, typically 12–15-metre wooden fishing boats and launch tugs. Then in 1961 Auckland’s Mason Brothers set a New Zealand record for size with the 627-ton Stewart Island ferry Wairua. Later that decade American money made Whangarei Engineering and Construction (WECO) the country’s busiest shipyard. WECO built tugs for harbour boards, navy launches and a replica of Bligh’s Bounty for a film company. At Port Chalmers, Sims Engineering built tugs, too. In 1984 Sims launched the 1,056-ton dredge New Era, still the largest powered vessel built in New Zealand (the Sea-Tow 4, an unpowered barge built at Auckland in 1994, is 3,565 tons).

Boats and ships are still built locally. In the early 2000s the industry’s stronghold remained Whangārei, where Ship Constructors Ltd built commercial vessels, and Tenix Shipbuilding New Zealand constructed modules for Anzac frigates and patrol vessels for the navy’s Project Protector programme.


When a ship reaches the end of its 20–30-year life, it has to be disposed of. Big deep-sea trade ships have always been scrapped overseas. In colonial times, coasters were abandoned in quiet backwaters or burned. Iron and steel ships were either sold to overseas buyers or dismantled. Between the wars old ships were sunk alongside the breakwater in Otago Harbour, and recently some have been scuttled in recreational diving areas to form artificial reefs.


New Zealand’s successes in the America’s Cup, and local designers’ innovative use of fibreglass in their boats – the so-called ‘plastic fantastics’ – added fresh lustre to their reputation for excellence in small boat design, and put local yards on the map for luxury yacht building. In 1986 Sensation Yachts launched the 37-metre Aquel II, then the world’s largest single-masted yacht. By the late 1990s orders were coming in from wealthy overseas clients for superyachts, some bigger than the Hauraki Gulf ferries. In 2004 Alloy Yachts delivered the 54-metre sloop Tiara, claimed to be the word’s first privately owned sailing yacht with a helipad. That year another yard had an 85-metre yacht on order. Auckland has the lion’s share of this work, but large craft are also turned out at Whangārei, New Plymouth and Wellington.

Jet boats

New Zealand has a long tradition of building smaller recreational craft for use on lakes and rivers. The world’s first commercially successful water jet was born in the upper stretches of the South Island rivers in the early 1950s, when inventor Bill Hamilton tinkered with an American hydrojet. His round centrifugal water pump drew in water and expelled it through a steerable nozzle, but it only really took off when he raised the nozzle above the waterline, increasing the speed and enabling the boat to zip across even the shallowest water. Hamilton’s company still builds jet boats and engines in Christchurch.

How to cite this page:

Gavin McLean, 'Shipbuilding - Modern shipbuilding', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Gavin McLean, published 12 Jun 2006, updated 1 Jul 2015