Spindrift, a Scotish fifer-style boat built in New Zealand


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Phil Smith, who recently sent us a fascinating report of his experiences sailing a converted airborne lifeboat, has written for us again.

This time his story is about Spindrift, a fifer-style boat built from kauri in New Zealand. Phil and partner Susie owned her for a while and, just as he did with airborne lifeboat, Phil makes this boat sound very desirable as well as interesting.

For the record, Spindrift measures 30ft (9.14m) loa including bowsprit, 27ft on deck, 10ft in beam, has a draft of 4ft and displaces 5.3 tons.

‘While wandering the piers at Tauranga Marina, New Zealand, about 20 years ago my attention was drawn to a white motor sailer. At first glance she looked odd: like a 42 footer with 15 feet sawn out of the middle and the ends stuck together. She had very high topsides, and a surprising amount of sheer put the stemhead almost 6ft above the waterline.

Wide side-decks, brass portholes, mahogany helm, no-nonsense rig . . . there were things I liked about this unusual boat. She had a jaunty, naval appearance compared to the sleek and sinister cruiser-racers berthed around about. She also resembled a fishing boat.

At that stage I knew nothing of Scottish Fifers.

Eight years later my navigator and I found ourselves clambering over Spindrift’s gunwale, in Whangamata Harbour, 30 miles up the Coromandel Coast from Tauranga. Her elderly owner had lost interest in her and decided to sell. He’d had her up on the hard for two years, installing the Sabb engine and a new electrical system installed, and refurbished her deep and cosy interior. The price seemed steep, but she was professionally built of solid kauri, and looked like she might even have a pedigree.

The biggest boats we’d ever owned till then had been a 23ft James Wharram Hinemoa, and a 23ft Uffa Fox airborne lifeboat. A five and a half ton motor sailer would be a new and awesome experience.

We bought Spindrift, fixed her up a bit, and motor-sailed home on a beam reach in 25 knots of south westerly. We covered 30 miles on the chart in five hours 11 minutes, which eradicated any doubts about her performance or capabilities.

‘Thou shalt not buy too much boat’ has been one of our nautical commandments, and over the last 30 years we’ve only had boats that we can maintain on our modest income, using our own skills and labour, and, perhaps surprisingly, Spindrift came well within that criterion.

In the two and a half years we owned her we have clocked up nearly 150 engine hours, spent 34 nights on board, and taken her out an average of once a fortnight. Most of our cruising consists of day trips around Tauranga Harbour, or out to sea: we are coastal sailors who plan never to lose sight of land.

Spindrift is simple and practical. Her ample sections enclose a large, self draining cockpit. In the middle, a hatch lifts off to expose the engine room, including the 190kg motor, which gives hull speed at 1500 rpm, using around three litres an hour. Two tons of lead run along the base of the keel, with a further 200kg of internal ballast in the bilge. Virtually all the boat’s heavy parts, including storage, are located around the hull’s centre of gravity, with nothing in the ends.

In a locker aft, the hydraulic steering ram can be disconnected and a tiller secured in a socket on the rudder post. She handles well with the tiller.

From the cockpit, three big steps descend into a saloon with 6ft 3in headroom and accommodation for two or three, a wide berth to starboard and a galley to port. In a forward cabin she has a further triangular berth. The interior features golden varnished kauri and rimu timber, set against the white painted ribs and planking of the hull.

In spite of her apparent bulk, Spindrift behaves nicely in marinas and open sea alike. In 20 knot winds we would reef down, but no doubt a more adventurous type would carry full sail in 30 knots. She heels slowly and reluctantly and has to be pushed hard to go to 20 degrees. Instead of swooping up the waves and banging into the troughs, Spindrift barges her way confidently through the seas, occasionally shouldering a big one, sending spray hissing overhead. Overpowered on a beam reach under full main alone, Spindrift has no tendency to either round up or bear away; instead she’ll go over, slow right down and, without much steerage, happily wait for the sheet to be eased and a reef to go in.

She never fails to come through the eye of the wind in a tack. On the wind she’ll steer herself long enough to use the head or galley, though extra attention is needed downwind.

Spindrift’s life began as two kauri trees in the primeval forest of a remote valley in New Zealand’s far North. Her builder, Collin Reid, did the job at her Waipapa Landing, near Kerikeri, in the Bay of Islands, the site of New Zealand’s pioneering settlement. She was completed in 1968 using traditional plank on frame construction. The shell comprises inch-thick tanalised timber fastened by copper nails to steam-bent ribs of kowhai and tanekaha on 8in centres. Reid added a few personal touches, such as an almost imperceptible ‘clippering’ of the bow, and a hint of tumblehome in the canoe stern, while the Dutch designer gave her a small fore-foot cutaway, curving from the bobstay chainplate on the waterline back to the keel – but otherwise she conforms broadly to the lines of a fifer.

The Reids cruised Spindrift as far as Great Barrier Island and up and down the rugged Northland Coast for a number of years before embarking on another boatbuilding project.

Her next owner shortened the cabin, enlarging the cockpit, and built a one-ton ice hold and hydraulic line hauler for longlining and crayfishing. He also added the wheelhouse and a huge fuel tank. Then she was bought by three men in Tauranga who went voyaging and fishing around the Bay of Plenty. Around 1994 the boat was bought by the Whangamata owner, and in 1998 by Susie and I.

The Fifer motor-sailer evolved as a recreational version of the beamy, high-bowed North Sea fishing boats, and quite a number built to a designed by  George Watson were built at the yard of James Miller, at St Monance.  They were built to the same specs as the trawlers and seiners, mostly from larch on oak, and the weren’t cheap boats.

More recently a range of fibreglass  boats built to Watson’s designs have been in production at Colvic Craft, in Essex, England.’

3 thoughts on “Spindrift, a Scotish fifer-style boat built in New Zealand”

  1. Sorry mate, you're all wrong about your so called fifer yacht.

    I am the oldest grandson of Willie Miller who was the manageing director at James N Miller and sons in St Monance, Fife, Scotland.

    In 1964 he came out to NZ and stayed with us in Picton where he used our family boat called Quest.

    Its from Quest that he came up with the Fifer range. Please call or come and see for your self as we have all the history.

    The first Fifer motor yacht was designed whilst my grand farther was in NZ by his nephew Jimmy Miller. The first boat was built on spec and sold at the London boat show where orders for eight more were placed. At no stage did Millers of St Monance ever allow therr plans to be sold or reproduced. I'm sorry but to claim the vessel in NZ is a Fifer designed by some one else is totally false.

    1. So what should Phil call his canoe-sterned motor sailer yacht? It's clearly derived from some of the same general ideas and heritage as the Fifer yachts.


  2. It appears similar to the Inchcape class from eyemouth boatbuilders, or the Spey class, i designed & built a similar boat, 20 years ago, 26' x 10'6" x 4'6", 1" larch on 2" sawn oak frames

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