Low, sleek and powerful, an Austin-Healey sports car is a rare classic – prized by collectors all over the world. But rarer still – particularly in New Zealand – is a Healey boat, manufactured by the same legendary, speed-obsessed engineer some 65 years ago. Story by Lawrence Schaffler.


Many classic boat restoration stories have odd, unlikely beginnings – it seems to go with the territory. This one started three years ago in an Auckland doctor’s waiting room where Phil Shaw was growing impatient waiting for a seriously delayed appointment.



With clenched teeth he hauled out his phone and began trawling through Trademe – looking for nothing in particular – and stumbled over a listing for a derelict 14-foot wooden runabout. She looked to be in bad shape but the brand piqued his interest – a 1956 Healey Ski-master. Healey? As in Austin- Healey classic cars? Similar vintage? Surely not…?


Actually, yes.



Intrigued, he bought the derelict and began some intensive research. Austin-Healey aficionados know that Donald Healey’s cars were the product of a maverick – a British entrepreneur, racing driver and engineering genius all rolled into one. And one whose far-ranging mind also embraced boats.






This particular boat – a 1956 Ski-master – is mahogany and was brought brand-new to New Zealand by the Porter family, immigrants from the UK. Shaw bought the boat from one of the descendants, in effect becoming its second owner.


Tackling the two-year restoration didn’t frighten Shaw – and he has his father to thank for that. Shaw senior had passed on six years earlier, but he was a professional coach builder by trade and over the years he and his son had built a number of boats.

“He taught me everything I know about joinery and woodworking. I inherited his tools when he died, and during this project I kept hearing his ‘voice’ as I worked, making sure I was doing things properly. Anytime I was tempted to take a shortcut I would hear his stern warning: ‘If you don’t do it properly you’ll just end up re-doing it later.’”

Despite the boat’s forlorn appearance, its structural integrity wasn’t too bad. The biggest job was replacing three mahogany frames. “They had pulled away from the chines – the screws used for the temporary fix weren’t really long enough. Someone had then used steel bolts (ungalvanised) to fix the frames to the hull. Of course they rusted, damaging parts of the hull and wrecking the frames.”

The rest of the vessel just needed a thorough sanding and was brought to its former glory with multiple coats of International paints and varnish. Most of the fittings are original, but the front nav light is a Chris Craft product, sourced from eBay, as are a few cleats. The original steering wheel (rubber over a steel rim) was beyond repair, and Shaw has fitted a substitute from a Plymouth of a similar vintage.

Though Healey Ski-masters were typically powered by Mercury outboards, Shaw instead opted for a 30hp Suzuki.

“The 15” transom pretty much dictated a short-leg engine, and Suzuki was the only manufacturer that offered one with power tilt. It drives the boat to a top speed of around 30 knots.”

Inevitably, Shaw’s research brought him into contact with the good people at the Austin-Healey Club of New Zealand. Though the details remain sketchy, it appears there is (or was) one other Healey boat in New Zealand.
Its owner is unknown, but there is anecdotal evidence that Kiwi racing drivers Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme used the boat for skiing on the Orakei Basin.

What began as a frustrating wait for a doctor has a happy conclusion: not only does Shaw now have a wonderful (and very rare) runabout, it also earned him a prize at the Antique and Classic Boat Show at Lake Rotoiti
in March (for the Best Restored Powerboat).

Shaw plans to keep the Healey at his bach at Kawau Island, were she’ll be used for sedate Sunday cruises and a little water-skiing. Incidentally, he is now best friends with his doctor.

Oddly, no one in the UK seems very interested in the heritage of the Healey boats. The best repository of information about them is at a dedicated museum in the Netherlands (www.healey-marine.com).


Born in 1898, Healey’s career began with an apprenticeship at the Sopwith aircraft factory. He later studied engineering and soon began dabbling with tuning cars for better performance. That ultimately led
to the establishment of the famous Austin-Healey marque.

He was great mates with British racing driver Stirling Moss (who died earlier this year) and both were passionate about waterskiing – which in the mid-1950s was emerging as the ‘hot’ new sport in the
USA. Building boats for waterskiing sounded like a great idea.

Healey enlisted the help of Cornish yacht designer Geoffrey Lord for the plans. In 1956, at the London Boat Show, he unveiled a 16-foot runabout powered by a BMC B-Series 1500cc four-cylinder petrol inboard.

With Moss acting as brand ambassador to promote the new marine venture, Healey pushed full steam ahead, trading heavily on the reputation of his cars. A 1958 ad reads: “As thrilling on the water as the famous Healey sports car… it is built in the tradition of the fabulous world record-breaking Healey Sports Car and is every bit as good as it looks.”

Sadly, the company lasted only six years, but in that time produced six models ranging from the 13-foot 6-inch Sprite to the 15-foot 8-inch fibreglass Corvette.

• Ski-master – built in marine plywood and officially the first Healey model, powered by an outboard.

• Healey 55 – inboard versions were powered by the single SU- carburetted BMC series B engine from the MG Magnette.

• Healey Sprite – deliberately named to be associated with the popular Healey ‘Frog-eye’ car.

• Healey 75 – built in GRP and similar to the 55 it was modified for a larger twin-carb engine.

• Healey 707 – GRP hull and decks on a wooden sub-frame (with foam buoyancy beneath the floors) it was named after the Boeing airliner. Powered by a Dowty Marine water-jet linked to a marinised six-cylinder engine from the Austin-Healey 3000 cars. It developed 118hp.

• Healey Corvette – GRP with a deeper vee hull and broader beam than previous Healey boats, geared to be used offshore.

Nothing if not competitive, Healey entered his boats in numerous races – among them the 1958 24-hour race at Aix-Les-Bains in France and the Six Heures de Paris race which took place on the river Seine at the same time as the Paris Salon Motor Show.

But with rising manufacturing costs and declining orders, Healey closed the marine division in 1961.