Forty-one years ago, one man was amazed to observe over 100 yachts of his own design gathered on the line by the Auckland Harbour Bridge for the start of Richmond Yacht Club’s inaugural Alan Wright Day.

This unique annual event, held for 20 years, was a tribute to Wrighty’s versatility. Every one of these very different boats evolved from his drawings and these ‘seeworthy’ craft were still sailing in New Zealand and Australian waters.

How did this happen? In 1964, Alan Wright (‘Wrighty’) tutored the art of building wooden boats full-time at Auckland Technical Institute. Basic yacht design was also included in the course. So when one student, realising his tutor was not an expert in this field, asked: “What do you know about this subject? How many boats have you designed?” it “hit an ego nerve,” as Alan put it, “so I had to design a yacht.”

Wright studied the subject for over a year, learning to draw plans. When he felt ready, he eventually sold a plan to an amateur builder. The result was a pretty 28ft (8.54m) centreboard sloop called Tormalind. A new career was now blowin’ in the wind.

Over 100 Wright yachts lined up under the Auckland Harbour Bridge for the inaugural Alan Wright Day 41 years ago.

His first sale set Wrighty on a steady course that culminated in nearly 100 different yacht designs spanning 30 years. His design philosophy in the boom years broke away from the establishment when he concentrated on what he called “fat boats”.

Other designers such as Stewart, Spencer and Des Townson were already successful. But it seems Townson at least was sceptical about Alan’s early, beamy, high-freeboard efforts. He told prospects that they would not sail well to windward, among other things. But Wrighty didn’t bite back.

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“Des Townson was a stickler for tradition,” said Wrighty. “He made beautiful boats but he never lifted the sheer, which meant less headroom and less beam. I wanted a boat you could stand up in… with more room for the galley so the women who were getting into cruising with the family would feel more at home.”

Ironically, his first aft-beamy keeler was aptly named RiteOff. It was intended to be a big version of the Tasman 20 trailer yacht that had gained a reputation for beating many bigger boats of the day.

Richmond Yacht Club’s Alan Wright Day was held annually for 20 years, as the Roy Molpass-crafted honours board attests.>/center>

But Wrighty was not happy with his plans. When he was asked to go over them with Bill McCook, the builder, he was apprehensive, saying: “It has too much beam (almost 13ft/4m). It will crank all over the ocean.” But the owner, after much arguing, persuaded Wright to leave the design as it was drawn.

Wright had the jitters at first – the misgivings of a pioneer of revolutionary concepts. “As it is, it’ll be a real handful on the wind. People will write off this creation before she hits the water,” he added. This remark determined the name of a beamy yacht that bore the signature of many subsequent Wright designs. RiteOff’s performance to windward was actually her strength, the vessel out-pointing and out-sailing most yachts in a stiff breeze – she was unbeatable in 25 knots. The owner raced her successfully for 37 years.

RiteOff was the starting gun for many future cruiser/racer yachts, luring hundreds of middle-aged sailors, and many old salts, all wanting easy handling, roomy, seaworthy, viceless craft they could successfully cruise and club (or class association) race.

The Wright 10.

THE BOOM YEARS

The late 1960s through to the mid-1980s was the hey-day for custom-built one-offs, trailer yachts and FRP (fibreglass) production keelers. There was an astonishing demand for Wright designs, along with those of his competitors.

Back then you could buy a house with three or four times an average annual income. Similarly, ordering a custom-built 30-footer or finishing an FRP hull and decks in your backyard would set you back less than a thousand dollars per foot. That’s why so many more men on modest incomes could afford their own yachts.

During those halcyon years it was not unusual to see 25-30 one-design yachts on yacht club start lines – Variants, Trackers, Lotus 9.2s, Lotus 10.6s, Wright 10s and Marauders. Other notable designers were also thriving: Laurie Davidson with his 28 and 36, Jim Young’s 88 and 11 and Bruce Farr with his fast 10.20, 9.2 and Farr 38, plus the lively Noelex 22, 25 and 30. There was Mull’s Chico 30 nibbling at the heels of the Lotus 9.2 and the Farr 10.20, also competing with the highly innovative Wright 10.

Then along came Greg Elliot with very quick boats like Transformer. Ron Holland (who was initially trained in boat building by Wright) also became a designer, later finding fame designing big yachts overseas.

There was plenty of design variety in those times, plenty of competition, plus a budding export industry for FRP production boats to Australia and the USA.

A Wright Marauder 8.4.

MULDOON’S BOAT TAX

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In 1979 an envious Robert (‘Piggy’) Muldoon, while wandering around Westhaven looking at ‘gin palaces’ before his next gin, saw a nice fat source of revenue floating before his eyes, so he slapped a 20% tax on all new boats. It put the anchor on domestic boat sales and wrecked a fast-growing export market. (Wrighty’s own 40ft Carino, worth $100,000, suddenly cost $120,000, for example). The tax beached many boats under construction, caused many cancelled orders, and generally threw the entire industry into a whirlpool. John Street, well-respected in the marine industry, blasted the ridiculous nature of the tax, arguing that New Zealand’s new export industry would generate far more tax revenue in the long run. Muldoon must have been well aware of this, since he was a previous Minister for Tourism.

Because of the mischief of the mandate, many expert builders were forced into repair and refit work. The tax was reduced to 10% years later, but irreparable damage had been done to New Zealand’s boatbuilding industry.

The Wright 10.6, big brother to the 9.2, was a popular model.

PUSH-BUTTON IMPORTS

The writing was on the wall. Our boatbuilding was reduced to a few one-offs while factory-finished Beneteaus, Jeanneaus, Bavarias, Moodys, Hanses, Elans, Dufours and many other brands, including a plethora of power boats, heralded a new era of oversea imports.

But the legacy of the Wright fleet prevails. Drop the pick anywhere in the Gulf and you will see a Marauder, or a Lotus 10.6, or a 9.2, or a 1280 – or even a Tracker or two. Such seakindly, ‘seeworthy’ boats will be around for a while yet – you can purchase one for its 1980 price, largely because a gradual shift to power boats has lowered the resale value of these elderly yachts.

Alan Wright could sail almost before he could walk. He has over 80 years of boatbuilding and designing behind him, starting with the first family cruising yacht he built for himself, a trimaran, and spanning over 100 others of his own design. Not bad, really. BNZ

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The Lotus 9.2, probably the most successful 30-footer ever.

The Tracker, with around 200 built, is still sought after.