John Spencer, variously known as the ‘Plywood King’, a ‘mad scientist’ or a ‘genius in disguise’, is the subject of the annual Classic Yacht and Launch Exhibition to be staged at Auckland’s Karanga Plaza in the Viaduct Basin from November 6-8.

The exhibit is the latest in a long-running series of displays by the Tino Rawa Trust, celebrating New Zealand’s rich maritime heritage by recognising significant designers, boatbuilders and classes going back to the 19th century.

With a shock of long hair, an unruly ginger beard and an intense stare, Spencer was a maverick of sorts who produced a body of work now recognised as years ahead of its time.

In keeping with his alternative lifestyle – he was a heavy smoker (in the curious belief it helped his asthma) and a heavy drinker – there was a distinct whiff of anarchy and revolution in Spencer’s approach to design. His philosophy was shaped towards providing affordable boats, easily built in suburban backyards that would give ‘ordinary’ people enjoyment on the water.

Spencer’s early forays into boats featured sailing dinghies and multiple outboard runabouts, all capable of being built in the garden shed, or the lounge for that matter. The big breakthrough into performance sailing came with the 12ft Cherub, followed by the 10ft Flying Ant, the 14ft Javelin and the Jollyboat. He also designed and built several 18ft skiffs.


Spencer’s Cherub, built in 5mm ply, embodied all his hallmark characteristics: a hard chine running forward from the transom but then merging forward into a fine, deep vee bow shape with the angle of entry at about 15°. With the maximum beam aft of the mid-point, the underside featured a flat run progressively curving into a sharp twist into the bow.

His rigs were also positioned aft with the forestay set back from the stem, keeping the power of the rig as close as possible to the section of the hull with greatest beam.

He also designed and built a number of successful keelboats, of which his masterpiece was Infidel, commissioned in 1964 by wealthy industrialist Tom Clark. With its hard chines, reverse sheer and narrow beam, Infidel defied the classic European- and North American-influenced aesthetic. Critics dismissed it as a ‘black box’, but admirers used the same description as a term of respect – particularly when it showed its pace on the water.

After Infidel was banned from entering the Sydney-Hobart classic, Clark sold the boat to owners in California, where it scored notable success including back-to-back victories in the 1974 and ’75 Transpac races. Infidel’s long, narrow hull form and light displacement pre-dated by several years the so-called Californian Ultralight Displacement sleds that dominated the Transpac for many years.

With a strong and ultra-loyal following from many New Zealand sailors, including the likes of Geoff Stagg and Bruce Farr, Spencer’s impressive portfolio will be represented by various dinghies and keelboats displayed on land and in the water at the Tino Rawa Trust Classic Yacht and Launch Exhibition.