Yesterday’s Charm

When Mason Clippers were advertised in Sea Spray magazine in the ‘60s the byline read: “The world’s finest powerboat – for those people in the position to demand it.” New Zealand, at that stage, was a nation that prided itself on being egalitarian and such statements were only for the bold or foolish.

Tony Mason was undoubtedly the former and paved the way to our current reputation for designing and building the best boats in the world. His clipper designs were about as regal as a trailerable powerboat could get. They were a status symbol for their pipe-smoking owners, and a well-designed one at that.

In 1951 Mason and his old Airforce buddy Cliff Sutton started Sutton Mason Ltd selling household detergent. After a year of that, they thought boatbuilding a better idea and began production of Marlin powerboats.

In 1957 Tony sold his interest in Sutton Mason Ltd and went back into the Airforce for a short time before forming Mason Marine in late 1959. Undoubtedly the most luxurious and outstanding boat in its class, the Mason Clipper 23 epitomised the elite end of trailer boating.

The Tony Mason-designed Clipper 23 was well ahead of its time – being a fast cruiser and a true weekender in every sense. If you find a Mason Clipper for sale today you have to be quick as they are usually snapped up smartly and have become collector’s pieces in a burgeoning classic boat market.

Some people have a perverse ability to attract beautiful things like classic boats. One of these is Whangamata-based master craftsman Harry Nordberg. He is the rare sort of person who gets offered Mason Clippers.

A toolmaker and furniture maker by trade, Harry certainly has the credentials, but there is something else that you can’t quite put your finger on, something in his cheerful demeanor that hints that he might also be a master serial boat restorer.

Harry’s just finished restoring a Mason Sports Clipper 23 called Raroa. He was offered the boat by Nelson boatie Glen Common as it had been sitting in a shed for 10 years – his intentions of having it restored never realised.

While Harry was returning to his Whangamata base after collecting Raroa from Nelson he stopped for petrol in Taihape. “As I cast my eye over the boat I noticed the front windscreen had popped out of its frame. Then I noticed the front stays of the cabin were rotten and that the whole cabin top was in danger of peeling off !” With visions of bits of a Mason Clipper strewn along the desert road, Harry strapped everything down to ensure Raroa made it to Whangamata in one piece.

Over six months of full-time work he set about her restoration. Structural members of the cabin were replaced and the cladding was strengthened with 4mm strips of solid mahogany inside and out. The extensive cabin windows were removed and new perspex windows rebated and sealed with Sikaflex to make them waterproof.

The deck was re-glassed and sealed while the glassed cedar strip-plank hull was given a new coat of Altex defender inside and out. Raroa was originally fitted with a 210hp Ford Interceptor engine coupled to a Paragon V-Drive. This was replaced with a near-new 230hp five-litre Mercruiser V8 with an Alpha 1 Generation 2 sterndrive.

The sterndrive made her more versatile for beach landings and hauling onto the trailer. A surplus trailer for a Mason Clipper 24 was modified to suit the 23-foot model and its twinaxle arrangement complemented by the Sensotronic braking system finished off the deal. This is Harry’s third restoration and when I asked him how it rated next to the others he paused briefly before saying – “they are all hard.”

To step aboard the Mason Sports Clipper 23 is to step back in time to the pipe-smoking, cocktail drinking and Jaguar XJ6-owning 1960s. This is no boat full of plastic gadgets – instead there’s elegant space and timber trim. There is the double happy effect of Tony Mason’s original design having been given the benefit of Harry Nordberg’s experienced eye and attention to detail and it is everywhere aboard.

Raroa has the classic 60s indoor-outdoor flow with the aft end of her cabin open to allow a seamless transition from the open aft deck to the protection of the generous cabin. Headroom is improved with a small step down along the centreline which keeps the cabin proportions sleek.

Seating is either outdoors on either side of the engine box or along bench seats inside the cabin. The forward end of these has fold-down seats for the helmsperson and passenger which are complemented by two sliding hatches above. This gives the option of a heads out, wind in your hair, tank commander style position.

At the aft end of the bench seats is the well-disguised sink and cooker arrangement hidden in mahogany-panelled benchtops on either side of the cockpit. Perhaps the defining feature of Raroa’s interior is her built-in cocktail cabinet on the port side dash. Harry even has an image of Tony Mason discussing the detail of the cabinet with the first owner Gordon Truscott during construction. Surprisingly, neither of them has a drink in his hand.

There is no mistaking Raroa’s Mason style as she hits the water. A flared transom and soft chines folding into a deep vee not only look good but make her ride like a waterbed. She is most definitely a launch rather than a powerboat and proves it by soaking up the leftover northeast swell off Whangamata with ease.

The throaty purr of the V8 only adds to the allure that attracts admiring looks from the surfers on the infamous Whangamata bar. Raroa comes from a time when style was comfort and she is a welcome breath of fresh air in a boating world full of aluminium and fibreglass. BNZ

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