New Zealand Leads World in Boat-Building Craftsmanship

THE city where people build boats in their backyards is becoming world-renowned as a center for designing, building, and repairing boats.

New Zealand's marine industry is coming of age rapidly - and Auckland is at the heart of it. Kiwis have 30 to 40 percent of the world market in high-tech racing boats and regularly rack up trophies.

In the 1990 Round-the-World Whitbread Race, Auckland boats, crews, and sponsors finished first and second. Auckland has produced some of the world's best designers of racing boats. A few, like America's Cup boat designer Bruce Farr, have moved to the United States.

This sea-faring city is home to approximately 300-400 companies that deal with some aspect of marine sales. It is also a world leader in sailmaking. Computer software to aid sail design and laser sailcutting technology were developed primarily in Auckland. One street produces 35 percent of total marine exports for New Zealand.

In the Whitbread Race, going on now, four of 12 boats were built in New Zealand, three by Cookson's Boat Builders. Cookson's business has grown from $1.5 million to nearly $6 million (New Zealand; US$3.28 million) in five years. Production has almost doubled. And some Europeans, despite access to the traditional boat yards of Europe, are coming here. Cookson's is building two boats for King Harold of Norway.

``Asia's going to happen,'' says Mick Cookson, son of the father-and-son team. ``The US and Europe, we still need to break in there.''

Auckland is also the center for mega-yacht building. Sensation Yachts serves the world's wealthy. Currently, its airplane hanger-sized shop is building a $12 million, 123-foot boat for a Saudi client. After it is completed in 20 months, it will have honey-colored teak, leather couches, and 22-carat-gold hardware.

New Zealand's advantages: ``Quality, track record, price, and a delivery better than Europe,'' says Warwick Stevenson, Sensation Yacht's general manager. He says people buy boats in New Zealand and turn around and sell them in Florida.

Sensation's business has increased 25 percent over the last five years, pulling in annual sales of $10 million.

Auckland is also famous for repairing boats. Five hundred foreign boats a year come here, many for repairs and refits.

``There's no place in the world where you can come in and have good work done as quickly and at a price they can do here,'' says John Neal, an American who sails the South Pacific. ``I'm spending $10,000-$20,000 [United States] here in three weeks. And that's just for a 42-foot ketch.''

Why New Zealand?

Peter Rachtman, director of the Marine Export Group, which promotes exports of New Zealand marine equipment, says, ``The increasingly competitive labor market and the New Zealand dollar have been attractive for export. So has [the country's] high level of craftsmanship.

``New Zealanders have been boating for generations, they're used to rigorous sailing conditions. And the government has a comprehensive apprenticeship program.''

The marine industries bring in $100 million a year. That is still considered a small part of the economy, compared with the dairy, lamb, meat, and timber industries. But it is a fast-growing one.

Business has been increasing steadily since the industry recovered from the 1987 stock market crash, which affected New Zealand severely.

``In the last three years the marine industry has recovered from a declined position and is growing again,'' says Joanne Douglas of Tradenz, New Zealand's trade development board. ``It's growing now about 15 percent per annum.''

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