Interview with John Welsford
by Sandra Leinweber

We met John Welsford the first time in Port Townsend at the 2002 Wooden Boat Festival. We had been his US agent for the sale of his plans for about a year at that point. Our visit to the area overlapped by several days, but in a series of almost comic near misses, we did not connect until the last evening of our stay. I will never forget the moment when Chuck and John spotted one another. Each had seen nothing more than a photo of the other. It was late in the afternoon, and all of us were weary, but they came together like magnets, and spent the next couple of hours in intense conversation. All our business since that first meeting has been conducted through email and the occasional phone call. This time, we had the time to just sit and talk about everything, and this interview is just a small slice of what we learned from and about John.

Sandra: I would like to start with your background, establish the fact that even though you are from New Zealand, you are just a regular guy who happens to be a boat designer. (tongue firmly in cheek)

John: That Kiwis are human, actually.

Sandra: Yes.

John: I’m a New Zealander, 6th or 7th generation. Which is a long time considering that New Zealand is a very young country. The bulk of my ancestry is Scots Irish even though the name is very English. Amongst the notable ancestors is a guy who got shot for stealing horses in Australia and then on my mother’s side is the William Denny family - people who established and ran the Denny shipyards in Scotland—building full sized ships. They had the first workable professional testing tank in the world. It was set up for developing the hulls for the ferries that ran across to the Isle of Man and to Ireland and across the English Channel. They made significant gains in hull shape and efficiency. They also used the tank to develop the Denny Stabilizing gear (active fins), that is now the norm on passenger ships all over the world.

Sandra: It sounds as though boatbuilding is in your blood.

John: Yep. There has been a boatbuilder in every generation, back as far as my Dad could go, which was nearly 200 years, or about 10 generations. I am the current one. Although now my building is less and the drawing of the plans is more.

Sandra: How did you start, and what has influenced you over the years?

John: I started off building tin—that’s corrugated roofing iron—boats at nine years old, scraping melted tar off the roads to caulk them with on a hot day, folding up the sheet metal and nailing it to bits of firewood at the end to form the stems. I soon learned the the ones with lots of rocker curved fore and aft were generally more stable, but they didn’t go straight. And the ones that were straight from one end to the other fell over sideways and were hard to turn, but they would go straight. So I had the beginnings of lessons in those principles, and they are still there- they still apply.

Sandra: Was your father a boatbuilder?

John: No, my father was a farmer. My grandfather managed the books for a one man boatbuilding company where he lived, and at 9 or 10 years old, I spent all of my holidays at my grandparents’ place. My parents were very pleased to see the back of me for a month or so at a time. It was my job to sweep the floor, tail out the machinery when there was big lumber going through, and stay out of the way. That was my first contact with boatbuilding. It was traditional boat building, carvel planked, steamed frame building, and again, there are lots of lessons from there.

Sandra: Did you spend time in boats then as well?

John: Yep, boats of my own, and my grandfather’s little clinker dinghy that he used to take me fishing in. I didn’t have a sailboat until much much later. In fact, I was well into my thirties before I owned a sailboat that didn’t have a cabin on it. My first few had cabins. Open boats came to me much later in my career than most designers.

Sandra: Do you prefer open boats?

John: I much prefer open boats. The cruising sailing dinghy is my perfect boat. In a big boat, to have a real adventure, involves something like sailing round the Horn. You can have an adventure that’s just as vivid and real and memorable as sailing round the Horn in a cruising, sailing dinghy - over one weekend, 20 miles from home.

Sandra: Is that just because of the size of the boat and the relative feelings of stability?

John: Yes. A small boat connects you with the sea very strongly. You are sailing around the edges rather than out in the deep stuff. Blue water sailing in my mind is boring—just something you have to do to get from one interesting cruising ground to another. In a sailing dinghy the cruising grounds are more intimate, much more real. Another really interesting thing in a cruising sailing dinghy is that lots of people, come up to talk. Sailing in a big boat, nobody wants to know. There are issues also around the boat. The bigger the boat the fewer hours you spend enjoying it in relation to the hours spent maintaining it. And of course the issue of the amount of money that’s involved. These little boats that I like to design live in the garage, you maintain them over a couple of days, you can tow them at highway speeds to your cruising grounds, they’re not intimidating, just a lot more fun. Of course it is not a good idea to make your first cruise in a small boat a 200 mile trip. Better to get used to the boat in a calm bay. Learn how it handles and take it from there.

Sandra: You often design boats for individuals. How many of your commissions have been added to your stock designs?

John: Quite a lot. These days my practice has progressed to a point – I won’t take on a commission unless I can add it to my plans list. Even the more extreme ones will fit comfortably into my list. That means that I can charge the original customer a little less, and I have the projected income off in the future from selling the plans several times.

Sandra: Does the orginal design go through any changes over time?

John: I try to keep it exactly the same. My Navigator is a good example. It was designed for a specific job that did not go ahead. Then a customer came in looking for a boat, we leafed through my design proposals, he picked that one, and we drew a new rig for it, opened the interior a bit, and that has become Navigator. A little yawl rigged sailing dinghy with over 500 sets of plans sold—it has become quite a phenomenon.

Dave Perillo in his Navigator, "Jaunty"

Sandra: Do you have many designs on paper that have never been built?

John: Stillborn? Yes. There are probably 40 or 50 tucked away.

Sandra: What makes a Welsford design a Welsford design?

John: That’s difficult for me to be objective about. I like to watch people’s reactions. I have a style that people like. I have an approach that I have deliberately worked on that trys to accentuate certain features of a boat’s styling. Just slightly to make them almost a caricature. Something that says, I’m going to be like a Cape Cod catboat when I grow up. Or perhaps, my Daddy was a Falmouth cutter, and I’m just as good. There are features of traditional boats which people remember fondly, and that they identify with. I try to fit those into the styling of a boat, which may be in fact quite different, but it connects. The boat is my translation of a person’s dream image. If I can connect with the customer well enough to identify that dream vision and translate it into a 3-dimensional form, then it satisfies both the dream and the practical aspects of the design, which is how it sails, how it builds, how it feels when you are in it.

Sandra: You take their ideas, filter them through your knowledge of what makes a boat work, and design what is hopefully the ideal boat.

John: Yes. Although there are times when it is quite difficult. If you have somebody whose dream is a deep water, deep keeled, cutter rigged, long distance ocean girdling boat and they sail in an area where the water is knee deep for 200 miles, there’s a bit of a conflict. That’s an extreme case, but it does happen. You have to find something that satisfies both their vision and the practical aspects of their chosen sailing grounds, or it won’t work.

Sandra: I would assume that the water in your part of the world is different in some respects from the water in the States—not that we have a typical sort of water. How do you go about advising someone about which of your plans might work for them here?

John: I need to be familiar with the environment in which my customer is going to use the boat. For example, a customer who is going to buy a boat for Maine in the summertime will be quite different from a customer who likes to sail fairly late in the season in Seattle.

Sandra: Why buy your designs over an American designer?

John: Well, the blunt one is that I need to make a living. I spend a lot of time in my workshop. I might build only part of a design and then destruct test it. I work very hard to make the boats accessible to people with limited tools, limited skills, and limited financial resources. The boats look complex, they look like a million dollars, but they are achievable to people who have a lot less than that. The boats work well, they are well tested. Our sailing environment in New Zealand is robust, to say the least. It blows like stink a lot of the time.

I ‘ve built 22 boats of my own design. I’ve been designing for around 25 years, making me one of the more experienced small boat designers, and I have specialized in small boats.

Sandra: Tell us about your book, New Zealand Backyard Boatbuilding. Is it a good introduction for the beginning boatbuilder?

John: Yes. The book could have been four times as fat, but it never would have been published. It’s designed to introduce people to the basic skills, to the concepts, to the ideas involved, and from there, it’s not a long step to completing a boat. It really is a primer. There are building tips in there, and how to do it. There are cruising stories in there; that’s why to do it. There’s a list of boats in there, and that’s what to do.

Sandra: Do you give any recommendations on where to start with building a boat?

John: Yes. The book has some good ideas, and anyone can contact me and say this is what I want to achieve., and we can explore it together. They might decide to start small, or perhaps just go ahead with the boat they really want. By the time you finish your first boat, your skills will have improved to the point where the finish will be acceptable.

Sandra: Do you find that most people don’t want to start small, but have a bigger boat in mind right from the beginning?

John: In most cases I say, no, don’t build a little one for practice. Build the boat you want. A big boat is actually not any more complex or difficult than a small boat. There’s more of it, but each individual task in the building is no more complex.

Sandra: You have also said that a builder needs nothing more than a small kit of tools.

John: That’s right. The tools are part of the resources that a builder brings to the boat. The resources are their attitude, the most important one of all. Their tools, the space in which they build, their financial resources, and their time. Each one of those needs to be considered. The actual tools, for even the biggest boat, can fit into one box that can be carried from the car to the garage. Other tools will speed the job up. It is possible to build any one of my boats totally with hand tools.

Sandra: Plug-in tools, right?

John: No. Hand tools, what we call arm-strong tools. But from there, a power jig saw will help, a power sander will help. But all they do, is speed things up. They won’t change the quality.

At the end of the process, it’s like my workshop which has driven my wife to distraction. Mine is a full professional, joinery workshop, with a mass of fixed machinery, 18 hand held power tools, and huge collection of hand tools. Even so, I find I use about a dozen tools 99% of the time. The others are just there to speed things up.

Sandra: Have you designed any boats specifically for American customers?

John: One of the more recent designs was for a customer who wanted to rowing cruise long distances up the East Coast. And he wanted an auxiliary sail, so primarily a rowing boat that would sail. That’s where Walkabout comes from. He can sleep on board, and it was designed to fit his particular set of requirements. The boat will cope with wintertime in Maine and heavy weather. It will row in the canals and bays with no problem.

Sandra: An open boat?

John: An open boat, but not entirely open, it’s decked on both ends and has side decks. There’s a tremendous volume of buoyancy in it , with space for a fairly large gent to lay down with a tent up and sleep and be comfortable. The first Walkabouts are getting close to completion, oddly enough in Australia.

I designed it for Steven Paskey , who lives very close to the Chesapeake, and he wanted to cruise the Maine Island Trail, which involves 50 miles of salt water in a couple of places. The boat needed to be extremely seaworthy, but also the water in Maine in the winter and summer can be very calm, so it will move nicely with almost no wind. It will cope with really heavy weather if it has to. A rowing boat can’t move fast enough to make shelter if you are rowing across 50 miles, so I expect him to watch the weather forecast pretty closely. If he gets caught, it has a much better chance of survival than most boats.

Wayne Jorgensen's Walkabout in frame

If I am designing a boat, I will look at the indigenous boats in an area with weather systems similar to the ones where my customer lives. For instance, if I am looking to design a super seaworthy, blue water small sailing boat, I’ll go and have a look at the boats which oringinated south of England, on the other side of the English channel, around the Breton coast. Those boats have evolved in an area where they have 30% gale force winds. They have strong fast currents, big waves, and conditions which most Americans, with all respect, would consider to be extreme, and would not go out in. A boat that has evolved in those conditions will have seaworthiness and handling characteristics that are consistent with the aims of my design.

If I’m designing for Galveston Bay, or the Florida Keys, where the winds are mild and gentle most of the time, and you don’t go sailing when it’s not, I look for boats that have originated in that sort of area.

Sandra: How available are you and what can be learned from reading your book or the catalog of your plans?

John: I am available through email to just about any one who has bought a set of plans or who is thinking about building one of my boats. There is a Welsford builder’s discussion group online that is quite active and in which I participate. In the catalog, I write a story to go with the pictures and description of each boat. The story is written to illustrate the use for which the boat is intended. The story for my new design, Swaggie, is a particularly good one. Now those stories are fiction, but are intended to illustrate the best use for the boat. I spend a good deal of time talking to customers. I get feedback, telling me what their individual environments are like.

I travel regularly, talk with other designers. I look at the boats that are indigenous to an area, and I get clues from all of those things.

Sandra: You are, at least in our experience, extremely available.

John: Yep. Don’t tell my wife.

We spent 3 days with John, and the time flew. I honestly think he could discuss any subject, his range of interest and experience is so wide. We learned a great deal about New Zealand, its system of government, its people, its geologic history. No citizen is more than 50 miles from the sea at any time. The water is a constant presence, and a huge percentage of the populace spend time in boats. John is the epitome of WYSIWG—a charming, knowledgeable, intense man who is a family man, master boat designer, and adventurer.