Small wonders

Kate Innes | VOLUME 23, ISSUE 2

Tom Stephenson’s boats can’t be found in yacht club marinas, but you will find them inside some very famous homes and boardrooms here and abroad.

For world champion racer and former boat builder, Tom Stephenson, building models isn’t just a hobby. Each one is a tangible representation of his lifelong passion for sailing, his intimate knowledge of boat building and his encyclopaedic recall of international yachting history.

Stephenson first carved his name in international yachting annals when he won the Half Ton Cup in Chicago in 1975 and was subsequently named Australian Yachtsman of the Year in 1976.

Around that time, he also moved into the boat-building industry, producing trailerable yachts.

Traditionally, trailer sailors catered for the family market, but Stephenson felt there was a niche for a similar style of boat that was not compromised in performance by the family-style fit-out.

First came the Doug Peterson-designed Seaway 25, based on an IOR quarter-tonner, and then the Blazer, one of the first high-performance sports boats to hit the Australian market.

Stephenson credits the design of the Blazer to John Reichel, who drew the lines plans, and Jim Pugh, now best known from the highly-respected partnership of yacht designers and marine architects, Reichel Pugh.

“Initially, the Blazer was developed by the Hobie organisation as its first monohull venture, but it failed to proceed to the market. It was offered to us and we put it on the Australian market in 1979. Back then, the boat industry was low-tech and, compared to today’s standards, not very sophisticated. They drew a lines plan and you lofted it. Now, you just get a disc with everything on it,” Stephenson explains.

A bout of ill health in the mid ‘80s forced Stephenson to step back from his burgeoning boat business, but, on reflection, he says it was a timely opportunity to spend more time on his self-taught hobby: building decorative models of yachts.


“It was about three years before the 50th anniversary of the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race and I came up with the idea of building half models of all the previous winners. By the time the anniversary came around, Australia would have a collection that accurately represented the design evolution of race winners over the past 50 years,” he explained.

When he found some plans in an old book, including those for the first Sydney Hobart winner, Rani and some of the other early race winners, Stephenson realised his dream was achievable. It became his mission to build as many as he could in the years leading up to the anniversary.

By the time the anniversary arrived in 1994, Stephenson’s collection was complete and subsequently acquired by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia and placed on permanent public display in the Members’ Bar in Rushcutters Bay, Sydney. Each year, the Club continues to add models of winners made by Stephenson.

To date, Stephenson has completed 530 models, including a collection of Brisbane to Gladstone race winners, which he made for the 50th anniversary of that race in 1998.

He now creates models of all kinds of boats, including launches such as the Palm Beach 50 and several superyachts. Stephenson says some of his yachts have been acquired by very famous Australians.

“Paul Keating has three,” Stephenson notes proudly. “Vim, the first 12-metre America’s Cup boat to come to Australia, was given to Keating by Ian Kiernan.

“Keating had an interest in the old J Boats so he asked me to make him a model of the Cambria, a well known old America’s Cup boat, which was refitted in Brisbane by Norman Wright and Sons. His third model is of the most famous J boat, Ranger.”


Stephenson spends three to six hours, four days a week, on his hobby. His models are usually built to a scale of 1:25, derived from the traditional halfinch to one foot scale.

“One model can take up to 300 hours to complete, but because every boat is different, I’ve never stopped enjoying it. The good thing about this business is that I can do it until late in life. I’ve also found it’s a good way to keep in touch with design trends.”

Stephenson’s years of model boat building have rewarded him with an inimitable knowledge of the intricate details of construction used in scores of different types of boats. This is put to good use at his wife Pennie’s yacht-brokering business at Scarborough, north of Brisbane.

Just like her husband, Pennie has saltwater in her veins. A competitive sailor since her teens, she has sailed in the Sydney Hobart, Sydney to Noumea and most of Australia’s major east coast ocean yachting events. Her competence earned her a berth on Scandia in the 2004 Brisbane-Gladstone race – the year it set the current race record.

Tom and Pennie’s collective knowledge and long-term sailing history is formidable, to say the least. But add to that the experience of qualified New Zealand shipwright and marine surveyor, Don Lees, and there’s no doubt the partners in this Scarborough brokerage have the expertise to offer an honest and accurate appraisal of all that floats.

“There are so many people in this business that just don’t have any idea,” Stephenson says. “Recently, I walked into this fancy brokerage and here was the salesman sitting there in a pair of RM Williams boots … he should have been selling rural properties rather than boats.

“I asked him some really basic questions and he didn’t have a clue. He was just there working for a commission, with no idea what he was selling.”


“Principally, what Don, Pennie and I do is give people good advice. It’s something that’s missing these days. We have a long-term history and commitment to the industry and a passion for what we do, and that’s our competitive advantage,” says Stephenson.

“If someone brings in an old boat, a lot of other brokers might say, ‘Oh that’s just a heap of rubbish.’ We see under the skin and we know if a boat has potential. We have a saying, ‘A lot of boats are mudguards – shiny on top and crappy underneath’. If the boat is inherently structurally sound and only needs the shiny stuff done, that’s easy. But if it’s shiny on the outside and crappy underneath, don’t go near it because that’s where you’ll really start to spend some money. If the foundations are no good, walk away. That’s the key to buying or selling boats.”

Stephenson says the same principle applies to model-making – the foundations must be sound. He admitted there had occasionally been times, some years ago, when he started making a model only to find things were not going to plan.

“You hate yourself when you make a mistake and, just like the real thing, mistakes are not easy to fix. But at least with a model you can throw it away and start again.

“I know making models will never be the equivalent of building the real thing. But it is a source of satisfaction to know that one day it might sit in someone’s boardroom. Look at the collection of Sydney Hobart winners – that will be around for a long, long time.”

Stephenson’s works will definitely provide a lasting link to one of the world’s premier sail events.