Old-school cool

Chris Beattie | VOLUME 31, ISSUE 3
Glamour gamefisher … Flagship of the fleet – the Caribbean 49 Flybridge.
From humble beginnings, Melbourne’s Spooner family has forged a boatbuilding dynasty that has stood the test of time.

The sign says International of Scoresby in large, bright-red letters on the front of a brick building with a decidedly ‘60s patina. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect the occupants were trying to hide something. Because, behind the brickwork, lies one of Australian boating’s arguably least celebrated, yet most extraordinary stories.

Anyone driving past 1278 Ferntree Gully Road in the outer eastern Melbourne suburb of Scoresby might be surprised to learn that more than 55,500 boats, from barely 10 feet in length up to large 49-foot flybridge cruisers, have been produced here over a period spanning nearly 60 years. Apart from a couple of large ship’s anchors at its entrance, the rest of the facility hides behind a few scattered trees. But there is a clue to the real nature of the business at the entrance to another facility, just up the road.

Each week, thousands of Melburnians visit a market and family recreation area called Caribbean Gardens. It’s a Melbourne institution, with a large market that sells everything from trinkets to towels and toys. Buskers entertain the crowds, while food stalls dole out doughnuts and hotdogs.

Spread over 100 acres of land at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges, the gardens also boast a large lake and sprawling, wide-open spaces for youngsters to enjoy themselves.

While, outwardly, there is nothing to suggest a connection, Caribbean Gardens is inextricably linked to the nondescript factory next door.

Back in post-WWII Melbourne, a budding businessman and entrepreneur looked over the rolling, forested hills and swampland on which Caribbean Gardens now resides and saw the future.

FLYING START

Arch Spooner had served as an RAAF flying instructor in the war and visited England at the end of hostilities, where he was drawn to large manufacturing plants that were beginning to switch over from making products for the war to peacetime products for eager consumers. One, Willoughby Plastics, was experimenting with a new product called glass-reinforced plastic – otherwise known as fibreglass – and Spooner realised that it offered major advantages for the mass production of all kinds of products. Like boats.

Not long after, Arch returned to Australia with a plan. By now, he had purchased the land in Scoresby and set up a small manufacturing plant. Australia was soon to get its first fibreglass boats; small displacement runabouts, using moulds purchased from Willoughby. So began the Spooner boatbuilding dynasty that went on, under the umbrella company of International Marine, to produce a range of brands over the years, including the current selection of Caribbean-branded fibreglass trailerboats, day cruisers and flybridge fishing boats.

“Dad saw that you could make things without all the special skills and time needed when using timber,” said Arch’s son, Barry.

We were enjoying a coffee at a large restaurant in the middle of Caribbean Gardens, just next door to the original, though much-expanded factory complex that continues to build Caribbean boats today. With us were Barry’s son Richard and long-time plant production manager John Barbar.

An active 77-year-old who still has a hand in the running of the factory, Barry’s engaging, unassuming nature belies his and his father’s roles as visionary pioneers of the Australian boatbuilding industry.

Arch found the Australian market was eager for his new fibreglass boats. Barry joined his father in the company in the late 1950s, before setting out for a spell in the US, where he worked for a time with Dorsett Marine in California.

Barry returned to Australia with the rights to produce Dorsett boats, ranging from 15 to 19ft, under licence. Unfortunately, Dorsett folded not long after, but from one loss emerged an opportunity that would forge a solid future in boat building for the Spooner family.

BERTRAM CONNECTION

“With Dorsett gone, we heard about a bloke named Dick Bertram in America, who was building a Raymond Hunt-designed deep-vee hull,” explained Barry. “Up ‘til then, most Australian boats were flat-bottomed and, while they were very stable on rivers and flat water, they weren’t very good on the ocean or rough water.

“Dad and I went back to America and met Dick and Raymond Hunt, who had also come up with the constant deadrise concept, which is still what a lot of boatbuilders use today.

“Dick Bertram was an extraordinary bloke. He wasn’t necessarily a great businessman, but he was a great adventurer and boat racer. We became very friendly with him and eventually agreed to build Bertrams in Australia under licence using the Bertram name.”

“It was the relationship with Bertram that really started us building the bigger boats,” recalled Richard.

The tie-up with Bertram saw the company scaling up production with hull sizes ranging from 25 to 42ft, in open runabout and flybridge models, while they continued to build smaller trailerable craft utilising the same deep-vee, variable deadrise concept pioneered by Hunt.

The larger craft carried the Bertram name and logo for almost 25 years, until the licensing agreement lapsed in 1989. Since then, they have been marketed under the Caribbean name.

“Those original hulls were so good that we’re still using the same basic hulls now,” said Barry. “We simply haven’t had the need to improve on the basic hull designs that we were using back in the ‘60s. Others mightn’t admit it, but it’s a basic fact.”

Under Arch, the company also became the official Australian importer for Mercury Marine products, including outboards and sterndrives. The arrangement lasted from 1960 to 1972 and, Barry said, it was a mutually advantageous association, which ended amicably when Mercury decided to take over local distribution.

Meanwhile, as the boatbuilding business expanded, so did the Spooners’ other interests, including developing the rest of the 250-acre original site purchased by Arch, who passed away in 1986. Nowadays, it’s a thriving industrial estate, hosting businesses from diverse industries.

Along the way the Spooners also found time to transform coastal swampland in Melbourne into what is now St Kilda Marina. It was Australia’s first floating marina and is still run by Barry’s brother, Greg.

The family also purchased the NSW-based Pride range of trailerboats from another boating dynasty, headed by John Longhurst, in the early ‘70s. John’s son Rodney, is now owner and MD of Riviera, while his brother Tony runs The Boat Works, a major boatbuilding and maintenance facility on the Gold Coast. Under the umbrella of International Marine, Prides continued to be produced for several years at the original factory in Sydney.

OLD MATES

Another famous boating name also became involved with Barry Spooner about this time. Bill Barry-Cotter, of Riviera and latterly Maritimo fame, takes up the story …

“I’ve known Barry since we joined forces when the Boating Industry Association in Melbourne was pushing to bring in some new standards that would have been a disaster for the industry. Barry and I agreed that the best thing was to fight the standards and, despite the fact that we’re in opposition from a business point of view, we’ve been mates ever since.

“I remember he was a great help to us when I was running Riviera and we had to fit fibreglass fuel tanks to our boats that we were exporting to America. Barry had already been making fibreglass tanks for his Bertrams and he helped us with advice.

“Barry is an absolute gentleman and we still talk about boats and boat building from time to time.

“We catch up at boat shows every now and then and he’ll ask me something about an exhaust system I’ve done, or I’ll ask him about something he’s done with his boats.”

In an industry in which instant take-up of new technology in powerplants, electronics and manufacturing techniques is seen as almost mandatory for market success, Caribbean stands out as something of an anachronism, in particular for its larger non-trailerable craft. As John Barbar commented, Caribbean tends to be more conservative when it comes to change, concentrating on trying to make each boat better than the previous one, resulting in many smaller changes over a longer period of time, rather than changing everything at once.

The company has a reputation for resisting change for change’s sake, a point willingly embraced by Barry and Richard. In fact, they argue that building boats that some may see as dated in terms of interior fitouts and technology has allowed the company to thrive while others have fallen by the wayside.

“We hear from a lot of people that our boats don’t have the latest this or that,” says Barry. “But we build our boats to endure. Some might even say our boats are over-engineered or too robust, but we’re comfortable with that and our customers appreciate that.

“Just how sophisticated does a boat have to be?” he poses. “We willingly admit that there are things that you won’t find in our boats because we believe they represent additional complexity – more things that can go wrong. Our boats are built for people who know boats and simply want to go out onto the water and enjoy themselves.”

WORLD RECORD

Model longevity is another strong point, exemplified with the 35 model, which was first produced in 1970 and which Barry says is the longest-running production boat in the world.

“There have been many interior changes over the years, including the use of the latest contemporary fabrics, an abundance of polished timbers, more efficient interior layouts and entertainment units, and we needed a new hull mould around 1986. But the deck is still the same and we haven’t changed the bathroom mould, although the fittings and fitout have all been upgraded.”

Nathan Ghosn, whose Sylvania Marina dealership has been selling Caribbeans for almost 40 years, says the lack of superyacht bling in the bigger craft can be a challenge at the point of sale.

“It’s frustrating, sometimes, trying to sell against other brands with all the bells and whistles, but with Barry and Richard it’s more about building an honest boat rather than following the latest trends,” he says.

“Maybe the engine room isn’t as shiny as everyone else’s, but it’s functional and it actually works.”

Ghosn says Caribbean brand loyalty is second to none among his clients.

“As an example, one of our customers has owned a 25, a 28, three 35s, and a 40. And both his sons have each owned 25s and 28s. This guy told me he’d looked at other brands, but said: ‘Nathan, I just couldn’t do it … I couldn’t leave the family’.”

Ghosn says Caribbeans have earned a special place amongst Australian boaties, in particular fishers.

“I remember having a pretty proud moment a while back, at the Interclub tournament at Port Stephens, when there were 200 or more boats entered and more than half of them were Caribbeans, most of which we’d sold.”

Melbourne dealer, Darren Finkelstein of St Kilda Boat Sales, which has sold Caribbeans for 15 years, says in an industry with its fair share of egos, the Spooners are a refreshing contrast.

“I often take customers out to the factory to show them their boat being built and I’ll ask them if they’d like to meet the managing director – and out from under a boat, wearing overalls and covered in fibreglass dust, will be Richard Spooner, smiling and shaking hands. There is no pretension with the Spooners – people love that accessibility.”

Finkelstein says Caribbeans have universal appeal, especially at the ‘boaters’ playground’ at the southern end of Port Phillip Bay.

“Down around Sorrento and Portsea, where all the magnificent mansions overlook the bay and where people have the money to buy any boat they like, you’ll see more than a few Caribbeans sitting on swing moorings. People love them as they have lots of space and they’re a boat that can take the harsh conditions of the bay without a problem.”

Bill Barry-Cotter says Caribbeans appeal to certain boat buyers precisely because they haven’t changed much over the years.

“They are very good, honest boats that suit fishermen and they’re at the end of the market that is looking for a basic, solid boat.”

During a tour of the factory, John Barbar took us through the production process of the larger craft, which now make up the bulk of production as the trailerboat range has slumped post-GFC. Inside one large shed Barbar pointed to a new flagship 49 hull undergoing finishing in a mould.

“Our hulls are all 100 per cent hand-laid for consistency so there’s no guesswork in the process,” explained Barbar. “The basic concept and process we use to build our boats is the same as we were using 50 years ago. The formula was that successful from the start, we’ve never had to change it.”

Model changes have been few and far between, although the company surprised many with its launch of the 420 Express last year. It’s a boat with a distinctly modern look and plenty of contemporary styling touches in the interior.

The company continues to manufacture the vast majority of components in-house, outsourcing only the engines and drivelines, and canopies and clears.

In total, there are 23 models in the Caribbean range, starting with 5.4m runabouts all the way up to the impressive 49 flybridge cruiser.

With such a loyal following and such a large fleet of boats on the waters around Australia and New Zealand, it seems the Spooner and Caribbean names are assured of a bright, long-term future.

“We’ve got a few cousins starting to come into the business,” intimates Richard, “So we think we’ll be building boats in Australia for a while yet.”


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