The Griffin legacy

James Hill | VOLUME 31, ISSUE 1
The way we were – the late 1950s saw the Griffins building 30ft timber Crown-class yachts.Griffin is a name that stands behind a cavalcade of classic yachts and cruisers
A family dynasty lives on in David Griffin, shipwright and boatbuilder extraordinaire.

Remember the era of boatbuilding families, when fathers passed on boatbuilding skills to their sons, and they to their sons? I do, and it’s heart-warming to see that these generational links still exist, albeit in different segments of the industry.

Strolling around the Sydney International Boat Show last year, I was reminded of this when I ran into David Griffin, the third generation of a famous Sydney boatbuilding family whose legacy dates back to the early 1900s.

Griffin is a name that stands behind a cavalcade of classic yachts and cruisers. Many famous pleasurecraft were built by the Griffins during their operation’s heyday in the 1950s to early ’70s, none more famous than the original Apollo, Alan Bond’s first offshore racer, designed by Ben Lexcen before he changed his name from Bob Miller. The 57-footer had a substantial impact on the Australian yachting scene – first with Bond, then under the ownership of another yachting luminary, Jack Rooklyn, who took Apollo to a glorious line honours win in the 1978 Sydney Hobart Yacht Race before she was wrecked on Lady Elliot Island reef while flying before the wind during a Brisbane Gladstone race in 1980. Legend has it that the timbers salvaged from the wreck form part of the island’s resort bar, the rest apparently given a Viking funeral by her distraught owner.

The factory that David Griffin’s father, John owned in Mona Vale is no more, the space replaced by a storage centre and an Officeworks outlet. Perhaps that’s a comment on the times and how things have turned out for Australia’s once thriving yacht-building industry. Our country is not alone in this – you only have to look at the car manufacturing industry to see the effects of globalisation; the benefits may be great for the consumer, but it doesn’t foster local craft trades.

David Griffin knows the story all too well. These days, much of his work involves commissioning brands like the German Hanse, Moody and Dehler yachts for their importer Team Windcraft, headquartered on Sydney’s Pittwater. The day I met him, he was undertaking final checks on an all-new Moody 54, a pilothouse luxury motorsailer built in Germany to a British design and Australian specifications.

It might seem ironic that a descendant of one of Australia’s once biggest boatbuilders would be working on imported craft, yet David is pretty philosophical about it. He says there’s no question the craft we were standing on is absolutely world-class and that you have to give credit to the Europeans for mastering the mass-production of sailing craft. He says even the Americans have lost market share to the European yacht-building juggernauts, and that we now live in an age of specialisation.

On that note, Australia is doing well to have world-class motor-cruiser brands such as Riviera, Maritimo and Palm Beach.

Griffin says the economic conditions that have brought about these changes are so entrenched, it’s unlikely we’ll see a return to local production. He believes that China is the new emerging power in production yacht building, especially with racing craft like the McConaghy 38. He says it’s difficult to be price-competitive when building a custom yacht here, whether it’s timber or composite fibreglass, because the man hours plus Australian wages make it too expensive. European manufacturers are using the latest technology to get the labour cost down even further, with their labour making up only 15 per cent of the retail price. Here, it would be at least 30 per cent.

GLORY DAYS

And while he no longer builds boats, he likes to reflect on the glory days of Griffin, when his father’s yard pioneered many innovative trends. In the late 1950s, John Griffin and his father, Harold, and brother, Joe, were building the pretty Crown-class 30ft (9.1m) timber yachts at their Church Point boatshed before moving to a purpose-built factory at Mona Vale in 1962. The latter was a daring move because traditionally, boatbuilding was waterfront based for the convenience of launching. John could, however, see that building boats in a bigger factory away from the water made sense, especially as production at the Church Point boatshed was interrupted in wet or very cold weather.

Ironically, in 1952, the Griffins had moved from a backyard boatbuilding operation at Turramurra on the upper North Shore to the boatyard at Church Point to make the most of hire boat opportunities. The business also incorporated a general store on the main road. This was quite a successful business in the 1950s, but rising waterfront rents in the late 1950s meant boatbuilding there was eventually unviable, so it was another twist of fate that saw the Griffins move away from the water to the new factory in 1962. They also needed more space to build larger boats and employ larger lifting gear to move them through the various phases of production.

And there were some pretty big boats, such as the 57ft (17.4m) Apollo which was, by the standards of the day, a maxi-size yacht. David joined the family business in 1969 as a 16-year-old apprentice shipwright just when the beautiful racer was being built. Apollo was extremely modern, not just in hull lines, but in the method of construction – three moulded skins of glued oregon timber over laminated wooden frames.

There might have been a youth revolution in the air in 1969 but, as a new apprentice, David wasn’t allowed near any constructions for at least a year.

“I was mostly sweeping the floor of wood shavings and being the lunch-order boy, on the princely wage of $18.10 a week,” recalls David fondly. He was eventually introduced to the tools, but only under the watchful eye of an experienced chippie. He said the tradesmen were very old-school and fully involved in all aspects of a boat’s build, from moulding the lead keel to making the keel bolts of copper rod, right down to the final varnishing and painting.

Business was booming. David remembers at least 25 shipwrights working diligently on various boats, including the mighty Apollo.

What was fascinating about the Griffin yard at the time was the mixture of both sail and motor craft, and how many were designed in-house by grandfather Harold. Clients would call by from time to time to have a cuppa.

The output of craft was incredibly varied. Looking through the old yard records, there’s a whole range of craft from putt-putt launches to a big 65ft (19.8m) cruiser, Sundowner for Sir Theo Kelly. This craft was later the corporate cruiser for famous Melbourne cardboard tycoon, Dick Pratt, based in Sydney.

We found a photo of a lovely 38ft (11.6m) Griffin timber cruiser named Kalari being launched, built at the Mona Vale yard for a Mr N Legget. On the back of the photo it is noted that Kalari is the first of a new sportfishing line of cruisers and has the capacity to do a top speed of 36mph (58km/h). Fast, even by today’s standards.

SIGN OF THE TIMES

Looking back through the prism of memory, it was a golden age of timber craft – and also a time of transition from traditional timber to modern production fibreglass. It is also interesting that the launch of just about any yacht or cruiser was still a novelty and was a point of waterfront gossip. There would typically be a launch party, with the owners and their families attending alongside the craftsmen who had put so much of their soul into the vessel.

It was a time when boats had a real personal identity because they were individual creations with traits, good or bad, endearing themselves to their skippers and crew.

But change was coming. Kalari was advertised in a 1970s boating magazine, offered either in moulded plywood/timber or a “soon to be available moulded fibreglass” version. Exciting times, too, because you could choose between a ‘take your life into your hands’ set of twin petrol engines, or slower, but safer, twin diesels – hence, the price variation from $45,000 to $60,000. I suspect the timber version would be a collector’s item today, especially if kept in good order.

Typical of Sydney yards at the time, Griffin also built commercial vessels, including the Australian Shipbuilding Board-designed ferry for the Post Master General and two gunboats for Singapore Customs. The former craft was lost in Cyclone Tracy and the latter involved in anti-smuggler activities in the Strait of Malacca.

Along the way, there were many sailing yachts that still grace our waterways, such as H28s, Dragons, 5.5m class, Thunderbird and Star class racing yachts, and even a number of Hartley trailer-sailers. John also designed and built the Griffin 34 and pretty Whirlwind 29 club racers in timber on a semi-production basis. And there was a popular fibreglass trailer-sailer called the Griffin 17, sold by another company.

The H&J Griffin operation ran until 1977, when it became less competitive and the shift to production fibreglass boats took its toll on the orders. At this time, a number of fibreglass boatbuilding yards were springing up around Mona Vale and elsewhere in Sydney, such as Formit Fibreglass, Endeavour Yachts and Compass Yachts. The newcomers weren’t tradition-bound and could produce a yacht quickly and more cheaply.

The end came with the turbulent after-wash of the Whitlam government. Trade tariffs and import duties had been significantly dropped and a sharp recession did the rest. David’s father was angry about the lack of foresight by the federal government, plus the bullying approach of unions to force further conditions on his workplace. So when the orders started to dry up, he closed the yard.

A LIFE IN BOATS

John didn’t stand still for long. He took a position in South Korea, helping to build a new range of fibreglass yachts called Olsen. He then moved to Taiwan, where he designed and supervised the build of a range of Symbol motor cruisers, also destined for a world market. As a young boating writer, I had the pleasure of testing one with John Griffin (pictured opposite).

His passion didn’t stop there. Despite many trials and tribulations trying to start embryo operations in countries with no history of pleasure boating, John soldiered on. Next stop was Indonesia, to design and supervise a range of cruisers called Legend. Finally, he finished his wanderings and settled back home with his patient wife (who had stayed behind) to do survey work, while designing and building a craft for himself.

David has followed in his father’s footsteps, enjoying an adventurous career since leaving the umbrella of the old H&J Griffin company. Working with business partner, Doug Watson, he built a series of beautiful timber yachts – the Martin 50 series of fast cruisers including Bushranger, which incorporated a number of modern design approaches and helped promote the idea that cruising yachts can be fast as well as safe. Like his father, David worked in Southeast Asian yards for a time, including Malaysia and Indonesia. He has fond memories of these times, though one suspects they were sometimes difficult and lonely.

David also built a range of 30ft (9.1m), fast, sportfishing craft under the Dorado name, which are now considered masterpieces of design and construction. However, along with the sale of the family’s land at Ingleside went the opportunity to continue the custom-build tradition, and the era of building boats ‘among the gum trees’ ceased.

David is still very much involved in boats through his job as chief shipwright and technical consultant to Team Windcraft. He is also a keen yacht-racing skipper on Pittwater. Just this year, he won the prestigious Commodore’s Cup at Port Stephens helming his Titan 36 Class Al Fresco. Sailing is a family passion that dates back to the days of Harold ‘Darkie’ Griffin, the doyen of the family, who was also a top competitor of his day. You could say it’s in the blood.

In a fitting tribute to the family’s contribution to Pittwater, the Griffin name has been kept for posterity as the name of a waterfront park at Church Point. The little park is alongside the old Griffin boatshed site, which today is occupied by The Quays Marina.

And over at Sydney’s Australian National Maritime Museum, there’s a little 16ft skiff on display called Rival, built in 1928 by Harold Griffin. The flying light-air ‘ghost’ was so successful in its day that it earned a place in Australian sailing history – yet another nice tribute to a great boatbuilding family and a colourful chapter in our boating heritage.


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