Chasing the dream not all plain sailing

22:54, May 25 2014
Jason and Tristin Dickey
FAIR SAILING: Jason and Tristin Dickey check progress on the latest boat build at their business in Napier.

The first vessels built by Dickey Boats were put afloat about the same time the world economy sank.

At the end of a long, unremarkable cul de sac in Napier's industrial area is a small team designing and building the best boats of their type in the country.

It's a far cry from the old woolshed where Jason and Tristin Dickey laboured over their first boat, but the attention to detail that saw that first product take out a national award hasn't changed.

Over years of sailing the world as an engineer on superyachts Jason saw the finest designs and slowly evolved plans for the perfect stylish, smooth-riding launches. Key to his design was using aluminium where other boats of similar size used fibreglass.

The couple were based in Auckland, where Tristin worked in the corporate world. Jason spent three months at home and three months on a 180-foot superyacht in whichever sea or ocean it might be.

The couple saw a massive gap in the market for 30-60-foot offshore capable boats, a size that was particularly popular in Europe and the United States.


"Boat design tends to vary between economic but hard riding and very uneconomical but riding very nicely," Jason says. "It seems simple to bring it all together, but it's actually very complicated."

Around nine years ago they decided to chase the dream and go boat building. Napier won out over Auckland and Tauranga because of proximity to family.

"It's hard work starting any business and the support we had from family and contacts here was really important. In Auckland we'd be a small fish in a big pond and we may not have had the same support," Tristin says.

It took two years to build their first boat in that old woolshed in Ahuriri. A day after the "Dickey Semifly 28" was completed in May 2007 it was taken to Auckland, where it won the national award for best aluminium fishing boat of the year.

"It was a very different design. It was alloy with a superyacht finish and had a distinct plumb bow, which was never really seen in New Zealand," Jason says. (A plumb bow is one that looks square-ish and is nearly vertical when seen from the side rather than slanting back from top to bottom.)

"We'd sunk everything into that boat. It was a risk, but it was mitigated risk. We were young, we had good careers, if it didn't work we could have gone back to work . . . for probably more money and less stress," Tristin says.

About seven months after the award they were commissioned to build a second, larger boat. The "Dickey Semifly 32" was launched in September 2008, the same month that Lehman Brothers crashed in the US, around the height of the global financial crisis. The boat building industry was one of the first casualties of the recession.

"We were small so we were nimble and we were able to design to meet demand. It wasn't easy, but in hindsight we were probably in just the right position given the world economy," she says.

Building trailer boats is what got them through the recession and it wasn't until about eight months ago that the demand for larger launches resurfaced.

In late 2011 they built their current 700 sqm factory in the industrial area of Pandora and employed more people. Today they employ 11.

A bigger work space and more staff meant they could take on more sales and within two months they had five boats on the go.

To date the company has built about 50 boats. They can be found in Europe, Australia, the Pacific and around New Zealand. Every boat is entirely designed and built on site in Napier.

"From cabinetry, flooring, upholstery, the teak decks, aluminium work, electrical work, plumbing work, it's all done here," Jason says. "It's always been our goal to have exports comprise about 60 per cent of business. If we can make an entire product here, not just a hull or a part, and we can back that up with after-sales service then it means we'll have set up a successful company that's great for New Zealand."

There are just two downsides to being in Napier. The first, which has been largely overcome now, was convincing customers to leave Auckland and elsewhere to come and sea test the boats in Napier.

"To this day we've never lost a sale to someone who's come here and been taken out on a boat," says Jason.

The second downside is finding skilled staff who will relocate to Hawke's Bay. In time the couple plan to expand the factory space and employ up to 20 people.

But much bigger than that and the company could lose an inherent strength.

"We like to know our customers and spend time with them. Every customer sits down with Jason and builds their dream. We don't want to become so big we lose that," Tristin says.

There are orders well into next year and demand would appear to be something that need not overly concern them.

Every boat is customised for each customer and therefore each price is a reflection of those differences, from layout, to equipment to finish.

Dickey declined to give revenue figures, but said that both boat production and overall revenue had been increasing year on year for the last four years.

Dickey Boats' plumb bow is a design featured on all vessels produced at the factory. This is integral to the ability to create a soft ride and fuel efficiency from the same hull. It increases the water line length and the bow deadrise angle without changing the weight of the vessel.

The Dominion Post