Alvah Simon's Blog - From Sail to Steam

22:29, Jul 19 2012
Mason Bay
Gary and Beryl Underwood on the work site.

Folk singer, Jimmy Buffet, essentially sang my life and that of an entire generation of cruising sailors with his song "A Pirate Looks At Forty" In it he wrote, "Mother Ocean...I have watched the men who rode you switch from sail to steam, and in your belly you hold the treasures few have ever seen. Most of 'em dreams. Most of 'em dreams."

Gary Underwood, one of New Zealand's prominent sailors, designers, and certified characters has done more than just dream. He has owned, designed, built, and voyaged enough boats to fill several serious sailor's lifetimes. And, with his intrepid partner, Beryl, has earned his "purist credentials" by circumnavigating an engineless Herreshoff ketch he built up in the bone-in-the nose wilds of the Solomon Islands, but that's another story. 

And yet, with the recent launching of the beautifully refurbished power vessel, Mason Bay, even Gary, a devout man of the cloth so to speak, has "switched from sail to steam." Well, diesel to be more precise.

Underwood has progressed through P class dinghies, Tasmanian lobster boats, world cruising yachts, and the blistering fast trimaran, Swish, he and Beryl built up in the Bay of Islands. But the salient thread through all these boats has been about what he considers the best and only proper boat-building material - as he calls it " Unidirectional Cellulose Fiber", more commonly referred to as wood.

Gary is a bundle of energy, enthusiasm, ideas, philosophies, and hard held opinions when it comes to boats. But he is not a blowhard, for he is always willing to put his theories to the test, and no project seems too daunting, for he always finishes what he starts. 

He says in spite of all the boats he has built, one of his dreams was to do a complete refit of a classic old wooden boat, for he feels that we don't so much own boats but merely act as their stewards during their time in our possession. And when he saw the 1956 Wilton & Curnow, kauri planked fishing vessel Mason Bay for sale, well... he just couldn't help himself. He and Beryl sold their home and dove in headfirst.


Mason Bay, (originally named San Guiseppe) is mostly fastened with copper, but was built on light scantlings because it was meant to act only as a day-fisher for an Italian family working the Cook Straits. But, alas, a series of later owners had put her through hard duty out of Bluff and as an albacore boat in the windy waters off the west coast of the South Island. She was even converted into a trawler for a time staggering under the weight of a huge gantry. In time, that wear and tear took its toll and, as the financial input approached the output, the vessel was apparently bound for the scrap heap of maritime history.

But Underwood, perhaps smitten by those lovely sheer lines and classic stern, saw the potential, even if the crew who helped him bring it north had their doubts. Off the Kaikuora coast in a nasty Nor'easter the boat began to spit its seams. When three pumps struggling full time could not stem the ingress, they had to put into Wellington for an emergency haul and a recaulk. Completely un-phased, Gary pushed on and finally Mason Bay arrived in Northland to begin its life anew.

With the help of master shipbuilder, Marcus Raimon, for a year and a half they went stem to stern, keel to wheelhouse, completing a true rebuild, not just a cosmetic kiss and a promise. Today, Mason Bay floats tighter, stronger, and prettier than the day it was built 56 years ago.

The Underwoods have done their nautical OE, several times. Now they just want to wander the wonderful waters under the long white cloud in a vessel fit for all seasons. And Mason Bay "ticks all the boxes" as Gary says. Most important to him is the aft wheelhouse, for he feels that the aft areas of any vessel provide the most comfortable motion and protected spaces. He extended the wheelhouse out to the gunnels because he felt the sacrifice of deck space and access aft was more than made up for by the increased wheelhouse interior and the protection it provided that oft used aft deck.

Gary, an architect by profession, has a knack for creating comfortable yet ergonomically efficient spaces. The deckhouse is tight, warm and bright, sporting a wood stove, complete galley, spacious bench salon table and practical steering station. Forward, dropping below through a traditional deck hatch lays a comfortable sleeping cabin with plush double and two sea berths. The decks are open enough to feel spacious yet safely secured by high bulwarks.

Gary "does not do de-flatables" and to him the only good outboard is a dead outboard laying at the bottom of the sea, so the deck above the wheelhouse is set up to stow and launch either of two 14' sailing/rowing dinghies. These will allow them to anchor up the mother ship and explore the skinny backwaters of New Zealand.

The fourteen-meter, twenty-two ton Mason Bay sports a slow turning Izuzu 6BD1/120 h.p. Diesel, and is a model of well-considered simplicity.

In spite of the cost and enormous energy it took to bring this classic beauty back to life, they are well pleased with their efforts. For one they have kept a small part of New Zealand's nautical history alive and are proud to think that the Mason Bay will now grace our home waters for many years to come.

But also, this project highlights an important idea. We too easily slip into an us-vs.-them school of thought regarding our boating lifestyles. And yet, really, it does not matter rather they roam far and wide under a silent suit of sails or probe their home waters to the comforting sound of a trusty old diesel. What matters is that they are out there, still out there on Mother Ocean, chasing those treasured dreams.


(For full details on this project visit

Boating NZ