Hokitika's fix-it man

03:00, Aug 03 2014
Max Dowell
PLANES, BOATS AND AUTOMOBILES: Max Dowell has spent a lifetime working on engineering projects.

Aboat's outboard motor sits on the post at Max Dowell's gate. It is his mailbox. It points to the Hokitika octogenarian's sense of humour and pride as an engineer.

Dowell was raised at Kokatahi, near Hokitika. He loved working in his grandfather's blacksmithing forge. There he found a desire to make things and learned how to do it. He regarded school as a waste of time but enjoyed getting there. After the family bike, shared among four children, became unusable, he rode a draught horse on the 8km journey, picking up mates along the way.

He remembers Fridays fondly. After school he would hitch a horse to the gig and drive grandma into Hokitika to do her shopping. They would leave the horse in the police paddock and, after stashing the groceries in the gig, go to the movies. It was his reward.

Granddad became a real hero the day an early bulldozer got bogged on road works near Ross. Granddad phoned around and recruited a few farmers and their horses and gear. They met at the site where granddad hitched a system of chains, ropes and pulleys to the dozer and the horses. Dowell can still hear the sound as the dozer popped free - "just like a gumboot when you pull it out of the mud", he says.

That incident taught Dowell about the use of pulleys to increase purchase and reduce the effort needed to pull or lift something. He used the system himself and taught son David as well. David used it to drag a broken 500-tonne bucket line on the Ngahere gold dredge. David was killed years later in a mine explosion in Bolivia.

Dowell has worked in engineering for more than 60 years and is still going. In his backyard is the aluminium pontoon boat he is building for the Mahinapua waterway paddleboat excursion. It will replace the old boat that he used to skipper.


He began building boats while at high school in Hokitika and has built 60 of various types and sizes. He and his brother won a tender for six rowboats for the Lake Kaniere Yacht and Powerboat Club. Still teenagers, they completed three a week and were then asked to build six more. The whole job took 10 weeks.

His pride and joy is a 28-feet 6 inch yacht he made of cedar planks. He was sailing it only five months after starting work on it.

At 17, Dowell caught a Fox Moth plane to Haast and went crayfishing from Jackson Bay. He then joined the Haast cattle drive, 21 days on horseback with seven other men and 300 cattle, through difficult terrain, drenching rain and swift rivers, to the sale yards at Whataroa. Two years later, he did it again, but only to Paringa, which the road by then had reached. Trucks took over there.

Leaving school, Dowell joined the Ministry of Works as a machine operator. It was a torrid start as a "weather bomb" destroyed seven bridges between Hokitika and Franz Josef. He joined in emergency efforts to erect Bailey bridges over the rivers.

Among other jobs he was a "trouble- shooter" for Fletcher Timber, sorting out plant problems around New Zealand. He did much for the community, including Coast Guard, and 30 years (so far) operating the Marine Radio service for sailors in peril on the sea. He supervised building of the replica Fox Moth plane that Bert Mercer used in his pioneering air service, for display at Hokitika Airport, and the replica Avro Avian in which Guy Menzies made the first solo Australia-New Zealand flight, on show in Hari Hari. He designed and built the concrete sailing ship that stands above the entrance to the former Hokitika Port as a memorial to ships that were wrecked on the bar. He has restored two vintage cars and built a replica 1901 Oldsmobile.

A favourite project was the restoration of the 1886 Hokitika Port lifeboat Countess. Built in Hokitika, Countess was rowed by eight men to take passengers, mail and freight to and from ships standing offshore when conditions prevented them crossing the river bar. After sitting in a shed for 70 years, Countess needed extensive work to its stern and keel. A cabin and engine that had been added were removed.

Countess went on display in Hokitika in 2002. Later this year, it will go on the river again to re-enact the landing of the first settlers 150 years ago. Dowell is enthusiastic about the 150th anniversary. He organised a similar event, using his own boat, for the centennial in 1964.

The doughty, true West Coast character could entertain all day with his stories - these and many more. He was awarded the QSM in 2002 for services to the community.

The Press