Rolling from waves to roadways

FAMILY DUO: Aeromarine Industries' Trevor Robb, right, and son Simon look at a prototype of a new body module for a bus.
SUPPLIED/ Graeme Stilwell
FAMILY DUO: Aeromarine Industries' Trevor Robb, right, and son Simon look at a prototype of a new body module for a bus.

Doug Robb's romance with the seas has left Timaru with a rich legacy of traditional Scottish boatbuilding.

Business reporter Emma Bailey looks at 60 years of the Robb family business that started with clinker dinghies and now builds buses.

The beginning

In 1952 a young Doug Robb set up Timaru's first boatbuilding yard in Richie St, down on the Timaru Harbour. Today it is known as Aeromarine Industries, based in Washdyke. The story began, though, in July 1942 when Mr Robb completed his boatbuilding apprenticeship and was sent straight into fulltime service in the New Zealand Army to join the war effort in Auckland building naval patrol vessels.

Son Trevor recounts Doug's early history.

"After the cessation of hostilities, Dad travelled back to Nelson where he started his own boatbuilding business, carrying on in the footsteps of his grandfather and great-grandfather who had been operating boatbuilding yards in the mid-1860s to early 1900s in the Nelson area.

"On one of his many trips through Timaru on the way to Maheno to see Mum's family in 1948, he noticed that the Port of Timaru had a large fishing fleet but no local yard to service it. Eyeing a business opportunity, Doug set up a boatbuilding yard in 1952 on Richie St. It was handy there. A slip from the boatbuilding shed could see sizeable fishing boats built and slide their way down to careers in coastal fishing waters all around New Zealand," Trevor said.

The business was known as DF Robb & Co and in its 1969 heyday employed around 45 staff. It became a well-known builder of fishing and pilot boats, supplying customers around the country. Most were carvel-planked in timber, a method of constructing wooden boats and tall ships by fixing planks to frames, so that the planks butt up against each other, edge to edge, gaining support from the frame and forming a smooth hull.

Son Trevor joins the business:

In 1965, Doug's son Trevor began an apprenticeship at a time of great change within the boatbuilding industry. Boats were now being built of new and modern materials, such as aluminium, steel, plywood and fibreglass.

To handle the new construction methods Trevor found himself having to gain specialised knowledge in naval architecture. Boat design technology was also rapidly changing. Trevor created the Vosper-type hulled high speed fishing vessel, a vessel with a sting in its tail: a 370 horsepower Cummins V8 diesel. The vessel could reach speeds in excess of 20 knots, more than double the capability of traditional fishing vessels.

In the meantime, the increasing presence of foreign trawlers capable of 14 knots inside New Zealand's legal waters presented problems for New Zealand fisheries protection vessels, which were capable only of 12 knots. The problem was solved when fisheries protection used the Robb-designed fast fishing vessels to catch them.

Trevor soon saw the advantages of fibreglass, being lighter, stronger, able to be moulded to any shape, and corrosion proof.

"Boat construction time was slashed too, making fibreglass a more affordable option," Trevor Robb said.

Aeromarine Industries in Washdyke was established in 1977 building mainly high-speed fishing vessels. It also created a series of catamaran offshore racing powerboats, capable of more than 160kmh , built in conjunction with Timaru's Barry Ford.

Doug Robb died in 1994.

New market emerges

The market place was changing. As well as boats came household items such as showers and vanities, refrigerated trucks, aircraft bodies and fitments, water slides and hydroslides, Magnum speed boats and buses.

In 1985 the company partnered with John Turton of Designline, makers of eco-friendly buses for the international market, in Ashburton. Aeromarine supplied Designline with with the body shell of the buses.

Third generation

Handing the operations side of Aeromarine Industries to his son Simon, Trevor has now taken a step back. "We have never sought to be a giant enterprise. Rather as a family we are engineers," Simon said.

"Aeromarine is now preparing to join the Christchurch rebuilding effort following more than a year of devastating earthquakes as Canterbury companies and industries look for partners.

"We have fast-tracked technologies and products to help builders, farmers, local government and the private sector source easily installed and durable fixtures and fittings.

"It's a long way from that first clinker dinghy. My granddad Doug would have been proud of us," he said.

The Timaru Herald