FEATURE - 100 Years Doing it Wright


Norman R. Wright was a natural-born boat designer and builder, but he discovered his innate talent by accident. After the death of his father when he was only 15, he started working with his joiner brother. By chance, an industrial accident laid him off work.

While convalescing, Norman R. Wright hung around the John Hawkins Whereat boatbuilding shed. He was particularly struck by the design and construction of a 22-foot sailing craft, Bulletin

, and his interest resulted in a job offer from John Whereat.

There begins the Norman R. Wright & Sons story, a centenary of boatbuilding, and one our most famous yards that gained international recognition for its pleasure and workboats, most of which are still floating proudly today.

As testimony to his natural ability, Norman R. Wright learnt the boatbuilding trade at lightning speed and designed a 10-foot skiff, Commonwealth, when he was only 16. The little flyer went on to win three Australian titles, with the strapping youth at the helm.

Norman R. Wright then went on to become the Whereat yard foreman by the age of 21. In 1909, he got his first big break when he purchased an ailing boatbuilding business with 200 pounds he borrowed from Frederick Hart. With his boat designing and building skills, the business soon prospered.

His first commission was for a gaff-rigged sloop, Superb, for James Hogan Smith. Sadly, the boat has been lost, but Norman R. Wright & Sons still has the half-model that was used in its lofting.

Incidentally, the oldest surviving Norman R. Wright-built boat is Jeanette, now moored in the Noosa River.

With the company’s finances aided by mooring rentals and slipping services Norman R. Wright repaid the loan in six months. He married Gladys Thomas in 1912 and three children were born between 1916 and 1920: Norman James, Joyce and Ronald.

Between the post World War I years and the 1930s Depression, Norman R. Wright built numerous craft, including successful racing skiffs in two-foot increments between 10 and 22 feet, Taree, a Norman R. Wright design, won the world 18-foot title in 1938 pleasure craft including the magnificent Stradebrokes, ferries, cargo vessels and fishing boats.

In 1936, Brisbane City Council made the decision to move the city’s wharves. Norman R. Wright thought the Council’s compensation package was inadequate, but fortune smiled on him when he was having his new Bulimba site excavated: there was a huge quantity of raw tin unearthed and, thanks to the gathering war clouds, the price of tin was going through the roof. That more than paid for the relocation!

From 1939 to 1945, the Norman R. Wright boatbuilding operation became part of the Allied war effort. The premises were fenced off and patrolled by armed sentries while existing boats were refitted for military purposes and new boats were built. There was a manpower shortage and most of the 110-strong workforce was relatively unskilled, yet the task of welding these men into an effective boatbuilding team rested on the shoulders of young Norman James Wright, now a five-year ‘veteran’ at the yard.

One of the yard’s wartime contracts was for construction of four British-designed 112-foot patrol boats known as Fairmiles — an odd name in the opinion of young Norman J. for a boat design that was anything but ‘fair’. He thought the tub-like hull resembled a chamber pot, the superstructure was too high and the construction method required, using heavily scarfed and spliced diagonal planking, had originated in timber-starved England.

The ugly Fairmiles contrasted greatly with the customary stylish, well-proportioned boats that slid of the Norman R. Wright slipway.

After the War, the young Wrights followed in their father’s dinghy-racing footsteps. Norman J. and Ron won Australian titles in 16-foot and 18-foot skiffs that emanated from the Norman R. Wright yard and their successes resulted in many commissions for racing boats. Norman J. won the Australian 18-foot championship four times in a series of Jenny boats and took out the world title in 1956. Ron and brother-in-law Mervyn Hazell picked up three Australian 16-foot titles in Joy and Ron became Queensland’s first Olympic sailor. Ron was also Queensland’s first naval architect.

Although the young Wrights showed great capacity for running the business, Norman R. Wright continued to control operations and, in conjunction with Ron, the design work. A small recognition of the importance of the young Wrights was a company name change in 1953, to Norman R. Wright & Sons Pty Ltd.

The elder and younger Normans clashed repeatedly and, in 1960, young Norman departed the yard, returning only spasmodically to work on special projects. His income came from running a successful launch business and the additional spare time gave him the opportunity to crew on two America’s Cup yachts, Gretel and Dame Pattie.

The Norman R. Wright & Sons yard had dominated Brisbane’s boatbuilding business for many years, but during the 1960s, challenges mounted from several relatively new yards. Millkraft had been established soon after the War by three former Norman R. Wright & Sons employees and the later appearance of the Watt-Wright yard, also operated by ex- employees, saw a drop in business.

Nonetheless, quality boatbuilding continued and there are several fine examples from this period, including Beryl May (now named South Pacific II) and Bali Hai II, built in 1964, is for sale through Geoff Lovett International for
$1.5 million.

Tragedy struck in 1966 when Ron was seriously injured in a car accident and had to give up work for five years. Ron’s part in yard management was ably filled by Bill Anderson, who together with long-serving foreman, Lenny Spring, kept the company humming along.

In 1970, the company’s founder and patriarch, Norman R. Wright, died, but the third generation of Wright boatbuilders was already in training: Ron’s sons Bill and Ian. With Ron’s return Bill, Lenny and the boys made a formidable team. When Bill Anderson retired in 1982, Bill and Ian assumed responsibility for running the yard.

They didn’t get an easy introduction to management responsibilities, with their first major project being the construction of Elizabeth E II that was designed and tank tested by Ron. At 108 feet overall, of cold-moulded construction, this was the largest boat Norman R. Wright & Sons had built since WWII.

Other highlights of the 1980s were charter boats, such as Wyllaway and New Horizon, and large motor yachts, typified by White Haven and Laura J.

Bill Wright recalls that Ron’s design for the 90-foot Laura J estimated a hull speed of 23kts and the finished boat trialled at 23.2kts, using only 1040hp each side.

Norman R. Wright & Sons has specialised in the design and construction of hard-working boats, including several police launches and pilot boats for Australian and overseas clients.

In 1994, Brisbane City Council asked the company to undertake a study on fast water transport possibilities in the Brisbane River. Investigations concluded that a 25m, low-wash cat ferry was the answer and Norman R. Wright & Sons has been building them ever since.

The hulls are contract-built fabricated aluminium, surmounted with FRP superstructure that’s moulded, attached and fitted out at the Bulimba yard. Cummins engines power the cats, because downtime is critical and the Cummins response is the best in the business. The BCC ferries carry more than six million passengers each year.

A special commission in the late 1990s, from the Peabody family, tempted Ron out of supposed retirement. He and Bill designed separate test-tank models for the 100-foot hull of Whistler and the finished boat weighed in just 178kg heavier than the estimate. It also eclipsed the contract speed of 26kts by nearly 3kts.

Bill Wright won’t say which test model had the best hydrodynamics!

Full retirement obviously didn’t suit Ron Wright, who’s continued to offer sound advice to Bill and Ian.

In the new millennium Norman R. Wright & Sons has continued its winning ways, producing a mix of working and pleasure vessels, with some of the standouts being very tough pilot boats and the motoryachts Bandanna, Quandamooka, Lionheart and Odern.

Ian Wright’s business plan is deceptively simple: “Be here this time next year.” He reckons the plan has worked for Norman R. Wright & Sons so far and should continue to do so in the future. However, behind this one-line policy is a great deal of research and planning.

An example of the company’s foresight is the inauguration of a new enterprise: Norman Wright International (NWI), which has contracted to build boats in China, in conjunction with a Chinese company, Poly Marine. The first fruit of this venture is with us already, in the form of the beautiful Navigator 42 (tested this issue).

After designing the second of the Palm Beach series of classically-styled picnic boats, Norman R. Wright & Sons saw the appeal of this style of boat to a wider, more budget-conscious market. Five Navigator 42s have been sold since last year’s Sanctuary Cove show launch and a Navigator 60 version has been drawn up, with one already on order. The next Navigator introduction will be a 34 and a trailerable 25-footer is also in the wings.

Future Navigator permutations include a passagemaking version and an electric-propulsion model.

Another joint NWI/Poly Marine project is the next generation of pilot boats. Poly Marine already produces very impressive pilot boats for Chinese maritime authorities: double-stepped, deep-vee hull craft with top speed of 60kts! But the NWI/Poly Marine pilot boats have a more modest target top speed of 30kts.

Norman R. Wright & Sons will continue to build locally and has streamlined its FRP construction process with the introduction of resin infusion. The company’s well-respected refit business will also continue (when Trade-a-Boat visited Norman R. Wright & Sons the boys were about to tackle a refit on one of their 40-year-old craft).

Probably the best-known refit the company carried out was a complete rebuild of the famous Cambria, in 2002. It’s to be hoped that the next Wright generation can continue the family tradition well into the 21st century.

We’ve visited many boatyards over the years, but nothing we’ve experienced compares with the sheer historical value of the Norman R. Wright & Sons premises in Bulimba, Brisbane.

From the street the yard looks quite dilapidated, so the NRW crew obviously sees no value in external appearances: rather, the company’s marine workmanship is its true image, not a fancy facade.

Inside, it’s obvious that the place has grown like Topsy over the years and necessary expansions were needed. On all the office walls and along every passageway are photos and half-models of hundreds of boats that Norman R. Wright & Sons has built over the years.

Where space permits are rows of tank-test models, including one that a very young Ian Wright converted into a usable dinghy!

Aware of the historic value of a century of boatbuilding paperwork (and intellectual property), Norman R. Wright & Sons has constructed a fireproof storage area to house its archived plans.

Bill and Ian Wright have bought back and restored two of Norman J. Wright’s classics: Jenny VII and Kohi.

Jenny VII is one of a successive line of Jennys built at Norman R. Wright & Sons. Probably the best-known Jenny is the 18-foot replica, Jenny IV, that was built to compete in the Australian Historical 18-foot Skiff Championship
- winning it in 2004 and 2006.

Ian Wright’s Jenny VII is a 28-foot trailersailer that was the last boat built by Norman J. Wright.

Bill Wright found Kohi in 2007, in very poor condition, but the boat’s beautiful lines were testimony to his father, Ron’s, design work. The 1964-built craft was originally fitted with BMC Sealord diesels, but had been repowered with Volvo TAMD41s.

Too many restoration hours later Kohi looks as good today as she did when launched.

It’s unlikely that Bill and Ian Wright set out with the express intention of upsetting many of the competitors in the annual Brisbane-Gladstone Yacht Race, but they’ve managed it anyhow.

The vessel with which they achieved this goes by the unromantic name of Saltash. This unlikely four-times handicap winner for this prestigious event also has a most unlikely pedigree. Older sailors will recognise the distinctive hull lines of a YW Diamond: a nine-metre keelboat design that originated in England in 1960 when the editors of Yachting World magazine sought ideas for a reasonably-priced yacht for national and international racing.

Saltash may have started life as a mild-mannered keelboat, but this bland heritage vanished when the Wright boys got hold of the boat. The first thing they did was strip it back to bare wood and then the rebuild began. The standard centreboard was replaced by a deep, bulb-tipped keel, the rudder was reshaped and moved forward and a bigger rig went on. The hard-chine hull was softened by layers of glass and then the boys went hunting.

Their success with what is a bargain-basement ocean racer has irritated some of the big spenders, but multiple protests later the results speak for themselves.

Those looking for photographs and stories about classic Moreton Bay wooden boats need go no further than www.classicmoretonbaycruisers.com On this site it’s possible to order a copy of Andrew Harper’s excellent book, Classic Moreton Bay Cruisers. This367-page tome is filled with brilliant photos and detailed histories of many restored and refitted boats that still ply Australian waters. Norman R. Wright & Sons’ boats and those of other prominent boatbuilders are featured in the book.

Photos: The Wright brothers, Bill and Ian; The oldest existing Norman R. Wright boat is the Jeanette. Here she is way back in 1911; 1909 photograph of the gaff-rigged Superb; The 1938 World Champion 18-foot skiff Taree; The original Norman R. Wright boatshed at Newstead in 1909; The 94ft Stradbroke II was built by Norman R. Wright in 1928;
Wheelhouse and captain's cabin on Stradbroke II; Stradbroke II on slip in PNG during WWII: Norman R. Wright's Quay Street site at Bulimba during WWII. Here three Fairmiles are at the end of the jetty, with an Air Service Rescue Boat at left; PT 117 was one of many PT boats repaired by Norman R. Wright during WWII; Brisbane City Council's low-wash City Cat ferries; Norman R. Wright & Sons wooden model of a City Cat ferry; Bill Wright with author Allan Whiting; The 82ft Bali Hai II; Modern breed. Bandanna is a 64-footer built in 2002; The Palm Beach 32 picnic boat is the forerunner of the new Navigator 42; A complete rebuild was carried out on the famous Cambria in 2002; Ian Wright at Cambria's helm on the way to Sydney in 2002.