Ray Pitcher - Class Tutor

He’s a constant presence in the bustle of the boat shop, moving constantly and effortlessly from project to project, as he talks with members of the Tuesday night class. At 63, Ray Pitcher from West Auckland offers a lifetime of practical experience and guidance to the owners of the 14 boats currently under construction or repair at the Auckland Traditional Boatbuilding School.

Gold-rimmed glasses pushed back into a shock of unruly gray hair, Pitcher brings a focussed intensity to each individual conversation, conducted above the racket of saws and sanders.

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The veteran boatbuilder joined the school recently as full time course administrator and tutor but his association with Robert Brooke, the school’s founder, goes back to the early ‘70s when they raced against each other in Frostbite dinghies that they’d each built with their own hands. Both boats, Pitcher’s Tawhiri and Brooke’s Karamea are currently at the school.

Tawhiri is undergoing a comprehensive refit, as Pitcher finds the time, but her original Kauri clinker planking is as good as the day it was milled from one of the last commercial loads of the prized boatbuilding timber to come out of Northland. For five years after she was launched, Tawhiri and her crew dominated the local Frostbite scene, setting a record for five consecutive championship wins that has never been matched.

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It’s hard to stump Pitcher with a boatbuilding question. Projects in the shop range from canoes, to rowing dinghies and small sailing craft, from hard chine to multi-chine and round-bilge designs. Building methods include strip plank, clinker, sheet ply and planked plywood but he shifts seamlessly from one project to the next, dispensing advice and encouragement.

His introduction to boatbuilding started young. “In our family when you turned eight you were deemed old enough to help dad build these dinghies he used to build in the lean-to out the back of the house,” he recalls. “It could be a pretty miserable place on a lousy rainy August night, lying on your back under a half-finished boat and trying to hold the dolly on the end of the nail. You’d drift off to some other place and hold the dolly on the wrong nail and he’d start yelling.”

The first boat he built himself, with his father’s assistance, was an Australian Moth dinghy, constructed when he was 13. “We sailed on the upper harbour off Point Chevalier and the reef. We’d pile our sleeping bags on board and set off for Pollen Island where the Northwestern Motorway is now and camp overnight.”

After an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker, Pitcher inevitably turned to boatbuilding with a career that encompassed a wide variety of jobs and projects. One of his recent big jobs was a major refit of Australia’s former America’s Cup challenger the 12-Metre yacht Gretel II, which was the last Twelve to be constructed in wood.

Today, in addition to restoring Tawhiri to her original gleaming elegance, Pitcher is building a 30-foot cruising sloop behind his house in West Auckland. He pauses before turning to answer and solve another construction question. “It’s been a great journey when I look back on it.”