Balaena Bay: History of Boatbuilding and Craft Construction

Balaena Bay is a small bay on the western side of Evans Bay in Wellington Harbour. Its shape creates a semi-sheltered cove which provides some protection from the prevailing northwest and southerly winds which blow along the north-south line of the hills which form Evans Bay.

Slipways were laid at Balaena Bay around the 1890s and possibly earlier. Judging by the photos available from that time, there may have been some boatbuilding activity there before James Bringins set up his operation. The first documented boat building activity at Balaena Bay was initiated by James Bringins about 1905. Sometime around 1907 Ted Bailey from Auckland joined Bringins and they worked as a partnership known as ‘Bringins and Bailey.’ They built several vessels and provided maintenance facilities and services for fishing boats and other craft. They operated one of the larger slipways for yachts and fishing boats in Wellington at that time. Bailey left the partnership around mid-1909 to run his own boatbuilding operation at Shed 49, Clyde Quay.

By 1914 Balaena Bay was one of more active boatbuilding areas in Wellington. Bringins boatshed was enlarged and upgraded slipways on either side were installed around 1910-1914. James Bringins ran the slipways and boatbuilding operations until around 1918 when he contracted flu during the major epidemic of that year. He died in 1920.

In early 1919 Joe Jukes bought the boatshed and slipway licence previously held by James Bringins. Joe Jukes was the most successful of the Balaena Bay builders of boats. In the 1920s he built many of the Island Bay fishing fleet, including the vessels Norna (1922) and the River Nile. Launches he built included Nereides (1925), Vagabond (1926) and Wild Duck (1937). He established a reputation for sound craftsmanship with some outstanding yachts. Around 1936 Joe Jukes moved more into designing. By 1937 his apprentice Rex Rix was doing most of the construction. In 1939 Rex Rix took over the boatbuilding yard. During 1940-1944 Both Rex Rix and Joe Jukes went to Auckland to aid the war boatbuilding effort.

In September 1944 Athol Burns purchased the lease and boatshed previously owned by Joe Jukes. Craft Construction Ltd was officially established in January 1945 by Norman Thomas and Athol Burns who were the joint directors. Athol Burns was the resident designer from 1945 until 1947 when he sold his share in the company. Norman Thomas operated Craft Construction until he sold the company in June 1950 to Gilbert Stevens. Barney Daniels bought Craft Construction in July 1952. He put the company into voluntary liquidation in January 1954.

1953 Craft Construction photo3780
Craft Construction boatshed 1953, shortly before demolition

At the end of WW2, conflicts which had been evident since the early 1900s surfaced again. The need for boat building and servicing facilities clashed with the wishes of local residents for a clean, uncluttered bathing beach. Since the early days of Bringins Boatyard, there had been continuing conflict between the local residents around Balaena Bay and the various owners of the boatbuilding and servicing facilities. Eventually the residents won and the boatshed owned by Craft Construction was demolished in 1954.

An 18-page version of the history is available as a pdf here.

Balaena Bay & Craft Construction history v1a


A History of the Ilex

Ilex was a 52ft Logan-designed yawl, launched on 7 May 1903 from the Bailey Yard in Auckland. She was constructed for Captain Walter Spencer Stanthorpe and Mr R H Shakespeare. At launching her dimensions were reported as: overall length 50ft, waterline 35ft, beam 11ft 6in, draft 6ft (NZ Herald, 8 May 1903). Between 1915 and 1943 Ilex had a number of owners including; Mr J C Macky (1908-1915) Mr W R Ingram (1915-1925), and Mr E H Northcroft (1927-1936). Ilex was raced regularly in Auckland events during her early days. She was converted from a yawl to a cutter in 1911.

In February 1944 Ilex was bought by Wellington businessman Norman W Thomas. After converting her to a ketch and adding a wheelhouse, he raced her regularly in Wellington and took part in the 1946 Sydney-Hobart race. Other major voyages undertaken were Wellington to Manukau in January 1946, and a circumnavigation of the South Island in February-March 1946.

1945 12Dec30 Ilex sm
Ilex, Marlborough Sounds, December 1945

Ilex was sold to the Free Church of Tonga and delivered to Tongatapu in October 1948. She was bought by Tofa Ramsay in 1957 who renamed her Tuaikaepau. Under his ownership, Ilex carried cargo and passengers in the Tonga Islands, and between Tonga and Auckland. On her final voyage, Tuaikaepau departed Tongatapu for Auckland in July 1962 to get repairs in Auckland. With 7 crew and 10 passengers on board, she was wrecked on South Minerva Reef, southwest of Tongatapu Island on 6 July while under the command of Captain David Fifita. The ship’s crew were marooned on Minerva Reef for three months. The survivors built a small boat and three of the crew sailed to Kandavu in the Fiji Islands. There were 12 survivors from the 17 who originally left Tongatapu.

A more detailed history of the Ilex is available on the attached pdf

Ilex history v2 May2015

Saga – 16ft 10in sloop

Designed by M. F. S Hansen, Cophenhagen, Saga was a ‘Spiddsgatter’ double-ended 16ft 10in sloop. LOA 16ft 10in, LWL 14ft, Beam 7ft 6in, Draft 3ft 10in. Sail area 160 sq ft, Mast height 26ft.

1962 08Aug27 Saga at Clyde Quay
Saga at Clyde Quay Harbour, August 1962. Ian Longstaff on helm, Roydon Thomas forward

Saga was built by Gotfred and Finn Jorgensen (Gotfred’s son). Building started in Denmark and was completed in Picton, New Zealand following the migration of the Jorgensen family to NZ in 1954. She was probably launched in Picton the late 1950s. Gotfred Jorgenson and his family ran a boatbuilding business in Picton for many years. They shifted their business to Waikawa Bay in the 1970s. The Saga was bought by Murray and Peter Bennett from Nelson. They owned her until July 1962, when she was sold to Ian Longstaff from Paremata, Wellington. Ian Longstaff and Roydon Thomas sailed Saga from Nelson to Wellington 25-27 August 1962 through French Pass, taking 43 hours for the trip. Ian Longstaff wrote a one-page summary of the trip from his log – see extract below. It was probably one of the smallest boats to cross Cook Strait at that time. They were lucky with the weather, both coming through French Pass and going through the Jackson passage between Cape Jackson and the Jackson light. The Jackson passage can be extremely rough when the tide is against the wind.

1962 08Aug27 Saga log trimmed
Log of Nelson-Wellington trip 25-27 August 1962, written by Ian Longstaff

Sources: Hayter, R. (1998). The Dane of Marlborough: Finn Jorgensen 1940-1997. Sea Spray, Dec-Jan. pp.102- 103.

Thomas family Boatshed, Evans Bay

Boatshed Number 152 on Evans Bay Parade was owned by the Thomas family from the early 1940s until it was sold in 1980. For several family members, the boatshed is associated with significant activities and events. During the period of Thomas ownership, three boats were built in the shed, Almero, launched in October 1952, Gazelle launched in September 1958 and Westwind launched in June 1969. This account was written by David Thomas who visited the boatshed many times from around 1950 until he left Wellington to live in Brisbane in January 1969.


Roydon Thomas used the boatshed extensively from the time of starting the building of Almero in 1949. Following his separation from his wife Norma in 1966, he lived there much of the time until his death in July 1971. The boatshed was his ‘office’ for the design of multiple yachts and launches and had a drawing space set up beside the kitchen sink. After Roydon’s death, the boatshed was inherited by Roydon’s daughters, Rose Thomas and Bronwen Bleakley. They sold it in 1980.

Boatshed 152 Evans Bay Oct 2014
Boatshed 152 Evans Bay Oct 2014

During the 1950s and 1960s there were often rumours that the City Council was planning on demolishing the boatsheds, located between the Hataitai Swimming Club and the Evans Bay Yacht Club slipway, to widen the road and tidy up the area. This never happened. Since the 1990s the boatsheds have been spruced up – perhaps due to Council pressure – and are now frequently photographed and painted as iconic images of Wellington. There are multiple photos and paintings of Boatshed 152 available online. These can be located with a browser search using the keywords ‘Evans Bay boatsheds.’

A more detailed account of the boatshed history is available as a pdf here

History of the Boatshed at Evans Bay v2


1961 Dec26 Torrent bay sm2

This collection of stories will be primarily about the history of Norman W Thomas and his family, some around the time the family lived in Wellington. It is planned to post specific accounts of Norman’s involvement in a number of boats, including some which became well-known, such as the ketch Ilex, the topsail schooner Huia and the ketch Coongoola. The collection will also cover information about other aspects of family history including stories and trip accounts related to Roydon Thomas and David Thomas, two of the seven children of Norman W Thomas. Other family members are invited to contribute stories and information as well.

The information being provided about Roydon Thomas and the ketch Ilex  complements the accounts prepared by Gavin Pascoe from the Wellington Classic Yacht Association. Gavin Pascoe’s blogs can be seen at


David Thomas

Auckland, New Zealand