Hal Wagstaff: Architect and boat designer OBE, FNZIA

Monday, August 1, 2016
Hal Wagstaff

Earlier this year, Hal Wagstaff visited the New Zealand Maritime Museum. At the time, he was planning on attending the World Moth Championships to be held in Hayama, Japan and he promised to send us a photo or two from his trip. A few months later, he supplied the photos and curator, Jaqui Knowles, sat down with him to have a chat. 

1. A Boating Family 

Hal Wagstaff comes from a boating family. Born in 1930, Hal was introduced to sailing at a young age, along with his four brothers. His father and grandfather were builders, who sailed and built boats in their leisure time; they were particularly interested in centreboard racing. As a boy, Hal spent a lot of time with them in the boatshed at Evans Bay, near where the family lived on Overtun Terrace in Hataitai. 

In the foreground, Hal’s brother Eric sails a family boat in Evans Bay circa 1940 

2. Decision Time 

As a teenager, Hal built his first boat (14ft) and knew that he was more interested in design. He was apprenticed to Wellington architect Stanley Fearn –and remained with him for four years.

Around 1951, keen to attend a keel race, sailing from Wellington to Lyttelton, Wagstaff asked Fearn for extra time off to sail on the yacht ARGO. The response was terse: “What you’ve got to do is to decide whether you want to be a yachtsman or an architect”. Hal opted to stay, which was fortunate, as two yachts HUSKY and ARGO sank during a severe storm and all lives were lost. 

A young Hal (on right) working on one of his boats with David Catchpole and David MacLachlan. The family boatshed at Evans Bay could accommodate 5 -6 boats. Hal and his father would often discuss aspects of design. “Father was encouraging, but he would make you build yourself saying, ‘you go away and do it your way and if I think you’re on the wrong track I’ll tell you’”.

3. Becoming a Designer

In 1955, Hal married his wife Trudie and they had three sons – all of whom learnt to sail in P Class from a young age. In 1968, he entered a design competition at the Royal Akarana Yacht Club and won. The success bought in many commissions, both national and international, and led to a steady stream of commissions. Eventually, he became so busy with boat designing that he stopped with architecture around 1972.

Trudie and boys in water with P Class yachts at Paremata, Wellington late 1960s. 

Hal’s interest in boats and design has been evident from when he was a boy. Hal believes that learning how to sail –especially from at a young age, is hugely important to being able to excel in design. Bruce Farr, he says, is an example of someone who is both a very good sailor and designer too. 

Bruce Farr began thinking about design from an early age. Over the years, he his brother Alan exchanged a number of letters with Hal. 

4. Design Process

“I draw with feeling as if I was playing the piano”.

Hal has designed for several classes, including R Class, International Moth, Cherub and Javelin. He says that when discussing a commission, the first thing to ascertain is the proposed size and bulk of the boat, as these factors largely determine the costs. The intended use of the boat is also important. Some just want to use a boat largely for cruising and for others, the priority is racing.

Hal notes that the concept behind design hasn’t changed a lot over the years, but the tools and processes change along with technology. Hal believes that were he still designing today, the pencil would be his primary tool. “I see computers as an aid to design process. They are useful for working out how heavy a boat would be floating in water and for multiplying geometric forms etc.


From left: The interior of 30ft yacht RANKA, which was built for a Japanese client. Most of Hal’s drawings were completed on tracing paper. These images are from a plan of one of Hal’s favourite designs – a yacht named MARTHA, also designed for a Japanese client.

5. Moth Class  

Earlier this year in May, Hal travelled to Hayama, Japan with his son Stephen, for the World Moth Championship. This trip marked a 40 year association with Japan and 50 years of involvement with the Moth Class. Last year the trophy was won by New Zealander Peter Burling, who is currently in training for the Rio Olympics with Blair Tuke. 

Hal with Takao Otani, current member of the organisation World Sailing. On the table is the World Championship Trophy, won this year by Paul Goodison. The smaller trophy, made by Hal in the 1960s, is awarded to the best sailor from NZ, Australia, Japan. Photograph courtesy of: YANMAR Moth World Championship 2016@JUNICHI HIRAI / BULKHEAD magazine JAPAN

In 1962 Hal designed New Zealand’s first International Moth, PurIri. According to Hal, at that time, the Moth Class was well-known in Europe, UK, Australia, Japan and US, but not NZ.  At that time, inter-provincial championships were focused more on R Class.  

For Hal, the appeal of Moths lies in the flexibility of design.  The required features in an International Moth design are: 11ft hull length with 85 square feet of sail area. This allows for many modifications to be made according to sailing conditions. Another Moth, with the same design as PurIri and built by his brother Gary, was actually sailed in the Ross Sea at McMurdo Sound.


From left: PURIRI, designed by Hal Wagstaff, 1962/Hal with PurIri strapped to the roof-rack of his trusty Holden, won at the Championship in Canterbury. 

More than 50 years later, the design of a Moth has changed quite a bit. Modifications such as wings and hydrofoils have been introduced. Races are exciting for both sailors and spectators with boats flying along on their hydrofoils –sometimes reaching speeds over 30 knots.


From Left: Competitors in the 2016 Moth Championship held at Hayama, Japan. Right: The winner of the Championship, Paul Goodison (UK). Paul was a 2008 Beijing Olympic gold medalist in the Laser Class. Photographs courtesy of: YANMAR Moth World Championship 2016@JUNICHI HIRAI / BULKHEAD magazine JAPAN

To see Paul Goodison in action, click here.

This clip provides an introduction to the Moth class boat.

6. Once a Designer, Always a Designer

In addition to Hal’s involvement with sailing and his work as a designer, he has also been an International judge and umpire and officiated at more the 50 major international or World championship regattas. From 1986-1990, Hal became Vice Chairman and later Vice President for what is now known as WSC. He was also involved in the NZ Olympic Association (1970-1993), which was responsible for determining such things as type of boats to be included in Olympics, the number of crew and sizes and enforced compliance in order to ensure fair play.

At 86, Hal Wagstaff is still thinking critically about design. Reflecting on the design of the winning Moth at Hayama this year – Hal reckons it could be made to go faster with a different line to the hull – at least when conditions are smooth.