By Zoe Hawkins

Born in 1897, Percy Vos discovered his passion for the ocean by swimming in the sea and playing in Auckland boatyards. He set off on a boatbuilding apprenticeship but like many young other young men at the time, this was interrupted by World War I. He was a diligent soldier and received medals for his bravery in service in France and Passchendaele.

He was a family man who had three daughters whom he influenced with his love of the sea - even building his youngest a small, lightweight dinghy and casting her out in the tide to learn how to row. He was known for his honesty and his generosity and he upheld a high moral code within his family.

Grandson Simon Ostick recalls his grandfather as always being impeccably dressed, even in the yard. 

“I don’t know how he did it – a three-piece suit, bowler hat. For years he used to have an old fob watch that he carried in his waistcoat pocket. I don’t know how many he lost and broke as they would fall onto the slipway or into the tide. He finally submitted to a wrist-watch like everyone else.”


“In the yard he just took his jacket off and rolled up his sleeves.”

 Percy was a prolific designer of boats, working from home at night to create drawings. He was considered an artist.

“He could rise above the dirt and dust and bring his art into the yard,” says Simon. “That doubled with being an absolute perfectionist. The finished article was as close to perfection as Percy could get it. He was also uncompromising with apprentices, tradesmen, suppliers, customers. It was always Percy’s way.” 

“The whole place was about more than just the boats. Percy for all his gruffness was a people person. He was loyal to a fault particularly with the guys. If anyone including customers, a contractor, surveyor or supplier questioned a boat builder he would defend them to his detriment. From that he built up a team of loyalty back. They worked bloody hard. That was part of the success of the yard. They could turn a lot of work out,” says Simon.

Ironically, Percy never owned a boat of his own. He did own race horses, and he loved them, and he would borrow a motor launch from time to time. He raced on Mullet boats in his younger days too.

His workers respected him and liked him. Robert Brooke completed his apprenticeship with Percy from 1955-60. “Percy was good to me,” says Robert. “I had good innings there.” 

He fondly recalls Percy helping him select and cut the timber for a Frostbite he was building. “It turned out to be a fine boat.”

“He was very matter of fact. He’d stare at something, and you’d know instantly if it was right or wrong.”

These days John Street is one of yachting’s most respected figures. He has influenced the sport, and the industry.

 “Percy was a very conservative gent,” says John Street, who delivered chandlery items to boatyards as a young man in the post-war years. “He was a great believer in the next generation and passing on his knowledge. He was a very reserved sort of guy. He came across as a little frightening, quite gruff. But as I grew up I got to know him a better. He was a character.” 

But for eight years in the 1960s he saw Percy weekly but only had one conversation with him. It was the same every week. 

“P. Vos Ltd was the last call on Monday or Tuesday. It was the same rigmarole every call. Percy would come down the stairs from a little office above the main shop floor and see me and say: You know where the store is, fill up the shelves. Don’t overfill them or it’s going back to Fosters. Every week it was the same conversation” 

Helping young sailors

When nine-year-old Tony Skelton and his friends needed new rigs for their P-Class sailing dinghies in 1956, Percy Vos and his boatbuilding crew were asked to build them.

Percy believed in nurturing self-reliance so when he offered to set up the rig on the boys’ boats, he set one condition: the boys were to collect their mast and boom themselves from his yard several kilometres away and deliver it to their boats. This was no small task for a nine-year-old. Tony recalls Percy helping strap the new mast and boom to his bike, and sending him off. With the 4.2m mast onboard Tony rode along Beaumont Street, climbed College Hill, descended into Curran Street and his dinghy locker under the RIchmond Yacht Club.

“He was so proud that young guys were learning to sail, he was very friendly and supportive and a mentor to us, happy to help. He said you had to put some blood and sweat into it, and the more you got into it, the more he helped you,” says Tony

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