2023 Hall of Fame Inductee: Neil Surtees
In the early 1990s, Neil Surtees became a member of the marine industry almost by accident. A creative sort, his once-unusual ideas have now become almost industry standard. He is also famously responsible and, he is, for the shortest ever Boat of the Show Awards acceptance speech.
A boilermaker by trade, Neil started building jet boats “for a bit of extra cash”. He then, in what was to become typical Neil Surtees fashion, started designing and building his own.
Asked to build a racing jet boat in aluminium and noticing that it went well, he “got in aluminium”.
A keen fisho, he then decided to build himself a fishing boat. It, too, went well. Other people saw it, liked it and started putting in orders. Suddenly, from his backyard workshop in Kawerau, Neil was an aluminium fishing boat builder.
In 1993, he bought a place nearer Whakatane and, although it came with a house and shed, Neil says he wouldn’t even let his dog stay in the house. As a result, he and his wife lived in the shed while he built boats: a one-man-business popping out a 6.1-metre every nine days. Shortly after, he added a 5.5-metre model and was soon busy enough to hire staff.
He fixed up the house, now the Surtees office, and suddenly had a thriving business. With an aeroplane-wing-like design under a fully welded floor, his boats were so tough, he was able to offer a 10-year hull warranty, unheard of at the time.
It was not just the floors that were fully welded, so were all the seams (most aluminium boats at the time were riveted). The boats were also packed full of Neil’s innovations:
- a flooding keel, then a completely new concept for recreational trailer boats and one that added an unheard-of level of stability to deep vee boats
- a drive on/drive off catch to make it easy for an owner to launch and retrieve on their own
- fold-away side seats and clip-on rod holders
to name just a few.
Always very focussed on his staff, Neil employed locals wherever possible, took on apprentices from the very early days and introduced a unique artisan single-builder-all-the-way-through approach that built pride in a way a production line never could.
Neil remains one of three shareholders in Surtees Boats, a company that now turns out between 300 and 400 boats a year and employs over 60 people, including 11 apprentices.
The company recently launched their 6,500th boat, has a comprehensive dealer network in both New Zealand and Australia and sells an increasing number of boats into the US and Europe.
Neil and his team have also been outstanding supporters of the Hutchwilco New Zealand Boat Show, supplying the Show’s always-impressive Grand Prize boat since 2016 and always proving an absolute joy to work with.
They have also won numerous Boat of the Show Awards and that shortest ever Awards acceptance speech?
It was just one word long: “Grouse!” It earned a standing ovation, was talked about for years and, the following year, was the name of the Surtees entry into the Awards!