Kitsets keep Kiwis to the fore in world-class jet-boat design

Henry Wadworth-Watts. Photos: Paul Taylor
Henry Wadworth-Watts. Photos: Paul Taylor
Henry and George Wadworth-Watts in one of their jetboats.
Henry and George Wadworth-Watts in one of their jetboats.
A hull in pieces.
A hull in pieces.

Paul Taylor looks for Kiwi ingenuity and asks Henry Wadworth-Watts about designing world class aluminium jet-boats in his Queenstown workshop for niche kitset markets.

Hidden among trees off one of Queenstown’s picturesque country roads you’ll find the home and reasonably ordered workshop of Henry Wadworth-Watts.

The workshop, the size of a large double-storey garage, has three small aluminum jet-boat hulls in various stages of completion, along with all the usual tools of someone who likes to make things by hand.

But like Henry himself, pottering about in overalls, the workshop disguises its own level of expertise.

In the corner under a cover is a CNC router (computer controlled cutting machine), the hulls are prototypes, and Henry has a master’s degree in civil engineering, specialising in hydrology.

From this rural setting, the 31-year-old has created a scalable boat design business, a global leader in the niche market of aluminium kitset jet-boats.

"We supply them to customers — some trade and directly to the person building the boat for themselves.

"It is delivered as cut and bent parts, marine grade aluminum, and the customer welds it together at the seams and makes a hull."

He sends his designs to his suppliers, in Mosgiel for New Zealand, and others overseas in Canada, Russia and Europe, who cut the metal and ship it to customers and trade builders.

Henry’s company WattsCraft is also a retailer for various specialised parts and engines — usually re-purposed jet ski engines for these small high-performance jet-boats.

He now spends about a third of his working week, 15 or so hours, in the workshop, mainly on R&D. The CNC router is used to create parts for prototypes.

The rest of the time he’s at his desk either designing hulls or stimulating business growth.Henry started out building jet-boats with his younger brother, George.

"We’ve always been doing projects. When we were kids we’d build go karts, other types of boats, right up to this property.

"Then George built a little jet-boat, so I built one, he built another one, I built another."

They established WattsCraft in 2014 after Henry had returned from Canterbury University, where he also earned an honours degree in chemical and processing engineering.

There are now five jet-boats in the river range, one outboard, and he is also working on a coastal jet-boat.

For the small river craft, safety is big consideration.

"Just because they’re smaller, they’re not necessarily slower, so small jet boats can be prone to roll over, that sort of thing.

"So the hulls we design are quite shallow, not flat, but close to it."

Good weight distribution, including mounting heavy components low in the boat, and a ‘constant dead-rise’ — the angle at which the hull rises from the horizontal — creates more stability and predictable cornering.

While the company began as a jet-boat designer and builder, the focus is now on design.

"I started off as sort of the quintessential mad scientist in a shed — building the jet-boats and whatever came along to me and what I liked doing.

"But what’s really exciting now is becoming a specialist with the hull design and kitset design.

"It’s about being a business owner trying to grow and export a product you’re confident leads the world in your niche."

He is receiving business mentorship from Click Ltd, to further both the Kiwi passion for jet-boats started by inventor Bill Hamilton and the country’s exemplary reputation for boat design, buoyed by the America Cup win.

"It’s awesome being part of the NZ economy that is doing smart things.

"And the most exciting thing for me is that I’m building up a network people to build them as well.

"There’s someone just started in Wanaka doing that full-time, so it’s creating another business."

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