Serial owner Neville Crichton discusses his love of yachting
by Mark Chisnell
Neville Crichton started life on a dairy farm 20 miles south of Dunedin on New Zealand's South Island. We met on his 41 metre motor yacht Como, in Saint-Tropez's old harbour, which gives you some indication of just how far he has travelled.
It turned out to be quite a month for Crichton; receiving a Legacy honour at the World Superyacht Awards, and being named in the Queen's Birthday Honours list as a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. I catch up with him between the two announcements, and despite recent rain it is a beautiful day. We have a fabulous seafood salad alfresco, surrounded by St Tropez's unmistakable pastel waterfront and an awful lot of boats.
There weren't many boats around on that dairy farm, though, and Crichton's connection to the sea only started at the age of 12, when the family moved to Whakatane on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island. The Crichton's didn't have much money, but living on a river mouth the young Neville quickly learned that he loved being out on the water.
His first boat was a jury-rigged dinghy, before he managed to get together £4, 10 shillings for an old P Class. This is the class that started out all the marquee names of New Zealand sailing, including Russell Coutts and Peter Blake; but Neville Crichton was never going to win anything in his four-quid-and-change boat.
Fortunately a neighbour saw his enthusiasm. He had bought a brand-new P Class for his son that was going unloved and unused, and he offered Crichton the boat - an offer quickly taken up. The results followed and Crichton represented the Bay of Plenty in the Tanner and Tauranga Cups, a trophy with many famous names on it.
"I ended up with a very good boat for nothing, so I was very lucky," Crichton says.
It came to an end when he left school at 15 and there was no more money or time for sailing. However, Crichton was far from done with competition. He turned to the car business for work and racing cars made a lot more sense than boats. He started in hill climbs, before moving onto saloon car racing, getting his first big win in 1967 in his own Cortina, in a six hour endurance race.
It sounds extraordinary now, given Crichton's phenomenal success, but he struggled to get a foothold in the auto trade.
"My first job was selling tractors. I wanted to get into the car business, but couldn't get a job selling cars," he says. "The closest thing I got to it was selling tractors, and that led back into running a small dealership with cars, tractors and haybailers. That was in a rural area of the Upper Waikato."
It led into a business selling used luxury cars, which he eventually combined with racing saloon cars very successfully in the New Zealand Touring Car Championship. By 1975 he had done well enough to sell-up and take a year off to cruise the Pacific in a 16 metre Philip Rhodes, doing a loop of Fiji, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea and Nouméa in New Caledonia, before returning home.
The next boat followed soon after, but it was more of a financial instrument than a sailing boat. Coming to the end of his Pacific tour, he was offered a partnership in a struggling company in Hawaii, whose main business was importing Mazda cars. Crichton built two big steel motor-sailers in New Zealand as investments to move his money to Hawaii, and bought 51 per cent of the company. He turned it around over the next seven years, acquiring all the luxury brands, Ferrari, Audi, Rover, Triumph, Jaguar and Rolls-Royce, to add to Mazda.
"I did a little bit of sailing during that period and the odd sporting event with an RX7, but nothing serious at all," he says.
The nothing serious included buying a 1973 13.7 metre Sparkman & Stephens boat called Incathat he raced out of Hawaii and on the West Coast circuit. In 1979 he did the Transpac aboard a Farr Two Tonner that he bought for the purpose. Then he built a new 13.75 metre Laurie Davidson, the first of the Shockwaves, which he raced in 1980 and 1981 - and all despite the intervention of a near-fatal illness in 1977.
Brush with death
"The illness is what triggered me going back to New Zealand," Crichton says. "The prognosis wasn't very good, in fact it was terrible they gave me three months to live. I cashed up in Hawaii, shifted back and I'm still here. Otherwise I'd have been there today probably, it would have been a different life. I sold everything up and we shifted back to New Zealand, thinking it was the end of the road, but we beat it."
He underwent 30 operations in five years and lost his voice box, but it barely slowed him down.
"I never got sick, I just had cancer; I stopped breathing but I never got sick. I've never been sick in my life," Crichton declares. "I never let it get at me until I couldn't talk and then that was a major problem, because I'm a dealer and without talking you can't deal. If I hadn't conquered a method of talking I'm not quite sure whether I would have wanted to stick around too long."
"I read about these doctors in Indianapolis," he explains, "who had developed this method of talking, but didn't have a guinea pig to prove it. I went over there and worked with them - we really got the valve working and I was able to talk again."
Crichton was kicked in the throat playing rugby when he was younger, and had to be ventilated via a tube down the throat. It was damage from this procedure that he has been offered as an explanation for the disease.
"Throat cancer is really related to cigarette smoking and I've never smoked a cigarette in my life probably done every other bad thing, but never had a cigarette," he finishes with a smile.
By 1982 he had relocated back to New Zealand, and the pace really picked up. He campaigned his next Shockwave, a 13.4 metre German Frers, for the 1983 Two Ton Cup, and then in the New Zealand Admiral's Cup team, after a contentious time at the Australian trials.
He was also driving for BMW, winning virtually every long-distance race over three years in New Zealand, before joining Tom Walkinshaw's team in Europe in 1985.
He returned to Australia to drive for Ford for a couple of years before retiring in 1990 - a decision he feels he left a year or two late. He even managed to fit in time with the famous 1987 New Zealand America's Cup challenge: "My role was really to bring the sailors aboard the team."
Neville Crichton was no less active in business, taking on a chain of Ford dealerships in 1983 and turning it into the largest Ford dealer in New Zealand.
The next move was to take control of a public company in Australia in 1985. Ateco was originally an engineering business, but it had a licence to import cars into Australia and he could see the potential. Crichton made it enormously successful, importing Ferrari, Maserati, Great Wall, Chery, Kia, Citroën, Alfa Romeo and other car brands to the Australia and New Zealand market.
For most people racing sailboats, cars and building up a multi-million-dollar business would be enough. But Crichton had another string to his bow: luxury cruising superyachts.
Entering the superyacht world
"In 1982 I decided I'd build my own big boat, and I had ideas that you could build a good sailboat and sail well, but still have a good interior. And the steel boats we'd taken up (to the USA) were, to be truthful, dogs.
"I had William Garden in Canada design me a boat and I built a 28 metre aluminium boat - that was the beginning of Alloy Yachts. From then on we built another and another, and suddenly I'm in the boat building business."
The William Garden design was called Chanel (now Lochiel), and although it was intended as a one-off, Ed Dubois' debut superyacht Aquel II (now Philkade) caught Crichton's eye. He commissioned a boat from Dubois: Esprit (now Eclipse). It was the first of nine Dubois designs built by Alloy Yachts for Crichton over the next two decades.
"I was the first one with carbon fibre rigs in the big superyachts," he says. "I was the first one to do boom furl, and that was probably the biggest step forward."
In this period there wasn't much sailboat racing. In 1992 he had built another 13.5 metre for the Two Ton Cup in Hawaii, then raced the boat for Ireland at the Admiral's Cup the following year.
But it was the new millennium when Crichton really shifted his focus away from building cruising superyachts and back to racing yachts. The first of his new generation of boats was a 24 metre, debuting at the Sydney-Hobart in 2000 - but it didn't finish the course.
"Probably we built it too lightly; we had a three-hour lead as we entered the Bass Strait. We might have got there (to Hobart) if we'd kept going, but we may not have," he says.
They turned back and even before they reached Australian soil a new boat had been planned. It was a water-ballasted Reichel/Pugh 27.4 metre and it was, as Crichton puts it, bulletproof. It was built by ", called Alfa Romeo and ready for the 2002 Sydney to Hobart race.
We won the Hobart with it, then shipped it up here and did Fastnet, Middle Sea, Maxi Worlds, Barcolana, Giraglia, we won everything, Portofino, every regatta we sailed in we won with the boat."
The game had changed, though, and canting keels were now possible under the rules. Crichton disagreed with the move, but had to act. "I knew if I didn't build one, somebody else would and we'd get blown away."
The third boat was a 30.5 metre Reichel/Pugh canting keel yacht. This time they led the Hobart all the way to the mouth of the River Derwent before getting passed by Wild Oats.
The boat then went up to Europe, winning everything that was to be won up here, virtually, before being reconfigured for the 2009 Transpac. They won that as well, taking more than 26 hours off the record. Alfa Romeo made the 2009 Sydney to Hobart her 147th consecutive line honours win before Crichton sold her.
Simply building a succession of world-beating maxi-boats is clearly not enough for this man, however. At the same time he also built the 41 metre motor yacht on which we have lunch, another boat by Alloy Yachts to a Dubois design. Como is largely a means of providing accommodation and support for the Alfa Romeo race boats, and will be replaced in the next couple of years by a 48 metre Feadship.
No more cruises
He enjoys these boats, taking them to the Monaco Grand Prix and Saint-Tropez, but will never repeat his year of cruising in the Pacific. "I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I dont think it's my scene," he tells me. Crichton has a need for competition. "I like the adrenaline of racing," he says, and when I ask if he'd prefer to race cars or sailboats he barely misses a beat. "Probably sailing; the yachting you can go on [with] competitively while you're still capable of walking."
So what of the future? "I'd love to do a new race boat, but the 30.5 metre class seems to be dead, and the 22 metre Mini-Maxi Class hasn't gone ahead like we all thought it would," he explains. "The only series that's going gangbusters at the moment are the big superyacht races, but it's not real racing, it's gentlemen going out racing their Bentleys and Rolls-Royces round on the water. And they're lovely boats, but it's not what I want to do - I want to be in a pure race boat."
And when Crichton says a pure race boat, he means it. "I've looked at a couple of used multihulls and I'm quite keen to have a go at a multihull. We're looking at that right now. The plan is to go after some of the passage records, despite a stated preference for day sailing over long-distance races. And there's another problem.
"I've got to be a bit careful," he adds, "because if I go in the water I'm dead (because of the throat valve), so it's got to be a reasonably substantially sized multihull." He reflects, "Yachting wasn't the ideal thing to take up for someone with a tracheotomy, but it's my life and I don't even consider it as a safety issue."
Its not even in the back of his mind? Crichton shakes his head. "If it happens it happens, I'm so far ahead anyway it doesn't matter."
Few would argue. Look up life lived to the full in the dictionary, and you might find a picture of Neville Crichton.