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Making Waves: John Pontifex

Making Waves is a series dedicated to sharing the stories of trailblazers, adventurers, innovators, pioneers and people who are doing good things in boating, fishing and recreational water sports.

Accomplished boat-builder John Pontifex joins us this week to talk about his thriving business and the joy of sharing his skills with boaters from all walks of life.

Tell us a bit about what you do at Plate Alloy.

I started Plate Alloy in 1984 and now employ four people. Our main business is manufacturing high quality pre-cut boat kits which we design using computer software before cutting them out on big sheets of aluminium using large format CNC cutting machines. People then purchase these high precision kits to build their own recreational boats at home.

We have a wide range of kits, over 120+ models, all with a very high design spec. Most customers are after fishing boats, and our boats have self-draining decks, underfloor fuel tanks, basic floatation, reverse chines. They’re very good handling, dry, safe and very seaworthy. You can build one, then give it to your kids, and they’ll give them to their kids’ kids. They are very heavy duty and should last forever.

And you also offer courses?

About 15 years ago, we started teaching a welding and boat-building course at TAFE and I found I really enjoyed it. We now offer courses here at Plate Alloy and hold five per year in Cheltenham which have become so popular that we’re booked out up to a year in advance. It’s a unique course so it attracts students from around Australia and all over the world.

We have had attendees from the USA, Alaska, Singapore, Brazil, France, Philippines, the list goes on. Some of the commercial marine surveyors also attend our courses so they can get some hands-on practical experience. Hundreds of attendees with different backgrounds and interests have completed our courses over the years, from dentists and plumbers, heart surgeons and helicopter pilots, housewives and IT managers. They come to us with varied levels of welding experience, but they all know how to build a boat by the end of their week in the course. I really appreciate the opportunity to pass on the skill and show people that building their own boat is a great fun project and it may be easier than they think.

What’s your favourite material to work with?

At Plate Alloy, we use marine-grade aluminium for all our boats and kits. Aluminium is lighter, stronger, easy to repair and modify, and more durable than fibreglass. The design of aluminium boats has also changed a lot over the years, they’re becoming more stylish. And the best part is if you make a mistake, it’s easy to fix it which is great when you’re working with students.

You also teach boat building up in the Northern Territory. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

We first started teaching in remote areas in Arnhem Land about six or seven years ago and the initial course was really well received. Now we go up a couple of times a year and teach in schools and different remote communities. We teach students who don’t necessarily have a VCE pathway but are more aligned with practical or trade-based learning.

We teach them how to build things like crocodile traps, landing barges and commercial fishing boats. This way we can pass on usable skills that they can take back to their own communities. The course is a fantastic experience if the students chosen employment pathway is a sea or land ranger. We’re all about making a difference and teaching skills so we can empower people before we leave the planet.

Plate Alloy has even branched out into making art. How’s your track record in this space?

Initially, some artists approached us and asked us how we create the wonderful shapes in our boats. We actually use some quite sophisticated software, so we were able to adapt this to create sculptures. We’ve done a lot of art and sculpture work over the years in collaboration with artists. We’ve won quite a few awards for our efforts and we’ve made sculptural screens, water features and major sculptural components for the Chelsea Flower Show in London. In fact one year, the Australian team won a “gold medal” and “Best in Show”, with our large pod type sculptural garden centrepiece.

People give their boats all sorts of funny names. What’s one of the best you’ve heard?

That’s a tough one. Probably ‘Castaway’ or ‘One More Cast’. Of course, I’m a fisherman.

You’re an expert boat-builder, sculpture-creator and teacher. Do you have any time for boating or fishing yourself?

I do a bit of boating, mainly just fishing and boating with our kids. They’re teenagers now so they’re really into wakeboarding, tubing and the odd bit of fishing when I can get time with them alone. My favourite fishing spot is probably Gippsland in the south-east coast of Australia, but I don’t want to give away any secrets!

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