A group of sailing enthusiasts and youth workers are setting up a charitable trust with the aim of building a tall ship to be based in Whangarei for youth training programmes.

Naval architect Erwin Haag, who has designed a 30.5m topsail schooner the fledgling trust intends to build, said the project was motivated by concerns about Northland's high youth suicide rate.

He said considering Northland had the country's highest youth suicide figures, there was a need for more life-building experiences for at-risk people in the region.

The ship would take young people out on various length voyages, "teaching them something useful", Mr Haag said.

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The trust's promotional material said children today lacked basic learning, team skills, co-ordination and personal accountability, and on-board training voyages would help counterbalance that.

Trainees would thrive under the order and discipline of shipboard life, with its absence of daily clutter and distraction, and learn by "engaging in the real world".

The Whangarei contribution to New Zealand's tall ship youth training schemes would be the Kahu, with berths for 20 people, four of whom would be crew.

The $2 million ship exists only on paper at this stage, with plans by Mr Haag in hand, but the five-person board trust deeds not yet finalised.

"It's not an 'if', it's a 'when'," Mr Haag said of the project. "This is definitely happening. It's started."

Mr Haag's drawings for the Kahu are for a steel vessel, 30.5m long to the end of the bowsprit, 7m at the widest point and with a 2.2m draft. He spent 700 hours working on the plans.

Fundraising and grant applications can not be started until the trust is fully established but Mr Haag said he has been pledged timber from a local company.

Building the vessel would rely heavily on sponsorship, donations of time, products and facilities from local businesses, and volunteer labour.

The trust members hoped the Kahu would eventually be berthed near Te Matua a Pohe Bridge, on the old port side.

The Kahu Trust would also be modelled on the Auckland-based Spirit of New Zealand Trust, Mr Haag said.

When not out on youth sailing programmes, the vessel could be hired for private functions at sea or while docked, or even rented backpacker accommodation.