Lawrence Watt meets a model boat enthusiast who has been inspired by his own sea journeys.

There is a small navy on a lake in East Auckland. In it are a range of warships, mostly frigates and the occasional large cruiser ready to take on any foe.

But their guns don't work and they are about as long as a Mini. Most were made by self-taught model maker Dick Hopper.

Why model ships? Well back in 1945, 8-year-old Dick, who was born on an Indian tea plantation, moved with his family to Britain. A decade later, he took another ship to Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe) where he was a policeman for 10 years. So his journeys on each ship were the beginning of a new chapter in his life.

Dick built his first model ship, the clipper Cutty Sark, in the Rhodesian bush, before migrating to New Zealand in 1965.


"Insects came out of the bush and landed on the rigging," he says.

Look closely at Dick's model of the P&O liner Strathmore and you can see a tiny kid on a deck, gazing landwards. The 2cm high boy, with his mum and brother alongside is Dick, cruising somewhere between India and Britain.

All of Dick's ships have crew in lifelike poses. "It's these touches that make a difference," he says.

He gets the model men cast in metal locally and colours them himself.

Dick has built more than 70 large models so far, including all three ships on which he travelled to Britain, Rhodesia and New Zealand.

Each ship is hand-made. Dick makes each hull out of Scandinavian plywood using fibreglass to waterproof it, beginning the construction upside down, "like making a canoe," he says. He makes his own moulds, to mass-produce parts like gun turrets, but buys electric motors, propellers, radio control units, anchors and some other fittings.

Plans are available from various navies. A series of photographs, taken from up a mast, has helped immensely. Dick works all hours, taking many months to complete a model. "It helps considerably not watching TV," he says.

A while back he showed his model of the New Zealand Navy frigate Te Mana to the Captain and crew at Devonport. "None of them could fault it," he says. Now he's making a model of the HMNZS Taranaki. His model boat group, Task Force 48 already has the three other Vietnam-era frigates, the idea being to recreate a four-frigate New Zealand Navy rather than the two-frigate Navy (plus ships with other roles) of today. They plan to send the Navy a photo resembling a PR shot of the four ships in a row.

Although the guns in Dick's ships don't work, there are groups overseas who build BB guns into their ships to try to sink each other. And some folk build "sit-in"' models the size of small launch.

When Dick sold a ship on Trade Me a few years back (for about $4000) the buyer later re-listed it. "There was a bidding war, and it went for $3000 more." But he doesn't seem too fussed - just keeps making more ships.

Dick reckons you are looking at spending around $1000 for the materials for a ship. If you want to make ships about half the size, parts are easier to obtain - and the cost may be slightly lower. This group's scale is 1/48, thus the group's name - Task Force 48.

You need a station wagon or SUV to transport the ships and it takes two people to carry them.

Out on the water the ships travel at walking pace. In an emergency with a command of "full speed astern" the models can stop in their own length - just like the real thing - says Brian Henman, a retired sailor. He reckons it takes about a year of monthly sailing to learn to pilot the ships properly. Wind can be a worry - but on a quiet day the ships can be sailed on quite large ponds or small lakes, he says.

The group is looking for younger people to join up. Of course, you will need to build your own model ship - or buy someone else's.


Task Force 48 meets once a month, every third Sunday 10am-noon at the Auckland Botanical Gardens. They occasionally go elsewhere, so it's a good idea to email them first,

* (useful detail on a battleship model).