The Deltacraft Islander was very much a product of its turbulent times. During the 1970s the Arabs who controlled most of the world's oil flexed their collective muscles, fuel prices leapt and supplies dwindled. Big highspeed cruisers spent a lot of time swinging on moorings depreciating savagely and a new type of boat was born - or rather an old type revived.
Small 'putt-putt' workboats had been around for well over 100 years. The new style of 1970's putt-putt, of which the Deltacraft Islander is a classic example, was more refined and comfortable than the old - yet carried on the tradition of being solid, sensible, spacious and, it has to be said, slow.
Slow wasn't necessarily bad, many boaties found. Not only did they slash
fuel bills by around 90 per cent, they discovered the pleasure of
wandering quietly along waterways enjoying the scenery.
The Deltacraft Islander can be traced back to a timber boat designed by Ken Beashel for his dad around 1972 or '73. It was penned as a motor sailor and only a couple were built. One is thought to be a compact houseboat on the Hawkesbury River to this day.
Steve Leonard was building high-speed boats with the title of Delta when he
was approached by a retired flight engineer Don Brown to design a new
boat based on the Beashel hull. It was to be called DB18 or DB550.
Steve described it as, "like a tiny tugboat with a one-man cabin".
Around 40 were built over the next four or five years.
Steve had the idea of modifying it to produce a small half-cabin cruiser and the Islander was born early in 1978.
Initially it was simply called a Deltacraft Diesel and the first few carried the old 'DB' logo. A falling out between Steve and Don saw them split up and 'Islander' replaced 'DB'. Warwick, a guest at the official launch, said, "The press was invited and chicken and champagne were laid on for all. The boat arrived about four hours late so everyone was a bit pie-eyed before they even saw it.
The first ones were powered by a single-cylinder Yanmar diesel, it had hopeless performance. The then-new twin-cylinder 15 horsepower Yanmar 2QM15 made all the difference. Steve Leonard disagrees on Warwick's opinion of the single-cylinder engine, "It went OK but it wasn't smooth and the horizontal layout meant it tended to push the hull sideways - great for docking, but a pain at other times!"
Islanders were built in a factory at 109 Old Pittwater Road, Brookvale, a suburb to the north of Sydney. Of the hull Steve Leonard says, "It has a firm bilge amidships and is slack at the transom so has a low synchronised roll factor, it is hard to broach. I've been on an Islander that was knocked almost perpendicular to the water. A rubber gunwale cover was ripped off by the big seas, but the boat pulled itself up again!
"One Islander was sailed over 1,000 kilometres from Cairns to Weipa around the top of Cape York, a remarkable trip."
Islander is better suited to bay cruising and river use than open seas. Its height and the heavy hardtop makes it inclined to roll in the slightest of seas and the cockpit, though self draining, is huge and potentially vulnerable.
On the Islander's strength Steve Leonard says, "The glass fibre is thick, often 3/8th of an inch, up to 1 inch in places. That adds weight but puts in plenty of ruggedness. Islander has a maximum hull speed of around six knots and I reckon that if you were to run it flat out onto rocks you probably wouldn't puncture the hull.
"We had swamping tests carried out on a boat fitted with flotation foam and it passed strict survey tests so that is was eligible for hire work. Islanders were hired out on the Gold Coast, the Whitsundays, Sydney, Hobart, Perth, all over the place. Some of the 15hp Yanmars did over 10,000 hours without an overhaul."
Steve was a great believer in listening to his customers.
"They wanted standing headroom, so I lowered the cabin floor and raised the roof. They asked for the engine box to be taken away, so I lifted the cockpit floor to put the engine under it. The first engine covers were a bit slippery so I used the same non-slip finish as on the rest of the cockpit floor. Better access to the gearbox was requested so I made the engine cover longer.
"They asked me to do away with the rudder box, I minimised its size, but left easy access to the steering gear so it can be used manually if there are cable troubles. "Finally," smiled Steve, "the requests stopped coming in so I knew the boat was just about right."
These first Islanders, built from 1978 to late 1982, came in a variety of forms: open top, soft-top and hardtop, with the latter being by far the most popular. Some of the early hardtops used the stubby windscreen of the soft-top, later the 'screen went up to the full height of the hardtop.
Some not only had an enclosed head but even offered hot and cold running water. The hot water provided by engine exhaust heat. A small galley, that even included a refrigerator, was often installed. All this luxury in an 18-footer made it an excellent weekender.
On the subject of length, Steve assures me the Islander is 18 feet 4 inches long. These days they're always called a 19- footer and I've even seen one advertised as a 20-footer.
"Possibly," mused Steve, "because I think some Queenslanders measure the length along the gunnels and people like to be seen as owning a bigger boat!"
After several successful years on the market, Steve Leonard decided it was time for a more stylish update to replace the chunky original. Phil Curren, a naval architect who later worked on Fast Cat ferries, was asked to draw up the Deltacraft Islander Mark 2.
It had a similar full hull to the original model but lost the quirky, tug-like, inward slope of the hull at the bow that was such a feature of the Mark 1.
The emphasis was on even more interior space. A wider cabin had windows at the front either side of the hatch.
While the Mark 1 has a simple V-berth arrangement with a drop-down table longitudinally between them, Mark 2 uses a transverse table butting against the starboard side and extending almost to the centreline.
Sales slowed as fuel prices dropped and big boats made a comeback. Steve and partner John Gale, decided to sell out in 1987. The new owner didn't do a lot with the Islander and eventually gave up. Today the moulds are thought to be in Toronto, near Newcastle, NSW but the current owner, despite several requests, isn't prepared to let them be used, so they're gathering dust.
Steve Leonard then moved on to the specialised homebuilding field.
"It pays better than marine work and a background in boats is excellent when doing complex jobs like fancy stairways," he said.
"But I once did a full restoration job on an Islander Mark 2 for a guy who bought it as a burnt-out hire boat. It brought back memories of a very happy and enjoyable period in my life!"
In the meantime around 560 Deltacraft Islander owners continue to putter quietly around waterways all over Australia, usually with varnished teak rails gleaming and often with an Australian flag fluttering proudly from the mast. Say g'day the next time you see one - but keep in mind you might get a good ear bashing about their favourite craft!