NEWS FEATURE - 2011 Launceston Wooden Boat Rally

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Timber treasures greet the eye at the low-key 2011 Launceston Wooden Boat Rally, discovers JOHN DEAN

NEWS FEATURE - 2011 Launceston Wooden Boat Rally
NEWS FEATURE — 2011 Launceston Wooden Boat Rally

Tasmania has a long history of jealously guarding her treasured secrets. Were it not for a lopsided sandwich board, half-hidden by roadside weeds, the 2011 Launceston Wooden Boat Rally would remain one of them.

Wandering beside the banks of the Tamar River, it became immediately clear how civilised the whole event was going to be. Not a single jumping castle or dagwood dog in sight. A complete absence of leggy models in Lycra hot pants parading about the boardwalk on impossibly high heels, flinging free samples of bilge cleaner like soggy chips at crowds of seagull-impersonating punters. It was in fact a veritable Valhalla for wooden boat tragics young and old.

The soft drizzling rain and overcast sky, which would have undoubtedly dented sales orders at a modern boat show spectacular, provided the ideal atmosphere in which to stage an intimate little gathering of classic timber craft.

Beautifully varnished rowboats and sailing dinghies dotted the walkway, glowing like little amber jewels — drops of rain beading on their faultless finishes. Exquisite.

But now the time has come to make a disgraceful admission. Years ago, I gave up completely on maintaining the brightwork of my own 1950s vintage Seabird yawl.

Subjecting myself to the rigmarole of this arduous exercise was, to my mind at least, little more than sheer unadulterated Sisyphean folly. I nonchalantly allowed her bronze fittings to turn green through neglect. And when cornered by concerned friends that something ought to be done about her salt-ravaged varnish, I would simply toss back my luxuriant auburn locks, laugh gaily — just like Katherine Hepburn might have done — and retort with an irrelevant witticism about Yale men or cheap scarves, which unfortunately no one at the time seemed to understand, including myself.

So it should now come as no surprise that my pick of the vessels that Saturday morning was May Fly, a delightful 1950s 12-foot clinker, planked in King Billy pine. Her well-worn patina had all the romantic appeal of a rustic French farmhouse; the type often featured in country lifestyle magazines that some women, around about my wife’s age generally salivate uncontrollably over. However, my fear is that May Fly will sadly be treated to a gleaming restoration at some time in the future, robbing her of much of her present charm.

The SL Lady Lyn is an impressive steam-powered launch, owned by affable ex-Brit Brian Forster. Here is a man who, when dealing with the general public, will cheerfully answer the most dimwitted of questions — which was something of a relief to me as I found myself being invited aboard for a chat.

Brian found her as an unnamed derelict sitting half underwater on a mooring in Prince of Wales Bay. After taking her on as his own, he then towed her dead in the water across to Lindisfarne Bay, where she was carefully winched out onto dry land. Brian was no doubt buoyed by an onlooker’s helpful comment of "she’ll never see water again" just as the keel fell away before his very eyes.

Standing slump-shouldered before a rotting wreck held together by a coat or two of pink house paint, his next task was to remove the dreadful plywood cabin that some character had previously plopped onto her deck. The offending structure was cut free with a chainsaw and then dragged off by 4WD.

Looking at her today, it’s obvious even to my untrained eye that the remainder of her restoration has been carried using far more conventional shipwright methods and tools. For those who are interested in a general outline of her oily bits, she is fitted with a single-cylinder double-acting piston-valve steam engine, with vertical-fired boiler and steam-condensing system. At any rate she is elegant testimony to Brian Forster's perseverance.

Perched on the transom of Diablito, Wally Mounster’s vintage wooden dinghy, sits an unorthodox steam-powered outboard of his own ingenious design. Rudimentary it may first appear but make no mistake, this intriguing bit of kit has been carefully engineered to exacting standards.

Still, there is something quite Heath Robinson about the setup overall — the very sight of it operating soon has the dourest of onlookers all grinning like idiots. And while this out-there outboard is definitely more Lady Gaga than Lady Lyn, it is proof of the pudding that steam power remains a practical alternative to the petrol engine as the spectre of peak oil looms ever closer. I‘ve now a good mind to stick it to OPEC right now by pulling the old motor from my battered Land Rover and replacing it with the 1940s coke-burning Aga cooker-boiler currently residing in our kitchen at home.

Tied up across the way, 19ft long and painted battleship grey is the Yorkshireman. At first glance it appears to be constructed from great sheets of heavy steel plate riveted together and resembling something of a cross between Little Toot and an American Civil War monitor ship.

A closer inspection reveals that it is in fact made of plywood — a material which, as far as I am aware, is not widely celebrated for its resistance to cannon ball attack. And so it was that Yorkshireman drew the attention of all and sundry, from great heaving navvy-types giggling like schoolgirls through to schoolgirls roaring with delight like drunken navvies.

Powered by a Lister L Series air-cooled 4hp lump, Yorkshireman reputably cruises at 4kts, but details on her attack speed are classified. The conspicuous absence of a deck-mounted anti-aircraft Pom-Pom battery did not go unnoticed. Fingers crossed, this niggling oversight will be rectified with the addition of some "teeth" in time for next years Wooden Boat Rally.

Is it possible for a wooden boat to be just a bit too, well, I don’t know, woody? SL Huon gave me cause to ponder this very question, as there seemed to be no relief from the stuff. Hovering over an instrument panel stuffed with gauges is a great, carved wooden eagle in full flight and throttling a mackerel in its powerful claws.

Understated this dramatic centrepiece was not, but in the context of this craft being a replica of an American 1875 steam launch, the reasoning behind including this overblown homage to feathered fauna of the USA can at least be understood.

All that aside, at 24ft the SL Huon is an impressive piece of craftsmanship, of which owner Bruce Jessup should be justly proud.

Clapped-out outboards of yesteryear were well represented — British Seagull, Penguin, Scott, and BMB Britannia to name just a few — as were many examples of small boats built by Reg Fazackerley, the legendary Tasmanian boatbuilder.

Reginald Fazackerley (1896-1983) left school at the age of 11 and just five years later, in 1909, had built his first boat. His specialty was small boats and dinghies of Huon and King Billy pine. During WWII he was drafted to the Commonwealth as a shipbuilder at the Prince of Wales Bay shipyard, where he constructed many of the lifeboats and small hospital ships that were used in Papua New Guinea.

It has been said that many hundreds if not thousands of Australian servicemen owe their lives to those little boats built in Hobart by Fazackerley and his team of workers.

He also made a number of Huon pine dinghies that were donated to charities and regatta associations as prizes to be raffled off. At the time, these little boats were worth about £50 each, with a chance to take one home at a shilling apiece.

In this tradition, the folk from the Australian Cancer Council and Denman Marine had organised their own boat raffles. Having long ago sworn myself off ever owning another wooden boat again, there I was greedily buying as many tickets as my pockets would hold. I was actually trembling with so much excitement while filling out my contact details into both raffle books that my handwriting was not just merely illegible, but indistinguishable from the seismic readings recorded at the time when Krakatoa blew itself to buggery.

So, unless both a rowing boat and a small gaff-rigged sailing dinghy happen to turn up on my driveway at home within the next week or two, the answer to my wife’s question of, "Whatever could have happened to the money I’d set aside for the butcher’s bill?", will have to remain for now, one of Tasmania’s better kept secrets.

2011 Vintage Yacht Regatta: QCYC, Shorncliffe, QLD. June 11

2011 Timber Boat Festival: RMYC, Broken Bay, NSW. November 5 to 6

Too woody? You be the judge. The Sl Huon even has a carved eagle topping the instrument panel; Brass and steam added to the charm; Wood you believe this? No joke, Wally Mounster and his wood-fired steam-powered outboard; Yorkshireman's hull looks like riveted steel, but try plywood instead.


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