FEATURE - Ways with Wood

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Our resident timber-boat buff TONY MACKAY opens the doors to his world of not-so-wooden craft, identifying the best Australian boatbuilders and finding some timeless timber beauties from betwixt our pages that are well worth keeping alive…

FEATURE - Ways with Wood
FEATURE - Ways with Wood

Long before Cleopatra and her asp barged down the Nile or Noah contemplated his Ark construction, people have been drifting about the planet in boats. Some think as long as 40,000 years ago, although remains of boats 8000 years-old have been discovered in various places. Until the mid 19th century they were all made of wood or natural derivatives as no one had discovered a fibreglass tree. For purists and collectors there is no other material for boat construction that has brought more joy, passion and, occasionally, despairs.

Our charming island continent, girt by sea, is very much a maritime nation. One does like a water view. Therefore the Australian coastline is filled with many diverse boats built for all manner of purposes and many different types of people. The more interesting ones have survived and are cherished collectors items of sometimes great value.

Other than the desperately modest bark canoe, efficient for zipping out and spearing a seafood lunch, the first substantial boats came with Cook, Phillip and the various other explorers of their day. With settlement, a wide variety of needs had to be filled and Australian boatbuilding was born. Without resorting to a tedious historical dissertation, one may very simply categorise the types as fishing, transport, commercial or pleasure.

One of the first problems was a supply of timber and the ability to cut it, shape it and preserve it from falling to pieces too quickly. Enthusiasts will quickly regale a group about the joys of spotted gum, Huon pine, King Billy, turpentine, Oregon, Queensland maple, and what is right or wrong about each. Opinions can get quite heated, however, the layman will have dozed off by that point.

One modern wooden boatbuilder uses about 10 types in the one boat and you would have no idea what you are standing on. The ultimate test is longevity — the ability to withstand the perils of the ocean or the dreaded dry rot and worms looking for a morsel to snack on. In fact, the Europeans had a whole raft of problems (pun no.1) with their usual oak frames and iron fastenings disintegrating in the warmer waters.

Meanwhile, various designers of their day struggled with perfecting the shapes to cope with sometimes violent weather and stormy seas. Fishing boats had to cross perilous bars, pleasure boats had to be fashionable and draw admiring glances, and sailors were intent on winning races. The boatbuilders of the day also carved their reputations by word of mouth and through their skill and craftsmanship. There was no gloss advertising to find new victims.

Shoddy or sub-standard builders were run out of town in a flash. The other thing that younger generations do not understand is the lack of money about in those days. To own a boat above 40 feet was a significant prestige item. As a result, those that did order a custom-built boat were significantly more discerning as to the quality and ‘value’ of the end result, for whatever the purpose it was intended to achieve. Reputations were earned, hard earned.

The Australian National Maritime Museum has compiled a list of Historic Vessels and one can easily see the diversity of craft and their applications to a developing nation. Fishing trawlers, pearling luggers, Murray River paddle wheelers, Sydney ferries and commercial vessels of every description played a vital part, however, for this article we shall have a look at some of the pleasure-boat builders and their contribution.


1925 to 1980
Surely the most revered name in Australian boatbuilding is Halvorsen. Since patriarch Halvor Andersen built his first fishing boat in Norway in 1887, the Halvorsen family has the distinction of four generations building boats on five continents.

Arriving in 1924, Lars Halvorsen quickly sent for his family and set about creating Australia’s best-known, small-boat building enterprise, firstly at Sydney’s Drummoyne and later at Neutral Bay. His five sons were trained as boatbuilders and they created wooden boats of a style, quality and beauty that few could match.

Fabulous luxury motorcruisers, race-winning yachts, speedboats, police launches, fishing trawlers and 237 wartime craft set the Halvorsen family at the forefront of Australian wooden craftsmanship. After the war, the leased premises at Bobbin Head north of Sydney were developed as a gateway to cruise the Hawkesbury, Pittwater and Cowan waterways.

With a fleet of 69 hire cruisers and numerous motor launches and rowboats totaling 225, Halvorsens made boating accessible to the public. Their elegant cruisers with gleaming varnish, teak decks and chrome fittings introduced Australians to cruising. And it’s these languid holidays on the river that the Halvorsen name is remembered with such affection.

After the death of Lars in 1936, eldest son Harold formed the family company Lars Halvorsen Sons and built a huge, new factory at Ryde on Sydney’s Parramatta River. Then the largest boatbuilding factory in the Southern Hemisphere, the family was poised to make a significant contribution to the war effort. Some 237 boats were built by a workforce of 350 in a factory that worked 24 hours a day.

The famous 112-foot Fairmiles, 60ft torpedo boats and the 38ft air-sea rescue boats were involved in many conflicts for the US, Australian and Dutch forces. Seconded luxury cruisers above 40 feet joined others to form the ‘Hollywood Fleet’ that guarded the ports and harbours of the Australian coastline. Two Halvorsens chased and depth-charged the Japanese midget submarines during the 1942 attack on Sydney Harbour.

Principle designer Harold Halvorsen had an unerring eye for lines. "If the lines are not right, it will not look right, perform properly and there is nothing to do to make it right" he once told me. Quite so. His designs ran beautifully, look fabulous and were built to the very highest standards. With French polished veneers, custom-made chrome fittings and superb joinery, they were and still are the glamour boats of Australia. A total of 1299 boats were built in Sydney. The Halvorsen Club, formed in 1991, has also been responsible for the restoration and preservation of these beautiful boats, and many are highly sought-after collector’s items.


1909 to present
Celebrating their centenary in 2009, the family firm of Norman R. Wright in Brisbane has been responsible for some of Australia’s most coveted yachts and cruisers.

With their first 56ft ferry Olivene and later the 75ft racing schooner Francois, the various generations of Wrights have done no wrong. A recent publication, Classic Moreton Bay Cruisers by Andrew Harper, highlights many of the superb luxury motorcruisers designed and built by Wrights. Names such as Bali Hai II, Kohi, Dolphin II and South Pacific II are timeless classics and their later motoryachts such as White Haven, Laura-J and Bandanna represent the pinnacle of modern timber-boat construction.

Wright’s have built almost every type of boat from 112ft Fairmiles, passenger ferries, customs launches and speed boats. Located on the Brisbane River, they are one of the last big-name builders who can design and construct a modern timber classic.

They will also refit and refurbish a classic cruiser or yacht to the very highest standards, embracing traditional skills and modern technology. A quick peek at the superb Bandanna or the high-performance gamefishing boat Weapon will demonstrate the skills and passions of this most famous of Queensland builders.

1928 to 1979
Brothers Harold and Joe Griffin were well known in Sydney for their yacht-charter business at The Spit. Their first build, the 40-foot yacht Valiant paved the way for many others chartered at The Spit or Lavender Bay.

The Griffins later built some superb timber yachts and cruisers culminating in the 64ft Sundowner for Sir Theo Kelly, managing director of Woolworths. The Griffin Crown yachts were popular and pretty and cruisers such as Stardust, Sea Vixen and Amco were well known on Sydney Harbour. Later cruisers were from the drawing board of John K. Griffin and the family still owns and operate a modern marina at Bayview on Sydney’s Pittwater.

1940s to present
The Millkraft name has been highly regarded in Queensland since the 1940s, with a range of well-built cruisers and commercial craft that were mainly found cruising the Queensland Coast and Moreton Bay.

Barrier Reef island travellers will remember the 100ft Hayles and Ansett ferries that serviced Hayman Island. Some of their larger luxury cruiser efforts such as the 65ft Miss Eve with her individually matched interior veneers and stylish lines set a standard for elegance.

Several 55ft cruisers were also built featuring the indestructible Rolls-Royce marine diesels and names such as Silver Mist II, Mary-D, Odyssey, Phoebe and their biggest restoration effort, the 100ft Achilles. Millkraft built the Brisbane River paddle wheelers and are still very active repairing classic wooden boats at their Brisbane facility.

From 1956 to 1973, Sydney identity Billy Barnett built some of Australia’s most famous racing yachts such as Dame Pattie, Gretel II and the Southern Cross I to IV. Holmes of Lavender Bay built the superb 73ft Boomerang (1903) and Hayes in Neutral Bay built the Arnott family’s Lauriana that saw distinguished wartime service. A.G. Williams of Drummoyne built 23 cruisers and yachts from 1923 to 1967, many of which survive today. Watty Ford constructed the fabulous steam yacht Ena, surely one of the showpieces of Australian timber boatbuilding.

The list of Sydney boatbuilders is lengthy and many of the later shipwrights had done their apprenticeship at Halvorsen. Peter Bracken, Cec Quilkey, Clive Caporn, the Swanson Bros and Trevor Gowland are names that regularly appear as builders of high-quality cruisers and yachts.

Of course, there are hundreds of individuals around the coastline who have designed and built many well known and long-serving craft, but it is not possible to detail all their achievements here. However, a trip to any of the increasingly popular wooden-boat festivals highlights these remarkable vessels that are still bringing enormous pleasure to a select few. See the box on some of the key timber-boat shows accompanying this article.

Shakespeare wrote the immortal words in his play Hamlet, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." Not only Denmark. Obviously someone owned a wooden boat.
During the design and construction of all this wooden magic, no one was so tasteless or hateful to mention the words ‘dry rot’. And rot they did. Fortunately, the well-heeled owner of such splendid craft was not concerned with such trifling matters. Labour was cheap, unlike the materials, and most had a boatman to attend to all this trouble.

As boats age in dog years and owners tire of constant maintenance, some less treasured craft have handed in their tusks. However, those with an interesting history or an irreplaceable beauty are now cherished collector items, restored and repaired as more of a pleasure than a penance.

The worst fate to befall a timber vessel other than accidental damage or willful negligence is the ingress of fresh water. Dry rot is not actually dry and prefers a drink, fresh water specifically.

I prefer wine and you will too if you let water leaks get the better of you and your boat. Leaking decks, gunwales, windows, fittings and so on will all allow even the tiniest drizzle of water to turn the whole thing to tragedy, slowly and imperceptibly at times. Nothing but the stiff application of a cheque book or quality DIY repairs will solve these issues and wooden-boat owners should seek professional assistance to determine if things are going astray.

Of course, there are worms and mould and all manner of troubles, but all boats suffer from something. Aluminium corrodes, steel rusts, fibreglass blisters and smells of resin, and concrete, well, let’s not go there. So it is a case of pick your poison. I think wood is the most pleasurable to repair and you won’t itch after a day’s grinding.

It’s 2010 and you want to buy a wooden boat. Well there is quite a selection. From putt-putts to luxury cruisers and yachts, wooden-boat enthusiasts will rave about the pleasures and joys of timber-boat ownership. The downside will be reduced to mere small talk. However, like any hobby it must be embraced and you must be committed… or you will be committed. Mind you, I do know house renovators and gardeners who have come to grief when ambition has them in its clutches, so like all these endeavours of passion one must have a genuine and unswerving passion.

It is always much easier to buy a boat that has had most of the work done. Move with caution when major structural or engineering issues require significant attention. Your money will just evaporate, along with your sense of humour and possibly your marriage. If a boat is renovated and simply requires décor adjustments, well you are unlikely to lose you hair over the choice of scatter cushions.

It is hard to sell anything that does not have an accredited or prestige name-brand attached. "For Sale: Wooden Boat" is a long and tough road to a sale, particularly if it needs work or is not pretty. If you stick to one of the big and reputable names you have a tag to swing off. This goes for any boat. It is very easy to buy anything, yet much harder to sell it later. Always keep an eye on your resale prospects. Ask advice. Talk to everyone. Move with caution. However, the big name brands will ease you into and out of ownership, particularly if the boat has provenance, good looks and is in snappy condition.

There are a number of wooden-boat associations around Australia and a quick scroll through the internet will locate one near you. Many have festivals and exhibitions such as the biennial Classic Wooden Boat Show at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, the biennial Australian Wooden Boat Festival in Hobart, and the Goolwa Festival. At these events you will meet likeminded people and gain an insight into the pleasures of wooden-boat ownership.

The Wooden Boat Association has individual splinter groups (pun intended) in each state. Most major yacht and boat clubs like the Royal Motor Yacht Club in Sydney have timber-boat divisions with annual exhibitions. The Halvorsen Club is dedicated to that brand and has more than 130 members on the register. Then there are the couta boats and that association of Victoria. All can be found on the ‘net these days.

One of the great benefits of these clubs and associations is that you will not feel quite so alone with your project. Other owners bring a wealth of knowledge and you may learn some very valuable lessons from these contacts, aside from the very pleasurable social benefits. And it may well turn out to be a lot of fun.


October 16 to 17, 2010: The 2010 Sydney Classic & Wooden Boat Festival. Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney. See www.anmm.gov.au/site/page.cfm?u=1247

October 2010: Date to be confirmed for Balmain Sailing Regatta. See www.balmainsailingclub.com/Racing/Balmainregatta/tabid/66/Default.aspx

November 2010: Date to be confirmed for Davistown Putt Putt Regatta & Wooden Boat Festival. Brisbane Water, NSW. See www.davistownputtputt.com/index.html

Date to be confirmed for Timber Boat Festival at the Royal Motor Yacht Club, Newport. See www.royalmotor.com.au

February 11 to 14, 2011: The Australian Wooden Boat Festival. Hobart, Tasmania. See www.australianwoodenboatfestival.com.au

February 2011: Date to be confirmed for Queenscliff Regatta 2010. Queenscliff Harbour, Victoria. For more information, email: cbell@pipeline.com.au

Date to be confirmed for Kettering Wooden Boat Rally. D’Entrecasteaux Channel, Tasmania

Date to be confirmed for Wooden Boat Rally. Tamar River, Tasmania. See www.woodenboatrally.com

Wooden Boat Association of Australia
See www.woodenboat.org.au

The Wooden Boat Association of Cairns
Email: boggoodall@iig.com.au

The Wooden Boat Association of North Queensland
Email: wbanq@yahoo.com.au

Wooden Boat Association of NSW Inc.
See www.wbansw.org.au

The Traditional Boat Squadron of Australia Inc ACT
Email: Iain.kerr@amsa.gov.au

Wooden Boat Association (Inc) Victoria
See www.woodenboat.asn.au

The Wooden Boat Guild of Tasmania

Wooden Boat Association of South Australia

Wooden boats in Western Australia
See www.classic-yacht.asn.au;


There is something rather luscious about full-sized coffee-table books, particularly those with first-class photography and an evocative text. When the subject matter is wooden boats it gets even more exciting and one is forced to cancel the afternoon’s activities, find a secluded corner and settle in for a good read. Andrew Harper’s Classic Moreton Bay Cruisers is such a book and I had a very pleasurable afternoon recumbent on the sofa reviewing its contents.

Sponsored by Norman R. Wright & Sons, which is celebrating its centenary, the book focuses on the superb timber cruisers which have plied the waters of Queensland’s Moreton Bay and beyond.

Far from the production models of today, which are customised with upholstery and electronics, these boats reflect the diversity of character in the days when people were more confident to display their personality through interesting design. They are true custom-built boats that, despite individual features, all solve the needs of cruising Moreton Bay. Shallow draft, purposeful bows, solid construction, round portholes, all define these styles and as one leafs through the pages, many of these cruisers are easily recognisable and part of the familiarity of cruising our coastline.

Everything in the book harks back to an era when life was slower and every day brought something new. Crystal-clear waters, tranquil anchorages and summers that seemed to last forever are a part of this imagery. The pictures do paint a thousand words and the only things missing are the unique smells of a timber cruiser, the residual glow of a day in the sun and the soft aroma of the sea. As the various boats featured were in Bristol condition, one is mercifully removed from the omnipresent whiff of dry rot, mildew and bilge oil, which can be potent depressants to some.

Clearly the owners of these glorious boats are not fainthearted and the maintenance issues are part of the pleasure of ownership. And quite a pleasure it is, judging by the pictures and text. One multiple-owner quotes that "a boat is only as good as the laughter that comes out of it." He is no fool.

Boats on this level are consuming passions, yet they bring real fulfillment and satisfaction to their owners. I have always thought that my boat was the glue that kept the people together, and part of this is the mood that comes from the pleasing lines, old-fashioned luxury and patina of age and quality that cannot be found in modern boatbuilding.

The name Greg Cavill, both senior and junior, appears frequently in the book and their restoration efforts have revitalised many of these classics. With an eye for detail and a sympathy which must be truly heartfelt, they have breathed life into many tired, old boats. Thankfully, these efforts spur on others and hence the book features page after glossy page of superbly detailed vessels and their individual stories.

Of the designers, the Norman R. Wright name is also a highlight, having designed and built some of the most admired and sought-after cruisers in Australia. A centenary of success.

Millkraft, Fleming, Masters, and Tripcony are some of the featured builders of Brisbane’s waterways. The stars themselves are classic names known to many: Bali Hai II, Dorothy-T, Flying Saucer, Miss Eve, South Pacific II, Kohi, Rapid, Phoebe and Nifty to name a few. All have been superbly restored and photographed and this is a golden opportunity to turn a page and almost feel the mood aboard.

David Millar is a fourth generation photographer who was brought up on the Brisbane River and has been an admirer of these classics since his teenage years.

Author Andrew Harper has a lifelong love of Moreton Bay and the wooden boats that ply these waters. Selecting the 53 cruisers and photographing them on the bay or in their local environment adds to the unique flavour of the book.

Clearly, both men have a real understanding and sympathy for these treasures and they have created a resoundingly successful effort. It is a must-have for boat lovers and is destined to become a cherished collectors’ item.

Classic Moreton Bay Cruisers – A collection of Australian wooden boats, written by Andrew Harper, photography by David Millar, sponsored by Norman R. Wright & Sons, published by A.E.Harper & Associates Pty Ltd. RRP $99 for second edition. See www.classicmoretonbaycruisers.com


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