FEATURE - Boating Through The Decades (Part 1)

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Our classic-boat buff TONY MACKAY looks back through the ages of pleasure boating. In this first installment, he wraps up the early years before focusing on the best boats from the swinging 1960s…

FEATURE - Boating Through The Decades (Part 1)
FEATURE — Boating Through The Decades (Part 1)

How marvelous to flip through the high-quality, glossy pages of Trade-a-Boat and discover the wide world of the latest modern boats, equipment and lifestyle opportunities appearing on every page. Edifying articles, particularly those informative tomes written by this modest writer, will lead you into all sorts of new opportunities for fun on the water at a price.

But we are still at the front of this magazine, where everything is new and gloriously shiny. A few pages on, the stock becomes a little older and those with a dash of Scots in their blood will feel the cogs in the brain start whirring at some of the splendid renovation prospects, some with tremendous savings on a new boat.

I, for one, am not embarrassed by owning something secondhand, (don’t call me Rose), however, I do like a quality product above all others and I also enjoy tremendously a little restoration therapy. Just for fun.

The word is value, not cheap. They are worlds apart. As a result, I thought it may be interesting to lead you through the years, in a series of thrilling installments, and perhaps spark a few memories on a selection of boats, which have not only endured but have given superb service to their previous owners.

If you just want to zip out fishing and save a fortune, may I recommend the venerable bark canoe and a sharp spear? It did the trick for thousands of years but is perhaps a trifle unsophisticated for our consideration. I mean, where is the loo?

Popular recreational boating on a broad scale evolved in the 20th century, from the 1920s onward, but it was rather a rich man’s sport, particularly if you fancied something with an engine. A day on the water usually involved either fishing or a sail in something rustic, unless you were well-connected and could spring an invitation aboard the Lady Hopetoun steam launch or the gorgeous Boomerang.

Couta boats, fishing trawlers, racing yachts and the like were all custom-made, usually by smaller boatbuilding companies which only built a few every year. Later, the famous companies such as Lars Halvorsen Sons, Norman R. Wright, Millkraft, Griffin, and Williams, were builders of expensive custom yachts and cruisers for the well-heeled. It is here that we shall start.

A glide around Sydney Harbour in the 1950s and beyond would see such a wide selection of individual boats that each one could be spotted a mile off.

There were very few ‘production boats’ and possibly the first of those were the 25ft Halvorsen cruisers built for their hire fleet at Bobbin Head in 1946. The Halvorsen name is quite legendary in Australia and this hire fleet opened the doors for thousands to get aboard a cruiser for their very own self-drive holiday. It was certainly no impediment that the Cowan Creek, the Hawkesbury River system and the beautiful Pittwater were the cruising grounds, and it could be argued that this is one of the finest areas in the world to take a boating holiday.

The Halvorsen range of ‘standard’ cruisers expanded to 26, 30 and 36 feet as typified by the river-cruiser style. Custom-built cruisers were individually designed from the 1920s to ’70s and ranged from 20 to 90 feet. A range of vee-bottom 25-, 32- and 40-foot models were produced in a semi-standard range that offered higher performance from either big V8 petrol engines or later diesel offerings. The NSW Water Police used them in heavy weather with considerable success, so one need not worry about the capabilities. However, just like your favourite grandmother, even if she won an Olympic medal for the high jump, many cannot do cartwheels anymore or perform the splits. The older boats should be honoured with similar respect.

H & J Griffin built beautiful custom yachts and cruisers of various sizes, many of which are lovingly restored and beautifully maintained. Their ultimate offering, the 64ft Sundowner displays all the style and grace that they were highly regarded for. A.G. Williams of Drummoyne also built many large cruisers, however, only a few pristine models remain. Many other smaller yards built high-quality boats, and many trawlers, long since retired from active fishing duties, have found new life as rustic, yet comfortable coastal cruisers.

The superb book Classic Moreton Bay Cruisers is filled with marvelous classic cruisers of varying styles, all in the peak of condition. If ever you wish to see a collection of well-loved and glorious boats, look no farther. They embody a range of styles popular in Queensland from the 1920s on. Norman Wright, Millkraft, Fleming, Masters are names beloved by these owners, and with the mere flutter of a cheque book and perhaps a little application of elbow grease, one could be yours.

Old timber boats are high-maintenance yet offer a few very nice components, plus they smell wonderful; all that turps and varnish, timber, oil and whiff of rot to enrich the senses.

Many repairs can be carried out by reasonably skilled amateurs; varnishing, painting and smaller timber repairs are productively undertaken with great savings. Your surveyor or local shipwright will assist with a well-conceived plan to speed the process and do it properly.

I always start at the ‘heart’ of the boat, hull and engineering, so that it will float and perform safely. Engines, fuel tanks, hull framing and any structural issues must be addressed before the budget is consumed by scatter cushions and fishfinders. Once these issues are sorted, you will need to stop freshwater leaks, which are the cause of dry rot. Then you can move on to the fun stuff that makes your new ‘girl’ all pretty and shiny.

It is most important that you do not take on too large a project, unless you have the time, knowledge and funds to complete it. Half-finished boat projects are like nightmares, except you are still awake. If you cannot complete the project due to lack of the above, it is time to move on and find a new custodian (victim) who will take it on. Pity to ruin a lovely boat because you can’t get your act together. Plus the timber-boat mob will point at you and say nasty things and beat you with a stick. And you don’t want that now, do you?

Critics of clichés should come to terms with the simple unvarnished truth encapsulated in many of them. Take granny along for the inspection (after her pole vaulting lessons are over) and she will rattle them off in a fulsome stream of negative opinion. My favourites are "buy in haste and repent at leisure" and the ever popular "a fool and his money are soon parted".

So, given this sage advise, you need to talk to a whole raft of people (I am good with puns, too!) starting with other knowledgeable owners of similar craft and your new best friend, the highly qualified marine surveyor. You simply must have an old boat surveyed. Full stop. You will not get insurance without one. So talk to other owners, read a previous report and ask a thousand questions about their expertise before engaging a professional. If they make mistakes, you may soon own the problems.

Owners of other boats will also, if they are honest, relate what your cost and time exposure is. Be warned here, too. The generic species ‘idiot’ is still flourishing on our planet and I always love those boat and car ads "$125,000 in invoices. Reluctant sale… $29,950 ono". Someone has done their dough, probably divorced and looking for a Prozac prescription. Move slowly and try and let your head rule your heart, but only a little. We do love people who are passionate about something, and what better something than a well-tended yacht or cruiser.

With the discovery of the first fibreglass tree (just checking your IQ here), boatbuilders were able to build craft out of a more resilient, sturdy and maintenance-free material than timber. I say maintenance-free because that is the first lie in the brochure. Just like "stainless steel", which is stain less and not proof, fibreglass or more correctly Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) still requires maintenance.

A boat built in the ’50s and ’60s of this material may be just like our aforementioned, cartwheeling granny; exhausted, but generally it is a long-lasting and resilient material. GRP with dead gelcoat can be painted with great results but some of the older boats are simply too far gone in other component areas to warrant the work. Move on to something better, even if it costs a lot more. You need a high-quality calculator at this point to work out a viable gameplan.

A crucial restoration point raises its head right now. New components literally scream at original worn-out stuff and one ends up replacing the lot, which can be outrageously expensive. Better that these old cruisers and yachts are taken away to hand in their tusks, although where that actually happens is something of a mystery to me.

Our magazine has featured the revitalised Ralfy betwixt these pages; a massive refurbishment involving every component. Ralfy now looks new, as long as that is what you wanted in the first place. Our editor described it as a Pittwater Valiant, but I prefer a Jaguar. Just be sure you know what you want before you open your mouth and wallet. Divorce, or murder, and possibly both, may loom on your horizon before long.

The late 1960s saw some well-built GRP cruisers and yachts, many of which are still in active service and well loved. Hood 23s, Cresta 32s either in sedan or sports models, Huntsman, Endeavour 24s, Swiftcraft, Pongrass, and the venerable Savage 26 Lancer and Savage 33s. Nothing wrong with any of those if they have been well tended, but some have had more hits than Shirley Bassey so take care!

The Halvorsen, Morson & Gowland (HMG) 43 sportsfisherman was a hugely desired boat of this era and so to was the HMG 31 motorsailer of considerable comfort and capability. HMG also built custom cruisers and race-winning yachts, even an America’s Cup contender. Most are still going strong. You would not go wrong with a Salar 40 motorsailer either. Classic styling and built Tonka tough.

There were some imports in those days; the Bertram range gaining prominence. Australian TV’s Bob and Dolly Dyer set gamefishing records in their magnificent US-built Hatteras 53ft Blue Rhapsody, and then a Bertram 31 dubbed Tennessee, but we are into the Seventies, so I will get to both of
them in the next installment.

Grand Banks 32s and 36ft Classic cruisers were built in timber in Hong Kong, and later in GRP in its factory in Singapore. A great reputation and classic good looks that have not dated. Usually with one or two Ford Lehmans, which will outlast most owners, and some with Onan generators.

Imports varied depending on the exchange rates, however, the Taiwanese and Chinese influence did not appear till later. There were a few Riva Aquarama speedboats about, and one had a pair of Ferrari petrol engines. (Now there is a parts bill for you!). Owens-built clinker cruisers were a popular cruise fleet on the Hawkesbury, but most have gone to that great dry-rot factory in Davy Jones’ Locker.

Resale with anything is dependant on the reputation of the original builder. Some older boats suffered from poor conceptual design and construction problems, and as a result, you will have lots of trouble selling them later, even if they are spotless. Junk will always be junk, yet a good-name brand will see you through, so do shop with care. Don’t forget the survey!

Good looks are always appealing and sometimes quite intoxicating. Harold Halvorsen once told me that "if they don’t look right, they usually don’t run well and no amount of paint and covers will fix the problem". He would know, having designed some of the best boats ever built in this country. After the launch, he preferred to stand on the wharf while the boat would make several passes, just to see how she sat in the water. Engineers can always fix a little problem, but if they plough through the water and wallow about, then it is all over before it has even begun. His boats were marvels of the designers art, hence their coveted status half-a-century later.

As I am not fond of court cases, concrete boots or dead horses in bed with me (hard enough to entice a live one in), I am loathe to tell you some of the horror stories or crap brands, suffice to say the Hammer House of Horrors has nothing on my accumulated knowledge of tragedies. My email address is not rotboy for nothing! I have replaced many teak decks, installed engines (with a cheque book and prodding finger), stripped antifoul, varnish and paint, ripped out all manner of fixtures and fittings and have had so many parts re-chromed they have a photo of me in the office; ‘Il Patron’ (although the concentric rings and red dot in the middle are a worry).

But I have had a huge amount of fun and created some magnificent work, which brought me great pleasure. The secret was simple. I was astute enough to buy the right boats, (and never one that was built with particle board!). You can be astute, too, so start having a flip through the magazine and get out there and have a go. It costs nothing to have a look.

Next month we wade through the 1970s.


1 to 4)> Sixties happy snaps, Halvorsen holidays on the Hawkesbury River system aboard Fantasia.

5). A Halvorsen brochure from back in the day, promoting hire-boat holidays on the Hawkesbury, moorings, and new and second-hand boats.

6). The 70-foot timber Millkraft Odyssey was designed and commissioned by Australian entrepreneur Keith Williams.

7). If you ever wish to see a collection of glorious classic cruisers, look no farther than the pages of the superb book Classic Morton Bay Cruisers.

8). Georgina is a canoe-stern 30-odd-footer built by Tripconney Brothers in the 1950s, and a former champion marlin boat.

9). Back to former glory, the 1939 Halvorsen Silver Cloud — not II — was re-launched at a special ceremony alongside the Australian National Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour, in March 2010.

10). Stardust II is a 42ft Griffin, regarded as the best-running model of the marque.

11). From the swining '60s, the Halvorsen-built Express Cruiser 36 Evensong.

12). More than 60 years-old, the beautifully maintained (c1947) Halvorsen 25 Shiraz retains classic appeal and even sports moden gear such as a roof solar panel.


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