Wooden Boat Heaven by Bruce Stannard

The extraordinary success of the Australian Wooden Boat Festival underscores Hobart’s enviable reputation as the wooden boat capital of Australia. Bruce Stannard reports on four days of celebration in which hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts came from all over the country and from around the world to enjoy and to cherish the timeless wooden boat tradition.

On the afterdeck of the tops’l schooner Enterprize, moored by Hobart’s historic Constitution Dock, a motley crew of 15 musicians had come together for a joyous jam session: violins, guitars, accordions, tambourines, flutes and drums, all playing their hearts out in a lusty tribute to the great age of sail.
Their sea tunes and ballads, hornpipes and chanties came thick and fast – a non-stop whirl of music that swept us up in a flood tide of emotion. I felt like an ecstatic Dervish compelled to dance with the sheer delight of it. I was not alone.
An appreciative foot-tapping audience caught the infectious mood and there were uninhibited whoops and whistles and shouts for joy that took us all back to a time when rowdy Hobart Town was one of the great seaports of the world.
In that incomparable setting in which we were surrounded by a sandstone arc of heritage-listed Georgian buildings, Hobart’s delightful waterfront was once again alive with the rhythms of the sea.
A vast armada of some 600 wooden boats was ranged around us, rafted gunwale-to-gunwale in the water and displayed ashore under a fluttering cloud of multicoloured bunting. No wonder this is now ranked among the greatest maritime festivals in the world.
The Admiral, an eight-oared pulling boat designed and built in Hobart in 1865.In the course of four days of glorious cool but sunny weather, Hobart’s docks saw well over 250,000 people drawn in to admire the boats and a myriad of exhibitions – everything from tiny working models to magnificent square-riggers. There was something for everyone. I wish I had a dollar for every person I saw caressing the gleaming brightwork on a beautiful dinghy or tap-tap-tapping the hull of a wooden boat to gauge her soundness.
All the senses were engaged. In a world full of disposable plastic, where everything, including boats, seems to be mass-produced in dull, cookie-cutter uniformity, it was reassuring to contemplate the timeless integrity of wooden boats that are the products of craftsmen’s hands.
Wooden boat building in Australia is supposed to be dying and yet I saw no evidence of that in Hobart. There I was deeply impressed by the particular pride people take not only in creating boats of outstanding beauty but also in maintaining them to a very high standard. There were some shockers, to be sure, but by and large, the boats were very well cared for.
I was deeply impressed by the particular pride people take not only in creating boats of outstanding beauty but also in maintaining them to a very high standard.Tasmania is blessed with some of the best wooden boatbuilding timbers in the world and the longevity of so many lovely old wooden boats is due in no small measure to the durability of superb timbers like Huon Pine, King Billy and Celery Top Pine and of course, the hard-as-iron eucalypts like Tassie Blue Gum used in keels and stringers.
Although Huon Pine is a strictly protected species these days, quantities have been wisely reserved for the exclusive use of Tasmanian craftspeople, including the state’s boatbuilders.
Enterprize heads up the Derwent in the Parade of Sail.I made a bee-line for the exhibits in which boatbuilders were demonstrating their skills. Ned Trewartha, one of the finest craftsmen boatbuilders in the country, was steam-bending fine Ash frames and carefully fitting them into a lovely little dinghy. It was a joy to watch him work so swiftly and yet so meticulously.
I spent hours in the Wooden Boat Centre’s shipwrights’ village, watching mast-makers patiently shaping Oregon spars by hand and eye. I had the very great privilege of being invited aboard several really outstanding vessels and I will write about them in future articles.
In the Wooden Boat Centre’s shipwrights’ village mast-makers patiently shaped Oregon spars by hand and eye.The late 19th century steam yacht Preana is one of them. Preana’s 16 metre Huon Pine hull has been so magnificently restored that it’s hard to believe she was little more than a pathetic, sunken wreck just a few years ago.
The beautifully maintained pioneering South Australian tuna clipper Tacoma is another iconic vessel that deserves special mention. The 25.6 metre Tacoma has been owned and operated by the Haldanes of Port Lincoln for more than 60 years and although she remains a much-loved member of the famous fishing family, she enjoys the distinction of being very much in original condition.
When I was invited up into her lofty wheelhouse, my own childhood came flooding back through the unmistakeable smell of old vanish, oilskins and the powerful masculine odour of men at work. The same heady smells were also very much in evidence when I went below to the mess deck where an ancient fuel-burning AGA stove kept a kettle perpetually on the boil.
The 59ft Camper and Nicholson gaff-rigged ketch Hurrica IV.It was a very different experience being in the lap of luxury aboard the 59ft Camper and Nicholson gaff-rigged ketch Hurrica IV. I have seen some amazing restorations over the years, but as one might expect in a vessel whose rebuild has cost more than $4 million, this was something quite extraordinary. She is a tribute to her owner, Stephen Gunns, his vision and his perseverance. She is, without doubt, among the finest vessels of her type anywhere in the world.
Just when I was feeling more than a little dazzled by all that brightwork and gleaming brass and bronze, I wandered back to Victoria Dock and caught a glimpse of the towering topmast aboard my old friend Tim Phillips’ 54ft cutter Storm Bay.
There were no doubt many in the crowds who would have walked by unaware of her historic significance and who would have been even more unaware of all the effort that has gone into her restoration and preservation. Storm Bay might at first glance look like a graceful racing yacht but she is in fact a fishing smack, pure and simple and all the better for it.
Robert Alyff introduces boat designer Iain Oughtred at the Q & A. / Wally Mounster’s 13ft Diablito powered by a steam outboard.
Tim, who always looks to me like an ancient mariner, bewiskered and dishevelled and invariably barefoot in shorts and a tatty old sweater, keeps his boat the way she was meant to be kept: in good working order. Cane-bound craypots are piled on the foredeck; live crayfish swim in her wet well; lines and assorted gear are stowed here and there while trawling rods protrude from her quarters.
In the twilight, as I stood on the dock looking down on her weather-beaten decks, I overheard two old timers talking in confidential tones. One nudged the other and said: “Best in Show.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Steam launches Lady Lyn and Huon. / Quick and dirty boat building competition. / The Shed from Paynesville had a rough time crossing Bass Strait.