Memory Lane – Cove RiverAs a child – and later an adolescent, the Lane Cove River was a vast, broad, empty stream of endless possibilities. Nowadays, choc-a-bloc with moored boats and seen through ageing eyes, it has shrunk to an oversize creek of limited potential. Nevertheless it is a memory lane worth re-visiting if only to reflect on the changes.

The author aged 18, beavering away on his launch Wandra on Jack Lucas’s (no relation) slipway at Gladesville. Twenty feet long, her endless problems made her a great teaching tool.Back in the early 1950s, friends and I must have enjoyed bailing because it dominated our days afloat on – and often in – the Lane Cove River aboard one or another of our ever-evolving fleet, which included corrugated iron canoes, bamboo rafts, rubber dinghies, auxiliary aero fuel tanks (purloined from a huge post-war dump upriver from Figtree Bridge) and, eventually, a displacement launch, VJs and open twelve footers (the latter owned by my more competitive friend Ian Hoey and sometimes crewed by yours truly dreaming only of getting back to the dubious comfort of my ancient launch).

Long before owning the launch, our rag-tag gang reached some sort of cohesion when a 75-foot Tasmanian trading ketch named Lesjamel anchored in Tambourine Bay under the command of James Kelly.

The ketch’s name was a conjunction of his family’s Christian names: Lesley, James and Mel. Recognising slave material when he saw it, Captain Kelly invited us all aboard to drool over his lovely old ship. I must have drooled the most because he made me co-skipper, a clever ploy to extract unquestioning loyalty and obedience to whatever foul job needed doing, the first being the dumping of tons of stinking ballast sand out of her bilges.

Over many weekends, we bucketed sand onto the deck until it sat in stinking piles waiting to go over the side. Not wanting to create an island in the middle of Tambourine Bay, we steamed around the harbour one night shovelling like mad with the ridiculously underpowered Parsons petrol-kerosene engine heaving asthmatically.

Wandra lies alongside Figtree ferry wharf where today’s bridge now crosses the Lane Cove River. Whenever her engine failed – which it often did – and a tow could not be hailed her small sail brought her home.And then there was her slipping at the head of Lavender Bay when costs (in dollars) were 13 cents per foot up and down and three cents per foot standing. Jim concocted his own anti-fouling paint from old tyres, a job that required some slow thinking fool – namely the co-skipper to stir a 44-gallon drum full of boiling rubber that spat out clinging heat beads that turned human skin into bubble-wrap. The recipe for this diabolical mixture was a closely guarded secret, the part I never understood being how he made tyres melt in the first place.

Between maintenance days, we crewed her on offshore fishing charters and harbour cruises, the most popular one being the Queen’s visit in 1954. Her decks swarming with guests Lesjamel was hit by a Manly ferry, caving in her port forward bulwark and necessitating an official inquiry, the outcome of which I forget, but being the starboard vessel in an era before ferries had orange-diamond rights, I suspect Jim was okay.

Shot in the early 1950s, this is probably radio personality Bob Dyer’s game fishing boat. Behind her is the tram depot where the Opera House now stands. Fort Denison at right.In the mangroves, next to the family Kelly’s houseboat on the south bank of Tambourine Bay, Jim had a shapely old launch which he sold to me on time-payment, my wage having just jumped from three to eight pounds a week as an apprentice commercial artist.

Optimistically named Wandra, during my three years of ownership I never quite got the knack of keeping her above water in any long-term, predictable sense, her tired old hull in need of refastening and my constant state of poverty denying this luxury. Hitting a submerged navigation beacon that had been bowled over by a molasses barge didn’t help.

The death of a later Nemesis – a 1928 Whippet – led to its four-cylinder engine replacing the very troublesome six-horse CLAE: the Whippet proved no more reliable but was much faster, causing the hull to leak with increased vigour. I ultimately gave Wandra to a well-known yacht broker from whom I never heard again. And after which, for fully one day, I swore never to have another boat.

Still standing today is the home of Mr and Mrs Jack Kinninmont who hired out beautiful clinker-built rowing boats at Figtree. Their boatshed was close to where the new bridge (right) crosses the river.If any sense can be mined from that troublesome launch, it is that I schooled myself in handling endless challenges, from keeping her afloat to rebuilding her after fire burnt her to the gunwales. Furthermore it was during her ownership that my Kelpie dog was taken by a shark teaching me the virtues of diving rather than splashing around on the surface. Now, thousands of dives later, the policy seems to have worked because I am still in one piece.

The gaff-headed Tasmanian trading ketch, Lesjamel was the only vessel moored or anchored in Tambourine Bay in the early 1950s. St Ignatius College (Riverview) rowing shed is off her stern. / The view aft from Lesjamel’s bowsprit: The author was given the title of co-skipper, a clever ploy to extract the most from a boating tragic. / From behind her wheel, a pile of sand can be seen against Lesjamel’s starboard bulwark. This was the beginning of her ballast removal, a task that kept us busy for ages.Of the humerus memories, none are quiet as stark as when steaming under the Harbour Bridge watching the brand new ship Southern Cross (with her unique twin funnels aft), approach her berth: Wandra’s oil-gauge pipe suddenly appeared from behind the panel like an uncoiling snake and squirted hot oil in my face.

Anxious to neither drift around nor risk the engine not restarting (as was its wont), I slowed down to wrestle the errant pipe into a seriously kinked pretzel. Regrettably I lost consciousness of time and place for on regaining the wheel a steel cable strung from the shore to a dolphin had me to diving for the floor as it sheared off the windshield and dodger just before we hit the sea wall.

I suspect my point of impact was not far from where the Sydney ferry Lady Ferguson would hit a few years later when she departed Circular Quay without her master. Reading that news-bite made me feel much better about myself.

Equally memorable were the times spent at the Water Police Depot in Campbells Cove, Circular Quay, sipping tea and talking boats while the CLAE’s magneto dried out (and later the Whippet’s distributor) in the police oven. Being towed by the boys in blue was always an embarrassment, of course, but it was also a pleasant communion between officials and the public, a connection long since gone.

As for Lesjamel: Some 10 years later – by then a serial cruising sailor, I walked into a bicycle shop in Gladstone, Queensland, and there behind the counter was Jim Kelly who told me the sad story of his ship’s demise. A move north and pressure of business saw her neglected in a fore-and-aft pile-berth close to the bank in Auckland Creek until one night a warp carried away allowing her stern to swing onto the steep, muddy bank. There she lodged on a spring high tide and broke her back as the tide receded.

Tambourine Bay today is choc-a-bloc with moorings but St Ignatius College (Riverview) is largely unchanged except for the vastly expanded rowing-club facilities and delightful walking track around the headland.  / Cut into solid rock in the 1800s is this reservoir used to catch nearby spring water. Back in the 1950s it was interesting but irrelevant to our boat-mad gang: now it is a cherished piece of Tambourine Bay history.  

In the interest of Tassie history, I wish I could recall her original name, but I cannot. I only know that I feel honoured to have tasted just a little of what it must have been like to man those beautiful ships even though the price was a launch that should have been the perfect antidote to boating.