The bi-annual Australian Wooden Boat Festival now ranks as one of the world’s biggest and best maritime celebrations. The 10th Festival, run over four days during the first week of February, saw over 550 boats on display and attracted over 200,000 visitors.
Bruce Stannard reports on an outstanding, unqualified success.
Passions run high at the Wooden Boat Festival. And for a lusty old sea dog like me there are few sights more disarming, more utterly alluring than a beautiful bright-varnished Huon Pine dinghy complete with burnished brass fittings, leather-bound oars and gleaming, freshly painted topsides.
Master boat builder Ned Trewartha had not one but two of these jewel-like skiffs on his stand at the northern end of Victoria Dock. They were the first boats I spied as I walked into the Festival and from the moment I laid eyes on them I was completely smitten.
Seen through the dazzling prism of Hobart’s late summer sunshine the sensuous sweep of their sheerlines, the elegant curves of the buttock lines, the breast hooks, the knees and the thwarts combined to suggest seductive shapes that were impossible to resist.
An involuntary impulse saw me caressing the gunwales. In my moment of rapture I would have happily sold my soul to possess just one of these lovely vessels.
I looked across Victoria Dock to Constitution Dock and beyond, and right around the broad sweep of Hobart’s historic waterfront and found myself in the middle of a vast armada of magnificent vessels. Cheek by jowl with the honest, sometimes brutal shapes of the fishing trawlers, cray boats and squid boats in the heart of the working port, there were glittering yachts and motor vessels, dinghies and handsome Edwardian steam launches of all shapes and sizes.
For those of us who remain steadfastly in love with traditional timber, the 10th Australian Wooden Boat Festival was an opportunity to indulge in a four-day binge of boats, boats and still more boats, all of them bobbing and nodding and decked from stem to stern in a riot of gorgeous coloured flags and pennants.
When the cool easterly sea breeze kicked in, as it did each afternoon, the entire fleet – 350 boats in the water and 200 ashore – came alive beneath their fluttering bunting. I imagine that Wooden Boat Heaven must look a lot like Hobart in festival mode.
The festival’s 200,000 visitors came from all over the world. I found myself in animated conversations with complete strangers: well-heeled Americans, back-packing Germans, Swedes and Dutchmen, all avid wooden boat enthusiasts. I met people who had travelled from throughout Australia and from all parts of Tasmania and without exception they were unstinting in their praise for the festival’s organisers and the army of fluorescent vested volunteers whose tireless efforts made this a unique and memorable event.
There is nothing even remotely comparable to this festival anywhere else in Australia, or North America for that matter. The wooden boat festival at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut is but a third the size of the Hobart festival. Its only rival in the northern hemisphere is the week-long Festival of the Sea at Brest on the Brittany coast of France.
I spent much of my time in Hobart listening to the stories of the men and women who regard their boats as extensions of themselves.
There were two Russian brothers, the twins Sergey and Alexander Sinelnik who had for the past two and a half years sailed their replica twelfth century Slavic trading ship Russich 13,500 miles from the River Volga to the River Derwent.
Sergey told me that he and his brother had been dreaming of their arrival in Hobart since they were children. Their mission was to deliver a capsule containing soil from the St. Petersburg grave of the great 19th century Russian scientist and adventurer Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay to his descendants living in Australia.
I went below and, in the tiny space in which the six-man crew somehow slept and took their meals, I found Russian icons and a bronze crucifix tacked up to the forward bulkhead. It occurred to me then that they needed all the help they could get to stay afloat let alone sail the craft that looked for all the world like a Viking longship.
On the same dock and just astern of the 15 metre Russich was the black-hulled Notorious, a convincing replica of a high pooped 15th century Portuguese caravel. Graeme Wiley from Victoria’s Port Fairy had built her entirely by himself from salvaged wind-fallen timbers.
Coated in pungent pine tar, the lateen-rigged Notorious looked as if she had sailed right out of Pirates of the Caribbean. Had there been a prize for the festival’s most unusual vessel then Notorious certainly would have been in the running for it.
Someone asked me to nominate the most beautiful boat in the festival – a question that was of course impossible to answer. But there was one boat in particular that not only caught my eye but held it.
She was the lovely 59ft Tasmanian fishing smack Storm Bay, built in Hobart by Percy Coverdale in 1935 and now beautifully restored to full working order by Sorrento boatbuilder Tim Phillips. I have known and admired Storm Bay for many years but at the festival my respect for Tim Phillips as a seaman and skipper was multiplied several times over as I watched him steer the boat into Victoria Dock and place her into what looked like an impossibly tight berth against the northern dock wall.
Sunburned and salt-caked, the bewiskered Captain Phillips remained incredibly calm, even nonchalant as he somehow coaxed the boat crabwise into her allotted berth with less than half a metre of room to spare at either end. It was a masterful display. I took his bowline, made it fast and shouted down from the dock:
“G’day Tim.” He looked up and winked. “G’day,” he said. That was for me one of the festival highlights.