When the newly-built Julie Burgess slid into the Tamar River from Ned Jack’s Launceston yard in 1936 there would have been those who realised, even then, that she would be the last in the long line of Tasmania’s famous Blue Gum ketches, a tradition of fishing under sail that stretched all the way back to Tasmania’s foundation in the 1830s.
Few would have imagined that she would still be with us 75 years on. She is, but it’s been a close-run thing.
After a long life of relentless toil in the boisterous seas of Bass Strait, cray boats like Julie Burgess were invariably hauled out on some remote beach and left to die in quiet dignity. With their productive life at an end there was little point in keeping them on tenuous life-support with costly on-going maintenance.
It was, however, a fate that her owner, Captain Dick Burgess, couldn’t bring himself to contemplate. Julie Burgess was, after all designed by his father, the legendary Captain Harry Burgess and named for his mother. As a fifth generation Burgess Ship Master, he felt compelled to hang onto his old vessel. He put her on a fore and aft mooring in the Mersey River at Devonport and for 17 years, watched her rise and fall on the tides. Various dreamers came to him with unrealistic offers he found easy to refuse.
He was biding his time in the hope that eventually, something better would turn up. It did.
In 2009 Devonport City Council Alderman Graham Kent, conceived of an imaginative plan that would see Julie Burgess not merely restored but as the centrepiece in an ambitious tourism promotion based on Tasmania’s northern seaports. Ald. Kent and other community leaders pulled together a business plan and took it to the federal government.
They subsequently received a $1.8 million grant – enough to cover the restoration plus the building of a new concrete berth, and the establishment of a waterside interpretation centre within the Devonport Maritime Museum. The Tasmanian government was so impressed with the concept that it kicked in an additional $600,000, some of which will cover the creation of a Maritime Trail linking the ports of Burnie, Penguin, Ulverstone, Wynyard, Stanley, Smithton, Port Sorell and Currie on King Island.
At the heart of the scheme is the idea that Julie Burgess will continue to have a life under sail, not hauling craypots but in taking paying passengers on what should be memorable day trips out into Bass Strait. Anyone contemplating that trip need have no fears about the boat’s structural integrity.
What started out as a restoration has now turned into a comprehensive rebuild thanks to the effects of the dreaded wood-boring worm, Toredo navalis. The worm had made such a meal of her timbers that much of her Blue Gum planking had to be replaced. And what the worms didn’t get, the rust did.
Julie Burgess was fastened in traditional Tasmanian fashion, not with fancy silicon bronze screws but with plain old fashioned iron dumps, half an inch in diameter and up to five inches long. Thousands of them were driven into seven-sixteenth holes, punched home and covered up with putty. Having been immersed in salt water for three quarters of a century, many of the dumps had crumbled into little more than streaks of rust.
“The boat had to be rebuilt,” Graham Kent said. “Initially we had two shipwrights and a marine surveyor who looked at her and all told us, ‘she’s not too bad’.
“But as soon as we started work we quickly realised she was in fact pretty dilapidated. We found 70-odd years of rubbish down in her bilges. Rust and oil had congealed down there along with rotting wood.
“It was a dreadful mess. The water tanks and one of the fuel tanks had completely corroded away. She had been very strongly built in 1936: East coast Blue Gum frames and Blue Gum planks throughout. The bulwarks were Huon Pine and the decks were Oregon. But time had taken a pretty severe toll.
“We had to strip her right out and start again. We seemed to be going backwards for quite a long time but by and large she was still structurally sound and after a while things began to come together again.”
One of the interesting design features was the boat’s enormous wet-well which comprised more than 50 per cent of the volume of the hull. The holes in the hull, originally designed to permit the free circulation of sea water essential to keep the crayfish alive, were plugged up around seven or eight years ago.
According to Graham Kent, that did her more harm than good and may have contributed to the significant hog she developed.
“She should have had at least three inches of spring in her keel,” he said, “but we found she had virtually none. We’ve got some pretty clever shipwrights working for us and they have now managed to turn that around.”
Alderman Kent was keen to point out that the project could not have gone forward as it has done without huge community support.
“We have had an enormous amount of voluntary labour,” he said. “We have had 30 work experience people and five trainees, all beavering away. This is the kind of project everyone wants to be part of.”
No one in Devonport has so far been able to find the original lines for the Julie Burgess and that’s probably because they never existed. When Dick Burgess’s father, Captain Harry Burgess, commissioned her construction in the mid 1930s he had built and owned many of the most famous Tasmanian trading ketches and he knew precisely what he wanted.
He is believed to have used the time-honoured technique of whittling a model from which the builder, Ned Jack, would ultimately lift and loft the lines. She ended up with an length overall of 64ft, a 16ft beam, a 7ft draft and 38 gross tons. Unlike all the other Burgess boats, Julie Burgess had no centreboard. She was in fact more like a racing yacht than a working crayboat.
“Ned Jack thought she would be something of a dud,” Graham Kent said, “and he apparently had some blazing rows with Captain Burgess.
“But the old fella knew precisely what he wanted and insisted that they stick to his design. She turned out to be an absolute pearler, fast under sail, plenty of room and a real beauty. She originally had a little 40-horse kerosene-powered Kelvin in her but that was simply used for manoeuvring in and out of ports. That was long-gone by the time we got hold of her.”
Julie Burgess fished for crays throughout the islands of Bass Strait and spent a good deal of time around The Hummocks on the far north-west coast. She also worked out of Stoney Point, Port Welshpool on the Victorian coast. Despite the huge size of her rig, she only ever carried a crew of three, usually two men and a boy. It was a hard and demanding life.
“She looks romantic to our eyes today,” Graham Kent said, “but believe me, there were very few creature comforts on board. One or two of her old crew have told us about their lives on board and how tough it was. At the same time they’re adamant that they wouldn’t have had it any other way. We are recording all their recollections as part of her interpretation.”
When the restoration is completed, Julie Burgess will look precisely as she was in 1936, a reminder of a life now vanished, but one that remains the stuff of immortal memory. I wonder how many of the tourists who will come aboard for their day-trips would be willing to sign up for a life onboard once they poke their nose out into a Bass Strait blow.