More than meets the eye - Sydney Heritage Fleet: Historic Replicas by Gregory Blaxell

Many of you will know that the Sydney Heritage Fleet has restored and now operates several ships including James Craig, Lady Hopetoun, Waratah and other smaller vessels such as Boomerang, Protex and Harman. Many of these are available for charter. As avid Afloat readers, you will also be aware of the ongoing restoration of SS John Oxley.
Tom Thumb II sailing in 1996. This boat was a replica of that sailed by George Bass and Matthew Flinders on their voyage of exploration of the coast south of Sydney in 1796.But many won’t know about the heritage boat collection; a collection of boats, skiffs and launches from Port Jackson and surrounds. Some of these boats have their origins in the very beginnings of European settlement at Port Jackson.
There are several categories of boats kept by the Sydney Heritage Fleet. A few are on display at Wharf 7 Pyrmont. In fact, come November, a re-designed foyer at Wharf 7 will utilize and creatively display boats from the wider collection. This project will mark the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Australian Maritime Museum.
Lt William Bligh and his loyal crew sailed and rowed HMS Bounty’s launch from Tonga to Timor in six weeks in 1789.The small boat collection is organised into four distinct categories; historic replicas (e.g. Child of Bounty), sailing skiffs (e.g. Yendys), other sailing craft (e.g. Boomerang) and motor boats and others small boats (e.g. Kookaburra II and Berrima). There are far too many to be on permanent display so a repository at Ingleburn houses those not presently being featured. Some of the larger boats are moored at Rozelle Bay.
This article features three boats from the historic replica category. They are Child of Bounty, Tom Thumb II and My Jolly Boat. None of these boats will be part of the foyer display.

Child of Bounty

The words Bounty, Captain Bligh and mutiny are nearly synonymous. But William Bligh (1784-1817) was much more than a ‘tyrannous’ commander collecting breadfruit in the Pacific. He joined the Navy in 1770, starting as an able seaman and then progressing to midshipman in 1771.
Child of Bounty sailing in Rozelle Bay 1997.In 1776, he was appointed master of Resolution and set off with Captain James Cook on that master mariner’s third and final exploratory voyage. Bligh showed enormous talent in constructing charts and drawing plans of bays and harbours.
Bligh became master of Belle Poule during hostilities against the French (1780-1783) where he took part in two general actions and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
In 1787, he was appointed commander of HMS Bounty with the mission to procure breadfruit for the West Indies. He sailed on 28 November 1787 and reached Tahiti eleven months later. On 28 April 1789, after leaving Tahiti, the crew mutinied and cast off their commander and 18 ‘loyalists’ in an open boat only 23 feet long. Bligh navigated his boat, laden to the gunnels, 3,618 miles from Tonga to Timor – one of the most remarkable open boat voyages in recorded naval history.
Traditional naming of My Jolly Boat by John Dowd, MP for Lane Cove.Eventually, Bligh returned to Britain arriving there on 13 March 1790. He published a book on his Bounty experience (1792), received a gold medal from the Royal Society in 1793 and was appointed to several naval postings. Of the mutineers who were returned to England from Tahiti, only four were hanged for their part in the Bounty mutiny. Those who took Bounty to Pitcairn Island never faced British naval justice.
Eventually, after a tumultuous time as the fourth governor of New South Wales, William Bligh returned to England and received promotion to rear admiral of the Blue and eventually, in June 1814, to vice admiral. On his retirement he lived with his wife at Farningham in Kent. He died on 7 December 1817 and is buried at St Mary’s, Lambeth.
In 1983, an expedition to re-create the epic open boat voyage, was organised by a direct descendent of William Bligh, Captain Ronald William Bligh-Ware. Using Bligh’s notes, the 1983 expedition was set adrift from the same compass position, at the same time (8.00am on 28 April) with Capt. Ron Ware and six crew members and two documentary camera men. A Tongan joined the crew at Nuku’alofa.
The boat built for the re-enactment was given the name Child of Bounty.
Child of Bounty photographed at Cockatoo Island with apprentices c.1990s after the launch had been given to the Sydney Heritage Fleet in 1984.It was propelled by a main and mizzen sails and a full bank of ten oars and a sweep oar. Navigational aids paralleled those of the original voyage: a sextant, maths tables, a boat compass and a watch. No charts were carried but a two-way radio was installed as a safety measure.
The boat was built to plans obtained from the Maritime Museum of Greenwich with the assistance of HRH Prince Phillip who followed the whole voyage with great interest. The longboat (often referred to as a launch) was built in 1982 by T.C. Watson of Whangarei, New Zealand. Its dimensions were length 23ft 2in, beam 7 ft, depth 2ft 10½in.
With frequent stops, some dreadful weather, constant drenching, limited food and water but with tremendous courage, Child of Bounty finally slid up the sandy beach at Kupang in Timor on 22 June and the crew were greeted by hundreds of people as they staggered, stiff-legged up the beach.
William Bligh had landed on the same beach on 14 June 1789, some 194 years before.
But then, he and sixteen others had survived the impossible boat voyage, although some later died. Capt. Bligh-Ware and a much reduced crew then piloted the Child of Bounty to Java and arranged to have it returned to Sydney where, in 1984, he donated it to the Sydney Maritime Museum (now the Sydney Heritage Fleet).

Tom Thumb II during building by Ken Garvans in his boatshed at Kurnell.Tom Thumb II

Think of Tom Thumb and the names George Bass (1771-1803) and Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) come immediately to mind. Bass was a naval surgeon. He met Flinders when they sailed together on HMS Reliance on the voyage that brought Governor Hunter to New South Wales arriving on 7 September, 1795. Bass had a personal servant with him, a boy named William Martin. Bennelong was also on board.
Only seven weeks after arriving in the colony, Bass, Flinders and Martin fitted a mast to a small rowing boat (about 8 feet long) that Bass had brought with him. In this tiny craft they explored Botany Bay and the Georges River. Their report convinced the Governor to examine the country through which they sailed and then to establish a settlement at Banks Town.
Re-enactment of the arrival of Tom Thumb II at Salmon Haul Bay, Port Hacking.In March 1796, the trio set off on a second adventure in a locally built Tom Thumb II to explore the coastline south of Botany Bay. This boat was about 14 feet long and in it, they sailed and rowed as far south as Lake Illawarra calling in for shelter at Wattamolla and Port Hacking.
Near Lake Illawarra, after experiencing very rough conditions and having to bail constantly, they named one of the islands Martin Island (now charted as Martin Islet) after their bailer, William Martin. That island is part of the group now known as the Five Islands National Reserve.
Launching ceremony at Cockatoo Island with apprentices who built the boat.In 1985, two clubs from the Hacking River, the Royal Motor Yacht Club Port Hacking and the Port Hacking Ocean Yacht Club decided to participate with Sutherland Shire Council to build a replica of Tom Thumb II and participate in the re-enactment of the historic voyage by Bass, Flinders and Martin from Sydney Harbour to Lake Illawarra and return. This would be as part of the bi-centennial celebrations of 1988.
The boat would be built locally to specifications of the original and would be crewed by local experienced sailors. The project involved considerable research into boat building methods of the 1790s and this was done with the co-operation of Garden Island, the RAN, the RN and the British National Maritime Museum.
Tom Thumb II was built by Ken Garvans at his Kurnell yard. About 400 hours were spent on the project which used native Australian timbers. The boat is described as a 14 foot, deep keeled yawl with a mast and lugsail and a pair of oars mounted on thole pins. It was steered with a sweep oar. The hull was rough finished and coated with Scandinavian oil.
The re-enactment started Thursday 24 March 1988 at Farm Cove. Its course took it to Bellambi, Wollongong, Port Kembla and Lake Illawarra. On the homeward leg, Tom Thumb II visited Wattamolla and Park Hacking where it remained for two days on 30-31 March. The voyage ended at Port Jackson on the evening of 1 April.

Front cover of Lane Cove Council’s Bicentenary Souvenir Program with the jolly boat returning to Cockatoo Island after a practice run.My Jolly Boat

My Jolly Boat was the major property in the bi-centennial project of Lane Cove Council’s re-enactment of the landing, on 14 February 1790, by Marine Lt Ralph Clarke and 14 marines at Woodford Bay in the Lane Cove River. Building the boat was undertaken by apprentices from Cockatoo Island from plans researched at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
This jollyboat (a typical First Fleet yawl) is referred to in Clarke’s writings as My Jolly Boat (or My Jollyboat). This type of small boat (15 feet 4 inches in length) has provision for six oars, rudder, sweep oar and a mast for sail. It was launched by John Dowd, MP for Lane Cove on 21 October 1987.
Boats of this class were often used by the watermen to transport passengers around the harbour and up the river to Parramatta.
The re-enactment of the landing of Lt Clarke at Woodford Bay in the Lane Cove River.There is a fascinating story in nearly all the small boats held by the Sydney Heritage Fleet. In discussions with the General Manager, Jon Simpson, he indicated that if suitable security could be arranged for any boat in the small boat collection, then that boat could become the focal, display piece for a boating or historical organisation.
It’s worth considering. Give Jon a call. He can be reached on 02 9298 3888 or by email at He’s always prepared to talk about boats including loans from the Sydney Heritage Fleet collection.

* Gregory Blaxell is an historian and author. His latest book is A Pictorial History City of Canada Bay.