Or How to Improve Your Putting

Words by Dorian Mode. Photography Lydia Thorpe

Dorian Mode LOFTY LivesWhat’s been your big project in lockdown? I love vintage boats. My previous vessel – a sound craft with a slight tendency to sink – was a big clumsy 1960s cruiser, given to me to restore. Once restored, it begrudgingly floated on a swing mooring in Davistown Channel. My wife (who hates boats) and I used to sit on it at dusk, drinking hot white wine (the fridge never worked) gazing at the fleet of gorgeous vintage putt-putts bobbing at the historic jetty at Davistown. “Why can’t we simply have one of those?” she said, gesticulating with her plastic wineglass. “I’d support a cute vintage boat like that,” she said, smothering a burp.

I shrugged. “Getting into that putt-putt co-op is like winning the lottery up here. I’m no chance.”

But I never forgot her tipsy endorsement of a potential putt-putt. After finally selling my cruiser, for three years, I’d secretly trawl Gumtree every night for putt-putts. Sure, I’d find bargains. But they were always in Broome or Darwin. Miles from me in the NSW Central Coast. Until one day, a putter appeared for sale down the road for $1000. Although it had “some rot” in the topside and the engine was only running on one cylinder, when the seller said the vessel includes a marina berth at the putt-putt co-cop at Davistown, I couldn’t give him the cash fast enough. I also offered to donate a kidney. (Hey, my son can live on one.)


After doing some research, I discovered it was an ex-government boat, starting life at Australia’s first international airport. Huh? Yep. Our first international airport was at Rose Bay. My launch was part of a small fleet that used to tender passengers in their tweed suits and matching luggage to enormous Catalinas and Sunderland Flying boats. And it also used to tow these grand planes to their moorings. This is why it has an enormous simplex twin for its engine. Indeed, a chum of mine recently said: “is your engine from an aircraft carrier or a goods train?” When flying boats were in decline in the 70s, it allegedly served as a Balmain Police Launch for the rest of its life. Indeed, if you Youtube ‘flying boats Rose Bay’ you’ll see my boat in the first clip.

A Lot of Old Rot

Perched on my front lawn and goading me, it was time to get to work. Warning: when someone says there’s a “little rot” in a boat what they really mean is there is so much rot in this boat it will crush your will to live. But my old man always said: “if you bite off more than you chew, son. Start f-ing chewing.” And chewing me did.

Having previously restored the aforementioned 60s cruiser, I knew the first place to start was amputation. It’s freshwater that rots boats. Saltwater preserves them. So I began removing the entire cabin and gunwale and stern deck and bow deck – anywhere where I find rot. This took months. The amount of rot made me so depressed at times, I’d visit my jetty berth at sunset to remind myself of the big picture.

I never knew what the saying meant ‘as clever as paint’ until I discovered Norglass.

Now the first tool you need is a ‘renovator tool’ – you know, the ones advertised on late-night telly. They are safe and easy to use. You plunge the vibrating blade into the wood – wide of the rot – cut out a square – remove that square and use it as a template. Trace around the template over the new piece of marine ply, cut it out with a jigsaw and glue it in. Simple. But here’s the rub. You must must must use premium marine products before replacing the timbers. Friends, Wattyl Solagard is not marine paint. Indeed, had my putter been painted with actual marine paint and not cheap house-paint, I wouldn’t be sharing this yarn with ewes. Now you can choose a multinational marine product – where possibly lowly paid people in the third world work in toxic conditions, or you can choose to support your manufacturer here in Australia and support local jobs. For me, that company is Norglass, based in Punchbowl NSW. I used Norglass on the previous boat and was delighted. Moreover, an example of the false economy of using cheap foreign marine paints is my chum Andrew used Norglass to anti-foul his immaculately restored Tassie ex-cray boat at the slipway recently, much to the derision of a skipper of a flanking fishing trawler, who used the cheaper multinational anti-foul. Six months later the trawler painted with the foreign paint was a forest of barnacles. Two years later Andrew’s bottom is pristine (the boat that is).

The old soak

So you treat – or should say really soooak – the new marine ply with Norseal wood treatment. This clever water-clear epoxy penetrates, seals and waterproofs all timbers. It ideally needs to be over-coated with a primer such as Norglass’s Shipshape within four weeks of application. But you really to thoroughly drench the marine ply with it before gluing with Norglass Staybond Epoxy Glue. This glue is an easy to use two-pack product. It’s solventless and non-staining and has exceptional strength. Indeed, don’t goof with it as I discovered to my chagrin as the timber bloody tears away before the glue! Amazing goo. Anyway, it bonds to most prepared surfaces. Moreover, it’s waterproof when cured. I found it killer for gap filling. And it’s much more forgiving than fibreglass.

Upside and Downside of Life in Lockdown

After the rot was removed, things became tricky. Curved timbers. Bespoke window frames. There’s only so much Youtube and boating forums can tell a clueless bloke like me. And God must have a sense of humour. Because the best thing about lockdown is you have all the time in the world to finish the boat, while simultaneously having no money with which to finish it. However, one of the upsides of lockdown was my neighbour, Ray, 81, a retired carpenter, was at a loose end. His local Men’s Shed was closed and he wanted to keep busy. So he was able to help me with the rebuild. Interestingly, you’d think a carpenter is a shipwright on water. But nothing is square on a boat. And Ray’s working life was all about squares and levels. So rebuilding the cabin and decking was a challenge. To curve timbers, we hosed them and placed an anvil on the timber where we wanted the curve. Then dried the timber and applied with the aforementioned Norseal.

Glassy Eyed

Once we’d rebuilt the timbers and cut out new perspex windows for the new frames, it was time to glass. Interestingly, Ray had never fibreglassed before. But I’d learned how to do it from some bloke from Kazakhstan or somewhere on Youtube restoring the old cruiser. The first couple of times you goof the ratios and your mix blows a bushfire of smoke. But Norglass has a very easy to use Fibreglass Epoxy System. This is a 3.1 ratio mix. Psst! a tip is to buy the Norglass applicator pumps, which makes life a lot simpler. Three squirts of resin. One of catalyst. Easy. You’ll need a fibreglass compression roller which you can buy at Bunnings. These are specifically designed for compressing fibreglass matting and removing air bubbles. You then apply a final epoxy coat. Glassing not as hard as it seems. Just ask any drunk on Melbourne Cup.

Harden Up

Once the boat was glassed it was time for the paintbrush. Norglass’s Shipshape is an Aussie-tough primer with a high-build performance coating to obliterate background irregularities and provide filling properties before coating. You can choose a single or 2-pack finish. But don’t do what my chum (who shall remain nameless) did at the co-op. After painting his entire putter with marine paint he returned to the hardware store to buy a dollop more before the salesman turned to him and said “all this marine paint you’re buying. Do you want hardener with that?” That’s right. He had to scrape it aaaall off and start again. Poor bloke. He’s still crying. Anyway, the Norglass primmer is beaut for areas of continuous immersion and osmosis repairs. I even used it as a topcoat in the bilge due to its satin gloss finish. Unusual for a primer. It’s certainly a clever and versatile product.

Grab your coat and grab your hat

For the finishing coat, I simply used white Northane Gloss. This premium two-pack polyurethane is brillo for durability and fade resistance. It has stellar waterproofing and weathering properties and is ideal for most surfaces smashed by the Aussie sunshine.

Decking paint. Having an 81-year-old retired carpenter jumping on and off the boat like Peter Pan, I needed something non-slip for the decking. Norglass’s Weatherfast Deck Paint is a unique slip-resistant coating incorporating plastic granules to provide a uniform paint film for traction when wet. The profile also facilitates easy cleaning. But what I like best about it is it covers a multitude of sins. Its textured finish hides all those imperfections I worried myself about. Shame I didn’t know about it with the last boat.

Foul bottoms

As the hull is a carvel-built dynal sheathed, it only needed a patch up where the matting was coming through. Here I used the aforementioned Norglass Staybond Epoxy Glue which is dually a waterproof filler. We then painted the boat and anti-fouled her. What I like about the Norglass’s Top-Flight anti-foul, is the vessel can be left out of the water for up to 4 weeks without impairing the performance of the product. So no panic about painting on the day of the launch to catch the tide.

Simplex Twin 10/12

Restoring the engine was another challenge. The first thing to replace was the seized water pump. We were lucky enough to meet a wonderful retired shipwright, Mike Ingst. Mike is a vintage marine collector and restorer who knows shit from Clae. Indeed he has eighteen vintage marine engines in his living room! (Needless to say, Mike is single.) Mike was a font of knowledge with the rebuild and had a simplex water pump at hand to replace the seized Jabsco water pump. This pump being for a single Simplex didn’t quite fit the twin, so Mike suggested we make a shim for it and it worked fine.

Look out for that iceberg!

We then discovered that the head had rusted onto the block (groan). So with a reticulating hacksaw, we cut through the bolts to get at the valves. It was only running on one cylinder if you remember. The stern exhaust valve was completely rusted. Indeed, we discovered why. We found a bloody hole the size of a twenty-cent piece in the block – a knife to the heart. Being salt water-cooled, these engines do corrode over time. And welding cast iron is problematic. But I discovered an amazing product online called JB-Weld. It’s a two-part epoxy resin and when mixed forms a compound as tough as steel. Like metal, it can be drilled and machined, sanded and painted. Indeed, I’ve seen a complete engine head built from the stuff on Youtube and it maintained compression. You must clean away all the corrosion before applying – as you would if welding. Then it sets like steel. It’s an inexpensive alternative to welding. Especially when welding isn’t ideal as was our situation. Boy, there’s some clever products out there.

We then had to replace and regrind the valves and regrind the valve seats. For gaskets, we simply made most of them from gasket paper – a clever suggestion from Todd Vigen, who was a great mate to us with the engine. As was Col Wright, a recently retired mechanic and of course, Mr Blaxland, Boyd Meyers was another local marine engine guru. All these people went out of their way to help us bring the old girl back to life. When the engine was put together and started up it ran as smooth as a Japanese sewing machine. What a victory! Oh, that lovely onomatopoeic sound of a putt-putt engine.

Enter the stripper

Then it was time to repaint the old engine. Not having painted an engine before I figured I stick with the Aussie tough Norglass system. Why not? First, I purchased some Norglass Orange-Peel paint stripper. What I like about this product is it’s a citrus style paint stripping gel that doesn’t have that God-awful noxious smell that other strippers have before you pass out on the workshop floor. Again, it’s dead clever as it cleans up with water. How the hell does that even work?? Once stripped we primed with Norlgasss No Rust Primer and finally Norglass engine paint. The colours are limited but I chose a nice British racing green, or Brunswick green, hunter green, forest green or moss green, whatever you call it, the engine’s greener than Bob Brown’s fungus.

Islamic State

It’s funny how names fall in and out of fashion. The boat was originally called Isis. That’s about as fashionable as calling it Islamic State or the Ruby Princess. (I note the Labrador on Downtown Abbey was called Isis till they poisoned it off.) But I had a better name in mind. When I first moved up the Central Coast twenty years ago, I met a wonderful bloke who – with a bad back like yours truly – used to walk up and down the council pool every day before swimming laps. John Loughman was an ex-copper who’d been pensioned off from the force and reinvented himself as a composer of musicals, of all things. His musicals were imaginative creations. They covered all subjects from Spanish courtesans to witchcraft trials in Salem to science fiction time travel. Being a composer and writer myself, he fascinated me. We eventually became firm friends, and both being hypochondriacs, used to trudge up and down Gosford Council Pool comparing notes from the various illnesses we’d googled the previous night. In the end, I think we both agreed we didn’t have diphtheria. And I was on the fence. Anyway, one day John turned to me in the pool and said, “Do I look well to you, mate?”

“Of course.”

“Nah, I think I’m going back to the hospital for more tests.”

John was always having endless tests. So I spent the rest of our aqua-trot chiding him for being a hypochondriac – pot calling kettle. Two weeks later John died. And it broke my heart. Over the years he told me loads of dark experiences about being a policeman but never why he was pensioned off. At his funeral, I discovered why. When he finally made detective, he and a colleague were investigating a burglary in Surry Hills late one night. He was attacked with an iron bar and he and his colleague were left for dead. John was in a coma but survived but never did fully recover – or so his bother said at his funeral. John wasn’t a hypochondriac. He was a very sick man.

One of the striking things about John was his height. At 6’7″ he towered over my diminutive 6’2″. So his nickname was Lofty. Being an ex-police launch, I named the boat in honour of his memory.

The Davistown Putt Putt Co-opp hold a fabulous Regatta & Wooden Boat Festival each year. It’s not only a great event but also an opportunity for the people to celebrate the Central Coast, Australia and the culture that is a part of the boat building history of the Central Coast. Join them for the 2020 Regatta on Sunday 8th November (COVID-19 restrictions dependent).