Australia, Random Rambles, Streams, Creeks & Rivers
Comments 16

Like a Duck to Water

I sometimes tell people I “grew up on and around boats,” and it’s true — but I always hasten to add that they should not infer from that any competence or affinity with things nautical.

Nope, sadly, though I like the idea of boats, enjoy looking at them, photographing them and (in ideal conditions) travelling on them, I’m a dyed-in-the-nylon landlubber at heart and could no more sail a boat with any competence than I could pilot an aircraft.

This despite a childhood in which at least five increasingly impressive vessels took shape under our house or in the backyard and were launched a few paces away into Moreton Bay, or down the road a few minutes into the local creek.

I don’t know what sparked my father’s interest in boats — he grew up in rural Victoria and northern Queensland — but he always had a talent for constructing things (our house, for example — even our caravan!) and he worked as a boilermaker constructing big steel ferries, trawlers and working boats. At home, as his skills developed, the boats just got bigger and better.

Unfortunately I don’t have many pictures to share — most came from the pre-digital era and I don’t have a scanner at the moment. There’s surprisingly little online. I did find a couple of old ones in my photo library I must have scanned years ago, including this shot of Dad’s first boat, a small wooden yacht which went nameless:

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My father at the helm sometime in the early 70s with my younger brother, sister and me, plus my grandparents. I’m sure we were having a better time than it appears…

With Moreton Bay almost literally at our doorstep (actually in the 1974 floods it advanced rather further than that), we kids grew up exploring the nearby islands on holidays, and further north each Easter, when we’d get time off school for trips to Great Keppel Island on the Barrier Reef with our parents after Dad had finished competing in the annual Brisbane to Gladstone Yacht Race, which he took part in “about 14 times”.

By that time Dad had undergone an ideological shift to the stability and speed of multihulls. Monohulls (single-hulled yachts for fellow landlubbers) are beautiful things but life aboard them is seldom on the level. The sale of the yacht was followed by the first of three trimarans, a wooden boat called Genghis Khan, followed by the revolutionary sleek lines and unbelievable speed of the record-breaking Devils 3 and then the dangerously swift Cliffhanger, both constructed of fibreglass, “foam sandwich” and aluminium tubing.

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An early trip to Moreton Island.

Like my siblings, I can still recall the smell of fibreglass resin, and the TV-disrupting shriek of electric grinders as hulls took form downstairs. Dad was an avid racer. In addition to the Gladstone race each year there was an annual racing season on Moreton Bay when he and his crews (often one or more relatives among them) amassed kilos of not-always-pretty silver trophies (this was the 70s and 80s after all).

But it was the multihull club outings on the Bay, and the tranquil holiday or weekend family cruises that my mother and we kids enjoyed the most. The 308-nautical mile Gladstone race, which kicked off each Good Friday just up the road at Shorncliffe, was another adventure, and not just for Dad and his crew.

After watching the start (the multihulls starting half an hour after the far more numerous and better-known monohulls), we’d hit the road with Mum to drive up the coast, usually spending a night in a motel in a town like Gin Gin, then continue to Gladstone.

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Genghis Khan is launched on a high tide just metres from the house.

In those days the race coincided with a festival in the sleepy (pre-mining boom) town, and each crew would be billeted in the home of a local family. After a few days in town we’d head out to Keppel, where we befriended a family of old-timers living on the quiet (non-resort) side of the isle and had a whole boulder-covered beach to ourselves.

1976 was particularly memorable. We got to Gladstone on Easter Saturday to find the waterfront crowded with excited spectators. To our surprise, Devils 3 was already moored at the jetty, Dad and his crew all smiles; we were used to being there when the boat slipped over the finish line.

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The only picture I could find online of Devils 3 in action. Dad at the helm and my cousin Peter at the bow.

“How did you go?” Mum asked. “Oh, we won,” said Dad with his standard modesty. Devils was a revolutionary partnership between Dad and the nautical architect Lex Nicol, who was among the crew. Their winning time, 27 hours, 47 minutes and three seconds, was the race record until 1981.

(Cliffhanger was, perhaps, even more formidable. Dad recalls reaching a speed under sail of 32 knots. Let me put that in layman’s terms: It’s freakin’ fast.)

I credit these childhood encounters with the water and islands for my love of the outdoors and the environment, not to mention the thrill of journeying and adventure. For Dad, of course, the painstaking realisation of a plan, largely independently, was another reward.

But the hard work with boats never ends after they’re launched. They’re never really finished; there’s constant maintenance and an ongoing battle against the predations of barnacles and marine growth.

Dad’s final multihull, a sleek and comfortable cruising catamaran called the Nudgee Budgie…

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The sun setting beyond Brisbane as the Budgie heads to Moreton Island.

..that was also an excellent racer (including winning three Gladstone races on handicap and one on “line honours”, meaning getting there fastest), provided years of service to my parents, their family and friends, but as he approached his eighties, Dad thought it wise to pass on that work to someone else before it got too much for him.

It’s an understatement to say that Dad likes to keep busy. The Budgie sold much faster than anticipated — it’s moored not far down Cabbage Tree Creek — and not having a boat for the first time in decades left him at a loose end.

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Dad taking me ashore for my first solo walk around Moreton. That’s the Budgie in the distance. I had no idea how long the walk would take, and we arranged to meet here at the Big Sandhill in two mornings’ time. I pushed myself hard despite some minor injuries, and it was my fastest time of the four 60-mile circuits I’ve done: two days and five hours.

It was barely three months before the screech of grinders and the sparks of welders returned to the backyard:

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Dad & my brother Craig as the Duck takes shape.

Time for another ideological shift: from the beauty of sail to the practicality of engine-powered travel. The Deagon Duck (a tongue-in-cheek homage to the ibis, a characteristic water bird in my parents’ suburb) is smaller and easier to maintain than its predecessors, though as Dad’s first foray into the welding of aluminium, was not without its challenges:

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Fortunately my brother, an experienced welder, helped out a lot.

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The cockpit. Dad later did all his own woodwork as well.

Here she is close to completion, seen from the backyard jetty:

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The building of the Duck took a little over a year. Not long before completion, Dad turned 80…

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Craig, Leisa & I at Dad’s 80th.

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With Mum & my nephew Joel.

..and we enjoyed sharing tales from our childhoods — many pleasant, but a few harrowing — on Dad’s creations during the celebration.

A few months ago, the Duck got its feet wet at last with its launch into Cabbage Tree Creek…

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..attended by a large collection of friends and family.

The launch went smoothly and surprisingly quickly. I’ll end with some pictures from the big day. Meanwhile, the fine-tuning continues, but the Duck has been road-tested twice, its maiden voyage, which I shared, a short trip out past Shorncliffe to watch the start of this year’s Gladstone race.

Things move frustratingly slowly here at T.G.T.W., but I hope to share some pictures from that trip here soon!

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Joel helping out from his own vessel.

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Backyard spectators.

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Mum & Dad’s sister Elsie.

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The pontoon the Duck settles on to keep her out of the water & free of marine growth. Air is pumped into the tubes to raise it.

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First trial of the pontoon system.

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My nephew Alex displaying his ink.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

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16 Comments

  1. What a cool post, with the black and white photos from your childhood as well as the black and white and color shots from the present along with the story of your father’s splendid passion for boats and building things. A fine series of family photos, including the one of you and your brother and sister on your father’s 80th birthday.

    • Thanks for the comment, Am. I’ve been out on the Duck twice now, looking forward to a Moreton trip sometime soon.

  2. Well, this brought back some memories for me too…the smell of fish mainly! My father had a wooden inboard-outboard boat for a number of years that he’d use for fishing around Yeppoon and Hervey Bay. Not in the same league as your father’s boats and he certainly never raced! I remember the rigmarole of preparing for a fishing trip and then cleaning down the boat afterwards. It seemed to take much longer than the actual fishing trip. Nice collection of memories here for you. Looks like you had a childhood worth remembering. 🙂

    • Yep, a great childhood. Boats are lots of work, though, and most of the ones around here spend a lot more time anchored at home than out on the water!

  3. Wow great to see some really ambitious boat building! Thanks for sharing your memories and cool old photos. I didn’t realise until recently that people really did make their own boats (silly me). We were lucky enough to move in next door to a professional boat builder in our place ten minutes by car from the Hawkesbury and its estuaries…. so from no boats, to three in five years (not to mention three more in our neighbour’s yard as part of our mutual “fleet”).

    At the moment we are having a neighbourly competition for “cheapest functional boat” – best is $8 from the school garage sale for a kids’ kayak, but my neighbour’s motor boat (the “Putt Putt”) which he found sunk in a creek and restored, and his two person canadian canoe with retro Airondack deck chair seating, retrieved from the heavy rubbish and fixed up for a total of about $20 in bits and pieces are probably the best bargains!! (There are a few piccies of the fleet on my blogposts about our visits to Dunn’s Swamp the other side of the Blue Mountains https://berowrabackyard.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/wollemi-national-park and in the Hawkesbury “backyard” https://berowrabackyard.wordpress.com/2015/05/09/low-tide-at-gunyah-beach/ ).

    • Thanks for the comment, the Adirondack-style canoe sounds great. I’m really tempted to invest in a cheap kayak soonish, get a bit of upper-body exercise and add a new dimension to my local photography. Will definitely limit myself to creeks, though, rather than open water.

  4. Barbara Smith says

    A lovely post and a great tribute to your father. ..you should write a book!

  5. There is something special about boats, especially back then. Going out in Moreton Bay with my father during that era, there wasn’t as many boats. We once walked across Stradbroke Island from Swan Bay without seeing another sole, only horses hoof prints in the sand.

    • Thank you for the nice comment, yes, there are definitely a ton more vessels out there nowadays, and unfortunately some more modern additions like jet skis that compromise the ambience somewhat. That said, we took the new boat out to Mud Island a couple of weeks ago so my nephew could fish, and although there were several other boats anchored offshore, it was very quiet and peaceful (though the breeze was brisk!).

  6. Wow, that new boat looks amazing! I’d say making boats takes some serious skill. I think?! Is constructing stuff genetic? Did you pick up some handyman skills…?

  7. Love this very poignant and personal post, Goat. Beautiful and very sweet reminiscences of your growing up, your hometown and your family. We’ve journeyed with you on different walks and through different relationships…how wonderful to get to take a walk with you so very close to home. I mean it sincerely when I say thank you for the very personal look inside your family and revealing who you are.

    • My pleasure, Darius, it was nice to explore a slightly different theme and write about people other than myself for once!

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