Reasons for building a boat – Part Three – sometimes it’s not about the boat.


There are no Parts 1 and 2.  I’m kindof quoting the late Ian Dury.

I had been a fan of Dury, but missed this one until Radio Triple J played it as Dury was in hospital dying at the time but still making music (thus the added poignancy to the chant “why don’t you get back into bed” … NAH … its the things that keep you cheerful that also keep you alive)

He does mention boats in the first line.  I’ll get back to reasons for building a boat in just a second.

One of the places I worked on and off while I owned up to myself that “I really wanted to design boats and that it was really legitimate despite the reaction of everyone I mention it to” was the slipway of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia in Rushcutter’s Bay in Sydney.

Fullscreen capture 26042013 35036 PM.bmp

It was a very interesting place to work because of the strange class strata.  We were at the bottom of course – working on the slipway, but that was kindof the most fun place to be anyhow.

Most of the members were pretty fine, some incredibly arrogant ones who thought they were “someone” and others who had the biggest and most expensive boats but would drop around to our lunchroom after we brought their boat back to the marina pen unharmed with a quiet thankyou and a very welcome slab of beer (Gentlemen like Norman Rydge)

I still drank occasionally in those days.

We had a number of marina and/or slipway bosses who were trapped by the rotating door policy of a club which changed management quickly and thought that the last guys had done a bad job and why couldn’t they make the slipways pay while simultaneously employing unskilled staff – like me.   In the end nobody could make it pay in line with the value of the land so it was redeveloped into more useful space for the members.

It was a tired old slipway anyhow and very labour intensive compared to a travelift.  We needed a minimum of five to slip a boat – one on each slipway arm and a winchman/person.  But it had the character of the waterfront.


Some of the highlights of my times there were

  • Seeing all the newly launched contenders for the Admirals Cup
  • Slipping famous boats like Helsal II, the 12 metre Gretel, Love and War, the Ragamuffins, Apollo II, Ben Lexcen’s Maxi Apollo (the alloy one).
  • Designs by S&S, Frers, Davidson, Farr, Whiting, Dubois, Peterson, Holland and other greats in their heydays
  • Towing boats from one end of the harbour to the other – an all day process involving a swim part way through
  • Being marshalling boats during Sydney to Hobart starts – the best view possible.
  • Harbour characters like Kenny the Cockroach who used to sunbathe nude on the back of his moored boat … sometimes shocking the passengers in the yacht club tender.  He often moored steel 200 litre drums around his rakish 1920s yacht because he could pick $5 up a piece.

Anyway … back to my narrative.  It was invoked by the idea that “not finishing” a boat is a type of “failure”.

I don’t agree because of Bob Kitchen.  He was one of the bosses on the slipway at the CYCA for some time before their door rotated yet again.

He had trained as a fitter, had been a hot bicycle rider at the time of Hugo Oppenheimer (road racing fixies), a sergeant (Engineers) in the occupation forces in Japan post war.  A racing car mechanic for the Ron Hodgson team.

He got into sailing because he found a whole fleet of Australian Mk1 VeeEss dinghies in a warehouse on the waterfront.  They had been bought from the sailing club and taken to Japan for recreating troops.  They weren’t being used so he put one together that worked out of the many.

Drop offs on Japan's Inland Sea

He then did lots of sailing around the Inland Sea of Japan by himself.  I can imagine how strange this would have looked to the people in Japanese fishing villages.  Big red headed Bob in the little boat with huge sails.

I found a picture of a VS (Vaucluse Senior) in the national archives.  It is normally sailed by three, but nobody told Bob.  I don’t think he knew much about sailing at that point.

Vee Ess Mk 1 Dinghy

A classic “sarge” – he would push you to work pretty hard almost bullying but turn a blind eye to almost anything (stopping for a swim on a hot day) if it wasn’t noticed and would not push us to to unnecessary jobs outside on a rainy day. Sensible consideration if a bit noisy.

He would sometimes fly into a temper and start punching the slipping cradle with his fists (capacity 70 tons) – you could hear the banging from the other side of the offices or from out on the towboat across the bay BANG BANG BANG – though my mate Andy Coyle (little mate – a little man compared to Bob.  Bob was about 5ft6″ around the chest) once neatly sidestepped a punch (Andy could be quite combative too) and flicked Bob into the water as neat as you like using Bob’s own momentum.  I never actually saw him hit anyone … apart from the 70 ton cradle.

Also we had these huge heavy stands to prop the bow of big boats on the big cradle so they wouldn’t fall forwards.  It was a huge two section weldment that took four people to drag into place.  One day when he was pissed off Bob picked it up and threw it into position.  Something that four of us would have had a 15 minute struggle with if we had to bring up Helsal II or Apollo or Anaconda.

I think he was around 70 at the time I worked with him.  If it had been a younger Bob the 70 ton cradle would have grounds to be scared … VERY scared.

Anyway Bob bought a Admiral’s Cup ocean racing boat (by Sparkman and Stephens – the end of their heyday really) that had not been selected in the trials and proceeded to rebuild it. It was a going concern already, but he had perfection in his mind.

He started painting the inside (while living aboard) and then started to dislike the many plastic functional bits so he started making custom replacements in fibreglass. Then he pulled a bolt or two and found that they were 304 grade stainless so started scavenging stainless steel from around the waterfront and going to his brothers house to use his lathe to turn replacement bolts in 316 grade (he didn’t like the rough finish of the ones you could buy in the shop.

When he retired he couldn’t keep the boat on the marina any more so a friend, Ulf, offered him use of a holiday shack on the edge of Lake Macquarie which was much more humble than the photo below.

Nord's Wharf lake macquarie

Every couple of years I would be passing by and go down to see how Bob (And his threadbare German Shepherd – Rex) was going with the boat. He was as happy as a pig in .. as he told me he had pulled the bronze keelbolts and seen some problem so he turned new ones and replaced them – a tricky job with bolts a good part of a metre long.

He died before finishing the boat. One of our mutual friends said that Bob had lost it … I said he was happier than you or me.

He showed me it can be important to choose something satisfying to do even if other people think it is stupid. It is one of the reasons I am a boat designer.

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