The Real World For Me

Jock Muir asked if I would like to work with him while he was building a fairly large yacht on a block of land in Queen Street, Sandy Bay. I jumped at the chance, was kitted out again in overalls and away I went walking up Colville, along St. Georges, down Nanny Goat lane and along Princes Street, up a laneway and over a fence to the partly built yacht. The yacht turned out to be ‘Westward’, which won the 1947 and subsequent 1948 Sydney to Hobart yacht race. Having spent that time at woodwork school, I just loved working on site with tradesmen. Besides Jock, there was his brother Wally, Bruce Griggs, Alan Cracknel and I can’t remember any others at that time. Later, of course, Jock expanded his staff considerably after he moved the building operation to the Battery Point site.

After ‘Westward’ was launched we started on a 30ft ‘Sports fisherman’ for the Bastick family. I remember this well because I was with it from the start, and had to sit underneath and hold the dolly on every copper nail head while Wally clenched the inner end. The design was taken from a book and Jock adapted it for the owner’s needs. It had a big car engine installed and seemed to perform as they wanted.

I had to carve the registration number of the launch into a main deck beam and when I finished, went right forward and lying on my back, carved my initials W.F.F. into the foremost beam, never thinking any one would see it there. Some years later, a subsequent owner told me he saw it there while he was re-painting the interior of the vessel.

When this was finished, we started the backbone (keel, stem, sternpost and moulds) for a 47ft yacht. Apparently Jock was negotiating with the Marine Board at that time for a lease on the property at Battery Point in Napoleon Street, so when this was completed, we loaded all the sections of the yacht onto Elliott’s trucks, carted them to Battery Point and began setting up the new site.

The first thing to be erected was the old shed from the Queen Street block. It had a large door at each end, which opened up with props under each corner, and inside was the big circular saw and a long bench for metal and woodworking along one wall. The site was fairly clear so the keel and backbone for the new yacht was easy to set up. With moulds in place, it looked as though the project had been underway there for many weeks. In fact, Perce Coverdale remarked that he ‘looked out one day at the normal scene; the next day there was a fully set up yacht frame on what was previously a vacant block.’

This yacht was to be the well-known ‘Waltzing Matilda’, winner of several Sydney to Hobart race records and owned by Qantas pilot Phil Davenport. We were setting up the ribands around the moulds when Jock had an inquiry about another yacht for a Sydney owner but it had to be finished in time for that year’s (I think 1948) race. Phil told me some years later that he was unsure whether to agree to this, but after talking to his Sydney solicitor and having no written agreement with Jock, only an exchange of letters, he agreed because the delay would give him time to increase his own bank balance.

The new yacht was the Robert Clark design (English) ‘Lass of Luss’. Many years later, Shirley and I were driving along the western shore of Loch Lomond in Scotland when we called into the little Scottish village of Luss. The shopkeeper, Laird and many other names were all part of the Colquhoun family, the owner of the ‘Lass’.

Working conditions on the waterfront at the new yard were primitive in the extreme. Nowhere under cover, both yachts had a system of large shearlegs bow and stern with a long pole hung between each and over the poles we would drape a tarpaulin to protect the workers (and the work) from the weather. The mould for the lead ballast was made on site and cast into a weak concrete base. Lead ingots were melted into a cut down 44 gallon drum (200 litres) laid on its side with a hole cut in the top and a tap outlet in one end. The lead was heated and melted with an intense fire of wood, oil and old car tyres and, when ready, would flow into the mould with no possibility of stopping it. This was the standard method for this work right along the waterfront and only in the last 20 years have we realised the environmental and health risks associated with open air lead melting and now have it cast professionally in a foundry. There were few power tools apart from electric drills, which were uninsulated. Jock later bought a large portable power saw, which made jobs like cutting rebates into keels and stems easier but generally all the work was done with hand tools, saws, chisels and adzes.

One of my jobs as the boy was to run errands. Charles Davis had their Iron yard up in Cat and Fiddle Lane in the City, and we would buy our copper nails and other fastenings from there. My transport of course was by bike and I would ride down around the docks, up Elizabeth Street through what is now the mall and up into the store. The same would happen if we needed special timber. That was bought from Chesterman’s yard behind the Theatre Royal and in the same area, Saunders operated their steam-bending yard where we bought the bent stems for dinghies. The steam bent an amazing range of fairly thick timber for furniture and construction works as well as dinghy stems.

By this time, demand for Jock’s work, both in design and building, was increasing. ‘Westward’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’ were of his design but soon owners were wanting well-known world designers such as Robert Clark (Lass) and Laurent Giles (Patsy) as well, and his move to Battery Point was becoming successful.