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By Ross Lillistone - Esk, Queensland - Australia

Small Boats

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What is it about small boats which is so appealing? Unless they are freighters, big ships don’t do much for me, but small boats have an attraction which I don’t seem to be able to escape. I’ve had the good fortune to have been on the ocean regularly since birth, and although work has been getting in the way for the last few years, I’ve been in a boat at regular intervals for nearly fifty-seven years.

My memory seems to be full of tiny snippets of the past which flash into view and then disappear again just as quickly. I wish I could grab each one and examine it in detail, but that doesn’t seem possible - all that is left is a tantalizing impression. Whenever I pass a ship tied up to a wharf at night, the sight of the deck-lights transports me instantly to any one of a hundred memory clips from when I used to come home to a ship while travelling from place to place with my family back in the nineteen-fifties. I was lucky enough to have a father who was obsessed with boats, and every time we travelled to or from an overseas job (he was an Australian Civil Engineer working all around the world), he tried to get us onto cargo ships for the journey. Actually, it probably didn’t happen all that many times, but when you are a five-year-old, life seems to pass more slowly than it does for an adult, and for me the travelling period was a lifetime long.

One of the cargo ships I travelled on - M.S. Coolangatta. Photo courtesy of Rederi Transatlantic.

There was other good stuff which is outside the scope of this article – when pressed for time, we travelled by airliner in the days when they were powered by proper reciprocating radial engines made by Pratt & Whitney and Wright. To this day I go weak at the knees when I hear the beautiful sound of a big radial aero engine. I remember sitting for hours in a Super Constellation or DC-4, looking out of the windows at the nacelle of one of those big engines and listening to the drone. I’d better stop now, or I’ll be telling you about being lifted into the astrodome of a DC-4 in the middle of a black night, and seeing the stars which the navigator had been using to find our way….. I’d better get back to boats.

All this overseas travelling meant that not only did I fall in love with the superb motor ships of the 1950’s cargo trade, but I also got to see all sorts of interesting small boats. Whenever someone builds a proa and publishes a photo in a magazine, I think of the Lakatois down on the beach in Port Moresby – they thrilled me at age three, but what thrilled me even more was to see the kids racing model Lakatois. I wanted such a model more than anything.

Port Moresby harbor contained lots of interesting nautical objects for a boy like me, including one small launch over whose bow I leaned, staring along the plumb stem as it entered the crystal-clear water in as sharp an entry as you could wish for. Even now, I am fascinated by hulls which have upright stems and fine, concave sections that peel the water away into a glassy, curling bow-wave. If you look at the bow of my design called Flint you will see quite clearly that the image imprinted on my three-year-old brain by that New Guinea launch (called Cutty Sark, I seem to remember) has not been lost.

In the harbor were moored all manner of commercial boats and ships, while out in the middle of the bay, QANTAS Consolidated Catalina flying boats sat on the blue water as they tugged at their mooring lines. The shape of the undersurfaces of their fuselages also penetrated my young brain, and I still get pleasure from the common sense apparent in the design of the “boat” part of those great flying boats.

I think it was the many months spent aboard two different freighters –one Danish and one Swedish – which started my love for clinker planking. Day after day I would wander past the lifeboats and ship’s boats as they sat in davits on the superstructure. My examination of these boats was done in a strong, mid-ocean breeze with nothing from horizon-to-horizon but blue ocean, whitecaps, and soaring sea birds - who could blame me for developing a life-long love for such wholesome craft?

One of the ships I was fortunate enough to travel on was a very small (2,900 ton) Swedish refrigerated fruit carrier. We boarded her in Copenhagen and sailed all-stops to Sydney, via New Zealand. There was one day I remember when I was on deck during a decent sort of a storm (I think it was the Bay of Biscay), and the decks were being swept by water. My memory may have exaggerated the conditions – I don’t know – but I’m sure I was swept from my position holding on to the superstructure, and ended up in a scupper with water pouring over the side into the grey ocean. I was too young to understand the danger of my precarious position, and for me it was just good fun!

In the very early nineteen-sixties, my parents signed me up with the local yacht club in Cleveland (south-east Queensland). By this stage of my life, at six years of age, I was well and truly hooked on boats – not surprising given the things I’ve just written about. I thought that I knew a thing or two about boats, but I soon discovered that the other kids in the Sabot fleet at the yacht club knew much more than I did about going fast in a race. It was to be about fourteen more years before the penny dropped in my head, and I started to go fast in races. In the early Sabot days, I spent a lot of time at the back end of the field.

Despite not being the fastest kid in the racing fleet, I enjoyed growing up on the shores of Moreton Bay in the sixties. We went fishing without hats, without shirts, without sunscreen and in bare feet – I guess that the consequences will be felt sooner or later, but at the time it just seemed natural. Boats were always a strong element in our activities, and my introduction to boat building came from the simultaneous observation of my father building a William Atkin-designed round-sided dory called Nancy and my own collaboration in the construction of a tin canoe.

Now, I had seen a few tin canoes around, but Dad thought that it would be worth trying a transom stern instead to the tin canoe standard of the day, which was a double-ender with stem and sternpost being made from a lump 3” x 1-1/2” or similar, with the flattened-out sheet of corrugated iron nailed to each side, caulked with blackjack. My canoe had a proper stern transom cut from an off-cut of pine plank, and I thought it looked fine! The trouble with tin canoes is that they only float when the water is on the outside. Mine, as good as it was, went to Davey Jones’ Locker on a rough day off Cleveland Point. It is lucky I wasn’t taken by a big shark, because one of the side-effects of tin canoe paddling is lots of bloody cuts under the upper arms!

We all spent a lot of time swimming at the Oyster Point shark enclosure. It was a rickety affair of worm-eaten posts and rusty wire attached to an equally rickety jetty which had been built in 1936. High tide was great for swimming, but low tide was good as well, because I could walk out around the net boats which were anchored in the little bay. I’m pretty ignorant about fishing operations, but I think the boats were associated with the trawler which sat at anchor further out. Anyway, these boats reinforced the influence that the old Cutty Sark from Port Moresby has had on my boat designing. They were big, V-bottomed rowing boats which had a deep, sharp, concave shape in the forward lower sections, and a wide transom topped with a full-width wooden net roller. My Flint design looks like a smaller, lighter version in plywood.

There was another childhood boating experience which settled into the back of my brain and now influences my design work. I used to make models and sail them on the rising tide at Oyster Point. Some were primitive powerboats, others were catamarans made from expanded polystyrene and balsawood, with plastic sails and balsa battens. The catamarans were copied from the work of the masters – a sailing family from down the street who had the champion Sabot at the club, and who could sail any boat very fast indeed. Anyway, the brothers in this family made good catamaran models and I tried to emulate their success. Those boats went fast!

However, my favourite models were small sailing dinghies with little standing lug sails and a piece of steel plate hanging from the centerboard case slot as ballast. They taught me a lot about sail and hull balance, but most of all, they reinforced my fascination with the movement of a boat on the water.

Not long before he died in 1974, Dad designed and built a cruising dinghy of 15’ 2” x 5’ 11”.

The old boat Dad designed and built - being used by the third generation.

She is still in the family, and is currently sitting under my shed lean-to having some sanding and painting done between other jobs. Like all of the things I’ve mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, she has influenced my direction in boating. For the last forty years, this old boat has been used by Dad, by me, by my friends, and nowadays by my own sons and their friends. She has taught lessons about seamanship, maintenance, hull modification, rig design, painting techniques, beach-cruising, and just plain fun. She is still going strong, and shows that a small number of dollars and a larger amount of time invested in the right sort of boat can have benefits which last and last.

If you feel the desire to get on the water, I strongly recommend that you put some time and effort into building your own boat. As long as you use good plans, decent materials and proper techniques, you can produce something which will last for generations. And for all you know, there may be a five-year-old looking on and you may be influencing another young mind to follow an entire life in boats.

[Ross has started a new blog at:]


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