A grandfathers heritage.

Building a boat outside in winter in northern Tas is not for the faint hearted. We have a fire bucket that is surprisingly effective, good quality thermals, and are intentional about keeping each other’s spirits up on the occasional dreary day. Also, as I enthusiastically tell Deb on especially frosty mornings, we are joining a long and proud tradition of Tasmanian wooden boat-builders that never had the luxury of heated sheds!

Firebucket on a chilly morning.

The photo below is of my grandfather Frank James. He is standing beside Urani, his 36 foot Huon Pine yacht that he designed and built in his front yard. No shed! How she came about is quite a story, but first a little history.

I have fond childhood memories of playing on Urani in the front yard of my grandparents home. By then Pop was an elderly man. Sadly he never saw her launched.

When he was a young man, Pop purchased a small 18 foot raised deck yacht and named her Taroona. He would take his young family of four children plus my grandmother, Phoebe out for extended cruises in the protected waters of the picturesque D’Entrecasteaux Channel. Yachting today is often thought of as a wealthy mans activity, but back then, with the abundance of Tassy timber, skill and hard work, a simple wooden boat was a poor mans holiday shack. Cooking was on the Primus stove in the cockpit, often a big pan of just caught flathead, followed by handfuls of strawberries from nearby orchards. It was a long before mandatory safety regulations, so expensive safety jackets, EPIRBS and radios were unheard of.

In 1939, at the outset of WW2 the government mandated that all privately owned pleasure craft in the Derwent were to be moved to Battery Point.  In the event of an Japanese invasion they were to be destroyed to prevent them being used as a ready-made landing fleet for enemy troops. Pop did not like the idea of this, so he had Taroona transported to his front yard, and just to make sure, cut her in half with a chainsaw.

After the war, he relaid a 10 foot longer keel and pulled the planks apart to the new shape, bringing her length to 28 feet. That was the first of three “extensions” over the years that followed which saw her grow to 34 feet by the time I knew her as a boy in the seventies.

A scholarly man, Pop was a teacher with the state education department. His passion however was to grow fruit. He purchased a block on the waterfront at Dover, south of Hobart, and for ten years during school breaks, laboured to establish an orchard. It was a prime block, close to the expanding town. Ironically when his employer, the education department, decided to build an area secondary school, they promptly “acquired” his block with a government compulsory acquisition. Pop fought them for many years unsuccessfully, and his pride and joy to this day is now the site for the Dover High School. He never recovered, and retreated to his boatbuilding workshop, never to teach again.

It was during this time in the fifties, that he designed his dream yacht and set about sourcing timber to build her. Money was tight, but he had two attractive daughters (my mother being one) which meant that there was a cohort of young men from the local church youth group anxious to impress him. He shamelessly co-opted them as free labour on a hazardous timber gathering expedition to the upper reaches of the Huon and Picton rivers. Back then full length Huon Pine logs (regarded as the best boatbuilding timer in the world) were available for a small fee. It was legal to harvest naturally fallen trees. With his bewildered crew he drove as far as possible by car, then carried a 12 foot dingy kilometres overland to reach the river. They then salvaged a half dozen logs from the river banks, floated them down the fast flowing river to a mill on the banks of upper Franklin, where they were ripped for building stock. Huon pine is a prized species, that now sells for a premium. I can’t imagine how much those logs would be worth at todays prices!

Unfortunately Pop never saw Urani on the water. He died before she was completed. My uncle finished her with the aid of shipwright Jock Muir. I remember the day the extended family watched her launch at Muir’s boatyard in Battery Point in 1973.

The heroine of the story however was my grandmother; Phoebe. As the primary breadwinner and home maker she selflessly devoted her life to her family. She became a highly valued processor of Cosmic Ray readings coming to the Physics Department of the University from bases in the Antarctic for the next 22 years. All four children went on to gain university degrees. My mother and two uncles became teachers. The two boys (ironically) eventually to be principals and senior administrators with the state education department.

This photo of Pop and Urani is on display at our build site. As a traditionalist I am not sure what he would make of Selah, but I like to think he would approve of our efforts. I think of him and Phoebe often, as I work.

5 thoughts on “A grandfathers heritage.

  1. Hey Pete, I’ve heard bits of that story but what a great read to hear it all here.
    We’e just been in Glacier Bay in Alaska, yesterday, where I saw a lone yachtsman – made me think about you guys. The fog and icebergs are a bit daunting but wow what a beautiful spot to explore. Care to take me back there ….


  2. Hi Johno. We have been following your trip with great interest on FB. Looks fantastic. Not sure about sailing to Alaska though. Its not just the fog and icebergs … those bears scare me to bits! (And they recon Australia is a dangerous place). I can do the reef for you, just a few sharks to worry about. Or maybe Lord Howe Island? If you have the inclination heres a link to a young Aussie couple who have spent the last four summers cruising Alaska and Canada. Amazing stuff: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxUG_7A_tUT8SrYKgC6FB0A. Enjoy the rest of your trip, see you when you get back.


  3. Thanks Pete. Just watched some of those clips – yep that’s the country alright!
    We’re over in Nova Scotia now and just about at the end of our trip. We’ll look for a chance to come and see you guys again once we’re back

    Liked by 1 person

    • Enjoy. We feel like we are in Alaska right now. Big front passing over. 70k winds, snow to 300 and heavy rain. We got up early and took the big shelter tarp down to sit out the storm.


  4. I remember the make believe world that was a play ground in the front yard of the Taroona house, climbing the scaffolding, exploring the insides and even bouncing all the way to the ground (I think it’s after that mum made the boat a “no go area” for me). I still have a section of Pop’s green canvas tarp he used to cover the boat, I use even to this day. They knew how to make things to last in those days.

    Exciting stuff to see the Doll’s House looking more like a hull….. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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