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Lume Magazine - Tasmanian Design Culture & Travel - The Little Boat That Came Home

The Little Boat that came Home

Apr 11, 2024
Article by Chris Sly

It’s well-known in sailing circles that you don’t find a wooden boat; they find you. This is the story of how Sarah Ann, a Huon and King Billy pine sailboat with a tragic past, found me.

I had just launched my latest trailer restoration on the Maroochy River, Queensland, and was enjoying her first shake-out sail when my phone clamoured. It was Jayce, a young man who shared a passion for traditional wooden sailboats. He had been studying at the Australian Maritime College in Tasmania and had come across a small wooden sailboat languishing in a shed for most of her 53 years.

It was love at first sight when he saw her ‘eyesweet’ lines shrouded in years of accumulated flaking paint, dust and grime. A few cosmetic issues could not disguise her appealing traditional lines.

Sarah Ann’s designer and builder was John Philp. He had been mentored by a well-known Tasmanian shipwright in Launceston on the Tamar River. These old guys built their boats using the concept of ‘eyesweet’ as their guiding principle, rarely reading a rule and using a measuring stick and frames for important dimensions instead.

Serendipitously, John had been my mentor when I first built Moonlight in the early ‘80s, a 12-foot Huon pine clinker dinghy.

It only took me a few moments to realise that I was about to become the custodian of a unique and significant boat I had admired back in the ‘70s. John would cautiously reverse her into the water in the fisheries at Coles Bay then sit back and rest on a log, smoking his pipe and stroking his salt-and-pepper beard as the rising tide gently lifted Sarah Ann from her cradle.

Sarah Ann was a father-and-son project tinged with deep sadness. She was probably underused as the family lamented the loss of a son in a tragic sailing accident at Schouten Island in the summer of 1970. The very year she was launched.

Respectfully holding this knowledge of Sarah Ann’s history, I welcomed her to my tiny front yard at Mudjimba on the Sunshine Coast along with my two other boats, Moonlight and Saffron. It was starting to look like a commercial boat-yard!

Sarah Ann is well-designed and built, with King Billy planking over a Huon pine skeleton. She was suffering from lack-of-use deterioration, but apart from a few cracks caused by shrinkage, she was very sound. Her engine had been a petrol Simplex. After sitting for several decades with salt water in her cast iron jacket, it had rusted out and been discarded. I was left with a beautiful hull, old-growth Oregon spars and a brand-new set of Doyle sails.

Sarah Ann only saw the water once while in Queensland. Her owner allowed her to submerge for a while to see if the joints would take up, but this little boat is not built using caulked seams. Rather she is strip-planked and epoxy glued. To keep her from sinking very rapidly I needed to repair several seams that had let go beneath the waterline and around the centre casing. These needed injections of epoxy resin, and the hull required repainting. I also managed to install my first marine diesel, thanks to YouTube and several Facebook forums.

I held a strong belief that we should return Sarah Ann to her home state. The Queensland climate would have been harsh on her timbers, and I didn’t have anywhere to store her out of the elements. As it was, some health issues were compelling us to return to Tasmania. And so we set out on the 2000 kilometre pilgrimage from the Sunshine Coast to Tasmania with Sarah Ann in tow. She had been dragged up to Queensland and back to Tasmania without even going for a sail!

We arrived back in Tasmania last year, immediately immersed in a cold, damp and grey Tasmanian winter. I’m not sure whose bones felt it most, mine, Milly our 13-year-old cavoodle or Sarah Ann!

From May to September I worked to ensure Sarah Ann was fully seaworthy. She was relaunched on a balmy spring day at Gravelly Beach on the middle reaches of the Tamar River. Several members of Sarah Ann’s original family were there to enjoy a sail at what was possibly her original launching point back in 1970.

Since then, Sarah Ann has likely

spent more time on the water than in her entire lifetime. She has sailed the Tamar River from the heads at Pilot Bay, Dark Hollow, Port Dalrymple and Gravelly Beach. I have sailed her in Great Oyster Bay and camped overnight in her at Coles Bay, mooring at the fisheries, her spiritual home.

On that brightly moonlit night, I contemplated the story of her tragic past as I set out to shape her future. Sarah Ann is an intergenerational legacy, now restored. She is a time capsule preserving the deep secrets of classing wooden boat design and showcasing for future generations some of Tasmania’s and the world’s finest boat-building timbers. And she chose me.

Follow Chris and Sarah Ann:
YT @SmallSailboatCruising
FB @SmallSailboatCruising

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