Last weekend I headed down to the Yanmar Wooden Boatshop Wooden Boat Festival of Geelong to ask wooden boat owners and enthusiasts what it is that they love about these classics. In between polished wooden dinghies and docks lined with tall ships and tiny wooden cruisers, I cornered a few of the visitors and discovered that there are a range of different reasons boaties turn their backs on more modern building materials.
Firstly, I chatted to couta boat sailor Lachlan Mckenzie on the deck of 54ft Tasmanian fishing ‘smack’ Storm Bay. Lachlan explained that the yacht acted as a crayboat, showing me a tank of fresh cray to verify her abilities. While every foot of the beautifully restored blue gum and Huon pine yacht was remarkable, I was particularly impressed to see the enclosed wood fire. I struggle to get my head around the idea of fire on a wooden boat, but I’m told that it’s not uncommon; the fire provides a lovely dry heat for damp sailors. Asking Lachlan what it is he liked about wooden boats, he explained that there’s something special about them, ‘It’s just the character; they’ve got personality and you can feel that.’ Over on another dock, standing beside a hard-chined plywood 22ft Route 66, South Australian Robert Ayliffe described the yacht as a ‘modern wooden boat’, the result of ‘a marriage of carbon-fibre epoxy and wooden boat building’. Robert explained that he appreciated wooden boats for their character but also for more practical reasons. A wooden boat ‘has an endless cycle of flexing without a problem,’ he told me. ‘You’ll see spider cracks on a fiberglass boat after 10/15 years, but wood won’t do that.’ Next up I chatted to a real life pirate princess, Tegan Rose, on the black deck of 60ft Notorious, a recreation of a 1480s ‘caravel’. Tegan, daughter of Graeme, the designer and builder of the incredible pirate-inspired ship, told me that her father’s initial interest in wooden boats was inspired by conservation. When Graeme salvaged 300 tonnes of timber that was destined to be burned, he quickly discovered that building furniture wasn’t nearly going to work through the huge pile. Years of research and hard labour later, the result is a very unique yacht which I’m told has hit a top speed of over 11 knots. Finally, I talked to Maggie Kerr, who had far less grey hair than your average wooden boat enthusiast. She told me that the tall ship she sailed on, the Alexander Stewart, was a lot of work. ‘There’s a lot of maintenance, a lot of corking, varnishing,’ she explained. But the extra maintenance hasn’t scared her away. ‘Traditional sailing is definitely the best way to do it,’ she told me. ‘Not using power, it’s hard work but it’s fun.’