Launch day on the River Torrens, Adelaide.
Hearing that the wooden dinghy which had been used by a whole generation at the family beach shack was to be taken away and burnt was devastating. This sweet little boat had spent many lazy summers near Robe in SA’s south east, being used for reeling in fresh Lobster, Squid, King George Whiting & Garfish while doubling as an ideal swimming platform by all the beach kids.
So how did this heartless decision come about and how could they be so ruthless? The cause of the banishing of this faithful servant was an inherited cabin cruiser with a powerful V6 outboard, however, to be rational, this old wooden boat was in extremely poor condition and we all agreed that she would be a complex, time consuming restoration challenge. Undaunted, we rescued her from what remained of the broken, rusty trailer to be taken away for a complete transformation.
So, with a handshake, we had acquired our own classic wooden boat project.
Originally constructed around the 1940s of marine ply and fitted with an inboard motor for use as a River Murray fishing boat, she was acquired in the 1970s and relocated to the family beachside shack where they fitted a small outboard. Boat maintenance by the many previous owners was not a high priority with the plywood starting to delaminate, broken timbers, the many paint layers peeling and all the Gyprock steel deck fixing screws were now blobs of rusty gunk ... (true).
Getting her off site in 2007 was an accomplishment, for it was then we then realised that we had absolutely no idea of where to start or how to plan and complete a wooden boat restoration.
If ever there was a ‘now or never’ moment, this was now, but where was the answer?
Oh dear ... what a mess.
A fact-finding mission to Tasmania to attend the exceptional Hobart Wooden Boat Festival was it; there we sought out other boaties who had completed what we were planning with our craft. The WBF produced many detailed and varied restoration ideas, captured with dozens of photographs.
Artisans attending the festival were selling bulk offcuts of some of the most exquisite Tassie timbers out of huge apple crates, giving us a veritable feast of ideas for trimming our boat. Visiting a Huon Valley sawmill allowed us to purchase long lengths of delicious smelling, sawn Huon Pine for the replacement gunwales plus some flawless Tassie Oak beams for the engine beds.
Attending the Yorke Peninsular Saltwater Classic event, several River Murray boating events and the Goolwa Wooden Boat Festival introduced us to the Wooden Boat scene in our state where we saw more beautifully restored old wooden boats. We chose to become members of the Wooden Boat Association of South Australia, where we gained even more knowledge and ideas for our boat restoration from the many, experienced wooden boat owners and old ‘Salties’.
We learned that wooden boat restoration information is out there – you just need to ask!
Deck reinforcements and Huon pine gunwales.
Sitting on our second-hand trailer, we started stripping paint, cleaning down years of gunk, removing several rotten timbers, replacing corroded screws, filling holes, and then prepared the marine ply hull for restoration.
The delaminating plywood was sealed with a West System epoxy resin, then after glassing the joins, the hull was painted in white 2 pack epoxy. Flipping the hull topside allowed the Huon Pine gunwales to be bent and fitted; being screwed from the inside, then the new deck was shaped using the old deck as a template, then fitted and glued.
It was while attending one of the many Murray River boat festivals, that the skipper had noticed a restored boat that had no visible screws or pins showing through the varnish, so her comment that “we should do that to our boat” produced a complete rethink of the way to join timbers. Armed with a collection of 316 stainless screws, we learned several new boat building and restoration skills hiding fixing screws and using epoxy glue to give a superior finish.
Another learned skill was that setting a budget for a wooden boat restoration is a complete waste of time because in fact you quickly learn that marine equipment, fixings and surface finishes are expensive, especially if they are imported.
However, to authentically restore a wooden boat, how could we even consider choosing cheap, pressed and plated steel parts from Asia, over the luxurious, solid brass, craftsman made, hand finished ‘made in the UK’ gudgeons and pintles which are also ridiculously expensive. (They made a great Christmas gift.) We also discovered that bronze screws and nails are not sold in hardware store packets, but on a ‘per each’ basis, so we made sure to not over order.
Original paint colour and new hardwood floor.
The new rudder was hand-made using Huon Pine with laminated marine ply which was then shaped like an aeroplane wing following the detailed, on-line technical instructions on rudder design and fixed with those elegant brass gudgeons and pintles which really added that finishing touch. The Tiller was shaped out of a scrap piece of spotted gum using an axe handle as a template.
We were able to salvage and refurbish a motley collection of bronze, cross head screws for use in the exposed fittings which added to the authenticity of our build. We also found fittings like fairleads and rowlock bits from overseas and local chandlers on-line, which is all part of the experience, as used parts sometimes have that certain patina of authenticity over new hardware.
Red Gum King post with a new deck and Tassie timber.
Working in additional pieces of rare timbers from Australia and New Zealand has also been satisfying, like the replacement King Post which was turned from an ancient, Red Gum fence post which was recovered from an historic farm and was destined to be cut up for firewood.
There were many improvements to the original build thanks to the range of epoxy glues, lacquers and paints which are made in Australia for our conditions, are first-rate and if you actually read the fact sheet instructions, they work perfectly. Discovering that the marine grade paint can be tinted to match the original hull colours was central in keeping her looking reasonably authentic.
We beefed up the foredeck as experience showed that at the shallow beach we could easily alight over the side, however on the river, nosing into the riverbank meant alighting over the bow, hence the additional timbers and a short mast to hold onto when disembarking.
An expansion of our hand tool collection was a given and you learn that average quality power tools like drills, sanders and a bandsaw from the hardware chains are sufficient to handle most tasks and some even have three year warranties. Pro grade power tools are nice, but expensive and targets for thieves. Having a well-lit, solid workbench with good bench vices made restoration easier, as is knowing where else to go for more complex machining tasks.
Tasmanian Myrtle dashboard and Huon pine mast holder.
The decision to acquire and fit a vintage Blaxland 3.5hp engine instead of an outboard meant learning a whole new range of motor installation skills. Experienced local boaties advice was invaluable to explain how to install an engine bed and then line up the motor with the new prop shaft and stuffing boxes. Learning how to weld 304 stainless steel to make the engine mounts plus crafting a new deadwood to protect the bronze propeller was an exacting and challenging process.
The fuel tank was salvaged from a near-new, small stationary engine which had ‘thrown a rod’ and was now scrap metal. The New Zealand made, bronze exhaust flange was side mounted, as the skipper did not want the motor ‘putt-putting’ in her ear if it came out the stern as was intended!
To comply with the required safety equipment we acquired a pair of beautifully made, New Zealand pine oars, which we took into and found in a leather goods shop scrap, bin enough leather to hand-make a pair of authentic rowlock oar collars. The skippers seat was crafted from Oregon beams, salvaged from our old pergola then a fuel storage box and prop shaft cover box was crafted from a wooden wine crate and then padded. Under seat storage boxes were made from salvaged pine spare-part crates which originally came from the USA to our local tractor shop.
Huon pine gunwale bend, screw and glue.
It is appropriate that we thank my wonderful mother in-law Esther, (the restoration shed owner) for allowing us the storage space to work on our boat over that time period. The only problem was that she lives 300km south east of our Adelaide home, so work was restricted to the extended visits. That’s what I call lucky!
Finally, after 11 years of part-time restoration and “just how much is this boat costing?” comments, our little dinghy, with its restoration bits from all over the world, finally had a launch in September 2018 at a special ‘putt-putt’s on the River Torrens’ event in Adelaide, organised by the Wooden Boat Association of South Australia on a waterway we are definitely not normally allowed to navigate.
The naming our wooden boat was a fascinating process and we chose the name Kokopelli, which is an ancient, North American, First Nation, Hopi Indian word meaning ‘wooden backed’. This little character is a deity of magic with a passion for life and is depicted as a flute playing spirit figure who is reputed to bring fertility, good seasons, fun times and frivolity to the subjects he visits.
Hopefully our ‘wooden backed’ little boat can bring us joy and good times for many years.