Traditional Piner's punt on Strahan foreshore. Photo Jonathan Wallis
The west coast of Tasmania is splendid in its isolation, being, even today, quite remote from either Hobart or Launceston, and that by very winding and hilly roads means a lengthy car trip. But the very wildness of the area with its lakes and mountainous terrain is also a great attraction for old sailors like myself who delight in the wind-blown expanse of its Ocean Beach, the breakers combing in through ‘Hell’s Gates’, the narrow perilous entrance to Macquarie Harbour and to Strahan, the indigo stormy skies and the wind tossed Pacific Gulls and the Shy Albatross wheeling on the updrafts.
Excursions by the stunning Wilderness Railway or the renowned Heritage Cruises’ beautifully appointed vessel Harbour Master, or on Gordon River Cruises’ Spirit of the Wild showcase the natural beauty of the vast harbour and the dense forest along the King, the Queen and Gordon Rivers, with their healthy Huon pines dotted even today along their banks, not the great forests of yore, but still occasional male and female trees to delight the discerning eye.
And, of course, the much visited Penal Colony known again now by its original name of ‘Sarah Island’, though later as Settlement Island, by the regions rugged Piners. These were groups of men who ventured up the many rivers and tributaries that flow into the vast Macquarie Harbour following in the footsteps of those chained convicts who had in days gone by lopped nearby Huon pines and rafted them down to the harbour to be towed back to Sarah Island for the renowned shipbuilding convicts in the boatyards there.
Bill Surtees at work on his 14' Huon Pine dinghy restoration. Photo Jonathan Wallis
It is always good to catch up with wooden boat enthusiasts anywhere, but on a recent visit to Strahan, we were delighted when Trevor Norton owner/operator of the beautiful 65’ yacht Stormbreaker, kindly introduced us to long time wooden, and particularly Huon pine, aficionado, Bill Surtees.
We found Bill at home lovingly restoring a 12’ clinker-built Huon pine dinghy in his purpose built shed and we were impressed to see that Bill, a graduate of the Shipwright’s Point School of Wooden Boat Building at Franklin, was putting his skills to practice in a most impressive and professional manner.
He told us he had recently purchased the dinghy in Taroona where it had lived in a shed for 20 years, and had trailered it back home to Strahan where he is hopeful of taking it back to its original beauty and then selling it on.
Bill Surtees' dinghy restoration plus two newly made rowlock holders. Photo Jonathan Wallis
In another shed we found the 10’ dinghy he had built as part of his diploma some years ago, also ready for further work and restoration, as well as a collection of old seasoned lengths of Huon pine from his previous 26’ power boat that he dismantled some time back, in preparation for the reconstruction of a traditional 14’ Macquarie Harbour Huon pine ‘Piner’s’ punt, traditionally used by the local men to get up the nearby rivers (they had to be tough enough for the rapids they would encounter and light enough to be carried over impassable reaches) where the piners would fell the trees and then float them back down in ‘rafts’ to Macquarie Harbour for milling at local mills such as Morrison’s Mill, still in operation on the wharf at Strahan, or for export from Regatta Point.
In fact, several of these unique boats can still be seen on the Strahan foreshore near Regatta Point where there is a model of a traditional punt on display for tourists, but more interestingly there are several still in use alongside the little jetty there. Sturdy robust long-lasting craft they are a huge part of the mystique of this region. Bill, who has a history in local government on the west coast, has always had a love of the sea and of the small, and traditional, craft that once used to abound here. Now retired, he feels he at long last has the opportunity to take this interest a serious step further.
Having taken a redundancy back in 1999 he enrolled at the ‘Shipwright’s Point School of Wooden Boat Building’ at Franklin where he completed a diploma in ‘Traditional Wooden Boat Building’, building an Iain Oughtred designed 10’ clinker dinghy. Here he received comprehensive instruction in working with wooden boats, and the tools and skills required to build, repair and restore them, but he also deepened his love for his native Huon pine with its many advantages, including its longevity and resistance to the inroads of Teredo worm attack and other traditional enemies of wooden boats, and of course, their useful robust strength.
Bill holding the rudder for Wild Honey – the name of the 32ft Bristol Channel cutter which was Bill's main project at the school. Photo Bill Surtees
Happily, recent salvage of submerged Huon pine logs (now called ‘Hydrowood’) from the Reece Dam on the nearby Pieman River, and possibly other Hydro handmade lakes, has ensured a pleasing reserve of this amazing timber which can be seen stockpiled in several yards en-route to Macquarie Heads/Ocean Beach from Strahan.
It would be fair to say Bill has more than one project underway at his house with a splendid view overlooking the harbour in Strahan, but we found him, paint scraper in hand happily engaged in removing layers of old paint from his newly acquired 12’ Huon pine clinker built dinghy which he had recently sourced at Taroona and had subsequently trailered home across the mountains via Derwent Bridge to Strahan.
He has collected a selection of traditional tools for the task but is not averse to using some more modern ones as well, including the triangle paint scraper in hand, and appears never happier than when working on a boat with his old faithful German Short Haired Pointer gun dog ‘Lilly’, always sitting patiently close at hand. Apart from removing multiple layers of paint from the dinghy, and replacing the rowlock blocks which had been worn by years of use, the boat is in surprisingly good condition and he doesn’t see any major problems ahead in her ongoing restoration.
Bill's boat – his sister-in-law, Judith Surtees, found this dinghy for sale in the Huon Valley. It is the dinghy which he helped build at the Wooden Boat School with a nameplate in the stern. Photo Bill Surtees
His love for the traditional Piner’s Punts has, in anticipation of his next major project, seen him amassing a pile of old and seasoned Huon pine planks that will be used in building a 14’ Carvel hulled punt for himself. He had already amassed a quantity of timber to be recycled from his now dismantled 26’ long boat and has the plans already in his mind. He fondly remembers working on the 32ft Bristol Channel cutter which was the main project for the two years he was at the school. It is currently moored at Kettering, he tells us, adding, “It is owned by Chris and Pip Bourke who live on Bruny Island. Chris was another of the main teachers at the school with Peter Laidlaw, and is the person who will be building the proposed Piner’s punt with me here at Strahan.
I currently have a 19’ glass ‘Kingston 580’ boat that I admit I do enjoy putt putting around Macquarie Harbour in, and a dinghy which allows me access to many of the historic sites around the shores, up the various rivers which are too shallow for the cruise boats, once traversed by generations of Piner’s punts, and examining such places as the historical ruins of the Pillinger township.”
He added that he was born in Queenstown, but since his earliest memories, he has had an on-going passion for wooden boats and the west coast. “I lived in London and travelled extensively in my younger days, but always returned to the west coast, which I call home. In fact, we have a family tradition here, and my father was one of the engineers who built the turn-table on the Wilderness ABT Railway, at Dubbil Barril on the way to Queenstown.
Bill Surtees with his 14ft dinghy restoration. Photo Jonathan Wallis
Piner's punt still in use. Photo Jonathan Wallis
You may say my heart is here. Previously I always had motor boats, and used to spend too much time effecting repairs and modification, and that’s why I decided to do the course at Franklin, so I could learn how to do things ‘properly’. And I must say the skills I learned from some of their Master Craftsmen, such as Peter Laidlaw, who is still lecturing there, have stood me in good stead to this day.”
Certainly, looking at the painstaking professionalism Bill applies to his various projects, we would have to observe that his time spent at the school at Franklin (now the Wooden Boat Centre) was time well spent indeed.
We look forward at some future time to catching up with Bill Surtees again and resuming our own love of the region, the Huon pine itself, Piner’s punts, and the collection of traditional wooden boats still found at Strahan and along the west coast!