It is always a pleasure to visit that bustling maritime centre at Cygnet, south of Hobart on the estuary of the Huon River, and to observe the progress on many vessels in sheds and yards there. We went to see whether the old Wilson’s Boat Shed was still standing, and found, in its place a new and impressive building on the site.
Indeed, the legendary Wilson’s Boat Yard is now part of Tasmania’s legendary boatbuilding heritage, sited on the river front at Gardners Bay, on the eastern shore of Kangaroo Bay, in close proximity to the Huon River Estuary and D’Entrecasteaux Channel.
It’s previous old shed, now sadly demolished, was a landmark that spelled out wooden boat building in the Cygnet area since the 1800s. The yard was initially founded by John Wilson, who served his apprenticeship as a shipwright with Colin Walker, at Gardners Bay where he built the Huon Belle, launched in 1864, in his backyard.
The original yard went from strength to strength and with four of his sons continuing in the family tradition as shipwrights, the Wilsons rapidly became renowned around Tasmania as builders of fine wooden vessels.
Today they can justly claim to be one of Australia’s oldest continually operating boat building businesses since their establishment in 1863, and whilst their landmark shed may have been demolished, they promise to continue to maintain both the standards, and the meticulous attention to detail that saw John Wilson and later his family, maintain, in the building, restoration and the maintenance of fine vessels, though now in their new purpose built and impressive modern shed, established on the same piece of land.
Although the shed itself has ‘moved’ from time to time over the last 150 or so years, its reputation has remained, as the yard itself has seen the likes of the ketch One and All for Andrewarthur in 1878, Island Star, Maori Lass and Neilma G come out of its doors. The last vessel built by John Wilson was in fact the ketch Lialeeta for TH Spaulding, launched in 1913. The yard has a tradition built on launching outstanding vessels, ranging from ketches, trading vessel and even schooners, right down to dinghies that have been lovingly crafted here, and it certainly looks set to continue in the same tradition under the capable management and direction of its new owner, John Alexander.
Interior old shed. Image courtesy Maritime Museum of Tasmania.
Wilson's old shed. Image courtesy Maritime Museum of Tasmania.
Having operated continuously from 1863 to 2015, the yard finally closed its doors in 2015, and that was a major blow for the area. However well-known yachtsman, John Alexander and his partner Sarah Gunnersen, fortuitously stepped in and got it up and running again in 2016, in the old much patched and loved shed, on the current site.
John Alexander is a renowned boatie and sailing enthusiast. A retired professional yachtsman, he still races the Finn, and the beautiful family Joubert Modified 42 timber composite yacht, Tilting at Windmills, in major ocean events around the world. A fully qualified engineer, he is the overall project manager, experienced in a variety of marine projects ranging from the America’s Cup and Maxi Racing, to traditional wooden boats and everything in between.
The yard is now operated by a small group of some of Australia’s most qualified shipwrights, under the direction of shipwright and principal boat builder Terry Lean. Terry was instrumental in the re-establishing of Wilson’s Boat Shed, and brings a wealth of experience and wisdom to the table. He’s a designer, marine surveyor, master shipwright and full-time consultant in matters regarding design, construction and compliance regulations. Terry oversees all work within Wilson’s Boat Yard, resulting in high quality workmanship, faultless joinery and finishes on all projects. Also on board is Jay Lawry, Jay is Assistant Boat Builder, with 40 years’ experience amassed from around the world. He’s a highly regarded repair and restoration specialist of traditional wooden craft, and founded the Wooden Boat School in New Zealand. He has circumnavigated the globe twice, was sailing before he could walk, and writes books in his spare time. Their finely honed passion for the history and beauty of classic timber boats totals more than 50 years and ensures total satisfaction, from even the most discerning of clients.
John Alexander and Jason with Terry Leans' yacht Carefree. Image Jonathan Wallis
John told us: “Our original idea was to primarily restore and refurbish my wife’s family yacht, Tilting at Windmills – a timber yacht, designed by Professor Peter Joubert and built in 1994 by Norman Wright and Sons. To begin with we had to restore the railway line and winch to heave her up as it had previously only been used to launch new buildings.
We loved that old shed as it had tons of history in its very fabric. It had originally been built just after World War II when an owner wanted his boat, possibly Dave Golding’s Kerawin, built there under cover. Many vessels have been built here subsequently in the old shed, and we are continuing that tradition, leaning toward the increasing need to build, restore and refurbish in the leisure boat world.
We have most recently converted a fishing boat, Island Star, into a Gentleman’s cruiser, and we built the brand-new Maine style Huon pine Neilma G for Phillip Meyer. We have a 36-footer to complete in the next 12 months, and happily other work has now been confirmed for the new shed, so we are feeling confident about the future here.
It has hurt us all to see the old shed demolished, taking so much history with it, but there wasn’t much we could do to preserve it. Our original plans had been to restore the shed, but everything went against us from the start.
Interior new Wilson's Boat Shed. Image Jonathan Wallis
Originally it was built without any approvals, and out of mainly secondhand materials, being modified as required, lengthened, shortened and widened to meet the current project’s needs. The final straw was its failure to satisfy Occupational Health and Safety who condemned it, but even then, we had intended keeping it for its historical value. But then a neighbour complained insisting that if we built a new shed, the old one had to be demolished. So, with very deep regrets we had to knock it down.
We are rather proud of our new purpose built shed however, as it will make life a lot easier in the long run. As you will see, we are still doing repairs and restoration work on the slip and upgrading it to compliment new builds and activities in the shed.
We are about to begin construction of a Huon pine 34’ lightweight motor power cruiser in the style of Riva in May, and this will define our direction here building high specification wooden boats. Finally, I like to see us as investing significantly in the area.”
The new shed has certainly facilitated impressive innovations, from the envisioned ability to lower the floor to launch new builds, to adequate natural lighting and a very work friendly work space. Now with 3D modelling available, project management and faultless joinery, John Alexander and his team at Wilson’s pride themselves on marrying time-honoured traditional wooden boat building with modern techniques, in order to continue their reputation as builders and restorers/refurbishers of fine wooden vessels well into the future.