It was mid-winter 2017 and “Southwinds” was back, hurtling across the Sydney Heads under full sail in a stiff 25 knot southerly. She still had “it”.
Passengers on the Manly Ferry turned their heads as the elegant 26-tonne timber ketch cut through the white caps and swell.
But this wasn’t a relaxed pleasure cruise. It was the scary shakedown sail when you take possession of a boat and discover her, and your, misgivings.
It had taken a team of sailing instructors from the Manly Sailing School just to coax Southwinds back into a state fit to sail. The three furlers had seized and the sails hadn’t been used for years.
Below decks, an ancient Nissan truck engine had spluttered to life briefly, made a clickety-clack sound and then belched a huge cloud of black smoke. Something like a death rattle followed.
An alarm warned that the cabin was filling with carbon monoxide and a strong smell of oil came from the bilge.
There would be no mechanical assistance today, just the wind. So we went old school, sailing her by feel with full sail up.
The French and Turkish sailing instructors were in awe: “This is the type of boat we dream of sailing in the Mediterranean”.
Southwinds was a folly I and five mates could easily live to regret.
Many have foundered on the treacherous financial rocks of boat ownership without taking on an 18-metre Huon pine classic pushing 70 years old and in need of a rebuild.
As we sailed the seven miles to Sydney, it was time to find out if she was worth the risk.
The return of a favourite daughter
In a way, Southwinds seemed to have chosen us as her new custodians. I owned another boat moored at Forty Baskets bay in Sydney’s North Harbour when this exotic neighbour just turned up.
I googled her only to discover she had been for sale for nearly a million dollars a few years back. Way out of my league.
But I was intrigued. I had heard her former custodian loved her to the end — of his life, anyway. It remained to be seen how many good years Southwinds had left in her.
To unravel the mystery of this classic beauty, nestled among the much smaller yachts at Forty Baskets, I rowed out and peered through her windows.
The classic galley had large brass oil lamps dangling over the dining table. She looked like a living museum, in remarkable condition. An old radar unit seemingly from World War II hung off the mizzen mast.
I could see the radar screen and a long-distance world cruising HF radio, complete with a jumble of old instruments cobbled together over a mahogany navigational table. She had clearly seen some serious sea miles.
The steering wheel was a work of art and the teak decks were weathered but sound.
The old salts of Sydney Harbour all knew Southwinds and wondered where she had gone.
She had been built in Sydney in 1950, circumnavigated the world twice and had entertained the likes of Rudolph Nureyev and the Russian ballet, and the Commander of the US seventh fleet.
In her heyday she’d been owned by multi-millionaires and hosted wild full-moon parties long-time owner John Hallas, the chairman of Ella Bache, said “had seen her banned from every marina in the harbour and beyond”.
Her early days were even more intriguing. The story goes that soon after being launched she headed off around the world with a fit out designed to take two families in comfort.
She was also skippered by a woman — very unusual at the time — and a wooden bath was installed as a practical indulgence at sea enabling her to relax and for the kids to be washed with less water.
She had raced in the Sydney to Hobart in 1973, then named Valhalla. The ship’s record revealed she crossed the line last, getting to Hobart at dawn on New Year’s eve. We can only presume she had gear problems.
It was sad to see the blue water adventurer sit unloved, tethered to a mooring in Sydney’s North Harbour, pointing out to sea but no longer capable of venturing there.
We must be insane
Her last custodian had kept Southwinds in Broken Bay for 18 years. But when he died, the family didn’t quite know what to do with her. His wife eventually put the boat up for sale at a knockdown price.
A few sailing mates and I hatched a scheme to buy and restore her. The local salts labelled us insane.
But the negotiations started and we soon got our first look onboard. Up close, some of the wonder wore off and a few sobering realities set in.
She was taking water. A lone battery wired to a bilge pump was all that seemed to be keeping her afloat. The boat broker freely admitted the engine needed to be replaced.
One shipwright said there were stories she might have broken her timber framed back, a terminal injury.
The legend of the bath was true. We all took turns to sit in it.
Every cupboard was full of pretty much useless junk, tools and old parts. The toilet had clearly not been a priority. A cassette player was another telling examples of the decades of neglect.
Alarm bells were ringing in all our heads — this siren could lure us to a financial shipwreck.
A survey report though found the vessel was in sound condition but would need a couple of hundred thousand dollars in repairs, updated systems and a new engine.
We threw caution to the wind and made an offer. After a bit of haggling she was ours, for better and for worse.
Things are getting desperate
A good scrub and clean out revealed a hand-written note with a long list of repairs that had never been done. We formed a chain gang and took turns dangling head first into the bilge to scoop out the oil that had flowed from a hole in the sump.
The motor had blown a piston and could not be fixed. We set about cutting a hole in the roof so the huge engine could be extracted from below the floor and craned ashore at Davis Marina. This only revealed a whole host of new problems, way beyond our skills.
Sydney’s marine workforce is set up to service a fleet of plastic boats; Southwinds is a symphony of curved timbers steamed into shape with skills now largely forgotten.
After a year of trial and error, we almost admitted defeat.
That was until sailing tragic Sean Langman, the owner of the Noakes Group dockyards in North Sydney, came to our aid. Or perhaps more accurately, took pity on us.
We had Southwinds towed to his yard at Berrys Bay for an inspection. It turned out Sean knew her very well indeed.
“I remember the wind in her rigging lulling me to sleep as a boy. My family owned her for a while and as a kid she holds a lot of great memories for me.”
But Sean is a realist and a tough businessman. He warned that a boat like this could easily cost a million dollars to rebuild.
But for Sean, timber classics born and bred in Sydney should be preserved and put back into service on the harbour and he liked our idea to make the boat available for lots of people to use.
It was also an opportunity for the younger apprentices at the shipyard to learn the skills and traditions of working on timber yachts, which Sean feared were in danger of being lost when the older guys retire.
Her masts were taken off and she was shed-bound for a six-month rebuild.
Southwinds ribs replaced with hundreds of nails and copper roves to strengthen hull and stop leaks. (ABC News: Michael Troy)
We helped where we could, but most of the time had to sit back and trust the professionals.
Two of Sydney’s last master timber shipwrights, Gary and Col, were recruited to painstakingly shape and replace more than a dozen damaged ribs, repair hull planking and make her secure for another century of life at sea.
They also built, from scratch, an elaborate butterfly hatch, installed new tanks and installed a new 100 horsepower engine, upgrading all electronics and safety features to a modern commercial survey standard.
Putting Southwinds back to work
The reborn Southwinds was officially launched in late November looking as good as new but won’t be fully operational till the New Year.
She’s high maintenance, but we’ve hopefully got that covered as she’ll be cared for by the Manly Sailing school.
Sailing instructors and the next generation of sailors will be invited to help swab the teak decks and do a bit of varnishing.
Manly Sailing head coach 22-year-old Jessie Lawson said, “the junior trainees are looking forward to having a mother ship and if they behave, they might even get to have a sail on her”.
Jessie is also wanting to use Southwinds as part of her fund-raising efforts for Headspace.
“We’ve had a lot of unexplained youth suicides on the northern beaches and we want to get kids away from their screens and out on the water for a real adventure,” he said.
The veterans’ mental health charity Soldier On has a base on nearby North Head and Southwinds will be made available to help in their programs for returned service personnel struggling with PTSD.
Looking across Southwinds’ deck as the sun sets over Sydney Harbour. (ABC News: Michael Troy)
Two years since that first sail on Sydney Harbour, the Southwinds project has been like a group Grand Designs on water. We haven’t done much sailing but after dozens of strategy meetings at pubs and weekends spent polishing, the comradery of restoring a beautiful part of Sydney’s history has been a reward in itself.
Financially, it was a foolish decision, which cost us at least double the original estimates. But being in a syndicate has meant sharing the losses and the workload.
Now she’s in the water, everyone is keen to sail her as much as possible but time is always a challenge and no one uses a boat as much as they think they will.
Southwinds will be starting her new working life in 2020, but for one more summer she’ll be enjoying a quiet mooring off Manly, claiming the title as the closest boat to Sydney Heads — and the only one with a bath.