Restoring the “unrestorable” 1820 “Blood Red”

by Tony Siddons.

In the year 1999 an eminent wooden boatbuilder told me, “Tony, you are wasting your time with that boat – it’s unrestorable!” 

I considered his words of advice – carefully. 

On one hand, she was far gone but on the other hand, she had mystique: one of the great Forster Cup contenders no less. 

And designed with an artistic eye inspired by the rounded lines of an oak whiskey cask by Johnnie Walker’s Australian manager, Jimmy Douglas and Melbourne’s legendary race yacht builder Charlie Peel. Her graceful shearline; the surprise of her subtle tumblehome – flowing topside from the bow down the ‘whiskey’ plank rounding out in the brilliant “Blood Red” of Australian cedar – this unique example of art and design should not be let go.  

However, today few yachting and wooden boat enthusiasts have heard of the Forster Cup Carnival. Yet when instituted in 1922 by Australia’s then Governor General, Lord Forster, the carnival was front-page news and possibly the world’s first true ‘interstate’ yachting regatta.  

Eighteen Twenty skippered by Jimmy Douglas competed in the 1935 carnival and on Sydney Harbour the following year in Melbourne at St Kilda. 

The festivity and excitement of the day are captured in Yoho Magazine in a playful description of the Melbourne Forster Cup closing stages of the Melbourne Forster Cup final heat, “…Queensland’s Vic Luas, a celebrated 18-Footer champion and crew accorded great ovation by thousands of Melbournians assembled on St Kilda’s waterfront attached by reports in the evening papers. A huge crowd waited patiently past twilight witnessing Gwylan for Queensland under special lights erected to illuminate the finish line as her nose pole cross the line a yard or so ahead of Victoria’s Eighteen Twenty…” delivering Queensland their first Forster Cup Carnival win, “…making Vic Lucas as a master helmsman! (An abridged quote)

So, on reflection, considering whether I should or should not restore her, there was only one option: – it had to be done. 

But there was a problem. 

I had uncovered another Forster Cup boat in need of urgent restoration. The boat is “The all-conquering Tassie Too.” Arguably one of Australia’s most innovative designs. So, I decided to first restore Tassie Too. The aim was to enjoy sailing this champion boat for a few years then sell it back to the Tasmanians and then get on and restore Eighteen Twenty: an equally worthy candidate for restoring but for very different reasons. 

However, after a full 2-year restoration project by master shipwright Eric Eriksson (Who built the replica Enterprise), Mark Henger and myself, 17 years on I still owned Tassie Too. We had made some progress on Eighteen Twenty but not nearly enough.  

Then out of nowhere, the Tasmanians arrived keen to take their Tasmanian icon back home to Hobart, formed the Friends of Tassie Too  and the way forward for Eighteen Twenty started to take shape. 

Co-owner Chris Cooke and I sketched out a plan of attack for Eighteen Twenty. Having re-ribbed her some years previously, we knew traditional restoration methods were not going to work. We needed something quite different.  

In 2017 a business associate and friend, Peter Lethbridge took long service leave and travelled to the UK, enrolled in a wooden boatbuilding course at the IBTC school in Lowestoft returned to Australia having graduated as a City and Guilds Shipwright. 

On Peter’s return, Chris and I presented him the ‘Eighteen Twenty challenge.’ Eventually Peter agreed (luckily and thankfully) to join the team. Together under his guidance, we came up with the restoration plan. 

The plan was to sure up the lines, take all planks off and insert a full end-to-end three-ply sheave of finely moulded ply to the ribs, select and recover every available timber and cut, size and glue the original planks to the ply sheave.  Details of the process can be read in the restoration notes on this website. 

This solution, whilst not traditional, provided us the means to maximise the recovery of existing timbers; as recovery was our prime objective.  

Our approach, as it turned out, has delivered a number of unintended benefits. The hull is taught, strong and completely dry, enabling trailer storage, minimal maintenance with no mooring fees and is easy to transport and rig, having all the advantages of a modern trailer sailor.    

This different approach to restoration has delivered a boat of significant aesthetic and historic merit for the enjoyment of current and future wooden boat enthusiasts.  

The recently published, Little Boats with Sails, The History of Australia’s 21 Foot Class is available from the Friends of Tassie Too or Navarine Publishing.

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