REMINISCENCES | Building a luxury day boat for the navy

PASSENGER VESSEL WEEK
Photo: Norman R. Wright and Sons

Early in the year 1992, a tender arrived on my desk from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). This looked exciting. I opened the tender documents to see what sort of naval vessel we would be required to build.

On reading the requirements I found the vessel was for a new “admiral’s barge” that was to be built to replace an aging admiral’s barge built by Millkraft in the mid 60’s. The RAN required a traditional admiral’s barge built of timber along the classic lines of the Royal Barge carried on the Royal Yacht Britannia. What an exciting project but some questions were raised. Who were our competition? How do I design an admiral’s barge?

The tender required many drawings including lines plans, profile and arrangement plans, machinery plans, and structural plans just to name a few. Nigel, my wonderful offsider, and I set to work. We decided to use the proven Amity-class pilot boat hull design and shrink it down to 12 metres (the required length). The admiral’s barge had to have the ability for search and rescue in a sea state roughly seven to eight feet (2.1 to 2.4 metres), so rough conditions. We decided the pilot boat hull was the perfect option and proven in these conditions.

The vessel was required to have a maximum speed of 20 knots fully manned with full tanks of fuel and water. We did a weight estimate so we could then see if our Amity-class pilot boat tank testing model would be used, if the weight scaled to our desired 10 tonnes loaded. It did, so we now had a proven hull and tank testing results to suit the displacement of our 12-metre vessel.

From the tank testing results we could predict the power requirements for 20 knots and also the fuel consumption. We then selected a suitable power plant and decided on twin Perkins 229hp (170kW) each. We now had all of our basic requirements, which allowed us to do a detailed specification and pricing for the vessel.

The hull was to be cold moulded using three layers of Queensland maple on laminated mahogany frames, the stringers were to be silver ash or Douglas fir, the super structure Burmese teak (clear finished), and a laid teak deck. The interior was clear finished Queensland red cedar with the upholstery to be white leather with blue piping. I styled the boat to look like the Royal Barge and then Nigel drew up the final plans for submission. Our tender was now submitted to RAN Office.

After a six-week wait, Nigel and I were invited into the city for a pre-contract meeting. We duly arrived at the designated time to face a board of 23 navy personnel. I was in a bit of shock as I had never experienced such a team of people to make a decision about such a small project (by navy standards).

Lieutenant Commander Ben Vernon Rogers stepped forward and met Nigel and myself, he was a great bloke. He asked us to take a seat around this massive table and then promptly announced that he no idea why he had to have 23 naval officers present from all over the country, when he and his small band of people from the Naval Small Vessel Branch could have easily done the meeting.

I liked Ben a lot. He then announced that he and I would be the only two people to speak and all others at the meeting had to be quiet. Perfect. Ben then said he had the meeting scheduled to last two hours and then he and I would be having lunch together. Things were just getting better and better.

“Little did I know at the time this fellow Walker would be become a thorn in our side.”

Ben ran the meeting and I answered the questions. All went really well until about 1.5 hours into the meeting when a naval architect called Walker interjected and said he had doubts about the speed and range that Nigel and I had predicted. This made my blood boil and Ben was really angry with this naval architect from the RAN office in Canberra.

Ben asked him directly how many boats he had designed and he answered, “None”. Ben asked me how many boats Nigel and I had designed as a team, and the answer was “many”, probably 16 up to this point. That settled the argument and we had our way. Little did I know at the time this fellow Walker would be become a thorn in our side for the final part of the contract.

Ben and I signed the contract and we were underway.

Nigel and I completed all the detailed planning and presented the plans to Lloyd’s Classification Society Australia for approval. No one at the Lloyd’s Australia office had the knowledge to assess timber construction plans for approval. They then sent the plans to their main office in London. They sat in the too hard basket for a month! I decided to fly to London to try and sort out what was happening with our plan approval. The London office has the same problem as the Australian office, trying to find a person in their organisation who was familiar with cold-moulded timber boat construction.

After a two-day wait, they found an old Lloyd’s surveyor who knew timber construction well. He came into London and met with me in the very plush offices. He was a delightful and intelligent person, and we got on very well. We immediately went through all of the plans in case any obvious problems could be highlighted before my return to Australia. A week later I had all the approved, stamped plans from Lloyd’s London on my desk. Finally we were set to build.

My brother Ian lofted the boat full size and then we began the process of laminating the frames. At the same time the keel, stern, and transom were built. One week later we set up all the frames on the back bone, that had already been assembled, ready to cut in and fit the deck shelf, sheer clamp and stringers. It was at this time that we knew we were building a very sweet vessel. The lines were now obvious, a lovely fine entry, with a chine developing from midship aft.

As the lines swept aft they finished at the nicely tucked in curved and raking transom. I clearly remember standing with Nigel, both of us had beaming smiles on our faces. This was going to be a special boat.

Hull interior (Photo: Norman R. Wright and Sons)

The frames and stringers were faired ready for planking. The planking was three layers of Queensland maple fully glued with epoxy. The final layer was screwed to the frames, stringers, transom and stern. The first layer was laid at 45 degrees to the keel, the second layer was at minus 45 degrees to the keel and the third layer was fore and aft. The screw holes were plugged with maple plugs not filled. This ensured no print through when painted in a dark colour (navy blue or dark green). The hull was then faired and sheathed with a light 250-gram fibreglass cloth and epoxy resin. The hull was then filled again, faired and painted up to a final undercoat.

Final fitout (Photo: Norman R. Wright and Sons)

Now we rolled the boat upright and set her up on her building stocks. The frames, when lofted, had the superstructure frame drawn full size. The superstructure framework had been built with the hull frames, which really made building the superstructure and deck easy. The superstructure sides were teak. The fully strung teak deck was beautifully laid by our decking king Percy Leong.

The interior was built by our head ships joiner Peter Roberts. Built using Queensland cedar, the finished fitout was perfection.

Lex Baddiley did a beautiful job of the engineering, shafting and rudders. The whole Norman Wright team just did a wonderful job, their passion for this boat was obvious. Nearing the end of the building process the painting and varnishing took precedence over the other jobs. The hull was painted in high gloss dark green with a gold cove line black antifouling to finish the bottom. The superstructure sides, centre and aft cockpits were clear finished with 12 coats of Awlgrip Spar Varnish. The interior was finished with a satin varnish, which highlighted the beautiful swirling Queensland Cedar grain.

“Also there, to my surprise, was my old nemesis Walker.”

Launch day (Photo: Norman R. Wright and Sons)

Before launch, Ben Rogers paid us a visit to check on the progress, as he had done all the way through the various stages of construction. He was full of praise for the workmanship the boys in the shed had achieved.

Now the pre-launch inspection was complete we moved the boat onto the slipway and launched her into the murky waters of the Brisbane River, late in the day as the twilight peered through the heavy clouds. There was enough light to see the beautiful profile of the admiral’s barge, sitting perfectly on her designed waterline. Happy? You bet, very happy. Ben took our little team to the Norman Hotel for a magnificent steak dinner, along with copious amounts of red wine, rum and cigars.

I have no memory of returning home that night, other than being told I was in the boot of my wife’s Saab! Next day, oh boy, what a headache I had. But that didn’t stop us getting the vessel ready for the next stages including testing for stability and sea trials.

The stability test was to happen the next night! Yes, we do all of our stability tests or what we call an inclining experiment at high tide, so we have slack water. The high tide just happened to be at 6.30PM. Ben arrived to watch the experiment and also there, to my surprise, was my old nemesis Walker. He insisted to Ben that he witness the inclining experiment.

To do an inclining experiment, we set up a number of 25kg ingots at a set point near maximum beam and then move the mass from side to side, each time measuring the inclination of the vessel in degrees. In this particular case we had 400 kg of ingots on each side of the vessel. Normally an apprentice assists me with moving the weights from side to side but to my surprise Ben told me that I should sit with him and let Walker move the lead ingots for me, leaving me just one job that was to measure the inclination after each movement of weights.

I was smiling deeply as Walker huffed and puffed moving the weights. I am sure he was cursing us as we sat and watched. At the completion of the inclination experiment I thanked Ben and Walker for their assistance. Walker was totally stuffed and angry. Little did I know that on the inside he was plotting his revenge.

The next day we had the boat ready for sea trials. Fuel and water tank full, complete crew of myself, Lex Baddiley (Engineer), Paul Smallwood (Electrical), Ben, and the Perkins Engineers. As we steamed to the bay the weather was clear but a strong southeast wind had sprung up early catching us by surprise. By the time we arrived at the Measured Mile beacons for our speed runs, the wind was gusting up to 18 knots, which in turn had stirred up a one- to 1.5-metre short steep swell – hardly the perfect conditions for running the Measured Mile.

Ben thought the conditions were perfect, a real test of the boat, he said. I had to agree with him, it was going to be a real test of the little boat.

On trials (Photo: Norman R. Wright and Sons)

Off we went, Lexy steering as usual, as I was time keeping with Ben. We started off at 1,200 rpm and then worked our way through the rev range recording the revs, speed, fuel usage and trim at each of the set revolutions. It was a bit bouncy, but the barge just sliced its way magnificently through the water. I was silently impressed, Lexy had a huge smile on his face and Ben, well, Ben was grinning from ear to ear.

On the final two runs at maximum rpm, we recorded a speed of 20.8 knots. This was well above our contract speed of 20 knots especially when the weather conditions were considered. I was one happy and relieved person. We then set off on a six-hour endurance run. No problems and the boat performed very well on all angles. Ben was happy!

While the team completed some the last tasks on the boat, Nigel and I did the stability report, which is about a four- to five-day job. We then sent one copy to Ben, a copy to the Department of Harbour and Maritime (now AMSA), a copy to Lloyd’s, and finally to Walker at his Canberra address.

“We set up an art easel on the main deck next to the steering wheel for our charts.”

It was now time to ready the boat and crew for the delivery trip to Sydney.

The crew was me, Lexy Baddiley, Bruce Andersen (a professional skipper whose dad was manager of the boatyard in the 1960’s and 70’s), and Lieutenant Tim Maddern of the RAN. Tim was a school friend of mine who had joined the RAN at 17. He completed his dentistry degree with the RAN and then became a dentist at sea. He had served with the RN and Royal Marines on loan.

We had also done much private boating together over the years. The only problem with Tim was he gets seasick (a lot). Navigation gear, well we had a compass and a VHF radio. We set up an art easel on the main deck next to the steering wheel for our charts. Yes, really back to basics.

We put our marine charts on the easel for the trip. We then fitted a clear plastic cover over the easel to keep the charts dry from rain or spray. We added two hand bearing compasses and a World War I military range finding device like a sextant. So, no GPS, no chart plotter, radar, sounder or auto pilot.

We added six additional jerry cans of diesel, a large esky for food and a small portable barbecue for cooking. All the equipment was checked and ready to go.

With the admiral’s barge fully fuelled, provisioned, and the crew on board, we proceeded south. The plan was to basically stop at a marina each night, if possible, mainly due to us not wanting to anchor the vessel. The admiral’s barge did not have an anchor winch. The barge was designed to be alongside the admiral’s wharf or on a ship, so on that, basis no anchor winch was required.

We made our way South to Southport using Moreton Bay and the channels to the Broadwater. We fuelled the boat again, had dinner at the Southport Yacht Club and then went back to the boat to sleep.

We were up early the next morning, beautiful sunny day, not much breeze. Perfect! Let’s get going!

Out over the Southport Bar we then changed course for Ballina. Speed was 15 to 16 knots, running out wide to pick up the southerly set, but not that far out that we couldn’t pick up the headlands that we needed for navigation purposes. The day proceeded well. We navigated ourselves out wide into the southerly set, our speed increased to 18 knots. All was normal, Lexy was at the helm, Bruce navigating, and making up sandwiches, etc, from our esky, Tim throwing up over the side, and me not actually doing that much.

At 11:00 we noticed a beautiful boat on our bow coming towards us. As the vessel closed, I recognised her as Annabelle. We had recently completed building this long-range cruiser. Tom and Anne Richards, the owners, had taken her for a trial run down to Tasmania and back again. This trip was  to make sure she was ready for a circumnavigation of Australia. We swooped past as our closing speeds were 28 knots. Tom and Anne immediately recognised us and waved. We did a quick circle around them and then continued south.

About 15:00, dark clouds started gathering south of us. I had relieved Lexy from steering at this stage. I asked Bruce his opinion on what to expect. A southerly front, great, I thought we are about to get a belting. As we entered into the front the admiral’s barge came alive, carving beautifully through the head seas. Lexy arrived on deck as the rain arrived, he had his wet gear on, so we left him to drive while the rest of us disappeared below.

As we lay there resting in the dry of the cabin, we noticed the sea was subsiding and the rain dissipating. The front passed by us to be replaced by a stiff easterly breeze of 20 knots. The seas again picked up enabling the little boat to surf down the waves particularly when we altered course for Coffs Harbour with a building sea now on our aft quarter, often hitting 24 knots as we slid down the face of the waves.

“The press saw this as an extreme waste of money.”

Hidden behind the Mossman Bay Marina workshop (Photo: Norman R. Wright and Sons)

On entering Coffs we found a handy berth near the fishing co-op. It was a perfect spot, offering fish and chips for dinner and a shower at the Yacht Club. The next morning, we again topped up the fuel at the co-op and then headed to sea again. The seas had calmed during the night, so we had a quick rundown to Foster. Our plan again was to top up the fuel and have some lunch. The lunch somehow expanded into dinner, so once again we overnighted in Foster.

Next day dawned, perfect weather, so we thought Port Stephens would be the perfect spot for a late lunch and a top-up of fuel. We proceeded to Port Stephens arriving mid-afternoon. We fuelled the boat, I then went to pay the marina manager, who then asked if we would want to put the bill for the fuel on the account and also wanted to know why we were out of uniform. I was a bit stunned then realised he was ex-navy and had recognised the boat for what she was – the admiral’s barge.

I was tempted for a second to say that we were undercover operatives for the navy and yes, please, can you put the bill on the RAN account. But being me, we had a laugh and told him the truth that it was a delivery to Sydney, and no, I would pay for the fuel. We went out for dinner and yes, we had fish and chips again. We decided to stay the night and leave early the next morning so as to get past Stockton Bight early as the wind seems to increase during the day as you enter this area.

We headed south towards Sydney, again the weather gods were smiling on us. Tim had finally stopped vomiting, Lexy was loving the trip, Bruce was pretending to be Matthew Flinders, and me, well, I was just relieved the boat was going so well.

We entered Sydney and set our course for Mossman Bay Marina. Mossman Bay Marina was owned by John Currie, a client of ours who owned Bali Hai and many other beautiful boats at this time. John had kindly given us a very quiet corner of his workshop pier. This mooring was not visible from the road and difficult to see from the water unless you were virtually at the wharf. John was there to greet us in his usual manner, a bottle of rum in one hand and cigar in the other.

At this time David Fussell arrived with the work ute from Brisbane. The ute carried all of our tools and some fresh clothes. Dave was a young up and coming tradesman who remains with us today in a senior management role. His job at the time was to help fit the special naval items such as the crowned ensign staff, the silver dolphins and many other ornate fittings that are unique to the admiral’s barge.

At this time the newspaper had found out about the admiral’s new boat. They saw this as an extreme waste of money and were trying to politicise the vessel. They wrote so much rubbish in their newspapers that it was embarrassing for us to read. The newspaper reporters were sent out to find the admiral’s barge in order to take photos and write even more misinformation to sensationalise the new boat.

They failed in their mission. When they arrived at the Mossman Bay Marina Office, John told them that was no such vessel at his marina. They could look out at the marina from his office but could see nothing. The simple truth was it was moored less than 20 metres away around a blind corner. We had the last laugh.

Lex doing training (Photo: Norman R. Wright and Sons)

The work continued, Lex serviced all the machinery, and David and I fitted the last of the fittings. The RAN sent over the crew who were going to man the boat in the future. We spent a day training the crew in all aspects of the boat, such as machinery, handling and maintenance.

Finally, the big day had arrived, and the naming ceremony and handover were up next.

The day started early, Lex, Dave and I cleaned and polished the boat. We then dressed in our Sunday best. We cast off the ropes from Mossman Bay Marina and headed across the harbour to Tresco House, headquarters and home of Admiral Hunt. Tresco is a magnificent federation homestead situated on the top terrace at the western end of Rushcutters Bay. From the veranda, you can look directly down Sydney Harbour to the North and South Head. It was absolutely magnificent.

“It was such a joy to design, build, trial and deliver.”

We arrived at the admiral’s jetty. As we secured the barge to the wharf, the RAN Band struck up a tune to welcome us. The band and guard of honour were on the second terrace, which leads up to the third terrace where Admiral Hunt was waiting for us. The admiral was the epitome of a gentleman. He greeted us like old friends, accepted the barge, and then asked us to join him for lunch in the grand dining room.

At 15:00 we departed back to Mossman Bay without our beautiful boat that had been such a joy to travel on. We had a wonderful day, I was a bit sad though as the admiral’s barge was such a joy to design, build, trial and deliver.

P.S. My nemesis Walker was not about to give up in his quest to upset the smooth handover of the admiral’s barge. As I explained earlier we had to produce a stability booklet. This was completed and sent off to all of the respective authorities. All the different authorities (AMSA and Lloyd’s) had accepted our stability booklet. However, Walker decided he was not happy with the booklet for the RAN. He wanted all of our calculations redone to four decimal points!! We had done our calculations to two decimal points. It makes absolutely no difference as the admiral’s barge had a large margin of safety in all required calculations.

I returned home, recalculated the stability books formulae to four decimal points and then resubmitted the stability book to the RAN division of stability in Canberra where Walker reluctantly accepted it.

Photo: Norman R Wright and Sons

The two parts of this article appeared originally on the official website of Australian boat builder Norman R. Wright and Sons.

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Bill Wright

Bill Wright is a director of Norman R. Wright and Sons, a boat builder based in Murarrie, Australia.