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The Australian newspaper ran a story this weekend on the growing interest in wooden boat building in this country (11-12 January by Pia Ackerman). The piece quoted the reflections of Larry Eastwood, who owns the recently established Pittwater Wooden Boat School, regarding the apparent lack of interest in wooden boats here compared to America where vessels ‘are held in families for generations’.

It’s not as though European Australians were not building timber craft – large and small – from the very beginning of colonisation. The construction occurred despite orders to the contrary – an attempt in the first 25 years to prevent convict escape and forestall the development of mercantile competition to the East India Company. Over the next 150 years thousands of vessels must have been made around the continent. Most of them were small rowing boats. Around Newcastle the Towns Brothers became renowned for their ‘butcher’ boats that carried produce up and down the Hunter River. Down in Twofold Bay the Davidson family were still rowing out to harpoon humpback whales in wide broad clinker-built craft into the 1920s. At Jervis Bay, the surname Settree is synonymous with timber boats – mostly trawlers.

Photographs taken well into the 20th century show waterfronts, including Sydney Harbour, littered with rowing boats. These vessels were made from the softer Australian timbers rather than the hardwoods that would blunt saws and exhaust the men who wielded them. Often there were different woods for different parts of the craft. Queensland Ash, cedar, melaleuca were just three.

This 'butcher boat' built by the Towns Brothers in Newcastle is one of the few surviving examples of their work
This 'butcher boat' built by the Towns Brothers in Newcastle is own of the few surviving examples of their work

Now, in NSW at least, one is lucky to see small timber craft outside a museum, and even there they are rare. The Pilot Station Museum at Port Macquarie has a beautiful cedar dinghy with sail. The Newcastle Maritime Heritage Centre has a Towns Brothers 'butcher boat', while the Lady Denman Museum in Huskisson Jervis Bay has a whaler reconstructed from the deteriorated remains of two other craft.

It would seem that there was a quick and widespread take-up of modern materials from the 1960s. The Register of Historic Vessels maintained by the Australian Maritime Museum puts the date as 1965 - after which begins the ‘mass production era’.

Traditional materials are still used throughout Asia – perhaps not surprisingly given the availability of easily-procured, fast growing local wood. They are also commonplace around the Mediterranean where tradition and costs may both be factors.

John Ruskin noted the enduring appeal of the ‘bow of a boat’ and the ‘rude simplicity of bent plank’ in The Harbours of England as long ago as 1856. It is curious that the aesthetic appeal of wooden boats in Australia should have lapsed so dramatically in the late 20th century. In the course of researching my recently published Coast: a history of the New South Wales edge, I asked some boatbuilders why this occurred here and then, in contrast to other wealthy countries such as US and UK, but I couldn’t really get a single answer. It was suggested that the recalcitrant nature of Australian timber finally proved too much. Some said local wood was too hard and too expense to get. These observations may be accurate but I was still unclear why did the tradition end then and why didn’t it carry on with imported timber?

I ended up concluding that there was a cultural element as well. Australians are a people who take up modern materials and discard time consuming tradition with alacrity. The rapid displacement of timber homes with modern brick veneer styles through the 1960s and 1970s is a case in point. So it is with boats, it seems, though the tide is turning.

The question remains, however, where did all those skiffs and dinghies, wherries and whalers go?

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The residents of Sussex Inlet had a win recently. After more than 25 years of siltation and collapsing walls Shoalhaven Council have agreed to dredge the water channels, dug nearly 40 years ago, that provide boat access to the sea from the bottom of the suburban gardens of this canal estate.

The estate gets its name from the estuary which fills its canals. There are two sides to this natural Sussex Inlet – literally. Along its northern shoreline is a mix of mangrove, casuarina and sclerophyll forest dotted with the occasional habitation, including one of the earliest holiday retreats on the south coast.

Sussex Inlet canal estate, south coast NSW
Looking across Sussex Inlet to the south. The canal estate lies beyond these trees and buildings.

 

The heritage-listed Christians Minde was established as a guest house in 1896 but the name refers to the Danish family who settled there in 1880. Indeed it was the death there of Christian Ellmoos Jr in 1888 that gave the place its name for Christians Minde means ‘In the memory of Christian’. Nearby is Kullindi – the homestead built in the early 1900s for other members of the family. Their descendants left many years later and both sites are now used for holidays and functions. Timber-built and more than a century old, they sit next to the estuary and within the landscape.

On the south side of the estuary is the settlement of Sussex Inlet, originally a small coastal village that was greatly expanded when parts of the waterway were reclaimed and casuarina and mangrove forests turned into the canal estate.

The two shores couldn’t be more different. Where the Inlet branches off naturally through mangrove on the sparsely settled north side, on the south canals serve as streets and cul-de-sacs. Which is, of course, what they are – for this is a suburb for power-boat owners and recreational fishers. The distinction between the cultural landscape of the canal estate and the bush beyond is emphasized by landscaping – typically manicured lawns. And where 19th century colonists marked their presence in the Australian bush with pine trees, the iconic planting of the canal estate is the palm tree – usually the introduced cocos that has come to evoke leisure and coasts.

Architecture too helps make the point that, despite the presence of water, this is above all a ‘man-made’ place. For Sussex Inlet was developed at the height of the popularity of the brick veneer bungalow and villa.

Sussex Inlet canal estate, south coast NSW
Boats, palms, lawns and flags. Sussex Inlet canal estate in 2012.

Compared to their counterparts in the United States, where timber has remained a primary building material across social groups and periods of boom and bust, Australians (or at least those in NSW) have long preferred brick homes. In its capaciousness and finish, the brick veneer house proclaimed an unequivocal end to post-war austerity. In its larger incarnations it can be seen as the progenitor of the ‘McMansion’. Indeed in canal estates such as Sylvania Waters, upgrading and redeveloping have seen the McMansion become the dominant style.

However, the standard brick veneer house of the 1960s and early 1970s is entirely Modernist in its elevation of function over form, its use of machine-made materials and its eschewing of decoration. Like most Modernist styles, the brick veneer form rarely ages well. It was designed to look new from the beginning and to stay that way. The patina that is so much a part of appeal of stone and timber, and that lends the Ellmoos buildings on the northern shore of the Inlet their organic charm, plays no part in the attraction of brick veneer. As it was a post-austerity style, there is little evidence of nostalgia for past styles and finishes. The brick veneer denied history – at least until Georgian fan-lights, decorative shutters and faux-paned windows crept into some designs from the late 1970s. These can be seen as a segue to the post-modern McMansion. And whereas neatness and attention to maintenance is the original and optimal state of the brick veneer, it speaks loudly of respectability – as does the well-tended garden.

Australia’s first canal estate was carved out of sandy flood plain next to the Nerang River on Queensland’s Gold Coast by developer Alfred Grant and architect Karl Langer in the mid-1950s.

In New South Wales, Sylvania Waters was created on the George’s River in Sydney’s southern suburbs by the Hooker Corporation in the early 1960s. Sussex Inlet followed a decade later. It is contemporary with Settlement Shores near Port Macquarie and another canal development part of the Tweed River system called the Endless Summer Estate.
The concept had its immediate antecedent in Florida and Hawaii where America’s extraordinary post-war affluence gave rise to the idea of the leisure community. In New South Wales, its introduction coincided with the growth in boat ownership which doubled during the 1960s.

This was the era of unchallenged intervention in the landscape – exemplified by the Snowy Mountains Scheme – when any resource that remained untapped and untamed was by definition a wasted resource. The natural world was there to be shaped for the benefit of humans. Concern about ecology was still nascent.

But attitudes were changing even as the Sussex Inlet canals were being dug. The tide was turning so to speak. The issue of sand mining had focused the attention of a young conservation movement which became more strident in its opposition to development and exploitation. That concern spread to the impact of canal estates upon marine systems – particularly mangrove forests. For many these estates became synonymous with greedy-development, poor-planning (the cost of renewed dredging was high), ignorance and quite simply bad-taste. Sylvania Waters was the setting and name for one of the country’s first reality TV shows – a fly-on-the-wall exploration of the nouveaux riche in the flamboyant 1980s.

New South Wales was the first to ban the construction of these developments in 1997. Bans were extended in other states and a moratorium even established in Queensland – the spiritual home of the Australian canal estate.

But among estate residents there remains a pride that defies the concerns of ecologists – just as their houses stand apart from the surrounding landscape. News of renewed dredging in Sussex Inlet prompted one resident to declare... ‘Its a wonderful way to use a swamp’ (Source: South Coast Register 27/11/2013 )

One person’s paradise, it seems, is another’s wasteland. Therein lies the difficulty for the local Council planner.

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