We lived in a beautiful part of Sydney, surrounded on three sides by the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers. Water, water everywhere but not a boat in sight. If ever there was a challenge to a small boy, this must be it. My first calculation in the field of navel architecture found me, atleast afloat, on a small timber deck supported by nine empty kerosene drums. If you are ever unfortunate enough to be paddling a craft of this type, you would discover that it goes faster and faster in ever decreasing circles but finishes up absolutely nowhere. So another calculation had to be made to produce a more directional typpe of propulsion. This took the form of a bicycle chain and sprocket assembly attatched to a length of curtain rod plugged at one end so that a propeller, made from galvanised iron sheeting, could be firmly nailed into position. A real precision job which propelled the nine kerosene drums in a forward direction. The operator was required to kneel on the keck using one hand to turn the pedal and a foot to munipulate the rudder.
Later, as my shipbuilding skills improved, I put together a cranky, but otherwise seaworthy, canvas canoe. To this, I adapted the same propulsion unit which produced a dramatic improvement in speed. This does not mean I could compete in any way with the ferry boats but I could make it across the river to explore the virgin bush and streams. As a geat prophet has said – “if we act with a pure heart bliss follows us like our shadow”. My bliss must surely have been full.
Of course, there were moments of doubt. One late afternoon, just after a storm, when I was about to cross the river n my homeward trek, a large shark broke the glassy surface of the water just between me and my home base. Would I stay out all night on the opposite side of the river or proceed on course? Knowing full well that one layer of canvas is not much protection from a shark, I continued on course with my hair sticking straight up in the air.
I was installed at Shore at fourteen and soon made it into the second four crew. After my first race, a serious toxic condition developed in my throat which spelt the end of my rowing.
At about the time, a copy of the American magazine “Rudder” came into my possession with the plans of a 20ft speedboat named “At-a-Boy 11”. It was love at first sight. The boat I had dreamed about. As I so could not fit a 20ft craft in the stables, I modified the plans to 17ft and overall length and as i had saved just enough money for the timber, I went ahead and ordered the best I could find.
The day father returned home from the office and saw all this beautiful timber laid out in the backyard was a day to remember. I knew he would be angry but I did not know he would be SO angry! I was forced, there and then, to store all the timber in the rafters of the stables and not to touch it until the following Christmas holidays, about nine months away. Well, I did touch it. In fact when he was not home, I secretly built the boat piece by piece and hid the bits between the back of the stables and the next door fence. When the holidays came, it took me only a couple of days to set up the entire framework of the boat.
When father saw the progress I had made and the standard of workmanship, it was obvious that he was impressed. In fact, he was so impressed that on Saturday nights, when his Bridge playing friends arrived, the hurricane lanterns had to be lit and an inspection made before the game was allowed to start.
When the boat was launched, friends and neighbours (and the Bridge players) flocked, not only to see it christened, but to also carry it down to the water on timber bearers.
By the time a few minor adjustments had been made to its converted T Model Ford Engine and it was made seaworthy in every way (early in 1922 and my kast year at Shore), the Headmaster, L.C. Robson was about to start training his senior eight crew. (See story next page)
AT-A-BOY 111 served me well from1921-1927 when she was sold for 110 pounds which got me started on my first round-the-world trip working my passage.
Apart from helping to coach the winning Shore crew, another proud event was a visit to a Bristish Battleship anchored in Sydney Harbour. The ship had just arrived with an officer cousin aboard who had invited father and myself to lunch in the officer’s mess. As we arrived, At-a-Boy circled the battleship at her 21 nautical miles per hour full speed. We pulled into the ship’s side and as we clambered up the two flights of steps, the little craft with pennant flying, was taken over by His Majesty’s sailors and moored to an enormous boom. It looked so pitifully small alongside the scale of a battleship. After an inspection of the turrets bristling with guns, we climbed into the bowels of the ship for lunch. Unfortunately though, halfway through my first course, it was not the ships but my bowels that caused trouble and I had to surface hurriedly for fresh air. As I reached over the side, I could see my little boat cast a shameful glance in my direction.