Traditional Boat Squadron

Of Australia

My Father’s Canvas Covered Canoes

When I was a boy, my father told me about his canvas covered canoes, and his adventures on Sydney Harbour. My dad was born in Melbourne, moved to Port Pirie, then Adelaide, and about 1928, the family moved to Sydney and lived in a house in Mitchell Street, Greenwich. This house was about 150 m from the ferry wharf on Greenwich Point, and a similar distance to the Greenwich baths, a small section of Sydney harbour that was fenced with wooden palings. These parts of the harbour were attractive places to an active boy and his friends.

In the September 2022 issue of Afloat magazine, there was article about Joshua Slocum and his visit to Sydney in his famous boat Spray. Slocum wrote in his book “Sailing Alone Around The World” his impressions of the boats on Sydney Harbour in 1896.

“I saw all manner of craft from the smart steam-launch and sailing cutter to the smaller sloop and canoe pleasuring on the bay. Everybody owned a boat. If a boy in Australia has not the means to buy him a boat he builds one...”
- Joshua Slocum

About 32 years after that visit by Spray, at an age of about 14, my father was one such boy who built his first canoe. I think it was about 14’ long. He said he had trouble steaming the ribs, and the canoe was a bit lopsided, but that didn’t matter. Thin wooden slats were used for stringers and ribs, and the canvas cover was painted (probably with the cheapest paint that was available). Although he called it a canoe, it was probably more of a kayak. Years later, my father and I found an old canvas covered kayak at a beach shack, and my father immediately recognised it as similar to what he had built. My father’s canoe building ambitions matched his age, and two years later he built another canvas covered canoe, this time 16’ long. With his friends in similar boats he travelled around the harbour. He said that if they were passed by a ferry going their way, and they were quick enough, they would give a ‘hoy’ and throw a line to a passenger at the back of the ferry, and get towed as far as they wanted. Not something that would be approved of today! Then at age 18, he built a larger canoe and used it for an Easter camping trip with friends. For some reason they had to start on Thursday night, and set off down the harbour in the dark. They were checked by the Water Police, to see if they had lights, and they did, a carbide lamp, the same as the ones they used on bicycles. Certainly not enough light to show the way, but at least there would have been a big moon at Easter. The first night they slept on a beach inside South Head, and the next day went up Middle Harbour as far as they could go. The following day they headed for home, having a quick trip by catching a tow by a passing launch.

It was almost 80 years later, in the last few months of his life, when talking about his canoes and Sydney Harbour, that my father made an off-hand remark that surprised all the family present, a memory that we had never heard before. He had been in this last canoe underneath the Harbour Bridge when it was opened on 19th March 1932.