We stood under the clocks at Flinders St railway station in Melbourne and tossed a penny. It was my call, --- and heads it was!
We had been to see our sail cloth supplier in the city. The news was bad, as the supply of Egyptian cotton sail cloth had dried up, and now even though the war was over, supply was to be rationed, so there would not be enough to keep both of us busy.
On the way back to the station we had discussed what best to do, and had concluded that one of us should become a boat builder, but who! So we solved that in the time honoured way, and tossed a penny.
That was how I came to be a boat builder!
Keeley and Legg Sail makers would be no more. Bob and I had been good mates; we had shared the same youthful enthusiasm about boats and sailing; in fact we thought of little else.
My parents had recently moved to a small farm in Somerville, a small town on the Frankston to Stony point line that was served by a twice-daily steam train and I couldn't wait to get home that afternoon to announce that I was now to become a boat builder.
My announcement was not received with much enthusiasm, as being a sail maker had been bad enough when my father had wanted a farmer son, but a boat builder - No! Never the less he did reluctantly agree that I could have the use of an unused fowl house if I raised the roof and put down a floor. And maybe the hay shed if it wasn't needed.
The war had ended three years ago and I was nineteen, full of energy and ideas, and there was a demand for almost everything including boats.
I bought an old carvel planked 14 footer hull, covered it with waxed paper, then laid three opposite diagonal layers of 1/16 veneer with glue in between, the whole assembly was held down with hundreds of thin strips of timber and thousands of shoe tacks. These had to be removed when the glue had cured. This worked well, as the hull was very strong and rigid, but when we put it in the water it leaked like a sieve, and it took many coats of varnish to seal the holes. Years later this boat won a state title after being fitted with a modern rig.
It seemed to me that boats had been built the same way for centuries, and there had to be a better way. I had recently been shown over a furniture factory and seen them veneering curved cabinet fronts on a vacuum forming table and I couldn't see why boats couldn't be built in a similar manner; boats were only compound curved shapes after all.
I set to work and designed an eight foot car top dinghy and planked it with half inch timber. It had a frame every foot and was completely decked over with half inch ply that made it was very strong but quite heavy.
In a war surplus store I found an aircraft vacuum pump and a vacuum gauge. This was attached to an half HP electric motor, and seemed enough to create the desired vacuum. Next needed was a bag, made up from rubber hospital bed sheeting, that had to be big enough to completely enclose the whole boat and attached to the pump with a hose. I couldn't wait to try out the contraption to see what would happen. The open end of the bag was sealed with timber battens and clamped.
I turned on the pump ----- the bag sucked up tight to the boat, there were a few groans and creeks, and the gauge went up to 8lb. There was a loud bang as the frames in the boat collapsed, then the bag tore. The whole thing was a wreck.
Not a good start, a whole week's work destroyed in just five minutes.
When I had a think about the disaster it was really quite exciting. All that pressure from a simple vacuum, but how to make use of it without building a solid mould?
Pondering this problem, it suddenly struck me! Why not just construct a shell of a boat in two halves over a mould with veneers, leaving a small gap between the strips, say five or six layers in alternating diagonal layers, and use this as the mould. It would be light weight and have no distorting effect from the pressure, and be easy to handle and slide into the rubber bag.
When the two sides were moulded, they could be assembled on a conventional keel, stem and transom. Had anyone else thought of this?
I went ahead and built up another boat shape, but this time I used one inch wide strips spaced one inch apart for planking, and left a recess for the stem and keel. Five layers of 1/16 veneer laid and glued over it then several coats of linseed oil to prevent glue sticking to it.
The rubber bag was patched and a reinforced 44 gallon drum added as a reserve tank, and it was ready to try again.
Previously on the 14 footer I had brushed the glue on and only done a few strips of veneer at a time, but now it was necessary to spread the glue on two layers of thirty strips each and lay them in thirty minutes or less before the glue started to cure, so some one would have to spread the glue for me while I laid the veneers back on. Mothers do come in handy!
All went well, and after three hours under vacuum the glue had cured, and what was surprising was that the excess glue had been forced right thru the pores of the veneer. It was virtually plastic impregnated, and the whole surface was as smooth as a bottle. It was a great success!
It didn't take long to put that first boat together, and when finished it only weighed eighty five lbs and seemed very strong.
The half moulds worked well, and were not affected by the pressure. The small gaps between the veneers allowed the air in the bag to escape completely and the whole assembly was easy to get in to the bag.
I was fortunate when a friend offered to buy my first boat as I was fast running out of cash. It was to be used as a yacht's tender and he thought it was great. From that first boat I had orders for several more. At last I was on my way!
When autumn came that first year the orders for my dinghies dried up and I was running out of money, so I found a job at a dry cleaners in Frankston. I was talking to a girl on the train coming home one afternoon, and she was telling me that she followed the local Australian Rules football team. Did I play? The team was short on players and would I be interested. The next Tuesday I turned up at their training session, and was told, "If I got some gear they would give me a try."
Never doing things by halves I bought some boots and the following Tuesday I had a run with them and found that I could kick a ball and was fast enough on my feet. On the Thursday evening at training my name was on the list to play on the following Saturday.
I had the mistaken feeling that I must be pretty good to be picked straight away, and was looking forward to Saturday's game playing Hastings.
Come Saturday at the pre game meeting I was told that the forward pocket was my place "You can't do too much damage there." That was rather deflating, but my spirits picked up when my opponent in the back pocket appeared. He only had one good arm, as his left arm was missing from just above the elbow. This was going to be easy!
When the ball eventually did come our way, and we took off after it, he kept pushing me away with his stump. This was rather alarming! The second time he did it I pushed him back. I don't think the umpire liked me because he gave the other fellow a free kick.
To cut a long story short I didn't even touch the ball that day. I couldn't even stop my opponent marking the ball one handed. As for that girl, she never did get into my carriage again, and anyway I decided to stick to sailing in the future.
By August I had saved enough to get back to my boats. I could build up some stocks for summer, and as part of the deal with my parents, for using the sheds, I would spend some time helping on the farm.
Dad wanted to plant potatoes in the bottom paddock and he wanted to get the ground broken up by spring. He had bought another horse for ploughing, and this had never been broken in for the job, so to teach him where to walk with his right feet in the furrow, I was to lead him.
Now I do like horses! But this horse was a brute. At every opportunity he wanted to bite, or if he got the chance step on my toe. I was very happy when he finally did get the idea.
I decided from then on I hated farming and must get on with my boats.