Heriot Media and Governance


Murray Kellam, AO QC - Launching 'In the South: Tales of Sail and Yearning'

in In the South: Tales of Sail and Yearning
4 Apr 2013  |  0 Comments

Some people who attended the launch of In the South, on 9 February 2013, have since commented on the erudition of the two speakers - the eminent Australian jurist (and sailor) Murray Kellam and the champion of small wooden boats and the spirited raconteur, Robert Ayliffe.

Robert spoke entertainingly without notes while Murray had put considerable effort into preparing speech notes. In response to the interest people have expressed, I publish the notes of Murray Kellam, below.


Book Launch – In the South – Tales of Sail and Yearning

The Hon Murray Kellam AO QC


In 1976 I was on the crew of Metung, a 50’ ketch designed by Alan Payne ---indeed the last set of plans off his drawing board before he designed Gretel, the first Australian America’s Cup contender.   Although built in the Victorian lakes, Metung had her connection with Tasmania, her hull being constructed of Huon pine.

In December of that year, whilst awaiting the commencement of the Westcoaster race from Melbourne to Hobart, I saw IleOla for the first time. The three masts and the narrow hull were strange sights to me and I enquired of a fellow crew member “What in heaven’s name is that?”  His response was “That is the Geelong schooner, IleOla ----she is a witch on a reach. She will fly if we get a Norwester”.  IleOla was Herreshoff Marco Polo designed in 1945. I was familiar with the Herreshoff H28 having sailed one but this was a radically different boat altogether.

Little did I know, nor was I to find out for 35 years that Geoff Heriot, the author of the book we are about to launch today was on board IleOla at that time.  Subsequently IleOla was to pop up before me from time to time, the next time being in the Sydney to Suva race of 1977.

This book tells the story of IleOla and its owner Geoff Wood but we learn much more than that. IleOla and its owner came from Geelong but she travelled widely in the Bass Strait Tasmania (and in the Pacific.) The narrative treats us to tantalizing bites of history both maritime and otherwise from the places she visited. The history of Geelong includes the details of the Rudder Cup, Australia’s first ocean race from Port Phillip Heads to the Tamar Heads at Georgetown.  And what an exciting chapter that is, written so well that one can almost feel the spray on ones face as the author describes the travails of the four entrants in the race.

The story connects others who have sailed the waters around Tasmania.  There is a chapter which tells us about Utiekah III built by Wilson Bros at Cygnet in 1924 and its most remarkable owner “Spuddo” Giles, who introduced hundreds of young people to sailing during a 50 year period.  Amongst those youngsters was Dr Richard Ham who subsequently maintained a lifelong friendship with Geoff Wood. Frequently Dr Ham with his wife Barbara on their own Huon pine constructed yacht Sailmaker cruised in company with Wood on his yacht IleOla. Many such voyages were made in Bass Strait and Tasmania although the Ham’s ventured further and later undertook a circumnavigation. I know Geoff is delighted that they could be here today. Another who sailed on IleOla on and off for more than a quarter of a century was Steve Neunhoffer, a well-known member and official of Royal Geelong Yacht Club who is also here today. 

I know Geoff is also very pleased to see Jeremy Firth, Penny St Leger and Phillip Fowler here today (editor's note: Phillip did not attend due to illness on the day).  Like Richard Ham, Jeremy and Phillip both cut their cloth as sail trainees with Spuddo Giles. Phillip Fowler’s family later became the owners of Spuddo’s boat Utiekah III, and amongst other things, Phillip is one of the founders and a former Chair of Tasmania’s Maritime Museum.

The book contains a marvellous chapter dealing with the question of whether the construction of a wooden boat is merely the product of engineering, or can be seen to be art.  It deals with the unhappy litigation in which John Swarbrick became involved some years ago, culminating in a decision in the High Court of Australia to the effect that one of Swarbrick’s designs was a commercial enterprise, an industrial product rather than a work of artistic craftsmanship.

With the greatest respect to their Honours  (most of whom I know and so I say this with some authority)  I suspect none of them had ever seen an International Dragon class yacht or  a J class for instance and admired their graceful lines.  I am confident that none of them had ever been to the Hobart Timber Boat Festival.  They accepted the evidence of naval architect Warwick Hood who had in giving evidence, agreed that although there was a substantial body of opinion that yacht design is an art or involves creative or artistic ability, he did not hold with those views because he saw those who held them as being ”influenced by a poetic view of a vocation that was basically concerned with engineering.”  I suspect that not many in this room would agree with that view and certainly not L Francis Herreshoff.  In his book the author poses a hypothesis that had Herreshoff been reincarnated and given expert evidence in the case, the result may well have been different.

As enthusiastic as I am about this publication, I would not urge its purchase upon those who see yacht construction as merely an industrial commercial enterprise. This is a story not only about the poetry and the artistic endeavour of yacht design but also about the love of sailing.

The book deals in detail with the designs of Bruce Kirby , the designer of Geoff’s own boat Scherzo.  Kirby of course was the designer of the Laser.

In an interview with the author , Kirby said of the Laser, “It’s  hard to talk about the design of the Laser without sounding kind of silly.  It’s totally an art form………I did it the way I wanted it. That was pretty well an art form. It was not scientific.  The calculations to make it work were scientific but the appearance of the boat was totally an art thing.  That’s one of the reasons I don’t design on a computer. I enjoy the art form.” Amongst the many interesting photographs and diagrams contained in the book is that first freehand sketch done by Kirby as he discussed the Laser project over the phone with his client.

Yet, the Laser was undoubtedly a commercial success, an Olympic class and several hundred thousands of them being produced.

Bruce Kirby, amongst his many designs (including Canadian 12 metre challengers for the America’s Cup) designed the Norwalk Islands Sharpie, in a number of variants. It was an adaptation of a 19th century design by Commodore Ralph Munroe in Miami.  Others including Nathaniel Hereshoff and Ian Oughtred were much influenced by Munroe.

It is here that the story moves to New England in the United States. An architect, David Austin, approached Bruce Kirby about constructing a Norwalk Islands Sharpie type of boat.  Although many of these boats had been built in the US, Kirby recommended that Robert Ayliffe, who is with us today and will speak to you shortly, should construct the boat. The story that follows is set out in the book and it is an interesting story indeed.  Suffice it to say here, that Robert did build Scherzo and she lived happily in the US, owned and sailed by Austin for many years. Scherzo has now returned to Tasmania and can be seen today at Constitution Dock.  Of course she is now the prized possession of the author and I am sure that Scherzo and her story was part, but only part, of the motivation for Geoff to write this book.

But the book is more than a dissertation of the lives of those who have sailed wooden boats in Port Phillip, Bass Strait and Tasmania, enjoyable as all those tales are.  It contains numerous historical anecdotes and barely a page passed without my having learned something new, for example that it was only 18 months before the Rudder Cup in July 1906 that Tasmania was connected to the mainland by radio---but only by morse code----or the wonderful description of the feral behaviour amongst a crowd of 6000 people who attended a free public banquet to celebrate the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh to Geelong in 1867.

And then there is the thoughtful contemplation by the author of the fate of the first residents of the islands of Bass Strait and of the consequences of climate change.

As is apparent from what I have said the book will have obvious appeal to any wooden boat enthusiast. It is packed with detail, but written in a most entertaining style. It connects the dots between designers, builders, owners and crews of such boats from Adelaide to Geelong to Bass Strait, Tasmania and of course to New England.

However it will also have wide appeal to anyone who has an interest in the sea and in history. I count myself as in the latter group rather than the former and I enjoyed the book greatly.

The book has many themes, but in the end I think the main theme is almost a spiritual one. The penultimate paragraph of the book reads:

“Here in the south, we know both the majesty and menace of Bass strait and the waters beyond. They are here as rugged and as tempting as they were in boyhood and generations of boyhood before mine. But, when you take the time to look and listen, you will see that they always present a shifting surface. Nothing ever stays the same. We are all in some measure transformed by our exposure.”

The style of that beautiful piece of writing is replicated throughout the book in other descriptions, stories and tales.

I am delighted to be associated with the launch of this very worthwhile book and wish it great success.

As I told you Robert Ayliffe built and to some degree redesigned “Scherzo”. The book contains entertaining information about Robert which I will not repeat here, save to say that Robert sailed his own 23’ Sharpie, Charlie Fisher to Hobart from the mainland some years ago. An official of the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania later described Robert in association with that trip as the ‘mad bastard from up north’.

I now have pleasure in inviting Robert Ayliffe to say a few words to you.


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