Home' Afloat : AFLOAT July 2016 Contents 30 AFLOAT.com.au July 2016
where it remained for two decades before
a small group of local enthusiasts decided
that they should restore the old lifeboat
house, and reconstruct the lifeboat to
navigable condition. Most locals thought
the hull should to be burnt.
Maritime conservator, Michael Staples
provided advice and methods, and local
shipwright, Garry Stewart was engaged to
rebuild the frame and retain as much of the
original double diagonal Kauri planking
as possible. Most structural timbers
(especially the outer keelson, due to its
contact with the cast iron shoe) had to be
replaced, but the self-draining bulkhead,
deck and much of the planking was able
to be retained, so that about 75% of the
original timber remains.
The kauri insert material came from
old beer vats, which produced an alcoholic
vapour when steamed to shape. The double
planking was glued together, as the wear
and damage around the old nails made
longevity for the reconstruction doubtful,
although the nails were re-applied onto
roves. Several metal components had to be
recast, and a new rudder made, replicating
the Portland vessel’s example.
After 16 months, Port Fairy emerged
from Garry’s shed and re-entered the
Moyne river. The boat had been restored
to her appearance in 1888 (based on
historical photos), and painted in the
colours adopted in 1876.
Apparently, British artists complained
to the RNLI about the ultramarine hull,
objecting it was “too French”, and, being an
organisation reliant upon public goodwill,
their vessels adopted the royal blue hulls
still evident today. The final touch was to
requisition a flax canvas sail to the correct
dimensions, which was hand stitched by
Rick Mitchell in Melbourne.
The project was considerably aided by
the ability to re-use the original lifeboat
house for normal out-of-water storage,
a particular characteristic of the double
diagonal construction – which provided
the benefit of being able to leave the vessel
fully equipped for a prompt launch.
The lifeboat house had been
dismantled from the wharf in Port Fairy
bay in 1873, as the jetty was poorly built,
and was rebuilt with a slipway and a
crabbing winch adjacent to the Moyne
river. The house was restored to receive
the lifeboat again, but the frequent fishing
and recreational traffic in the river limited
the projection of the ways, making recovery
impossible with very low tides.
The reconstruction was funded by
donations and “in-kind” support, and
grants from the National Estate and
Heritage Victoria, to a cash equivalent
cost of $78,000. Internal housing keeps
annual costs to the paint touch-up, minor
repairs, and safety equipment.
The opportunity for regular voyaging,
under oar and sail, has encouraged a
number of older citizens to demonstrate
the vessel in the river and at sea throughout
the year. The success of the project
encouraged the group to organise Port
Fairy ’s first excursion to another port in
2007, when she was transported over land
and sea to be re-launched at the Australian
Wooden Boat Festival in Hobart.
In August 2009, the crew sailed her
to Portland to participate in the 150th
anniversary of the Portland lifeboat’s
rescue of survivors from SS Admella.
(Extraordinarily, White’s other boat,
Portland also survives as a museum exhibit,
although all the Peake-design boats have
Port Fairy currently rests upon its
launching cradle within its original shed,
with the rocket house and contemporary
maritime rescue equipment adjacent,
awaiting a full tide and crew to rejoin its
At sea, it resembles a graceful whale,
stately, secure and self-righting, with a
drift to leeward in light breezes.
The vessel’s reconstruction provides a
practical example of the original volunteer
service for saving human life, as the oldest
Australian built vessel afloat and the oldest
self-righting, self-draining lifeboat in the
Port Fairy rests upon its launching cradle outside its original shed. The lifeboats were
housed in modular timber sheds, distinctive for their half-round galvanised iron roofs.
Robert Whitehead and Roger Haldane at
the helm of Port Fairy.
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