Home' Afloat : AFLOAT June 2018 Contents 58 AFLOAT.com.au June 2018
BILLY BARNETT, oam
Quite possibly the most prolific boat
builder of our time was farewelled
recently in a private service on
Sydney’s North Shore not far from where he
passionately built many of Australia’s best
known sailing boats.
Billy Barnett, OAM has died. He was
103 years old.
A gentle soul and a gentleman he was
regarded as one of the best in the business.
A man who lived his life to the full.
Following the service, the Sydney Flying
Squadron was filled to the rafters with many
who gathered to remember and celebrate
the life of a legend, a Sydney maritime and
boat building professional the likes we may
never see again.
Sir James Hardy spoke of a dedicated
and fervent man who quietly reached for
the sky and achieved great things both on
and off the water.
Billy Barnett was a stickler for detail.
Born into a boating family in 1915 he started
building and racing 12-foot canvas dinghies
from the Milsons Point Sailing Club in the
1930s with the help of his father, Prince, who
was a shipwright with Watty Ford back in the
early ’90s. He was the eldest of three boys.
He and his brothers soon became excellent
young sailors and Bill quickly became a
Greenwich Sailing Club Champion.
Leaving school Billy took up an
apprenticeship at Neptune Engineering in
Lavender Bay, later completing the final
twelve months of his apprenticeship with
Manly Ferries where he built lifeboats for the
Dee Why and Curl Curl, before moving onto
shipwright duties during the war with the
Shell Oil Company in Gore Bay at Greenwich.
Billy’s father was a competitive open
boat sailor and Bill joined his dad as forward
hand on the 18 foot skiff, Malvena helmed by
the legendary Billo Hayward.
In 1937 Malvena won the Australian
Championship on the Brisbane River.
Billy injured his knee in the first race and
hospitalised, he missed the rest of the
regatta. He subsequently steered Malvena
for the remainder of the season after owner,
Joe Mercer, refused Hayward’s request for a
share of the winnings.
His departure from Shell enabled Billy
to purchase land on the waterfront in Berrys
Bay where he built a home and boatshed next
door to where he was born. It was here that
he began building craft for the very profitable
surfboat market as well as constructing 16
and 18-foot skiffs.
He soon built a reputation as an excellent
shipwright through his innovative designs
for surfboats and the Dragon class yachts.
This reputation was further enhanced by his
skills as a sailor, skippering many of his own
designs to great success.
In 1951 Barnett won the State, National
and International 18 footer titles with his
build, Myra Too. Myra Too was sold and so
he built Myra III in which he won the State
Titles but lost the National Championship
to Norman Wright on Jenny IV. He did not
contest the 1952 season taking 18 months off
from sailing due to health and the pressures
of his growing business.
In 1954 he contested the Olympic trials
only to be beaten by Western Australia’s
With the growth of 18-footers his boat
building skills were now in great demand.
All his boats were built in timber. His skiffs
were made of carvel and seam batten
construction to moulded veneer. His boats
were always strong.
His career reached new heights when
he was approached to build a yacht for
Australia’s second America’s Cup Challenge.
The yacht, a Warwick Hood design was
christened Dame Pattie after Pattie Menzies,
wife of the former Prime Minister of Australia,
Robert Menzies. Dame Pattie was unsuccessful
against the American defender, Intrepid.
“ Being asked to build Dame Pattie was
the most momentous thing, with regard to
boatbuilding, that ever happened to me,”
said Barnett at the time.
Then in 1969, Frank Packer commissioned
Barnett to build the 1970 America’s Cup
Challenger, Gretel II, an Alan Payne design
which unfortunately was defeated by the
Americans again with Intrepid.
In 1971 a devastating fire ripped through
Barnett’s McMahons Point boatshed
destroying the structure, its contents and
his valuable tools and archives. The shed
was rebuilt with community assistance as
well as that of North Sydney Council.
Some of his other great achievements
were the building of the 6-metre class keel
boats, Toogooloowoo (I) and II, Prince Alfred
and Pacemaker for John Taylor and the ocean
racers, Boambillee and Kingurra.
Billy Barnett married his lifelong
partner Gloria in 1940. Together they had
two daughters, Cynthia and Margaret who
as children spent many wonderful hours
playing in and around the busy workings, in
the sawdust and shavings of a very productive
and famous wooden boat yard on the harbour
shores of Berry’s Bay,
And now, like the boatyard that was,
Billy Barnett, is gone ... but not forgotten.
h Patrick Bollen
Bill Barnett helming Myra II i n 19 51.
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