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John Dark, known around Sydney
Harbour as the owner of the classic
little Sydney Harbour yacht Sao, died
last April three months short of his 95th
Sao, a miniature Bristol pilot cutter in
the style of the 1880s was built in 1905 in
Berrys Bay by the famous Watty Ford. A
bit of a time capsule, a floating piece of
the old harbour heritage, Sao survived
largely due to many years of hard work
by John and Ann Dark, who found her in
Balmain in 1964.
In the mid 1960s John was one of the
three steam enthusiasts who bought the
Lady Hopetoun and started the first Maritime
Museum in Sydney.
As a young boy John lived on and off
in his mother’s family home Toora on
Greenwich Point where he was looked after
by his mother’s family after his mother died
when he was only six weeks old. Helped
by his Aunt Ivy he rowed out to the old
Sobraon in Berry’s Bay where the Watchman
allowed him to wander her top deck. Little
did he know then that he was very close to
Ford’s Boat Yard where Sao was built for
J.B . Holdsworth, coincidentally the father
of his uncle’s wife.
While a boy John made a simple model
of the Cutty Sark which the modelmaker
Cyril Hume helped him sail. In his teens,
probably inspired by Cyril’s 1936 model,
John started on making his own model
of the Thermopylae but didn’t get beyond
the basic hull which he kept all his life
meaning to one day finish it. It went with
him on his final journey.
After his father re-married John went
to live at Katoomba where a love of bush
walking was encouraged by his father Dr
Eric Dark, an accomplished rock climber,
and Eric’s second wife Eleanor.
Sao took six years to restore and was
finished just in time to take place in the
first gaff rally held by the Sydney Amateurs
Club in 1972.
John did most of the restoration of
Sao himself but at times required the
experienced skill of a shipwright. The first
shipwright was Frank Likely who owned a
boat yard in Sailors Bay.
“ When we entered Sao in Amateurs
Gaff Rally John tentatively asked Frank,
who was a very experienced ocean racer,
if he would consider helping us sail Sao as
John had no experience of racing rules. To
our astonishment, Frank said he would be
delighted,” his wife Ann reflected. “From
that day until old age took its toll on Frank
he sailed with us every Gaffers Day the
SASC has been staging from its clubhouse
at Mosman Bay since 1972 but he always
insisted that John was the skipper.”
Sao ’s second major restoration was at
Richard ‘Rick’ Wood’s Birchgrove boat yard
in 1993. There, after a rather wet inside
and outside trip to the Hawkesbury River,
Sao was totally stripped back to the wood
inside and out and repainted. When Rick’s
boat yard was reclaimed he recommended
Simon Sadubin and Ian Smith at their
Chowder Bay Workshop. Here in 2003
Sao was given her third very extensive
restoration and a new engine installed.
After a stroke and other problems
which effected John’s balance, John was
unable to get down onto Sao but he kept
himself busy restoring his huge collection
of wooden pulley blocks.
“ To the last week of his life he climbed
up the very steep narrow staircase to our
attic bedroom,” Ann said. “ There every
morning he gazed over the waterways
of Greenwich which he had roamed all
his life. He counted the tall masts in the
old Woolwich Dock boat yard looking for
the big three master and on Boxing Day
watched the tall black masts of the Hobart
“Rick, again our shipwright, would sit
and talk to him about jobs that he was
doing on Sao.
“Last year we drove to Tilba Tilba to
visit Rick, who along with his wife Chrissy,
has been restoring their 1922 yacht
Waitangi. With Waitangi being restored on
land John managed to climb up onto her
and get down into the beautifully restored
cabin to admire Rick’s workmanship and
see where he had used some of the old teak
John had given him from HMAS Penguin.
“ With Rick’s help Sao will stay in the
Ann Dark with Robin Copeland
Sydney Amateur Sailing Club’s 2015 Gaffers
Day will be held on Sunday 18th October.
JOHN DARK AND HIS PASSION FOR SAO
John Dark visiting Rick Wood onboard
Waitangi at Tilba Tilba in 2014.
Sao, Kilkie (A3) and Etrenne (A35) at 2008
Sao, took six years to restore.
John sailing Sao on the harbour.
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