Australia’s Wooden Boat Festival

There’s nothing like a few tall ships and other assorted wooden boats to fire up nostalgia in a port city. Like such ports around the world, Hobart’s waterfront long ago ceased to be a focus of any significant maritime trade; most containerised shipping uses Bell Bay in the north of Tasmania and Hobart’s container port, such as it is, is now around the corner from the old port on the River Derwent.

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James Craig with Yukon in foreground. I and many Tasmanians over a certain age will recall seeing James Craig’s rotting hull laying in the River Derwent for most of the 1970s and 80s, before it was taken to Sydney where it was completely restored and is part of the collection of the Australian National Maritime Musuem.

The former wharves and piers that once accommodated vessels taking wool, apples and jam to help feed and clothe a hungry Commonwealth have or are being turned into smart hotels, restaurants, function centres, a maritime studies institute and a multi-use space which in summer welcomes passengers of the many cruise ships that now account for a large proportion of Hobart’s marine traffic.

Pennants flying in the breeze add to the festival atmosphere
Pennants flying in the breeze add to the festival atmosphere

Leisure and maritime spectacle are not new to Hobart; each year since it was first run after the second world war, yachts from the Sydney to Hobart and the various other ocean races that have grown up in its stead (Melbourne to Hobart, Launcestion to Hobart, and I’m sure there are others) provide a festive atmosphere for a few days between Christmas and New Year.

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Visitors can put on a lifejacket and choose a wooden boat to row themselves around Constitution Dock
A sleek-lined wooden yacht
A sleek-lined wooden yacht

In 1988, the bicentenial year of Australia’s colonisation by British settlers (mostly convicts), Hobart was the focus of a major gathering of tall ships from around the world, drawing thousands to the waterfront for a week-long festival ahead of the start of a race to Sydney. As an island, indeed an archipeligo of around 250 islands, Tasmania has long traditions of boat building, and its native timbers, especially  Huon pine and King Billy pine were and are prized for making light-weight skiffs that were used for navigating the wild rivers of Western Tasmania to gather more such timber, as well as for coastal cray and fishing boats.

Rigging on James Craig
Rigging on James Craig
Her Maj - figurehead on James Craig
Her Maj – figurehead on James Craig
The James Craig
The James Craig

Prior to the construction of the island’s highways, wooden ferries plied the waters around South East Tasmania, carrying apples from the Huon Valley as well as people and all manner of other goods to and fro. Since 1992, the traditions and craft skills behind wooden boat building has been kept alive in Tasmania at the Tasmanian Wooden Boat Centre at Franklin, half an hour’s drive south of Hobart on the Huon River.

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Tasmania’s indigenous peoples had their own boat building traditions, which have been revived in recent years
Traditional Tasmanian crayfising pots under construction
Traditional Tasmanian crayfising pots under construction

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So it is perhaps not surprising that since 1994, a biennial wooden boat festival has been held on the Hobart waterfront, and that it has grown to be among the biggest such festivals in the world. The Festival was initially held in November, but that month’s notoriously unreliable spring weather prompted the event to move to early February from 2001. Since then, it has become a major plank in Tasmania’s program of events, attracting both boats and visitors from around Australia and the world. It has completely overshadowed (both in terms of profile and attendances*) the traditional Hobart Regatta which is held over the same weekend, and was once a highlight of Southern Tasmania’s social calendar.

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The Festival draws thousands of locals and visitors, with plenty of catering options on hand to feed and water them
For participating boat owners, it's a social occasion
For participating boat owners, it’s a social occasion

It is an astonishing acheivement for an event that was initiated by three friends in the early 1990s and which continues to be largely run as a not-for-profit enterprise by volunteers (there is a small contracted management team), and even more astonishing that for the past several years, access to the festival has been free of charge.

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Wooden boats, including several tall sailing ships, dominate Hobart’s waterfront during the biennial Australian Wooden Boat Festival

A recent article in the TasWeekend magazine published by The Mercury raised concerns about the ongoing sustainability of the event, given its volunteer base, growth and the workload associated with running major public events, especially ones that occupy large parts of a city for several days at a time. One hopes that the event can survive and thrive, given its cultural and economic significance to the island, and indeed Australia.

Boat shoes in a rainbow of shades
Of course all those lovingly crafted wooden decks won’t stand for being stompted upon in any old hobnailed boots, so the Festival emporium has deck shoes available in rainbow shades to match the most outlandish rigging

*According to a report in the Hobart Mercury newspaper in February 2014, the previous year’s attendance at the Royal Hobart Regatta was between 30-40,000. A report in the same newspaper in February 2017 put the attendance at the 2015 Wooden Boat Festival at 220,000.

 

Resources

Australian Wooden Boat Festival

Royal Hobart Regatta

Tasmanian Wooden Boat Centre

4 thoughts on “Australia’s Wooden Boat Festival

  1. Excellent word and photo story. Yesterday was a spectacular day for the boats. I delighted in watching from my Bellerive balcony, the Sail up the Derwent. Then before sunset I was wandering around the wharf. Like you, I love the spectacle of the colourful pennants and all the happy activity. It is another example of the energy put into visually interesting events in Hobart.

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