If you build it, it will float

This mariner has been doing it himself for years, writes David Lockwood.

This mariner has been doing it himself for years, writes David Lockwood.

Bob Foster is no stranger to boats. At 82 years young, the former flotilla commander of the Birkenhead Point branch of the Coast Guard (now Marine Rescue) has just built his third timber boat.

It is within the freshly varnished cockpit of Kareelah III, just the day after it was launched, that we get chatting about home-built boats.

Foster is a mechanic by trade, boats have been in his blood since he was 15, when his dad built one by hand. That was in 1945 and the boat was a 14-foot launch powered by a 35hp Simplex two-stroke engine.

"Back then you just grabbed whatever timber you could pick up," he recounts, adding that his dad was a boilermaker and very good with his hands.

In 1953, his dad acquired a project - a 27-foot hull with a six-cylinder Chrysler engine. Foster and his brother lent a hand. The resulting boat was a source of untold adventure from the backblocks of Middle Harbour to Store Beach.

Foster turned his hand to making his first boat in 1962. It was a 14-footer, Len Hedges design. He bought the plans, built the boat and added a 40hp Johnson outboard.

By 1970, he was going bigger and built a 17-foot Hartley Superstyle with his own cabin design. The boat had a Hamilton two-stage jet and it skidded in the turns.

His wife and daughter didn't like it one bit, so he repowered with a Volvo engine with sterndrive. The family approved, as did the many admirers of its varnished ash decks.

Now Foster has returned to the revered Hartley designers in New Zealand. Since its first plans were sold for home boat construction in 1938, more than 100,000 Hartley boats have been built worldwide. This time, Foster bought the plans (about $90) for the Flareline 20, a medium-vee cabin boat that can be powered with virtually anything.

"I went to buy a three-cylinder engine. They asked what boat I was putting it into. I showed them the plans and ended up with a 35hp four-cylinder Beta," Foster says, lifting the engine box proudly, adding that Beta Diesel at Taren Point were just great.

Foster says he has a thing about cabins. Compared with the boat in the plans, he extended the hardtop and changed the window line. He increased the size of all the timbers, too. As with any boat builder, he was concerned with the waterline. But when he launched the boat the day before I met him, with a champagne ceremony and a few of the helping hands on site, it floated just right.

"That was the greatest surprise, the waterline was perfect," says the self-taught boatbuilder. He also added a deadwood keel to the hull for stability and slipping, though being hard chine, the Hartley is a very stable boat at rest.

In effect, he turned the Hartley planing hull into a displacement hull, as his "days of racing are over". With the British-made naturally aspirated Beta engine, and down-angled 2:1 Twin Disc gearbox, the boat is good for about 8-9 knots. He didn't add a galley but does have a sink in that area, while a head and holding tank was added to the WC.

From go to whoa, the boat took about 18 months to build. But it has been something of a communal effort, with the Birkenhead Point Marina manager, Phil McGowan, organising shipwright Graham Alexander and sparky Graeme Kermode to help finish it off. They donated their skills and time.

Arthritis and a missing thumb were added challenges to Foster's backyard-boatbuilding ambitions. But once you start you can't stop, he says, adding that the boat probably owes him about $35,000 because he "blew the budget". The marine-ply hull is Dynel sheathed and features plantation mahogany frames, hoop pine stringers and spotted gum hardwood for the gunwales. The cabin supports are maple.

"People say, 'I couldn't do that'. I ask them, 'Have you tried to build a boat?' Their reply is 'No'. 'Then how do you know ...?'

"My advice is, don't put it off," Foster says, looking out across his stamping grounds in Iron Cove. "I think Sydney Harbour is the place. Store Beach is just so beautiful."

david.lockwood@bigpond.com

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