On a recent trip to Australia, San Diego’s Annie Kolls received a heroine’s welcome. She was on Australian TV, interviewed by newspapers and magazines. She was guest of honor at an Australian sailing championship, an annual high point in a sport that has been traditionally all-male in Australia. Never mind that she was 48 before she set foot on a sailboat, despite living near the water most of her life. Some of Australia’s most famous sail-racing stars opened their doors to her, showering her with attention and hospitality during her three-month visit.
So why the interest in a 60-year-old housewife? The quick answer is that Annie had stumbled upon something the Australian sailing community thought it had lost forever, an object steeped in national pride and history, a small boat as quintessential Australian as a baseball bat is American, a treasure Annie gave to the Australian people this year, as a gift from America.
I am talking about a vintage 1939 Australian Sixteen. A hand-constructed, all-wood, 16-foot sail-racing machine named Fury. She is one of a still-thriving racing class native to Australia, known simply, with characteristic Aussie understatement, as skiffs. Those who race them are are endearingly called “skiffies.” Do not let the name “skiff” throw you. This boat is not meant for a Sunday row with a picnic basket stowed neatly in the bow, nor is she designed to serve as a tender for a grand yacht. These skiffs are designed and built strictly for racing, an enterprise taken seriously in Australia.
When Annie took possession of the skiff in 1990, she knew only that the boat was Australian and that she had been meticulously constructed. Annie did not know how old the boat was or that her original name was Fury. Due mostly to luck, Annie began corresponding with some of Australia’s most famous skiffies. They were excited that one of their beloved boats had turned up in America and helped Annie log her skiff's pedigree and record. It turned out she had a gem. Fury had been hand-constructed by Australia’s world-renowned boat builder and racer, the late Norman Wright Jr. Further, Annie had the oldest still-floating 16-foot skiff anywhere.
Annie had lived in San Diego for 37 years, been married twice, raised a son and a daughter, all before ever sailing.
She was married briefly to her high school sweetheart in New York in 1956, and his travels with the Air Force soon led them to San Francisco. Annie moved back to New York, where she met and married Peter Kolls. In 1960 they moved to Ocean Beach and by 1962 had two children, a girl and a boy. Annie has lived in the San Diego area ever since. Annie and Peter divorced after 4 years, and she spent the next 24 years as a single mother, facing the formidable task of making a living and raising two children alone.
After retiring from 8 years in the marketing department of Home- Fed Bank, Annie had a garage sale at her Pacific Beach apartment in the fall of 1982. There she met a man who invited her to sail on his 29-foot sailboat. After years of the corporate grind and the challenge of raising two teenagers, she welcomed the open, unobstructed space, distant horizons wherever she looked, the simple magic of being pushed forward by wind. By this time both the kids were in college, and she felt truly free, for the first time in over 20 years.
“This is what I was missing my whole life,” she thought.
She became a regular, sailing with her friend at every chance.
At the marina where Annie’s friend kept his boat, Annie saw an interesting 19-foot wooden boat for sale. The quaint little boat, a 1937 design, charmed her. Annie showed the boat to a girlfriend, and they decided they must have her and agreed to split the cost. At the last minute, Annie’s friend reneged. Annie borrowed the money and bought the boat herself. She named her boat Precious. “That $3800 was the best investment I ever made,’’ she said. “It has changed my life to another direction, and my heart is leading the way.”
Annie taught herself to sail by just going for it. Daily she’d head into San Diego Bay solo— I imagine with a huge smile on her face — and learn from the wind and sea. Every day was another challenge. She says it is thrilling to learn sailing as a senior. “The feeling of accomplishment was euphoric.” She’s fiercely proud of Precious, and it shows. The decks are sparkling, the varnished teak a golden luster, and the small interior so warm and cozy—with mahogany sole and cupboards, lace curtains for the ports, and a long, tastefully upholstered settee — you want never to leave. A small cruising boat the size of Annie’s contains all the essentials one needs to be happy in life. Even if you never sail farther than a few miles from your berth, an illusion of freedom comes with owning a boat like Precious — the conviction you could at any moment pick up anchor and sail away to anywhere and be utterly self- sufficient. Annie said the boat had set her free.
Often she would spend nights on Precious, tied up at her berth. She enjoyed those evenings and was inspired to write a poem, titled “Marina at Midnight”:
A rich damp pervades the air
A salty sweetness. A halyard
Rattles on a mast somewhere
As a breeze picks up...
My boat rocks gently, her fenders
Chirp in protest, the blue
Heron relocates with a squawk
And a whoosh of wings.
By my gently swinging lamp, cozy
In my bunk, I read of Those Who Dream
Of Cruising to Paradise.
As for me,
I’m already Here.
In 1984, the same year that Annie bought Precious, she met her present husband Dudley Elmore, a retired navy CPO and now a software quality assurance engineer, presently working for Palomar Products, Inc. Dudley was living aboard his 30-foot Newport sloop at a marina adjoining Annie’s on Shelter Island. They were married a year later.
“He didn’t want me to work. This is why I’ve been able to do so many things I’ve wanted to do. Without his support I couldn’t possibly have had the great life I’ve had for the last 12 years—or collected so many little boats!” Annie said laughing. To meet Dudley is to experience generosity. He fully supports Annie’s devotion to boats, an addiction that must at times push his tolerance to its limits. In the first 5 years of their marriage, and on a limited income, Annie added to their collection an 8-foot sailing dinghy (which she restored and named Hot Yot, complete with racing flames), a 12-foot schooner, the Australian Sixteen, and a 17-foot day sailer. The most boats she’s had at one time was seven.
Annie loved sailing and boats so much that she gravitated toward people who felt the same way. Soon after buying Precious, she found her way to the Ancient Mariners Sailing Society, a San Diego club, founded in 1974, for antique and classic boat enthusiasts which meets once a month at the Southwestern Yacht Club. To be a flag member you must have a classic boat designed before 1934, constructed of traditional materials. Precious made the cut. Club members like to race their old woodies. Annie has many beautiful racing trophies, some mounted inside Precious.
By 1989, Annie was the editor of the society’s newsletter, the Albatross, and by 1990 was their first woman commodore. (They dubbed her Commodorable.) Also in 1989, a friend introduced her to a small boat club called SCSBMS (Southern California Small Boat Messabout Society).
In a letter to me Annie wrote, “I went to a messabout (a small group of SCSBMS members who share their little boats with each other at some water hole and partake of potluck picnic food) and had a ball and met some very nice boat builders.
"After I had attended a few more messabouts, the man who had started the club a year or two earlier asked me if I would help him with their newsletter. I couldn’t at the time as I was commodore of Ancient Mariners and doing their newsletter. At the end of 1990 I told him I could help. I had more time because I wouldn’t be commodore anymore, and I decided to give up the Albatross. He then sent me a big box full of everything he had on the SCSBMS club. He said, ‘It’s your club now, Annie. Don’t let the guys down.’ I had had no idea this was what he meant by ‘helping’ with the newsletter!
“I haven’t let them down. The membership, which was about 15 at the time, has now been at around a hundred for the last three years. I coined the name ‘Scuzbums’ because the name of the club was too much of a mouthful. I also encouraged the members to bring their wives and families, and now it is a very family-oriented group. We have no leader, commodore, president or anything like that. We don’t have meetings. We just mess about from time to time with our homemade and restored boats. This laid-back, family-oriented group of small boat builders and admirers has been a fun outlet. Affectionately known as the ‘Mother of all Scuzbums,’ I do publicity, organize events, publish the newsletter (the ScuzBumsNews), and ‘mess about’ with gentle friends, as well as learn more about boats.”
If this club had a motto, it would be captured perfectly by that laid-back philosopher Rat in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows: “There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” It’s a state of mind, and totally different than that observed in people who race yachts.
Sometimes Scuzbums’ messabouts are held in Baja, or up in Morro Bay, or on a lake in Arizona. But most are held in San Diego, with members descending from all over California, and coming from even as far away as Missouri, for the fun. Anyone can join, no need even to own a boat. The people in this club are characterized by their gentleness, their passion for building small boats, and their wish to share that passion. The demographics are diverse: some members wealthy, others with little money, retired and working, young and old, professional boat builders and people who don’t know which end of a hammer is for holding, which for driving nails. If you love boats, or think you might love boats, everything else about who you are is irrelevant at a Scuzbums messabout.
Scuzbums’ messabouts provided lucky sailors an excellent opportunity to experience Fury. In a letter published in the ScuzBumsNews, member Tom Jeter wrote that sailing on Fury in light winds “was like riding atop a thoroughbred racehorse on its slow walk around to the starting gates. Peaceful, but you know that once conditions change (the gates open), the horse will explode out for the ride of your life!”
In her manuscript about her adventures with her remarkable skiff, titled Gift of the Fury, Annie writes, “It is addicting to sail her.... Like having a tiger by the tail, she takes off, always before you’re really ready, and it takes two hands to hold the tiller. As her speed increases, the center- board begins to vibrate, faster and faster, like an engine in a car as you press the accelerator down more and more. It takes all your concentration as the helmsman, and your crew must choreograph their movements on each tack or jibe, like ballet dancers. On the straight run just off the wind, with your crew hiked way out to offset the tremendous pressure on the sail, you are responsible for the well-being of boat and crew alike. For if you waver, or lose concentration, look away, or try to do anything but steer the boat, you and your crew will spend the rest of the day in the water. The seriousness of such responsibility is matched only by the terrible thrill of having all that power at your command, and the siren call of speed! It’s terrifying, electrifying, euphoric. You cannot resist the urge to scream with elation.”
It was in the fall of 1989 that Annie first learned of Fury. At a meeting of the Ancient Mariners Sailing Society, a letter from a man in Bandon, Oregon, was brought to Annie’s attention. It was the second such letter from Elmer Lowry, and again he asked if anyone in the society would be interested in an “Australian skiff’ and continued that he wanted her in San Diego because it was his hometown and he had learned to sail there, that he hoped someone in the society would want to buy her.
The idea of driving all the way to Bandon for a “skiff” didn’t strike anyone’s fancy. But as editor of the society’s newsletter, Annie felt embarrassed that his first letter had gone unanswered and thought that a polite, inquiring phone call and an ad in the newsletter was an appropriate apology.
When Annie talked to Elmer, she was intrigued by his description of the construction of the boat’s wood-planked hull, the enormous sail area pushing her at out-of-control speeds, the need for a crew of four or five to sail her. Annie didn’t mind dreaming of having all that power at her command. The boat sounded awesome, not the ordinary “skiff’ she had first pictured. They talked for an hour and a half, Annie asking questions about Elmer’s strange boat, sharing stories of restoring her own boats.
Annie liked the sound of Elmer, found him gentle and full of spirit and enthusiasm, especially for a man of 74. The feeling must have been mutual: at the end of the conversation, Elmer offered his Australian skiff, a boat he had enjoyed for more than 30 years, to Annie, free for the taking. He explained that he wanted the boat sailed, enjoyed, and that San Diego Bay was the perfect place for her, that “she’s got lots of years of sailing left in her.” He said he trusted Annie would do right by her.
Out of respect for Elmer’s gesture as much as for the boat herself, Annie said yes, “yes, I would love to have her.” Her new go-for-it attitude had brought her good luck, and this was no time to change tack. So when Dudley came home from work that evening he didn’t have a chance; he was blind-sided, bowled over by his wife’s excitement and passion, and — bless him — he surrendered without even a fight, “Sounds great. Go get it!”
A week or so later, with her Australian shepherd Meggie and food for two, Annie jumped into her Toyota Chinook minicamper and headed north. She made an adventure of it, stopping at every enticing beach along the way, strolling through redwood groves, taking pictures of fishing boats. Four days later she arrived in Bandon. She was enchanted by Elmer and his wife Elva, by their warmth and vitality. She describes them as movie-star beautiful, Elmer with a full head of white hair, blue eyes, and a quick smile, “like an older Paul Newman.” The Lowry house, built by Elmer, stood in a clearing among towering trees, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. After breakfast and a walk in the woods, Elmer was ready to show Annie what she had come tor.
Annie wasn’t expecting much. In their phone conversation, Elmer had told her that after moving to Oregon from California he had rarely sailed the skiff, that she had been stored in a shed during most of his 20 years in Oregon. Stowed for 20 years in damp, soggy, cold Oregon: Annie had imagined the rotted remains of a hull, broken ribs, leaves floating atop a pool of brown sludge, the “shed” a tattered tarp. So when Elmer emerged from a two-door garage underneath the house towing a boat in excellent condition, Annie was shocked. And what a boat! Right away, seeing the unusual lines of the hull, the fine construction of the interior, Annie knew she was looking at a jewel. And she was hers!
Right there in the yard, with Elva and Annie looking on, Elmer started rigging the boat. It was complicated and Elmer patiently explained what went where and how. There were parts Annie had never heard of: Gunter gaff (the long wood pole attached to the top of the mainsail, which serves to extend the length of the mast); hemp snotter (a loop that wraps around the mast, holding the inboard end of the spinnaker pole); and the running hack- stays, each stay leading from the mast to either side of the stern. Elmer explained that with each tack, the windward backstay must always be drawn taut and the leeward stay loosened, or the whole mast would end up in the drink. Everywhere Annie looked there were halyards (halyards are lines — on a boat, rope is always called line—that pull things up). There was a halyard for the jib, for the spinnaker, for the boom, for the gaff, the gaff bridle. With the sheets (sheets are lines that pull things sideways), running backstays, and halyards, there were a lot of lines to tend. Annie was impressed. She was beginning to understand the need for five hands.
The skiff was finally fully rigged. Elmer pulled the big mainsail up. Fury was sitting there in the Lowrys’ yard, three fans staring on, when — Annie writes — “a slight wind found its way into the yard, and the boat heeled over, the sails filling easily. She slid forward a few inches, eager to fly again.”
Elva reminisced that some of the best days of her life were spent on this boat, water screaming by, wind in her hair. Elmer became solemn and — looking Annie in the eye — warned her that she must never lose concentration at the helm, that she must focus all her energy on steering and steering alone, that her crew would be there to do everything else. That is, if she wanted to stay dry. Annie was filled with both impatient longing and fearful respect.
Annie, Elmer, and Elva stood there awhile, admiring the masterpiece before their eyes: Carved Australian red cedar planking with ribs and stringers of silver ash, held together with over 3000 handmade copper nails; a “bumpkin” (Australian for bowsprit) projecting six feet from the bow, arching down slightly under tension from two steel straps staying it to the hull; natural knees supporting the thwarts, shaped from branches with just the right bend; hollowed bunya-bunya spars, with running backstays, a 14-foot boom, and a Gunter gaff reaching 30 feet into the sky above the open hull; a mainsail, hand laced to the spars and with full timber battens, spreading 175 square feet, ready to transform even the slightest breath into motion; a jib adding another 45 square feet of sail area; a hull, designed for speed, with a plumb bow, bold at the top and razor sharp at the waterline, falling away abruptly and flattening toward the stern, allowing her to partially lift up and out of the water as she planes, skips, flies toward the finish line; a huge wooden barn-door rudder, a noble, yet futile attempt to keep her under control.
Annie stayed with the Lowrys for another five days. They walked in the woods, sailed in Lowry’s other wood sailboat, set and retrieved crab pots on the fly, and ate the Dungeness crabs they caught. They became fast friends. On the sixth day Annie headed home to San Diego, towing her new skiff.
But before she left, Elmer told Annie what he could about the skiffs history. He knew that she was Australian but had no idea who built her or when, or what her original name was or even how she came to America. Going backward and forward, here’s the complicated chronology:
Elmer’s friend, Peter Hancock, had found the skiff in a Sacramento boat yard. He was in the business of boat hauling and had just delivered a new boat to the yard. He spotted this odd sailing craft, lying exposed to the elements, and managed to talk the owner out of her in exchange for the freight bill. The boat was in bad shape. Her previous owners, not much into sailing, had brought her to the yard in exchange for a small runabout; they must have been frustrated after attempting to turn the skiff into a fishing boat: the mast boot had been sawed off, probably to make room for beer coolers and fishing gear; pine planks had been nailed from gunwale to gunwale, to serve as seats; and a chunk of wood had been nailed into the transom to support an outboard motor,
Elmer first saw Fury in 1960 in the garage of Peter Hancock’s Costa Mesa house. She was lying upside down and appeared to be in terrible shape. The spars had split, dried out from years of neglect. The cedar planking was an opaque brown from too much sun, which Elmer assumed (incorrectly) spelled rot. But the sleek shape of the hull caught his eye, so he turned the boat over. He was stunned by the bravura joinery, the 3000 handmade copper nails, the cedar planking, the natural knees. At the time, he was involved in fiberglass boat building, so he knew enough about boat construction to realize he was looking at a remarkable boat.
When I recently asked Elmer on the phone about his first impression, he told me, “Well, there was just no boat anywhere like it. Could you imagine being involved in fiberglass boats, where they pop them out like cupcakes, and seeing a boat that had been put together in that fashion? For heaven’s sake, this guy had put all these rivets in the thing, over 3000 of them at least. And the selected knees — you don’t see natural knees anymore. I thought to myself, ‘Gee, this is unique, this is something I’ll never see again.’ ” Most wood boats have knees; they are triangular pieces of wood that strengthen joints, such as where the thwarts (lengths of wood that cross the hull: think of the seats in a canoe) meet the hull. The trick with knees is having the grain of the wood closely mirror the angle of the joint it is strengthening. It is not enough to cut the knee from a plank of wood; the run of the grain would have no curve to it, and the knee would split. Nowadays knees are made by laminating many thin strips of wood. The thin wood is pliable and is easily shaped to fit any joint. But the knees Elmer was looking at that day were each a single piece of wood, the grain naturally following the curve of the joint. Elmer knew that the creator of this boat had gone to the trouble of hand-selecting a tree branch with just the right bend for each joint and then fine-tuning the shape of each branch to make perfect knees. Elmer was impressed.
In 1960, Elmer had offered to fix up the skiff in exchange for the right to sail her.
“Deal,” said Peter.
So Elmer tied the mast, gaff, boom, bumpkin, and a tangle of ropes and wires together, hauled the whole mess home, and set to work. (After a number of years, Elmer gave Peter $100 for the right to call the skiff his own.) Elmer glued the spars back together, had a new steel centerboard built, fiberglassed the outside, and painted it white. If something was broken or missing, he jury-rigged it.
Before long, he had her in the water. He and Elva and a couple of friends would take her out on Newport Harbor and have a ball showing off. During one of these outings, while sailing through Newport Channel, a guy in a nearby boat seemed to be going nuts. He was waving wildly and yelling, “I say, where’d ya blokes get that boat?” In the brief time it took them to sail past, they arranged a time and a place to meet on the following weekend. The wild, screaming guy was an Australian, Dick Tucker, who was in L.A. trying to make it as an actor. It was Dick who first identified the boat as an Australian skiff. He showed Elmer how properly to rig her and even had a friend send up a new spinnaker for her from Australia. The Lowrys and Dick met regularly, racing up and down Newport Harbor, Dick reciting Shakespeare at the top of his lungs, beautiful Elva using a harness to hike way out over the water, Elmer at the helm, laughing, smiling so hard his cheeks hurt. They had more fun than should be legal and were even pulled over one day by the coast guard for speeding. In honor of her origins, and as a play on the Australian accent, Elmer started calling his new boat Yotting?
It took one Aussie to recognize the boat as Australian, it took another to help solve the mystery of the boat’s origins. In the fall of 1992, Annie received a phone call from an Australian journalist named Robert Keeley. Keeley was in San Diego to cover the America’s Cup races, and since Australia had already been eliminated, he had time on his hands and went to the Wooden Boat Festival on Shelter Island. A friend of Annie’s had told him to look Annie up, that she had an old Australian 16-foot skiff. That caught his interest. Keeley was doubtful: could this American woman Annie actually own an Australian 16-foot skiff? Keeley figured the boat was just an old, everyday skiff, a beat-up relic of the fishing trade. On the phone he arranged a time to come see her.
Keeley’s eyes opened wide in amazement as he walked around the boat. He said, “Annie, this is an Australian 16-foot skiff all right, but I’ve never seen one this old, except in photos.” Keeley figured she was built in the 1940s, maybe even earlier, and was mystified that in San Diego he was looking at one of these treasured antiques. This was Annie’s first inkling that she might be the owner of a rare boat. She wanted to know more, to know the boat’s history. Like Dick Tucker, Keeley was not going to let an opportunity to sail on an authentic Aussie boat slip through his fingers; he convinced Annie to arrange a sail, and sail they did. Keeley took photos from a chase boat, sailed Annie’s boat, and then wrote an article titled “Sweet Sixteen” that was published in the Australian magazine Cruising Helmsman. At Annie’s request, Keeley inserted a note at the end of the article that stated Annie’s interest in learning more about the origins of her boat and included her address.
The response to the article was overwhelming. Every few days Annie would get a letter from another Australian skiff sailor eager to help discover her Sixteen’s past. Many would write her just for the opportunity to relive their sailing histories, with amazing stories about ferocious races, capsizes, the serious beach parties that ended each race day. Through these letters the old skiff era — the late ’20s through the ’50s, 'when the wooden skiffs remained relatively unchanged in design — came to life for Annie.
The skiff class developed in Sydney from watermen’s skiffs near the turn of the century. Some bloke discovered that if he raised sails on his skiff, he wouldn’t have to row as hard. You can imagine how you would feel, rowing your guts out, blisters bleeding, when your neighbor, sporting his new sail, kicked back, catching the morning sun, sipping coffee, taking in the view, passed you on the way to the fishing grounds. That night you would have the needle and thread out, sewing your bed sheets into a nice big sail. Well, it wasn’t long before everyone had sails, and it took even less time to discover that racing was more fun than working. The skiff classes were born.
With a fresh breeze, the normal crew for racing Sixteens used to be five. Seems like a lot, for a boat only 16 feet long, but even so, it was exhausting work for all hands; the skiffs are hard to sail. They have so much canvas, are so top-heavy that left alone in the water, even with the centerboard down and not a bit of wind, they tip right over on their sides. The ballast is the human crew. The five positions were skipper (using both hands and all his might to keep the boat on course), sheet hand (manning the main and jib sheets), bailer boy (trying futilely to bail out as much water as was coming in), swinger (tending to the running backstays, which kept the mast from toppling over), and forward hand (setting and stowing the spinnaker — with its very long, two-part spinnaker pole — and balloon jib).
Traditionally, skiff racing was a working-class sport. Wharf laborers and watermen from Sydney, Brisbane, and Perth would slave during the day and race in the evening. Many raced boats they had designed and built themselves. The racing was nothing like the refined, strictly controlled yacht-club jousts between rich folk in matching Gore-Tex foul-weather gear that we think of when we think of sailboat racing here in the States. It was more like football on water. Fair play, rules of the road, right of way, and nice manners had no business here. The object was to win, at any cost. Tough skippers would ditch crew members overboard when they thought it necessary to lighten the load. Vying for the best positions, competing boats would slam into each other, tangling the rigging into a mess of line, sail, and wood. Sometimes rival crews would board each other in the middle of races, using broken-off tillers to knock bottom planks out, fists flying against bloody noses, blackened eyes, broken ribs. Spectator ferryboats, dangerously low in the water with their heavy cargo of laughing, cheering, and screaming gamblers and fans, would pack thick around the race like drunks at a cockfight. The irony was that all this chaos, this crassness, this full-tilt-boogie fun took place on the most gracefully designed, meticulously crafted works of floating wooden art.
It was not uncommon for every boat in a race to capsize if the wind was strong or fluky. And because the skiffs were impossible to right at sea, and it could take hours before some towboat would come to drag the whole mess ashore, it was common practice to lash a bottle of rum and a jar of cigarettes and waterproof matches to the mast. Once capsized, the crew would spread the mainsail out flat across the water, sit atop it, and enjoy a drink and a cigarette. The theory was that the stink of rum would keep the sharks away. We're talking Australia, remember; many of these races were on waters infested with great whites, or — worse — saltwater crocs. Yikes!
So, maybe it’s not surprising that the skiff classes never spread to America. This wasn't the perfect sport for the prepsters who graced the yacht clubs of this country:
“I daresay, Biff, you might have come a tad close out there today. Remember, my good fellow, right of way, right of way.” “A thousand pardons, my dear Chip, a thousand pardons. Competitive spirit got the best of me. I’m afraid. But not to fear, old sport, it shall not happen again.”
The more Annie learned about the old skiff era, the more consuming became her appetite to discover the history of her boat. Two people were pivotal in granting Annie that wish: 83-year-old Pat Collis, famous Sydney- area veteran skiff competitor who was still racing and hadn’t missed a season for 65 consecutive years, and retired Brisbane sailmaker and former champion skiff-racer Jack Hamilton. After a two-year correspondence and investigation, the identity of Annie’s skiff became known. She was built in 1939 in Brisbane by Norman Wright Jr. Her original name was Fury, and she was the oldest existing 16-foot skiff.
Norm was still alive. From photographs Annie had sent, he identified the skiff as his own creation by the unique placement of ribs just aft of the center thwart. Norm and Annie became correspondents and then friends. He sent Annie an old photo of Fury and her sister boat Joy side-by-side, taken around 1940. He also put Annie in touch with Fury's first owner, Vic Dixon. Vic had remembered selling Fury to Yank GIs stationed in Brisbane during the early ’40s. It’s thought that Fury was brought to America over 50 years ago, as deck cargo aboard a liberty ship at the end of WWII. Fury's mystery was solved (although her fate during the 15 years after she left Australia, and before Peter Hancock discovered her, may never be known).
Their questions were answered, but still Pat Collis, Richard Tucker, Norm Wright Jr., and Jack Hamilton continued corresponding with Annie. Her friendships with these men blossomed. She decided to travel to Australia to meet her skiffie friends. She made plans to go in 1993, then canceled due to finances. A year later she again made plans to go, and again canceled. In October of 1995, Richard Tucker died and then in March of 1996, Norm was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She told herself the time was now, that if she didn’t go soon she’d have no more friends to visit. She left for Brisbane on April 10, 1996. It was during that first visit that Annie decided to give Fury back to Australia.
This past November, an excited Jack Hamilton flew to San Diego to visit Annie and help her prepare Fury for the long journey home. Australian-based Columbus Lines donated most of the freight fare as part of the Fury homecoming effort. Jack planned to travel with Fury on the Columbus’s container ship, both to watch over Fury and to grab a chance to travel across the Pacific by ship.
In mid-November I met Annie and Jack Hamilton at a marina in Coronado. It was a chance to see Fury before she left America for good, to hear the story of this Australian boat and the woman who owned her. As an added bonus, Annie had invited me for a sail aboard Precious. While Annie got Precious ready, Jack showed me Fury.
Sixty-four-year-old Jack looked like my image of an old skiffie, with beat-up rusty shorts, a tattered flannel shirt dripped with varnish and blotches of bottom paint, worn-out canvas tennis shoes, and a sailing hat like Gilligan’s (but unlike Gilligan, Jack managed to look cool). Jack’s whole life has been boating. He raced Sixteens in the ’40s and ’50s and later switched to their larger cousins, Eighteens. For work he was a sail- maker, a business he’d taken over from his father, who had inherited it from his father before him. Now retired, Jack works as a volunteer curator for the Queensland Maritime Museum, soon to be Fury's new home, restoring old wood boats working as chief fireman on the museum’s 1925 coal-burning steam tug Forceful, and preserving the history of skiff racing.
Fury rested snug on a trailer, covered, waiting to be put on the container ship that would take her and Jack home. Jack carefully untied and pulled back the canvas cover, revealing the boat’s interior. His callused hands ran back and forth along the smooth gunwale in a slow caress as he answered my questions about Fury and pointed to details of her construction: The thin strips of brass Norm had thought to lay on five closely placed ribs, like tracks, so that a bailing bucket could glide easily and would be less abrasive, or the natural knees Norm had shaped from ti tree branches, hand selected in the swamps surrounding Brisbane.
The fluid twists and twirls of the ti grain looked like the ribbons of water that trail behind a moving sailboat. Fury had since been painted, but like all boats of her class, she was originally finished “bright,” varnished inside and out. The fastidiously crafted curves and turns of the wood, the contrast of rich red cedar and pale ash, glowing like a fine piece of furniture, made me imagine Fury sailing before she had been painted, the way Norm intended her to look. In my mind’s eye I could see the sleek, dark wood hull dwarfed by her bright, towering, white sails billowing above the sea. With her spinnaker and balloon jib flying, Fury carried nearly 500 square feet of sail—an enormous excess for such a small boat, like strapping a supercharged V-12 to your rich grand- mothers museum-quality antique chest. I pictured Fury as an approaching thunderstorm, her sails like the huge expanse of sun-drenched cumulonimbus clouds, her hull the dark rain beneath. To those competing against her she must have excited the same dread, promised the same impending fury.
I asked Jack if Fury was fast in her day. “She won one championship that I know of. Very good boat in heavy weather, the races she did win were all in heavy weather.” Jack’s attachment to this boat was personal; he was friends with both her builder and first owner. He even remembers his father mentioning that ”Fury was going to America,” a flash of memory that had helped unlock the mystery of Fury's past. Watching Jack look at the boat I imagined him reliving his childhood, racing with a bunch of skiffie friends up and down the Brisbane River. I felt intrusive, as though I were peering over his shoulder at his family photo album or diary. He seemed distracted, his eyes focusing on some minute detail of Fury's interior.
With disappointment in his voice, Jack explained that the skiff class has changed a lot in the last few decades. When Jack was a young man, for about ten weeks of wharf-labor wages anybody could buy or build himself a wood skiff and join the fun. But then in the 1960s costs started to rise, and in recent years a Sixteen is “getting close to a year’s wages!” Exotic materials and advanced technology are to blame. Wood has been replaced with fiberglass and graphite composites, cotton sails have been replaced with Mylar, block and tackle and muscle have been replaced by hydraulics, bailing buckets and determination by one-way, self-bailing valves. To help defray the huge costs, most skiffs are heavily sponsored. And although the new skiffs are faster, would leave Fury bobbing in their wakes. Jack laments that they have neither the beauty nor the character of the old wood skiffs. To him, allowing “all this technology into the skiff classes was a backward step.”
After telling me this, Jack looked up from Fury, his eyes lighting up, and said, “We had one funny incident while we were standing here looking at her the other day. Some young kid comes past and he said, ’Is that a boat?’ And I said, ‘Of course it is!’ And he said, ‘Ahh, it can’t be a boat because real boats aren’t built out of wood.’ ” Jack and I tried to laugh, without much luck, and then Annie called us from across the marina to come join her on Precious.
Although Annie always welcomes company, she is used to sailing alone, and it was unambiguous that she was the captain and first mate, and second mate. Jack and I were merely ballast. We left the berth with sails flying, and Annie, at the helm, maneuvered skillfully around the dock, past moored boats, beyond the jetty, and into San Diego Bay. She knew exactly how she wanted the sails trimmed, and with me at the jib sheets and Jack at the main, she told us, “That’s in too tight, let it out. No, that’s too much, in a little bit. Okay, that’ll do.” I had to swallow a grin: Annie hadn’t touched a sailboat’s tiller until she was 49, had only been sailing for ten years, and yet she was commanding Jack, a life-long champion skiffie, a famous sheet hand — a sailmaker, for Christ’s sake — how to trim the sails! I have heard that Aussie men are chauvinistic, that they don’t much like being told what to do by a woman. So, I kept glancing at Jack’s face, expecting to see a grimace, a sigh, a slight dance to his cheeks, some sign of annoyance. But his expression didn’t change a bit. His ego was surviving nicely, no offense taken.
And so I relaxed, relishing the warm, soft winter sun on my face, the light westerly breeze in my hair, the soothing creak of the wood spars, and the whoossshhh of the water as it parted at the bow, flowed gently along the curve of the hull, and hurried together again at the stern. It was nice to be sailing. Annie was clearly enjoying herself too: she was smiling, vibrant and full of laughter. It struck me how different she and Jack were. He was quiet, soft-spoken, friendly but reserved. Annie was talkative, effusive, full of enthusiasm and charm. Jack was thin, lanky, and deliberate in his movements. Annie was heavier, short, and constantly moving, a compact fireball of energy. At first I didn’t know what to make of their relationship. Were they really friends or was Jack thinking, “I’ll tolerate this woman, this bloody country, until Fury and I get back to bloody Australia where we belong’? I soon realized I was witnessing a deep friendship, an intimacy and fellow feeling that enabled each to be at ease with the other. Jack was as comfortable with Annie’s talking and energy as Annie was with Jack’s subdued, taciturn nature. There was clearly an assumption of goodwill all around; they had earned it and took it for granted. They made a fine pair — yin and yang.
I asked Annie some questions about her recent trip to Australia. Jack moved to the bow. Maybe he had heard the rap, or maybe he was just being considerate, giving Annie and me some privacy. Annie, smiling, told me about first meeting Jack in Brisbane.
In April 1996, Annie met Jack at the Queensland Maritime Museum, where he volunteered. They walked to Jack’s white 1969 vintage Holden panel van, known locally as the “sin bin,” which was covered on the inside with soot and ashes (a consequence of Jack’s volunteering as chief fireman on Forceful), with a great hole in the backrest of the passenger-side front seat. Without hesitation. Annie climbed in, giving Jack his first clue that Annie was no wimp, that she was not easily ruffled, that she could hang with the skiffies. Sleeping arrangements had not been made clear, so Annie right off invited herself to stay at Jack’s house, brushing aside his worries that his house was a mess, that he wasn’t much of a cook. “At first he seemed shy and kind of embarrassed. He’s been a bachelor his whole life, and the idea of spending that much time with a woman may have been a little much.” But Annie plowed right through the tension, giving Jack no choice but to loosen up and enjoy himself. They drank Jack’s homebrew, cooked together, spent hours looking at Jack’s many scrapbooks documenting the old skiff era. On some evenings they got together with Jack’s aging skiffie buddies, Annie laughing at their stories of capsizes, of putting crew off on buoys to lighten the boat for the run to the finish.
Jack and Annie were having so much fun together, were so inseparable, that Jack’s neighbors began to stare. When they went on their morning walks in Jack’s neighborhood, faces with smiles and raised eyebrows would appear at the windows, laughing, Annie said, “If they only knew how innocent it was.” Jack was worried that Annie would be offended, but Annie thought it was hilarious and the idea that they were an item became a joke between the two of them. “In the mornings I would call sweetly from my room, ‘Good morning, darling!’ And Jack would answer, ‘Good morning, darling, and what would you like for breakfast today?’ Smiling, Annie continued, “It was fun.”
Although Jack wasn’t facing us, I caught a smile on his face.
Annie offered me the tiller and I gladly accepted. Precious was lively, responsive. I tacked and headed north toward the Coronado Bridge. Annie continued telling me about her Australia trip, about meeting Norm Wright and his wife Helen.
After spending a week together, Jack drove Annie to the Wrights’ house in Yandina, two hours north of Brisbane. It gave Jack an excuse to see his longtime friend Norm. Norm was 80, 16 years older than Jack, but they were neighbors in Brisbane for much of their lives. When Jack was a kid, he used to go with his father to the Wright boat shed and play in the wood shavings in the loft. Norm and Jack each represented the third generation at their trades, and they each had great respect for the talent of the other.
After greeting them warmly, Helen Wright showed Jack and Annie to Norm’s workshop while she went upstairs to get him ready for visitors. “Half-hull models of racing skiffs were everywhere. One cupboard had about 30 or 40 of them just tossed in,” Annie tells me with awe. Each of the nearly two- foot-long models represented a boat designed by Norm.
Later, Helen told Annie that Norm would design a boat by first shaping half of the hull of the boat he had in his mind from a block of wood. At night Norm would leave the model and his shaping tools under his bed, so that if a flash of inspiration woke him, he could pick up the model and shape it right there in bed. When he was satisfied with the shape of the halfhull, he would take measurements from the model and transfer them to full-size plans. Norm’s boats were the best and fastest of the racing boats of the great skiff era. Many of the boats he designed and built he also raced: 10-footers, 12S, 16s, 18s, 305s, unrestricted yachts, dragons. He was the first to win back-to- back skiff championships, first in ’51/’52 in Brisbane, then in Sydney in ’52/’53. He twice sailed as crew in the America’s Cup, aboard Gretel in 1962 and Dame Pattie later. He had been right in the middle of a new boat design when his cancer surgery stopped him.
Helen called for Jack and Annie, asking them to come upstairs to see Norm. He was in a wheelchair, weak, pale, clearly dying. Despite this Annie said he was “magnanimous, bigger than life.” Jack tried to act as if nothing were wrong, chatting with Norm about boats and the of days, keeping the conversation light. But Annie recognized that Jack was tense, that he was barely containing his sorrow over losing his old friend.
Annie had been looking forward to meeting Norm for four years, from the moment she learned he was the designer and builder of Fury. She had millions of questions she wanted to ask him. He told her, “Annie, just ask the questions, and if I know the answer I’ll give you the answer.” She asked him to remember building her boat, and he remembered it all. He told Annie he built Fury from his head only, one of the few times he didn’t make a half-hull model first. He also remembered that Fury had won her first race.
Annie had brought Norm a shirt and newsletter from her Scuzbums messabout club. Helen and Annie helped him out of his T-shirt and put on the khaki “Scuzbums” shirt. Obviously touched, Norm said, “Annie, I bet I’m the only bloke in the Scuzbums that got his newsletter hand-delivered 10,000 miles by the Scuz-mum herself!” Annie said, “You can bet your bum on that, Norm.”
Jack went home to Brisbane that afternoon, but Annie spent three more days with the Wrights, talking with Norm whenever he was awake. “I just liked being in his presence,” she told me. When Annie went into his room on the third day to say good-bye, his eyes were full of tears. She hugged him and thanked him for building such a good boat, for being her friend and writing to her for the last four years, and for all his help. “I’ll see you,” she called as she tore herself away. “He smiled,” Annie told me, “but his eyes knew it wasn’t true. And he knew that I knew too. He died several months later.”
“Sounds like an amazing man,” I said.
“He was,” answered Annie, “he really was.”
Annie went on, telling more stories about her adventures in Australia, about the friendships she made. like being introduced as a “fellow skiffie” by the president of a Sydney sailing club during an annual awards ceremony, making her “feel great.” And palling around with 88-year-old Pat Collis, one of Australia’s most famous, best-loved icons, who is still racing.
Annie asked for the tiller back, said it was time to head in, that Dudley would be getting home from work soon. We came about and I eased the sheets until the sails were set the way Annie wanted them. Jack came back and joined us again in the spacious teak cockpit. As he was sitting down, he caught Annie’s eyes and held them, smiling deeply. It was becoming clear to me why these Australian skiffie men had grown attached to Annie. It was more than sharing a passion for sailboats. It was her laugh and warming energy. It was her courage and honesty and lack of pretense. Hanging out with Annie is fun; to spend time with her is to want to spend more time with her.
After putting Precious away, we headed off to a local bar for a couple of black and tans. With Jack caught up in a heartfelt conversation with the bartender about the virtues of his homebrew, Annie had a chance to tell me a secret: “Jack always wanted a 16-foot skiff. He never got one. His father was a bad man, a womanizer, cruel to Jack and his mother. His father had a 16-foot skiff called Dove; he had her under the house and he wasn’t sailing her anymore and Jack wanted her really bad — he wanted to sail her. When he told his father that he wanted that boat, his father promptly sold her to someone else.
Then a few years later Jack had a chance to buy a skiff that he wanted, and five minutes before he got there with his money, somebody else had bought her. So he never, ever had his own skiff. He was always a sheet hand, he was the best sheet hand in the business. He was in a lot of championship boats. And he made sails for a lot of boats. But he never owned his own 16-foot skiff. So when I heard that I decided—he doesn’t even know it yet — that the keys and the pink slip are going to be in his name. He’s going to own his first 16-foot skiff. A 1939 vintage one too.” The anticipation of bringing Jack that much joy made Annie misty-eyed.
On November 18, 1996, Fury left California after 50 years in the United States. Jack joined Fury, returning to Australia on the container ship Columbus California. On December 12, 1996, Annie flew to Sydney to meet the ship and her important cargo; both Fury and Jack had weathered the journey without a hitch. Jack and Annie drove Fury to Moreton Bay, the mouth of the Brisbane River, where she was put on display for the national 16-foot skiff championships. Old skiffies came out to see Fury and relive the old days for hours around the boat.
On January 11, 1997, on the final day of the national championships in Brisbane, Fury sailed in Australian waters for the first time in over 50 years. Before Annie formally gave her away to the Queensland Maritime Museum in Brisbane at the awards ceremony that evening (with deed of gift putting ownership in Jack’s name), Fury was rigged, and her crew of ancient skiffies (average age 72, including 60-year-old Annie at the helm) darted swiftly out of the Darling Point Skiff Club into Moreton Bay, the crew younger and stronger as Fury went faster and faster, out into a 15-knot breeze.
Annie said that for her the best moment, the one that made her realize that she had done something special, was at the national championships, while she was standing by the skiff with a group of onlookers, when a middle-aged man came out of the crowd, strode up to her, and shook her hand. He said, “I just want to thank you.” Annie said, “What for?” He said, “For Australia.” Then he turned and disappeared into the crowd.
Annie’s back in San Diego now, probably sailing on one of her boats this very moment. She says that Australia has become her second home, that she plans to go back and visit her friends soon. She tells me that Jack is busy restoring Fury to her original, varnished condition. He’s willing, maybe, to take Annie sailing on his new boat.
— by Nicholas Wolff
Nicholas Wolff is an oceanographer. He is currently studying fishes in the kelp forests along the Big Sur coast.
Sailors, or those who want to be sailors, interested in learning more about the Scuzbums can contact Annie at: ScuzBumsNews, 4048 Mt. Acadia Boulevard, San Diego, CA 92111.