Its a long story.
But then, I like telling long stories.
This one began when Boatbuilder Barry Wicks
came across a Guy called Mike Maskill, a banjo player residing
near Brisbane somewhere. Mike had recognised the dire straights
that the East Timorese coastal villagers were in after the
Indonesian supported militias had destroyed every fishing
canoe in every village on the coast. He had started a voluntary
organization to supply replacement boats to the villagers
but was having trouble locating suitable boats, or even a
design that would fit the needs while being cheap enough to
build and freight. He hooked up with an expat Kiwi Boatbuilder
called Barry Wicks. Aussie
Boats for East Timor (ABET) was about to take
Barry meanwhile had come across my book "The
New Zealand Backyard Boatbuilder" and contacted me asking
if I could help. Could I? Would I? You bet!
Now as I said, Barry is a boatbuilder, did
much of his trade training in the early 60s at Mason Marine
in Wairau Rd on Aucklands North Shore with Frank Pelin, Richard
Hartley was working in his design office just down the road
and Bob Salthouse was beginning his design career across the
road. There would have been a dozen boatyards in the area
at the time and they were run and staffed by names which are
now legendary, among those names was Laurie Davidson of Americas
Cup design fame, living only a few minutes away unaware at
the time that his career would lead him to design the successful
1999/2000 New Zealand defender and, living in Bellingham,
Washington, USA to lead the design team for another American
This hotbed of activity though had never seen
anything like what I thought was required for a group of natives
living in the tropics and trying to wrest a living from the
sea with small boats. My researcher, a New Zealand Army type
stationed in East Timor when I contacted her, told me that
the locals could not row, they had always paddled, that canoes
were the boats that they knew best, and that there was no
longer the infrastructure to support fuel supplies and mechanical
backup for engines. She confirmed my suspicions that big deep
vee runabouts were likely to be complete white elephants,
and that the bulk of the boats destroyed were dugout canoes
and anything too different would not get used, and if used
could have an adverse effect on the fish stocks.
So! It was with all this in mind that I sat
down to draw "the" boat. Barry had in mind a kitsetting
operation based at his home in Northern New South Wales Australia.
He expected to make a couple and send them up assembled to
evaluate them, and then send containerloads of flat packs
up for local assembly. They needed about 12,000 boats so every
shortcut was a help.
There is a plywood mill not far away from Barrys
place. As it happened we did not use that mill product but
it was to be construction plywood and builders yard lumber.
The Old Tradesman made a much nicer job of the boats than
I envisaged, pride did not allow him the luxury of a quick
and dirty job but it was still not long until the Mk one Fat
Canoe was built.
Designed for 5hp, with a sail for reaching
and running and narrow enough to paddle she was sponsored
by the McLean Shire Council and after launching was filled
with relief supplies, not just fishing gear but hospital equipment,
bicycles, computers, blankets and tools. All airfreighted
up to Dili by the Airforce.
Barry got the surprise of his life when the
trip included him, and he went up to do the handover and research
the needs of the community.
His description of the ceremony still has him
choking with emotion. The people chosen by the UN Fisheries
and agriculture officer had come close to starving without
the boats that were their means of providing for the village.
There are no seabirds in East Timor, all of the eggs for several
generations had been eaten, there are no small animals, no
edible plants left and no shellfish. All eaten . While for
lack of a boat and fishing equipment a sea teeming with fish
could not be harvested.
After a voyage of several hours in the Fat
Canoe, pushed at about 6 knots by a tiny outboard, “The
Boat” and her crew of four were carried bodily ashore
by the villagers, and placed reverently under a shade house
built to house the new vessel.
It is hard to explain just how important that
boat is to those people, a subsistence economy dependent on
fishing suddenly deprived of its boats and fishing gear cannot
survive, and these people were close to not surviving. I must
admit that the letters from the villagers were very very moving.
Barry and I went on to modify the boat, Mk11
was for a 10 hp motor, he went on a step further and altered
it further to produce a Mk111 suited to a 15hp motor. There
were several hundred 15 HP short shaft Yamaha outboards in
a UN store somewhere and all of those were commandeered for
Barrie and Michele-Marie now live in East Timor,
teaching villagers how to build the “Fat Canoes”
and how to use computers (Michele-Marie's skill). Barrys boatbuilding
school has turned out dozens of these simple workhorses, and
more importantly quite a team of locals who can build a whole
lot more. They can be found all around the coast, and they
are worked night and day by teams of villagers who own and
operate them on a share basis.
It’s a small thing, the original design
took me a couple of phone calls and a few hours at the drawing
board. No money changed hands but the rewards have been immense.
Watching how the boats went, and playing with
one of the prototypes on the Clarence River near Barry's (then)
Northern New South Wales home I was hugely pleased with the
performance of the boat. So much so that I have designed a
“civilian version of the boat. I tidied her up a bit,
specified Stainless fastenings and marine grade adhesives,
a better grade of ply and nice paint. As a design it’s
a “good un”. She will carry more load, faster
on less horsepower than anything that I have ever seen. She
is stable enough to stand up in, has enough capacity for a
pile of people or gear, and is still light enough to be manhandled.
While the East Timorese use them to chase Tuna
many miles offshore in the tradewinds swells as well as inshore
fishing, I think that she is particularly suited to estuaries
and swamps, tidal flats and inlets. Shallow places and fast
currents, beaches and sandbars where the shallow boat with
her protected motor will perform at her best.
She can be built shorter simply by leaving one frame bay
out, and these 16 footers have proven both popular and economical,
as well as fitting most peoples idea of proportion. Me? The
efficiencies of the longer boat would convince me to build
her as drawn.
This is a lot of boat for not much work, and very little
cost, one which would perform as well in the winter with guns
and dogs as she would in the lazy heat of summer with the
offspring hanging their lines over the side while you laze
in the shade.
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