Huon Chief – old boat begins a new tale

Huon Chief is back sailing in the waters where she was designed, built and sailed for most of her now 40 years of existence. A yacht described by many as an icon of post-war Tasmanian yachting history.

I have had the privilege to be part of Huon Chief’s life afloat, as owner, perhaps rather ‘custodian’, of this famous yacht for the past 17 years.

After eight of those years away from Hobart, we have returned Huon Chief to the waters of southern Tasmania. We have renewed acquaintances with past owners and with many crew who sailed aboard the 36-footer in her heyday as a highly successful ocean racer, including representing Australia at the One Ton Cup at Newport, Rhode Island, 40 years ago last August.

Her fiery red topsides, repainted just recently, have again caught the eyes of yachtsmen on the River Derwent, no longer racing but now cruising in comfort. It has also brought us together with Judy Calvert, whose husband Hedley commissioned the design and building of Huon Chief and raced the One Tonner with great success for several years.

Judy revisited Huon Chief one autumn day at the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania, a day that was quite emotional for all of us as it was just two years to the day when Hedley had passed away after an extended illness. She remembered the yacht in its racing format, but was delighted with the changes we had made, converting her to a comfortable, performance luxury cruising yacht for short-handed, long distance ocean passages.

In 1974, Hedley, a well-known Huon Valley orchardist, yachtsman and raconteur, commissioned Hobart naval architect Noel Jennings to design a yacht within the One Ton rating rule, then the most prestigious area of ocean racing. Wilson Bros, the esteemed Huon boat-builders undertook the construction of the strong hull, using triple planked cold-moulded Huon pine with a teak-on-marine plywood deck.

Two layers were laid at 45 degrees to the horizontal axis with the third outer layer running fore and aft. All the layers were glued together and coated with epoxy, forming an exceptionally light, stiff, monocoque hull structure that was totally watertight, extremely strong and long-lived, with a high strength to weight ratio.

Hedley later wrote of Huon Chief’s construction: “This yacht would have to be, taking into account its structure and design,
one of the strongest timber yachts ever built.”

Huon Chief was an immediate success as a racing yacht. A week after launching on November 2, 1974, She raced for the first time, winning a race on the River Derwent in a wild westerly. Two months later, Hedley and his crew won the One Ton division of the 630 nautical mile Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, the first of many successful long ocean races.

Hedley went on to race Huon Chief extensively over the following six years, representing Australia at the 1976 One Ton Cup at Newport, Rhode Island in the USA, as well as competing in the Sydney Hobart, Gosford to Lord Howe Island and Sydney to Noumea and Noumea to Vanuatu races.

Hedley and Judy also cruised extensively in the South Pacific before buying a bigger cruising yacht. Those times she remembered recently when visiting us aboard at the ‘Royals’ marina.

Huon Chief had several owners over the ensuing 18 years until my late husband and I in 1998, decided to sell a cosy beachside shack to experience a more adventurous life. We wanted to purchase a yacht in which to explore the beautiful D’Entrecasteaux Channel, Bruny Island and the coves and inlets of southern Tasmania.

Huon Chief came on the market at that time. She was only the third boat we looked at and we were awed by her beautiful lines and strong Huon Pine hull.

She was a rare find even then. She had a big reputation that had endured since Hedley Calvert had built her and was a familiar name to most Tasmanian households due to her recognisable bright red hull and racing career spanning 24 years. She had just competed in the 1997 Sydney Hobart race and was still in excellent racing condition.

It didn’t matter where we were on this boat: in the pen, on the slip, down the channel, in the Australian Wooden Boat Festival; without fail someone would come up to us and have a story about the boat. Mostly about having been part of the crew and stories of Hedley and Judy and the fun and great competition they had as part of the Huon Chief family.

We spent four years (1998-2002) cruising the channel and Tasmanian east coast, sailing short-handed instead of a crew of six strong men. With me hanking sails on the foredeck, often in big seas.

As her ancient Volvo engine became unreliable (compression levers), we started considering our options. A slow upgrade over the next ten years, or bite the bullet?

Impatient to sail further afield, we decided to go for the total refit, converting Huon Chief from a performance ocean racing yacht to a comfortable cruising, go-anywhere vessel that could become our home if we chose.

The over-arching ethos for the refit was to retain the integrity and character of the boat which the Wilson Bros from Cygnet (who have recently created the eight metre yacht Varg) and Hedley had aspired to. So the hull, cabin top, deck and bulkheads were the structural framework that had to be retained to ensure she would always be recognisable as Huon Chief.

The boat spent two years tied up at Kettering in the old marina, the cockpit and interior gutted, covered in tarps and full of shavings as the work slowly progressed. It was an alarming project and impossible to know when it might end.

She finally came back to the RYCT marina after the major part of the internal refit was completed. It was then another two years of painstaking work, installing electronics, a new suit of sails and 12 coats of varnish on both sides of every internal Blackwood surface.

By 2006 most of the work was completed and we moved on board to live for the next six months in the pen at Royals. I was still working full time but we wanted to test all her systems to ensure that everything ran smoothly and for us to become familiar with them.

We resumed our local Tasmanian cruising, loving every minute of the refitted boat with all conceivable comforts: all lines leading back to the cockpit, the best Harken cars for hoisting the main, oodles of fresh water and a hot shower, more storage than I had things for, excellent stove and BBQ; all so well designed and fully operational.

Our long term cruising plans were on hold due to health problems. Tragically, my husband died suddenly in January 2008.

Unable to bear the thought of parting with Huon Chief, my dearest friends supported me, took me sailing and helped with maintenance.

How lucky I have been to since meet and marry a man who also loves the sea. For the last few years we have lived on the mainland, kept Huon Chief in Jervis Bay and had some great sailing up and down the coast of south east coast Australia.

Now we have returned to Tasmania, we are living in the north of the state amongst the vineyards on the western bank of the tidal estuary the River Tamar. It is time after 17 years to move to a different type of boat more suited to our new river environment.

Huon Chief deserves to be sailed in a stiff breeze. She loves 20 to 25 knots, but is comfortable in any conditions. In light airs, to maintain cruising speed over long distances, she is equally comfortable when motor-sailing. Huon Chief is a sea-kindly and sea-worthy boat. She is well-balanced, easy on the helm and sails well to windward: the perfect cruising yacht.

Memories

My favourite memories of the 17 short years I have been the custodian of this beautifully-crafted vessel are, not unlike most sailors, mostly about the beauty of the natural environment and the simplicity of life without all the trappings of a shore-based life.

I found immeasurable pleasure in sailing under our own power, free of reliance on land-based systems, always aware of the surroundings, weather conditions, sea state and the wind.

I was the only person working on the eighth floor of a state government department building who would notice the direction of the wind and the state of the river Derwent on a daily basis. This heightened awareness of one's natural environment has been just one of the gifts that sailing has given me.

My favourite memories include: the magic of dolphins riding under the bow for miles down D’Entrecasteaux Channel one Christmas morning; whales only 20 metres from the boat off Port Stephens, NSW; sightings of sea eagles, albatross, gannets and penguins has always been a highlight as an avid bird watcher.

Preparations for voyages too, the anticipation and challenge whenever we were to cross Bass Strait for example. Followed always by a great sense of achievement when completed.

Entering Jervis Bay on our first trip up there from Tasmania, coming in through a seemingly narrow entrance into a bay so huge we could not even see our anchorage over in Callala Bay. It must be one of Australia’s most beautiful bays with national parks on either headland.

Spotting my first glimpse of the loom from Eddystone Light coming out of a thick sea fog at the end of a late night watch after crossing Bass Strait from Eden.

The sense of adventure, apprehension and excitement when seeking shelter in new and unknown anchorages such as Prime Seal Island in the Furneaux Group and Foster Inlet before sailing through Banks Strait.

Moving on

But now it is time to sell Huon Chief. A yacht that we have, I believe, successfully changed from a pedigree ocean racer into a performance luxury cruising yacht that could sail anywhere, yet retaining her character and authenticity.

The first task was the complete removal of the cockpit and interior furniture and then began the real work. The boat was replumbed and a brand new head and tank, retractable shower/mixer and basin added. Two stainless steel freshwater tanks with a capacity of 350 litres and a 50 litre stainless steel hot water system were installed.

A boat that was already more than a quarter of a century old and setting her up for cruising required complete rewiring and fitting of new switchboards and battery bank. We then installed a 12V fridge/freezer, water and bilge pumps and the galley was fitted with an LPG two-burner marine stove, s/s sink with pressure and manual water pumps.

The new LPG system consisting of gas sensors and solenoid including two 4.5kg s/s tanks was located in a gas proof locker in the lazarette.

A major task and expenditure, was a Volvo Penta MD2040 29kw diesel engine with a three-bladed folding propeller, along with a 300 litre aluminium diesel fuel tank. This now provides a motoring range of 650 nautical miles.

With all this work completed, the cockpit was rebuilt and decked with teak, matching the existing deck. The engine was located under the forward part of the cockpit with the removable engine box forming a companionway to the aft self-draining cockpit.

An extensive suite of navigational aids and instruments were fitted, including Raymarine radar and chart plotter and Autohelm automatic pilot.

With long-range cruising in mind, a dodger, bimini and clears framework were installed and used to support 2x50w solar panels, a wind generator, as well as GPS, radar and multi-function antennas.

Down below, the interior timberwork was panelled with Blackwood and Celery Top Pine, finished to high standard and complemented by the white high gloss finish on the bulkheads. The dinette and berths were finished with quality grey macrosuede.

The fit-out was designed to provide ample stowage to enable long distance cruising, with the fridge/freezer built under the chart table.

Accommodation now provides a double V berth for’ard, a settee berth to starboard, with a pilot berth outboard. To port, the saloon dinette table lowers to form another berth.

During the refit, Huon Chief’s mast and rigging was removed and refurbished, again with cruising in mind. She now has twin furling headsails, an inner forestay, baby forestay and over-specified standing rigging.

A new suit of sails were designed, comprising a fully-battened mainsail featuring lazy jacks and Harken ball-bearing cars, a large, reaching genoa and a smaller working headsail.

Another significant change has been a new mahogany coaming enabling halyards, reef lines and sheets to be led aft for ease in short-handed sailing. It also supports the dodger and clears.

A new stem head fitting and Muir Atlantic anchor winch were fitted on the foredeck, supporting a 20kg genuine CQR anchor and tested chain.

A feature of the cockpit is a splendid, custom-designed teak folding table and wine cooler fitted to the steering pedestal.

The total refit and refurbishment took four years and was completed in 2006. The result was a live-aboard cruising yacht that was optimised for short-handed sailing.

An ongoing program of maintenance has kept the yacht in excellent condition for extended cruising. We recently had the topsides resprayed in her original racing colours of Rochelle Red and distinctive striping, highlighting her graceful sheerline. Huon Chief remains an identifiable icon as part of Tasmania’s yachting history.

Although being extensively refitted, Huon Chief retains her IOR design heritage. She is close-winded, well-balanced and true to her lines. The contemporary design of her sails provide lift and drive that enable her to achieve and maintain the consistently good average speeds required for long distance cruising, on all points of sail.

Her sound construction and seaworthy design incorporate a beamy interior that lends itself well to comfortable family cruising. Huon Pine (lagarostrobus franklinii) is arguably the best boatbuilding timber in the world and can only be found in the west and south-west of Tasmania.

Although it is unlikely that Huon Pine of the length and quality of that used to construct Huon Chief could be sourced today, the cost to build such a vessel is estimated in excess of $1 million.

After being custodian of Huon Chief for 17 of her 40 years, I certainly will miss her. But she is a boat that probably will still be sailing in another 40 years, providing the greatest enjoyment to all of those who have been fortunate enough to own Huon Chief for racing or cruising.

Gillian Miles

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