Is Zephyr Australia's oldest yacht?


A registration project run by the National Maritime Museum may have confirmed the seniority of a sturdy South Australian cutter. Phoenix Arrien reports:

WE KNOW they certainly don’t make ‘em like they used to, but how long have they been making the yachts we now treasure as classics’ The newly launched Australian Historic Vessel Register, a clearing house for information about local boats built before 1970 is helping to answer that question. On current information, they believe the honour of being recognised as 'Australia's oldest yacht' might belong to Zephyr, a sturdy gaff cutter launched in 1873.

The historic yacht certainly has a rich and varied past. She is currently in superb condition – a tribute to 19th Century craftsmanship and the dedication and pride of 21st Century classic enthusiasts.

Zephyr's first owner was a notable identity in the South Australian colony, Supreme Court Judge Sir William Henry Bundy. ‘The Judge’, who was was also a state MP, commissioned Zephyr as a sea-going cutter of 22 tons. He wanted a boat in which “three or four companions could be comfortably entertained”. She was designed by William Taylor and built in huon pine by Robert Playfair in Adelaide. Another local craftsman, William Russell, made the sails.

The Judge learned to sail on Zephyr and became one of Australia’s great cruising yachtsmen, eventually writing a book of his sailing memories, including his special fondness for Zephyr. The book also featured Port Lincoln and the town subsequently became the terminus for South Australia’s largest annual yachting event, the Adelaide – Port Lincoln Week.
At the time of launching, the Adelaide Observer newspaper described Zephyr as having “Huon pine for planking and Kauri Pine for the deck, elm bent timbers and gum floors every four feet of her length. Cemented inside as high as the light water-line ‘ copper and brass are the only metals used ‘ the hull had a great rise of floor and a fine entry, but was filled out above the waterline to provide buoyancy in heavy seas. The upright stem and the long overhanging taffrail and square stern were thoroughly approved of in a yacht of this size, although some sailors despised the square stern.”

The newspaper reported Zephyr’s launch at Port Adelaide on 25 August 1873 in great detail.
“There were fair ladies and brave men present – the horny handed sons of toil, members of Parliament and members of the press, sea captains in full commission and sea captains who had long given up the idea.

“The band played 'Rule Britannia'. The yacht lay on her ways like a lady adorned for a ball. Garlands and wreaths of flowers decorated each end. In our colony matters of this kind should be treated as they really deserve.”

To have a boat still afloat that began its life in such a splendid way is a treasure of yachting history.

Bundy, who was also the Commodore of the yacht club, responded to the toasts by saying that there was no sport dearer to his heart. “The recreation of yachting is a health-giving one and therefore to be greatly preferred to the many amusements in the pursuit of which night was often turned into day.” This sentiment was greeted by “prolonged cheering”.

The Judge cruised and raced Zephyr until selling her to a Mr R. Honey who succeeded him as Commodore of the SAYC in 1885. Honey put the vessel into racing trim by adding more lead to her keel and increasing the sail area.

By 1893 Zephyr’s racing days were over and she was registered as a fishing boat. This was the toughest part of her career. For the better part of a century she worked the treacherous waters around Kangaroo Island. From 1902 the yacht was owned by William Russell, her original sailmaker. Then records of her ownership peter out until the mid 1980’s when Zephyr turned up in Hobart.

Her current owner, James Madigan, fell in love with the cutter in 1993 and she currently lives in Victoria’s Melbourne Docklands. James lives in America, but Melbourne locals Stephen Majernik and Vic O’Driscol, along with a band of enthusiasts, sail and care for the boat. They enjoy the support of Melbourne Docklands and Greg Blunt from C. Blunt Boat Builders.

Majernik recently sailed Zephr on a four week circumnavigation of Tasmania including a visit to the Australian Wooden Boat Festival in Hobart. He explains that the yacht is not in its original condition.

“Zephyr has been through a few different lives. She has been run aground, replanked, refastened and had her decks raised. She used to have a top mast and now has a pole mast. The bowsprit is shorter but the keel is original. When the vessel was originally built she looked a bit different, so the old girl has had a few facelifts.

The owner has considered restoring her to the original sail plan and rigging, but this would be an expensive project.

The claim that Zephyr is Australia's 'oldest' yacht is often challenged. David Payne, who runs the historic register for the National Maritime Museum, believes that a handful of other craft are within reach, including Akarana, a cutter that raced in the Australian Centennial races of 1888. (That yacht can be seen at the Museum's marina in Sydney.)

‘I am not aware of any other boat older then Zephyr, though I am hoping that the new Australian Register of Historic Vessels (ARHV) will confirm this by attracting registrations for any older boat from, say, somewhere like Tasmania.

‘The oldest boat on the Historic Register is currently the Port Fairy Life Boat dating from 1857. It was manned by local fisherman and used to help sailors in trouble in the treacherous waters off the western Victorian coast.’

Another yacht that has emerged as a contender for the honour of being our oldest yacht is Kelpie, reputedly designed and built in 1884. ‘It’s a deep keel gaff cutter and it is old,’ confirms Payne. ‘Kelpie is often claimed to be a Fife design and to have been launched in 1884, then stored and relaunched in 1893 or thereabouts. But a newspaper article I came across from the period suggests it was designed and built in Sydney, and launched in 1893.

So Zephyr certainly seems to have a strong claim on being the oldest. These veteran yachts provide a framework for understanding our modern vessels, as well as a direct connection to this history of Australia's yachting culture. We should be glad that their sails are still catching the breeze, after more than 100 years.

The Zephyr team would welcome any additional information about her history and are also seeking support to help keep her ‘afloat’. Those in a position to help should contact Stephen on 0425 797 480 or email to

Is your yacht more than 35 years old, a rare or significant vessel, have important connections with a community,significant people or events’

The Australian National Maritime Museum, in association with the Sydney Heritage Fleet, is encouraging the owners of old boats to register on the ‘Australian Register of Historic Vessels'. This scheme will help conserve our maritime heritage by assembling a broad
The Register is available as a free digital database on the Australian National Maritime Museum’s website at

The Register already lists more than 100 vessels, ranging from an early Australian surfboard and an indigenous one-person fishing raft to a Murray River paddle steamer, a Newcastle collier and a former Royal Australian Navy destroyer.

Contact: ARHV Project Officer David Payne at the Australian National Maritime Museum, GPO Box 5131, SYDNEY NSW 2001, telephone (02)9298 3777, fax (02) 9298 3780 or email

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