Behind a mess of trees, down a long driveway in Mt. Barker, South Australia — at least 50km from the ocean — sits a little wooden boat on a trailer that is now the stuff of legend. It crossed Bass Strait in 60 knot gales to be a star arrival at Hobart’s internationally renowned wooden boat festival, and this feat was the talk of the New York Yacht Club.
As a consequence, in the cluttered shed behind this modest seven-metre flat bottomed boat, Robert Ayliffe sits amid a flurry of boat plans and papers, taking an increasing trickle of orders from around the world for kits to construct the very same type of boat.
Robert is acknowledged as a world expert in Norwalk Island Sharpies, an American working boat that has been redesigned as a pleasure sailing craft. Robert describes his role as being like an architect positioned between the builder and the owner.
He tweaks the original plan from American designer Bruce Kirby, facilitates the kits — which can be sent overseas three weeks after being ordered — and remains in contact with individual builders to help them through troubles, which in turn helps Robert learn how to keep improving the kit instructions. He is even building a boat for one client with the intention of photographing each step to create a book that can be used as a step-by-step illustrated building manual.
This small wooden craft, assembled without screws or nails, has a reputation for durability, safety and reliability in all waters. And, after 20 years working with Sharpies, Robert decided to put to the first boat he built to the ultimate test by sailing with navigator Ian Phillips across the dreaded Bass Strait, between Victoria and Tasmania.
“I can’t say there wasn’t moments of fear attached to what we were doing, though we were absolutely safe every step of the way,” says 62-year-old Robert.
“The purpose was to show just how good these boats are; we certainly didn’t intend to run it through four storms, but that just proved our point. Until now, it was theoretically durable and safe in all waters; now its reputation is confirmed.”
The crossing became the talk of the Hobart docks during the festival, crowded with wooden boat enthusiasts from around the world. It pulled sharp focus onto Robert’s kit boat business located far from any significant body of sailing water. “Yep, in Mt Barker,” he says with a grin and a disbelieving shake of the head. “Anything’s possible if you persevere long enough.”
Robert was smitten by the sea as a teenager growing up on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, diving for abalone in school holidays with island ferry pioneer Peter March off the treacherous south coast.
He went into a long career of teaching, but finally turned a lifelong maritime passion into an occupation 21 years ago when he left his job at Mt Barker High School (teaching English and art, and building boats after school with a few students) and started the Duck Flat wooden boat building company. Four years ago he left that partnership to concentrate on several specific kit designs, rather than deal with the minutia of manufacturing. And the staple of his interest is the Norwalk Island Sharpies.
“There’s something primal about the appeal of a wooden boat,” Robert says. “It draws a degree of awe from people. At a boat festival they have to touch it, knock it, to inspect whether it’s well made. It’s the craft that piques their interest.”
An erudite man, Robert considers his link in the continuum of wooden boat building with deep contemplation, quoting John Steinbeck and offering biblical references to illustrate his respect for the history of the craft. It’s no surprise that he is also a columnist for the United States-based Wooden Boat magazine and other specialist nautical publications.
Ironically, it was writing an article about Sharpies in 1987 that started his incredible boat-building journey, putting him in touch with plan designer Bruce Kirby and firing his interest in making Sharpie kits for home builders.
“If it wasn’t for the magazines, I wouldn’t have the international profile that has allowed me to gain access to all this,” says Robert. “And if it wasn’t for the Internet, I wouldn’t have an international business that I can run out of a shed in Mt Barker.”
A landmark achievement occurred in 1999, when a wealthy New York neighbour of Bruce Kirby purchased a Sharpie kit from Robert. This family were foundation members of the New York Yacht Club, and invited Robert to New York for the launch ceremony, where Kirby announced that Robert’s kit produced the best of 300 Sharpies that had been built from his design. Subsequently, Robert forged a strong friendship with Kirby and has now been trusted to build the Sharpie component of Kirby’s business.
Several notable South Australians have also lent their weight of support to Robert’s endeavor. Winemaker Robert O’Callaghan, proprietor of Rockford Winery in the Barossa and owner of the Murray River paddle steamer PS Marion, was an early acolyte.
“He thought the craft in what I was doing was worthwhile. He gave me an invaluable piece of advice; he said operating a small business is like peddling a bicycle, and if you stop peddling you’ll lose balance and fall. So I keep peddling.”
Other winemakers also took a keen interest, notably Doug Lehmann and Bob McLean. Robert reflects on this as being “a very South Australian thing,” to attract unexpected supporters for small but worthy pursuits.
“When we went to the early boat shows, we were called cockroaches by the big manufacturers,” remembers Robert. “That’s OK; cockroaches survive atomic blasts. Most of those manufacturers are now gone. We’re still thriving.”
There are now more than 50 completed boats from Nisboats kits in the water, with another 20 in various stages of building, and order inquiries increasing. As demand escalates, Robert is obtaining assistance from a wider collection of disparate artisan craftsman through South Australia to construct components for the kits.
It signifies the type of crucial cooperation required between small South Australian specialists to be competitive — and recognized as leaders — on a world stage.
“It’ll never be mass-produced,” says Robert of the Sharpie design. “The hull would lose its durability and strength if it was made from fibreglass. Modern plywood is far superior — and made from trees in renewable forests. Nope, these wooden boats are for a discerning clientele. Perhaps what I love about them the most is that they can be built by anyone; ordinary people with the right desire can build a truly extraordinary boat.”
As a high school teacher for more than 20 years, Robert had a telling effect on shaping the future direction of many students’ lives; now, by chasing his passion to build boats, he is applying the same conviction to steer his own course. “I would really regret it if I hadn’t given it a go,” he says.
“I really think the hand made boat is a powerful symbol in the modern world. As we get more constrained to the harness of jobs, security and providing for our families, the boat hints at the journey away… the freedom.”
Robert looks up, with a gleaming twinkle in his eye. “If we’re truthful, I think we all want a part of that, don’t we?”
Did you enjoy this article?
Please let the author know by leaving them a comment below!
And, subscribe to our free weekly digest!
Simply add your email below. A confirmation email will be sent to you.