Clarence River Dory
design by John Welsford
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.
Boats for East Timor (ABET) was about to
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.
(click to enlarge)
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
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
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 the program.
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.
LOA Long version
- 6.04 m - 20 ft 10 in
Short version - 5.04 m - 16 ft 6 in
BEAM - 1.27 m - 4 ft 2 in
WEIGHT Approx - 140 kg - 308 lbs
CARRYING CAPACITY up to - 1200 kg - 2640 lbs
POWER - 25 hp Outboard (max)
SPEED - 20 kts