There are a number of boat building schools scattered around Australia, but there is only one that focuses exclusively on building and restoring wooden vessels. In the township of Franklin, Tasmania sits an unpretentious workshop in a picturesque spot on the banks of the Huon River. It is here that shipwrights and students from around the country are hard at work building and restoring, day in and day out, all throughout the year.
Established in 1992, the Wooden Boat Centre has gone from strength to strength, slowly building up it’s reputation as one of the most valuable marine education centres in the Southern Hemisphere. But this last summer really tested the resolve of the centre and the people that keep it ticking. In February 2019, as fires raged across much of the Huon Valley, the Centre had to be evacuated along with most of the town. Volunteers and supporters pitched in and whisked some of the precious boats to safety, while the blaze licked at the edges of Franklin.
Luckily, the Boat Centre workshop survived the fires, but road closures across the Huon Valley during the peak tourist season were a major strain on fianances, with an estimated loss of $60,000 in tourist revenue. Visitor numbers went down, course enrolments halted, money wasn’t coming in, and the Centre’s future was in doubt.
It would have been easy to call it quits and let the place slowly deteriorate, but the management, staff, committee, and volunteers of the boat school rolled up their sleeves, made some tough decisions, and put the Centre back on track. Using about $40,000 in grants from DPAC, Spirit of Tasmania, and Tassal, the Centre underwent a massive refurbishment, refit and marketing push. With their monthly Facebook hits going from a low of 600 to an average of about 88,000, classes started to fill up again. The re-imagined 1-year shipwrights program has been a particular success story, now fully enrolled through 2020, with only four places left in 2021.
The 38-hour per week shipwrights course is the only one of it’s kind in Australia, and although other boat building schools in the country may run for up to 3 years, the students at the Wooden Boat Centre still get more workshop hours overall, and the focus is entirely on building with wood. The course is structured around two main builds: after completing a clinker dinghy constructed in a traditional manner, the students then move on to a 29ft production motor cruiser. This second aspect of the course introduces modern construction methods and results in the production of a custom-designed Franklin 29.
The Wooden Boat Centre has been closely allied with the Australian Wooden Boat Festival for many years. As part of the 2019 Festival, students from the Pacific Northwest School of Boatbuilding teamed up with the Wooden Boat Centre to build a Haven 12.5′, using celery top pine sourced from Lake Pieman by Hydrowood. In 2015 the Centre and the Festival cooperated for a similar project with our Dutch contingent that year. Both projects were great successes.
So, in 2021, with the Festival’s focus on Australian boat-building, restoration, timber, and design, we look forward to strong collaboration with Wooden Boat Centre. It is still early on in the planning, but there has been talk of speicialised short courses on the festival site, and an exciting project with Hyrdrowood, where over the course of 4 days festival-goers can see the long process of turning a raw log into a new boat, right before their eyes. On top of that we also looking forward to welcoming to the Hobart Waterfront the first Wooden Boat Centre-built Franklin 29.
Here’s to a great festival in 2021!