In the late 19th century, Melbourne’s growing population and its insatiable appetite for fish and chips spurred the development of a commercial fishing industry and, inextricably linked to that, a boat building industry. With Port Phillip Bay and the waters beyond producing an abundance of fish and seafood, boat builders were kept busy with orders for craft able to navigate the notoriously turbulent entrance to the bay, The Rip, and the rough conditions in Bass Strait.
Located at the southern entrance to the bay on the Bellarine Peninsula, the pretty seaside resort of Queenscliff is cherished for its Victorian-era heritage and has a long history of craftsmen building boats for local fishermen.
Local identity and long-time boat builder, Gil Allbutt began his maritime career in 1948, in the process contributing immeasurably to Queenscliff’s rich nautical heritage – a heritage he was keen to pass on when his son Darren suggested a new project.
Born in 1931, Gil Allbutt grew up in Portarlington, where he spent much of his youth sailing and fishing with his father Dolph, a professional fisherman. His mother, Jessie May was a tailor and an accomplished singer. From an early age, Gil played drums and later founded a jazz band, playing at theatres, musical festivals and hotels.
“As a kid, I had a magic life, what with the fishing, the swimming and the sports,” reminisces Gil. “It was marvellous.”
Surrounded, as he was, by boats and fishing, Gil was naturally interested in both and understood how boats worked at an early age. After the war, however, local boat builders were uncertain of demand and hesitant to offer a young lad work.
“In the early 1940s, there were 10 or 12 professional boat builders in Victoria. There was Peter Locke and before him Mitchie Lacco, the Cayzer brothers, and Jack Savage in Melbourne … old Jack Savage used to sail his yacht to Portarlington and go fishing with Dad.”
Gil’s boat-building career was launched with the offer of a job with Peter Locke in 1948. Almost a decade later Gilcraft Boats was born, initially taking up premises in a garage behind the Vue Grand Hotel in Queenscliff, where, years before him, the region’s first boat builder, Anders ‘Andrew’ Hanson had built couta boats, the signature sailing craft used by commercial fishermen in the area.
After moving to a larger workshop in 1959, the fledgling business rapidly gained a reputation for building solid, reliable plywood fishing dinghies, ply runabouts, and clinker inboard speedboats, but the move to the larger shed meant more ambitious vessels could be built. It wasn’t long before Gil and his team of two full-time employees and two casuals completed the Mary Bourke, a 38ft cabin cruiser – nicknamed the ‘Pregnant Pasty’ because if its wide beam and shallow draft – and the 25ft English-designed Vertue-class sloop Corio Vertue. Both boats are still in use today, albeit somewhat updated and restored.
A long succession of launches followed, ranging from fishing, scallop and shark boats, dinghies, sailboats, and family cruisers. Gil built the boats to order, adapting designs and fitout to suit the owner’s needs. “I used to say I didn’t build boats for them, I built them with them.”
In those days, boats were mostly built out of wood. Gilcraft Boats first used Murray-region red gum for stern posts and stems, Western Australian jarrah for the keels, and kauri for gunwales, ribs and ‘bendy bits’. Later, because of supply difficulties from WA, they used iron bark for the keels and spotted gum for the ribs, plus island kauri.
In the 1970s, Gil recognised the fishing industry was changing and with it, the boat-building industry. He expanded into a new workshop, adding a showroom for marine stock and a service station. Although fibreglass was a dirty word for a wooden boat builder back then, Gil recognised the market was changing and in 1974 launched Gilcraft’s first fibreglass hull. The first ‘glass model was a Gilcraft 20 (G20), a sturdy cabin boat produced in various configurations that Gil says is recognised as the first fibreglass displacement fishing boat in Australia.
But the boat Gil considers the peak of his boat-building career isn’t a fishing boat at all. It’s a 52ft (59ft LOA) schooner he built with David Ramage, an avid sailor who wanted an ocean-going yacht he and his young family could sail the oceans with and eventually use as a charter yacht in the Caribbean Grenadines. Christened Metani (meaning ‘gentle wind’ in Micronesian), the graceful gentleman’s yacht was launched in 1985 after a four-year build in the Ramage family’s backyard in suburban Geelong.
Gil says his experience in building commercial fishing boats was well-suited to the project: “If the fishing boats can survive all of that, then the pleasurecraft will be the safest ones on the water.”
When the Ramage family arrived in Antigua, Metani participated in the Antigua Grand Schooner Regatta and was placed second, also being awarded the Concourse d’ Elegance trophy. “How could I not be proud of Metani … I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to round off my boat-building career with it. Metani was, indeed, a dreamboat.”
When Gil’s son Darren, a passionate boatie and in earlier years a keen ocean racer, approached him about building a boat, Gil quite liked the idea … although what Darren had in mind was not like anything Gil had ever built: he envisaged an Italian lake-style motorboat with elegant, sporty lines and a mahogany timber deck.
“When Darren suggested he would like to build this boat I said this is a bit out of my line,” says Gil. “We looked at all the different Italian models and assessed what we liked and put that down on paper first.
“When we were ready to start building, I really wasn’t fit enough for the physical work. So instead, I became the ‘finger-pointer’.”
“Dad’s a great finger-pointer,” says Darren. “Every Saturday morning he would bring the plans over and run through the next things to do.”
Rêveur (French for ‘dream’) is a 28ft timber speedboat built with furniture-grade timbers – mahogany for the frame, the stringers are Fijian kauri, and English marine ply in the hull – with a cockpit to seat eight passengers on white upholstery and a cabin in the bow that sleeps two. The hull is coated in epoxy fibreglass and painted white, which Darren says is easy to maintain.
While Rêveur’s styling was inspired by classic Italian speedboats, these are traditionally built for cruising in mild conditions on lakes … but Rêveur would get a pounding in The Rip and along Victoria’s southern coast. Not a problem, reasoned Darren, they could draw on Gil’s renowned experience. “Fishermen go out in all sorts of weather; they’re out in Bass Strait in a boat and if the boat’s not right they’re in trouble,” says Darren. “Dad has an eye for the lines and the balance of the boats and knows they will be powering through big waves.”
The father-son duo soon got to work on weekends in Darren’s front yard, making quick progress and completing Rêveur in just 12 months.
“I didn’t have a big work shed, so I made a cradle to build the boat on and wheeled it out when I was working on it.” This was apparently much to the amusement of the neighbours, who nicknamed Darren ‘Noah’ once they’d worked out what he was doing.
Building a boat is an adventure, even for this close-knit team. “We put in kauri stringers, which are joined together to get the 30ft length needed before they’re bent round the frame,” recalls Darren. “I didn’t have a steam box to bend them, so I used towels and hot water to steam them. Some of the bends are a bit tight so after you clamp the beams into position you soon know whether they’re going to stay there forever. You break a couple till you get it right. And if a clamp goes missing and hits you in the eye …” says a sheepish Darren, pointing to a photo of himself sporting a black eye.
So, what’s Rêveur like on the water, I ask? Darren and son Ben were on their feet in a flash and without any further ado, we found ourselves at the Queenscliff boat ramp to take the newest Gilcraft for a spin.
“When we take Rêveur out in three- or four-foot swells it’s just so comfortable. You can just bash it around and it can take it … we feel totally safe in it,” explains Ben as we head out into the bay. “We can run straight over big waves and it’s not a problem. The flared bow channels the water out and you never bury the nose.”
I can also vouch for the fact that Rêveur is fast. And smooth. And the PCM ZR 409hp fuel-injected engine sounds gloriously beefy, but in a discreet way.
Now in his early 80s, Gil Allbutt builds model boats, which are displayed at the Queenscliff Maritime Museum (he’s a foundation member of the Queenscliff Lifeboat Preservation Society, the museum’s forerunner) and in various exhibitions. He’s only recently stopped playing drums in local theatre and jazz bands, written a book Boat builders and fishermens’ tales at Queenscliff 1890 –1985 and is working on A boy growing up in Portarlington with daughter Leanne.
But it’s when Gil talks about his wife Nancy ‘Nan’ and being proud parents of four, grandparents to ten, and great-grandparents to 11 children, that brings the brightest twinkle to his eyes. “I’ve had a magic life, it’s just really marvellous …” he smiles.