Historic Boat ‘Admiral’ docks at George Town

The Admiral Boat George Town

It’s not every day you get to celebrate a birthday that is over 1 ½ centuries in age.

With a quaint little birthday party, Admiral celebrated it’s 156th birthday with members of the George Town Council, volunteers of the Bass and Flinders museum and of course the team behind the stunning restoration project, the Admiral Restoration Group who call themselves the Admiralty.

Craig Dixon, a member of the ‘Admiralty’ project and also a volunteer of the Bass and Flinders museum extended his thanks to the restoration group and members of the council and to the volunteers of the Bass and Flinders museum, “It’s a great day for a birthday and it’s Admirals birthday.” He said.

“The Admiral, what a beautiful boat, she’s 156 years old (as of the 26th August), she’s also Tasmania’s oldest boat and she’s Australia’s second oldest.”

Craig described Admiral as an asset to the Bass and Flinders museum and by extension to the George Town community. “We are very, very lucky to have her here, we really are.”

The Admiral Boat George Town
The Admiral on display at the Bass and Flinders Maritime Museum (Photo: Kristy Williams)

Only licensed to carry 30 people, Admiral was built 156 years ago as a water taxi and carried four Govenors in her time starting with Thomas Browne from 1861 to 1868, Charles Du Cane from 1869 to 1874, Frederick Weld from 1875 to 1880 and Peter Underwood from 2008 to 2014.

Craig described a man who they all called Bern, as the driving force of Admiral and the Bass and Flinders museum.

“Bernal Tasman Cuthbertson, otherwise known as Bern, what he didn’t know about ships in the sea and sailing and anything nautical wasn’t worth knowing.”

“He was an amazing guy and an absolute fount of knowledge.”

Bern unfortunately passed away in 2013 just shy of his 90th year, however Craig said “He’s still with us and this is his legacy.”

Whilst walking the banks of the Tamar one day, Craig found an ordinary net float and to his surprise it had the name ‘Bernal’ on one side of it, “He’s still talking to us and I can tell you what he’d be saying. He’d be saying remember the eyes of the world are upon us.”

The Admirality’s secretary Fiona Peate also paid thanks to the Bass and Flinders Museum and the George Town Council for the opportunity to install Admiral into the museum and to celebrate her birthday.

“She was a bit of a wreck when we found her but we did it because we could, and because Bern said we should.” Fiona said.

“To quote our historian, Graeme Broxam, it casts a light on our maritime past and broader aspects of early colonial Tasmanian enterprises.”

The group were able to restore 80% of the original timbers and wanted to preserve Admiral for future generations as it is a physical link to the everyday activities that occurred in Tasmania so many years ago.

The group have engaged in a number of historic boat restorations together, which have helped to foster the long friendships among the group that still stands today. Craig added the many trips that they had shared together were some of the best weeks of his life.

Before completion of the restoration project, Admiral took part in a number of events including the Australian Wooden Boat Festival, Seafarers’ Festival and the Launceston Wooden Boat Festival.

“It wasn’t all work, enduring friendships developed. It was very positive and upbeat. I think people were there because they wanted to be.” She said.

“There was lots of laughter, social activities and of course getting wet, because no one goes to sea without getting a little bit wet.”

Fiona described Bern as the ideas man with the ability to enthuse, teach and mentor those around him. “We learnt something new everytime we were with him.”

David Evans, a Vietnam Veteran was conscripted to go to war alongside his twin brother, however through a special arrangement, David went to war without his brother. David loved being around boats and made the oars for Admiral from scratch.

Fiona described David as one of Bern’s protegees who learnt a lot from Bern through their many adventures together. “He decided we needed oars and thought, well that’s something I can do, so he researched making oars.”

David, like so many others was adversely affected by the war but decided building oars was something he could do and after talking with people in the know, he set to work on crafting the oars.

“It’s a very important contribution because he did it on his own. It kept him busy doing things and he could do it when he felt like he needed to do it.”

“David was a poet and a very good one to have around. As we rowed Admiral from Huonville through the D’Entrecasteux Channel to Hoabart after she was relaunched, he regaled us with stories and poems that he’d written.”

John Gunn, described as an avid supporter of Bern was also thanked for his contributions to the Bass and Flinders Museum. “He financed this place and it’s thanks to John Gunn that this building is here, a great asset for the people of George Town.”

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the restoration group, finding a covered place where they could begin the work was proving to be a difficult journey. Despite the many empty government sheds, Fiona said “they didn’t want us there.”

Luckily, Wesley Hazel came to the rescue and offered the group a shed in Judbury. “He paid for the power and insurance and was great company and enthusiastic about what we were doing.”

The group also received another generous donation of Huon Pine from an old fisherman Mark O’May that knew Bern. He offered to mill the Huon Pine which was used to replace the missing and/or rotted planks. “He liked what we were doing.”

Fiona had one simple message for the old vessel, “Happy Birthday and have a well-deserved retirement.”

George Town’s mayor Greg Keiser was also in attendance to celebrate the life of Admiral and to acknowledge the transfer of Admiral into the Bass and Flinders Museum and into the custodianship of the George Town Council.

“The George Town Council’s involvement is relatively recent and so it’s appropriate to acknowledge Peter Hale and the original founding members of the Bass and Flinders Museum it’s appropriate to acknowledge all of the volunteers who are the lifeblood of this remarkable facility, and we are deeply grateful, deeply, in gratitude, that we can give this wonderful vessel a permanent home.”

“I also want to just quickly call out to the Lighthouse Regional Arts Group and particularly to Mike Joines, Remona Hayes and Alene Keiser who had a hand in painting the beautiful backdrop, which I think is fitting and really does the right thing by the Admiral, in short we just couldn’t be more delighted to have her here.” He said

Michael Bird, one of the volunteers and the replacement skipper after Bern, recalled the condition of the boat as being quite poor when the crew began the project. “She still had the prop shaft in her and she was 6 feet longer, another 3 planks higher, so about a foot higher than what she currently is.”

“The paints as close as we could get to the original.”

Michael said the restoration took over 3 years to complete and the group got together 1-2 days a week.

Prior to the restoration, Admiral was located on Mitchell Island by some of Bern’s friends who thought it looked like an interesting boat, and after having a look through writer and maritime historian, Graeme Broxam’s book called ‘Those that Survive: Vintage & Veteran Boats of Tasmania’ they were convinced the boat had to be Admiral.

Admiral was almost sent to the fire pile after the owners at the time had attempted to turn the vessel into a clipper boat only to find they lacked the skills to be able to complete the job. Sick in bed, Bern received a call to announce the suspected discovery of the boat.

Despite being unwell, he was straight out of bed and on his way to inspect the boat which he identified as is being Admiral and offered the owner $1 for it.

Graeme knew Bern for a long time and when the restoration project of Admiral began, Graeme began to research the history of the vessel.

“It was a pity that the research wasn’t until after the boat was almost finished. There’s a few things that were done slightly a bit differently, but we’ve still got a very good idea of the boats history and where it fits into the whole Tasmanian story.” Graeme said

“It’s a boat that had a lot of public interest, because it was the biggest of these so called waterman’s boats that used to operate out of Hobart.”

“It was the boat that was hired by the Regatta people every year that would row the Governor around the Regatta grounds until the early 1870’s.”

It is also believed that Admiral was used as a fishing boat at one point for some 60 years.

The boat was discovered in 2006 and work officially began in early 2007 to restore it.

“When we got it finished, we put it in the river at Huonville, and rode it all the way down the river.” Fiona said.

Admiral has been quite the recycling project, with it still being held together by the same copper nails it started with.

“Copper at the time was about $90 a kilogram and that was as scrap. Whatever nails we got out, we harvested them, and Bern sat there in front of the fire with my little dogs on his lap keeping his legs warm and he straightened the nails and resharpened them.”

Once restoration was complete, they couldn’t find a home for the vessel to be put on display locally, so it was transported to the Bass and Flinders Museum.

“It’s a good thing, George Town are just wonderful, welcoming and I’m sure they’ll take really good care of it.”

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