Billy Barnett, Master Shipwright of Sydney Harbour

It seems that some skills take more than a lifetime to gain – they have to be inherited, in the blood. This is certainly the case with many boat builders and none more so than Bill Barnett, one of Sydney Harbour’s finest wooden boat builders and the man who designed, built and raced his 18-footer Myra Too to glory in 1951.

The Australian National Maritime Museum has recently been assisting with a project to build a replica of Barnett’s Myra Too, however the success of this yacht in Barnett’s expert hands forms only a small chapter in a life full of achievement on and off the water.

Bill Barnett, crew member of the 1967 America’s Cup challenger DAME PATTIE, c 1967. Copyright. ANMM Collection Gift from Graeme Andrews

Bill Barnett, crew member of the 1967 America’s Cup challenger DAME PATTIE, c 1967. Copyright. ANMM Collection Gift from Graeme Andrews

In 1915 Barnett was born into a family of boat builders and shipwrights. His father had been an apprentice to Watty Ford and caretaker of the Shore School boatshed at Berrys Bay. He was also an active and talented sailor, acting as for’ard hand for George Press in the legendary yacht HC Press. Bill Barnett himself recalls that many of his skills were absorbed as a young boy through watching his father work.

Under his father’s supervision, Barnett built his first dinghy at around age fourteen before gaining an apprenticeship at Neptune Engineering and Slipway in Lavender Bay. He then moved on to the Manly Ferry Company where one of his first jobs was to build lifeboats for the Manly ferries Dee Why and Curl Curl.

During the war Barnett worked as a shipwright with the Shell Oil Company at Gore Bay, all the while building and sailing yachts in his spare time. After leaving Shell Oil, Barnett built his own house and boatshed at McMahon’s Point, next door to where he was born, and struck out on his own as a boat builder.

During this time Barnett established an excellent reputation as a shipwright with his innovative designs for surf boats and Dragon class yachts. This reputation was only enhanced by Barnett’s skills as a sailor, skippering many of his own designs to success in sailing competitions and club events. This culminated in 1951 when Myra Too captured the State, National and International 18-footer titles with Bill at the helm.

Bill Barnett accepting the championship ribbon after winning the 1951 National 18-footer title with sheet hand Fred Everett (white cap) and bailer boy Brian Stewart (right) ANMM Collection  00013526

Bill Barnett accepting the championship ribbon after winning the 1951 National 18-footer title with sheet hand Fred Everett (white cap) and bailer boy Brian Stewart (right) ANMM Collection 00013526

Barnett’s career then reached new heights when he was approached to build a 12 metre yacht for Australia’s 1967 challenge for the prestigious America’s Cup. The yacht was designed by Warwick Hood and christened Dame Pattie after Pattie Menzies, the wife of former Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Dame Pattie raced competitively during trials, however was unsuccessful against the American yacht that won the series, Intrepid.

“Being asked to build the Dame was the most momentous thing, with regard to boatbuilding, that had happened to me”

(Bill Barnett, Boating Legends of Sydney Harbour, p 40)

Barnett went on to build Frank Packer’s 1970 America’s Cup challenger Gretel II to Alan Payne’s design, an effective combination that was unfortunately also defeated by Dame Pattie’s 1967 rival Intrepid.

In 1971 a devastating fire tore through Barnett’s McMahon’s Point boatshed, destroying the structure and its contents, including valuable tools and archives. The shed was rebuilt with the assistance and generosity of the local community and Council and Barnett continued to work from the shed until only several years ago.

The loss of half models and plans such as those for Myra Too in the 1971 fire have meant that the Myra Too replica is being built from a combination of memory, photographs and above all – that intangible boat builders ‘instinct’. Now 98, Barnett himself has overseen details of the design with his own apprentice Bob McLeod building to plans created by Alan Payne’s nephew David Payne.

It’s all in the blood, afterall.

Bill Barnett with 6-metre yacht PRINCE ALFRED (c 1970) Copyright. ANMM Collection Gift from Louis D'Alpuget

Bill Barnett with 6-metre yacht PRINCE ALFRED (c 1970) Copyright. ANMM Collection Gift from Louis D’Alpuget

On May 11, the Australian Open Skiff Trust hosted an event to celebrate Billy Barnett and his achievements as a sailor and shipwright. The tribute lunch also assisted in raising funds for the completion of Myra Too. For photographs of this event, please see the museum’s Flickr set.

Penny Hyde

Curatorial assistant

See the photos of the Myra Too build as it comes together.

To donate to the MYRA TOO project, please head over to the website of the Australian Open Skiff Trust for more information.

References: Fred Thomas, Boating Legends of Sydney Harbour (2006)

Australian National Maritime Museum Oral History recording #39 with Billy Barnett.

7 thoughts on “Billy Barnett, Master Shipwright of Sydney Harbour

  1. Dear Penny
    Would love to have come down to help celebrate Bill’s achieveivements but I will be out of Sydney on a cruise from the 10/5/13. Will try and do something after we are back.
    Brian Stewart [ 6th Hand of Myra Too]
    Brian Stewart

    • Hi Brian, we will definately miss you on the day but we will let you know how it goes. And hopefully we will get the chance for a catch up on another occasion :)

      Enjoy your holiday!

      Penny

  2. Pingback: Bringing a champion back to life | Australian National Maritime Museum

  3. Pingback: MYRA TOO takes shape | Australian National Maritime Museum

  4. Good Afternoon Penny.
    I happened across this article while researching information regarding the construction of the 6-metre Pacemaker. I have owned Pacemaker for 4 years now and I currently reside on the northwest coast of the U.S. Finished in 1972 for John Taylor. Any information regarding the construction would be appreciated.
    I am wondering if, by chance there may be any construction photos or documentation regarding the the boat. Completed in 1972 for Wine Merchant John Taylor. Any direction or information would be much appreciated

  5. Pingback: Picture This: History Week 2013 | Australian National Maritime Museum

  6. Pingback: 1951 beginnings, 2014 endings | Australian National Maritime Museum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s