Will Minnebo had not long hit 50 when he tossed it in. He wasn't miserable, exactly he had a wife and three children whom he loved and was proud of but he wasn't bursting with joy, either. His work was the problem. Ten years as an IT consultant in Sydney, a life of deadlines and stress, was chipping away at his health and relationships. He found relief in practicing Tai Chi in a park at lunchtimes, but he sensed this was just closing his eyes and that what he really needed was to get off this ride and find another one he liked better.
The chance came, as usual, out of nowhere, when Minnebo was in Perth on business. Weary at the end of a trying day, he was in his hotel room checking his emails on his laptop. One was from his wife, Alis, who'd stumbled on something she thought might suit their teenaged son, Jon. She'd discovered this place south of Hobart, the Wooden Boat Centre, which teaches students how to make boats in the traditional way. Her message contained a web link, and Minnebo spent the next half hour reading about the school. "My God," he muttered. "I wouldn't mind doing this myself."
Minnebo had always been good with his hands. He'd built beds, cabinets, prams and toys for his children when they were little. More recently, he'd made a massage table for Alis, an aromatherapist. And from the age of four, Jon had kneeled beside his father, watching him work. They were close, but would Jon mind if he and his dad were enrolled in the same course? Not a bit, said Jon. So after checking out the area's real estate, Minnebo quit his job. "We packed everything up," he says, "and moved to Tasmania."
The first building on the left as you enter Franklin from the north, the school backs onto the Huon River and could hardly be a more different workplace from the bland, corporate cubes that Minnebo was used to. There are trout in the river and a platypus lives a few meters from the workshop; black swans adorn the backdrop. The winter is bracing and pure. "I've never smelled such fresh air," says Minnebo.
Learning here happens on the job. It's a 12-month course in which students, working together, make a largish boat from scratch, using the same methods as the Vikings and the builders of the tall ships that sailed into Sydney Cove two centuries ago. For them, lofting (making patterns for the boat, like a dressmaker) and caulking (forcing pieces of cotton between the planks to ensure the craft remains watertight) aren't concepts but tasks they skin their fingers mastering. Though they're the work of students, the school's boats would never be confused with something knocked together on Gilligan's Island. Built under the supervision of teachers who demand painstaking attention to detail, the school's output since it was founded in 1991 has been first-rate. The current project, a 32-ft. motor sailer, was commissioned by a Sydney boating identity, David Sturrick, who is known for his exacting standards.
The father-son theme pervades the school. The principal tutor, Dean Marks, is a third-generation boat builder whose dad forever had a project going in their backyard on Sydney's northern beaches. "At the age of 10, I was standing on a paint tin helping with the caulking," says Marks, who moved to Tasmania last year to take up his post. Demand for wooden craft is surging, he argues. While 20 years ago big, fiberglass boats were a status symbol, people are tiring of them: "The only difference between one and another is the color of their stripe," says Marks. "They've got no character. Guys in the boating game want something unique, a head-turner . . . it's like the bloke who buys a Mustang even though it sucks a lot of juice." The British writer John Masefield called the wooden boat, a field of corn and a woman with her child the most beautiful sights in the world.
The school buys its wood from 77-year-old Bern Bradshaw, manager of Tasmanian Special Timbers in Queenstown, on the west coast. His dad was a woodcutter who became a logger and a miller; Bradshaw could wait no longer than his 14th birthday to leave school and join the game. Wood is something sacred to Bradshaw, a point one does well to remember in his presence. Marks recalls one time a student trod on a plank of Huon pine at Bradshaw's mill. The old-timer didn't need to yell the sting was in his acid tone. "Give that a bit of respect," he told the youngster. "It's older than your grandfather and grandmother put together."
Though selling the wood puts food on his table, Bradshaw isn't complaining that there are few organisms more protected in Tasmania than Huon pine, a riverbank conifer endemic to the state. There are some 10,500 hectares of untouchable, living Huon pine on the west coast, some specimens up to 3,000 years old. Most of the Huon pine used for commerce was felled in the 1800s by convict laborers; it's now harvested under quotas by the few people licenced to do so by Forestry Tasmania. It's a timber loved by woodworkers, especially boat makers. It's strong yet soft, smooth and light, hardly shrinks and is pleasant-smelling thanks to an oil, methyl eugenol, that's hated by teredo, the termites of the sea. The harvester's job is to salvage the fallen logs, sometimes from the bottom of the King River, south of Queenstown. "A lot of the others are just mounds on the ground now," says Bradshaw, "with other trees growing on them. They've returned to nature, in other words."
Sea-changer Minnebo is returning to nature, too, or at least to a way of life that feels real and vital. He and Alis bought a 2-ha property in coastal Kettering and are working toward self-sufficiency through fruit trees, a vegetable patch, a rainwater tank and solar power, with Minnebo planning to start a boat-building business to keep a bit of money coming in. With the Huon as his office and cold air in his lungs, the contentment he was missing is etched on his face. Little wonder he hasn't struck a Tai Chi pose in months.
Next A Cold Coming