A slice of sailing history
As Museum Development Officers, significance assessments of community collections are a regular and important part of our work. Responding to a request for an assessment and funded by the Community Heritage Grants programme administered by the National Library of Australia, I recently had the opportunity to undertake an assessment of the Lord Howe Island Museum collection.
The collection at the museum is diverse, and represents the island’s history from its discovery only a few weeks after the arrival of the First Fleet in Port Jackson, through its days as a provisioning stop for the American whaling fleet, to an idyllic holiday destination and hotspot of biodiversity. The museum documents these events through objects as well as an exceptionally rich collection of photographs, books, and other archival material. But one particular sub-collection struck both a personal and professional chord with me.
Sailing to Lord Howe Island has always presented mariners with a challenge. Surrounded by the notorious Tasman Sea and with the nearest land 600kms away there is nowhere to hide from bad weather. But with an increasing interest in cruising sailing from the 1920s, recreational yachtsmen began setting course for more distant shores. Tourism on Lord Howe Island was also becoming an important industry at the time, with Burns Philp running a small passenger service alongside cargo on their Sydney – Lord Howe Island – Norfolk Island supply run. Assured of an ocean adventure with an hospitable reception on arrival, Lord Howe became an alluring goal for recreational yachtsmen.
Visiting yachts would often present their island hosts with a commemorative photograph of their vessel, and a number of these are held in the museum’s collection. A frequent visitor during the 1930s was the yacht Wanderer. Built in 1928 and owned by Norman Wallis, Wanderer undertook her first voyage to the island within a few months of her launch. The museum collection includes an original scrapbook of the Wanderer, which documents her racing and cruising career through to Norman Wallis’ death in 1965.
Of particular relevance to the Island’s history is the Wanderer’s participation in the search for the missing motor launch Viking. The Viking was a newly built vessel owned by island resident Gower Wilson. At the beginning of November 1936 she left Port Macquarie bound for Lord Howe Island with Gower Wilson, his son Jack and a crew of four Sydneysiders on board. When the Viking failed to arrive at her destination after ten days the alarm was raised, and Norman Wallis lost no time in setting out on Wanderer to assist in the search. Wallis and Gower Wilson had become firm friends during the former’s island visits. During the search Wanderer herself nearly became a victim of the sea, and limped back to Sydney with a broken rudder after 15 days searching. No trace of the Viking or her crew were ever found. Gower Wilson had been a regular host for many visiting yachts so his loss was keenly felt not only by the tiny population on the island, but also by the wider yachting community.
The museum’s collection documents more modern yachting history as well, with the local postmistress Hazel Payten maintaining a register of visiting yachts from the late 1960s into the 1980s. For those with an eye for yachting history a number of well-known skippers and vessels can be spotted, but perhaps most notable amongst these is the tiny 12ft sloop Acrohc Australis with skipper Serge Testa. Acrohc Australis stopped at the Island in 1987 during her voyage around the world, which had commenced in 1983. Serge and his homemade vessel still hold the record for the smallest sailboat ever to complete a circumnavigation of the world. Acrohc Australis now has a home at the Queensland Museum.