52' gaff rigged topsail ketch, Rhona H.
It is a remarkable circumstance that wherever you find a gathering of boats, especially wooden boats, and more especially in boatyards, you will invariably encounter an assortment of colourful individuals from all backgrounds congregating, chatting, or simply ‘hanging around'.
You can group them as ‘enthusiasts’, they will usually be clad in old and paint spattered clothing, and often equipped with paint brushes, scrapers, small power tools etc. A favoured battered, often cracked, mug filled with almost cold tea or coffee will make a common hand-held accoutrement, and there may be an optional elderly dog nearby.
And each and every one will have an interesting story to relate, either about their boats or about their (often salty) personal experiences and adventures!
So, it was a great pleasure to catch up with Julie Porter and Charles Burns, the well-known and respected owner/operators of the beautiful Hobart based Rhona H, the 52’ gaff rigged topsail ketch, also the smallest, and being built in 1942 by Ned Jack, the oldest commercially operating tall ship sailing out of Hobart.
However, we didn’t find them aboard Rhona H at the time, but rather high and dry aboard their latest acquisition, the beautiful 24’ 6” Lyle Hess designed and 1990 built Gaff rigged cutter Heather Belle, up on the hard at the Oyster Bay Marina at Kettering south of Hobart.
Julie, originally from New Zealand, and her fiancé Charles from London in the UK, admitted that they were delighted with their latest acquisition in every way, adding that they were almost disappointed on getting her out to the water, to find that she was in need of so little maintenance, basically only a good clean up and a coat of paint!
And that is how we found them, hard at work taking advantage of a cool dry day to get as much accomplished as possible. Julie told us: “I guess you would have to say that we are both ‘Tall Ship tragics’, and totally hooked at that, and though we both have a lot on our respective plates, when we saw that Andrew Wilson, the builder and long-term custodian of the vessel, had to put Heather Belle up for sale owing to ill health, we instantly decided we had to have her. We first saw her online, and curiosity got the better of us, so we went to view her in Lindisfarne.
We liked what we saw, and that was it, we literally fell in love with her, and immediately put in an offer. And to our great pleasure it was accepted, and now here we are and still delighted! She is a sistership to Lyn and Larry Pardey’s boats, Seraffyn and also the larger Taleisin, the subject of several fine books on ocean sailing, the only real difference being that Heather Belle is equipped with a reliable Volvo MD 7B diesel engine, whereas Taleisin had the highly eccentric luxury of an actual bath tub installed in the engine compartment! Importantly both were purely engineless sailing yachts.
Charles sanding aboard Heather Belle. Image Jonathan Wallis
Mind you we still have Rusulka, an H28 which we bought a few years ago as well as Rhona H. Our next project will be to get Rusulka up to scratch and find her a new home!”
Julie and Charles are both no strangers to maintenance and all the hard work entailed in the operation of sailing ships. Between them they have notched up a lot of sea miles, and Charles has his Master 5, whilst Julie is almost there, and they have amassed a swag of experience, often entailing a lot of hard graft, between them.
Whilst Charles is a qualified marine engineer, who did contemplate a professional career on international tall ships, Julie is highly qualified in her career in nursing. Charles spent around six months on the Duyfken, an authentic replica of the 1606 Dutch vessel on her major Australian return to WA from Queensland, sailing from Mackay to Cairns via Cooktown and then Townsville to Fremantle including time spent as Ships Engineer. He was also Marine Engineer on Windeward Bound for 12 months and Second Mate on the tall ship Enterprize on her last journey from Hobart to Melbourne in 2019.
Prior to that he sailed on the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters Margarette T and on Cariad from Wales to Scotland which only deepened his love of the classic rig which we now have on Heather-Belle.
They both spent many years on the Lady Nelson, including extended trips, Julie’s included sailing to Sydney on her for the 2013 Sydney Harbour Fleet Review before they both returned to Hobart on the Windeward Bound.
Julie began with a diploma in nursing in New Zealand, and has now attained no less than eight degrees, and is currently finishing a PhD in mental health, and when she is not ‘messing about in boats’ she is employed as a mental health nurse educator.
Charles and Julia at work on Heather Belle on the slip at Kettering. Image Jonathan Wallis
It has to be observed that seen with a scraper, heat gun or paint brush in hand, she appears to be not only proficient, but equally happy, in both roles! “I found my love for sailing, conservation and sailing ships, back in New Zealand on the original Spirit of Adventure as a youth trainee across Cook Strait and have done trips aboard several tall ships there including Spirit, Tradewind and R. Tucker Thompson; down here we have both spent time sailing on Lady Nelson and Windeward Bound, learning all the time, especially from Donough Benson and also Captain Sarah Parry.
In fact, Donough built Rusulka, and he has become another good and valued friend.
Charles and I originally met aboard Lady Nelson and were immediately drawn to each other with our mutual passion for sailing ships and classic boats.
We knew the Rhona H was for sale and when we saw the previous owner in Constitution Dock, we stopped for a chat and the rest is history. Once we bought the Rhona H, Heritage Sailing Tasmania was set up as totally ‘Not for Profit’ entity in 2014 and as a way to contribute to the tall ship community with an emphasis on traditional sailing, health promotion and marine conservation. A model unique to Australia and possibly in the world.
We aspired to sail her like Melbourne’s tall ship Enterprize, especially emulating how Enterprize sails right into Sullivans Cove in Hobart when visiting from Melbourne. We have both learned so much from all these experienced sailors along the way, including acquiring a wealth of knowledge from people like Ben Tucker and Dave Mayhew at Seafood and Maritime Training Tasmania, and we have both learned so much and acquired so many practical and essential skills.
It is a process of lifelong learning, and there is certainly a lot more to owning a vessel than simply sailing it, you really have to roll your sleeves up and get into the nuts and bolts, the never-ending maintenance, and importantly, learning the art of innovation.
Julie and Charles aboard Rhona H. Image Jonathan Wallis
A lot of practical stuff in fact! These skills are totally transferable and put to use on all our boats, and indeed they become life skills outside the boat yard, too! The rewards are in sharing these experiences with our all-volunteer crew and guests.
We now have a pool of around 30 volunteers with 10 regulars. They show up each week and take the opportunity to learn the art of classic sailing. It is important to us to sail the vessel as the old trading ketches sailed; including setting the topsails in lighter airs and when at anchor: a lot of muscle power required, there are no electric winches on Rhona H.
It builds teamwork and indeed many hands do make light work, and this ensures the maritime skills of old, sailing and ropework, are passed onto the younger generation.
It is just so much more rewarding, and our love of classic boats has given us so many opportunities. The tall ship network rewarded us with the ‘Billy Can Award’ in 2021 for leadership and youth development, and we were delighted to receive the Australian Wooden Boat Festival’s ‘Wrest Point Cup’ in 2019 by winning the Ketch Review.
Tourism helps keep us afloat with every cent from every guest being returned to ensure we maintain commercial survey, and thus the vessel as a vital part of Tasmania’s maritime heritage.
We have made contact with past custodians of the vessel and it has been so enriching piecing together her history; knowing she was built as a gentleman’s fishing ketch for the Youl family, (then known as Jessie or Jessica) then making history once renamed Rhona H by Max Hardy in honour of his girlfriend, then beloved wife, Rhona. The history has given us many stories and highlights have included meeting Max and Rhona and their family, members of the Youl family, and talking with the Nichols, too about their time whilst the Rhona H was a Page fishing vessel.
Billy Can Trophy won by Rhona H in 2021. Image Jonathan Wallis
Then more contemporary yarns, listening to the late Maurice Smith with his stories as he assisted with mast repairs before he sadly passed away, and Murray Young and Bruce Potter. The tales before the mast go on and are a privilege to have heard.
But, back to Heather-Belle. At present we are giving her a re-fresh. Checking the timbers on the bulwarks as we insert new bronze fairleads and ensuring the mast and rigging are as sound as they appear. Small things like a paint refresh and new sail and bright work covers to keep her looking her best as well.
One day we would love to sail on an extended trip; to prepare for this the galley and saloon area will need to be more functional. Then we will perhaps join in with the Cruising Yacht Club of Tasmania on one of their longer cruises, perhaps even to Port Davey; a highlight would certainly be to sail in company with the other classic boats including Aziza (of the same Lyle Hess design but slighter longer); maybe there will even be a Lyle Hess Regatta down ‘the Channel’ (Tasmania’s own D’Entrecasteaux Channel). What a sight that would be!”
Rhona H, normally berthed at the Elizabeth Street Pier, is now part of Hobart’s vital maritime environment, professionally built by Ned Jack using Huon pine over Celery Top pine frames in 1942. A 52ft classical gaff rigged ketch, with Tasmanian Oregon masts, she is sailed in the traditional manner with no winches or roller furler, she even has authentic wooden blocks! In every way she is a credit to the vision and hard work of Julie Porter and Charles Burns, and offers memorable sightseeing and sailing cruises and experiences.
Charles and crew doing maintenance on Rhona H. Image Julie Porter
In company with those two other gracious tall ships, Windeward Bound and Lady Nelson she has helped resist the recent uglification of the Hobart waterfront, and offers a glimpse of a far more gracious and authentic era for those with a discerning eye or a love of the sea! We trust you may even choose to join her on one of her regular harbour cruises, and in so doing, become a part of Tasmania’s maritime history!