This article, written by Bruce Stanard,
was published in AFLOAT magazine September 2012 issue.
In 1924, the Norwegian industrialist Fritjof Larsen, commissioned the celebrated naval architect Johan Anker to design and build an eight metre yacht fast enough to beat the best of the British boats on the Solent. Anker “the Master of Lines” responded by creating the beautifully proportioned long and slender sloop that was to be called Varg (the Norwegian word for wolf), a vessel destined to have not one but two lives.
Varg’s success in English waters brought her to the attention of music publisher Frank Albert in faraway Australia and in 1926 he bought her as a 21st birthday gift for his son Alexis and had her shipped out to Sydney.
The Albert family didn’t much care for the name Varg so they chose to call her Norn, a reference to the all-powerful maidens in Norse mythology who rule the destiny of the gods and men. Norn was to become one of Australia’s most celebrated racing yachts. The winner of the coveted Sayonara Cup, she reigned supreme at Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron for almost half a century.
When the Albert family sold her in the 1960s she fell into a sharp decline and in the hands of a succession of indifferent owners, her classic lines were mutilated by a series of ugly accretions: a hideous cabin aft and the brutal truncation of her long and graceful counter stern. Sheathed in a crude skin of plywood she became a parody of a boat, a decrepit rotting hulk too weak to leave her mooring.
To hide her shame she slid to the bottom of Sydney Harbour where she remained for weeks until she was salvaged and again put up for sale. There were plenty of dreamers, but no one with an imagination vivid enough to perceive anything other than an old boat in the terminal stages of decay.
It would take the sensitive eye of an artist, a man with a profound aesthetic sensibility, to appreciate that lying beyond all that debris was in fact a rare and beautiful example of the work of one of the world’s most famous and gifted yacht designers.
That person was Kraig Carlström, a life-long racing sailor who also happens to be one of Australia’s most gifted professional photographers. Carlström understood at once that here was an exceptionally beautiful vessel and that he would be her saviour.
Even so, he was in for a dreadful shock as soon as he stepped aboard.
There was well over a metre of putrid water in the bilge and she was streaked with rust and redolent of the sour smell of rotting timber. Although most of us would have turned tail and fled, Carlström held his nerve and stumped up the $25,000 her cheeky owner was asking. The price was to be subject to inspection by a qualified marine surveyor.
Carlström had the good sense to engage the services of Doug Brooker, then one of Australia’s best-known and most respected wooden boat builders. In the several hours they spent examining all the defects, the boatbuilder produced a penknife and deftly thrust it into her timbers, demonstrating that she was little more than a waterlogged sponge held together by the tens of thousands of staples in her plywood sheathing.
Carlström reluctantly asked for his money back. But, after a couple of restless months in which he found himself unable to shake off Varg’s memory, he decided to go back and offer roughly half the initial asking price. With no one else even remotely interested, Carlström found himself the owner of one very shaky old boat.
He knew that restoration was out of the question so he decided to truck the hull all the way south to his home at Cygnet, a sleepy backwater at the head of Tasmania’s beautiful D’Entrecasteaux Channel.
There, just a mile from his waterfront home, stands the rambling old tin shed at the heart of the famous Wilson Brothers boatyard. Since the 1870s four generations of the Wilson family have produced some of Australia’s most talented wooden boat builders, craftsmen who created many of the island state’s most famous trading ketches and schooners.
Michael Wilson and his very talented boatbuilding partner, Warren Innes, were then just completing a 47ft Herreshoff ketch. Carlström sounded them out. If the restoration of Varg was out of the question, might they consider taking her lines off and building an exact copy?
After a prolonged pause came the answer … “yes, we could do that.”
It was a response that was to trigger one of the most ambitious boat building programs ever undertaken in Australia.
Carlström enlisted the help of the highly regarded Portuguese naval architect David Vieira who is one of the world’s leading authorities on eight metre class boats.
In the archives at Norway’s National Maritime Museum, Vieira unearthed Johan Anker’s original lines for Varg and subsequently produced a set of 23 drawings that would be needed for the boat. Nearly all the bronze deck fittings and winches were cast and finished in the specialist foundry associated with Vieira’s Absolute Restorations in Lisbon.
Varg’s magnificent Huon pine hull has been under construction for four years. She is a breathtaking example of the boat builder’s art. Rarely, if ever, has Australian boat building seen anything like the attention to detail that has been lavished on Varg. The timber selection has taken years and involves the use of only the very best and most beautiful Tasmanian native timbers.
When she goes in the water at the end of this year, Varg will undoubtedly be one of the most magnificent yachts ever constructed in Australia or anywhere else for that matter.
Kraig Carlström could have had her built anywhere in the world. How extraordinary therefore that he should have found craftsmen of the calibre of Michael Wilson and Warren Innes, just across the water from his own home on Port Cygnet Bay.
Varg’s original lead keel has been reused in the new boat. The old hull, which now serves as a piece of monumental sculpture, still draws admiring gasps from those who know and appreciate the work of the Master of Lines.