Almanac Life: The Yachts



Yachts moored off The Strand in Williamstown (pic: Smokie Dawson)



The pre-dawn foghorns of docks-bound ships, and the mournful nocturnal drone of the dredge buckets digging at the bed of the Yarra, were but two reminders that we were growing up girt by water. Williamstown wore its ‘historic seaport’ moniker as a badge of pride. And who would dare argue, given our town was home to no less than four yacht clubs, a sailing club, boat builders and shipwrights, and Melbourne’s tug-boat fleet.


It seemed that half the town was employed at the Naval Dockyards, a mix of crusty old veterans who had spent a lifetime clocking on, and the younger crew ‘serving their time’ doing an apprenticeship in one trade or another. There was a myth, perpetuated mainly for the bullshitting of outsiders, that every resident of Williamstown was either a yachtsman, or an angler, or both. However, it was a truism – and remains so – that even if you were not a mariner of any sort, you at least knew someone who was.


In my teens, I took my first tentative steps aboard a sea-going vessel. On a sunny Saturday, my mate PC invited me to accompany him for a leisurely afternoon of sailing upon the glistening blue waters of Hobsons Bay. His yacht was a diamond class, a wooden boat of some twenty-five feet or so in length. It was sturdy enough, but it seemed to have a mind of its own. From the moment we launched, it was determined to get the better of two inexperienced fifteen-year-olds, and we battled to keep it upright. We spent more time in the water than out, and whilst flailing about in the icy waters of Port Phillip, pondering what sea-monsters might be lurking beneath the waves eyeing off my legs, any romantic thoughts I may have entertained about a life on the high seas were drowned.


PC was a junior member at the ‘Royals’, and one of the perks of his membership was that he had in his possession a key which afforded him access through the gates of the club at any hour of the day. On Saturday nights, we would enter the slip-yard through an old side gate and wander about the boats on the dry-dock. Technically we were not trespassing but given the value of what lay beyond the gates, the security was non-existent. Security guards and CCTV were unheard of in 1980s Williamstown. In the moonlight, we were dwarfed by the hulls of the mighty sailing boats towering above us. Their access ladders were high and forbidding, but we would clamber upwards anyway. The very first time I climbed up, placing hand over hand, rung after rung, my eyes were crammed shut. But thereafter, we were eager to discover what secrets we would discover aboard. Once ensconced in the safety of the cabin, PC would name-drop the vessel’s owner, and talk about how much money the boat was worth.


Every yacht had some form of alcohol stashed away, and for us, this was the true bounty. It was inside these cabins that I first savoured the sweetness of Bundaberg Rum, sipped slowly from plastic beakers. We would marvel at the size and scope of the navigation instruments we were sitting amidst, speculate about how many Sydney to Hobart races we would attempt when we were older, and make light of my failed fledgling sailing efforts.


After a Bundy or two, the ladder’s descent back to the dock was treacherous, and required great concentration and deliberation. It was always a joy when both feet touched the safety of terra firma. This feeling of relief only confirmed what I knew in my heart – that my one sodden sailing experience had condemned me to the life of a landlubber.



The author apologises unreservedly to the yachtsmen and women of the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria for: a) once pretending to be a sailor, and b) filching their Bundaberg Rum forty years ago.     



More stories from ‘Smokie’ Dawson HERE


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About Darren Dawson

Always North.


  1. Kevin Densley says

    Enjoyable, Smokie! Your piece reminded me of a similar teenage “flirtation” with sailing; like you, being regularly dunked into Port Philip Bay by a recalcitrant yacht didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm for the sport.

  2. Smokie- great stuff. Yes, it now seems extraordinary that you could roam about the club whenever you wished. My favourite yacht remains the Flying Wasp.

  3. Luke Reynolds says

    What a beautiful Williamstown picture. As a landlubber myself, happy to leave the sea to those more qualified.

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