Skipper's Seat

Skipper's Seat: May 2009

It's easy to get complacent at this time of year, to draw the curtains and sink deeper into the armchair before the fireplace. After all, this is supposed to be the start of the off-season and in southern states, at least, sailors are rugging up and retreating.

As ever, Sanctuary Cove International Boat Show (SCIBS), starting May 21, will provide a shot in the arm. The boat show in sunny Queensland is staged at the perfect time to lure us north. And as the curtain raiser for the national boat show circuit, it's a popular launch pad for hot new boats.

That's why we've made this month's Trade-a-Boat a Showtime Special. We preview all the cool craft and kit at SCIBS and tell you how to strike up a bargain. Meantime, our gadget man returns from Dubai with a review of its boat show, and our American captain reckons there's light at the end of the tunnel at a recent Florida boat show.

But unless you get off the couch, you will never know what's around the corner. I was reminded of this truism upon an all-too-familiar and favourite local waterway — the mighty Hawkesbury River. But it might as well have been your local waterway. No matter how often you think you know it, there are always surprises in store.

Life was grand aboard our 42-footer: the flathead were coming over the side, the blue-swimmer crabs were crawling into our nets, the kayak and tube were dispatched and after frolicking about the boat- only accessible beaches, we retreated to the deckchairs positioned in the cockpit to catch the stirring views.

Then, as happens when you spend more than a few days aboard, we soon found ourselves hankering for a fresh adventure. The conversation with my crusty crewmate Katherine turned to a place upriver that had hitherto escaped our attention. Every waterway, no matter how common or customary, has its hidden treasures.

We imagined ourselves stretching the legs for a few days while exploring the 28-hectare outpost called Dangar Island. It is home to about 300 shacks and a population of half as many. The more we thought about it the more it seemed an opportunity too good to miss and, as our island adventure would reveal, it made our boating holiday.

We went to shore in the tender and struck out on foot. First stop was a quaint waterfront cafe and general store. Considered the island's meeting place, the store is now run by a co-operative of locals who serve great coffee and grub, daily papers, and flog abundant supplies of fresh fruit and veggies to ward off scurvy.

Some island residents are artists including 2007 Dobell Prize winner Ana Pollak, who took inspiration from rowing around the local creeks and oyster leases. But here's where things get interesting. By chance, our visit coincides with one of the island's biggest annual events — Dangar Dory Derby Day — held for more than 20 years. There is a riot of kids and watchful elders flailing in all manner of paddle craft on the beach alongside the café and wharf.

A sign for the Derby on a street pole reads: no smelly boats, just smelly people. To win the coveted trophy, which dates back to 1982, you must have a rowboat capable of carrying three people in reasonable safety. The point is to encourage human-powered commuting. The record for the main race around the island is 15 minutes and 45 seconds, I'm told. It's then that several rowboats with similar dimensions catch my eye. Subsequent investigations reveal they are Dangar's most popular craft, the mighty Swift Dory, regarded as a green alternative to the ubiquitous tinnie.

Australian boatbuilder John Murray, who makes the Swift Dory, says the boat can do six knots if you lean on the oars, cruise at five knots and carry four people. He says locals can reach the mainland, a kilometre to the south but seemingly a world away, in 10 minutes.

Of course, dories were originally designed to fit inside each other for use on fishing schooners, but their flat bottom permits the use of relatively narrow hulls, which leads to a terrific turn of speed and stability.

Murray, who also has a patented rowlock system and makes his own oars, has built about 30 Swift dories for keen rowers from Tasmania to Noosa in the last few years.

The Swift Dory has air tanks for buoyancy, timber trim for eye candy, a foot brace, and a rudder that is said to be snag-free. The hull measures 5.5m long, 1.2m wide, and tips the scales to 51kg. You can buy one for $2800 race-ready with oars. (More from

Meanwhile, be sure to check for footage from SCIBS and all our regular sea trails and tests. And enjoy boating on the road less travelled but no less rewarding, during these cooler months.

David Lockwood,