Reader's Yarn - Remember When

When you think of classic timber boats built in the Sydney area, the first builder that comes to mind is always Halvorsens. Those people of a certain age or those who know some boating history would also think of Peter Bracken or Cec Quilkey. But Sydney timber-boat heritage extends much further than the more common names. In fact, many smaller yards turned out a significant number of vessels before, for various reasons, fading away.

One such builder was Ches Fiumini, whose passion for timber powerboats was evident in the vessels he produced.

Chesery Hector Fiumini was born in Oatley in 1921 to a proud Italian/ Norwegian family and was indentured for five years to the booming Halvorsen business at Neutral Bay in 1937. His journey to work each day was a bus, a train and a 3km walk (which he usually treated as a training run). Ches was an excellent athlete with swimming his main sport. He won and is thought to still hold the Fisher Trophy for an open water 250-yard swim. He ventured into Tattersalls Club to discuss competing in the Olympics but was dismayed you needed to pay your way or find a benevolent sponsor to cover your expenses. So it was back to the boatyard and back to work.

After the Halvorsens, Ches contemplated a move to the Italian fishing community at Ulladulla, but decided on a stint with the authorities at Audley National Park, building, maintaining and repairing their vessels. Leaving there, he struck out on his own and leased horse stables at Kogarah, which was converted into a workshop and accommodation.
Ace Footwear wanted the area to expand its production (back when shoes were being made in this country) and Ches instead bought out the lease.

The funds were used to start construction of a family home at Sans Souci and to commence the operations in 1955 of Endeavour Boat Shed, at Endeavour Street, on which now stands Botany Bay Sailing Club. This was to be his production base for the next 15 years. His boats were called Endeavour Craft built by C.H. Fiumini & Son.

There are no complete surviving records of vessels built throughout the time, but his first apprentice Graham Alexander started with him in 1955 and his son Arthur commenced as an apprentice from 1959. They recall that speedboats were the mainstay in the early years, with an increase in cruisers between 24 and 30 feet in later years. The boatyard could produce up to five speedboats a year and a lesser number of cruisers. It is thought only one yacht was ever built. This was a 38ft Serpentine design for Tom Palmer of Kitten Car Polish fame.

Each boat was built specifically for a customer either to his plans or based upon Ches’s own designs. It is likely no two were exactly alike as they all incorporated the owner’s particular requirements with that of the builder’s. (They had to look good, be built strong and go hard).

Orders that did not come with plans were first crafted in a half-block model to get the lines and the actual boat was then scaled from that. For many years, clinker hulls were the norm but later, diagonal planking with Dynal on the hulls for a smooth finish became more common.

Performance was achieved with his favourite motor, a Ford Interceptor V8. These were the police special motors imported from the USA. Not for Ches was a boat designed for a sedate six-knot cruise. Endeavour Craft by Fiumini were designed to be able to be driven fast in rough water and this is why he was commissioned to build boats for the water police and customs departments.

A vessel for the police called the Platypus was named after a Royal Australian Navy WWI and II ship, and part of the timber was reclaimed and used by Ches in his boat of the same name. This boat was sent to Canberra for use on Lake Burley Griffin, but there is some doubt as to its whereabouts after being laid-up in Canberra for a time. Two other craft for the police called the Myall and Wallis were destined to serve on the respective eponymously named NSW lakes.

Powerboat racing was very popular in the 1960s, with categories for purpose-built raceboats but also for speedboats and high-speed cruisers. At the local St George Motor Boat Club half of the field in these last two classes would be built by Ches and race at the front of the field. Ches was commissioned by John Knox to build a boat for the offshore Sydney to Brisbane and Sydney to Melbourne Power Boat Race. He constructed a vessel of six layers of half-inch mountain ash for strength and was rewarded with an unbroken boat at the top of the field.

So why did Endeavour Craft cease to trade? Like any business, it is usually from not making sufficient profit to justify the effort and Endeavour Craft were no exception. Ches was a boatbuilder first and a businessman second and boats were constructed on handshake deals. While this was probably not so uncommon for the time, it did leave him exposed to some problems that might have been averted with more detailed contracts.

The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time of increasing labour costs and a huge expansion of the fibreglass boatbuilding processes, which hit Endeavour Craft and all other timber boatbuilding yards hard. Exponents, such as Bill Barry-Cotter (who also had been apprenticed to Halvorsens), were able to turn out vessels in a fraction of the time and cost that it took to produce a timber boat. The buyers at the time also flocked to the new product so that at Endeavour Boat Sheds from 1967 no new vessels were constructed with the emphasis on repairs and maintenance.

In the ’70s, only Ches and his son Art remained and with the writing on the wall, Art found a new job at the RTA. Over the Christmas break, Ches suffered a heart attack and by the time he recovered sufficiently to return to work, he had no work to return to. Sadly during this period many tools, records and memorabilia of the last 15 years went missing. When able to work again, Ches joined Art at the RTA where he stayed until retirement. He passed away in 1994 at the age of 73.

In an age when boats are CAD designed, tank tested, robotically built and product-line assembled, you wonder what an old school craftsman who built by feel and eye would make of the current market place, I suspect Ches would still appreciate the best as an extension into modern products and techniques and there are boats he would be proud to produce. However, I also suspect the floating condos and a policy of acceptably cheaper would earn the ire of a passionate Italian boatbuilder.

Even though many of our current boats come from large mechanised facilities (and it must be said many of these are excellent vessels), we still have a legacy of smaller operators that manufacture for a customer who wants something special, a little different, a little better and who appreciates the quality of a special builder and are willing to pay a premium for it. I can see Ches truly appreciating something like the Force 21 raceboat and appreciating its virtues in every way (but still looking for some timber features).His son Art, daughter Maree, apprentice from day one Graham Alexander and compatriot Ces Quilkey have all lent their memories, recollections, memorabilia and photos for this article, and given a wonderful insight into powerboating in the 1960s.

-Arthur Fuimini and unknown person. The boat is Myall, one of the launches built for the water police. Clinker hulled, the boat was 23-foot long with a 9ft6in beam, and loaded had a draft of only two feet. Powered by a 260hp petrol engine, Myall was capable of 30kts.
-Albert Lewis, Arthur Fiumini, Grahame Alexander, Colin Crowhurst, Ches Fuimini, and new owner Charlie Cole. This craft has similar lines to the author’s boat Sicano (below).

-Sicano's interior is very much original.

-Construction date of Sicano is around 1968/69 and she would have been one of the last new-builds from the yard. The 28-footer was originally fitted with petrol V8s, but has since been repowered (in 2000) with twin 41hp Cummins. Cruise speed is now 8 to 10kts.

From Trade-a-Boat Issue 426, Apr-May, 2012. Photos: supplied.