If any Think Tasmania readers have travelled around Tasmania there will be no doubt that at some stage they would have seen a small timber rowing boat but most probably not given much thought to either its origin or its use. At first glance it looks like any other small timber boat however upon closer inspection some remarkable differences become apparent.
Huon Pine Punt
by Mike Fry
The bow and stern of the Huon Pine punt generally rise a little out of the water. The bow is blunt and to the uninitiated a little ungainly. It’s overall appearance unremarkable in many respects. To those that know this sturdy little water workhorse there could be none better for the tasks it has undertaken. Unfettered respect has been endowed upon its timbers to those that have used this boat for both livelihood and pleasure.
According to the late Harry McDermott of Strahan, the Huon Pine punt would have originated in the Port Davey region in the late years of the 19th century. Whilst the felling of Huon pine had been in existence since convict days the use of a specific boat to assist the piners is not evident. Harry credits the Doherty brothers with building the first of these sturdy craft down at Port Davey and later at Strahan. The boats were not built by plan specifically but by the knowledge of the piners who required a short maneuverable boat. The design was relatively simple and they were cheap to build. The fact that they were made from Huon pine meant that there would be longevity and no chance of rot or borers even though the boats would be wet for most of their life.
Rowing the Huon Pine Punt
The length of the boat was between 12’ and 16’ and could be rowed quite fast by two rowers. It was built from the bottom up but with no keel. The clinker style planking was completed prior to turning over when the ribs and other internal structure were added. The bow and stern were referred to as Tucks. The end result was a versatile little work horse. Carvel or smooth hulls were also built in Strahan in later years particularly by Harry Grining.
Attie Doherty built a number of punts for the state government of the day which were placed on the west coast rivers for the use of shipwrecked sailors. He was paid eighty four sovereigns at a rate of one pound per foot.
There are many stories of these little boats in which the piners used to row many miles up the west coast rivers, setting up camp and felling the Huon pine and then rafting them down to the harbour and then eventually to Strahan for milling. I recall one story of Gordon Abel, as a young man injuring his hand with an axe and then being rowed for over two days down the Gordon River and to Strahan to receive medical attention.
Huon Pine: Story of the Piners
The men who used these boats were as tough as the craft they used. Strong hardworking men who would spend months in the rainforest felling the Huon pine. They would row these boats for miles up rivers, drag them over rapids and through gorges with their supplies aboard. Then when the time came return down the rivers and to their families in Strahan and other west coast towns. I have no doubt they worked up a lather of sweat and a mighty thirst for a cold beer upon their return. Next time you see one of these little boats give some thought to the life they have lived and of the men they carried in their lifetime upon the wild waters of the mighty west coast rivers.
Recommended reading: The Huon Pine Story by Garry Kerr and Harry McDermott for the full story of Huon Pine and the lives of the piners, their families and the harvesting and use of Huon Pine.
Mike Fry represents tourism group Discover Strahan and Carolyn Nissen is the chairperson of Tasmania’s West Coast tourism organisation. Together they are owners and hosts of Ormiston House Bed and Breakfast accommodation in Strahan. Article and photos supplied to Think Tasmania by Mike Fry.