Australian builders of wooden boats have long achieved remarkable results and occasionally international fame. From the fastest boat in the world (Ken Warby’s Spirit of Australia – 511km/h in 1978) through luxury cruisers (think Halvorsen as one example) to classic speedboats in golden mahogany, Australia has a tradition of marvellous vessels crafted in wood.
One of the most highly regarded of the Aussie wooden boatbuilders was Harry Hammond, who began building ski boats with his brother Jim at the end of WWII. The first was named Zooma, and Harry used it to commute between Saratoga, on the NSW Central Coast, and Palm Beach on Sydney’s Pittwater to court his future wife, Lorna.
Jim eventually moved north to Ballina, where he built fishing trawlers and other boats, while Harry found demand for his ski boats after setting up a business in the Sydney northern beaches suburb of Brookvale. He built a factory in Ada Avenue, where his son Mark still runs a car servicing business.
Mark actually worked with his father building boats in the 1970s, by which time the world had changed and fibreglass had taken over from wood as the preferred construction material for boats. Unlike many wooden boatbuilders of the time, Harry survived the transition to ‘glass, although he cleverly retained his popular style and design and used coloured gelcoats to give a similar outward appearance to timber.
Before fibreglass took over though, Harry had built his boats using maple and later Bruynzeel marine ply. Most often ordered in ‘Stage Two’ specification, with engines and interiors to be fitted by the owners, they were usually powered by flathead Fords or, later, large 390 cubic inch (6.4lt) V8s. The majority of Hammonds were used for social skiing and some were raced quite successfully.
Typical of the time, there were no full-size plans and hull lines were simply (but cleverly) drawn on lengths of timber or ply. In the Hammond Brookvale workshop there remain original templates of some sections of the old timber hulls.
No records were kept of the boats built by Harry. Before the days of GST and computer hard drives, boatbuilders rarely worried about documenting what boat was built when and for whom. Best-guess estimates are that he crafted about 150 wooden ski boats between 1948 and 1969, and around 165 fibreglass Hammonds between 1970 and 1984. Nearly all were around 16 or 17ft long, but some larger wooden ski boats were built to special order – one more special than the rest.
In 2006, Mark received word about a ski boat that had been stored on the NSW south coast for nearly 30 years. It was thought that it could have been one of Harry’s as the steering wheel boss carried a Hammond plaque, but there was doubt as the boat was much bigger than a typical Hammond. Mark investigated further and eventually arranged to have a look at the boat.
“I was overcome at the sight of this timber Hammond and amazed at its good condition,” he said. “As soon as I saw it, I thought it could be the big boat sent to America that my father had told me about.”
That had been a very special Hammond, which had been powered by a monster engine and was reputed to have hit speeds around 160km/h (the old 100mph or ‘ton’). The possibility that this longstored Hammond might be that boat had Mark’s heart racing.
His first meeting with owner, Tony lasted much longer than expected and the pair soon developed a mutual respect and appreciation for the boat. Both agreed it should be restored to its former glory. Mark took some photos and became convinced it was the special American hull. He secretly hoped that Tony would agree to part with the boat that had been owned by Tony’s own father, and harboured an ambition to restore it in honour of both their dads, if Tony agreed.
Mark relates: “I left Tony to contemplate the boat’s future. Two weeks passed and I could not get it out of my mind; thoughts of how to restore it were constant.”
Two weeks later, Mark got the phone call he was waiting for, Tony agreeing to part with his classic craft on the condition that he would have first option on it if Mark ever wanted to sell. There was another condition, too.
“Tony said we had to find a fibreglass Hammond for him so he could still have one of our boats!” recalls Mark.
It was a week or so later that the vintage Hammond arrived at Mark’s Brookvale workshop – right back to where it had been built nearly 50 years ago in 1961 for successful businessman Laurie O’Neill. O’Neill had seen high performance boats in the USA, but wanted a more stylish design and asked Harry to build him one. When finished, he had it shipped to the US and named it Miss Australia, because he wanted Americans to know where it came from, and show that Aussies could build boats as good as, if not better than anyone in the US.
Of maple and ply construction, Miss Australia was fitted with a 600hp supercharged Chrysler V8 supplied by famed engine builder, Keith Black of KB Engines in Los Angeles and fitted by John Sofilos of Unlimited Marine. Miss Australia was raced in America and achieved speeds of around 160km/h powered by the big Chrysler engine.
O’Neill later sold the boat after removing the thundering Chrysler and installed a Ford Mercury V8. The boat’s history is a mystery after that, although indications are that there were at least two other owners before Mark re-acquired it. He has since managed to locate the original KB Chrysler V8, but is undecided about what to do with the racing powerplant.
The venerable Ford engine was still with the boat when Mark unloaded it at his workshop, but it was in bits and piled in a tin box with various other odd pieces.
Restoration began in earnest, with everything being stripped out. Most of the timbers were still in good condition, but the deck needed replacing and that proved challenging, with Mark’s wife, Di assisting to get everything just right. Although the workshop still had crates of copper nails and roves left over from the days of wooden boat building, very few were needed in the restoration – further testimony to the quality of the original construction.
The dash panel was restored and a particular challenge was sourcing speedo and oil temperature gauges to match the other vintage VDO dials.
Much cleaning and sanding followed, including removing the inevitable accumulated oil stains in the bilge. The hull bottom was repainted and the deck and topsides now glow under 20 coats of hand-rubbed clear polyurethane.
A major contributor to the resto project was Graham Mason, who is well known in ski racing circles for his craftsmanship in metalwork and for rigging fast boats. He sprayed the multiple coats of clear for Mark, fabricated the water-jacketed exhaust system and other parts and built a new trailer, which is, in itself, a work of art.
As in the USA and Europe, collecting and restoring classic boats is attracting rapidly growing numbers of enthusiasts. Loyalty to a particular brand is often a focal point, which is the case for owners of both wooden and fibreglass Hammonds.
Although there are more of the latter, there are an impressive number of wooden Hammonds still gracing our waterways. As with Miss Australia, every now and again a prime restorable hull is discovered after years of quiet storage.
By 2006, an increasing number of owners had made contact with Mark and the idea developed for holding annual reunions. Mark’s wife, Di, was especially keen and her drive and organisational abilities soon had the first event set for the delightful Dargle ski grounds, on Sydney’s Hawkesbury River.
Inclement weather has, unfortunately, dampened subsequent events, although owners remain committed to the cause. We attended a recent ‘Hammond Family Reunion’, which was blessed with sunny skies and a wonderful array of Harry’s boats parked on trailers and in the water along the river bank.
Over 45 Hammonds turned up and everyone had a superb time, with the day’s highlight being a ‘drive-by’ of the entire fleet. At other times, some boats had family members skiing behind them, and the green, grassy banks of Dargle formed a perfect venue.
The reborn Miss Australia is 18ft 6in long, with a beam of 6ft 6in (5.64m by 1.98m) and has the classic style of twin cockpits of the time, behind which is the engine compartment. Into that compartment, Mark has fitted a new 502 cubic inch Chev V8 – not quite as potent as the original supercharged Chrysler, but more than enough for pleasing performance for a boat now into its sixth decade.
The engine drives through a Casale top loader V-drive gearbox with a straight 1:1 ratio and was, at first, spinning a 12in by 14in, right-hand prop during trial runs. However, in one of several phone calls to John Sofilos, who installed the original Chrysler engine so many years ago – and who amazingly remembered all the details – Mark found that the Hammond ran best with a lefthand-rotation prop. He’s still experimenting with different props and rudders as he seeks to regain the high level of performance achieved in Miss Australia’s heyday.
Mark also owns a 15ft 6in fibreglass Hammond that was built in 1983 and is unusually powered by a Chrysler Charger E49 ‘Hemi’ engine with a Haines and Hellyer V-Drive transmission. Mark bought it in 2001 and the Charger straightsix is still doing a great job spinning a three-blade 11in by 15in prop to take the boat to a top speed around 75km/h at 4500rpm. We were fortunate to have use of this boat as our camera platform for the photos you see on these pages.
Today, Miss Australia looks simply sensational and draws attention wherever she goes. The classic wooden Hammond is an absolute credit to Mark and Di, who have worked so diligently to bring it back to its original glory. And, of course, the boat is a credit and testimony to the life and craftsmanship of Harry Hammond, whose boatbuilding masterpieces have brought so much happiness to so many owners, crews and admirers.
Harry Hammond witnessed the return of Miss Australia to the family fold and the start of the restoration project, but sadly passed away in 2007, aged 92, before Mark had completed his labour of love. His legacy continues though, with a strong survival rate of the boats he built so well. In fact, Hammonds enjoy a strong following amongst classic boat enthusiasts (see Harmony of Hammonds, P46) and are now considered highly collectible. Wooden examples, in particular, are often referred to as “the Rolls Royce of ski boats”.
To find out more about these wonderful Australian boats and upcoming re-union events, you can phone Mark Hammond on 0418 622 120 or contact him by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.