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A portrait of Walter Reeks from his obituary in Australian Motorboat and Yachting Monthly November 1925.

Walter Reeks


Walter Reeks (1861 - 1925) has strong claims to being Australia's first full time professional naval architect. He worked as a marine designer throughout his time in Sydney, and avaliable records indicate that no one before him appears to have had this occupation as their sole means of employment. Reeks' career was marked with numerous successful vessel designs, many with unorthodox features. Some craft are still extant in Australia.


Reeks was born in Christchurch, England in 1861 and trained there with apprenticeships to naval architect Alex Richardson and then George Inman and Sons, Shipbuilder, before leaving England and coming to Sydney in 1885.

He immediately established his own naval architecture practice, promoting his abilities with successful modifications to existing yachts and a small number of new designs. He was the dominant Australian yacht designer from 1885 until 1893. Most of these were for racing yachts, generally gaff-rigged cutters with a deep keel and a plumb stem opposed by a long overhanging counter stern.

He began work in the commercial field from 1892 with designs for double ended steam ferries on Sydney Harbour, including almost all of the Lady class vessels up to 1915, and the first two screw propelled Manly ferries. He also pioneered some of the designs for river trading and passenger steamers used in NSW and Tasmania, and other commercial craft. He is known to have prepared plans of pearling luggers for James Clark, the major force in the Torres Strait pearling industry. These designs appear to have been quite different and to have helped establish the distinctive style of Thursday Island lugger. At the same time Reeks maintained interest in cruising yacht and motor launch design. Most were typical Edwardian style vessels

Designs by Reeks were always well proportioned, elegant and well engineered, but unorthodox features were occasionally tried at different periods. For example, many of his early ferries had a very distinctive and perhaps unique rockered or cambered keel profile, and some of the later double-ended craft only had a propeller at one end. His last yacht design was unusual with a Bermudan rig setting an enormous headsail. It was a failure but none the less typifies his desire to try something quite different.

There was an entrepreneurial style in the way he managed his business at times; for example in 1892 he became both designer and builder for some of the ferries and luggers, engaging Thomas Cubitt's existing yard and shipwrights to work under his own name. This arrangement lasted about 12 months.

It appears he worked alone as a designer with no employees, and only a few plans or other original documents now exist. Indications from his Deceased Estate file are that his plans and information were passed onto an unnamed naval architect upon Reeks death.

Significant vessels:

Yachts: ERA (1887) and ISEA (1888) were the first two racing yachts built anywhere in the world to the new Length and Sail Area rule. ERA later became a successful fishing boat in Geraldton WA, before it sank in 1958. The elegant THELMA (1889) was the "flower of his flock" and challenged for the Sayonara Cup in 1909. THELMA was at the centre of a famous incident in 1913 when it was wrecked on Sydney Harbour during a match race with SAYONARA. SAN PAN (1925) was an unusual 21 Foot Restricted Class Yacht featuring a chine hull form, and a mast stepped aft of midships, with a smaller Bermudan main and a very large headsail. BONA (1903) was later renamed BOOMERANG and remains afloat as one of the most elegant Edwardian schooner designs of that period.

Launches and steam yachts: WAHINE (1902) Reeks' own craft was powered by a petrol motor and had an unusual tunnel hull. LADY HOPETOUN (1902) and ENA (1903), both built by W M Ford, are excellent examples of Edwardian steam yacht designs and are still extant.

Commercial craft: All the Lady Class ferries up to 1915 (excepting the LADY NAPIER) were designed by Reeks for the Balmain New Ferry Company, and a number featured his unorthodox cambered keel profile or the single push/pull screw arrangement. He also designed ferries for the Vaucluse run including the GREYCLIFFE, and the first two screw propelled Manly ferries, MANLY (1896) and KURING-GAI (1901). FAIRTRADER was an early oil powered river trader in Northern NSW, while NIREE, EXCELLA, and TOGO helped establish a style for the Tasmanian river traders. There is strong evidence that WARATAH (1891), and sister ships JESSIE and ISABEL created the distinct yacht like style of Thursday island pearling lugger. He also designed mother ship schooners for the pearling fleet including ALADDIN (1892). SS ENDEAVOUR (1907), a fisheries investigation vessel, was built at Cockatoo Island, Sydney and noted in contemporary reports as being one of the first examples of a large vessel that was entirely designed and built in Australia, including all the machinery.

Personal background:

Walter Reeks was generally a popular figure and well respected throughout his career. He was a very active member of engineering associations and yacht clubs, Rear Commodore for the RSYS from 1906 to 1910, honorary official measurer for the major Sydney clubs, and an excellent helmsman on many yachts. He also had interests in gold mining, good connections to artists such as Roberts and Streeton, and was a mason. He designed his own house, 'Twynham' in Mosman NSW the late 1880s, and died there of pernicious anaemia aged 64 in October 1925.

Reeks married twice, with two children from his first wife who died in 1895. His son Kent was killed in 1913, but his daughter Thelma married and settled in the Dubbo region of NSW.

Sydney Mail
Sydney Morning Herald
The Anchor
Stephensen P.R. 1962, Sydney Sails, Angus and Robertson
Knight, Lucia 2005, Encyclopedia of Yacht Designers, Norton
Reeks, Walter, 1894 and 1905, Papers presented to the Engineering Association of NSW, copies at the Mitchell Library.
Detailed private research by David Payne