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ESTRELLITA going on display at the Queensland Maritime Museum in 2008

Don Piper (1920-1985)

Brisbane boatbuilder and designer Don Piper was born in Ipswich Qld June 2, 1920, one of six children of James and Clara Piper. His family moved to Wynnum when he was a young child. It was not long before he and his brother Basil were making the most of living so close to Moreton Bay and experiencing the strong sailing fraternity that had grown up in the area since settlement. At a young age the brothers were to be found on the water in makeshift “boats” of corrugated iron and using Mum’s old sheets for sails.

Don’s strong interest in boats and boating soon found expression in teaching himself the art of boatbuilding and boat design. His boatbuilding skills were completely self taught, an instinctive talent along with some good old “horse sense” when it came to discovering ways to problem-solve issues as they arose. That, and the new challenges that came with each new project, built and expanded his impressive skillset. All of this was accomplished while working full time in a department store five and a half days a week and bringing up a young family. Many nights he ventured to his workshop area under the house to do a bit more on his current project. As the children grew and were interested in what Dad was doing, they were enlisted to perform some of the variety of tasks he allotted to them (and anyone else who was standing about!). Boatbuilding was a family endeavour in many ways.

In 1950 he designed and built 10 foot skiff ARIEL and in 1951 12 foot skiff ESTRELLITA was completed. These skiffs were built for others although he did skipper ARIEL at times and won the State and club championship at the tiller of ARIEL in 1950/51. Both gained attention from the sailing fraternity as they differed in design from other skiffs competing at the time. Newspaper articles in 1950/51 refer to the new look of Don Piper’s designs, with lighter wood and narrower beam measurement among other refinements.

ESTRELLITA’s design was referred to as “revolutionary” and proved itself with early victories upon debut in racing. An article in the Sunday Mail 10 Jan 1952 referred to ESTRELLITA as the “salvation of 12 foot skiffs” noting that....”two hundred pounds could be saved by building “a little champion” instead of the orthodox 12 as raced over 28 years. Piper proved that he could build a small streamlined hull, six to eight inches narrower than the previous champions craft, that could pace it with the best. With a streamlined hull, sails 40 per cent smaller would attain the desired results.” Estrellita was winner of two Australian Championships in three attempts.

In the early 1950’s Don was offered a boatbuilding apprenticeship with Norman Wright, Boatbuilders of Brisbane but he was unable to accept, as, having a family to support was not going to be possible on apprentice wages. So he continued with his own style of learning as he went and being creative and adaptive in his approach at all times. The evidence is in, his boatbuilding has weathered the passing of time with two of his earliest home-built skiffs, ESTRELLITA and ARIEL, now both displayed at the Queensland Maritime Museum and also listed on the National Maritime Museum Register of Historical Vessels. Both of these craft were built by Don Piper for others but he did win the Queensland 10 foot Skiff Championship in 1951 skippering ARIEL.

Not only sailing boats were built by him. Don also he constructed many of his own wooden masts, spinnaker poles and bumpkins. These were challenging to complete, in different ways to building boats. As well, damaged sails were often repaired on his wife’s sewing machine!! During his experience as an infantryman in the Australian Army in Papua New Guinea during World War II, one of his extra responsibilities was as tentmaker/repairer – so repairing sails was a simple transition of his skills.

In later years he built small motor boats for himself and his family for fishing and relaxing on the bay. He also tried his hand, very successfully, in designing and building a clinker hull speed boat outfitted with a 90hp outboard motor for his brother-in-law. The local boat builders noted with interest the lack of water inside the boat after they took it for a test run after installation of the new outboard motor. He knew how to put together a watertight vessel - even a high power speed boat.

As a member of the Darling Point Flying Squadron at Wynnum Qld since the 1940’s, his sailing experience was growing with every weekly race. First experience was in 10 and 12 foot skiffs, then later he built and sailed 16 foot skiffs for many years. The 16 footer Elizabeth is an example of his work. Early competition experience was not too successful as he was awarded the club’s ”wooden spoon” prize awarded for the most “swims” in the season. This “prize” came in the form of an old moth-eaten pair of swim trunks! The story was much different in following years as his collection of club trophies over many decades attests to his prowess on the water in these craft.

Over the years, he had many interesting experiences on the Moreton Bay and other waterways. He was very intuitive when it came to deciding which gear to use for the day’s sailing. Sometimes, having observed the sky and clouds, he chose different sailing rig to other competitors, having determined that “something was brewing”. He often saved himself from some time “in the drink” when the pleasant, calm day changed mood during the course of the race. He also enjoyed the challenges of sailing in the Brisbane River in his early sailing days too. Sailing on the river took planning and creativity due to the flukey winds at river level plus the strong tidal currents that could cause the confusing sight of sailing boats actually moving backwards if their navigational choices did not recognise the tidal effects here.

Don became a Life Member of the Darling Point Flying Squadron in recognition of his long years of loyal and generous membership. He also served as official sail measurer and was always willing to share his knowledge with anyone who asked. He also assisted members with repairing damage to their skiffs at times using his boat building experience to tackle sometimes very challenging tasks. On one occasion a 16 foot skiff with a large hole cause by a crew member’s foot going right though the veneer skin was repaired with great care by him at home. His family home was often the gathering place for numerous visitors from the sailing fraternity, some coming to view the latest build or repairs underway or just to catch up with other sailing related events.

In later years he was pleased to be able to offer interested new club members and prospective sailors some practical training and sailing time when he shared the benefit of his long sailing experiences in skippering an older retired 16 footer JOYOUS in club races. Although this vessel was out of date in all aspects of design, rigging and sailing gear compared to other skiffs competing, he and his crew often still showed the competition the way to the first mark!

In mid 1969 he had intensive surgery for a malignant melanoma on his leg. This was successful but recovery took many months. From that time, he did not build any more boats although he was known to “tinker” with an old boat that came to him needing some work done on it during these years. He did sail the club boat as mentioned above, and continued his interest and support of the club until his death in 1985 from a severe heart attack.

Some of the other boats owned and skippered by Don Piper at Darling Point Sailing Squadron; REVEL (1948/49), VIKING (1953), CHANCE (1960’s), ELIZABETH (16’ – 1951, 10’ 1946), JOYOUS (1940/41), AVALON (1946/47), VALENCIA (1937/38), GLORIOUS (1939/40). Several of these were also built by Don Piper.

Prepared by Catherine McGrath (Don’s daughter) in 2015.