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Billy Barnett lofing the lines of a yacht in his shed, probably in the 1960s.

Bill Barnett

Three generations of the Barnett family have been involved with boatbuilding and sailing on Sydney Harbour NSW since the mid-1800s. Ben Barnett was the first, settling on a block of land on the eastern shore of Berrys Bay, North Sydney . He and his son Prince were keen on yachting, and Prince built a house next door to his father's place on Blues Point. Prince had three boys, Billy, George and Tom, and all three, along with their father and grandfather, were boatbuilders.

Prince did his apprenticeship with WM Ford boatbuilders, further up in Berrys Bay. He was also a forward hand on the 18-foot skiff HC PRESS. He looked after the rowing shells for the SCEGS school Shore in North Sydney as their caretaker. The school's boatshed was on the point as well, and when the school moved the shed to Gladesville, Prince bought the shed and house and moved in there.

Billy (WH) Barnett is the best known of all the Barnetts through his sailing with the 18-foot skiff class and the construction of many fine yachts, including two Australian America's Cup challengers. Billy was born in 1915 and started sailing at a young age, first sailing with his younger brothers in 8-foot dinghies. When he was 17 he started racing competitively in a 12-foot canvas class dinghy. It was called MYRA, named after his father's first 10-footer. He won the NSW State Championship in the class in 1934 and 1935 and then moved into 12-foot skiffs. With his 12-footer MYRA he represented NSW in two Australian Championships.

He became involved with boatbuilding by helping his father, who often left him jobs to do after he had come home from school. He built his own dinghy at home and then left school to begin a shipwright apprenticeship with Neptune Engineering in Lavender Bay. After five years there he was credited with four on his apprenticeship, and left to finish his last year with the Manly Ferry Company in Neutral Bay. After a few months he was put onto a full tradesman's wages, the manager was so impressed with his work. He was empowered during the 2nd World War to work as a shipwright, and went to the nearby Shell Oil Company. In his spare time he sailed on skiffs, and became a crew member on Billo Hayward's MALVINA, where he was the bailer boy.

An early and very successful boat building project of his own was the 16-foot skiff HAVOC, built for Joe Audsley. Barnett was also the skipper and they won many races at the Middle Harbour 16-Foot Skiff Club. In 1943 he was skipper of the 18-foot skiff JOYCE. After World War II the 18s began sailing again at the Sydney Flying Squadron (SFS). He was part of a syndicate that bought the champion skiff JENNY TOO from Norman Wright (Snr) in Brisbane. He won many championships including the State title in 1946-1947. He then designed and built the six foot beam MYRA which he skippered, and won the Australian Championship in 1950 with all three brothers in the crew. For the 1951 season he built MYRA TOO, and dominated the class winning the NSW, Australian and World Championships, a rare feat. MYRA TOO had a powerful Marconi rigged big sail, but showed good all round speed in any conditions, and strung together many wins on Sydney Harbour over the season. MYRA TOO was sold and he then built MYRA III, once again winning the State title, but was beaten by Norman Wright Jnr in JENNY IV for the Australian Championship. The last boat he built for himself was MYRA IV.

He did not contest the 1952 World Championship series to defend his title, held in Suva that season, and took 18 months away from sailing at that time through ill health and the pressure of work. He came back to the class sailing JAN in 1954, a skiff he designed, built and skippered for owner Jack Boyd. He then left the class and contested the Olympic Trials in the International Sharpie class, but was beaten by the eventual silver medallist, Rolly Tasker.

Billy Barnett also built 18-footers for other clients, and taught Len Heffernann how to build them as well. The Barnett boats were consistently fast and often filled the top places in races. In the 1970s he built probably the last timber 18-foot skiff, KB for Dave Porter, and designed by Frank Bethwaite. It was a plywood, single chine hull.

Billy had set up his own business in the shed at home after the war. His outstanding boatbuilding skills were clearly demonstrated in the fiercely contested 18- foot skiff class, and he built a highly respected reputation that lead to other work. His yard was in front of his home in Blues Point, and many champion yachts came from the shed. The most well-known are the two America's Cup challengers DAME PATTIE and GRETEL II. He also built the ocean racers BOAMBILLEE and KINGURRA. The six metres TOOGOOLOOWOO (I) and II, PRINCE ALFRED and PACEMAKER were built for John Taylor, the 5.5 metre class yachts SOUTHERN CROSS ( I to IV) were built for Norman G Booth, and he built a number of Dragon class yachts including his own CYNTHIA named after his first daughter. Amongst this were a number of surfboats, he was well known for the cold moulded hulls he built for the surf clubs, and he also built other small craft. He had a small number of staff, including Bob McLeod who started as an apprentice in the 1960s.

On October 7th 1971 his shed was burnt down when a fire started in an adjoining property's shed on the water, and the strong, hot westerly that was blowing spread the flames and fire into his yard. Everything was destroyed, but undaunted he cleared the debris and started up again, with help from friends who put up a shed as soon as possible before council could consider rezoning the location and not allowing his yard to continue on the site.

All his boats were built in timber, and with the skiffs he moved from carvel and seam batten construction to moulded veneer hulls, always making strongly built craft. Billy Barnett retired in the 1980s, and was awarded an Order of Australia in 2012. He married Glory Nelson in the late 1940s and they had two daughters, Cynthia and Margaret. They learnt to sail in a Manly Junior class dinghy, and spent many hours of their childhood mucking around in their father's boat shed.

His progression with the 18s and the series of MYRA s began after the second season of sailing the 6 foot beam JENNY TOO, when Bill Anderson, one of the owners of the skiff suggested Bill go and build his own 18 for the 1949 season. He made his boat a little finer and it had a bit more flare on the topsides forward. For MYRA TOO and MYRA III he made minor changes again to the shape each time, but they were characterised by a straight entry at the waterline, and the flare in the forward sections had no convex shape. The planking was rounded into the stem to give the hull a streamlined shape overall, and he ensured that the top plank ran full-length, from stem to stern, rather than having some of plank endings disappearing into the sheer and gunwale in the forward sections as was seen on other craft.

MYRA III was probably the last of the seam batten hulls, because MYRA IV and the other skiffs he built from around 1954 onwards were built in moulded ply. He had seen the New Zealand boats for the 1951 World series that were built in moulded timber, and Jimmy Lidgard was keen to show off the merits of the method, which was lighter and stronger. He encouraged Billy to come across to Auckland to see how the method worked. Billy came back and applied it to his surfboats and the next 18s, where it proved itself. He later applied it to bigger craft such including BOAMBILLIE and KINGURRA.

In 2013 a tribute luncheon was organised for Billy and the family, and GRETEL II along with three of his Dragons were there on the waterfront, plus over 200 guests to honour the occasion. Meanwhile, the Australian Open Skiff Trust has commissioned a replica of MYRA TOO, the hull is under construction in Mona Vale and being built by Billy's former apprentice Bob McLeod.