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Lines of  a Piners Punt

The Tasmanian Piners Punt

There are many theories and stories about the evolution of the piner’s punt in Tasmania. It has always been understood that the piner’s punt is known to be designed and built in Tasmania. The latter is true but the design origins are unclear. However, it still remains obvious that it was designed and built by either a convict or free settler, who had a good boat design insight together with competent handcraft skills sufficient to build a clinker boat, from their home of origin. Be it, Ireland, the UK or perhaps, northern Europe?

So either a convict or free settler who built the first piner’s punt in Tasmania, would have been pre informed and skilled through boat building and/or sea faring experiences in their homeland.

History and background information

From page 19 “The Huon Piners” by David Hopkins and Gordon Abel there is mention made of, “The Doherty sons of John Patrick from Port Davey, the Grining, the Finn, Morrison and Abel families were prominent family clans of brothers and sons all working the Macquarie Harbour pine for almost 80 years”. It went on to state, “Legend has it, that the five sons of Patrick Doherty rowed an open whale boat from Port Davey along the treacherous Western coast line of the open seas to Macquarie Harbour, to recommence pine operations in the Gordon River.

The “The Huon Piners” also states that “the piners started venturing further and further upstream in the rivers that emptied into the Macquarie Harbour.”

To achieve this it mentions “The special 18 foot piner’s punt was originally designed by Tom Doherty [this is a lot later than the report above from the Huon Valley], with its blunt bow, built of either Huon or King Billy Pine. The construction out of half inch planks, seven to a side from the keel was extremely durable and sea worthy. Very stable in the water, so much so that a person can stand up and comfortably manoeuvre logs without fear of capsizing.”
From page 245 “The Huon Pine Story”, by Garry Kerr and Harry McDermott it is confirmed that Thomas O’Dougherty, a convict who used several differing ways of spelling his surname was born in County Tyrone Ireland in 1826. Thomas did not take kindly to being sentenced to transportation for seven years. He was transported to Tasmania on the ship North Briton arriving in April 1843 as a convict. Due to several other escapades Thomas did not gain his freedom, unlike other convicts, until 1849. Soon after this Thomas O’Dougherty disappeared for several years until he went to Port Davey to commence logging Huon Pine.

“The Huon Pine Story” confirms that the Thomas Doherty (note the different way of spelling the surname) family continued making, in Strahan, the piners punt that served them so well in Port Davey. Page 139 of “The Huon Pine Story” states “Mrs McCallum, a sometime resident of the southern district, and a recorder of history in the area, is quoted as having said: ‘The piners built their own boats, they built them short without a keel so that they turned easily. They were very manoeuvrable.’”
It is also noted, verified later, that the piner’s punt was first used for pining in the Huon Valley area as early as the 1840’s. They were still being used in the West Coast for Pine Logging as late as the 1950’s even though steam and motorised boats were used in this era the piner’s punt was still used in the upper reaches of the West Coast rivers due to its manoeuvrability and portaging capabilities.

Piner’s Punt design influences and structure

What is starting to emerge is that the piner’s punt was designed specifically to work in fast flowing rivers and waters, including the Huon, Port Davey, Macquarie Harbour and rivers including their tributaries that entered the wider waterways or harbours. Most of these water ways were subjected to shoals, rapids, whirlpools and strong tidal or river currents that dictated the need for a very manoeuver-able boat or punt as the piners called their craft.
Just the word punt itself conjures many and varied boat forms in one’s mind. In the book and project “Traditional Boats of Ireland” by Ar mBaid Duchais, a punt is defined as “a boat that is a tender to a larger craft”. In Wikipedia a punt is defined as “A punt is a flat-bottomed boat with a square-cut bow, designed for use in small rivers or other shallow water. Punting refers to boating in a punt. The punter generally propels the punt by pushing against the river bed with a pole. A punt should not be confused with a gondola, a shallow draft vessel that is structurally different, and which is propelled by an oar rather than a pole.”

The piner’s punt does use oars to propel it and not a Punters Pole. The piner’s punt, unlike those included in the above definitions, also has a spring in its keel. That is, not a straight keel but one that rises from the amidships area to a greater height at the bow and stern. This feature assists with the punts manoeuver-ability in fast running waters and rapids
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What is known of the time span in which the Piners Punt was used? It is documented that pining started in circa 1832 and continued into circa 1882. There is no evidence of punts being used in the early period but much of the pining occurred in the Port Davey area with boat building activity in Brooks Bay on the Davey River. As pining was not legal it is possible it was an undercover activity in early years but eventually licences to pine were issued. This is supported by an article found in the “Centenary Huon Paper”. This article also identified the use of what clearly could have been the piners punt in both the Huon and Port Davey areas. In 1882 the Government ceased to issue or renew pining licences in the Port Davey area. This upset the Doherty’s who were very outspoken about the decision. In 1887 licences to pine were issued in Macquarie Harbour area. It is believed that this was the time that Doherty and his family moved to the Macquarie Harbour pining areas, more than likely to re-engage in pining. Pining continued in Macquarie Harbour on the King River, Gordon and the Spero rivers including all tributaries until a decline commencing in 1945 through to the mid 50’s.

Alfred "Attie" Doherty, a prolific boat builder on the West Coast, was commissioned by the government of the day to build seven 12' punts for the succour of shipwrecked crews. His daughter, Mrs. lvy Priestly, recalled his pride when he was paid 84 sovereigns for his efforts at the going rate of £1 per boat foot. These boats were left, one at each river along the coast, and it is a matter of conjecture whether any of them ever saved a stranded sailor.

So what of the piners punt from a structural perspective? Most boats (punts) were built on a batten (internal keelson) instead of a conventional rebated keel. This was a suitable length of 3" x 1" timber tapered towards each end and chamfered on the underside to accept the garboard strakes. The snub and transom were attached using natural timber knees screwed or riveted for strength and supporting the ends at the chosen angles. The boat was then set up on a series of short posts in the ground, or securely fastened to the floor if one enjoyed the luxury of a shed. Timber props fastened to a beam overhead secured the horizontal position of the batten, the ends of the "keel" were then wedged up to adjust the required spring which contributed to the manoeuvre-ability of the boat.

After two or three moulds were placed in position and faired, planking could begin. However, it is also known that many were built with no moulds whatsoever. These were simply built by eye and often in the builder’s home yard or the bush. Planks were usually screwed at the ends and, in some cases, the garboard strakes received similar treatment. The planks were overlapped about 1" and given a generous coat of linseed oil, whiting and red lead.

Once planked, the knees in each corner of the stern tuck were installed, a breast hook fitted to the snub and the ribs steamed and fitted. The stringers or risers and thwarts, which had one or two small knees at each end, were next. This left only the gunwales and rowlock blocks to be fitted to the top planks. After they were fixed the false keel was fastened along the keel batten (keelson) between the inner edges of the garboard strakes with some final shaping. This formed what could be interpreted as a “T” section sacrificial keel. The addition of sole flooring (usually 6" x 1/2") lightly nailed to the ribs, finished the job.

The lines or hull shape of a typical piners punt are probably a combination of the key requirements and the simple construction methods just described. Manoeuvrability was a principle objective, they had to spin quickly and within their own length while jostling amongst the logs. Keeping a lot of spring or keel rocker along with no deadwood or skeg keel aft satisfied that requirement. The convex profile to the sheer that was a product of the keel rocker gave higher ends that helped if the men had to move forward or aft when standing up to work the logs in the water. The cross section shape is the key to stability, the other factor that had to be met for successful operation. A shallow deadrise and high bilge produce the result needed, but also allow the hull to sit in the water and row well without the keel, whereas a flatter boat can still have the stability but would not track very easily. The transom bow and soft bilge curve are easy to plank and suit the often ad hoc bushman’s simple building methods, and do not detract from the other features and requirements.

Harry Grining was another boat builder on the West Coast. He owned a boatshed on the wharf at Strahan where, aside from other boats, he built the "Mayfair", a 1930's tourist launch and the fishing boat "Olive" for Teddy McDermott. In what was seen as a radical design, Harry also built a large punt with a tunnel in the stern for use in the rapids of the Gordon River. It was fitted with an inboard motor and named "Helen". She was years before her time, being built in 1938.
Being an innovative builder, Harry also introduced carvel, batten seam design punts. A number still survive today, they had a rounded tuck bow and stern and although he still used seven boards each side, these punts were slightly wider and deeper than their clinker built counterparts. They became popular about the beginning of the Second World War when the demand for boat building timber increased. Harry also insisted on a very low gunwhale amidships so that the oarsmen had very little oar water clearance on their recovery stroke. This was a distinct advantage for rowing long distances.

To satisfy the new demand, there were a number of men working horse teams in the Gordon River pining area by now, for which large quantities of chaff were needed up river. Once the need was recognized, a punt capable of carrying a few extra bags of chaff per trip became a distinct advantage. Harry's punts became sought after and were used extensively throughout the area.

Many are the stories told of the West Coast punts and the men who used them, of transporting sick or injured work mates many miles, rowing day and night to find medical assistance. Almost all of the accidents associated with the punts occurred while they were being towed, especially in a following sea. Many of them had a tendency to overtake the towing boat and, in some cases, have been known to come aboard. A jute bag hung over the stern was sometimes used to eliminate the problem but attention to the length of the towline was just as effective in most cases. The fact is, piners punts were designed for rowing and properly handled, they are superb rowing boats/punts.

Text by Peter Higgs Research Assistant ARHV