Jim Swanson, Master Boat Builder
On almost every yacht marina throughout Australia you will find moored a yacht designed and built by those master boatbuilders of the second half of the 20th century, the Swanson Bros of Sydney.
More than 165 Swanson boats, mainly ocean racers and cruisers were built in that time and most are still in fine condition, bringing high prices on the boat market - a fitting memorial to the innovative design and building skills of the brothers, Ron, Jim and Ken.
Ron died in 1990 after retiring to live in Tasmania and Jim passed away peacefully on 1 June this year just short shy of his 82nd birthday, leaving Ken the surviving brother. Ken lives on his hobby farm near Wyong.
The Swanson brothers emerged from the 1950s as yachties who could not only sail, but also design and build yachts. Significantly, the Swansons became production timber boat builders just as the era of fibreglass hulls was beginning in Australia.
In their time Swanson boats have won every major race in Australian waters and competed internationally. Swansons have cruised the oceans of the world and many have completed circumnavigations.
The Swanson brothers, after completing their apprenticeships as shipwrights, first came into prominence as yachtsmen and yacht builders when they gravitated to Middle Harbour Yacht Club at The Spit, Mosman. Ron began doing up old boats to race at the club for himself and others. One thing led to another and he was commissioned to build a couple of Stellas.
Soon followed "more serious stuff", said Jim in a wide-ranging interview with David Bray published on BoatPoint.com.au in 2001. Ron and Jim joined forces to build two Lion class yachts designed by Arthur Robb, one of them for Graham Newlinds, whose yacht Siandra won the Sydney Hobart Race in 1958 and 1960.
The brothers then took up permanent premises at Jim O'Rourke's boatshed at The Spit. One of their early commissions was a 43ft Sparkman and Stephens design for Norm Brooker. Then followed an S&S 36 and a 30ft Half Tonner, Defiance, which became the plug for the Defiance 30s built by Savage in Melbourne.
In his interview with David Bray, Jim spoke of their being few professionally trained yacht designers. "Peter Cole was a sailmaker in an old church at Balmain, Bob Miller (later Ben Lexcen) was self-taught and always willing to try something new, and my brother Ron was a great mathematician - he was the brains and brother Ken and I were the foot soldiers.
"Alan Payne was the exception and was a qualified shipwright and yacht designer, as was Warwick Hood, who worked with Alan."
In the early 1960s Ron Swanson worked with Wally Ward in designing boats that were to lead to the Carmen class in the early 1960s.
When the Halvorsen brothers' famous yacht Freya won three consecutive Sydney Hobarts in 1963, 1964 and 1965, a Swanson designed and built yacht finished runner-up, Cavalier in 1963, Camille in 1964 and Camelot in 1965.
Camille, a 37-footer, represented Australia in the nation's first challenge for the Admiral's Cup in 1965, the Australian team that also included Caprice of Huon and Freya finished second overall in a remarkable effort.
The breakthrough to victory came in the 1966 Sydney Hobart when Jim Mason skippered Cadence, a Carmen class, to victory. Second place went to Salome, a 33ft one tonner skippered by Ron Swanson and subsequently restored and owned by actor Colin Friels.
By this time, the Swanson brothers had their own factory at Dee Why, with Cavalier and Cadence the first out of the shed, heralding the start of Swanson Bros as production timber boats.
The success of the Swanson 36, including a third by Matika in the 1967 Sydney Hobart, plus the advent of fibreglass boat-building, brought a rapid expansion in their business which saw the Swansons put their efforts more into "good, strong, cruising yachts".
The best known of the Swansons were the three cruising yachts, the 28, 38 and 42. Well over one hundred of these fine craft were built. One Swanson 42, Onya of Gosford, circumnavigated the globe as well as competing in the Sydney Hobart.
Apart from building boats themselves, the Swanson brothers introduced a scheme where amateur boatbuilders, under supervision, could hire the moulds and factory space to build their own boats.
Around 1985, 21 years after opening their factory at Dee Why, the Swanson brother decided to call it quits as boat builders. "We ran out of puff," Jim told David Bray.
While Ron and Ken walked away from the marine industry, Jim took up marine surveying as a way of using his skills and keeping in touch with yachting.
Vale, Jim Swanson, Master Yacht Builder and co-founder of Swanson Bros Yachts, the boats you created will remain afloat for many years to come.
* The author acknowledges the interview with the late Jim Swanson by David Bray and originally published on BoatPoint.com.au as a major source for this article.