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Ron Swanson
1964 Ron Swanson and Leo Reily
1964 Ron Swanson and Leo Reily

Date Born1908
Date of Death (if Applicable)1990
Current City/HometownSydney
ClubMiddle Harbour Yacht Club
Boat Owner ofCamille
Boats Sailed OnMister Christian

Ron Swanson

 Builder and Designer


From MHYC: The First 60 Years

Article by: Frank Likely

Published: 1999

The influence of Ron Swanson on club ocean racing has been profound. His reputation as a boat builder was established with the building of Siandra and KaleenaCarmen Design.

As a designer, he recognised the potential of the Wally Ward designed Camira and,  between them, they came up with the 30-foot Carmen design. She started to win races and those who admired her hurried to order sisterships. (Those who didn't, moaned about light-weight 'mickey mouse' boats.)

Carmen was a medium displacement yacht, solidly built with a Spartan, but extremely comfortable sea-going interior, and a fibreglass dodger of the hatch. as one of Carmen's watch captains, I can say that this class of boat was a delight to sail offshore. After winning the CYCA Blue Water Championship in 1962/63, MHYC members Jim Mason, Chas Middleton, Lal McDonnell and Bill Byrnes all became owners of Carmen Class yachts and left a substantial mark on ocean racing.

In 1963 Australia announced that it would challenge for the Admiral's Cup and there was considerable excitement as owners prepared for the selection trials. Ron designed a minimum rated, double ended sloop like Carmen called Camille. Trials were held in which Camille tied for first place with the Halvorsen Brothers Freya, while Caprice of Huon tied for third place with Salacia. The selection panel finally gave the nod for the third boat to Caprice of Huon - an emotional moment for Gordon Ingate and his crew. Normal Ridge's Lorita Marie went along as a private entry.

Club moral was running high over Camille's selection of the Admiral's Cup team and all sorts of functions were held for the MC team of Ron Swanson, Frank Likely, Peter Mounsey, Dave Linton, Curley Curlewis and Leo Reilly. Finally the yachts were loaded on board a ship and shipped off, with the crews following by air.

Although we were quietly confident we would not be disgraced, we were not prepared for the horse laughter of the English yachting press. One of their quotes read: 'Very sporting of the Australians to send over a couple of cruising boats (double-enders) and a very old Robert Clark design'.

Once the racing started, attitudes began to change. Caprice loved the smooth water of the Solent and English Channel and won three races. Meanwhile Camille and Freya had experience one bad Solent race which they soon made up for in the Fastnet Race (triple points) when Camille came sixth. The proud Australian team came home with a well deserved second place for the series, with Caprice the top Australian scorer.

About this time big things were happening in France which would involve Ron, This was the One Ton Cup - the first Level Rating Regatta for yacht that rated no more than 27.5 feet. The concept sent to designers all over the world rushing to their drawing boards - Ron included. He produced another double-ended, Salome with a large mainsail for the light winds in Denmark's Kattegat, where the next One Ton Cup series was to be held.

The MHYC took the venture to heart and feted the crew of Ron Swanson, Doug Gilling, Leo Reilly, Laurie Mitchell and Dave Linton. Salome was on her way to represent the club for the first time in the One Ton Cup.

Ron did not make feathers fly on the waters of the Kattegat, but when Salome came back, Ron re-rigged her for Australian conditions and went on to second place in the next Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. Ron also came back with a head full of ideas.

More to come


Afloat Magazine by Peter Campbell

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 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.

Peter Campbell

* The author acknowledges the interview with the late Jim Swanson by David Bray and originally published on as a major source for this article.

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