Chris Crabtree has seemingly spent his life renovating or restoring old buildings and boats, stemming from his architectural days as a 17-year-old Londoner.
Countless cottages and historic buildings later, including his magnificent work on the Chart Room within the River Port of Goolwa precinct, plus incredible devotion to seven wooden boats, the passion flows deep.
And talk of the 14th biennial South Australian Wooden Boat Festival here on February 21-22 and Chris is further consumed by the rarity of the interchange with steam and the river flanked by ocean amidst a flotilla of boating history and charm by those who share his endless admiration for all things old.
His pride and joy is Dolphin, a 1940s milk boat whom he first purchased in 1998 and rekindled the spirit by buying her back two years ago.
Dolphin was part of a fleet that brought milk from a factory in Tailem Bend to Goolwa to send to Adelaide and beyond by rail. With her smooth, timber planked carvel hull, magnificently designed to create as little displacement as possible, and driven by a Morris Navigator – a four-cylinder British petrol engine – she was indeed made for her role and appropriately converted to expose her beauty.
Yet, for all of Dolphin’s history and splendour, Chris sold her when he and his second wife Judy fell in love with the river lifestyle ahead of the boats, and embarked on years of toiling with cottage and home renovations.
“We wanted to live on the water so we purchased Leo, a magnificent 56ft sugar cane ship,” Chris said. “We lived on her for 10 years. We also ran the Goolwa Maritime Gallery and built Hector’s House, and then built a large complex house at Clayton Bay (where he currently resides) and sold all of the boats.”
However, the spiritual bond with Dolphin was indelible, and when the opportunity presented itself Chris bought her back.
“Because I don’t like petrol on the water I replaced the original engine with this beautiful Lister diesel motor which allows the boat to chug along all day sending you to sleep,” Chris said.
“She is a gorgeous boat. Even at full speed there is no rocking which was important being a milk boat. When I bought her back there was quite a bit of redecking plus replacement original brass work from all sorts of places.
“My passion for wooden boats is not dissimilar to how I feel about old buildings. I have done a lot of restoration of both. I am not a boat builder; I restore and renovate boats, and none of it would have been possible without wonderful help from various people down here including Jock Veenstra at Captain Sturt Marina, and Alan Edwards at Goolwa Slipway and Marina.
“Judy was unbelievable with the restoration of all of the boats we shared; absolutely amazing work.”
Chris, who jokes that he’s 72 but being a red wine freak has a 108-year-old liver, steers clear of competitive racing. “I am not a yachtsman,” he says.
“I am referred to as a stink boat operator (he laughs).
“My love for wooden boats here runs deep. It’s the aesthetics of this place; the magnificent water.
“The passion comes from giving life to something… there are hulls all over this coast just rotting beyond redemption.
“Maintaining a wooden boat does take a lot of work, but it’s not really as hard as it appears. You’ve just got to do it like doing the washing up every night; not just coming here every Christmas to work on them.
“That’s why people buy plastic boats; because they don’t need to work on their boat, but I believe in the old adage among those into wooden boats that if God wanted plastic boats he would have made plastic trees.
“However, I do understand most people are too busy to have that dedication.
“Owning and working a wooden boat is not cheap, but I believe that when considering the amount of dollar that you put into it, and if you are in sync with the boat and the river then it’s the best enjoyment you can ever have. And you just cannot buy the genuine camaraderie amongst wooden boat people.
“That special feeling will be overflowing come this Wooden Boat Festival. It is what makes it so special, and those who do not own a boat can feel the experience.”