Halvorsen Boat Builders
Classic wooden Halvorsen cruisers are instantly recognised, up on the slip, or out on the water. They are a lasting tribute to the family of craftsmen who designed and built them.
HALVORSEN WOODEN BOAT BUILDERS.
The Halvorsen family has a proud history of more than 130 years and five generations as BOAT designers and CLASSIC WOODEN BOAT BUILDERS.
The proud Halvorsen tradition continues to this day. The Halvorsen story started in Norway near the end of the 19th century with Halvor Andersen who was born in 1829 and died in 1906.
The family boat building tradition can be traced to the Norwegian coastline around Arendal and Grimstad, where Halvor Anderson followed local tradition and built boats during the savage winter months when farming activities were restricted.
From Arendal it's only 20 kilometres to Grimstad, where you will find today lines of white houses with orange tiled roofs, jutting out along the harbour. In young Lar's time the town had no fewer than forty ship yards, plying their craft in Wooden boat building.
The love of the sea and the heritage of boatbuilding are still fundamental to this region of Norway.
In February 1887, Halvor was blessed with a son, Lars. The Halvorsen surname adopted by Lars follows the accepted Norwegian tradition of using the father’s first name and being “son of “-sen, hence Halvorsen.
Lars built his first boat in 1903 at the age of 16 and it soon became apparent that boat building would be his forte. He designed and built boats for the local market, travelled to America for further experience, and returned to Norway, where he took advantage of a boatbuilding boom caused by the First World War.
A post-war slump saw Halvorsen family eventually relocate to Cape Town, South Africa, however Lars was uncertain of the family opportunities in South Africa and, following the highly regarded advice of a business associate, he investigated Sydney in late 1924.
Neither Lars Halvorsen – who led his family to take up boatbuilding in Australia – nor his sons were formally schooled shipwrights, yet the talent for boatbuilding and design that passed from father to sons can be appreciated today through surviving plans and photographs – and more importantly, through the broad range of Halvorsen boats that have now become so highly sought-after as collectable classic wooden boats.
Lars Halvorsen laid the foundations of an enterprise that under the management of his sons diversified from their core business of boatbuilding into commercial fishing, tourism, brokerage and recreational boating.
If you can build a wooden boat you can build anything. - Lars Halvorsen.
In the case of the Halvorsen family this simple philosophy has extended to building businesses' – and successful lives – in Norway, South Africa and Australia.
From 1906 Lars journeyed to America to gain valuable experience working in shipyards in New York, Connecticut and Long Island. In 1909 he returned to Norway to marry his betrothed, Bergithe Klemmetsen, and establish the Helle Baatbyggeri, a boatyard modelled on modern American production lines, at Helle on the Nid River. The family grew steadily with Harold, Carl, Elnor, Bjarne and Magnus born between 1910 and 1918, and the youngest children Trygve and Margit born in 1920 and 1922.
A devout man, Lars also served as a lay preacher in his local community.
During World War I the yard thrived as Norway’s neutrality ensured a steady stream of orders, but the following years brought hardship as work dwindled. To keep his yard open Lars built the three-masted cargo schooner Nidelv.
Unable to sell it, Lars operated the ship himself in partnership with Lars Knudsen, a ship’s chandler based in Wales. Owing to a shortage of funds Lars cancelled the insurance – a decision that was to have devastating consequences for the family.
The schooner was wrecked on its next voyage, in 1921, resulting in financial ruin for Lars, his family and financial backers. With little chance of rebuilding the family’s fortunes in Norway Lars chose to move the family and business abroad.
Leaving Bergithe and his children, Lars sailed for South Africa to look for work in 1922 while his wife, awaiting the birth of her youngest child, finalised the boatyard’s affairs. The family was reunited in Cape Town in 1923. Here Lars established a reputation for designing and building elegant yachts and sound fishing boats.
As business was slow he postponed his plan to run a family business with his sons and instead went into partnership with a rival boatbuilder, forming Louw and Halvorsen. With Lars at the boatyard and the older children in school, Bergithe was isolated at home with the younger children and struggled with ill health, homesickness and learning English.
The Halvorsen family relocate to Australia.
Not happy with their life in Cape Town, Lars and Bergithe took the advice of neighbours and looked for a fresh start in Australia. In 1924 Lars sailed to Sydney, followed shortly by his eldest son Harold – a move that would offer Lars the chance at last to start a boatbuilding business with his sons.
Once more Bergithe faced financial hardship as she packed up the family home, and for a time they lived in a shed and a tent in the seaside village of Fish Hoek about 30 km from Cape Town.
By the time the family was reunited once more in Sydney, Lars was hard at work on his first commission, the yacht Sirius.
Working 80-hour weeks from a shed in the Sydney suburb of Drummoyne, Lars and Harold finished the yacht in fi ve months. Carl, the second-born, also helped his father and brother after school and on weekends.
As all the Halvorsen boys reached 14 they joined their father at work in the boatyard, learning the
skills of boatbuilding on the job.
Straddling two cultures, the family spoke Norwegian at home and English at work and socially.
Building the business in peace-time and war, new orders for boats meant larger premises and Lars moved the fledgling business to a rented yard at Careening Cove in 1925, and then to a permanent site with its own slipways and moorings at Neutral Bay in 1927.
The next generation of Halvorsens.
Lars Halvorsen died in 1936 and Lars Halvorsen Sons Pty Ltd was formed in 1937. The eldest son, Harold Halvorsen was elected Chairman of the Board and Managing Director at the age of 27.
In 1938 a 1.62-hectare site was purchased at Ryde on the Parramatta River and boatbuilding operations were relocated there just as another world war was looming.
The new yard included a 0.5-hectare boatshed, marine engineers shop, chrome-plating division, plumbing works, pattern shop, joiners shop and six slipways.
The old Neutral Bay yard continued to operate as a maintenance and supply depot. This made the Halvorsens self-sufficient and one of a handful of private boatbuilders which could accommodate large defence contracts.
Two of the younger Halvorsen brothers, Magnus and Trygve left the firm in the 1960s to start their own boat building business. Bjarne had already left in the 1940s.
At the height of wartime production there were over 350 staff working for the Halvorsens. In all, 237 boats were built during the war including patrol boats, seaplane tenders, air-sea rescue boats, fast supply boats, torpedo recovery vessels, towing skids and the large, fast Fairmile patrol boats.
The Halvorsens also contributed to the war effort though the Volunteer Coastal Patrol. Carl and Trygve joined the VCP and 16 stylish Halvorsen-built motor cruisers, known as ‘the Hollywood Fleet’, were requisitioned for service between 1938 and 1942.
On the night of 31 May 1942 the Halvorsen-built motor cruisers Sea Mist, Steady Hour and Toomeree were involved in the fight against three Japanese midget submarines attacking Sydney Harbour.
The family ventured into commercial fishing in 1944, building and operating fishing trawlers off the NSW coast and opening fish shops in Kings Cross and Rose Bay. This was part of a longer-term strategy that recognised the need to diversify when war production came to an end.
Proposed hire fleet and harbour tourism ventures put on hold during World War II were realised towards the end of the war.
A site was acquired at Bobbin Head on Sydney’s Broken Bay in 1945 as a base for a hire fleet and maintenance business. A reduced postwar staff at Ryde was soon busy building hire boats and fishing boats at a rapid rate.
Thus Harold and Carl, assisted in the design area by Harvey, carried on the business of Lars Halvorsen Sons at Ryde and Bobbin Head. By this time, Carl managed the Bobbin Head facility.
In 1949 the Halvorsens exported the deluxe motor cruiser Tooronga to test the lucrative United States market. Carl, who accompanied the boat, met with Hollywood celebrities and boating enthusiasts, taking actors Bob Hope and Humphrey Bogart for cruises on Tooronga.
Despite hopes of ‘taking on the world’ only a small number of Halvorsen boats were sold overseas. But back home, by the mid-1950s, the Halvorsen hire fleet had grown to 150 boats including open launches, rowing skiffs and motor cruisers ranging from 21–30 feet (6.4 to 9.1 m).
In the late 1950s a line of grand, 36-foot (10.97 m) cruisers was added. At the time it was the largest private hire fleet of its kind in the world.
The last of the great wooden boats, launched in 1976 at Ryde, was Emma, designed by Harvey Halvorsen. The shed at Ryde began winding down from that time and by 1979, work had ceased there.
In 1975, Lars Halvorsen Sons entered into a joint venture with a Hong Kong company. The new company, Kong & Halvorsen Marine & Engineering Company Limited was based in Hong Kong and between 1975-1990 built boats under the Island Gypsy name.
In 1980, the Ryde yard was sold to Royal Australian Navy and Harold and Harvey joined Carl at Bobbin Head.
In 1980, with new partners, the company began building boats in Shekou, a port in mainland China. The company constructed boats to Halvorsen designs. The finished boats were sent to Hong Kong to be checked and then exported to buyers. Mark Halvoresn (Harveys son) managed the Hong Kong operation from the mid 1980s and still runs the overseas division.
Mention has been made of the sailing prowess of Magnus and Trygve Halvorsen, but Harold and Carl were also excellent sailors and both excelled in their chosen class. They concentrated more on harbour sailing rather than offshore sailing, but they designed and built the very successful Dragon and 5.5m class boats.
Carl was also instrumental in refurbishing Kathleen Gillett that became the Norwegian governments gift to Australian for the 1988 bicentenary celebrations. The restoration took three years and when she was finished she sailed to Sydney to her new home at the Australian Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour.
Carl was made a Knight, First Class, of the Royal Order of Merit, the highest honour that the King of Norway can bestow. This was not only for his restoration of Kathleen Gillett but also his work as a director of Lars Halvorsen Sons, his contribution to sailing in Norway and Australia and for his promoting of Norwegian Australian relations.
Harold Halvorsen celebrates his 90th birthday and over 75 years in Australia.
Harold Halvorsen continued to work at Bobbin Head beyond his 90th birthday in April 2000 but died at home in November of that year.
On Sunday the 9th of April 2000 a boat building legend celebrated his 90th birthday in style. The Halvorsen club with Mr. Tony Mackay at the helm organised an historic event bringing together perhaps the single largest gathering of one manufacturer’s boats in Australia and possibly the world to honour their club patron and founder of Lars Halvorsen Sons Pty. Ltd. Mr. Harold Halvorsen. It also marked 75 years of boat building in Australia for the Halvorsen Family originally under the directorship of Harold’s father Lars who died prematurely in 1936 at the age of 49.
The right Honourable Mr. Gordon Samuels Governor of N.S.W. also attended this auspicious occasion lending a vice Regal air to the days events.
94 old timber Halvorsens ranging in size from 21 feet up to “Emma” a 90 footer built in 1976 and the last big boat built at Halvorsens yard in Australia, lined up on Sydney’s Hawkesbury River to honour a man of remarkable skill and ability who has dedicated his life to the design and building of boats.
Leading the fleet was the 26ft Norwegian racing yacht built by Lars and launched in 1927 as a gift to his teenage son Harold because of his passion for sailing. “Maud” is based in South Australia and was specially shipped over for the Cavalcade by her owner of 31 years Mr. Smith.
A fabulous cross section of “old Halvo’s” starting from the 21 footers, thru 26ft and 36ft charter boats, then the 32ft and 40ft Viking class and finally up to the 50 ft plus post WWII bridge deck cruisers proceeded to motor past Silver Cloud II where with great pride Harold took the Salute of the many owners who’s prized possessions gleamed and sparkled under the noonday sun.
The Australian Government also announced in June its decision to award Mr. Harold Halvorsen with the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) which by definition recognizes Australians for their outstanding achievements and contributions in their particular field of endeavour and for service worthy of particular recognition. This award was given in part for his contributions during WWII where he designed and built service craft for the Australian Army / Air force plus US Army & Dutch Government including patrol boats, seaplane tenders, torpedo recovery vessels and supply craft. In total 237 vessels were built including 16 of the English designed 112 foot Fairmiles all being constructed at the Halvorsen factory at Ryde in N.S.W.
The fleet of Halvorsen cruisers that operated so successfully from Bobbin Head was retired in 2003.
However, there is a very active Halvorsen Club made up of owners of Halvorsenbuilt wooden boats.
Words from its Commodore seem to sum up why these boats are so loved and sought after.
"They got the lines right they looked good from every angle and it usually followed that they performed well too, he said."
The quality and integrity never varied. The standard of finish and fittings was unsurpassed glistening teak, maple and mahogany panelling, French-polished interiors, custom made metalwork were all a cut above the rest.
An amazing fleet of impeccably presented Halvorsens cruisers at the Sydney Wooden Boat ShowS, Darling Harbour.
Halvorsen's build boats for the Sydney Water Police
For many years the Halvorsen family designed and built a wide variety of utility vessels, pur- pose built for many varied business and services. Mission boats for the Seventh Day Adventists in the Pacific Islands, flying boat tenders for Qantas, a variety of 38,62 & 110 foot boats for the armed forces, and later the high speed launches for the NSW Water Police.
In February 1946, Halvorsens completed the conversion of two ex army 38’s and two 26’ which were destined for use by the Customs Department and the NSW Police. AM 2432 was originally delivered to the Australian Army on the 10th December 1945 and was subsequently converted and reborn as the very famous ‘Nemesis’.
Offshore rescue missions were often carried out in terrible conditions and she never faltered. Sold by the police in the late 60’s she was converted for private use and became the ‘Lorna VI’ berthed at the RMYC at Newport. She was then sold to club members Greg & Nikki Roger who completed a massive overhaul including new turbo Volvo diesels. She can still catch scallywags if she wants, at about thirty knots!
They joined the 1964 ‘Valiant’ & ‘Vigilant’ 26 footers which are still going strong in private hands. The famous 32’ ‘Viking’ model made its debut in January 1965 was also much sought after by the police with the first delivered in September 1966. The well remembered ‘Fearless’, ‘William J Mackay’, `J.S.Scott’, ‘W.S.Childs’, and the last 32 built, the September 1973 ‘Len F. Newman’.
The typical ‘bow up’ attitude in which they rode at speed was in fact, specially designed in by Harvey Halvorsen, which allowed the fine and deep bow to make an aggressive and purposeful slice into heavy seas.
They certainly achieved this result and most had achieved long and arduous sea miles and many engine replacements before being retired from faithful service.
A Halvorsen is an instantly recognisable Australian boating icon.
EVEN yachties pay their respect, says Tony Mackay. "Instead of saying 'not another bloody stink boat', they come over and say 'what a lovely classic wooden Halvorsen'."
For almost 80 years, the Halvorsen has been a unique part of the country's maritime heritage. A throwback to a more elegant age. A floating memorial to one immigrant family who came from Norway to establish something quintessentially Australian.
How much is it worth? "About $1.8 million," Mackay says. "It would cost between $6 [million] and $8 million to build today."
Mackay recently stepped down as commodore of perhaps the most exclusive club in Sydney. To become a member you have to own one of the 200 Halvorsens that are still shipshape.
John Laws used to own one. Paul Keating still has his, but Mackay says the former prime minister "hasn't joined the club … he's not interested in coming to raft-ups".
The Halvorsen Club was formed in 1991 by Derek Freeman, who used to own Silver Cloud II. Mackay credits Freeman with saving the Halvorsen legend.
In the late 1980s, when the Halvorsen family sold their fleet of hire cruisers at Bobbin Head, the future looked bleak. Many were barely afloat, their timbers rotting. Freeman pledged to form a register of the beautiful old boats before they disappeared forever.
"He thought there might be 15 Halvorsens still cruising," Mackay recalls. "In fact, we've now got 180 on our books."
By founding the Halvorsen Club, Freeman changed a mindset, Mackay says. Suddenly people who looked at Halvorsens as slowly decaying boats realised they were collectors' items.
The Halvorsen Club is dedicated to the preservation, restoration and enjoyment of the classic timber boats built by Lars Halvorsen & Sons.
Formed in 1991 by the Honourable Dr. Derek Freeman The Halvorsen Club has over 100 boats and 150 members around the coast of Australia. Proud owners have devoted endless hours painting, varnishing, chroming and generally preserving these proud and elegant boats.
The club assists owners with technical information, recommended tradespeople and hold historical information regarding boat production.
Now the Halvorsen family and the boats they built are celebrated in an exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum.
Dreamboats and Workboats: the Halvorsen story, traces the history of a complex family of boat builders and champion sailors who arrived in Sydney from Norway in 1925 with a nautical passion that eventually touched thousands of Australian lives.
"There were other boat builders, and other boat hire companies," Mackay says. "But no other company was regarded with such affection. There's something about a Halvorsen, it's about the smell, the mixture of timber and leather."
The Halvorsens were accomplished sailors and ocean racers.
Beyond the boatyard the Halvorsen brothers distinguished themselves in competitive sailing. In the 1930s they crewed in harbour races organised by the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club. When sailing resumed after World War II the Halvorsens were soon associated with success in ocean racing.
Brothers Trygve and Magnus built and entered their own yacht, Saga, in the second Sydney to Hobart yacht race in 1946. They were narrowly beaten by the race’s handicap winner Christina, designed and built by their late father Lars. The two brothers’ subsequent yachts Peer Gynt, Solveig and Anitra made their marks in Sydney– Hobart annals before the brothers made sailing history with their three consecutive Sydney–Hobart handicap wins in Freya in 1963, 1964 and 1965.
Magnus competed in 30 Sydney–Hobarts between 1946 and 1982.
The brothers won four Trans-Tasman races between 1948 and 1961 in their yachts Peer Gynt, Solveig and Norla, and went on to compete in Australia’s first Admiral’s Cup and America’s Cup in Freya and Gretel respectively.
They also competed in the Southern Cross, Trans-Pacific and other races.
Carl Halvorsen has distinguished himself in the 5.5 class winning the Australian championship in 1967, 1982 and 1991, and is still sailing competitively this year at age 93.
This impressive sailing record has been recognised with national and international awards.
The Halvorsen legacy Through war and peacetime the Halvorsens have contributed to Australian boating by their commitment to building superbly crafted boats and participating in a wide range of commercial and sporting pursuits.
A distinctive Halvorsen style is seen in the white timber hulls, flared topsides, clean lines and harmonious proportions of the deluxe motorcruisers, and as well in the integrity of the more humble hire and work boats.
The boats are now collectors’ items among classic wooden boat enthusiasts.
Through their hire fleet the Halvorsens introduced countless people to the fun of recreational boating on Sydney’s beautiful Pittwater, Broken Bay and Hawkesbury River.
While this boatbuilding family came to regard themselves as staunch Australians, they never lost sight of their Norwegian cultural roots.
Family members were active in charitable, religious, social and sporting activities supporting Norwegians in Australia.
Their achievements won friendships and recognition at the highest levels of Norwegian government and society.
The end of an era in Australian boat building
Carl Halvorsen, renowned Sydney boat builder, died one day short of his 102nd birthday, on 22nd July 2014.
Trygve Halvorsen, an Australian ocean racing legend, boat designer, boat builder and member of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia since 1946, passed away peaceful on Saturday November 8, 2014, after a short stay in hospital, he was 94.
An extraordinary era in Australian yacht design, building and ocean racing came an end on, 27 July 2015, with the death in Sydney of Magnus Halvorsen, just before his 97th birthday.
Reflections of a Halvorsen Shipwright.
by Peter Gossell Vice President of the Wooden Boat Association of NSW.
Not long after my wife and I immigrated to Australia from America I was fortunate enough to get a job at Lars Halvorsen Sons at Ryde. This was the early 1970's and they had just laid the keel for a ninety foot motor yacht for a private client. It was to be the last major boat to be built at the Ryde yard.
One morning not long after I had started working there, I was on a scaffolding plank positioning frames or some such when I noticed standing behind me on the catwalk, not far from me and at about the same level, a dapper white haired gentleman wearing a sports coat and tie. I made eye contact with him and said “Good morning”.
Well, you would have thought I had picked up a lump of timber and thrown it at him. He turned on his heel and took off at a clip towards the mezzanine where the offices were. I turned to the chap working not far from me.
“Wow, that was strange. Who was that?”
“Oh that’s Harold Halvorsen. He’s the boss!” he replied in a hushed voice.
I noticed after that, that most mornings Harold would walk briskly through the shed not stopping to speak or even making eye contact with anyone, and then up to his office not to be seen the rest of the day.
I thought to myself, I work for this man, I should at the least be able to say “G’Day” to him when I see him, so thereafter when I was in Harold’s path and there was no one else around I would just say “G’Day”.
This went on for a few months or so when one morning when I said “G’Day”, he actually acknowledged me with a curt little nod of his head. I thought, “Wow, I’m making progress.”
One morning, after having worked there for maybe nine months, Harold stopped and had a chat to me. I think I was setting out the framework for the transom (everybody there called it the “tuck”).
Shortly thereafter the hooter went for smoko (that great Australian institution) and a couple of my mates came racing up to me and asked “What’s happening, have you got the sack?”
“I don’t know, I don’t think so. Why?” I said.
“We saw Harold talking to you, Harold doesn’t talk to anyone!” They said.
After that Harold would sometimes stop and have a chat, especially if I happened to be working on a particularly interesting task.
It just seemed to me that he was a very shy sort of a man. Once you got him talking he was very interesting and extremely knowledgeable, as one would expect. And he knew everything that was going on in the shed.
When we were getting close to finishing the 90-footer, I was given the task of marking out the waterline. I had the lines plan spread out and I was making some lines in chalk on the hull. She was a really beautiful shape of a hull, but she was very fine in the bow and very flat aft. (We got 25 knots out of her on her sea trials!)
Anyway, I’m thinking with all that buoyancy aft and that very fine bow, she is going to float down by the bow. Meanwhile other shipwrights are walking past and saying under their breath “She’ll float down by the head!”
So I’m thinking I might just raise the waterline maybe four or five inches at the bow when the next thing I know Harold is at my shoulder.
“She’s fine in the bow, she’ll float down by the head.” Harold said.
“That’s what I was thinking, Harold.”
“Raise the waterline six inches at the bow.”
And I raised the waterline 10 inches thinking a waterline that is too high in the bow doesn’t look that bad but one that is too low looks terrible!
We launched the boat on a cold winter Saturday night; we needed a high tide as she was the heaviest vessel launched out of the shed. To my great relief she floated perfectly to the lines she was given!
On the Monday morning I was in the engine room checking things when I hear Harold calling from the wharf.
“Where’s Gossell? Where’s Gossell?” he shouted.
I raced up on deck and he says, “See, see, I told you six inches.”
I just said, “Good call, Harold.”
When the 90-footer was finished there was no new building anticipated so I left to work for myself. Before I left I asked Ray Philips, the head shipwright, if he would write me a letter of recommendation and he said he would be happy to.
Later that day he came up to me and said he hadn’t written the letter as Harold had overheard him talking to a secretary and had said that he would be pleased to write the letter, which I later found out was fairly unusual.
Halvorsens was a great place to work. There was an amazing amount of knowledge and experience among the workforce there. There were men that had worked, on and off, for the firm for forty years or more and it was a privilege to be able to work alongside them.
There was a great camaraderie and work ethic amongst the workers from the most experienced hands to the apprentices. I never saw anyone hassled for not working fast enough, what mattered was that the job was done properly and with a first class finish.
When I started there, there was a workforce of about 35 (I was told that during the war there was a workforce of 400). If I remember correctly, I was the only non-Australian working there at that time. It was a union shop so we were all members of The Federated Shipwrights & Ship Constructors Association of Australia, at the time the oldest active labour union in Australia.
I have fond memories of working there and of what now seems like a by-gone era.
Much of the information in Halvorsen Boat builders has come from Wooden Boats, Iron Men: The Halvorsen Story by Randi Svensen (Sydney, Halstead Press/ Australian National Maritime Museum, 2004).
Information has also been compiled from various Halvorsen websites, including the Halvorsen club. www.halvorsenclub.com.au. The editor has attempted to compile a cohesive, flowing, account of Halvorsen history, interspersed with supporting imagery, in sync with the time lines. October 2010.