The world of Thomas Lawson: Big ships, books and sofas

Thomas W. Lawson in his office, surrounded by the fresh flowers and books he loved. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Thomas W. Lawson in his office, surrounded by the fresh flowers and books he loved. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the world seemed unbearably young. It had yet to experience a World War or the Great Depression. Fossil fuels were the future and any new technology was seen as a good thing. It became known as the Gilded Age and it must have been heady times for those who had the cash to enjoy it. And there were plenty of those. One, in particular, was Thomas W Lawson. At one time Lawson was thought to be one of the wealthiest men in America with a fortune estimated at over USD $50 million (over $1 billion in today’s money).

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Visiting the JFK Library in search of the President’s rescue coconut

Coconut on President John F. Kennedy's Desk. Image: JFK Library, KN-C23153.

The coconut on President John F. Kennedy’s Desk. Image: JFK Library, KN-C23153.

After the Battle of the Coral Sea Commemoration dinner on the USS Intrepid, I was up early and on the train to Boston and the John F. Kennedy Presidental Library and Museum.

I seem to have bad luck visiting this northern city, teaming rain, windy, 6 degrees (celsius) – just like my last three visits! Bad to worse, the train ran late by half an hour and when I arrived at the JFK Library for my meeting with Karen Abramson, Head of Archives, building works nearby had cut their cable to the outside world. So, with no computers, no phones, and no voicemail, the friendly docent (US word for volunteer) at Reception did not have any mobile numbers, couldn’t look them up and didn’t have access to ‘go fetch’ Karen, and the security officer didn’t have a radio and couldn’t leave his post.

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Warwick Hood AO 1932–2015

Dame Pattie full sail - photo by Douglas Baglin

Dame Pattie under full sail – Photographer Douglas Baglin 00029529 ANMM Collection

Naval architect Warwick Hood AO passed away at Erina on the NSW Central Coast early in July, shortly before his 83rd birthday. To the general public and the yachting scene in particular he was well recognised and highly respected as the designer of Australia’s second America’s Cup challenger, the International 12-Metre class yacht Dame Pattie. This design was very significant in its own right, but was a part of Hood’s long career in naval architecture that was also filled with remarkably varied work that reflects wide interests along with an ability to manage diverse marine projects.

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Alan Bond (1938–2015) and some of his maritime connections

Endeavour Replica 2005

Endeavour replica pictured in 2005, the year HM Bark Endeavour Foundation transferred ownership of the vessel to the Australian National Maritime Museum.

This is not an obituary or eulogy but rather a note of recognition and acknowledgement of the man whose yachting and other nautical activities considerably influenced the maritime history of Australia. The Australian National Maritime Museum is connected to this history through objects in the National Maritime Collection and our management of the Endeavour replica. Continue reading

The race of the century – America’s Cup 1983

The action for final race for the America’s Cup in 1983, dubbed ‘the race of the century’ by US skipper Dennis Conner, began well before the race started. Mindful of some starting issues, the Australians called for a lay day after race six to put some practice in. Meanwhile, the US team used this to optimise their yacht Liberty with ballast and sail area changes to make it faster in the expected lighter winds, something the Australians had wished they had thought of too.  Racing was abandoned for 24 September due to poor wind, and then the US team called a lay day themselves to do more work on Liberty, further irritating the Australians.

Two yachts on water

Australia II (KA 6) nicely out in front of Liberty in an earlier race, Sally Samins photographer.

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AUSTRALIA II, the winged keel and more

Australia II has become one of the nation’s most recognisable vessels, thanks to that extraordinary America’s Cup win in 1983. Almost everyone knows about its winged keel that seemed to make it unbeatable. The keel completely spooked the Americans who tried many moves off the water to avoid having to race against Australia II.   However there was much more to the boat than just that keel, because its peculiar advantages allowed other subtle changes to be made that further helped Australia II to dominate many races. Designer Ben Lexcen had trialled endplates and other similar features on rudders, centreboards and keels at different times in his career, starting with a Moth class dinghy in the late 1950s, and then the break-through 18-foot skiff  Taipan in 1959. The focus of his efforts was to reduce the drag and loss of efficiency from tip vortices off these appendages. These experiments met with mixed success but when he returned to the idea again in the 12 metre class, he developed the concept from a different direction.

Twelve metres are designed to detailed rule for their allowed dimensions. They are heavy boats for their length, with a considerable amount of ballast. The draft restrictions and large volume of the hull result in a shallow depth keel, with a poor aspect ratio and poor efficiency. The wings on the keel helped to reduce these inefficiencies in a similar way to the endplates he had experimented with, but he was able to make another bold step in lateral thinking. Rather than just realising the improvements to drag, Lexcen could see other advantages at the same time, and this was characteristic of his ability to think around many things at once.

Two comparison keels

These two half models in the ANMM collection show a comparison of a conventional 12 metre Australia (1977 and 1980) above with Australia II below.

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The America’s cup 30 years on

This week marks 30 years since an aspirational nation woke up to news that Australia had licked the Americans in a blue-blood yachting event, finally wresting the coveted America’s Cup from the nation which had held it for 132 years and fought off all challengers including long-standing Trans-Atlantic rivals England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada to its northern border and across the Pacific to Australia.

Two yachts on water

Australia II and Liberty racing in 1983. Photographer: Sally Samins. Reproduced courtesy the photographer. ANMM Collection Gift from Sally Samins

With the series tied at three races each, many Australians had stayed up all night to watch the cliff-hanger on television. The last race saw skipper John Bertrand lead his crew in Australia II in a tacking duel, crossing the line 41seconds ahead of veteran skipper Dennis Conner in Liberty. Continue reading

Who’s your seafaring relative?

Lieutenant William Henn, drawing published in the Australian Town and Country Journal 2 Oct 1886. See National Library of Australia's Trove.

Lieutenant William Henn, drawing published in the Australian Town and Country Journal 2 Oct 1886.
See National Library of Australia’s search engine, Trove.

This story was inspired by a monkey. Lately I’ve noticed that in addition to stories being discovered within the museum’s collection, some of our wonderful followers have been coming forward with stories of their own and relating it back to the museum’s collection. Enter Flickr user beachcomberaustralia and his seafaring relative, Lieutenant William Henn – America’s Cup sailor and proud owner of Peggy the monkey. Continue reading

Another America’s Cup Challenger – Dame Pattie

Dame Pattie wet weather trousers before treatment.

Dame Pattie crew wet weather trousers

A recent conservation treatment on some wet weather gear uncovers the history of another America’s Cup challenger, Dame Pattie a purpose-built 12m class racing yacht, named after the wife of Sir Robert Gordon Menzies who served two terms as Australian Prime Minister from 1939-1941 and then 1949-1966. In 1967, although winning the trials easily, Dame Pattie skippered by Jock Sturruck, lost the series (4-0) to the American yacht Intrepid skippered by Bus Mosbacher in a a series raced in unseasonally stronger winds when Dame Pattie was better suited to lighter breezes.

Dame Pattie , christened in 1966 was designed by Warwick Hood and built by WH Barnett using a combination of Australian, Danish and Canadian timber. The main-frame was constructed using laminated Queensland maple. Edge-grain Douglas fir planking was fastened to the intermediate frame constructed using Danish ash, using silicon bronze screws.

During that particular America’s Cup race in 1967, hurricane Doria was generating off-shore northeasterly winds making wet weather gear an essential article of clothing for the contest. The Dame Pattie crew wore wet weather gear made by Plastalon. The jacket features a hood with a small peak brim, white nylon drawstring and plastic toggles and large pockets either side of the centre front opening. The jacket is fastened using black, press studs. The yacht Dame Pattie logo is printed on the left chest. The trousers feature two side pockets, an elasticised waist adjusted to fit the wearer using press studs.


The textile conservator removes black soiling using a 50% mixture of ethanol and deionised water.

Hidden gems rediscovered – Wharf 7 comes to life with stories of Australia’s maritime past

Concealed in the storage rooms of the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Wharf 7 Maritime Heritage Centre in Pyrmont, are thousands of objects within the collection waiting to be unearthed for exhibition. Only a privileged few gain access to these areas and much of the collection has remained undiscovered by visitors to the museum…until now.

Bales of wool being loaded on board Magdalene Vinnen March 1933
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

The museum has developed this project, in association with Sydney Heritage Fleet, to exhibit an array of objects not available for viewing in the museum. Photographs depicting commercial shipping, sailing races and seaside workers adorn the walls. One example is an image of the visit of the German steel barque Magdalene Vinnen, highlighting the vibrant maritime scene of Woolloomooloo wharf in 1933.

Watercraft from the Australian Register of Historic Vessels (ARHV) seem to float on air, carefully poised in the foyer area. Social and cultural icons of Sydney Harbour such as skiffs, dinghies and rowing shells are featured. The 18-foot skiff Yendys, which was restored to its former glory between 1977 and 1982, appears majestic with its discernible anchor ensign emblazoned on its sails. Also displayed is a scale model of the hull and keel of Ben Lexcen’s ‘secret weapon’, Australia’s famous 1983 America’s Cup winner, Australia II.

Pyrmont and the waters surrounding it also contain a fascinating Indigenous cultural heritage, steeped in the traditions of the Gadigal people. Drawings from the early 1800s illustrate Aboriginal people using rock shelters under cliffs and cooking fish caught in bark canoes or nawi.

All these stories add to Australia’s diverse social and cultural history. They also allow more of the museum’s precious gems to be unveiled in a way that both captures the essence of our maritime past and inspires our imagination.

On 30 May, the museum is hosting the first conference on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander watercraft, Nawi.

For more information on the museum’s development of the ARHV, in consultation with Sydney Heritage Fleet, click here.

Nicole Cama, curatorial assistant

Yendys, 1924
restored 1977-1982
Sydney Heritage Fleet
Photographer: Zoe McMahon ANMM

Tank-test model 5854B scale model of hull and keel of Australia II 1981
ANMM Collection
Photographer: Zoe McMahon ANMM

Wharf 7 redevelopment
Photographer: Zoe McMahon ANMM