Categories Interviews

Far too busy to retire – I’m boat building!

There is something highly evocative about hand-crafted wooden boats, whether sailing boats or traditionally crafted motorised cabin cruisers. The romantic lure of it all gets under your skin and becomes part of who you are. This is exactly what happened to Geoff Carroll.

As an extension of his love affair with wooden boats, Geoff is an enthusiastic member of the Wooden Boat Association, which he was introduced to all those many years ago by Tom Whitfield who was a founding member.

Just over ten years ago when Geoff Carroll finished his full-time working career as a Primary School Principal he knew that like other retirees he would need a stimulating and fulfilling project to occupy his mind and provide the sense of meaning and deep connection that his vocation had provided over so many years. Fortunately in Geoff’s case the project was already right in front of him – and patiently waiting to have his full attention at last. While Geoff has been able to keep his hand in as a teacher, now working as a ‘casual academic’ supervising practical sessions in environmental science at Deakin University, he has finally been able to properly pursue his deep passion for wooden boats.

Geoff initially inherited his father’s boat in 1992 and it was in a fairly sorry state, having been stored on blocks for many years. The well-known professional boat builder Tom Whitfield generously gave his time to have a look over the boat, which he pronounced in good salvageable condition from the gunnel down, but in need of a complete rebuild of the deck and cabin structure once the hull had been stripped, repaired and re-assembled.

At that time Geoff had no real knowledge of boat building at all and only a very rudimentary sense of how to use hand tools. Later he would discover the need to do a training course in the safe use of a wide range of power tools, which he now deploys with a relaxed confidence. But back then he was a bit overwhelmed by the dilapidated state of his father’s boat. He told Tom Whitfield that he didn’t even have the plans for the boat. ‘Yes, you do,’ responded Whitfield. ‘You just methodically and painstakingly take it apart piece by piece, and then you systematically rebuild it the way it originally was.’ Simple really. And a true labour of love for several years was to follow.

The craft, which still retains the name Kibbee from when it was first owned by Geoff’s father, was originally designed and built by Dealtrys in Adelaide in 1952. She is a 5-metre clinker half cabin fishing boat. ‘Clinker’ means that the planks of the hull are overlapped rather like weatherboards and fixed with copper rivets. Due to the inherent movement of the timber it is necessary to keep sea water in the bilge all the time so the planks stay swollen and therefore watertight. Geoff tells the amusing anecdote of taking the Wooden Boat Association’s Begonia on the boat trailer down to the Gippsland Lakes and having filled the boat with water because she had dried out a bit prior to the trip and she wasn’t quite watertight. Very clearly not, for as Geoff was driving on the highway he became aware of many cars coming up from behind too fast and too close, then having to suddenly drop back with their windscreen wipers on!

In this short video clip Geoff shares a few more humorous moments from his affiliation with the Wooden Boat Association.

Kibbee II is one of three wooden boats Geoff has now built. The most impressive is probably Rufus, a 23-foot Dungeness Bay Crabber with a gaff cutter rig and a 23-foot (above-deck) mast height. Geoff built Rufus for the family and she has a fully fitted cabin with berths and a galley. According to the designer’s family Rufus is believed to be the only fully operational sailing example of this design anywhere in the world.

Geoff says that regardless of all the challenges boat building, restoration and maintenance is only relaxing and never frustrating. It’s undoubtedly his positive mind set – but his approach is to think and reflect on every small next step. He sees it as an endless series of small problems to be solved one at a time. It’s stimulating and exciting – and each small problem solved produces a great sense of satisfaction and achievement.

For Geoff it’s both a visceral and an aesthetic factor that binds him to this pursuit. ‘It’s the feel of sawdust on your hands, the smell of timber and wood shavings, the shimmer of varnish and the gleam of polished brass – that’s what gets to you and keeps you coming back,’ he says.

As an extension of his love affair with wooden boats, Geoff is an enthusiastic member of the Wooden Boat Association, which he was introduced to all those many years ago by Tom Whitfield who was a founding member. The WBA has around 150 members who are involved with the Association in a myriad of different ways and for different reasons. Not all of them are sailors or ‘yachties’ at all, and while most members have their own boats not all do. They share an appreciation of the aesthetic beauty of wooden boats and enjoy the sharing of expertise, stories and good fellowship.

The Wooden Boat Association is approaching its 30th  Anniversary having been formed by Tom Whitfield and other generous enthusiasts in 1989. Geoff Carroll describes the group as open and helpful, not in any way ‘cliquey’. They welcome new members, whether experienced or absolute newbies. Every month on the fourth Sunday the Association holds an open sailing and social event at the Albert Park Boat Club. Members of the public who would like to just find out a bit more about the Association or go for a complimentary introductory sail on one of the Association’s boats are most welcome to call in and say hello.

Begonia being meticulously maintained by Wooden Boat Association members

There will be a warm and welcoming hello right back. If you’re fortunate enough to have a sail on the Association’s boat Begonia you’ll be in for a treat. Begonia was designed by Tom Whitfield and was the original collaborative boat building initiative of the Association. A 15-foot clinker boat fastened with the traditional copper nails and boasting a bow sprit and gaff sloop rig, Begonia is a true wooden boat beauty and she proudly carries the spirit of her heritage with her.

There are numerous other boating and social events held on the Yarra River, at Rye, and on the Gippsland Lakes.

Agenda for Life applauds the authenticity of Geoff Carroll and those like him who discover an affinity with tradition and aesthetic beauty and a sense of belonging to like-spirited people who share their passion to appreciate and contribute to a worthwhile community endeavour – and thereby define and attain their own sense of self and purposefulness beyond their own full-time professional career life.

If you want to know more, the Wooden Boat Association website is a great place to start:

For a full video interview with Geoff Carroll, click on the link here:

Alternatively, for an audio clip interview excerpt click here:

So, that website again:

About the author

After more than 40 years in a profession I loved and valued every day, at the end of 2017 the time had come to move in new directions. Agenda for Life online came into being in 2018 and began by publishing articles covering great lifestyle experiences for retired and semi-retired professionals, with lots of interviews with inspiring people. Over this period new opportunities have arisen for me personally, and I now offer a diverse range of services across a variety of platforms. As a freelance content writer and editor, I now work on projects for a diverse range of clients, both Australian and global. I offer public speaking training and coaching in interview skills, on both a volunteer and paid basis. I am now a nationally accredited mediator, registered through the NMAS, offering mediation services in the areas of workplace conflict and community disputes. I have been able to gain internationally recognized WSET certification in wine knowledge and appreciation, which is invaluable for being able to advise knowledgably about Melbourne’s amazing fine wine and food culture. It now seems a long time since I first stared down the looming prospect of a semi-retirement which almost terrified me. Living out a commitment to lifelong learning, I have been enabled to discover a broader range of opportunities for personal and professional fulfilment than I had ever previously imagined. Onward and upward!