28 March 2024

Lake Burley Griffin now home to the oldest sailing yacht in Australia

| James Coleman
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Aorere Racing yacht

The racing yacht was built in Melbourne in 1898. Photo: Peter Ottesen.

Every two years in early April all manner of gorgeous wooden sail boats and yachts take to the waters of Lake Burley Griffin and transform it into what could be mistaken for Lake Como (okay, our lake is a bit more brown).

It’s the biennial ‘Canberra Boatfest’, and it’s rolling around again on 13 and 14 April for the Canberra and Region Heritage Festival 2024.

The star of this year’s show is the oldest boat of its type still in operation in Australia, and it’s been no mean feat to get it here in time.

Aorere (Maori for ‘flying cloud’) is a clipper-bowed yacht, measuring about 11 metres long and 2.4 metres wide, fitted with large sweeping sails. It was built in Melbourne in 1898 and designed for racing by a 21-year-old engineering graduate.

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It has changed hands several times over the years and picked up various awards along the way, including in 1938 when it absolutely romped past the competition during a 61 km race from Williamstown to Geelong.

“It was a racing yacht and she had quite an illustrious racing career for the next 50 years, based at Port Phillip Bay,” current owner Russell Gruen says.

“But by the 1990s she was a bit of a wreck, and was bought by an enthusiast in Perth who had access to all of the shipwrights who had just finished building the replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour.”

Aorere under full sail

Aorere under full sail. Photo: Sandringham Boat Club.

The experts got to work stripping back the deck and superstructure and replacing a lot of the internal ribbing. Another two subsequent restorations by two different owners took place in 1995 and 2013, by which time Aorere was shining with all her former glory.

She was sailing around the southern tip of WA near Albany when Russell, together with a group of friend investors, snapped up the “one-in-a-million yacht”.

“I came across it on a classic boating website and noticed she was for sale.”

Russell, current dean of the ANU’s College of Health and Medicine, hails from Melbourne, with a mother who grew up on a Chris-Craft motor cruiser in the US. Her interest in boats was passed along.

“I learned to sail at a young age and have been a boat enthusiast ever since. So this is kind of the realization of a lifelong journey.”

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It’s taken the better part of the past 12 months to work out the logistics of not only transporting an 11-metre boat all the way across Australia, but also finding a permanent home within Lake Burley Griffin.

The National Museum of Australia and National Capital Authority were happy to help, so Aorere – now with a lick of new varnish and paint – is “quite a sight to behold” moored alongside the historic paddle steamer Enterprise off Acton Peninsula.

She’s now the biggest sailing boat on the lake “by a long shot” to the point she won’t clear either of the two bridges. As a result, she’s confined to the West Basin.

“When she’s in full sail, with four or five sails up, she’s a very traditional looking rig,” Russell says.


Aorere had to be craned into place. Photo: Peter Ottesen.

“She doesn’t handle like a modern boat either, and try to throw you into the water with sudden lurches. She’s graceful and points to the wind quite well, especially with the top sail up.”

Boatfest will be an opportunity for members of the public to appreciate an up-close look at not only Aorere, but plenty of other historic boats.

“You really don’t own a boat like this, like you might own one made from plastic or fiberglass. You’re a custodian of a chapter of her life … and have a real responsibility to look after her and preserve her, because if you don’t, she’ll disappear and an important piece of Australian maritime history could be lost forever.”

The Canberra Boatfest will be held on Saturday 13 April and Sunday 14 April. Meet at the Canberra Yacht Club, 1 Marina Place, Yarralumla, from 9 am. Visit the Traditional Boat Squadron website for more information.

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Don’t let her rot in fresh water. She needs a enclosed salt water wet dock. Crane her in and out of the lake for special occasions. Otherwise keep her in the sea to preserve her.

Darren Edmonds11:16 am 03 Apr 24

Looking forward to the 13th April. Did you know that boats can capture helium 3 and 4 with there engines which is good for waterways and canetoads. There also great for protecting the coral reefs.

Darren Edmonds9:00 am 03 Apr 24

Guys helium 3 and 4 are in luxury yacht cruisers and I’d love one in each of our lakes and dams in the Canberra area. Love the old boat. We need water skiing.

Capital Retro4:24 pm 31 Mar 24

It appears to have a big draft which will limit where it can go on LBG.

There are more shallow spots than deep spots on LBG.

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