Last month Carl Halvorsen, renowned Sydney boat builder, died one day short of his 102nd birthday. Carl arrived in Sydney in 1924 from Norway via South Africa, with his mother and siblings to reunite with their father Lars who had come on before them.

Lars was a boat builder, as was his father before him.  He built his first in 1902 in Norway, and soon gained a reputation for fine workmanship.  In 1922 economic factors forced him to move the family to South Africa, where he met an Australian who encouraged him to bring his skills to Sydney.

Lars first boatshed was in Drummoyne where he built the timber sailing yacht Sirius. By the time he had finished it he had two more commissions and the business began to grow.  In 1926 Carl, then 14, left school and joined his father and brothers in the trade.  His expertise with wood working saw him given the task of fashioning the 21m mast of the yacht Utiekah II by hand, using adze and planes.

The reputation of the company for their yachts was growing rapidly and many of Sydney finest racing vessels were made by the family.  One, the restored Sirocco was sold to Errol Flynn for his sailing adventures in New Guinea in 1929.

In 1936 Lars died and his sons took on the business under the name Lars Halvorsen Sons Pty Ltd.  By now they were operating out of a large boatshed in Neutral Bay but relocated to a larger site on the river at Ryde in 1939.  The new site was once part of James Squire’s colonial brewery, a landmark on the Parramatta River since the 1820s.

A Halvorsen Fairmile gunboat in WWII (AWM P01047003)
A Halvorsen Fairmile gunboat in WWII (AWM P01047003)

When war erupted in the Pacific in 1941, Halvorsen’s joined the effort building over 250 small and medium sized boats for the Royal Australian Navy, US Navy and Dutch Navy including air-sea rescue boats, gun boats, supply vessels and patrol boats, including the Australian commander Sir Thomas Blainey’s command craft.  At its peak, the company employed 350 workers to keep up with the wartime demand.

In 1949 Carl took one of their motor cruisers, the Tooronga, to the USA attracting the attention of the post war Hollywood crowd.  Bob Hope and Humphrey Bogart were both keen on the boat, being photographed taking her for a spin (although didn’t buy it).

Yachts and motor boats now dominated the business.  In 1962 the company built the America’s Cup challenger Gretel, the first serious challenger from Australia for the coveted yachting prize and the first challenger to win a stage in 28 years.

Carl Halvorsen [right] with his boats for hire at Bobbin Head 1968 (NAA A12111)
Carl Halvorsen [right] with his boats for hire at Bobbin Head 1968 (NAA A12111)

To take advantage of a growing leisure time for Australian workers and families, the Halvorsen family opened a boat shed at Bobbin Head and built small motor boats that could be hired.  Renting a Halvorsen cruiser for the day became one of Sydney’s most popular harbour activities from the 1950s.  At its height their marina had 63 motor cruisers for hire, as well as smaller boats and row boats.  The family sold the lease in 2006, by which time it was their main operation, the Ryde boatshed having closed in 1980.

Since starting in 1975 the Halvorsen’s built over 1300 boats on Sydney Harbour.  His services to the sailing industry (and his own long sailing record) were recognised with an Australian Sports Medal, awarded to him and his brothers Magnus and Trygve in 2000.  Carl himself had also been made a Knight First Class of the Royal Order of Merit by the King of Norway in 1991 for his contribution to sailing in Australia and Norway and his charitable work with state wards.

Vale Carl Halvorsen.

For more check Randi Svensen’s history of the family, Wooden Boats, Iron Men: The Halvorsen Story.