Australian Power Boat magazine December 05/ January 06
One of the greatest speedboat designers of all time was the American John Hacker. From the early 1900s through to the 1950s, he designed extraordinary pleasure and race boats throughout the 'golden age' for mahogany speedboats. From that era comes this wonderful modern-day re-creation of his 1920s 'Rosita' design. By Graham Lloyd
The small but dedicated craftsman-based boatbuilding company of Frecheville Heaney operates from Paynesville on Victoria's beautiful Gippsland Lakes. Specialising in building and restoring classic wooden boats, the firm was founded by James Frecheville in 1990 after he returned from sailing to England aboard a 30 foot gaff boat with his wife. Whilst in the UK, James worked in the 300-year-old boat yard of Freebodys on the Thames where he "really learnt about wooden boats - it was a great experience". He started his association with boats much earlier though and was sailing a Mirror dinghy at age eight, and subsequently did a lot of offshore sailing including along the West Australian coast and in Indonesian and PNG waters. When James and his wife returned from England, they moved to Paynesville because they had fond memories of the Gippsland Lakes and "it seemed the place to get a job when we were 'having the recession we had to have' in the 1990s".
At first the company was called James Frecheville and Co. and was involved with repair and restoration work, and then James added some boatbuilding classes with the TAFE college and also privately with people building mainly clinker dinghies. As his reputation grew and work opportunities expanded, James bought a block of land down near the slipways ("before prices went ballistic"), put a shed on it and started employing people including his current business partner Tim Heaney. The
business continued to develop and has established a reputation for restorations and renovations of traditional fishing boats, yachts, cruisers and clinker skiboats. James commented: "We're very fortunate that we've got a lot of people who are not so much customers as patrons, and who have the same passion for their boats as we do." Amongst the boats they've restored are a 1941 Chris Craft, several of the famous Italian Riva speedboats (a 19 foot Ariston, a 21 foot Super Ariston, and a Super Aquarama with twin 454 Chevs), Halvorsen and Bracken cruisers, and a number of Australian clinker skiboats such as those from Lewis Brothers. James and Tim always admired the designs of John Hacker and they came across a faded A4-sized reproduction from a 1938 boating magazine of his 21 foot runabout design called 'Rosita'. Working from that single page, they lofted out a set of lines and went on to build the superbly streamlined craft that we are privileged to feature here in Power Boat. It took around a year to finish with some 1,600 manhours being invested as they constructed for themselves a "very expensive business card"! James explained: "We lofted out full size lines for the body plan, and then lofted the keel line and sheer, and that was about enough. Once we thought it was right, we set the frames up and bent battens around them. We built 'Rosita' using modern epoxy technology with Brazilian mahogany overlays. Instead of framing up with lots of timber and cleats, we cut ring-frames out of 19 mm marine-grade plywood which are incredibly strong, stiff and stable. We set them up and used hoop pine for the stringers and keel, and hoop pine plywood for t
he inner skins." He elaborated: "Hoop pine is a plantation species that comes from Queensland - it's a stable timber, as rot-proof as you're going to get, and it's the only one that meets the AS 2272 standard. The outer skins are a 7 mm lamination of mahogany. To obtain those, we bought a pack of Brazilian mahogany in various widths which we were able to rip and dress down for 'book-matched' (that is, identical grain-patterned) planks. When you look at the boat stem-on, the sides are a complete mirror image".
The deck was constructed in the same meticulous manner with more book-matched twoinch mahogany planks separated (and highlighted) by quarter inch basswood. James described the technique used for this part of 'Rosita': "We made a timber sandwich by starting with four by two (inch) mahogany to which we laminated four by quarter basswood, then another lamination of four by two mahogany and so on. Then we just sliced it up like bread and that gave us the book-matched planks. It's a nice feature - very simple, very easy." The construction is essentially all epoxy glued without any screws, although the centres of the planks are pinned to the frames. The superb finish was achieved after sanding and final-fairing of the timbers and coating them with a non-yellowing epoxy. Then 15 coats of a two-pack urethane were sprayed on before that was cut back using wet 1200 and 1500 sandpaper for a dead flat surface. James commented: "It's always a compromise - a finish off the gun is a higher gloss but you always get some sort of ripple, whereas if you flatten it off (with the wet sandpaper) you get a mirror sheen that looks just so sexy w
hen it's wet."
The engine is a 305 Chev V8 five litre block which develops around 280 hp. James and Tim bought that new as a crate motor and marinised it themselves using after-market parts from Rolco and Tawco. The transmission is a 1:1 Borg Warner FNR box ("so we're gentlemen - we can go backwards"!), and an 80 litre fuel tank is below the aft deck. Experimentation is continuing with props and a 12 by 16 (diameter by pitch in inches) three-blade is being used at present. A fourblade prop may be tried later, although the present three-blade seems to do a good job with strong acceleration, good handling and no cavitation. As James succinctly summed it up: "You can do all the sums with props, and the prop people can give recommendations, but that's still just a starting point." Top speed is around 40 knots (74 kph) with easy cruising at 30 knots. James said: "We've seen 40 knots on a GPS at 5,000 rpm and it would probably go faster. Remember though that the boat was designed in 1924 to have an 80 horsepower motor. We've put 280 horsepower in it, and it jumps out of the water now when I don't think the original would have done."
With just a five foot beam for its 21 foot six inch length, 'Rosita' has a slender hull with a near flat underside at the transom and a sharp entry at the chromed cutwater on the stem. For its beam, the hull is surprisingly stable both at rest and when underway. James recalled: "We were surprised at the stability and quality of ride. We did a dry run before we finished the boat with no deck and using weights for fuel, crew and so on to get an approximate waterline. Standing on the boat a
t that stage we were surprised at how stable it was. The chine is carried right out, so there's lots of initial buoyancy".
He added: "On a later run we came home at speed across the Gippsland Lakes into a short sharp chop against a 15 knot breeze and some whitecaps. The boat was remarkably dry and smooth. Having a bit of air underneath it helps it run better as on glass water it can tend to porpoise a bit at higher speed." Tim added: "There's not much buoyancy forward and the bow can drop quickly with its fine entry. If you come in behind another boat with a decent wake you can really notice it when you come into the second wave of the wash. You suddenly realise there's not a lot of buoyancy up there." That's true enough and typical of designs from that era, but I was fortunate enough to be granted some time at the wheel and 'Rosita' was a joy to drive. That long foredeck with its simply gorgeous planking seems to reach for the horizon in front of you, and the hull ran and turned with a precision and stability that was far better than I'd expected. The ride too, admittedly in calm waters, was smooth and dry with immediate response to wheel and throttle. The Chev gave plenty of performance, and sounded perfect through twin exhausts set low on the transom.
At one stage in the photo shoot, I asked Tim to bring 'Rosita' close in behind the camera boat, and the Hacker hull seemed to handle the disturbance of the wash with ease - helped of course by Tim's skill at the helm! Creaming through the wake of the camera boat as Tim took 'Rosita' from side to side, the hull seemed to lift well and carried its forward quarters clear
of each crest. I've no doubt that the helmsman needs to be aware of the slender hull and reduced buoyancy in the shoulders (compared with modern hulls), but 'Rosita' sure looks great from every angle.
The cockpit is right aft and fairly compact but has two very supportive seats for the skipper and first mate plus a full width rear lounge that keeps two adults or three youngsters comfortable. There's stowage under the seats and the upholstery is padded and trimmed to high standards that perfectly suit the gleaming natural timber finish of the interior. The dash has period-style gauges and a classically- styled wooden wheel with attention to detail everywhere including the dove-tail joinery on the engine hatches that have specially designed and custom-cast concealed hinges. With the hatches open, access to the Chev is easy and its engine bay looks as good as the rest of the boat with the internal wooden structure easily appreciated. The battery is within its own wooden compartment on the starboard side of the V8, with a matching tool compartment to port.
James summed it up: "Our whole crew had input into it. Building the hull we were all go, go, go boatbuilders. But when it came to the fine joinery work at the end, and the planking, it was definitely Tim, we were just helping him. Everyone really liked working on this boat - we've had a lot of fun with it, and we'll continue to have fun with it. We're going to take it up to Sydney for the next Wooden Boat Festival." I asked the obvious question - if someone wanted to buy it, would it be for sale? James answered: "We would sell it, but the person we sold it to would need to be happy to bring it to boat shows and allow us to do things like our photo shoot today. That's the relationship we like to have with our clients, and it's important. We'd look after maintenance and so on. If someone was interested on that sort of basis, we'd be looking at $110,000 as it stands. A new 'Rosita' would be at least $120,000 depending on power and other details". For the craftsmanship provided by Frecheville Heaney, and for the appealing style that this Hacker classic design offers, that's remarkable value. For a wealth of information on wooden projects by James and Tim and their staff, including images of 'Rosita' during construction, visit www.fhboats.com.au, or you can phone (03) 5156 7085.