Billy Boomer’s life afloat

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - LOOKING BACK -

Some peo­ple pack more into their lives than oth­ers, and Billy McNeil cer­tainly has had more ex­pe­ri­ences than the vast ma­jor­ity, as

In his 83 years, Billy has cir­cum­nav­i­gated the world three and half times in his own tim­ber boats, built by him – the first Red Boomer he built from read­ing a ‘how to’ book.

Billy has led an ad­ven­tur­ous life, start­ing out his love of the sea in WA in the Navy Re­serve at 18 years of age whilst study­ing to be an en­gi­neer/drafts­man.

After a brief con­scrip­tion stint in the Navy, Billy worked for the Pub­lic Works De­part­ment and his boss at the time asked him to build a Dory – a small, shal­low drafted, tim­ber ten­der.

“I knew noth­ing about build­ing a boat so my boss gave me a book and the first ar­ti­cle was de­voted to build­ing a 42 foot schooner.

“I asked my fi­ancée, Yvonne, later to be my wife, ‘what did you think of that ar­ti­cle in that book?’ and luck­ily she was quite ad­ven­tur­ous too,” he said, “so we started to build it.

“The tricky thing was, we were in the midst of build­ing a house at the time, so I would come home from my paid job, work on the boat each evening and on week­ends we worked on fin­ish­ing the house.

“We never lived in the house but sold it once it was fin­ished and by 1961 we launched our new ‘home’, Red Boomer.”

By 1962 Yvonne and Billy mar­ried and had their first child, Yvette. The next year they set off and Billy, be­ing a novice sailor, ended up in a dread­ful storm but man­aged to berth safely in Ger­ald­ton.

“My wife was se­ri­ously con­sid­er­ing leav­ing the trip and I said I wouldn’t have blamed her if she did, but for­tu­nately she didn’t.”

That trip saw the fam­ily sail­ing and work­ing up the Western Aus­tralian coast and into Dar­win then to Pa­pua New Guinea.

“We pos­si­bly spent a lit­tle too long in Dar­win, as our next child, An­drew was con­ceived there.

“We thought we needed there­fore to cur­tail our trav­els and set­tle some­where,” Billy said, “so we de­cided on PNG and An­drew was born in Rabaul and we even­tu­ally set­tled in Port Moresby.

“I got some work and we spent 15 years there and whilst there, built our next boat, Red Boomer II, a 60 foot Ran­dell tim­ber ketch.”

In 1971 Red Boomer II was launched and the fam­ily went on a shake-down cruise and upon their re­turn to Port Moresby, Yvonne was di­ag­nosed with breast cancer.

After nu­mer­ous trips to Bris­bane and two years of fight­ing her con­di­tion, Yvonne passed away, leav­ing Billy to raise Yvette aged 11, and An­drew aged 9.

The boat could not come to Aus­tralia due to gov­ern­ment red tape and, ac­cord­ing to Billy, he could hear Yvonne say­ing “get the world trip in now while you can”.

So Billy started to plan the first cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion and the first step was to enter the 1974 Syd­ney/Ho­bart Yacht Race. The chil­dren went to stay with grand­par­ents in Western Aus­tralia and, after suc­cess­fully com­plet­ing the race, Billy col­lected the chil­dren, picked up a few crew and set off for ex­otic lo­ca­tions in­clud­ing the Sey­chelles, Malta, Ca­nary Is­lands, Costa Rica, Tahiti and Fiji.

“We did two more cir­cum- nav­i­ga­tions – the next one when the kids we in their early 20s and then in the late 1990s.”

Billy ended up back in WA but after two years de­cided the weather was not to his lik­ing and after be­ing told about Port Dou­glas by a South African, set off in 1980 and ended up meet­ing John Lergness­ner in Cook­town.

“I found my­self work­ing for him at the Port Dou­glas slip­way.

“There are many fond mem­o­ries of that time, par­tic­u­larly win­ning the first Low Isles Yacht Race and meet­ing Jim Wal­lace who ran the Martin Cash reef tours.

“Time passed and I was en­gaged by Quick­sil­ver as pro­ject man­ager for the con­struc­tion of Quick­sil­ver VIII and worked on her as a ‘decky’.

Billy was in­volved in the es­tab­lish­ment of the Port Dou­glas Yacht Club on its present site on Dick­son In­let and took over from the then com­modore, Peter Hinch­cliffe, in 1993 at the club house open­ing.

“I re­mem­ber in the early ’90s, before we built the club­house and there was just a con­crete slab, we had some humdinger par­ties,” Billy said, “and we used to load the bar­bie on the back of a ute and go around town sell­ing sausages as a fundraiser.

“In those days we didn’t have so many rules and reg­u­la­tions, and we didn’t take things so se­ri­ously – par­tic­u­larly the racing.

By 2000, Billy “well and truly re­tired”.

“I spend most of my time now main­tain­ing my boat – she’s get­ting old and needs lots of main­te­nance like me.

“I haven’t lived ashore for more than 50 years – I need space and the older I get, the more space I need.”

Billy McNeil is, if not a piece of Port Dou­glas fur­ni­ture, a ‘fixed moor­ing’ in town.

Pic­ture: MOYA STEVENS

Billy McNeill hasn’t lived ah­sore for 50 years. In­set: with Sir James Hardy and Peter Hinch­cliffe

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