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