If anything proves that the digital is not just for Generation Y – it’s this story.
In March last year, 81-year-old Brian Stewart was surfing the web when he came across the photographic collection of the Australian National Maritime Museum on the photo-sharing site Flickr. Here he found images of legendary 18ft skiff Myra Too, taken during the 1951 sailing season in which the vessel won the state, national and world titles. Among Myra Too’s champion crew that year, and visible in the photographs, was Brian – the vessel’s 19-year-old bailer boy.
Fortuitously, Brian Stewart’s online discovery came about 9 months into a project by the Australian Open Skiff Trust to build and sail a replica of Myra Too. Inspired by the winning exploits of the vessel and the crew, and also in honour of the long career of Myra’s skipper and builder 99-year-old Billy Barnett, this project culminated in the launch of the replica vessel last Sunday at the Australian 18-Footers Leagues Club in Double Bay.
We’ve been following the progress of the replica Myra Too from the early stages of building through to the first sail, however Sunday’s event was the opportunity to bring everyone together. Brian, having contacted the museum after finding the photos, flew from Queensland to attend the launch. His presence added another more personal element to the celebrations – which provided an opportunity for Brian to reunite with his former skipper Billy Barnett, several decades after they had last seen each other.
The event was choreographed by the irrepressible John’ Steamer’ Stanley from the Australian Open Skiff Trust and the Sydney Flying Squadron, who kindly organised for the rain to hold off while a rigged Myra Too waited patiently at the Australian 18–Footer Leagues Club in Double Bay for the crowds and guests to arrive.
The boat looked superb, red cedar contrasting with silver ash, varnished and shining – it’s an impressive piece of craftsmanship built by retired shipwright Bob MacLeod, who, back in the 60s and 70s, had been Billy Barnett’s apprentice. The lines and other plans for the skiff were drawn by the Maritime Museum’s Historic Vessels Curator David Payne who incorporated valuable details provided by the museum’s 1951 photos of Myra Too, newly unearthed during the course of the project.
While the finished replica was the centre of attention, the day really belonged to 99-year-old Billy and 81-year-old Brian, the only surviving crewmembers who had plenty of catching up to do after many years apart. Billy and Brian were joined by their wives Glory Barnett and Betty Stewart, daughters Cynthia and Margie Barnett and other family members who came too – several generations together to see the fabulous replica and relive the memories of those classic days of skiff sailing.
All of this was shared with over 100 other ex-skiff sailors from Australia and New Zealand, America’s Cup yachtsman, World champions and sailing supporters, in an extraordinary gathering of the past. Steamer’s masterstroke was to have the event placed right in amongst the present generation – the christening of Myra Too doubled as a history lesson for the latest 18-foot skiff sailors, occurring in the very same spot they were rigging their boats for Heat 2 of the World Championship that Myra Too had won in 1951- the JJ Giltinan trophy – celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. After speeches, Betty and Glory poured champagne over the bow and the christening was complete.
For those of us here at the museum, it was the charming conclusion to a digital outreach success story. We had discovered the photos in our collection (as a seemingly non-descript series of unidentified sailing images) and they had provided a wealth of information during the build of Myra Too. Conversely, the sailing community were also able to provide us with more information about the photos. Once uploaded to the internet, the images had thousands of views, were talked about, printed out, framed, shared and inspired many to connect with us to provide information on the events, people and vessels they depicted, enriching our records. Best of all, uploading the photographs to the internet provided the means by which Brian Stewart was able to connect with us and the replica project, leading to his reunion with Billy last Saturday.
I don’t know many people aside from Billy and Brian who can say that they have experienced the thrill of being part of a world champion team. Their achievements in 1951 form a time of their life worth celebrating over and over again. The newly launched Myra Too has now joined the Australian Open Skiff Trust’s fleet and will sail every Saturday, keeping alive the tradition of sailing from this era. It also means that for Brian, Billy and Myra Too, the story doesn’t just stop in 1951.
And, as curator David Payne said to Brian Stewart during a post-launch morning tea at the maritime museum on Monday:
“Thanks for using the internet!”
Penny Edwell and David Payne