The Gordons have been building classic wooden boats in Lavender Bay for 75 years - article first appeared in northsider Spring 2020
The late Bob Gordon was just 16 years old when he launched his first hand built wooden boat. He went on to build around 30 classic craft over the next 67 years.
After moving his business to a boatshed in Lavender Bay in 1945, Bob worked at the old Neptune Slipway before setting up his workshop under the railway viaduct in 1987, where he continued building timber boats with his son, Rob. “I was taken out to sea before I could walk,” Rob laughs. “As I grew up I‘d help with the cleaning, painting...whatever I could do as a kid.”
“Dad was under the boat with a huge disk sander... he was 82 years old and just loved it.”
And when he turned 18, Rob was working full-time with his dad, making boat building a truly family affair. “Some days were joyful, others were tough,” he remembers. “There were a few heated debates shall we say – the kind you have if you work with your parents!”
While Rob returned to full-time education, heading to uni to qualify as a geologist, Bob continued to build.
“I remember seeing Dad on his back one day, working under a boat with a huge disk sander, surrounded by sawdust. He was 82 years old at the time and he just loved it.
“He was a sucker for work! Even as a kid. One of his jobs as a child was to use the milk churn and his parents had to drag him off it. That same relentless work ethic was definitely imbibed in me at a very young age.”
left: Bob and wife Joan, sailing aboard Widgeon, 1964
middle: 17-year-old Bob Gordon hard at work and right; in his Lavender Bay boatshed
Rob returned to work with his dad on his final build, Ivy, which launched in 2005.
Bob passed away the following year, aged 84. The foreshore reserve in Lavender Bay is now named after him and Rob can still be found toiling away in his dad’s old workshop.
These days, boat building is for fun.
“There’s only two of us in Sydney building wooden boats these days,” Rob says.
His latest passion project is a 28ft Couta boat, complete with iron bark keel, New Zealand Kauri wood recycled from a beer vat and steam-bent spotted gum frames.
By the time the boat launches in the new year, the team will have spent close to 4000 hours working on her.
“Building a wooden boat is a bit like building the pyramids. There’s 1000 years of history and heritage in these methods and techniques. It’s deeply satisfying,” Rob concludes.
Some of his late father’s boats can still be spotted sailing locally, and with Rob now welcoming his own kids to the workshop, it looks like Gordon’s boats will continue to be part of our harbour’s living history.
top left to right: Learning the ropes Renowned boat builder, Bob Gordon, passed on his nautical know-how to his son, Rob. Now, Rob’s teenage children visit the workshop to help out. “I don’t force boat building on them,” Rob says. “You’ve got to want to get involved, you’ve got to come to it and make it your own.”
Rob and Bob, launch day for Herreshoff Solitate 'Ivy', Lavender Bay archways, early 2005. Ship shape - A portrait of the late Bob Gordon watches over the Lavender Bay workshop. “He’s around the same age as I am now in the painting,” Rob says. “Dad was a character, a bit of a bush philosopher. I think a lot of people will remember him down at Lavender Bay and over at Berrys Bay.”