For some, the name Halvorsen brings back memories of idyllic holidays afloat in rented motor cruisers, exploring calm waterways and secluded bushland bays of Pittwater, Sydney and elsewhere.
For others, the name instantly recalls the Classic Ocean Race winning Halvorsen brothers, their superb racing yachts, Peer Gynt, Anitra V and Freya, and the Halvorsen built Gretel.
For wooden boat lovers, the name Halvorsen is synonymous with boats designed and built by four generations of shipbuilders – each with an unerring eye for beautiful and balanced lines, and performance to match
This Norwegian–Australian family of boatbuilders and champion sailors had a passion for boating that has touched the lives of many Australians. Beyond the boat yard the Halvorsen brothers distinguished themselves in competitive sailing. They were exceptionally accomplished sailors and ocean racers.
Magnus and Trygve Halvorsen ( “venerable old salts” ) are among the most successful ocean-racing yachtsmen ever to have sailed out of Sydney Heads. Coming from a line of Norwegian shipbuilders and sea captains on both sides of the family that goes back five generations, there is so much salt in their veins it is little wonder that, when they took to the sport in 1945, they soon got into the habit of winning.
The Halvorsen’s participated in the Sydney to Hobart race most years from 1946 to 1982 and became Line Honours winner or overall winners on at least seven occassion.
The transition from Solveig to Freya – Sydney–Hobart race winners – is a case study of a considered approach to development where their own pragmatic thoughts guided the process from boat to boat. The Halvorsen Brothers record performances in the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race some of which are unlikely ever to be broken, overshadow even their unquestioned distinction in boat building, yacht design (Trygve’s great talent) and ocean-yacht navigation (Magnus’ self-taught speciality).
The brothers won four Trans-Tasman races between 1948 and 1961 in their yachts Peer Gynt, Solveig and Norla, and went on to compete in Australia’s first Admiral’s Cup and America’s Cup in Freya and Gretel respectively. They also competed in the Southern Cross, Trans-Pacific and other races. There impressive sailing record has been recognised with national and international awards.
Carl Halvorsen also distinguished himself in the 5.5 class winning the Australian championship in 1967, 1982 and 1991, and was still sailing competitively at age 93
In the 1930s they crewed in harbour races organised by the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club. When sailing resumed after World War II the Halvorsens were soon associated with success in ocean racing.
Harold, Carl, Bjarne and their father were all members of the SASC, where they actively raced. Lars was the SASC’s honorary measurer. Trygve wanted to join the SASC but was knocked back on the grounds that he was a ‘professional’ — a logic difficult to fathom as he was the youngest member of the family and his father and brothers were already members of the club.
Corinthianism (amateurism) was jealously guarded by yacht clubs in those days, although Trygve was no more a ‘professional’ than the doctors and solicitors in the club, and he had never accepted money for anything to do with sailing.
Magnus and Trygve took umbrage, handed back to the SASC the trophies they had won and decided to go ocean racing with the CYCA.
During Easter 1945, the year the Rolex Sydney Hobart was born, Trygve Halvorsen became the recipient of the first trophy to be presented by the fledgling CYCA.
Trygve, at the time a member of the RMYC club and a pending CYCA member, was presented with the Ocean Race Trophy Easter 1945 for his win with his yacht Enterprise in a race to the Basin. Crewing for him was wife Noreen, sister Margit and her husband Arnold Svensen.
Trygve took the trophy home then later presented it to David Kellett to acknowledge the Past Commodore who named the Freya Room after the Halvorsen brothers’ three-time consecutive Sydney Hobart overall winner, Freya.
The first Sydney–Hobart began on Boxing Day, 1945, when nine yachts, all heavily built cruising craft equipped with canvas sails and natural fibre ropes (winches were unknown on yachts in those days) left Sydney on a 630 nautical mile race to Hobart.
In the six decades since that day, the race has become one of the great blue-water classics as sailors pit their skill and resolution against fickle winds and the fury of Bass Strait—and each other.
It is a story both of triumph and of occasional stark tragedy and has become one of the most keenly followed events in the Australian and international sporting calendars.
As well, it has played a vital part in the development of new techniques and technologies in both speed and safety
Brothers Trygve and Magnus built and entered their own yacht, Saga, in the second Sydney to Hobart yacht race in 1946. Saga was a 35-footer similar to Enterprise but with more accommodation below and, sensibly, a doghouse that proved sorely necessary in the 1946 Sydney to Hobart, when it blew 65 knots in Bass Strait for three days.
Saga was becalmed in the 1946 Hobart race for 12 hours at the mouth of the Derwent River and, in spite of this, achieved second place – They were narrowly beaten by the race’s handicap winner Christina, designed and built by their late father Lars.
Designed with longer ocean racing and cruising in mind, the Halvorsens’ next boat, Peer Gynt, also designed by Magnus and Trygve, was larger — 36 feet — and very strongly built. Indeed, Trygve believed the boat strong enough to go to Antarctica in.
The Halvorsens had learned from their experience with Saga that angled rudders exacerbate the ‘death rolls’ when running square with a spinnaker.
Peer Gynt came third in the 1947 Sydney to Hobart and achieved two successive firsts in the 1948 and 1949 Trans-Tasman races — it encountered a cyclone in one and the other was a drifting race. The Halvorsens confess that she was no good in moderate conditions.
Their next yacht, Solveig, was a lighter boat with a different shape. Trygve had become the chief designer, drawing a succession of plans for boats that were to have an almost unbelievable record of success. A raw talent, he did it all with just pencil and paper pencil and paper
Solveig won the 1951 Trans-Tasman race, and in the 1953 Sydney to Hobart got line honours and second on corrected time – she was the first yacht to win the race with a spade rudder. Captain Stan Darling of the Royal Australian Navy Volunteer Reserve, the Halvorsens’ navigator, skippered Solveig in the 1954 Sydney to Hobart as both Magnus and Trygve fell ill on the eve of the race. She won that year’s race outright.
Anitra V, a 38-foot double-ender that went like a scalded cat downwind, was their next yacht. She was very light-strip-planked in Canadian cedar-and could pace it with Solo, which was some eight metres longer.
Anitra, as she was generally known – the ‘V’ was added as she was the Halvorsens’ fifth yacht – racked up an incredible win and three seconds in the Sydney to Hobart from 1956 to 1959.
With their next yacht, Norla, the Halvorsens departed from their tradition of selecting names from Scandinavian sagas by joining the names of Trygve and Magnus’ wives, Noreen and Paula.
Norla was also a departure from Scandinavian double-ender tradition.
Unlike Peer Gynt, Solveig and Anitra V, all double-enders, Norla had a transom stern, Norla came first in Division I in the 1960 Sydney to Hobart and won the 1961 Trans-Tasman.
During 1961 and 1962 Trygve and Magnus became involved in Australia’s first America’s Cup challenge, headed by the late Sir Frank Packer with Gretel, designed by the late Alan Payne and built by Lars Halvorsen Ryde.
Gretel was the first international challenger to win a race in the America’s Cup. She was launched on 19 February 1962 and put the Australian yachting scene on the map.
In 1962 the Halvorsen built, Gretel was the first Australian yacht to challenge the New York Yacht Club for the famed America’s Cup. The USA defender Weatherly retained the Cup.
This was the beginning of an era which eventually resulted in the wrestling of the “Auld Mug” from the New York Yacht Club by Australia, after 132 years
Trygve and Magnus taught the America’s Cup crew about maintenance and towing, and Magnus crewed aboard Gretel in that series. In 1962 Trygve served as House Captain for the Cup team in Stamford, Newport, and also sailed in the first race for the America’s Cup in 1992.
The final Halvorsen yacht, and perhaps the most triumphant, was Freya – a double-ended development of Solveig. The 38-foot, 6-inch yacht had a vertical spade rudder and a long, straight keel, and she was planked in oregon and splined (a wedge glued between the planks instead of caulking).
She was thirty-eight feet nine inches long, with a beam of 11 feet. She was planked in Douglas fir with glued spline, upon glued Queensland maple laminated frames. Her deck was fiberglassed plywood, and her spar was a deck stepped aluminium mast. Her rudder tapered to a feather-edge.
Freya chalked up a Sydney to Hobart race record – three successive wins, in 1963, 1964 and 1965.
Randi Svensen quotes Magnus Halvorsen about Freya: – “Her long deadwood gave her the underwater body of a contemporary 50-55 footer. She had that feeling of a much bigger boat at sea. With her large vertical rudder there was perfect control. She responded to the helm at all times. Never did she broach to! Today’s sailors would find that unbelievable. She carried a shy spinnaker longer than any competing yacht. Indeed, a spinnaker could be carried until it was aback, without rounding up. Freya could also carry full sail to windward in 30 knots of wind.”
The conditions of the Sydney Hobart varies from hurricane force winds to no wind at all – but still Freya used 3 days, 10 hours in 1965, 3 days, 5 hours in 64 and 3 days, 6 hours on handicap in 1963. Which is astonishing consistent on a 628 nautical mile long race in all sorts of conditions – and even more amazing, her mean speed was more than 8 knots. The Halvorsens must have pressed Freya above her theoretical speed at all times and in all conditions.
Freyas speed would have made her high up on modern list. She would have won in 2004, 2003, 1993, 1988, 1984, 1981, 1978, 1977, 1976, 1974, 1970, 1968, 1967, and 1966.
The last two years the winners have been doing the Sydney Hobart in less than two days. But Freya would still be doing better than most yachts given the same speed as during her three consecutive winning years.
And remember all of the Halvorsen race contenders was built both for cruising and racing. The Halvorsen thought of comfort, security and speed. Both Halvorsen brothers disliked modern racing hulls and the very idea of using men as ballast
Later Sold to the US, she is now being cruised in the Bahamas.
Crest was designed by Bill Luders and built by Lars Halvorsen and Sons boat builders in Sydney. She was launched on the 15th of January 1967 with original sail number of AUS-22, this is still her sail number.
Crest was raced immediately by Carl Halvorsen in Australian Gold Cup series and also at the World Champs in Sandham, Sweden in 1969 and sailed in World Champs by HRH Crown Prince Harald of Norway in Sydney 1970.
Along with CYCA Commodore Bill Psaltis and Rear Commodore Norman Rydge, Trygve Halvorsen proved instrumental in establishing Australia’s first Admiral’s Cup challenge in 1965. The team consisted of Freya, Caprice of Huon (Gordon Ingate) and Camille (Ron Swanson).
After their final Sydney to Hobart win with Freya, the Halvorsens went their separate ways in yachting after sharing the 1966 Australian Yachtsman of the Year honour.
Trygve then did a Sydney to Hobart with John Robertson on Portia and with Bill Psaltis on Meltemi, as well as other races aboard Ondine and Apollo.
In 1972 Magnus served as navigator aboard Kialoa II when she won the Trans-Tasman race (line honours, handicap and broke the race record).
As an Australian navigator with ‘local knowledge’, he was keenly sought by boats from overseas.
He navigated the US yacht Ranger in the 1968 Sydney to Hobart, when there was poor visibility and a ‘freak’ set in Bass Strait that put a number of the fleet west of Flinders Island.
He also navigated Alan Bond’s Apolio in the 1970 Sydney to Hobart and was navigator on the NZ yacht Kishmul in the World One Ton Cup series, in Auckland.
He navigated Koomooloo in the 1972 Sydney to Hobart race and in 1974 was navigator aboard Peter Kurts’ victorious Love and War in the Sydney to Hobart and the Admiral’s Cup series. The list goes on: Kialoa ill in the Southern Cross Cup series 1975; Love and War in the inaugural Sydney-Suva race 1976; Windward Passage in the 1977 Hobart; Siska in 1979; and Vicious in the 1982 Hobart.
The pace of change in ocean racing started to quicken in the latter half of the 1960s, and in the following decade the sport became much more expensive, with the designs going out of date more quickly.
Magnus Halvorsen has recorded the following thoughts in his monograph, Some Sailing Reflections (August 2001).
“Around 1967 the Royal Ocean Racing Club measurement rules were dropped in favour of an international system which had frequent changes. The new measurement rules were favouring boat speed at the expense of sea-kindliness, safety and stability. Yacht designers were vying to make their boats lighter and faster, whereas the RORC favoured heavy scantlings and, therefore, safety. The new rules reached the ludicrous stage when the crew were used as ballast.
“In short coastal races, boats were damaged and crew injured. By 1979 I became alarmed at the risks crews were taking in the latest designs, I called them ‘cocktail shakers’. Crews were playing Russian roulette without realising it. I said publicly at the time that, if the present design trend continued, there would be a disaster in the Sydney-Hobart race.
The 1998 (Sydney to Hobart race) weather was rare but not unique. We had the same in 1946, in the same location, when the storm conditions were of longer duration.”
Trygve Halvorsen describes contemporary designs as “…big skiffs. Just big harbour skiffs, That’s why they’re so uncomfortable.”
In 1948 the Halvorsens had built Peer Gynt so she was “strong enough to go to Antarctica”, and she had sumptuous accommodation below, including long berths that could be pivoted and tilted and locked in the desired position. So, it’s perhaps easy to understand Trygve’s disdain for the modern ‘grand prix’ ocean racer.
Trygve describes going through a cyclone in Peer Gynt in the 1948 Trans-Tasman race – the anemometer instrument for measuring the speed of airflow at Lord Howe Island blew down at 112mph : “The ocean was like a grassfire…screaming at us…huge combers built up on the sea mount…”
The Halvorsens had learnt that, in order to win a race, you had to finish it, and that meant having a sea worthy boat.
Magnus recalls: “A huge, steep and breaking wave rolled on us, like being in a dumper crashing on a beach. We had been completely overwhelmed. The breaker turned us side on, with tremendous momentum, We then rolled, with the mast pointing at the sea bed. There was a prolonged deep rumbling sound with severe shaking.
“It was an unforgettable lesson that a boat’s deck and superstructure need to be as strong as the hull. Designers of today’s lightweight ocean racers should seriously take note. Most susceptible are those designs prone to broaching.”
Magnus points out that the Fastnet Race was dropped from the last Admiral’s Cup series and the series itself has been cancelled for at least two years.
“There has to be an important message in dropping the Fastnet. It requires a double crossing of the Celtic Sea. From the safety aspect this is to be applauded, but it is a slight on yachts now in offshore competition. It is an admission that they are not seaworthy enough.”
Magnus says it seems the current generation of sailors think personal injury among crew and boat damage are par for the course, and we should all be concerned about this. He has mileage under sail equivalent to five times around the world, and the only injury he has sustained is a rope burn caused by entanglement on the top of his hand when a loose headsail whipped in a sudden gust.
“As a master boatbuilder and marine surveyor, I could never fathom why underwriters would insure these damage-prone yachts, even when manned by professionals,” he adds.
How does Trygve Halvorsen account for his family’s success in the Sydney to Hobart?
He says that one of the main factors was the level of concentration at night. Several skippers have commented that they could be sailing next to Freya on the way to Hobart in the late afternoon, but by the next morning she was out of sight.
“When the crew were finished their watches, they’d go down below and rest and get out of the weather,” says Trygve. “Noreen supplied us with good food. If it got very rough, we’d have steak-dry-fried so it couldn’t burn anyone, and you could put that between two slices of bread and you could even eat steering.
“Another thing we’d worked out was only three of us steered: Trevor (Gowland), Magnus and myself One hour on, and then we’d have two off. Anything more than two hours below and you’d lose your touch; you get too dopey”
Some skippers allege that luck plays a big part in winning the Sydney to Hobart. The Halvorsens agree, especially when it comes to the weather.
Stan Darling used to say that the Sydney to Hobart was like a foot race to Parramatta where you had to catch the train back to Sydney in order to finish. If there’s a train leaving when you get to Parramatta, you’re fine; if not, you may have to wait several hours.
The analogy refers to the final leg of the course – Storm Bay and the Derwent River. Darling has noted that Storm Bay belies its name as contestants often fall into a hole there.
But Saga was becalmed at the mouth of the Derwent for 12 hours in the 1946 race and still came second.
In the early years of the race, Trygve Halvorsen recalled the boats were much smaller than the modern day leviathans studding last year’s fleet, which included five 100-foot maxis.
In contrast to recent year’s fleets of 100+ boats, Halvorsen recalled they were “lucky to get 20” in the early years of the event.
“It’s a different game, it’s a different sport (now), it used to take us nearly a week to get there in the old days in the small boats.” The modern day high-powered maxis like Wild Oats XI, Alfa Romeo and ICAP Leopard can all expect to reach Hobart in around two days.
This year’s multi-national fleet can expect to draw thousands of spectator craft to Sydney Harbour and large amounts of people to the adjoining foreshores. Trygve Halvorsen said the early years of the race didn’t attract a great deal of interest among the public, but the situation improved once radio started covering the event.
Trevor was one of Australia’s leading boat-builders, noted for his interpretation of the designer’s plans into hull construction. He died in 2007, aged 75 after a courageous18-month battle with cancer.
The modest, innovative boatbuilder sailed with the Halvorsen brothers Trgve and Magnus, in their Sydney-Hobart race wins and spent almost his entire working life with the Halvorsen family’s boatyards and in recent years as manager of their Bobbin Head hire-cruiser marina.
He began sailing in 1944, on a VJ from Concord Ryde SC and built his first boat at the age of 13 or 14, a 10ft wooden-framed canvas canoe, which was stolen from the back yard before he could launch it.
He started an apprenticeship at the Garden Island naval dockyard in 1947 and four years later left to join Lars Halvorsen and Sons, the established builder of commercial and naval vessels, powerboats and yachts at Ryde.
Gowland sailed on six winners in his 15 Sydney-Hobart races. His first Hobart was on Jack Halliday’s Ellida in 1951. The same year he was recruited by the Halvorsen brothers to sail on Solveig.
He was aboard Solveig in her 1954 Sydney-Hobart win and continued crewing for the Halvorsens on their subsequent boats Anitra V, Norla and Freya in Sydney-Hobart, TransTasman and Transpac races. Anitra V won the Hobart race in 1957 and Freya in an unparalled run won the 1963, 1964 and 1965 Hobart races. By then Gowland was one of the three regular helmsmen with Trygve and Magnus.
While Trygve Halvorsen retired from ocean racing following the 1965 Hobart win, Howland sailed four more Hobart races. He was on Ted Turner’s American Eagle in her 1972 race win on handicap and line honours.
At Lars Halvorsen’s, Gowland was involved in building Norla, Freya, Anitra and Australia’s first America’s Cup challenger Gretel. He also crewed on Gretel in the 1962 America’s Cup.
With Trygve and Magnus he left Lars Halvorsen in 1967 to join steel fabricators Jim and Jock Morson to form Halvorsen, Morson and Gowland.
The company built 75 boats in steel, fibreglass and aluminium: motor cruisers, motor sailers and yachts including Ballyhoo, Ginkgo, Apollo ll and Alan Bond’s 1974 America’s Cup challenger Southern Cross.
When HMG wound up in the 1980s Trevor became general manager of Halvorsen Boats, Bobbin Head until his retirement. He lived at Point Clare on Brisbane Water and raced in the Etchells class at Gosford SC through the 1990s.
In this retirement he was enjoying restoring models of early racing skiffs, tinkering and cruising on his 44ft cold-moulded wooden yacht Boolaroo, even after he was diagnosed with cancer about 18 months before he died.
His final voyage, two weeks before his death, with his daughter Justine and son Cline was to take Boolaroo across Broken Bay down Pittwater to Beashel’s Yacht Basin to have damage she suffered in the June storms repaired and a new rig and sails installed.
Trygve Halvorsen in his eulogy at the funeral, attended by a large gathering of Central Coast friends and Sydney offshore old timers, said: “Trevor was like one of the family to us; he was with us from apprenticeship for most of his working life.
“He was a very lovely man and respected by all he met. I never heard him say a harsh word or get cranky. Sailing, he not only ran the foredeck. He was an excellent helmsman and could sail anywhere on the boat.”
Gowland introduced Halvorsens to new boatbuilding methods including edge-glued strip planking that he had seen in California before one of the Transpac races. “His work was so good and he was so keen to learn; he wanted to know all there was to know about building boats”, said Trygve…
His last Hobart was the 50th Race when sailed with John Keelty aboard Cherana, the Tasman Seabird he also built.