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The story behind STS Leeuwin II

Malcolm Hay’s dream of a youth sail training ship was over a decade in the making, but with the power of and boosted by local maritime legends and global sailing bodies, it finally set sail.

Asking former orthopaedic surgeon and founder of the STS Leeuwin II Dr Malcolm Hay to talk about his considerable achievements was almost as challenging as the 12-year mission to create the magnificent sailing ship.

The adventure-laden stories bubbling out of the 80-year-old were entirely constructed of the people who made his dream of a youth sail training ship for Western Australia come true, with his involvement all but assumed.

In 1974, Dr Hay was bedridden with illness for six-months and watched the late property tycoon Alan Bond enter the America’s Cup via donations and a hefty sum from the government.

“I thought, with that sort of money you could build something for young people and that was the incentive,” Dr Hay says.

With plenty of experience in the sailing world (“We sailed on the Patanella to the volcano on the Australian-owned Heard Island with Bill Tillman, who’s been described as the greatest adventurer of the twentieth century,” Dr Hay reminisces) but none in building, let alone fundraising for, a multi-million dollar training ship, so Dr Hay reached out for advice.

“I wrote to every sail training association that I could get the address of around the world – the Americans, the Canadians, the British, the Dutch,” Dr Hay says. “They couldn’t have been more helpful.

“We had so many people just step out of nowhere,” Dr Hay says. “Just to give you an example, this guy wrote me a letter saying he believed we’d need some help with the rig and here’s my 23-page specification of what you’re going to have to buy. Barry Hicks and his son Robin did an extraordinary job with no expectations of anything in return.”

Soon after, illustrious Western Australian marine artist Ross Shardlow drew up the sail and rigging design.

“If you’ve seen a decent painting of a sailing ship in the last 30 years, I’ll bet you it was done by Ross and ably assisted by his dear wife Barbara,” Dr Hay says. “Ross researched, designed and drew the entire rig over about 1600 hours of work resulting in 60 major drawings and all of which he was paid about the basic wage or less.”

Despite the growing support, raising the required $3.5 million was incredibly difficult with Dr Hay’s vision of something great not shared by the government.

“They said ‘oh, we’ve got a sail training ship already’ and I knew this, it was 20-metres long and could only take 10-people,” Dr Hay explains. “As one guy said to me, it was the only yacht he’d ever been seasick on while sailing the Swan River.”

The idea was shelved temporarily, but Dr Hay’s enthusiasm never waned.

“I have copied out this quote by John F. Kennedy who said the problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by sceptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by obvious realities,” Dr Hay says. “We need men, and I have put in brackets ‘and women’, who can dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

It took the America’s Cup win in 1983 and the anticipation of the 1988 Bicentenary celebrations to reignite the public’s interest in a sail training ship. The admiral in charge of the Hobart to Sydney tall ships race, Admiral Ross Swan met with Dr Hay to inform him of a $10-million bicentenary projects special fund for WA. With six sponsors already on board, Dr Hay had found the funding to complete the project.

Dirk Verboon from Australian Shipping Industries built the ship at cost (“He finished the project running at a loss, so he tells me now,” Dr Hay says) and in September 1986, the illustrious 55-metre long barquentine was complete.

“It was all built upside down, because it’s easier to weld that way,” Dr Hay explains. “They towed it out to sea, tipped it over with a big splash and it was hauled up with a few thousand people there watching and Brian Burke’s wife launched it with a bottle of champagne.

“Not everyone could see it, but it was no surprise to me when it floated!” Dr Hay says, with a twinkle in his eye. “I had a passion for tall ships and doing the unusual, and you make the time for the things you’re really passionate about.”

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