Ice Bird – the unsinkable boat

Dr David Lewis, happy on his arrival in Cape Horn, South Africa, March 1974. From BOX 2 B 24446-2. Collection: MAAS
Dr David Lewis, happy on his arrival in Cape Horn, South Africa, March 1974. From BOX 2 B 24446-2. Collection: MAAS

Restoration of the sailing boat that made the first single handed voyage to Antarctica
Dr David Lewis was a courageous sailor, an extra-ordinary navigator and an adventurer with big dreams. He was the first navigator in modern times to cross the Pacific Ocean without using instruments, following a legendary Maori course from Tahiti to New Zealand. In 1972, David undertook another adventure to sail, alone, to Antarctica and circumnavigate the subcontinent. He bought a second hand, steel hulled boat designed by Dick Taylor. It was an 11 metre sailing boat, called

The mast broke after the first capsize which meant David had to sail the remaining 4,000 kilometres under a jury rig (makeshift mast) before arriving at Palmer Antarctic Station. David was certain he would die at sea. With incredible endurance and tremendous courage, he persevered one day at a time, suffering frostbitten hands and exhaustion. With his severely damaged boat which had a reduced mast and a broken automatic steering device, he eventually managed to sail Ice Bird to Palmer Station over the following 6 weeks. The boat was repaired and refitted at the station over winter. The original hull was painted blue but this was not a practical colour because of poor visibility in the water. Whilst at Palmer Station, David managed to find a 44 gallon drum of yellow paint, which he used to repaint the boat. The second leg of the voyage was just as arduous, through icebergs, pack ice and very harsh weather conditions. Icebird was damaged again and he used another jury rig to get to Cape Town. He ended his voyage in South Africa. David’s son, Barry later sailed Ice Bird back to Sydney where it underwent extensive work to prevent corrosion. David donated it to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in 1982.

Painting Icebird yellow in Antarctica
Painting Icebird yellow in Antarctica

This cabin mural originally consisted of just the kiwi bird but after receiving such help from Australians in financing his voyage, David requested the kangaroo be added. The penguin was painted after his visit to Antarctica.

The mural inside the cabin
The mural inside the cabin

 

1983-86 Restoration Treatment
In 1983, Ice Bird was treated by contract restorers in preparation for an Antarctic exhibition in the newly planned Powerhouse Museum. Ice Bird’s external fittings and windows and some of the internal fixtures were removed as there were corrosion throughout the boat. It was sent out to external contractors to be sandblasted and repainted. A two part epoxy undercoat was applied to the outer surface of the boat and the internal area under the cockpit to stabilise it. After contract restoration, some of the small underwater corrosion pitting was visible. There was also more corrosion between the lead ballast and the plating of the keel which was particularly difficult to treat. Although much of the ballast was loose ingots, molten lead then liquid tar had been poured over the top of them to ensure the ballast was secure and would not move when the boat was under way. The Museum’s restoration staff therefore had to cut away a large piece on the side of the keel so that the lead could be jack hammered out and the corrosion could be treated. Unfortunately, there is very little documentation on the condition and treatment of the boat during this period and no photographs. The exhibition was shelved in 1986, so the partly restored boat was put into storage.

The donated Ice Bird arriving at the Museum in 1982
The donated Ice Bird arriving at the Museum in 1982

2011-2014 Restoration treatment
Until recently, the contents of the boat were still on pallets and Ice Bird was hidden away in a store, so the decision was made to finish the restoration project and consolidate all the accessories into one object and put it on display at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre.

The Ice Bird in store at Castle Hill
The Ice Bird in store at Castle Hill
The contents from one of the drawers
The contents from one of the drawers

Metals conservator, Tim Morris has co-ordinated the restoration project and supervised a dedicated team of volunteers. A considerable amount of research was done by Tim and his team, contacting David’s son Barry, reading David’s book of the voyage and his archive, looking at all the existing photographs and liaising with the curator to gain an understanding of how the boat should be restored. After consulting Barry Lewis, the decision was made to restore Ice Bird to appear as it did after being repaired at Palmer Station in 1973 by Dr David Lewis and American station staff before the second leg of its journey. Tim was able to get details from Barry on the colour of the boat and the anti-slip paint surface on the deck. Modifications that had been made since the Cape Town voyage (for Barry’s trip home) were noted and would need to be removed to authenticate David’s voyage.

All the lead had been removed from Ice Bird in the early 1980s but there was still some areas of corrosion which were removed with a needle gun and a new section of steal was cut to match the one removed from the keel during previous treatment. This piece was then screwed into place so that further inspections could be made in the future. The boat has been repainted with turps based enamel similar to the type of paint available in the 1970’s. The underwater section was painted with a zinc based undercoat although it did not need the anti-fouling agent that the original paint had in it. The section above the waterline was painted with chromate yellow. The colours was matched as closely as possible to photographs taken at Palmer Station.

Using photographs for reference, a volunteer paints the deck
Using photographs for reference, a volunteer paints the deck
A volunteer sorts the rigging
A volunteer sorts the rigging

The deck was originally painted with a rubber based paint first, with cork particles thrown over it to help with grip, before applying another coat of paint. As the cork is easily damaged when it is trodden on, paving paint and corn cob was used in the restoration process instead.

Some of the original stencils were still on board, so they could be used to apply the name onto the side of the boat. The stencil for the penguin was replicated from photographs and painted on by volunteer, Colin Watts. The insulation around the window seals was repaired and repainted. The contents have been placed back inside the cabin.

David Lewis rugged up on his epic voyage
David Lewis rugged up on his epic voyage
A volunteer fitting out the cabin to circa 1973
A volunteer fitting out the cabin to circa 1973

Ice Bird has been prepared and restored to its 1973 days, after refurbishment at Palmer Antarctic Station. This interesting restoration project has bought the amazing story of Dr David Lewis’s Antarctic adventure to life, so it can be shared with the public soon at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre.

The Ice Bird in pack ice in Antarctica, 1973
The Ice Bird in pack ice in Antarctica, 1973
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4 responses to “Ice Bird – the unsinkable boat

  • Is one of the people in the picture of the Ice Bird arriving to the Museum in 1982 wearing scuffs on their feet?! Ah, how times have changed… those were the days!

  • Such an exciting project and a credit to all involved…VERY exciting to think that David and ICE BIRD will be recognised in this way…his exploits were and are an inspiration to many and had a BIG bearing on my life….thanks to all…to David I Dip Me LID!!!

  • Good to see the restoration is so close to completion. You mention that contents have been placed back in the cabin and I was wondering what you have used for David’s charts. The best one to use IMHO is the one that shows his marking of the position where the mast broke on the return trip, and the plotted points of the slow trip to Capetown. Or perhaps his arrival at Myrny (in Russian!). But the museum, oddly, has already said they aren’t interested in them.

  • What an interesting story of the man that sailed around Antartica in the boat designed by Dick Taylor but built by MY grandfather Peter Stark Cosgrave would be nice if he got a mension in the great story

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