When I heard that a replica 15th century caravel was sailing into town, the historical author in me—who jumps at any opportunity to hop aboard an old ship to absorb the essence that cannot be acquired through a Google search—immediately sprang to attention. Despite my research for my novels primarily focussing on life aboard 19th century tall ships, I never pass up the opportunity to immerse myself in a bit of living history.
The Notorious is a full-size, sailing re-creation of a 15th century Portuguese Caravel. This exploration vessel from the Age of Discovery was single-handedly researched, designed and constructed by Australian, Graeme Wylie, over an eleven-year period, with nine of those years on the tools full-time. Graeme and his wife live aboard the Notorious and sail her around the waters of Australia and New Zealand, occasionally opening up for public inspection.
The Notorious is constructed from Monterey Cypress salvaged from the bonfires of south-west Victorian farms and was launched in 2011. Her Lantern Rig, borrowed from the Arab Dhow, improves windward sailing and is more easily handled by a small crew (of two!) The Notorious is steered by an upright tiller extension, called a Whipstaff, as steering wheels had not been invented at that time. Caravels were used by European explorers to discover a route to plunder the riches of the East and were often favoured by pirates for their speed, agility and large holds.
The Notorious is Australia's earliest ship reconstruction and she is the only sailing Caravel in the Southern Hemisphere. She visited my ‘home port’ in Queensland, Australia on an unseasonably warm autumn day. It was rather hot on the open deck and my only regret about my visit was I wished I’d taken a hat. She is smaller than I imagined she’d be in real life—considering she crosses oceans! But then again, considering one man built her, she’s colossal! I’m no carpenter but the workmanship looks incredible.
Up above, nearly everything is made of wood, including the capstan and the block and tackle pulleys, which add to the testimony of the strength of Monterey Cypress wood. It is possible to touch the tarred ropes and marvel at just how tough the skin of a sailor’s hands must have been to handle the coarse lines.
The mess below is pleasantly cooler than the baking deck above. Though, having visited other ship museums in the height of the Australian summer, I know just how oppressive and stifling the decks below can become with the intense tropical heat—so hot it’s hard to breathe and you sweat buckets! And all this is without any of the manual labour required to sail a tall ship. Those sailors were made of tough stuff! Take plenty of water if you’re going on a hot day.
The mess table and galley hearth are central to the ship. At the stern, there are multiple tiny cabins with bunk berths and at the bow (in what would have been the forecastle), the ‘main cabin’ is fitted out with a generous double berth. There are enough beds to sleep twelve people. The living quarters are visible but roped off (the Notorious is someone’s home after all). Even the quilted bed linen looks handmade. While it isn’t prudent to go touching the owner’s personal belongings, it is still possible to run a hand over the hand-carved rails of the stairs and planks of the hull to absorb the essence of the ship and revel in Graeme’s handiwork.
Considering that when the deck above is crawling with people, it is surprisingly quiet below with the footsteps more muted than expected. Of course, being docked on a still day, the Notorious did not have any trademark creaks and groans synonymous with wooden ships. But considering my propensity to seasickness on a moving ship, I was happy to forgo hearing the hull creak for a stable floor underfoot.
Having researched so much about old wooden tall ships for my historical novel, I was expecting it to pong a bit below. There is indeed a strong smell but it is an earthy combination of the Monterey Cypress wooden hull, tarred rope, cold ash of the hearth, and musty sea tang that adheres to fabrics. It may also help that the Notorious has a fully functioning modern head (locked away from public viewing to keep the authenticity of the ship alive), so that would certainly prevent those notorious bilge odours you always read about. While I wouldn’t say it smells pleasant, it certainly isn’t off-putting enough to avoid dropping below to have a look. Once below, my nose soon adjusted to the unfamiliar smell and I found myself inhaling the odours of yesteryear and not minding a bit.
My favourite part of the ship are the wooden stairs descending below. The steep, uneven planks under foot, the hand-hewn panelling on the bulkheads and the sapling-tree-trunk handrails immediately transported me to another time and place. The authenticity of the entire ship allows for a surreal immersion into history—just the kind I like! I could not help feeling the spike of excitement of being aboard a real-life pirate ship—so I can only imagine how incredible the experience is for all the little wannabe pirates who dart around with cocked hats and eye patches.
There was a very short wait time to go aboard. The ship’s size restricts the number of visitors allowed at one time but the short line flowed quickly. The owner and builder, Graeme, was on hand to chat to while I waited and he was eager to answer questions, including those posed by the youngest of children. It was apparent how proud he is of his project, and deservedly so! When I asked how come the admission prices were so low (I would have happily paid more), I was told it was to ensure more people could visit. The funds raised, from when the Notorious is open for public inspection, go towards her maintenance, which must be never ending considering she is a sea-going vessel.
I highly recommend visiting the Notorious if she comes to your neck of the woods. It is a must for any historians, boating enthusiasts, shipwrights, woodworkers and wannabe pirates alike—or historical fiction authors who appreciate their imagined words on paper coming to life under foot.
Opening times: Check the Notorious Facebook Events page to find out where and when she will be open for public inspection.
* * *
Before becoming a historical fiction author, Emma Lombard was an editor in the corporate world across various industries—aviation, aquatic ecology, education and the world of academia. Her blog series Twitter Tips for Newbies is popular in Twitter's #WritingCommunity for helping writers (new to Twitter) navigate the platform and find their voices on social media. She is the author of the upcoming historical novel, Discerning Grace—a naval adventure with a twist of romance. To connect with Emma, head over to her author website.