Rocky and The Fitzroy River

Photo: Stavanger, Ellen Stanyer

Captain Robert Fitzroy was an English aristocrat with an interest in science and exploration, most famously selecting young Charles Darwin to join him in a cruise to South America in the Beagle, in 1831, largely because he would be good company. Unfortunately, Darwin turned out to suffer terribly from seasickness so I wonder how much good company he provided. Anyway, the Fitzroy River is not named after that Fitzroy.

Instead, it is named after his half-brother Charles, an English politician who was sent to Australia in 1846 as administrator of New South Wales, and later became the first Governor General.

The first person to take a boat up the Fitzroy River was Colin Archer. Archer was a Norwegian farmer and timber-cutter with land in the area, who designed and built a boat, Ellida, to move goods up and down the river. But he didn't name the river.

My second boat was a Colin Archer Type — a double-ender with a cutter rig and cut-away forefoot. Archer developed this design later, after he moved back to Norway. His designs brought revolutionary stability to small sailing yachts, largely due to his use of keel ballast. So stable were his yachts that his designs were used for Norwegian Pilot Boats, and then as rescue boats for the Norwegian fishing fleet. In 1892 he built Fram, which visited both poles, first supporting Nansen to the North Pole, and later Roald Amundsen's expedition to the South Pole. In all, he built about 200 boats and 24 of these are still sailing today. Of the 33 rescue boats he built only one was lost at sea.  Since Colin Archer retired in 1909, many thousands of yachts have been based on his designs, including Robin Knox-Johnson's Suhaili the first and only boat to cross the finish of the 1968-69 Golden Globe around-the-world-alone race. The other 8 entrants were all knocked out. And of course my previous boat Saltheart was based on his designs.

My current boat, Anjea, is not an Archer design, or anything like it. Archer's ideas, though revolutionary in their time, have been superceded by later hydrodynamic theories, practices and materials.

Colin was one of seven sons who came to Australia from Norway. The family had roots in Scotland but strong connections with Norway as well. Two of these brothers, Charles and William, established a run called Gracemere on the banks of a large river that they discovered in northern New South Wales, as it was then. It was they who chose the name Fitzroy, naming the river after the above-named politician who was not with Charles Darwin. Colin, joined them later when he discovered how to navigate up the river from The Narrows. Their property, Gracemere, was successful and eventually grew into the town of Rockhampton, although the original homestead still exists and can be seen on Google Maps

A good friend of mine has Norwegian roots. We were sitting around her place one day while her sister was visiting from Norway and I mentioned that I used to own a boat designed by a Norwegian. The sister replied immediately that it must have been a Colin Archer design! I had no idea at that time that he was so well-known and respected in Norway. But it turns out that the sisters actually sailed on an original Colin Archer rescue yacht called Stavanger back in the 1960's. The reason Colin Archer is so well-respected in Norway is because of the rescue boats he built. The Norwegian fishing fleet consisted of many small sailing boats with just two or three men in each and were frequently caught in storms. One storm alone took the lives of 150 fishermen. The rescue boats went out with the fishing fleets and if the weather turned bad they were capable of towing the fleet to safety, often needing to make several trips to do so, but dramatically reducing the number of lives lost.

Stavanger is now preserved on dry land in the Norwegian city after which it is named. Though she will never sail again, she will live forever. 

The Archer name is everywhere in Rockhampton: there's a street, a statue, a park, and a mountain, at least. And Gracemere is a suburb of Rocky. An interesting place name, Beserker, applies to both a range of hills and a suburb. The Beserker are warriors from the old Norse Icelandic Sagas. Good guys to have on your side but bad news if they aren't! I wonder what event prompted Charles Archer to apply that name? 


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    Great bit of history and research, we all want to know more. Thanks.

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    So good to read about a happy connection between the two countries I love. Thank you. Happy sailing

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