Preana Reborn


Preana Reborn

The restoration of the magnificent Edwardian steam launch Preana has taken more than 17 years, but as Bruce Stannard reports from Hobart, she now ranks among Australia's important vessels.

In 1896, the Rt Hon, William Gibson, a wealthy Tasmanian flour miller and parliamentarian, commissioned the prominent Hobart shipwright Robert Inches to design and build an elegant steam launch capable of conveying him to his home at Lindisfarne across the Derwent to his mill near the Brooke street pier. Inches was one of the best boat builders in Australia at the time. In his yard at Battery Point he had a fleet of crack racing yachts and powerful trading ketches. Preana was to be his masterpiece, a beautifully crafted 55 –footer in Huon Pine, 13ft on the beam and with a draft 4ft 6 inches. The long and slender hull led to her being named Preana, the Tasmanian Aboriginal word for spear.

Powered by a 60hp triple expansion steam engine made by Simpson Strickland & Co of Dartmouth, Devon, the 12ton Preana slipped along at an effortless, 12 knots and in doing so made no sound and left no wake. For years she held the speed record for the run from Hobart to the Iron Pot Lighthouse at the mouth of the Derwent estuary, a trip she managed comfortably in under an hour.

Faded sepia – toned photographs from those halcyon days show her at the Royal Hobart regatta, the quintessential gentleman’s motor yacht: her brass wok brightly burnished and her bewiskered crew immaculate in their quasi-naval whites. Her elegant saloon featured burgundy studded velvet lounges where guests sipped fine wines from crystal glasses and dined off monogrammed Wedgewood crockery.

For Years she remained one of the finest vessels in Australian waters.

Eventually, William Gibson’s death put an end to all that. Without the money to maintain her, Preana fell into a steady decline. A succession of owners put her to work, earning her keep at increasingly more menial tasks until, in the 1930’s her handsome cabin was cut in two, she was given a ridiculous fly bridge and reduced to fishing for barracouta and scallops out of Taroona. It’s hard to imagine a more spectacular fall from grace.

If Preana had been built of any timber other than Huon Pine she would have been finished long ago. Even so, she was in a very sorry state when Jim Butterworth came across her in Prince of Wales Bay in 1992. Hauled up on the mud, half out of water, the derelict was lying on her side among the tide wrack, a sun-bleached, weed –fringed wreck, encrusted with barnacles. Oily tides ebbed and flowed within her hull. He port bow planking had parted from her stem, her garboards had been torn off and her lovely old steam engine had long since been dismantled and shipped off to Japan. A local boat builder was about to break her up in an attempt to salvage her timbers. Jim Butterworth stepped in, formed the Preana Trust and set about her restoration.

“She was a mess,” Jim says with masterful understatement. “But as soon as I laid eyes on her I thought, Geez what a beauty I have to save this boat.” And that is exactly what he did “I got a few mates together,” he said “and we chipped in a little bit each. I’ve had a lot of experience in building and I thought. “It’s only a boat. This’ll be a piece o’ cake. I’ll knock it over in a couple of months, no worries”.

That he now concedes, was his first mistake. The restoration stretched on and on into what seemed like an infinite distance. When MAST ( Maritime and Safety Tasmania) inspectors became involved they insisted that every one of her original blue gum ribs not only had to be replaced, but doubled in size and that she had to have four massive stringers, not simply the two that Robert Inches had given her back in the 1890’s. Jim Butterworth complied with all of these directives with the result that today, Preana is very much stronger than she has ever been. The quality of the restoration has to be seen to be believed. In a word it is dazzling. No detail has been overlooked and it is a genuine joy just to sit in her saloon and take it all in. Jim is the first to acknowledge that he has had a lot of help along the way.

“It’s been a great collective effort,” he told me. “A lot of people willingly gave their time because they believed in the boat and shared the dream. A great many people have been extremely generous. For example I was telling a chap about the original saloon being fashioned from Australian Red Cedar. He said “I’ve got a couple of cedar logs at home. I’ll let you have them” He turned out to be a retired timber merchant from the north coast of New South Wales. No amount of money can buy lovely old cedar like that these days.

Something similar happened when it came to replacing the steam engine. Jim says he came across a chap in Moorabbin who had imported a 40hpUS Navy type E compound engine dating from 1905. “The engine was still in its original crate,” “and it was being offered at a knock down price because several of the key parts were missing. Lo and behold, there were all of the missing parts tucked safely inside. I thought “damn, he’ll want an arm and a leg for it now” but the owner said “no, take her, she’s yours. It’s a gift.” Let me tell you, that was a huge leg up. “As befits a vessel of her distinction, Preana now has an almost regal life of her own. She has been given pride of place in Hobart’s famous Constitution Dock and it’s from there that she operates as an exclusive upmarket charter.

“We only want to earn enough money to take care of her on-going maintenance,” Jim Butterworth said. “At the moment that’s running around $30,000 a year, any help we can receive from people wishing to donate & keep the Preana afloat. We would love to hear from them.”

We have already had several very elegant black tie dinner parties on board, organised by Bill Lark, the Hobart whisky distiller. Guests go to the Lark Distillery for pre- dinner drinks and then toddle down the red carpet to the boat. People don’t necessarily want to go out on the water. They are more than happy just to be on board, soaking up the atmosphere, enjoying themselves and at the same time, making a positive contribution to the boat’s bottom line” Preana is without doubt one of Australia’s most important historic vessels. In many ways her meticulous restoration establishes the benchmark against which all other restorations will be now be judged. Instead of this being seen as a daunting prospect, it is to be hoped that it will instead encourage others to tackle equally ambitious projects.

Look around and you will find any number of important historic boats crying out, just as Preana once did for an opportunity to be re-born.

For Further Details: Jim Butterworth: Phone 0447 589 925: E-mail,

Thank You

  • S. Y. Preana is an important part of Hobart's maritime history that has been saved for future generations.
  • The restoration project has been driven by a small group of dedicated volunteers whose skill and extraordinary determination has achieved what we see today.
  • The restoration would not have been possible without the very generous support of the many businesses and individuals who have donated materials and specialist services to the project.

Special thank you to Marine and Safety Tas and TasPorts Authority for all their help and to the many volunteers who have helped with this project including businesses & communities who have helped with materials & labour. We send a most heart felt thanks to all others who have helped in bringing the Preana back to life.

Main Objective

The Steam Yacht Preana is to honour the volunteers by making the commitment to maintain the boat to its present standard. This commitment includes the making of all running & associated costs per annum.

The Volunteers

John Clark - Master Shipwright
Noel Jacobs - Master Builder
Wally Mounster - Engineer & Boiler Designer
Bryan Forster - Wood Turning
Ian Gannon - Valued Volunteer
Chris Brower - Valued Volunteer
Adam Brinton - Shipwright
Murrey Isles - Naval Architect
Bart Hutching - Engineer
Barry Padman - Captain
Sarah Parry - Captain
Sam Yousofi - Captain
Bryan Marriot - Audio Engineer
Gerald Harwood - Steam Engineer & Boiler Operator