Peter Sibley and his wife Carole live in Murwllumbah, New South Wales, a dozen miles from Australia’s east coast, 19 miles if you go by boat down the Tweed River. Peter had set out to build a French pilot cutter that he had redesigned with the help of the late yacht designer Ed Burnett of Devon, England.
Wanting to do as much of the work as possible in his own shop, he started with logs, and that required some special equipment. He had once run a sawmill business, and for transporting logs, he had designed a gantry crane that he mounted on a flatbed truck; once he had the logs at his shop, he slabbed them with a horizontal bandsaw mill that he’d built, complete with hydraulic controls. To make his own bronze hardware for the cutter, he set up a separate foundry with a large furnace and made his own wooden patterns.
Peter had laid the keel for the cutter and was fully invested in the project when he had to bring it to a sudden and unexpected stop. One of his daughters was taken ill, and he and Carole devoted themselves to the care of their daughter and her children.
Peter still had bits of free time to devote to boatbuilding, but he needed to scale back. He shelved the cutter project and tossed around various designs as alternatives on the Woodenboat Forum, where over the past 18 years he has made over 74,000 posts and was recently elected BROTM, Bilge Rat of the Month, by his friends who inhabit The Bilge, the forum’s no-holds-barred venue. Peter didn’t find anything that was just right, so he commissioned Antonio Diaz to create a new design, the 24′ Kathleen Gee, a stout-looking little yawl drawn in the tradition of the small coastal cruisers by C.P. Kunhardt, author of Small Yachts: Their Design and Construction.
Life’s demands, as they often do, grew and occupied more of Peter’s time, and the Kathleen Gee, with a displacement of 10,000 lbs, was too ambitious a project to take on. He looked for an even smaller boat and found himself drawn to the lug-rigged yawls popular among camp-cruisers. He ultimately settled on an 18′ 4″ canoe-yawl, Jim, designed by Paul Fisher of Selway Fisher in Melksham, England. It was designed for stitch-and-glue plywood construction, but Peter preferred the more traditional look of lapstrake, so Paul advised building the design in glued lapstrake and drew up a lug sail in place of the gunter mizzen.
Peter began work on his Jim in 2012. He put his pattern-making skills to use and had bronze rudder and stem hardware cast from wooden patterns he’d made specifically for the boat.
As 2015 drew to a close, Peter had nearly finished the build, but the project was brought to a sudden halt. Peter was given a diagnosis of an aggressive brain cancer in its final stage. He had surgery on the tumor, but not all of it could be removed. Peter received a dose of chemotherapy and radiation, but his prognosis was grim. He was given six months to live.
A sign hanging in the front of Peter’s boatshop reads: “Optimists only beyond this point.” Peter applies that directive not only to his boatbuilding, but also to living. Six months came and went. Peter needed a trailer for the canoe-yawl. None of the commercial trailers available would have been a good fit for the boat’s pronounced rocker or the hull’s wineglass cross-sections aft, and Peter wasn’t going to settle for something that didn’t meet his high standards he sets for himself and his work. He built a trailer, from scratch. Late last year, three years after his diagnosis, an MRI revealed that the tumor had grown again and was inoperable. Another round of chemo and radiation was administered, but another MRI in January showed the tumor hadn’t been stopped by the treatment.
After such a long struggle, to get the boat so close to the finish line and fail wasn’t an option, so two old boatbuilding friends, Nick White from Conrad Blocks and Keith Davis from Pelican Slipway, came down from Brisbane to Northern New South Wales and readied Jim for a preemptive launch. There were some cleats that had yet to be installed and the deck was ’glassed but not painted, otherwise Peter’s Jim was ready to sail. On February 13, a group of his friends gathered to rig, launch, and take Peter, now very weak, for the maiden voyage of JIM. Peter said, “The process of building was really enjoyable!” In spite of his condition he was clearly enjoying the sailing too. He had an enormous grin when he was grasping the tiller and commanding his little ship.
In a recent post to the forum, Peter wrote: “I suppose it’s to be expected…. The end story after a life of reasonably high energy and the ability to do most of what I wanted to achieve. The medicos have made it plain there is no way back from a glioblastoma, they don’t go away. I’m disappointed that the game is up, but I’m 69 so can’t really complain. Here was NEXT BOAT, someone should build her!”
With gratitude for the example Peter set by his devotion to boatbuilding and to family.
Thanks to Peter’s friend, Duncan Gibbs, for his help with this story.
Editor’s note, May 28, 2019: We received word that Peter passed away on this day.