With absolutely no prior shipbuilding experience, boatie Arthur Hodgson stopped at nothing to reinvigorate a 116-year-old riverboat and realise his dream of a romantic life on the river.
“A gentleman’s waterborne carriage” is how Arthur Hodgson describes his century-old luxury riverboat, Lotus.
With an ornate saloon adorned with hand-made mahogany features, crystal glassware and lounges upholstered in burgundy microfibre, Lotus garners “oohs” and “aahs” from crowds at wharfs and boat festivals up and down the Murray.
“It has that sense of craftsmanship like a beautiful antique piece of furniture or a lovely old building. It was made in the days when everything was done by hand and shipbuilding was a revered craft,” says Arthur.
“Sleeping on board is heaven. The rain pitter-patters on the roof and then it’s just total silence. When the wind blows, the boat moves gently and puts you to sleep; it’s magic.”
Lotus seemed perfect to Arthur when he purchased her 16 years ago. Looking to escape the rat-race of the city, Arthur and his first mate KerrieAnne Mason had inspected hundreds of boats in the search for one that would provide an idyllic waterborne lifestyle. The 14-metre Lotus seemed to be the one.
“I looked at it from a distance and I could just imagine sitting there on the rear deck under an umbrella, having a glass of Champagne and caviar, and I thought ‘that would be magic’. I fell in love with her lines, her counter stern and plumb bow,” says Arthur, who was told the boat was all ship shape, other than the galley which needed a little TLC.
However, after he started poking around, Arthur soon discovered that was not the case. “I was sold a dud; the timbers were completely full of rot. I have to admit, I had noticed a number of buckets located strategically around the saloon, but figured they were there as a precautionary measure and nothing a little chewing gum mightn’t fix.”
The damage was extensive, but the saving grace was that the original hull was ship-shape. “It’s amazing to think that it’s been in the water for 116 years and there’s no sign of rot in the planks under the waterline,” Arthur says.
Although he’d sailed yachts since the age of 11, Arthur had no wood-working or shipbuilding experience and once he discovered the extent of the boat’s poor state, he realised he was way out of his depth.
“I’d lie in bed on the boat at night and think ‘How the hell am I going to do this?’ There’s an awful lot of detail; it was tricky stuff. I read books and bought mostly cheap tools — I couldn’t afford much else — and away I went. I must have 250 books about boats. Never had I done anything before relating to repair or restoration of a wooden boat,” he says.
“The project was 100 times bigger than I thought it was going to be and I’m still pottering, you’re never finished with a wooden boat.”
The restoration took Arthur six years, with encouragement and support from KerrieAnne. Every weekend, Arthur would make a pilgrimage to the boat’s mooring near Murray Bridge where he would unload the tools out of his mobile workshop trailer and get to work. A couple of locals and boaties watched on with interest as Lotus was transformed.
“People would walk past and stop for a cup of tea and a chat about the boat. One old chap used to walk past and after two years he finally got nosy enough to come and have a look. From then, he would help me every day. Unfortunately, he died a couple of years ago but he just loved that boat and he watched it go from nothing to what it is now.”
Lotus’ new iteration is remarkable. Arthur believes his boat is now worth more than $100,000. “There’s not a boat like this on the river or anywhere in South Australia that I know of. I’ve not seen one anywhere,” he says.
It may weigh close to 13 tonnes, but its sleek hull efficiently glides through the water and strikes a gracious sight as it motors upriver. “It’s magic putting along and just mooching up the river on a nice morning or with a beautiful sunset; it’s fabulous.”
Winter is when the elegant riverboat comes into its element, carving through glass-like waters absent of wake created by the many ski boats in summer. “I’m in heaven when I’m on the boat, particularly at night when the curtains are drawn and the interior lights create a nice soft glow in the room. It’s like a gentleman’s smoking club.”
Arthur has very little information about the boat prior to 1950 and hopes someone might be able to share some clues dating back to its construction in 1906. “I do know that she sunk, some say not once, but twice. I have evidence substantiating at least one of the sinkings, but I am pleased to say that the hull is now as sound as it was in 1906.”
Throughout the challenging rebuild, Arthur never once felt like calling it quits. “Even though I discovered that the rot damage was pervasive, from day one I had a vision of how it should look on completion and I think I’ve come close to that.”
Arthur’s next move in life is taking him back to his home town of Hobart, meaning that Lotus may need to find a new owner. “I’m just a custodian of this vessel and I hope to sell it to somebody who has the same passion for wooden boats to keep the tradition going.”
This story first appeared in the December 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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