A Tall Ship on a Healing Mission

Tales from Australian Wooden Boat Festival Part 2

The SV Rhona H is a working ketch, even to the untrained eye. Sails and ropes and emergency gear, communications tech and busy crew scatter over her decks.

Built by renowned shipwright Ned Jack at Trevallyn, near Launceston in 1942, her classical 52-foot lines and complex gaff rigging give the impression of a much older vessel. Originally known as Jesse, she was purchased around 1946 by fisherman Max Hardy, re-named the Rhona H after his then girlfriend, and put to use hauling crayfish on the continental shelf, a fishery Hardy himself pioneered.

During these years the Rhona H had only one mast, and the hold amidships was used as a wet well to store fish – in one 24-hour trip, Hardy managed to boat 4.5 tonnes of couta by hand. In the 1970s, the vessel was sold again and put to use in abalone fishing, making countless crossings of Bass Strait under successive owners.

Rhona H, image: www.rhonah.com.au

Rhona H finally retired from fishing in 1989, when she was refitted for training and tourism, based out of Watermans Dock in Hobart, and later Launceston. She twice completed the gruelling Three Peaks Race in the Vintage division, and is now a regular visitor to the Australian Wooden Boat Festival.

In these respects, Rhona H shares plenty of history with the many other tall ships berthed around Hobart during the Festival. But her recent past is less conventional: bought in January last year by Hobart mental health nurse Julie Porter, the Rhona H is embarking on a new career as a training vessel for guests under treatment for mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

We interviewed Julie alongside her partner (and the vessel’s master) Charles Burns, shortly before a glorious sail on the Derwent under hot sun and a light breeze. Every bit as delightful as she is dedicated, Julie kept apologising for her Kiwi accent (which only caused confusion when she said “Ned Jack” and “ketch).

Julie and Charles’s tall ship-based training for mental health patients is the only program of its kind in Australia.

Julie calls her seagoing mental health work the Rhona H Headwaves program. In addition to a busy roster that entails restoring all the ropework and writing a new book about the vessel’s history, she’ll focus on health promotion, including links to Beyond Blue. “We’re trying to break down the barriers between a tourist experience of a tall ship and a mental health experience on board, she explains. “We can do this over about ten sessions, before, during and after the sailing part.”

Sailing is great for developing relaxation skills. Once they’re on board, it’s amazing the change that comes over people.

“We had a guy on as crew: he’d turned his life around. From being homeless, he found new accommodation and a job. There’s another crew member with attention deficit disorder, who’s 18 years old and has now worked with other tall ships. The structure and routine of tall ship life really helps. That, and respect for one person in charge (although there’s no hierarchy and no official watches n board). We split the vessel down the sides – port and starboard – and tell the guests they have one side or the other to look after and they have to run it.”

The program also encourages people to work towards gaining nautical qualifications.

Julie and Charles are currently converting the business structure behind the vessel from a partnership to a not-for-profit. As Julie says with a laugh, “It’s a tall ship, you can’t run these things for profit.”

The atmosphere on board Rhona H during our jaunt on the Derwent is fun and informal. There’s no sense at all as to who on board might be struggling to control their lives and who’s a holidaymaker who just bought a ticket to come for a sail. And nor should there be.

After 73 years on these seas, the Rhona H might finally have found her true calling.

Read Part 1 of “Tales from Australian Wooden Boat Festival” here.

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