History | Wikner's will to build | Mike Scanlon

Unique vessel: The replica steamship William the Fourth after being launched at Raymond Terrace in 1987.
Unique vessel: The replica steamship William the Fourth after being launched at Raymond Terrace in 1987.

AFTER being out of the water for a decade, the restored steamship replica William the Fourth is hoped to be re-launched at the end of April.

Creator: Shipwright Ken Wikner.

Creator: Shipwright Ken Wikner.

The $1.3 million paddle wheeler was built on the Williams River at Raymond Terrace and launched by Hazel Hawke, the wife of the then prime minister, in September 1987.

The mammoth venture reminded people the original William the Fourth was the first steam-powered, ocean-going vessel ever built in Australia, at our Clarence Town, back in 1831.

The replica wooden paddle wheeler was an extremely ambitious community project to help celebrate Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988. But after then operating for 14 years on Newcastle Harbour using only a steam engine and side paddles, and after some shipping mishaps, it fell on hard times.

His original idea wasn’t to build a fully operating replica, but just a wooden playground ship.

Now, thanks to a small, dedicated group of volunteers, it’s been rebuilt, re-caulked, repainted and fitted with a modern engine fitted to make her more agile to again become a significant tourist attraction on Newcastle Harbour.

But in all the excitement, it’s possible the name Ken Wikner may be overlooked.

Shipwright Ken Wikner was the heart and soul behind building the replica steamship between 1985 and 1987 at the Raymond Terrace riverside site.

And when his ship took part in the Bicentennial Tall Ships Parade on Sydney Harbour on Australia Day 1988, he declared it was the ‘proudest day of my life’. 

For he’d been involved with his pet project for seven years overall and towards the end of actual shipbuilding he was working 10 hours and day, seven days a week.

It was largely his perseverance which kept the project afloat, despite disappointing corporate sponsorship.

When the project was complete, Wikner, then 50, simply stepped aside, quite pleased to be relieved of his responsibility as ship supervisor and revert to a simple tradesman’s role.

As he later told Lake Macquarie author Fred Thomas: “I am quite happy working with my hands and building things, including trains, house renovations, yacht fit-outs, classic wooden speed-boats and space shuttle replicas”.

At the time Wikner bowed out of the replica steamship, Peter Morris, MHR Shortland, said the project had stirred up an awareness of the importance of shipping in the region’s history and would not have been possible without Wikner’s “relentless persistence”.

Morris presented Ken Wikner with a bicentennial plaque in recognition of his work, adding that his ship was “built for the Bicentenary, but designed for the Tricentenary”.

Project manager Wikner modestly shrugged off the praise, only saying: “We met the challenge and we succeeded. I’m proud of that”.

Wikner said the catalyst for his pet scheme had been sponsorship from Carrington Slipways where he had worked by then for 26 years as a boat-builder and shipwright and later as a supervisor, trials master and outfitting manager.

Rather ironically, Ken Wikner’s original idea wasn’t to build a fully operating replica, but just a wooden playground ship. However, he soon discarded the idea when he realised it would be costly to maintain and could become the target of vandals.

But by 2003, Ken Wikner was saddened by the run-down condition of his William the Fourth replica. Newcastle City Council believed the deteriorating vessel had become an expensive liability for ratepayers. Dungog council offered to buy it and place it as a static display in a park. There was even talk of cutting it up with a chainsaw.

But finally in 2008, a small group of volunteers took ownership instead and vowed to save her. It was partly motivated by people once inspired by Ken Wikner, according to William the Fourth Inc secretary Bob Cook, former Newcastle councillor and BHP staffer.

“The mob of people here were strongly associated with Ken. They had a lot to do with him and knew him well,” Cook said.

One of them is Stockton shipwright Bob Forsyth, now nearing 85 years.

“I knew Ken well. He was my apprentice once at the old State Dockyard. His nickname there was “Biggles’ because he arrived for work wearing his dad’s old flying jacket,” Forsyth said.

“Ken was a chip off the old block if you knew his (remarkable) father. Nothing was a problem to Ken. 

“He was a problem-solver. Ken got all the hard jobs at Carrington Slipways where we both later worked. And when the firm moved to its Tomago shipyard, Ken got the job of moving those 60ft long and 60ft wide (18.1m x 18.1m) work cranes up-river using barges.

 “Ken built the Sea Scouts Hall at Raymond Terrace. He was a scoutmaster there. I believe he was also the person who got the Sabre Jet memorial erected up there by the highway.

“Talk about tough. His nickname at school was ‘cast iron’ because he wouldn’t cry during punishment. And when a boat trailer dropped on his foot, he was still limping around for three to four days. His wife, Elaine, would drive him around. He sought treatment and soon was hobbling around with a big plaster cast. His leg was broken.”

Bob Forsyth said another time while working on hopper barges for Westham Dredging, a fitting blew out and hit his arm, almost destroying his muscle.

“Later Carrington Slipways took us both to Japan on a study tour. Someone noticed a bruise on his injured arm and asked him what happened. He replied, ‘a shark bit me’.

“Just before Ken passed away (about a decade ago) he was working on repairing a starter boat for a yacht club. He went out there, crook and kept working. He died a few days later. That tells you how tough the old bugger was,” Bob Forsyth said.

Perhaps lesser known about Ken Wikner’s career though is that he once put his age up a year to join the Citizen Military Forces. Soon after he survived the infamous Stockton Bight Disaster. That’s when eight of 20 amphibious military vehicles capsized in March 1954. Three soldiers lost their lives.

But the final words should go to William the Fourth replica spokesman Bob Cook, who since 2008 has devoted himself to trying to save the unique replica vessel from oblivion.

Cook said the restored, upgraded 102-tonne ship would now have three times the power it had before and, with the help of a new bow thruster, would be infinitely more manoeuvrable.

Cook paid tribute to Ken Wikner’s original persistence, against huge odds, to make his Bicentenary vision a reality in 1987.

“The thing about Ken Wikner was that he always did get things done. He was an achiever,” Bob Cook said.