Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

PUTNEY — In 1972, just 25 years old, boat maker Graeme King made his first trip to the United States at the invitation of Harry Parker, then the head coach of the Harvard men’s heavyweight rowing crew, to be boatman, a position King held for three years before returning to his native Australia to design his own boats and sell them.

In 1983, he returned to New England, eventually setting up shop in Putney in 1986, where over the years he has built maybe 300, by his rough count, racing shells for collegiate teams and sleek rowing boats for people who like to glide along peaceful waters.

Now King, at 73, is done with Vermont winters and wants to return permanently to Australia.

“I never thought I would finish up here, doing this,” said Graeme. “When I was a kid, I thought I would have a little shed, dinking around and building boats. Well, here I am still, dinking around building boats and it’s taken me around the world.”

Puttering around his shop on a rainy Friday, King was working on a 20-foot-long single, made of cedar strips. He calls this last boat his “scrap boat,” made from scraps lying around the shop. Despite it being made of “scraps,” the boat, almost ready for its waterproofed veneer, is a marvel of design — light, long and sleek, and graceful, even on the workbench.

“It will be a pretty nice boat for someone,” he said.

King built his first boat, a small canoe, when he was just 12. His mom, who taught driving and his dad who was a baker, didn’t pay much attention to King and his budding interest in boats.

“I was the odd one out in the family,” he said. “I was totally crazy about making things.”

King was born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1947 and started rowing in 1963, picking up some mechanical engineering during an apprenticeship with the South Australian Railways. In 1965 he built his first single, and soon people began to notice the sleek design of his boats and their efficiency on the water. In 1971, Norm Talbot rowed a King-made single to a national championship.

As his reputation grew, demand for his boats grew too. In 1972, at the Munich Olympic Games, King got the invitation from Parker to come to Harvard to be a boatman on the Charles River.

The first thing a young Graeme King noticed when he arrived in March was there were no leaves on the trees.

“Why is everything dead?” he asked himself. “And then I had to get used to all the dog poop on the streets. Not a good first impression.”

But even more befuddling for him as a young man was how words had different meanings.

He distinctly remembers going to an art supply store for drawing supplies and getting all he needed except for erasers, which he knew as rubbers.

“I asked the girl and she said ‘We don’t sell those here.’ And I said ‘You got to have them because all artists use them. You have to have rubbers.’ She told me to go to the pharmacy.”

Eventually, he would return to Australia for a few years but would return to the United States, this time Vermont, to set up shop. He started in Woodstock, but just by happenstance, he made a boat for George Heller, who suggested a shop in Putney. Heller was the founder, with his brother, Peter, of the Green Mountain Head Rowing Regatta.

“That’s how I got here,” said King. “It was all pretty chaotic. Life has always been pretty chaotic.”

He said that chaos might have been one of the reasons why he was attracted to the art of making boats that quietly glided across the surface of the water, propelled by many hands working in unison.

King said working on a boat removes the builder from the chaos of the world.

“It takes your mind away from all that,” he said, describing it as a meditative process. “It’s fun to see something come together that is very functional and also fairly graceful.”

Along with finishing up his last boat, King has also been doing something that he has loved for a long time — teaching people how to row a pair. In a pair, as opposed to a double where two rowers have two oars, two rowers have one oar each.

“You’ve got to be perfectly in time, otherwise you mess things up,” he said. “You have to be really in tune with what you are doing.”

And he’s been doing it on the West River with the Brattleboro Outing Club.

“The West River is an ideal place to teach people. They flip out and just stand up.”

He realizes he is leaving behind a very strong community here in Vermont, but hopes to travel back to visit, at least when the weather is nice.

He is moving north of Adelaide, to a small town, Port Pirie, which is about the same size as Brattleboro.

“It’s a very different climate, on the edge of the desert,” said King. “If it’s 50 degrees in the day, they think they are perishing.”

Because he traveled home at least once a year, he has maintained his connections to family and rowing people he grew up with and he hopes to slow down a bit and focus more on design work and gathering his plans together, maybe for eventual publication.

Many of the boats he has built over the years are still being rowed or raced today. Teams have raced them in U.S. National Championships and one of his boats has held a national record for eights for 25 years.

In 2009, WinTech, a boat builder in Bridgeport, Conn., began building a carbon-fiber racing shell for fours and eights based on one of King’s designs.

Now, King is finishing up the last boat he will build in Putney while getting ready to auction off his tools in advance of his move back home. He is gathering together all his documents and designs, and one day, he said, he might write a book, a combination memoir and technical manual.

“That’s one reason why I want to move back to Australia,” said King. “Here, there are too many demands on my time.”

And even though he is leaving Vermont, he says he’s not really leaving at all.

“I have a huge extended family in the boating community around the world.”

To stay in touch with King, email him at gkboat@hotmail.com.

PHOTO GALLERY

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


TALK TO US

If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us.
We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.