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Ernest Jack (Jock) Muir (1914–1995)

by Stefan Petrow

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Ernest Jack Muir (1914–1995), boatbuilder and yachtsman, was born on 22 October 1914 in Hobart, eldest of five children of locally born parents Ernest Jenkins Muir, labourer and seaman, and his wife Elsie Minnie, née Haigh. ‘Jock,’ as he was known, attended Albuera Street State School and trade classes at the former Battery Point Model School. In 1926 he won a scholarship to attend Hobart State High School. He gained a love of the ocean from his father who had worked as a seaman. As a schoolboy he watched builders of wooden boats in the Battery Point shipyards, learning especially from Percy Coverdale. His passion for designing boats and sailing competitively originated with making and racing model yachts. By the early 1930s he was competing in the 12-foot (3.7 m) cadet dinghy class and regularly contested Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania (RYCT) pennant races. After he won the 1933 Stonehaven Cup in Adelaide, experts predicted a ‘brilliant’ future (Mercury 1933, 6).

During the Depression Muir served a sheet metal apprenticeship. He studied tinsmithing at the Hobart Technical College and won the Cadbury-Fry-Pascall Pty Ltd prize in 1933 before working in the metal trade. In his spare time, working in his parents’ backyard, he designed and built the 36-foot (10.9 m) ketch Westwind. At its helm he won several events including the 1938 Bruny Island and 1940 Betsy Island races. On 25 April 1941 at the Wesley Church, Hobart, he married his neighbour Mollie McAllister, an upholsteress. Soon after, the couple moved to Sydney. Having sold Westwind, he used the proceeds to buy a skiff-hiring business and later a boatbuilding shed. Among other projects, he made high-quality wooden lifeboats for the United States Army. Prosperity beckoned until he contracted poliomyelitis, which ‘almost paralysed’ his left thigh and right arm (Muir, Hudson, and Fogagnolo 1991, 23). By 1946 he had sold up and returned to Hobart with his family.

While recovering, Muir designed the fishing cruiser Westward, which he built in a paddock at Sandy Bay and converted into a racing yacht for George Gibson. In 1948 he established Muir’s Boatyard at Battery Point. He would design over one hundred vessels and become known for building ‘easy-to-handle, sea-kindly, safe, off-shore cruising boats’ (Muir, Hudson, and Fogagnolo 1991, 27) capable of winning ocean races. Although not fearing the sea, he gave it ‘maximum respect’ and erred ‘on the side of extra strength’ (Muir, Hudson, and Fogagnolo 1991, 62) to ensure his boats were structurally sound. He preferred to use Huon and King Billy pines for their elasticity and durability. In September 1951 the Menzies government increased sales tax on pleasure boats from 10 to 33 percent. Muir responded by diversifying the business; he built fishing boats and constructed (1953) a second slipway. He would prepare more than one thousand slipping plans for vessels up to 75-feet (22.9 m) in length.

Muir’s reputation as ‘one of Australia’s bluewater aces’ (Mercury 1953, 16) was built on his success in Sydney to Hobart yacht races. He first sailed in the race in 1946. The following year, as sailing master of Westward, he was second across the line and the winner on corrected time. In 1948, Westward again finished first on corrected time, making him the first Tasmanian to have won two Sydney-Hobart races. Another Muir design, Waltzing Matilda, which he co-skippered with ‘skill and local knowledge’ (Muir, Hudson, and Fogagnolo 1991, 77), won line honours and came second on handicap in 1949. His fellow yachtsman John Bennetto claimed that Muir was ‘a natural sailor’ with ‘saltwater in his veins’ (Bresnehan 1995, 47), who could ‘smell’ where he was in relation to the coast.

In the 1953 Sydney-Hobart Muir took line honours and was placed fourth on handicap with Wild Wave, a yacht he had designed. This was ‘the first Tasmanian owned, built, and skippered boat to finish first across the line’ (Mercury 1954, 1). His elation was short lived, however, as the boat was disqualified for infringements at the starting line. He made amends in 1955 by co-skippering Even to a line honours victory. He failed to finish only once when Kurrewa IV incurred a hull leak in 1958, but won line honours in the same vessel in 1960. In 1971 he completed his nineteenth and last Sydney-Hobart, but expressed his concern that the race had become more about ‘performance derived from wealth’ than ‘a test of skill’ (Muir, Hudson, and Fogagnolo 1991, 35).

Stockily built, calm, and resilient, Muir won the Maria and Bruny Island races, securing the Point Score plaque, in his last offshore racing season (1972–73). He retired as managing director of the boatyard in 1987. In 1991 he co-authored Maritime Reflections, revisiting his boats and races. Survived by his wife, daughter, and three sons, he died on 29 November 1995 in the Royal Hobart Hospital and was cremated following a service at ‘the Mariner’s Church,’ St George’s Church, Battery Point. Fellow yachtsmen remembered him as ‘a master craftsman,’ ‘a fantastic seaman’ who was ‘uncanny with tactics,’ and ‘a true gentleman’ (Bresnehan 1995, 47). The RYCT inaugurated the E. J. (Jock) Muir Memorial trophy for seamanship in 1996 and he was inducted into the Tasmanian Yachting Hall of Fame in 2011. His yacht Westward was donated by its final owner, Stan Field, to the Maritime Museum of Tasmania for its floating exhibition at Constitution Dock, Hobart.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Bresnehan, James. ‘Jock’s Voyage Over.’ Mercury (Hobart), 30 November 1995, 47
  • Mays, Nicole. Industrious, Innovative, Altruistic: The 20th Century Boat Builders of Battery Point. Hobart: Navarine Publishing, 2017
  • Mercury (Hobart). ‘His First Cup.’ 15 February 1933, 6
  • Mercury (Hobart). ‘Race Against Time to Complete Cruiser.’ 13 November 1953, 16
  • Mercury (Hobart). ‘Vintage Yachts Etched Forever in Muir’s Mind.’ 2 January 1995, 12
  • Mercury (Hobart). ‘Wild Wave Gives Tasmania Great Victory.’ 1 January 1954, 1
  • Muir, Jock, Chris Hudson, and Jocelyn Fogagnolo. Maritime Reflections. Sandy Bay: E. J. Muir, 1991
  • Swinson, Mike. Blood, Sweat and the Sea. Lindisfarne: Forty South Publishing, 2017

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Citation details

Stefan Petrow, 'Muir, Ernest Jack (Jock) (1914–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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