DOWN at Lake Macquarie's Speers Point is an unusual building on The Esplanade.
Located opposite Pippi's Hotel, the building is notable because all 15 apartments are named after either handicap or winners of line honours in a famous ocean race.
Known these days as the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, the contest is normally held today, on Boxing Day, as an annual sporting highlight, book-ended by an Aussie Test match.
Not this year though, with the latest Covid-19 outbreak causing the blue water classic to be abandoned for the first time in 76 years. Little wonder, with about one-third of the event's 150 sailors coming from the northern Sydney hot spot plus Tasmania's borders being closed off.
But now, back to the lake apartment block, known as Rani Quay Apartments, and thereby hangs a tale.
For back in December 1945, visiting British Royal Navy captain John Illingworth was asked to join a leisurely post-Christmas cruise down the coast to Hobart town. He agreed, but only on the condition the event be turned into a race instead, and so the famous Sydney to Hobart yacht race tradition was born.
Illingworth and his crew, in the second smallest yacht of the fleet of nine, amazingly won that inaugural race in appalling conditions coming across the Hobart finish line in six days, 14 hours and 22 minutes.
Despite difficulties, the yacht Rani even arrived 17 hours ahead of its nearest competitor. These problems included the craft being lost for five days in a force nine gale, having the mainsail ripped out, a burnt-out radio and having some "very strange" meals after all the paper labels washed off their tinned food, choking their bilge pump.
The 35ft (10.7m) double-ender cutter Rani is now a significant part of Lake Macquarie maritime history. Why? Well, because it was built locally by prolific Lake shipwright Les Steel in Speers Street, just behind today's Rani Quay Apartments.
In fact, Les Steel's boats would create Australian ocean race history by winning three Sydney-Hobart race titles over 16 years from the start of the first race. The last was Alby Burgin and Nelson Rundle's lake yacht Rival in 1961.
Les Steel was not surprised at Rani's success, telling newsmen at the time his craft was "a fine sea boat with plenty of speed". He'd always been confident of its ability to ride out any storm. He also said he'd built six or seven other sturdy vessels which "would have done equally well".
Les Steel had built Rani for Dr Rowley Pittar back in 1936. Originally, the yacht was called Doris and was later bought by RN engineer John Illingworth. It then came back to the yard under another owner in 1951 for an extensive refit.
Steel's boatshed was fairly primitive, mostly with an earth floor but with a timber section for his machinery and work benches.
Boat-builder Steel (1888-1974) was also praised for his ingenuity. Being two blocks from the Speers Point waterfront, he ferried his smaller vessels down with a cradle trolly on wheels, guided on a set of rails end-to-end.
And the Rani which emerged triumphant after 1945's gruelling 628-nautical mile dash? It broke its moorings and washed ashore, as a total wreck, on Mungo Brush Beach in January 1959. No trace remains. Luckily, no lives were lost.
Outlasting the Rani by 49 years was its last surviving crew member Ray Richmond who died aged 88 years in January 2008.
But since June there's been another reminder of Rani's triumph at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, in Sydney. Here, there's now a painting of the Rani sailing across Storm Bay on the way to winning the first Sydney-Hobart yacht race.
It was donated by Commander Ronald Osborn RAN (retired) in memory of being a growing boy around his Uncle Les' shed in Speers Point. The painting's now on permanent display at the entrance to the clubhouse's Rani Room.
The Magic Valley satisfies
AFTER 35 years researching, Dr Cameron Archer AM (pictured) has published a fascinating book on the history of the Paterson Valley.
Titled, The Magic Valley -Then and Now, the book is really an ode to the evolution of the Paterson Valley dealing with drought, fire and flood and the early destruction of the natural environment by Europeans.
As such, the region, stretching from Hinton, near Morpeth up to the wilderness of Cary's Peak, is perhaps an intriguing microcosm of the whole Hunter Valley.
For Archer has witnessed many changes since he first came to the valley 45 years ago when a daily procession of logging trucks rumbled by, hauling a harvest of turpentine poles up to 100-feet (30m) long.
That all stopped when much of the upper Paterson forests became national park in NSW premier Neville Wran's day. Viewing recent satellite images of the valley shows a six per cent increase in tree coverage.
Not so visible, however, are the rise and fall of a range of industries from dairies, to piggeries, to wine, wool, beef and tobacco production. For it seems the Paterson Valley supplied over half of the tobacco and wine needs of the colony of NSW in the 1830s.
But around the time of Federation, in 1900, the Paterson Valley ceased being a major wine player.
Vineyards halted production and grape growers moved to the drier climate of Pokolbin with its fewer diseases and richer terra rossa soils.
Throughout the 19th century almost every dairy also had its own piggery. Buyers herded mobs of pigs, in their hundreds, down to Paterson village. Up to the 1920s, they went away by boat to market until motor lorries took over. The chicken industry then emerged in the 1960s with Paterson being referred to as "Chickensville".
Archer also reports the mean annual maximum temperature at Tocal has risen by 1.53 degrees C over 45 years with data predictions suggesting future winter rainfalls will most probably decrease with extreme climate events more likely.
The book's title refers to the popular Australian children's tale by Norman Lindsay telling of a pudding, although being eaten, always replenishing itself.
Archer's book is partly based on his earlier PhD on the environmental history of the Paterson Valley, plus interviews with many long-time residents dating back to the 1980s.
Now retired, Archer once spent 28 years as principal at Tocal College where he oversaw innovations in agriculture, education and heritage conservation.
His Magic Valley (RRP $35) is a marvellous, highly readable, potted history of the Paterson Valley providing numerous, often unexpected, insights over its 412 pages.
It is deservedly already a local bestseller and I hope to write more about it again soon.