In January this year the CYCA was approached by Commander Ronald Osborn RAN Retired, offering the gift of an original Bill Mearns (1931- ) painting of Rani sailing across Storm Bay on her way to winning the first Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. Ron had seen the painting for sale in Hobart and he was hoping to donate it to the club in memory of his late uncle, Leslie James Steel (1888-1974) of Lake Macquarie, the builder of Rani in 1936.
CYCA Director and History and Archives chairperson Bradshaw Kellett replied to Ron’s email in favour of the idea, where Ron then went and purchased the painting directly from Bill Mearns in Hobart and had it sent to his home in Sydney. Ron then added a plaque in memory of his uncle Les Steel. Once the painting was ready with plaque attached, Ron emailed the CYCA and Commodore Paul Billingham then graciously officially accepted Ron’s offer.
Ron and his wife Noni delivered the painting to the club in late May, prior to the Clubhouse post-COVID re-opening on Thursday 4 June. There was a small hanging ceremony with Ron & Noni, Commodore Paul Billingham, Director Bradshaw Kellett and CYCA CEO Justine Kirkjian, with Ron recollecting memories of signing up for the navy in 1947 at HMAS Rushcutter where RANSA and the Sir David Martin Reserve are currently situated and he remembers the tin boatshed that was the original CYCA Clubhouse. Ron’s other memories he shared included serving in the navy with the late Sir David Martin RAN and being a growing boy around his Uncle Les’ shed in Speers Point.
Ron was kind enough to supply a copy of the Les Steel chapter in Fred Thomas’ book Boat-builders of Lake Macquarie and Beyond, in which memories of Les Steel’s life are recollected from his family and many of Australia’s finest yachtsmen including CYCA members.
Described in Boat-builders of Lake Macquarie and Beyond, Les Steel was a quiet man and a builder of fine vessels. He made local Lake Macquarie and early Australian ocean racing history by building three overall Sydney Hobart Yacht Race winners within 16 years of the race commencing. These winning yachts being Captain John Illingworth RN’s Rani in 1945, Kings Cross chemist Tom Williamson’s Struen Marie in 1951 and Alby Burgin & Nelson Rundle’s Rival in 1961.
Rani was built in 1936 in Les Steel’s shed in Speers Point, Lake Macquarie where the yachts were hauled to and from the shed to the lake along leap frogging rails across the main road. According to Boat-builders of Lake Macquarie and Beyond, Rani was launched as Doris for local Lake Macquarie doctor, Dr. Rowley Pittar (Rob Mundle’s book The Sydney Hobart Yacht Race reports Dr. Pittar’s name to be Rowland). The 35-foot Arthur C. Barber designed Doris was reported to have cost Les Steel £616 ($1,232) to build her for Dr. Pittar (sails and engine would have been extra). Shortly after World War II Dr. Pittar sold Doris through a Sydney broker to Captain John Illingworth RAN who renamed her Rani (when Captain Illingworth purchased her, the book The Sydney Hobart Yacht Race reports Rani’s name to have been Maharani in honour of a Hindu name for Dr. Pittar’s wife Doris). Captain Illingworth sold Rani in the late 1940s with her eventually going back to Les Steel’s shed for “extensive changes” in 1951. With after war inflation this refit costs £1,335 to complete and sadly, Rani ran aground on Mungo Beach north of Port Stephens shortly after her refit and she was a total loss, luckily no lives were lost.
The painting’s artist Bill Mearns is a Scottish marine artist, with a strong following in Hobart where he resides in Tasmania. He has sketched marine subjects since boyhood, particularly on the east coast of Scotland, where his seafaring ancestors piled their trade for many generations. Bill has extensive knowledge of seagoing vessels and takes every opportunity to be sailing.
As well as his traditional works, he enjoys the challenge of painting modern racing yachts and shipping vessels, but also builds models of traditional vessels. Bill’s work has been collected in many countries such as Australia, USA, UK, NZ, Canada, Italy, Japan and Holland with solo exhibitions being held in Australia since 1981.
The painting will be on permanent display in the clubhouse at the entrance to the Rani Room in the Sydney Hobart Bar downstairs. The CYCA Board would like to thank Commander Ronald Osborn RAN Retired for his generous gift and we know that members will enjoy the painting in the clubhouse for many years to come.