Setting out from Sydney Harbour with four shipmates in June 1947, Earl created the logs so he could share the adventures of the 18-month long journey with his family and friends back home in Sydney. They became an extended love letter to his wife, the original Kathleen for whom the yacht was named.
From the start of their happy married life, Jack Earl and Kathleen Gillett shared the romantic ideal of building the perfect boat and sailing around the world. It took every penny they had and six years, from 1933 to 1939, to construct a seaworthy double-ended ketch, carefully crafted and designed to withstand ocean sailing. But the outbreak of war delayed their departure. By the time it was safe to travel again, the couple had two children, 14-year-old Michael and 11-year-old Maris. Jack and Kathleen came to a reluctant realisation: to achieve their cherished goal, Jack would have to leave behind his beloved wife and their young family.
You have everyone’s admiration for your pluck and love & courage. Now our next adventure we'll slant strongly your way. After reaching Thursday Island we begin our 18-month separation from each other — a long time … but it is our only way to avoid failure. By our combined efforts, if we both last, a tender and rewarding life awaits you, Heart, with Michael and Maris and I …
— Jack Earl, 1947
Twelve logs books chart the 18-month voyage of the Kathleen Gillett. Sailing north to Cape York, the ship travelled west to Cape Town via the Indian Ocean, crossed the Atlantic to the coast of Brazil, continued through the Panama Canal and headed back across the Pacific. Each page of the log reveals Earl’s stunning paintings, recording the events and emotions the artist experienced as he sailed around the world. Combined with witty character sketches, photographs and printed souvenirs — including local stamps and currency — they were despatched when the yacht docked, as each leg of the trip was completed. Eagerly awaited back home, the lovingly crafted logs enabled family and friends to journey along with Jack. Regular feature stories ran in Seacraft magazine, and the voyage of the Kathleen captured the Australian imagination as an escapist symbol in the postwar era: the kind of adventure most people could only dream about.
A pioneering ocean cruising vessel in its day, the Kathleen Gillett was spartan by today’s standards. It carried no electric equipment such as a refrigerator or radio; and its only back-up power was a diesel engine that had to be started with explosive charges. There were no winches on board, no hydraulics and no labour-saving devices for hauling up the anchor or trimming the sails. The tiny galley had a gimballed stove fed by a pair of leaky gas cylinders, which, the crew later learned, could have blown up at any point during the voyage.
A classic blue-water cruising yacht, the Kathleen Gillett was a beautiful boat. Just over 13 metres long, the 25-tonne double-ended ketch was made of varnished Queensland rosewood, had Huon pine decks and carried a cloud of canvas sails. The 1947–48 circumnavigation was a testament to the ship’s Norwegian-based design in withstanding a journey of over 48,000 km through roaring gales and flat calms. Along the way, Jack and his crew were feted by dignitaries and officials, hung out with waterfront knockabouts, and partied with locals and celebrities like Australian-born Hollywood movie star Errol Flynn.
Thousands had crowded the shores of Sydney Harbour to farewell the Kathleen Gillett in June 1947, and thousands more welcomed the ship back home in December 1948. Jack and his crew had realised their ambition to traverse the oceans of the world and their little ship, now synonymous with sea adventure, would become Australia’s most famous cruising yacht. After being sold by the Earls in the 1950s, Kathleen’s adventurous career continued in the island trade in Torres Strait and on crocodile-hunting expeditions. In 1987, the yacht was bought by the Norwegian government and presented as a Bicentennial gift to the people of Australia. The Kathleen Gillett is now floating on open display at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour.
The logbooks of the Kathleen Gillett continued to be treasured by the Earl family long after the voyage, and the passing of Jack and his beloved Kathleen. They were acquired by the State Library of NSW from the Earl family in 2018 and have now been fully digitised and made available online.
A selection of the logbooks of the Kathleen Gillett are on display in the Amaze Gallery until 31 August 2021.