The shipbuilder’s legacy

Richard ‘Rick’ James has designed more than 150 of Australia’s most iconic vessels and is the last surviving graduate of UQ’s Bachelor of Naval Architecture program, from which he graduated in 1951. Contact set sail with Rick to reflect on his role in shaping Australia’s shipbuilding industry.

Rick James smiling as he sails on the bayside.

It’s a bright morning by the docks at Wynnum Manly Yacht Club, and Rick James is preparing his boat Thanet to go sailing on Moreton Bay.

He looks at ease as he tightens ropes and hoists sails – a skillset he has honed over a lifetime of sailing.

Other members of the yacht club greet Rick by name and proudly share that he is the oldest solo sailor in their club.

The 90-year-old still sails three times a week, indulging in a passion that began in childhood.

“My father gave me a sailing boat when I was young, and that had quite an influence on me. I always seemed to be drawn to sailing, to the ocean,” he said.

Rick enrolled in a Bachelor of Engineering, specialising in Naval Architecture, at UQ in 1946.

Join Rick for a day out on the bay. Video credit: archival World Expo '88 footage by ChannelYT.

The four-year degree was sponsored by Brisbane shipbuilder Evans Deakin in an attempt to train more highly skilled engineers after World War II.

According to Rick, when the degree was first offered, a handful of World War II returning servicemen enrolled in the course.

When they discovered that after graduation they would need to work their way through all the shipbuilding industry trades before being suitably qualified, they transferred to other faculties.

Rick, however, was not deterred.

“Naval Architecture seemed like it would be fun, rather than the hard work of traditional engineering,” he said.

“It was interesting, but I wasn’t much of a student, really. I’d often rather be out on the water. “

I used to go sailing with a friend when I was a student. We used to sail in 16-foot skiffs, which was great fun. We would go cruising in them over to the islands nearby.”

Rick James stands on the deck of his yacht, Thanet.

Following graduation in 1951, Rick moved to Sydney and was employed by various shipbuilding companies where he learnt the industry at all levels.

After his employer went into liquidation in 1965, he returned to Brisbane with his wife and five children to establish himself as a consulting naval architect under the name R.A. James Shipbuilding Pty Ltd.

In the 45 years that Rick worked as a consulting naval architect in Queensland, he designed more than 150 vessels, including Quiksilver’s legendary MV Indies Trader – a diving and survey vessel – state government ships, the Stradbroke Island ferry, and many small tugs and barges operating in Queensland, the Northern Territory, and the South Pacific.

Original design plans for a sail training schooner. Image by Rick James.

It was in the South Pacific that his designs became legendary.

His island-trading vessels were so successful that owners were able to pay for them within six months.

Design plans for a trawler. Image supplied by Rick James.

He also designed 12 vessels for the Lutheran Mission that operated throughout New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

These vessels, some measuring up to 40 metres long, carried produce and passengers between the islands and the mainland.

Rick James sailing his yacht Thanet out of the marina.

Closer to home, Rick created the aluminium catamaran ferries for
the Brisbane River used during World Expo ’88.

These ferries were unique in their sustainable design – they were remarkably fuel efficient and produced almost no wake to avoid damaging the riverbanks – and influenced the design of ferries Australia wide.

“I was doing some work for a small builder in Brisbane, and he showed me a picture out of a magazine of something that looked like a ferry, and he asked ‘Can you build one of these?’,” Rick said.

“I said, ‘That will take a lot of research’. He asked ‘Can you do it by Monday?’, and I said ‘Oh, I don’t know about that’. And another guy in the firm came over and told me ‘If you don’t tell him yes, you won’t get the job’. So I said ‘Yes, we can do it by Monday’.”

He also designed the ‘yellow submarine’ glass-bottom vessels used for reef sightseeing, and the renowned South Passage sail training schooner, which has trained thousands of young sailors.

Move the slider to watch Rick's design come to life. Image credits: top image by Rick James; bottom image by Michael Davies.

Rick’s expertise in the field led to an invitation to assist as one of three members in the Royal Commission that was established to investigate the August 2009 sinking of the Princess Ashika ferry in Tonga, in which 74 people were killed. The findings were published in 2010.

Rick James prepares his yacht, Thanet, for sailing.

Despite Rick’s humble demeanour, his son, Peter James, said that his father played a huge part in the history of Queensland and further afield.

“The unique quality with all of my father’s vessels was their practical functionality and an outstanding efficiency to operate,” Peter said.

“I suspect that no one alive knows more about large sailing vessel rigging.”

A lot has changed since Rick first fell in love with boats as a child.

The industry has ushered in digital ship design, mechanised ship production, and electronic GPS and radar systems – all in an attempt to increase efficiency.

But as he sailed the bayside, confidently steering Thanet through clear blue waters, Rick said that despite new technologies, some things never change.

“That’s the beauty of the sea, there’s no rush.”

Keen to start a legacy of your own? Visit UQ's Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology website for more information.

Setting sail on a family tradition

1916: Rick’s father, Frederick William James, is awarded a Bachelor of Science (Second Class Honours) from UQ. At that time, UQ was located on George Street. He went on to become the head of UQ’s Surveying Faculty.

1949: Rick’s brother, Robert James, is awarded a Bachelor of Engineering from UQ. In the years following, his construction business built a number of UQ buildings.

1951: Rick graduates with a Bachelor of Engineering specialising in Naval Architecture from UQ.

1958: Another of Rick’s brothers, Dr Peter James, is awarded a Bachelor of Geology from UQ, and later a PhD in Geology at the Imperial College London. Peter goes on to lecture in geology at UQ.

1980: Rick’s son, David James, is awarded a Bachelor of Human Movement Studies at UQ.

1984: Another of Rick’s children, Alexander James, is awarded a Bachelor of Surveying at UQ.

1985: Rick’s sister, Brenda Lewis, is awarded a Bachelor of Arts from UQ. Brenda’s son, Professor Richard Lewis, is currently a Professorial Research Fellow at UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

1988: Peter James, another of Rick’s children, is awarded a Bachelor of Laws at UQ.

1994: Rick’s daughter, Judy James, receives a Bachelor of Arts (Chinese Language and Literature)/Bachelor of Laws (Honours) from UQ, and goes on to receive a Master of Public Health in 2008.

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