1950s: The Sanisybi makes its way down the Avon River.IN 1991, Pam Oliver, wife of SamOliver, wrote a piece in the 1991for the Avon Descent magazine.
Here is her article.
IN 1991 the Avon Descent celebratesits 19th anniversary.
Thechallenge between mankind andriver will continue.
But the challenge goes back furtherthan 19 years.
In the early 1950s, a manual artsteacher from the Northam SeniorHigh School, built himself a canoe outof wood and canvas and took the challengeof the Avon River.
Successful in his adventure, hecompleted the journey in two weeks.
He had no support crew.
He carried all provisions with himin his canoe.
In 1955 four young Northam menalso heard the call for adventure fromthe river.
They were all members of theNortham District Motor Cycle Cluband each had the spirit of adventureand a sense of daring.
The challenge of a man andmachine brought them together regularlyat lunch time at Northam MotorCycles, then owned and operated byNeil Bartlett.
In 1955 the shop was situated onthe other side of Fitzgerald Streetabout 200 metres west of its presentlocation.
It was here the four men talkedtheir dreams into reality.
To paddle a boat from Northam toPerth sounds simple if you say itquickly enough.
But to actually design and build asuitable craft was more of a challengein 1955 than it is today, especiallywhen they were among the first toattempt the challenge.
The plans the four young Northammen had were simple.
They sat on oil drums on Neil’sworkshop floor while someone drew aline in chalk around them in the shapeof a boat.
Its frame was welded out of 1/2-inch electrical conduit covered withblack flat iron.
Boards were borrowed from Neil’sshop shelving for seats and the paddleswere home made woodenhandleswith metal blades attached.
In all the craft cost them 12 pounds($24).
What it lacked in technology itmade up for in the imagination of itsbuilders.
It was duly christened andlaunched with a proper ceremony.
The four young men, Sam Oliver,Neil Bartlett, Syd Abbott and BillyHolt, named the boat SANISYBI, aname derived by taking the first twoletters of their first names, using an Iinstead of an E in Neil with poeticlicence.
At dawn on a cold June morning in1955 when the river was at its peak,they set off on their adventure fromthe Northam weir with only a boxbrownie camera on board to recordthe spectacular views they were hopingto see.
A photographer from The WestAustralian also captured the start ofthe event which today has been almostforgotten except for a few photographsin a private album.
In 1955 the river was wild and relativelyuntamed.
Before the Standard Gauge railwayline bridged the Avon River, floodingwas a real threat to Northam.
In 1954 after torrential summerrain the river broke its banks andflowed into Fitzgerald Street andthroughthe shops.
After the railway bridge was builtthe river was cleared to prevent furtherflooding.
The river often dried up in thesummer threatening the existence ofthe famed swans.
So the level of the weir was raisedto provide a suitable water level forthe swans and a beauty spot forNortham.
This means today the contestantsof the Avon Descent do not experiencethe conditions of an untamedriver as it was in 1955.
Sanisybi’s adventure was undertakenthrough dense ti-tree channels.
Often its crew had to turn around andpaddle back along the fast flowing currentwhen penetration of the thick ti-tree wasimpossible.
The water was often too deep to stepout onto the shore and carry the craftaround ti-trees.
They carried the boat only when whitewater was too dangerous.
Like today’s adventurers they spenttheir first night at Posselts Ford.
On the second day the boat sank at thejunction of the Avon and Brockman Riverswhere it becomes theSwan.
Neil Bartlett was standing in the boatwhen it went down.
Being six foot tall he swam ashorewhen the water level reached his neck andSanisybi sank out of sight.
The following summer they went to thespot to retireve the boat and found itperched high in a tree 10 feetabove theriver.
In 1956 a second attempt was made.
They modifed the plans and built a newboat. It had canvas over the sides, its bowwas covered in and it had a sweep paddleon the back for steering.
Cost was 15 pounds ($30).
Bill Holt pulled out of the crew and hiscousin Neville took his place.
1956 also attracted challengers.
There was no trophy or prize money -just a chance to compete, so they called ita race.
A second boat was built from the sameblueprint, crewed by Gordon Houston, RonEdwards and Les Marwick and named‘Rust Bucket’, and a third boat of a moresophisticated design and constructioncrewed by Colin Arcus and a couple ofmates from Arcus Refrigeration made upthe challenge.
They stayed together for most of thejourney.
They helped each other in trouble spotand shared the laughter in moments ofmirth, but when the boats reached the openwaters of the Swan, the Arcus boatattached a motor and raced to the BarrackStreet Jetty leaving the others to completethe task with man-powered paddles.
There were no rules in those days.
A young man actually attempted the tripin a canoe along with the others in 1956.
He made it as far as Toodyay where thelocal constabulary tried to halt the racebecause he considered itdangerous.
The officer warned the contestantsabout the risks they were taking.
He was met with strong determinationand opposition to his request and steppedaside because they were allover 21.
All except the young canoeist.
The officer hauled him out of the waterand his adventure ended because he wasunder age.
Today men and women are still answeringthe challenge of the river.
They still have the spirit of adventureand the desire to challenge their own daring.
The Avon Descent is now a racebetween people power and machine power,and it attracts contestantsnationally andoverseas.
I like to believe that it is the call of thewild, the spirit of adventure and the challengeof daring that attracts people togetherannually for this event.
I’d also like to believe that prize moneyhas nothing to do with it.
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