Meet Phil


Fourth Generation 18 foot skiff racer
Descendant of the first Sydney Harbour boat operators

Meet Phil

Fourth Generation 18 foot skiff racer
Descendant of the first Sydney Harbour boat operators

I hop onto one of Sydney’s Rivercats and climb up the stairs, into the wheelhouse where a radio softly plays summer tunes.”Hello! Come on in!” says Phil with a friendly smile. The ferry reverses with three deafening beeps of the horn.

In full Master dress and sun-soaked skin, Phil Barnett pulls out his family’s history on the harbour all contained in one blue folder.
There’s a long-spanning history with Phil Barnett’s family, tracing right back to some of the original boat operators of the harbour. He tells me, “While the Harbour Bridge was being constructed, they (his family) used to row their skiffs from McMahon’s Point to Circular Quay and that was the mode of transport for a lot of people at that time. Before the Bridge was there and before the ferries were running, people used to row water taxis, basically.”

With a love of water trickling down the family tree, it’s the 18ft skiff races that really get the Barnett family’s heart pumping. It was all started by Billy Barnett, Phil’s dad’s cousin who won a World Championship in 18 ft skiffs back in 1952. “Since then, my great grandfather won a World Championship and my father won a World Championship.”

Just as his ancestors did, Phil leads a career as a professional ferry captain, but Phil is a World Championship winner himself. In fact, he’s a three time winner of the JJ Giltinan trophy – first in 1987, then ’88 and ’89. “My son is eighteen now and he’s a keen sailor, so really the pressure’s on him to see if he races 18 ft skiffs and eventually does well. (Laughs)”

Since then, my great grandfather won a World Championship and my father won a World Championship.

This past January, Phil raced in the historic 18 ft skiffs championships in a fleet of twelve boats – all replicas of original, vintage boats that were built in the forties and fifties. Myra Too was the name of his boat – a replica of Billy Barnett’s winning 1952 vessel. “Billy Barnett had his boat building business in Berrys Bay. Unfortunately, the boatshed burnt down. I’m not even exactly sure when, but he lost all of his original plans and photos and everything else.”

With no plans to work from, boat designer David Payne worked closely with Billy Barnett and Billy’s original apprentice shipwright, Bob McLeod to create a replica as close to the original as possible. Using mainly historic photos from the Australian National Maritime Museum, Billy, who turns 100 this year, was sure to cast a sharp eye over the new designs.

“We’ve been down to the Maritime Museum with Bill and there’s a photo of us all standing there with the boat. So we’ve got his seal of approval to sail it. Apparently he was an orange haired gentleman, he was quite feisty in his time. They used to call him the Red Man and when he was out sailing he was all very serious, but when he came to shore he was a bit of a larrikin and enjoyed a few beers with his crew.”

When asked what it’s like to be a world champion, his eyes brighten, “Well! It’s a fair while ago for me now and longer for Bill, but it’s one of those things I think you never forget. You never forget all of your sailing friends and you never forget the times when you’ve done well, and probably the times you’ve done not so well. It’s like any sport you do in your life, you always remember it.”

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