Pt 1.22 – Painted boats, varnished ships and yellow dogs – the ancestors of the skiffs Pt 1


The 22 Footer Plover slides downwind under a vast rig including a mainsail (700 sq ft) balloon jib (521 sq ft), topsail (108 sq ft) and “ringtail” (629 sq ft)  set outside the mainsail leach. Pic from the Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum

Considering how famous the indigenous Australian breed of over-canvassed centreboarders has become, there’s something ironic in the fact that it wasn’t until the “yachties” of Sydney and the sailors of  New York, Liverpool, Hamburg and Melbourne had been sailing centreboarders for twenty years that the small-boat sailors  of Sydney adopted the centreboarder. By the 1870s, the old “deep keel dinghies” and other heavily-ballasted open boats were dying out in Sydney. A new breed of classes was being built with centreboards, and to build a new boat without one was “a rare thing nowadays”.[35]  [36]

Today the classic over-canvassed Australian open boats are usually called “skiffs”, but to the sailors of the time the time the “skiffs” were a specific sub-genre of the general type that was known simply as “the open boats”. From about 1870, when Sydney sailors referred to a “skiff” they meant one of the classes in which beam and hull depth (and sometimes rig and crew size) was restricted, which kept the hulls something vaguely like a rowing skiff.  In the 1870s, the “skiff” classes included 16, 19 and 22 Footers. And so we read 19th-century accounts of 19 and 22 Foot Skiffs that were “of the skiff style, the beam being limited to 5ft., and the depth 20in.” and we see regatta rules that referred to classes just for “skiffs” and specified the same sort of hull restrictions. Because the beam limit meant that the skiffs had limited stability, they carried rigs that were big, but not absurdly big.

Just to confuse the modern sailor more, to the sailors of 19th century Sydney a “dinghy” was a small boat (normally 14, 10, 8 and 6 Footers) which had no restrictions apart from overall length. Because they had no rules on beam, crew size or rig, the “dinghies” could pile on more sail and more and more beam and crew to keep it all upright. “Many were the wiseheads who believed that the only thing that could beat a big, wide boat with a big sail was a bigger, wider boat with an even bigger sail” the successful 16 Foot Skiff designer Bryce Mortlock wrote in the 1940s. [67]  And so the people to whom we owe the word “skiff”, as modern dinghy sailors use it, gave it the opposite meaning – a “skiff” was a narrower boat with a smaller rig, while a “dinghy” was the stereotypical beamy boat that staggered along under a vast mountain of canvas, and the craft of 18 feet and more were normally just called “open boats” and known by their overall length.

When the open boat sailors of Sydney finally adopted the centreboard in the 1870s, the most popular classes were the 16, 19 and 22 Foot Skiffs and the 24 foot “Fishing Boats”. But even after they adopted the centreboard, the boatbuilders of Sydney were slow to adopt the shallow and beamy “skimming dish” style of hull.  “In adopting the centreboard principle for pleasure-boats, our builders have designed a new type of hull quite unknown where centreboard models are most numerous, and their best form has occupied the attention of designers and builders for years” noted one puzzled local writer. “According to American authorities, the acme of perfection is a form of hull …..that will sail over rather than through the water. ……”[39]

Unlike their sandbagger contemporaries, the early centreboard open boats had deep hulls with fine sterns. Like the “deep keel dinghies”, they relied on fixed ballast rather than beam for stability. “In the construction of the newer craft now used in this harbour, builders have sought to arrive at speed by not depending on the centreboard alone, as they have also enlisted the aid of a sharp garboard strake, and some a moderately sharp rise of floor in the midship section” wrote a commentator of the era. “The inevitable consequence has been the introduction of ballast, without which some would hardly stand on an even keel with the mast on end. Thus the evil has increased until it becomes a simple test of ballast v sail.”

The glamour class of the era was the 24 Footers, which bore the nickname of “fishing boats” because of their descent from fishing craft like the “Schnapper boats” boats that worked in the rough ocean off Sydney Heads. [42]  [43]  “Those of us who remember the 24-footers hard at it competing with one another for victory in those days of long ago will not forget the excitement of the game” recalled H.C. Packham decades later. By 1876 it was said that there “are no races sailed in this harbour more looked forward to by the boating public than the so-called “Fishing Boat Races.”[64]   “Of all the open boats that ever sailed in or out of the bay no other provided excitement o the same liberal scale as the 24-footer”.

The “fishing boats” were the heroes of tough races around the harbour and also up and down the local coastline. They were driven hard; a famous account of an 1878 race refers to  a race in which half the boats capsized when gybing or, in one case, when  “the immense press of canvas drove her clean under”.  But despite their local fame, these early 24 Footers were actually not very different from the sort of big centreboarders that could be found in many other places around the world. They were half deckers,  described as “a more beamy and weatherly craft” than the earlier “skiffs”.[44]  The “fishing boats” were described as “real pleasure boats, being constantly kept afloat, and used for camping, fishing etc…” on the bushland shores of Sydney Harbour and on Broken Bay, 15 nautical miles north. [45]  Where the 22 Foot Skiffs had a maximum beam of 5ft, the 24 Footers had a minimum beam of 7ft.

Adelphi and others sailing
Adelphi (seen on the right in the pic above and in the contemporary drawing below) was one of the “painted boats” that raced in the early days of the 24 Footer class. A sistership to the famous Coryphene, Adelphi had a very long life.  The “painted boats” were an early stage in the development of the Sydney classes, and were quite similar to the half-deckers to be found in other areas. For instance, Coryphene and Adelphi were 7’4″ in beam, over two feet or more less than the later 24 Footers. Pic above from the Australian National Maritime Museum collection.


Tradition says that the men who sailed the open boats were all hard-nosed hard-knuckle waterfront workers, professional boatmen and labourers who sorted out problems with fists instead of protests. Accounts of the day indicate that, just as in the sandbaggers, the reality was different, and much more interesting. Packham recalled that the early open boat sailors included “some of our straightest and most respectable citizens”; doctors, senior public servants, a reverend and mayors.  [2]  An expatriate English baronet was a major supporter of the Open Boats over in Perth.[3]  Two of the biggest merchants in Sydney, Mark Foy and Sam Hordern, were among the biggest supporters of the open boats for decades. Patrick W Creagh, owner/skipper/designer of the top 24 Footers Victor and Aileen, was a successful lawyer and Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron member for years.[6]

Although Australia was fiercely proud of its egalitarian nature (with the highest wages and some of the shortest working hours in the world it was, as the visiting Mark Twain said, the working man’s paradise, ) portraits of members of the open boat clubs show faces that to our eyes seem to be as stiff and formal as those from the yacht clubs. George Holmes, scion of a famous open boat dynasty, was depicted in yachting jacket and cap in a pen portrait, and was proud to say that he had always been amateur sailor.  Given that he was reckoned to have earned 5000 pounds in prizemoney (a small fortune in those days) it seems that his definition of “amateur” was as loose as that of W G Grace or other upper-crust sportsmen who earned a good living as “amateurs” – but the fact that he stressed his status seems significant. [4]  [5]

The socio-economic mix seems to have been seen as a bonus; “a man who goes yachting will meet with more men of a different class from his own than he would at cricket, golf or tennis” wrote the sailing writer Taffrail “and it is not one of the least charms of cruising to meet those who gain their livelihood on the salt water.”[7]   For many years the most generous patron of all was the merchant and politician S.H. Hyam, who was commodore of the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club, the first club formed for the Open Boats and paid for several boats at a time for others to sail. “He had four crew going out from his sheds every Sunday and holiday, and in addition to finding the boats, gear, and entrance fees, he furnished refreshments for the crews, and in no niggardly fashion” it was said. The presence of men like Foy, Hordern, Hyam and Creagh seems to indicate that the Sydney open boat sailors were a mix of all types of people, which seems a much healthier situation than the monoculture it’s often said to be.[5b]

It was Hyam who sponsored young boatbuilder Joe Donnelly to introduce the “flatiron” type of hull which seems to have kicked off the transition from the Fishing Boats and skiffs to the stereotyped open boat staggering under a vast rig. “What may now be called the old fashion were about three beams to length, with round bottoms and slightly tumble home topsides” recalled one writer of the 1800s. “Then straighter bottoms were found to give greater stability, and by throwing off the topsides greater leverage could be obtained.  With this in view the tucks were also made much broader, and a modern racer therefore gets her crew out some fifteen inches further to windward than was possible three or four years ago: today 9 feet are not considered too much beam for a boat of 20 feet length, whereas 7 feet or 7 feet 6 inches were broad.” [54]

Reeks drawings 2
These sketches, prepared for an 1888 article by Sydney yacht designer Walter Reeks, show the difference between the early centreboard open boats (bottom) and the new breed (top). They show the transition from rounded sections and a narrow wineglass stern to a beamy, wide-stern “flatiron” shape with a finer bow and an “all deadrise and no bow” shape like the sandbaggers. A 24 Foot flatiron like Victor had 24 degrees of deadrise.  Illustrated Sydney News, 31 May 1888.

The beamy, wide-stern shape of the flatirons was “evidently aimed at giving the craft the greatest possible power within the limit of 24 feet in length.”  Donnelly’s pioneering  boats like the 24 Footer Lottie of 1876 were said to have a fine entrance, wide flare at the bow, and “an enormous tuck, 5ft 4in, and consequently great power aft.”  Lottie’s “great power enables her to set a fine spread of canvas, and carry it withal.”[49]  She was a bit slow to get tuned up, but when she did she set a new standard for the class.

The “flatirons” seem to demonstrate a different approach to design, represented by the move from painted to varnished hulls which led to them becoming known as the “varnished boats”.  To call boats after their colour scheme may seem superficial, but in fact the name seems to represent a fundamental change in design. The old 24 Footers, which were to become known as the “painted boats”, were “built more for pleasure than for racing”. They spent weeks at a time moored or cruising and needed durable painted topsides and a tarred bottom that resisted weeds and barnacles. [57]  But the new breed of “varnished boats” didn’t need a tough painted finish; they were pampered racing machines, pulled out of the water after every sail; a “varnished cedar racer with gold stripe and a ‘d___n the expense’ outfit” “varnished and polished beauties (which) would be rather out of place among the schnappers” it was said at the time.

The varnished 24 Footers seem to have been the first example of what has become the stereotyped Australian boat, carrying a mob of bodies and staggering along under skyscraping canvas. They were the first examples of a breed that carried more sail than any dinghy before or since. But what caused, and allowed, this development? It’s been put down to the fact that the open boat sailors were inspired by the hard-driving of the clipper ship captains like the legendary James Forbes – but then why would he have had more effect on the Australian psyche than in his homeland of Scotland where Cutty Sark and Thermopylae, the fastest clippers of all, came from?  If hard-driving clipper captains led people to sail open boats with vast sails, why didn’t they do the same in Marblehead, home town of Josiah and Eleanor Creesy who skippered and navigated the legendary Flying Cloud to her record passages?

The sailors of Sydney and Brisbane may have been hard-driving working men – but so were the sandbagger sailors and the professional seamen and fishermen who drove the huge schooners and cutters around the racetracks of Britain and the USA and were paid to win, and they didn’t carry as much sail. The Australians came from a pioneering culture – but so did the sailors of San Francisco and Auckland, and they didn’t carry as much sail. It wasn’t as if they were all wild colonial boys – many of them, like the great George Holmes who had lived in San Francisco until he was 16, were not locally born.

It may have been the geography and economy of Sydney (and the northern city of Brisbane, which was soon to play a major role in the open boats) that played a vital role in the development of the classic Australian breed. As well as warm protected waters and fairly predictable winds, both Sydney and Brisbane had small populations and long sheltered shorelines lined with small businesses and private boathouses where boats could be pulled ashore, rigged and stored. Neither faced the same sort of massive industrial development and pressure on the harbour and waterfront that had killed small boat racing of New York, the lower Thames and Philadelphia in the same era.

Because the “varnished boats” could be kept ashore when not racing, they didn’t need the ballast that the sandbaggers and painted boats required to stay upright on a nmooring. Ballast, in fact, would have been a hindrance when dragging the boats ashore, and it soon vanished from the open boats. The “painted boat” 24 Footer Snowdrop of 1877 carried 610kg of ballast. Just two years later, the “varnished boat” 24 Footer Bronte  carried a mere 152kg/336lb ballast.[56]  By 1881 there are reports of 24 footers racing “having no ballast”. [59]  The only ballast would come in human form, in ever-increasing amounts. The few pictures of the “painted boats” seem to show them carrying only about half a dozen crew. In 1879, Bronte carried 12 crew; by 1882 Victor was carrying 16 to 20.

Lottie cropped
Lottie, one of the first of the “flatiron” or “varnished boats” that changed the face of Sydney sailing. Compare the beam, rig and stern shape of Lottie to that of the “painted boat” Adelphi above.

As crews got bigger and beam got wider, stability and rig size both increased. By the late 1870s, the 24 footers were carrying booms up to 34’6” long, with a 25’6” mainsail hoist, 26 foot gaff and 17’ bowsprit.[52]  [53]  But what set the rig of the varnished boats apart from the simple rigs of the sandbaggers and the fishing boats wasn’t really their upwind sails, but the vast and complicated ones they set downwind.

The geography of the sailing courses seems to have played a role in rig design, as Frank Bethwaite noted. The geography and comparatively steady winds of Sydney Harbour and Brisbane lent themselves to mainly windward/leeward courses, instead of the reaching legs that the sandbaggers had often sailed. The square runs favoured massive downwind sails that dwarfed the rigs of English and American craft. By 1881 the  bigger open boats were setting squaresails downwind, topsails downwind (and in some cases upwind) and “watersails” that hung down from the boom.[60]  Soon they were setting “mainsail, jib, topsail, squaresail, raffee, spinnaker, ringtails, watersails; in fact anything that could be set.”

These complicated rigs must have been made more practical once the boats were kept ashore. Rigging such complex sails as spinnakers and “ringtails” would have been a nightmare on a moored boat in those days of heavy and rot-prone cotton sails, hemp lines and heavy dinghies. It must have become much easier when it was done at a beach alongside a boatshed.  Perhaps even more important was the fact that although stepping the mast was still a job for four men, it would have become practical to change the rig to suit the expected winds each day – a feature that became an absolutely vital factor in the development of the type that ended up being known as the skiffs. No boat could survive and sail fast under the vast light-wind rigs if a hard wind was blowing – sails and spars had to be changed to suit the conditions, just as they still are today in the 12, 16 and 18 Foot Skiff classes.

The 18 Footer Argo III, formerly HC Press III, ashore at Berrys Bay. She was owned by the Barnetts, whose descendants have been winning in 18s for decades. The small population of Sydney and Brisbane and their long shorelines meant that the waterfront was not taken over by industry as it had been in the lower Thames, New York and Philadelphia. The open boat sailors of Sydney could find a quiet and convenient sport to pull their boats out of the water for storage and rigging.  It may have been a critical factor in the development of the type we now know as the skiffs.

At some stage, many of the open boats also morphed from half-deckers to true undecked open boats.  It was said of the undecked boats that  “owing to their being less bound up by the weight of decks and deck beams they are ever so much faster than the decked boat, even those with large open cockpits.”  The danger and the extra care required to sail a boat without decks also added to the thrill, the writer said!

With boats like Lottie, the open boat classes had come close to the style that they were to maintain for the next half century or more.  “It was from (the Americans) that we have acquired our present type of open boats which have not only had the effect of completely banishing the deep keel type, but by experience have proved themselves so suitable in every way, that their adaptability for our waters is now beyond question” commented a writer in 1882.[55]  “Surely we shall soon lead the world, cease to speak of the American type and the English type, and have a type of our own, which other countries will look at with envious eyes, and call Australian” wrote another proud local.[54]

24 Footer from Kemp
No one has located a set of plans or a builder’s model of a 24 Footer, and none of the boats remain. This sketch of a 24 Footer from Dixon Kemp’s famous Manual and Reek’s drawings above are the only representations that I can find. There is no information about what design this represents, or the vintage. Compared to the sandbaggers or the Reeks sketch, this boat appears to have less deadrise and more volume down low in the midsections. This could be caused by inaccurate drawing, but it could have been a move towards a more powerful shape to handle the increasing size of the rig and crew, or perhaps to make this heavy boat buoyant enough to handle the chop and swell they sometimes met at the northern end of the Harbour. Note the little “mouldings” or “box gunwales” on the outboard edge of the gunwales -precursors to the wings of modern skiffs. Kemp says that this boat had a beam of 10ft/3.05m, not counting the mouldings. The other 24 Footers I can find information about are narrower than this. It’s possible that this is a later boat; the famous Aileen, which was so fast she almost killed the 24s, was said to have been more powerful than the earlier boats.

Not everyone approved of the move towards these beamy, powerful craft. “I don’t call them boats” was the later complaint of Andrew Reynolds, builder of the older and narrower types of 19 and 22 foot Skiffs. “They are ships”.[68]  Ships they may have been, but the power of the massive rigs, great stability and huge low-aspect steel centerboards made the 24s fast in many conditions. “Length for length there are no boats afloat which will hold these Sydney “flat irons” in a light day….on the wind in smooth water they have never been beaten by any boat which has been brought to race them” wrote Dixon Kemp. “The great area of lateral resistance, the small displacement, and the very powerful sail plan are all in favour of weatherly qualities of no small order.” [69]  Even today you can get a taste of what they must have been when the replica 18s thunder downwind under their mountain of light-air sail.

In other conditions, Dixon (who claimed to have seen them race) believed that the 24s were slow. “In a seaway they pound frightfully, and a Clyde 23ft boat would do what she liked with them in a thrash to windward under such conditions” he reported. “Off the wind they tend to bury, and their great beam will prevent great speed”.  One contemporary report rates the 24s “faster than any of the 5 tonners”; a conventional racing keel yacht of roughly about 36ft/11m overall. [70]

Lady Loch
The 24 Footer Lady Loch staggers down the shoreline of Balmain under squaresail, mainsail, jackyard topsail, squaresail, and balloon jib. The square sails with their heavy and cumbersome yards were replaced by spinnakers, which were easier to set. A cropped version of a photograph from the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Hall Collection.

Inevitably, the new style came at a cost. The old “painted boats” retreated to racing under handicap or with crews limited to amateurs or in numbers, leaving the most prestigious and richest events for the “varnished boats” and their crowd of paid hands.[58]  [50]  There was a cost for the owners of new breed, too. By 1882, the Australasian newspaper reported that owners were having to pay their 16 to 20 professional crew a pound each race, with more for the skipper. Each start was costing the owner 10 to 40 pounds – a lot of money when a labourer could earn about 100 pounds per year.

As early as 1881, there were reports that some owners of the “ships” had “become tired of that very expensive commodity – the professional element” and were no longer racing in events open to pros.[71]  The big 24s started to fade, to lose their cachet as the premium class. Aileen, the fastest of them all, spent years in a shed and then was sold to the southern colony of Victoria where she was modified in an unsuccessful attempt to make her able to handle the rougher conditions of the open waters of Port Phillip Bay. Although there was a small revival of the 24 Footers later in the century, the centre of attention turned to smaller boats.

The 22 Footers

The 24 Footers seem to be important historically because they show us how the characteristic open boat evolved from a typical half decker into something unique. The 22s don’t seem to have been involved in any major design change like the 24s had. They just took the same concepts, and took it even further.  The tale of the 22s can be expressed pretty easily in numbers – big numbers that kept on getting bigger.

Probasbly the new Esmerelda leadig Portia, 22s, Balmain regatta 1889 henry king tyrell pwhr
Judging from the regatta reports and cross-referencing from other photographs it seems that this Henry King photograph, titled “Luffing Match” and taken at the 1889 Balmain Regatta, may show the new 22 Footer Esmerelda (to windward) passing Fortia to take a win in her first race. The boats all seem to be carrying their small sail but even allowing for the strong wind, Fortia’s bow is kicking up serious spray considering how flat the water is in this narrow part of upper Sydney Harbour. Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

In some ways one of the earliest 22s was one of the greatest of them all. Built by Donnelly in 1887, Irex was 9ft6in/2.9m in beam and measured 60ft/18.29m from the tip of her bowsprit to the end of her 28ft/8.53m boom. Downwind, her rig stretched about 68ft/20.73m from the end of her spinnaker pole to the tip of her ringtail. Her upwind sail area was said to be 900 to 1000 sqft (83.6 to 92.9m2) and downwind with her balloon jib, ringtail and spinnaker set she was said to carry from 3,400 to 4,000 sq ft (316 to 371.6m2) of sail – about as much area as a TP52’s mainsail and spinnaker! Compared to a sandbagger of the same size and era, the upwind rig of a boat like Irex seems to have been smaller but slightly higher in aspect, but the downwind rig was over twice as large. [78]

Irex’s greatest victory came in an arena the 24s never had – competition from another city. In the 1800s Australia was still a collection of separate British colonies rather than a nation, and there was a small fleet of 22s in the northern city of Brisbane in the colony of Queensland. In 1894, the Sydney sailors packed a team of three boats onto coastal steamers and sent them 475 nautical miles north for the first Intercolonial championship. It was a major logistical effort in an era when few small-boat sailors looked outside their home regions, and it may well have been the first “national” sailing championship outside of canoeing. The winner was the Brisbane boat Bulletin, owned and sailed by J.H. Whereat. It was an apt victory – although the cliche says that the skiffs and open boats were a Sydney phenomenon, Brisbane that was to drive many of the design developments for decades. As the Sydney sailors admitted, it was the Brisbane sailors who brought in innovations like the spinnaker (replacing the cumbersome square sail), multi-part spinnaker poles, “lee cloth” to stop water washing over the leeward gunwale, and the high-aspect Linton-Hope style “dagger” centreboards.

Irex cropped
In some ways Irex was the greatest of all 22s. Built by Donnelly in 1887, she won the Intercolonial Championship of 1897, and was still rated among the top three boats in the class in 1898. By that time she was about 18in/50cm narrower than the current 22 Footers and Australian Yachtsman and Canoeist magazine was describing her as “only a dinghy compared with latter-day 22-footers”. Photo from the Australian National Maritime Museum site.

The lure of Intercolonial racing was said to have spurred competition in the 22 Footers. In 1898, merchant Sam Hordern had a 22 Footer designed and built by England’s Linton Hope. It seems that Hope’s Bronzewing V had a rounded stem rather than the normal vertical stem. She had a beam of 10ft/3.03m – 1ft/30cm wider than Irex – and displaced two tons (    kg).  Bronzewing was deemed a failure, for unknown reasons, and was replaced by the locally-designed Plover. Plover was about 18″ wider than Bronzewing and set about the same amount of sail as Irex, with a 700ft2 mainsail with a 32’6″ foot; a 261 ft2 jib; and a 108ft2 topsail.  Downwind she added a 521 ft “balloon jib”, 1061ft2 spinnaker 44ft on the foot and 43′ on the hoist; 629ft2 ringtail; and a 156 ft jib topsail.  A boat like Plover cost about 200 pounds, half of the cost going to the hull and half going to the three rigs. Sources of the time said that this was three times as much as a racing keelboat of similar performance.

Plover unknown tyr pow zoomed in
The glass negatives that the Victorian photographers used can be amazingly crisp, as in this shot that I’ve zoomed in on to show the details of the 22 Footer Plover. In some ways this is my favourite picture of a big open boat, because its clarity allows so much detail to be seen. Note the clew of the  enormous balloon jib and the vast “gin board” centreboard pulled up by the big handles along the top. I count 19 men in the crew; a fairly typical mob. The open boats were normally planked in Australian cedar, a beautiful and light timber that was logged almost to extinction, and a cedar-planked boat with a rich owner like Plover’s Sam Hordern must have been a stunning sight. Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum, unknown photographer.

Keriki, launched the same year, was 11’5″ in overall beam, 8ft across the “tuck” or transom, and had 9in of fore-and-aft rocker along the keel line. Her vast rig included a 31′ mast and a boom listed as either 36ft or 38’6″ long (almost as long as that of the sandbagger Parole, which was 5ft longer), a 22ft long gaff, a topsail yard 21ft long, and a 40ft spinnaker pole.[77]

keriki and wonga cropped
The 22 Footer Keriki, left, leads the famous Effie. Both boats are carrying their enormous light-wind rigs, with the tip of the topsail jackyard about 44ft above the deck. Effie, the 1898 Intercolonial champion, had the same midsection as the champion 24 Footer Ida. Pic from the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Despite their enormous rigs, as late as 1895 the 22 Footers were rated 3 minutes slower per race than the 24 Footer champion Ida, which had the same midsection as the top 22 Footer Effie. [73]  It was probably an indication of the vital importance of effective waterline length in these powerful boats, which must have reached their hull speed early, but were too fat and heavy to plane.  But the 22s were certainly fast compared to contemporary yachts, and in a series of challenges in a variety of conditions they proved to be able to beat conventional deep-keel racers like the 2 1/2 Rater Bronzewing, about 11m/36ft long.

Wonga Tyurell powerhouse

Wonga upwind cropped
The 22 Footer Wonga reaching (top) and going upwind (above). She was owned by A.W. Crane, owner of the “Rater type” yachts Mercia, Lauren and Sunbeam and Vice-Commodore of the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club. The fact that 22s were owned by such rich men sheds an interesting light on the tradition that they were a boat sailed only by working-class men. The size of the wake in the top pic shows how far these heavy, powerful hulls were from being planing boats.  Top pic; Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum. Lower pic, Australian National Maritime Museum photo.

Like the 24s before them, the interest in the 22s faded due to their cost and big crew; “Owners found that they were too costly to keep up, and the difficulty in getting a sufficient crew to man them was another drawback.” [72]  “As far as the 22ft. unlimited crew class is concerned there is very little hope of progress” said a report of a meeting of the famous Johnstones Bay Sailing Club. “The cost of fitting out a 22-footer, and the difficulty of getting together the large crews that are required to man them, are becoming more and more appreciated, and it seems to be only a matter of a year or two, when the class will be extinct.”[97]  By 1899 there were only five active 22s in Sydney.[107]  Although a small Queensland fleet of 22s survived until the 1920s, they were no longer popular.   [108]   [109]   The smaller Open Boats were now where the action was.

Yellow dogs

One of the least-known types of all the open boats may also have been one of the most significant in some ways. Late in the 19th century, commercial hire boat operators in Sydney operated dozens of open boats around 24 ft/7.3m long. They were built of the wonderful New Zealand kauri wood, slightly heavier but much more durable than the Australian cedar of the “varnished boats”, and the golden hues of their varnished topsides gave them the label of the “yellow dogs”.

Yellow dogs cropped

Photographer William King titled this photograph simply “Half Decked Boats”, but from the lack of topsails, ballooners and any apparent spinnaker gear they seem to be a group of “Yellow Dogs” or “hired boats”, which normally raced just under jib and mainsail. Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum

The “yellow dogs” were said to be “well found and fast, and some of them are second to none in the harbour.”  Not surprisingly, groups of boatless sailors often clubbed together to hire them for races, but both the major open-boat clubs, the Balmain and the Sydney Amateur Sailing Clubs, refused to allow the hired boats to race “on the grounds that they are hired by professionals, although they are manned and sailed by amateurs”.  The sailors of the “yellow dogs” responded by forming the Port Jackson Sailing Club, restricted only to hired boats and normally racing under just jib and mainsail, as few of the hired boats had full racing rigs.

The 24 Footer Craigielee was one of the fastest of the “Yellow Dogs” and also one of the fastest boats in the mixed-fleet handicap racing that the later 24 Footers did most of the time. Bruce Stannard’s famous book “Blue Water Bushmen” states that her beam was 12ft and that she carried up to 24 crew. Here she is seen in 1882. Photo from the Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum

The Port Jackson SC and the Yellow Dogs were examples of a scene where a combination of geography, economy and society made sailing available to a wide strata of society.  As late as 1907 it was written that “some of the boats are still extant and may be recognised by the boisterous fun their crews indulge in, and the music hall songs they sing. Boat sailing is the monopoly of no caste in Sydney, and the harbor, one of the best playgrounds in the world, is open just as much to the youngsters who put their sixpences together and hire a yellow dog as to the owner of a 40-tonner.”

From early in the PJSC’s short life, it started using a handicap system where slower boats and crews were given a handicap based on their actual performance, as in golf, alongside normal “scratch” racing. Handicap racing was to become a staple of open boat sailing, and it still is. The handicapping kept less skilled sailors and boats that had been out-designed in the hunt for prizes,which helped the fleets maintain critical mass. It probably encouraged development, because a boat that had been out-designed could still be sold as a handicap racer, maintaining its second-hand value and allowing their vendors to build again. Other regions used personal handicaps, but none of them seem to have put such emphasis on the system as the open boats did. In Australia and New Zealand even national championships included handicap series running in parallel with the elapsed-time racing, and many still do. Even today, in skiff clubs a boat that finishes half an hour after an identical boat can still be declared the winner and earn as much prizemoney as the boat that took the gun.

The Yellow Dogs and other big open boats were also regularly used for day cruising. The shores of Brisbane’s Moreton Bay and Sydney Harbour offered miles of unspoiled bushland. Contemporary sources indicate that weekend cruising was one of the major attractions of the big open boats. Their big cockpit was ideal for picnic sailing, and their shallow draft allowed them to come into shore without the hassle of dealing with the big heavy dinghies and anchors of the time. Many open boat sailors spent their weekends sleeping under a boom tent or camping ashore and swimming in the nude (which caused the occasional issue with policemen who did not believe that the naked swimmer they were scolding was a respectable politician or businessman).

But cruising also showed the darkest side of the open boats. Like the catboats of New York, they left a shocking trail of death and danger behind them. The Sydney racers don’t seem to have been too concerned with the safety of the open boats. Compared to the ballasted half-deckers like the old deep keel dinghies, the centreboarders must have seemed safe. The loss of the well known and successful half-decked yacht Haidee in 1839 showed how dangerous the ballasted half-deckers could be. She rolled over and sank in Sydney Harbour with the loss of five lives, including her owner’s brother and two women. An old sailor was asked to dive down during her salvage, but only blood came up; he had been taken by a shark. Attempts to recover the bodies were abandoned when one was eaten by a shark as it was raised. Weeks later, the limb from another crewman was found in the stomach of another shark. It was not normally a one-sided fight; the famous open boat sailors of the Barnett clan, the legendary pro skipper Chris Webb and boatbuilder Langford once armed themselves with harpoons and fought a day-long battle in front of hundreds of spectators with sharks swarming over a dead cow.

The fit and skilled young men who raced the open boats were rarely lost in Sydney, where the waterways were narrower and there was ample other traffic, but as with the catboats of New York there was a terrible toll of women encumbered by long skirts and of less experienced sailors.  In the decade from 1892, almost 30 lives were lost in capsizes of open sailing boats in Australia. In the wide open waters off Brisbane, even fit young men could die horribly. When the fast 22 Footer Zenobia capsized in Moreton Bay off Brisbane five men died; two brothers died in the arms of the sole survivor and two more went insane as they clung for days to the upturned hull. A couple of years later on the southern end of the Bay, no less than nine men died when an 18 foot half-decked boat that occasionally raced capsized in a squall. In those days with scanty social security, the plight of families who lost their sole breadwinner when sailing must have caused lifelong issues for the surviving wife and children.

The tragedies of the big open boats showed that the type was basically unsuited for use as a dual-purpose cruiser/racer. The arrival of lighter, cheaper and more efficient racing types showed that the 22s and 24s were no longer the ideal type for speed. As the century drew to a close, the attention moved to the smaller boats, and the 22s, 24s and Yellow Dogs faded into history.



[1] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets, No 9”, Evening News, 7 Dec 1907 p 6; and Referee, 15 Dec 1920 p 21

[2] See “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 9”, Evening News 7 Dec 1907 p 6;

[3] The Ausralian motor boat and yachting monhly, Oct 1 1925 p 31

[4] Sydney Sportsman, 27 Nov 1901 p 6

[5] In fact it seems that the Open Boat sailors were just as interested in protests as the yachties; J McMurtrie, owner of the top class 22 Footer Effie, once brought his lawyers and threatened to sue the committee of the Johnstone’s Bay Sailing Club after they disqualified him. To make it worse, McMurtrie was the club’s own president at the time! ( (The Telegraph (Brisbane) 20 Jan 1899 p 6). Langford, another famous Open Boat sailor and builder, protested a competitor in a Sydney Flying Squadron race for the pretty technical breach of having an inadequate sail insignia (Referee 24 April 1895 p 8).

[5b] Although another club claims to be the oldest Open Boat club, this appears to be based on a definition that excludes the older half deckers and amateur crews. As early as 28 April 1879 the Sydney Morning Herald was reporting on claims that the SASC under Hyam had brought “open boats, and open boat sailing in Sydney Harbour” to its “present state of perfection.”

[6] Referee, 13 Aug 1913 p 15

“with the highest wages and almost the second shortest working hours”; see ‘Real incomes in the English-speaking world, 1879-1913’ by Robert C. Allen, in G. Grantham and M. MacKinnon, eds., Labour Market Evolution, London Routledge, 1994.

[7] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 8”   30 Nov 1907 p 11

[9] The Globe and Sunday Times War Pictorial, 1 Apr 1916 p 15

[10] The Globe and Sunday Times War Pictorial, 1 Apr 1916 p 15

[17] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Sep 1856 p 1

[18] SMH 14 Jan 1859 p 5

[19] The South Australian Advertiser, 2 Feb 1859 p 3

[20] SMH 1 Dec 1859 p 3

[21] SMH 7 Feb 1860 p 1

[22] SMH 10 Feb 1857 p 5

[23] Sydney Mail Jan 30 1897 p 233

[24] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertister, 30 Jan 1897, p 239


Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer (NSW : 1845 – 1860)


Previous issueSaturday 7 February 1857

[26] Sydneyt Morning Herald 1 Feb 1858 p 4

[27] Moreton Bay Courier, 12 Jan 1859 p 4

[28] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertister, 30 Jan 1897 p 233

[29] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertister, 30 Jan 1897 p 228. This article written with first hand information from several of Sydney’s pioneer yachtsmen.

[30] Illustrated Sydney News, 15 April 1886 p 10;

[31] “Evolution of the broad tucked boat”, The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 5 Jan 1910 p 36

[32] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets” No 1” Evening News, 12 Oct 1907 p3

[33] Australian Motor Boat and Yachting Monthly, June 1927 p 9.

[34] See for example Sydney Mail, 2 December, 1865 p 9 re Balmain regatta

[35] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 14 Sep 1878 p 421

“And so we read 19th-century accounts”: see also

[36] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser of 26 June 1875 p 814 called the centreboarders “handy and safe” and said that they were becoming so popular that they would offer better racing than larger boats.

“were of the skiff style”;  The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 30 Jan 1897 p 239

[37] “Early Open-Boat Sailing”, H R Pckham, Referee, May 24 p 16

[38] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 30 Jan 1897 p 239

[39] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 4 March 1876 p 312

[40] Bells life in Victoria and Sporting chronicle, Melb, 16 Sep 1865 p 4

[41] “Sydney’s Old Sailing Days”, Referee, 15 Dec 1920 p 21

[42] As in for example Australian Town and Country Journal, 29 Sept 1877 p 28 and 13 Nov 1875 p 31

[43] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets, Ancient and modern, no 1”Evening News (Sydney) 12 October 1907 p 3

[44] Saturday Referee and the Arrow, 11 Oct 1913 p 3

[45] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 Feb 1880 p 412

[46] Austr Town and Coiuntry Journal , 29 Sept 1877 p 28

[47] “Racing 24 footers of Past Generations” HC Packham, Referee, 19 July 1916 p 9

[48] Australian Town and Country Journal, 30 Sept 1876 p 31

[49] Australian Town and Country Journal, 4 Nov 1876 p 31

[50] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 Feb 1880 p 412

[51] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 6 Nov 1880 p 892

[52] A Manual of yacht and Boat Sailing, Dixon Kemp, facsimile of 1898 edition, p 441.

[54] Illustrated Sydney News 31 May 1888 p 7-8. DRAWINGS

[55] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 14 January 1882

[56] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 19 Oct 1878 p 620

[57] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 18 Jan 1879 p 100

[58] See for example The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 11 Jan 1879 p 61,

There are many tales of crew being asked to leap overboard when wind dropped off, as early as 1898 this was banned. [88]

[59] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 Feb 1880 p 412.  The same report notes that Lizzie had flotation tanks for 16cwt ballast, but that appears to have been because she was originally “built more for cruising than racing purposes”, having internal linings and “a ballast deck”.  It was noted that her rival Snowdrop had all her own similar fittings and her ballast removed.

“Although there was a small revival of the 24 Footers”;- Open Boats, Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser, 30 Jan 1897 p 240. The passage goes on to note that the new breed of 24 Footers, such as Craigielee, Mantura, Volunteer and the trio built by the ferry-owning Stannard family of Our Tom, Our Jack and Our May, normally raced on handicap in mixed fleets rather than in class racing. Ida, not a hired boat, was said to have joined in and proved too fast for the class.

[60] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 30 Dec 1882 p 1190.

[61] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 4”,  Evening News 2 Nov 1907 p 13

[62] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 3”, Evening News 26 Oct 1907, “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 4”,  Evening News 2 Nov 1907 p 13

[63] “Early OIpen-Boat Sailing” H C Pakham, Referee 24 May 1916 p 16

[64] Australian Town and Country Journal, 4 Nov 1876 p 31

[65] Evening News Sydney 22 June 1910 p 11

[66] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 2 Aug 1879 p 180

[67] “Evolution of the 16-Footer”, Bryce Mortlock, Seacraft Sep 1948 p 157

[68] Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 9”, Evening News 7 Dec p 6

[69] A Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing, Southampton 1988, reprint of 1895 edition p 441-2

[70] Port Adelaide News and Lefevre’s Peninsula Advertiser, 11 Dec 1883 p 5

[71] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 May 1881 p 867

“Irex was 9ft6in/2.9m in beam”:- Irex’s dimensions come from “We were one” by Maud Wyllie and Australian Yachtsman and Canoeist September 1898. The magazine gave her sail dimensions as; mainsail gaff 17ft; boom 28ft; mast 30ft; balloon jib 35ft x 25ft; spinnaker 42ft by 32ft; ringtail 37ft x 15ft; jib foot 17ft.

[72] Saturday Referee and Arrow, 11 Oct 1913 p 3

[73] Sunday Times (Sydney) 27 Oct 1895 p 7

[74] The Queenslander, 8 Jan 1898 p 75

[75] Bluewate Bushmen, Bruce Stannard,

[76] Auatralian Motor Boat and Yachting Monthly June 1925 p 34

[77] Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 4, Evening News, 16 Nov 1907 p 11

[78] The Brisbane Courier, 23 Sept 1898 p 7

“Plover was about 18″ wider than Bronzewing”;- Brisbane Courier, 21 Oct 1898

“Keriki, launched the same year”;- Brisbane Courier, 21 Oct 1898

“Wonga was owned by A.W. Crane” – The Amateurs, p 63

“The major open-boat clubs, Balmain and the Sydney Amateurs”  Evening News, Sydney, 22 Aug 1888 p 8

“the boats as a rule are well found and fast” Evening News, Sydney, 22 Aug 1888 p 8

[79] Sydney Morning Herland 17 September 1869 p 7

[80] Sydney Morning Herald, 25 June 1879 p 7

[81] Brisbane Courier 13 March 1899 p 7; Referee 8 Mac 1899 p 9

[82] Queanbetan Age, 13 November 1895 p 3

[83] Western Mail, 9 October 1896, p 43

[84] Evening News 27 Dec 1899 p 6

[85] Wagga Wagga Express, 29 Oct 1907 p 4

[86] Evening News, 6 Nov 1907 p 5

[87] Cairns Post, 26 November 1919, p2

[88] The Brisbane Courier, 23 Sept 1898 p 7

[89] Sometimes other vessels were too close – The West Australian or 14 October 1907 detailed how one crewmember of the 18 Footer Zena drowned when the boat capsized just in front of a ferry during a race, and the crewman was jammed a sponson.  It was the second death in a capsize within a cople of miles that day.

[90] The Telegraph, Bris, 15 Nov 1895 p 6

[91] Bris Courier       21 May 1894

[92] Sydney Morning Herald, 14 September 1897 p 5.  The Zenobia, a Hamilton design, had been launched for racing in 1894 (The Telegraph Brisbane 20 Jan 1894 p 6)  She was a clinker boat, about 12’ in beam “shallow and flat on the floor, and not regarded as a good sea-boat. On this occasions she is said to have been under racing canvas but double-reefed” according to the Darling Downs Gazette of 15 September 1897.

Reports of the enquiry said that she was “of great beam – very shallow – and consequently destitute of any safe freeboard.  Her sail area was greatly in excess of what she could prudently carry, and in its general construction and equipment the boat belonged to a type of vessel that can only be styled a racing machine, and which is utterly unfitted, by reason of unseaworthy qualities, for navigating waters outside the shelter of a harbour”. The Week, 5 Nov 1897 p 23  . She had been third in one race in the 1895 Intercoloinlia, regatta, she had already capsized and swamped during racing.

[93] The Teleg

[94] The big open boats were not the only types that lost crew; the Brisbane Courier, 9 Jan 1933 p 10 reported that the Rater-type Romp lost four crew one terrible night off Brisbane, and a        , but they seem to have a wildly disproporionate number of casualties.

[95] Goulbuorn Evening Penny Post, 28 Jan 1936, p 1

[96] Leader, 16 March 1918 p 38

[97] The Queenslander, 18 Feb 1899 p 294.

[98] Referee, 12 Oct 1898 p 5. The Sydney Morning Herald of 19 Sep 1898 p 5 gives Maid’s dimensions as 24’ LOA, 22’ LWL, 7’6” beam. Ilex had 9’7” beam.

[99] The Telegraph (Brisbane) 28 October 1898 p 6

[100] Sydney Morning Herald 29 Sep 1898 p 5

[101] The Telegraph (Brisbane) 28 Oct 1898 p 6

[102] The Telegraph (Brisbane) 28 Oct 1898 p 6

[103] Sydney Morning Herald 6 June 1910 p 10

[104] The Queenslander, 18 Feb 1899 p 294

[105] The Queenslander, 29 April 1899 p 775

[106] For esample, the Sunday Times Sunday 14 Apr 1895 p 6

[107] The Telegraph (Bris.) 13 Jan 1899 p 6

[109] As late as 1925 there were still seven 22s racing as a class in Brisbane; Australian Motor Boat and yachting Monthly, Dec 1925 p 49.

The hired half-decked 18 Footer Mona capsized with three deaths in Sydney Harbour in 1895. [82]  The same year, a Brisbane yachting correspondent thought it was worth noting that “for over two years…there had not been any lives lost in accidents to sailing boats, so far as I can remember”, but then had to report the death of a man when the 22 footer Vivid capsized. [90]   His memory must have been faulty; the 22 Footer Margeurite had lost a man in a capsize the year before. [91] An entire family of four died when a cruising-style dinghy with a small spritsail capsized in Perth in 1896.[83]  On 27 December 1899, the hired 22 Footer Splendour lost three young women and a young man in a capsize in almost the same part of Sydney Harbour where four lives were lost in a rowing skiff the same day.[84]

Two years after Zenobia was lost, nine died when the old-fashioned handicap racer 18 foot “half decker” Roxana “which carried a large sail” capsized in Brisbane.  Her skipper and all three sons, aged    were among the dead.[93]   The Brisbane Courie of 31 Dec 1906 also reported that the 22 foot long Blue Spec had capsized near Green Island with fatalities.  In 1907, the 22 Footer Vigilant lost a man in a capsize in Sydney Harbour.[85]  The coroner’s report came through the same day as that of the 18 fooer Zena and another man, lost in the capsize of a small sailing. [86] On Perth’s Swan River, all four aboard the 16 footer Cynthia died after a capsize in 1919.[87]   The entire crew of the national champion 14 Footer Sunny South was drowned when she capsized in a race off Adelaide. Not even the fishing boats that raced were spared; a football team sailing home from a match in Melbourne were drowned, and the skipper’s brother was lost with his crew on a sistership during a race a few years later.

The big open boats were not the only types that lost crew; the Brisbane Courier, 9 Jan 1933 p 10 reported that the Rater-type Romp lost four crew one terrible night off Brisbane, and there were similar tragedies elsewhere, but they seem to have a wildly disproportionate number of casualties.

“They are

deep roomy boats, with fine entrance and great beam, and carry from one to two touB

of ballast stowed underneath a platform, forming a sort of deck below the thwarts” wrote one sailing correspondent. “[40]


Author: cthom249

A former sailing journalist and magazine editor, I was lucky enough to grow up in Sydney, one of the world's sailing hotspots and to win national and state championships in classes like J/24s, Windsurfer One Designs, offshore racers, Laser Radial open, Windsurfer OD Masters, Raceboard Masters and Laser Radial Masters, to get into the placings in a few other classes, and do a few Sydney to Hobarts.

4 thoughts on “Pt 1.22 – Painted boats, varnished ships and yellow dogs – the ancestors of the skiffs Pt 1”

    1. Thanks Michael! They’re a fascinating boat, and due to the costs involved we’ll probably never see any replicas. One point that’s going to come up later is that they get a bad rep for speed compared to 18s. There are some sources that say the 18s were lighter and faster, but the reports of the many races between 18s, 22s and 24s show clearly that the big boats were faster – not surprising when they would all have achieved hull speed very easily but not planed.

      Liked by 1 person

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