Pt 1.24: Fourteens dominant; the early history of southern and western Australian dinghies

The traditional tale of early Australian sailing history, whether told in the club bar or in print, is dominated by the classes that were sailed in Sydney. But around the rest of the huge coastline of the sparsely-populated continent other dinghy sailors were creating their own designs, suited to their own conditions. The common ground on which they met was the 14 Footers – a class that evolved from a clutch of very different local designs into a force that dominated dinghy sailing in the southern and western states of Victoria, South Australia and West Australia for decades.

As always, the direction and pace of development was affected by politics and society as well as by geography. As late as 1920, Australia had the same population as that of New York, but spread over an area almost as big as “mainland” USA. Perth, one of the main sailing cities, is still the most isolated city on earth.  Each state had been an independent colony until the nation of Australia was formed in 1901, and local pride still ran deep. National championships were seen by both the sailors and the newspapers of each state as a chance to display the quality of their local sailors and boats, but transporting a single dinghy and crew across the country to a regatta cost as much as a year’s average wage. The high cost of transportation meant that for many years, states ran trials to select a representative boat or team and then subsidised their freight with fund raised by clubs, other sailors and fund raising activities. To keep the racing fair, in some classes only boats that were on a state team were permitted to enter the nationals.  It was a system that highlighted the rivalry between each state’s stream of design thinking, and also encouraged parochial newspapers to provide some detailed coverage of the exploits and designs of their home-state heroes.

The dinghies of the southern and western states were shaped by different conditions to those of the east coast. In the states of Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia the winds are often stronger, the water normally colder. South Australia and Victoria also suffer from the handicap of having their capital cities located on wide open expanses of rough water, where sheltered sailing waters and even sheltered launching spots were rare.

Perhaps because of the conditions, in the early days of dinghy sailing the fleets in the southern and western states were smaller than those to the north and east.  Perhaps it was the need to maintain critical mass in such small and isolated communities that lead so many of the sailors of these states to stay loyally attached to 14 Footers, instead of scattering into a bewildering array like Sydney and Brisbane did.

In the West

Edna, 1912/13 national Fourteen Footer champion. The early West Australian boats were very similar to those sailed in Sydney and Brisbane; in fact many had been sent across the continent from the eastern states. In this pic she is sailing on the rough waters off Adelaide, South Australia.  Pic from 22 March 1913, when she raced in South Australia to encourage SA boats to enter the inter-state challenge cup event in Victoria – the event that was to make Edna obsolete.The white lee cloths what can be seen were vital in keeping these undecked boats afloat in rough water.

Western Australia is an interesting place to start the story. Organised dinghy sailing in the west started early. The flat waters and the famous Fremantle Doctor seabreeze of the Swan River in the state capital of Perth offer superb sailing conditions, so it was no surprise to see occasional racing amongst miscellaneous dinghies and sailing canoes as early as the 1870s, when the population of the fledgling town perched between the ocean and the desert was less than 10,000. By 1898, when the population of Perth spiked due to a short-lived goldrush, an organised racing association had been formed. Since Perth has comparatively warm and steady winds and flat water, it’s not surprising that they adopted similar designs to those that had been developed in the similar conditions of Brisbane and Sydney.  The main classes were of 14, 16 and 18 Footers with unlimited rigs but crews “limited” to six, eight and ten respectively [36].  In the same year, Perth sailors started importing 14 Foot Dinghies from NSW.  [37] [38]  The early boats of the Perth Dinghy Club, formed in October 1903 as the state’s first specialist small-boat organisation, look as if they could have come straight from the waters of Sydney or Brisbane. [39]  [40]

West Australian sailing also had Rater influence, with a fleet that included some Swallow scows built from plans in The Rudder magazine.  There was also an early (1898) attempt to form a class of 12 footers with one-design hulls and limited crew but unlimited rigs, “so cheap as to be within the reach of all” had been attempted. [54]  It was almost certainly the first one design class in the country, but in a symbol of the times the one design concept seems to have been killed at birth by those who favoured development classes.[34]  [35]

While the sailors from the west adopted designs from the east, they were not just imitators. As early as 1907 they ran the national 18 Footer championship, a major undertaking involving shipping a Sydney representative 4,400 nautical miles.  In unusually light winds for the Swan, WA’s Aeolus dealt a blow to Sydney prestige by beating her near sister Australian, the “crack” of Sydney Harbour and skippered by the famous Chris Webb, for the title. [41] [42]  In the 1908/09 and      seasons WA was on top again, winning the national title for 14 Footers.  The crew of Perth’s Elma saw the Ten Footer class in action in Sydney while they were winning the 14 Footer nationals and led to them being adopted as a training class for the 14 Footers on the Swan, until a clubhouse fire destroyed the entire fleet.  It was perhaps yet another example of the close links between the two eastern states and WA.

With her victory in the 1907 national 18 Footer title, Aeolus (above) proved that Western Australian sailors could beat even the legendary Chris Webb, the man who was accepted as Sydney’s top professional skipper.
Etna again
The ex-Brisbane 14 Footer Etna was one of several boats purchased from the eastern states and sailed in Perth, where she was used as the model for the 1909 national champion Edna. The early Perth boats followed the big rig/big beam style seen on the east coast, and on the day the WA 14 Footer Elma won the national title she used the second-biggest rig from an 18 Footer.
Elma crew
The crew of Elma. Newspaper accounts indicate that she sailed seven-up when she won her title; this pic seems to include her reserve crewmen.

Perth’s indigenous class of big-rig 16 Footers and the 18 Footers were both to be replaced by the 16 Foot Skiff class in later years, but Perth’s Fourteen Footer fleet stayed strong even when the class faded away in Brisbane and Sydney, and it was there when the class revived with a new style of boat that evolved in the southern states of Victoria and South Australia. It is to those states where we turn next in the story of Australian dinghy sailing.


The colourful early days of dinghy sailing in Victoria, the second most populous state, came to an end as the 19th century drew to a close among drought and depression. The sport as we know it seems to have almost collapsed.  In these days of light boats, wetsuits and buoyancy tanks the state capital of Melbourne offers superb conditions for dinghy sailors, but 120 years ago few small-boat sailors were prepared to take on the rough open waters of Port Phillip Bay or the narrow confines of the few sheltered waterways in the area. Perhaps it was improved technology (the famous St Kilda Dinghy Club, for example, installed an electric winch to ease the task of dragging the boats over the beach)[30], but for some reason in the early 1900s dinghy sailing finally revived in Victoria.  A group of fishermen around Melbourne started racing their boats against each other and in 1906, they formed the St Kilda Dinghy and Angling Club. At first the fleet included ballasted boats from 13 to 15 feet long but the club soon brought in class rules. Hulls were limited to a length of 14ft, beam of 5ft7in, a depth of 2ft, and a maximum centreboard weight of 4.5lb per square foot, but they left sail area and crew unrestricted.[22]

The fledgling fleet of 14s immediately caught the eye of spectators and other sailors. By 1907, reporters wrote enthusiastically of the “large fleet” of 11 14s at a regatta and of their hard-fought start which was “the feature of the day”.[23]   By 1908, the races for the 14s were said to be causing great excitement for spectators and the skill of the crews was an “object lesson” for the yachties.[24]

In the 1910/11 season, just a few years after the class had started in Victorian, the Melbournians created a new shape – the pram-bowed “snub nose” dinghies.  The snub nose boats seem to have been driven by the search of designer/builder Charles Peel for a type that was smaller and more seaworthy than the over-canvassed boats from the western and northern states, yet more powerful than the earlier and more conventional Victorian designs. “The cunning Charlie Peel had subverted the class rule by designing a boat 16 feet long and on the plan had removed 2 feet of the bow” recalled South Australia’s Neal Cormack many years later. “Thus when this boat was “hard on the wind” and beating to windward dragging her lee rail in the sea she was virtually 16 feet long.”

Fourteens at St Kilda.png
Victoria’s snub-nosed 14 Footers at their home at St Kilda. This photo was taken after WW2 and shows a mixture of gunter and bermudan rigs. Many of the latter carry triple spreaders – mute testimony to the problems of supporting these light spars under such a cloud of sail. Victorian Railways pic from the State Library of Victoria site.

“Each (of the snub-nosed boats) has a square, blunt nose, just as if the builder had sawn some 12in. off the bow and planked up the gap” noted a paper. “The club’s rule limits the length of these little sailing-boats to 14ft. overall, so that by this device just mentioned a builder is enabled to get a far more powerful body for his limit length, and can thus carry a good deal of extra canvas….It was thought that what the new boats might gain in power they would lose in heavy weather, owing to the tendency of their blunted noses to “punch” the seas.  Experience, however,looks like showing that very little punching occurs at all, while the gain in power is very considerable.”

Snub profile
Veteran 14 Footer sailor Neil Cormack managed to track down a copy of the lines of the snub nosed 14s built by Victoria’s famous Savage Bros boatbuilders, and used them to construct this model for Largs Bay SC.  The small “heel” or skeg at the stern can be seen. It’s interesting to see how the lines sweep up forward to keep the snub nose above water. The success of the snubs indicates that the heavy rocker did little to slow them down.  Pics from the club history site.

Snub angled

Fast they may have been, but not even the owners seemed to think the snub-nosed boats were attractive; the best of the lot was named John Nimmo, because her owner thought she looked like a local dredge of that name.[27] They could be lifted by two men and compared to their contemporaries they were lightweightss, despite still carrying a boom of up to 19ft, a 20ft boom and beam of about 5ft9in.

The snubs seemed to be an ideal compromise between the slender older Victorian boats and the older beamy over-canvassed style inherited from NSW and Queensland. They still carried large rigs – a sistership to John Nimmo was said to carry 425 sq ft of sail upwind – but as Nimmo’s famous skipper HC Brooks noted, the Victorian boats were “light and narrow” compared to their contemporaries from other states. “There is altogether too much effort attached to them” he said of the older NSW craft and the boats from SA and WA . “They are too big and heavy, they carry too many in the crew, too much sail, and too much gear. As a consequence, they literally have to push their way through the water. The John Nimmo and other Victorian craft are strongly but lightly built. They carry light crews and small sails, and sail over the water rather than through it….our boats are in every way cheaper and easier to handle.”

Like the Open Boats of Sydney and Brisbane, the 14 Footers used sail insignia rather than numbers as distinguishing marks. To make life difficult, they seem to have changed insignia from time to time. I suspect this is the famous snub-nosed 14 Foot Dinghy champion “John Nimmo” making its way out through the breakers off Adelaide to a national championship heat , although at some times its insignia was a black crescent. The snub nosed (pram bow) design allowed a larger boat to fit within the beam and length limits than, but the Victorian snub 14s were still a much smaller and lighter boat than the earlier boats from Sydney, Brisbane and Perth.  The John Nimmo, “a plain little pram boat with some witchery in her lines” won the Victorian state championships for 13 straight years.  In her first 15 years she won 231 of her 312 races. Built in 1910, she won her last national title in the 1926/27 season and was then sold in Adelaide by H C Brooke, her famous skipper. The rig looks terrible; perhaps when this photo was taken she was being eased out to sea, or under her later owner?  State Library of South Australia pic.
PRG 280 1 12 299 St Kilda
The snub-bow 14 St Kilda shows off her deck layout.  Decks became popular in the Victorian 14 Footer fleet early in the 1920s, when sailors noticed that decked boats could recover from capsizes. In England some sailors felt that decked boats were too hard to bail out – perhaps the difference was that the British boats were two-handers so the crew had to bail while sailing, while in Australia there were enough crew for one of them to specialise as a full-time bailer when necessary? This is a cropped version of South Australian State Library pic PRG 280-1-37-73, taken off Henley Beach in 1923, apparently during the national titles.
When the snubs first came up against the boats from South Australia, WA and NSW, the result was an easy win for the pram-bow Victorians.  “New South Wales and West Australia favoured the extremely beamy overcanvassed boat, which were 14 footers in length only” ran one account. “Victoria on the other hand, has made a more careful study of the hull, and have turned- out a nice little medium canvassed craft, the most successful of which has been the John Nimmo. The other States are now following Victoria’s lead, and it appears that in the future the boats contesting the Australian championship will be almost uniform.”
This cropped version of a pic shows the underwater shape of a snub-bow 14, identity unknown. There appears to be only a small “heel” or skeg. The boat is sitting on one of the wide, open and sandy beaches along the shores of Adelaide and Melbourne that seem to have affected dinghy design in South Australia and Victoria.  South Australian State Library pic B-70240
PRG-280-1-24-141 Wattle
Wattle, a South Australian built snub and sister to “SA”. The wineglass transom and small skeg show clearly in this pic. South Australian State Library PRS 280/1/24/141

The Victorian interest in innovative design had its limits, though. When the hard-chine “freak” Tasma was brought over from the island state of Tasmania and started winning, hard chines were promptly banned by the Victorian 14 Footer class, although the club compensated the owner by buying the boat from him.

The snub bow boats kicked off a quarter of a century of post WW1 dominance by the Victorians. Their major rivals came from their neighbouring state of South Australia; a region where organised dinghy sailing seems to have started with the 14 Footers.


South Australians faced similar conditions to the Victorians. Their capital city of Adelaide also fronted a large and rough open expanse of water with few boat harbours and only a narrow river.   It seems that there were the usual regatta events in length classes in the 1800s, but early competitive sailing was the domain of yachts. Small boat sailing really arrived when the Port Adelaide Sailing Club was formed in 1897, and serious competition started with the first interclub 14 Footer races in 1910.  While the Port Adelaide club had sailed on the narrow water of the sheltered Port River, the later clubs sailed from the open beaches fronting onto Spencer Gulf. The sailors from these clubs normally had to carry their boats over wide, sandy beaches and launch into breaking surf waves; a procedure that seems to have encouraged lighter and more seaworthy boats than the types seen in Sydney and Brisbane.

Like their Victorian neighbours, the South Australians initially concentrated on 14 footers with a few limits imposed for interclub racing; 6ft beam, three crew, and “limited” to 300 sq ft of sail, but (not surprisingly given the sail area) within a few years they were packing half a dozen aboard.  Vigilant, the first South Australian boat to enter a national title, was said to have been a miniature version of the failed Linton Hope 22 Footer Bronzewing, which may indicate that she had a very full and flared bow. Compared to the Sydney and Queensland boats of the day, she was notable for her small rig – “dingy rater” was one description; a nice cruiser was the essence of another. Although she finished well back, one source said that Vigilant made up ground when the wind picked up later in the race, perhaps aided by her novel roller-reefing gear.  When the West Australian champion Edna dropped in to race in Adelaide in 1913 she showed “far greater pace than had been witnessed in its class in South Australia before”.

PRG-280-1-37-298 Resista
South Australia’s earlier 14 Footers were unable to compete with boats from other states. From the sail symbol and the few letters visible on the transom this looks like Resista, one of the state’s top boats in 1922. With her wineglass transom, spoon bow and comparatively small and ill-setting rig it looks more like a pleasure craft than like one of the over-canvassed long-waterline 14s created in other states. State Library of South Australia pic PRG 280-1-37-298

In its early days the fleet seems to have been a mixture of beamy overcanvassed racing boats from interstate builders, like the former Sydney boat St George, and more seaworthy local types.  Some of the early South Australian boats followed the “bigger is better” theme that was typical of 14s from Sydney or Brisbane. Radiant, built by a Sydney builder, was 7ft7in wide, had 11 sails, and carried 485 sq ft of sail upwind in a breeze. They seem to have been a motley collection; in 1922, a South Australian paper put the state last in the interstate pecking order in the 14 Footer class. “The chief fault of the local boats seems to lie in the fact that owners and builders in this State do not aim at uniformity or improvement of type. Length is the only essential worried about to any extent, and boats of all shapes and sizes are on the rolls of the different club registers. Victoria has adopted, a set type of fourteen footer, and every yacht racing in the sister State conforms, more or less, to a recognised standard. And Victoria leads the way.”

With help from Victoria’s leading skipper,  Mick Brooke, the South Australians got boats built in Victoria and soon made up for their harsh home waters and late start.  Just two years after being ranked last among the states,  White Cloud won the 14 Footer national title; the state’s first top level victory.  By the late 1920s there were 2000 sailing club members in the state, and the 14 Footers were dominant at home and at national level.

The former Sydney champion 14 Foot Dinghy St George was sold to South Australia before WW1 and under her vast spread of sailing she was still doing well in racing into the 1920s. Events like the 1921 national title showed that while she was competitive with most of the fleet, despite her huge rig she was unable to match John Nimmo, and she was replaced by the snub St George II the next year. Here she appears to be sailing on the narrow Port River, the only significant sheltered spot of water in the capital city of Adelaide. She was over 7ft in beam and carried over 1400 sq ft of sail in a rig that stretched 42ft from the bowsprit to the boom end.

By the 20s a typical top SA 14 Footer was 5ft wide, 2 feet deep, and had two rigs; one with 300 sq ft of working sail and one with 200 sq ft. Centreboards were of  3/16in steel plate, measuring 4ft6in by 2ft, and a six-man crew completed the basic design. Unconventional boats were also tried, and as early as 1923 there were self-bailing boats like Gwen, which was described as a long and low boat along the style of Maid of Kent.

PRG 280 1 12 299
A 14 Footer on the beach at Glenelg, one of the wide beaches bordering the shallow waters of South Australia. The photo allegedly dates to around 1917. The bow has horizontal planks at the sheerline, probably to stop water from coming over the bow. Interesting details include the wide straps with handles that the men at the stern and near the mast are holding and seem to be about to use to carry the boat up the beach.  State Library of South Australia ref PRG-280-1-12-299.

In a symbol of the emerging split within Australian dinghy sailing, South Australia’s rise as a force to be reckoned with in 14 Footers  roughly coincided with the class’ fading days in the old powerhouse states of Queensland and NSW. In earlier decades, the old-style 14 Foot Dinghy had been the class where emerging Sydney talent proved itself before moving into the 22 and 24 Footers, but the Sydney Harbour fleet had faded away as the 18 Footer class and the 16 Foot Skiffs became dominant. The main fleet of Fourteens moved to Botany Bay, on the southern side of the city and out of the limelight, and were then replaced by 16 Foot Skiffs.  The Queensland fleet also faded, and as in NSW many of the boats were sold to West Australia and South Australia.

The conventional-looking locally-built Stelma, built around 1913, was still competitive in light winds among  South Australian 14 Footers in the early 1920s. Judging by the pennants and small rig, in this photo she is probably taking part in a ceremonial sail past. South Australian State Library photo PRG 280/1/16/34

When NSW returned to the 14 Footer championships in the 1920s, it was with a very different sort of boat to the old big-rig “dinghies”. The sailing club from Birchgrove on the Balmain peninsula had originally started out with a fleet of miscellaneous small boats and then adopted the 14 Foot Skiff rules that had been created at the same meeting that created the 16 Foot Skiff class.  The 14 Foot Skiffs were “of a very different type to the Victorian, South Australian and West Australian dinghys”. One Sydney sailor described the Sydney Skiffs as “a much improved rowing skiff, with no decking or lee cloths allowed, and are restricted to 14 ft in length with a beam of 5. ft 6 in inside of gunwales, which must not exceed 2 1/2 in width.”

PRG280_1_17_321 (1)
A fleet of 14s in South Australia, perhaps gathering for a national title off Adelaide in 1922 or 1926. On the left could be Minerva, a WA boat that sailed in the 1922 nationals with a  boomerang sail insignia. Second from left is SA, with Wattle third from the left. The boat with the question mark may be 1927/28 national champion Scandal from the insignia, but she appears to be hard chined, which is a puzzle. The boat that I think is John Nimmo can also be seen, apparently painted this season.  The identity of the boat with the kangaroo or wallaby on the sail is a mystery – the boat called Wallaby was a Savage-designed snub-bow and not an older type of hull as this appears to be.  The question of which body was to run the 1926 national titles almost ended up in court – yet another indication that the claims that sailors of the time cared nothing for rules could not be more wrong.
PRG280_1_33_186 (1)
The snub-nosed “S.A.” was one of the top Adelaide 14 Footers in the 1920s. Here she is seen in 1923. South Australian State Library photo, reference PRG 280/1/33/186

The tale of the 14 Foot Skiffs shows that the snub-bowed 14 Footers and their contemporaries that had been developed in the southern states were quick boats. Restricted to a crew of five and a working sail area of 230 sq ft, the Sydney 14 Foot Skiffs were never able to compete with the likes of John Nimmo or South Australia’s White Cloud. As one account noted,  the NSW style of boat was “hopelessly beaten by the ‘snub-nosed’ boats of other States, and it was once again proved that the Skiffs, with their limited sail areas and small beams, had not the slightest hope of defeating the big dinghies of the other states, which carried big booming out spars, topsails and ringtails.”  In 1924 the Sydney fleet bowed to the inevitable and dropped the old “skiff” restrictions, but in NSW the class has never been as popular as the 12s, 16s and 18s and by 1929 the state had dropped out of national titles.[43]

14 Footers rigging at Sydney’s Birchgrove 14 Ft Skiff Club. The tale of the Sydney 14 Footers is complicated by the fact that there were essentially three different types. First were the old “14 Foot Dinghies” with no restrictions and huge rigs. They died out and then the “14 Foot Skiff” class evolved. Essentially a smaller version of the 16 Foot Skiffs, they had class rules that mandated narrow hulls, fewer crew and smaller rigs. Photos of the Sydney 14 Foot Skiffs are hard to find; the one below comes from The Rudder in 1920. Incidentally, these were the first members of the Australian branch of the 14 Footers to bear the “skiff” label that has now become synonymous with big-rig high-performance centreboarders. The Sydney 14 Foot Skiffs then tried to race within the 14 Foot Dinghies which had evolved in the southern states, but they were not powerful enough in hull or rig. The Sydney 14 Foot Skiffs then adopted the 14 Foot Dinghy rules about 1924. The boats in the foreground of the top pic appears to be one of the snub-nosed types that were developed in the southern states, which indicates that the photograph could have been taken during a national title or after the southern state rules were adopted.

14 Foot Skiff Rudder 1920

Many 14s of the ’20s and ’30s had long lives at the top; John Nimmo won the Victorian state titles over a dozen times and Triad won her first national title in 1932/33 and her last in 1947/48.  The long careers of such boats and the huge rigs that we see in black and white photos seems to underline the myth that they were sailed by unsophisticated hard-driving maniacs who knew nothing of lighter and more efficient designs. It’s a tale that is even echoed by the International 14’s history, which claims that it was not until the 1950s that the Australian 14 sailors “discovered…that by reducing both sail area and crew, and using lighter boats, a faster all round craft could be produced.”

As so often happens, the real men of history were smarter and more sophisticated than those who are portrayed in the myth. Many of the top 14 Footer sailors like O.J. “Pat” O’Grady, a national champion whose portrait in neat tie and glasses belies the fact that he was a state representative in football, bowls and sailing, were probably very aware of lighter boats and leading-edge technology. O’Grady had been a champion in the Grange Punts, skinny, flat and small-rigged 18 footers that could beat the 14s downwind in strong winds. His forward hand, golf champion W S Rymill, came from the family that dominated national unlimited powerboat racing and was another Punt veteran.  Such men seem unlikely to have been scared of technology or lightweight boats; they would have sailed the snub-bow 14s because they were the fastest all-round boats within the class restrictions, and they innovated where they could.

In 1930 O.J. O’Grady drove Sunny South to victory in the national title carrying the big rig even in strong winds, balancing it by putting the athletic Rymill on an “outrigger…a loose plank measuring eight feet by five inches by one inch (which is) placed under a fitting on the lee side of the boat,  and projects three or four feet out to windward.”  The sailors from all other states were both resistant – they all opposed the ‘outrigger’ because of it could not be used on their rougher or puffier home waters and because of the effect it would have on design – and farsighted.  “In time two or even three would be used, and the boats would resemble native canoes more than dinghies” warned one abolitionist.  “In time the use of outriggers would lead to a hinged gunwale on both sides, which could be brought inboard each time the boat was put about” said another, anticipating the 18 Foot Skiff “flopper” wings of half a century later.[46]

Sunny South
Sunny South. Her forward hand used the controversial “outrigger” when she won the 1930 nationals.

Today some would see the ban on “outriggers” as a retrograde step, but when experts like Nimmo’s skipper Brooke agreed with the ban it’s apparent that there was sound cause. Canoes had already vanished from the Australian sailing scene, and canoe-like 14s would probably have gone the same way; under the heavy rigs of the time, they would have been too tippy for the fleets to maintain critical mass.  The cost of alterations must also have been an issue. Australia was one of the countries hit worst by the great depression, and by 1930 it looked as if the entire national championship may have to be cancelled due to lack of funds. This was not a time to make the existing boats obsolete.

Cost control was one of the themes of the class as Australia struggled through the 1930s depression.  Some of the South Australian boats had were said to have up to six “suits of sails, thereby bringing their cost into the vicinity of £300″ or well over a year’s average wage.  Many of the sailors were affluent – the head of Victoria’s 14 Footer club also owned a 6 Metre while Rymill and O J O’Grady ended up as successful businessmen- but the cost of running a 14 Footer was so great that many were owned by syndicates.  There were attempts to create cheaper one-design 14 classes in both Victoria and in NSW but nothing succeeded. What seems to have worked was the continuing reduction in boat and rig size. When Victoria’s Bill Osborne built his new boat Triad in 1927 with just 5ft beam, it was believed that she would stand no chance against the more powerful 5’7” snubs. Instead Triad became one of the most successful boats to ever race in Australia, winning the national title six times and leading the way to a smaller type of 14.

Today, Triad looks like a fairly standard boat, and it’s hard to see what made her so successful.  By the early 1920s, Osborne was crediting much of the success of his earlier 14 Footers with the “marconi” or bermudan rig he used on his third (high-wind) rig, and apparently he tried a bermudan big rig initially with Triad.  Even a bermuda fan like Osborne, however, used a gunter rig on his two biggest sets of sails until around WW2, because he felt that “the exceedingly long mast needed to set these sails would cripple such a small boat as a 14-footer”.  Full battens and moderate roaches were seen in the fleet by the end of the decade, and some late photos appear to show Triad using a bermudan rig even for light winds – perhaps it was gradual development in lighter or more controllable rigs that allowed Triad to beat the larger and more powerful boats?

The move to cheaper and smaller Fourteens was reinforced by a rule change in 1937 that restricted them to 220 sq ft of upwind sail, a 250 sq ft spinnaker, 150 sq ft “ballooner” or reaching genoa, a mast 26’ above the gunwale, and of any beam but with no projection more than 3” past gunwale. [28]  Triad survived as a top class boat until she won the nationals in the 1947/48 season. She is one of the few older Australian racing boats that still exists today; when she became too old to race, her owner cut her in two and presented the halves to two clubs.

Triad 2
Triad, the most successful 14 Footer in Australian history, was smaller than the snub-bow 14s of earlier generations. She won her first national title in the 1932/33 season, and her last in 1947/48 against a new breed of “skiff type” 14s.  The pic below shows Triad, far left, under a bermudan rig with fully battened mainsail. State Library South Australia pic B7798/658

1948 nats 14s

To our eyes the Australian 14s before WW2 may appear unsophisticated and slow. The truth seems to be quite different.  The smaller boats, like Birchgrove’s 14 Foot Skiffs, the small one design Fourteen created by Osborne and the few Uffa Fox designed International 14s that were built in Adelaide, could not beat the snubs.  Men like O’Grady and Brooke didn’t carry their big sails and big crews because they knew no better – like Uffa Fox and the other northern hemisphere 14 Footer sailors, they did what was best to win within the rules.

There was something about Fourteen Footers that kept them going for decades – the Sydney 14 Footer Memory apparently won races as late as 1926, when she was over a quarter of a century old, in the hands of Peter Cowrie, son of her builder. Peter Cowrie remained a stalwart of the 12 Foot Skiff class for decades. William Hall photograph, Australian National Maritime Museum.

Even as the 14 Footers became firmly established around the country in the 1930s, a new style of boat was developing.  Australia had always had a long but little-known group of local classes, mostly with hard chine hulls, that were much lighter and carried much smaller rigs than the 14s, skiffs and 18s, and in the 1930s. In the 1930s, the lightweight dinghies started to come out of the shadow and take on a distinctive form that would go on to play a vital but under-appreciated role in the development of the modern racing dinghy.



“At first the fleet included ballasted boats from 13 to 15 feet long”:- Winner, 7 Oct 1914

1914 – Lee cloths, already permitted in other states, allowed in Victoria in 1914. [25]

1922 – Victoria falls in with other states and permits hard chine boats. The old Tasma promptly returns to racing, finishes second, but later allegedly proves uncompetitive. [26]

Perth Dinghy Club had its first race on in October 1903[38]  racing conventional-looking big rig “dinghies” like that of Sydney and Brisbane.[39]   They carried two or more rigs[40]

As early as 1907 there was a start in adopting uniform 14 Footer rules (Evening News 31 Jan 1907 p2.

NSW withdrew from 14s 1929[43]

Violet – 7’ beam, 6’ tuck, 22ft mainsail boom,13ft gaff, 12’6” luff, 25ft aft leach, 12ft bowsprit, 13’6” jib foot, big kite has small yard 33 ft x 27’6” x 28’

Vilet info from Oxleyt SC history; 97 ¾ sq ft jib; 293 q ft main; 498 sq ft spinnaker, gaff topsail 30 = 1141 sq ft


“”far greater pace than had been witnessed”:- Observer 22 March 1913

1913 – SA had limits on beam, decks and Sail area[44]

Allegedly Edna used an 18ft skiff rig 2000 fdt2 for national title in 1913 ([45]  Later, Triad used just 150 sq ft of sail in high winds although initially Osborne said that she had carried 800ft on a few occasions witH normal crew.[47]

“The skiffs, with their limited sail area and small beams, had not he slightest hope of defeating hte big dinghies of hte other states, which carried big booming out spars, topsails and ringtails.” Referee 27 Feb 1924

1924 – Birchgrove boats were “of the skiff type” with rig that “look more like a pocket handkerchiefs when compred with the gear of the Victorians.”[49]  They were outclassed in the nationals, won by Nimmo.[50]   The Sydney boats were originally undecked but decks were allowed when they became racing against interstate boats. o

1929 – 4’6” to 6ft beam, 300sq ft upwind, unlimited kites. Sporting Globe Me;lb 19 Jan 1929 p 5

1938 – 22q st ft, 5’ orless beam, beaten by 6’4” Vamp which had “enormous” spin,  ¾ crew.   IMpudenece “ OFF THE WIND NAD in light weather, she ois remarkably fast,” as quick as 21sa[51]

WA reduced to 220 ft upwind and 200 spin, banned ringtails; Vic reluctant to follow.New Call and Bailey’s Weekly, WA, 21 Mar 1935 p 15

As late as    , there was a move to limit sail size to 300ft in mainsail and jib, and restrict the class to two rigs.[52]


[18] The Ballarat Star, 4 Nov 1879 p 4

[19] The Ballarat Star, 21 June 1880

[20] Leader (Melb) 24 Nov 1883 p 21

[21] Brisbane Courier, 12 Dec 1866 p 2

[22] Winner (Melbourne) 7 Oct 1914 p 11

[23] The Australasian, 6 April 1907 p 23

“New South Wales and West Australia favoured the extremely beamy overcanvassed boat” The Register, 26 Oct 1923

“Each had a square blunt nose”:- The Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1912 – 1954) Saturday 19 September 1925

“When the snubs first came up against the boats”:- This was in the interstate 14 footer grand challenge cup races of 1913 in Melbourne. The defeated fleet included the 1912 national champion Rene from NSW. The history of the early championships is slightly confused because sometimes a trophy that was put up for the national championship could become the property of any boat that won it three times, and a new trophy had to be obtained.

“a plain little pram boat, with some witchery in her lines”;- The Register, 14 Dec 1923

“Small boat sailing arrived when the Port Adelaide Sailing Club was formed in 1897”; most of the information about the early days of SA dinghies comes from an article by 14 Footer champ Alan J O’Grady in Saturday Journal, 23 Feb 1929.

“There is altogether too much effort attached to them”:- The Journal, 21 Apr 22

“Vigilant made up ground when the wind picked up later in the race,

“perhaps aided by her novel roller-reefing gear”:- Referee, 30 Jan 1907 p 9

“Radiant, built by a Sydney builder, was 7ft7in wide, had 11 sails, and carried 485 sq ft of sail upwind in a breeze.” Referee, 5 Jan 1921

“She was over 7ft in beam and carried over 1400 sq ft of sail in a rig that stretched 42ft from the bowsprit to the boom end”: details from Referee, 5 Jan 1921, and Cormack

“In 1922, a South Australian paper”;- Mail (Adelaide, SA) 20 October 1922

“there were self-bailing boats like Gwen”:- News, 11 Feb 1927. Gwen could capsize and recover almost straight away but was said to be intended for flat water.

“as late as 1925”; Register (Adelaide, SA : 1901 – 1929), Friday 18 December 1925

[24] The Australasian, 22 Feb 1908 p 26. The same reference says that 12 footers were also allowed to race, but no more can be found about them.

[25] Winner (Melbourne) 7 Oct 1914 p 11

“The cunning Charlie Peel had subverted the class rule”: “The Foundation of Largs Bay Dinghy Club” by Neil Cormack, Largs Bay Sailing Club website.

[26] The Australasian (Melb) 18 Nov 1922 p 23

[27] The Argus (Melb) 5 Dec 1910 p 4

“The dinghies lost popularity on account of the 18-Footers” :- Referee, 27 Feb 1924

[28] The Mercury (Hobart) 21 Aug 1937 p 16

[29] The Mercury (Hobart) 15 Feb 1928 p 6. Most of the snubs actually carried six crew.

“By the early 1920s, Osborne was crediting much of the success”:- Sporting Globe, 21 Jan 1925

“In 1928 a limit of 300 sq ft was brought in for main and jib”; The Register, 10 Feb 1928

“In 1949, the western Australians started to advocate 180 sq ft rigs”:- The Daily News,  24 Nov 1949

[30] The Age, Oct 27 1913 p 8

“In the early 1900s, a group of fishermen around Melbourne started racing their boats against each other”:- Winner, 7 Oct 1914

[31] The Brisbane Courier 3 Nov 1898 p 6

[32] The Telegraph (Brisbane) 30 Dec 1898 p 6

[33] The Telegraph (Brisbane) 13 Jan 1899 p 6

[34] The West Australian, 14 June 1898 p 6 marks the start of reporting of this political saga. Even a crew-weight limit was proposed to ensure that juniors had a chance; Western Mail 1 July 1898 p 39

[35] The West Australian 14 Jan 1899 p 6 mentions that “only four or five” one design owners were anxious to race.

[36] The Daily news (Perth) 25 June 1898 p 5; also West Australian 27 May 1898. The 14s were to be allowed six crew, the 16s eight and the 18s 10; more than enough by most standards!

[37] The 14s are mentioned in Western Mail 3 June 1898 p 44; 18s TBA.

[38] The West Australian, 28 Oct 1903 p 8

[39] Western Mail, 26 Dec 1903 p 27.  Elma, one of the original members of the Perth 14 fleet, was built to a design by Dunn of Sydney, creator of Clio.  Her beam was 6’8”, 4’3” tuck, 2’1” deep, centrebpoard 4’ droppoing 5’ below the keel, ½” cedar planking, 4 ½” spring, 6” heel, short boom 19’, long boom 21’, 7  ½” frame spacing. The West Australian, 24 Oct 1903 p 8.  She was joined by local boats and by Etna, a former Brisbane 14; The West Australian 10 Oct 1903 p 8.  There was also a report of a former Sydney 14, Ena which was champion of the Swan.  West Ayutralian 14 Mar 1903 p 8 In 1987 the then 14 year old Hero former champ Sydny boat, was top and she remained second best till at least 1901; West Australian 23 Nov 1901 p 9

[40] Western Mail, 30 Jan 1904 p 38

[41] See for example the pics in ht eWestern Mail of 6 Feb 1904 p 24-27

“Owned and skippered by an expatriate Scot”:- The West Australian 7 Nov 1933. It’s interesting

“The crew of Perth’s Elma saw the Ten Footer class in action”:- The West Australian 15 Dec 1934

[42] The Daily News (Perth) 26 Jan 1907 p 14

[43] The Mercury (Hobart) 21 Aug 1937 p 16

[44] The Express and Telegraph (Adelaide) 20 March 1913 p 4

““outrigger…a loose plank”:- The Mail 18 Jan 1930

“by the late 1920s there were 2000 club members”; Saturday Journal, 23 Feb 1929

Dimensions of SA 14s; Saturday Journal, 23 Feb 1929

“The snub-bowed types were said to be light enough to be lifted by two men”; Port Adelaide News 24 Mar 1922 and The Journal of the same day. These pieces contain more information about the design of the snub nosed boats.

[45] The West Australiuan, 24 Jan 1936 p 13

“Like their neighbours, the South Australians initially concentrated on 14 footers with 6ft beam, three crew, and “limited” to 300 sq ft of sail”- The Express and Telegraph, 21 Nov 1903 p 3.???

[46] The Advertiser (Adelaide) 31 Jan 1930 p 10.  Sunny South made the news again a few years, when tragically five of her crew (not including her champion skipper and forward hand) were drowned when she capsized in a squall; Sporting Globe (Melb) 30 March 1932 p 7

“by 1930 it looked as if the national championship may have to be cancelled due to lack of funds.” See for example The Register News Pictorial and The Advertiser both of 17 Oct 1930

“There were plans, and some boats, to separate one design 14 classes in both Victoria and in NSW. ”  The Victorian proposal was by Bill Osborne of the champion Triad, and was for one design hulls and open rig. The NSW proposal was for a “vee bottom” snub nosed chine boat with extensive decking, buoayncy compartments and a small rig. It was designed by New Zealand’s Jack Brooke. A blurred photo in The Sun 12 Jan 1933 shows a small low-aspect rig of 90 sq ft. This Birchgrove One Design was intended to cost just 15 pounds; a fraction of the price of a normal 14. Although hopes were high for a success and Brooke’s designs were successful in NZ, it seems to have faded instantly.

[47] The West Australian 20 Jan 1936 p 17

“the Birchgrove club near Balmain had replaced its miscellaneous class with boats built to the 14 Foot Skiff restrictions promulgated by the Port Jackson Skiff Club in 1901.”; Referee. 27 Feb 1924

“of a very different type to the Victorian, South Australian and West Australian dinghys”:- The Journal (SA) 21 April 1922

“The top NSW skiff was “hopelessly beaten by the ‘snub-nosed’ boats”:- Referee, 27 Feb 1924. This was a reference to the performance of NSW boats in both the 1922-23 and 1923-24 titles.

“In 1924 the Sydney fleet bowed to the inevitable and dropped the old “skiff” restrictions”:- Evening News, 2 Sep 1924

[48] Arrow (Sydney) 22 Feb 1924 p 15

[49] Arrow (Sydney) 22 Feb 1924 p 15

[50] Sporting Globe (Melb) 27 Feb 1924 p 12

[51] The Advertiser (Adelaide) 18 Feb 1938 p 19

[52] The Australian Motor Boat and Yachting Monthly May 1927 p 30

“Up to six feet in beam”:- Mercury 14 Nov 1908.

“”of the Bouncer style”:- The Clipper 9 March 1895

“When the Sharpie and 14 Footer nationals were run  concurrently in 1938, in a pre-championships race the Sharpies were rated at 4% faster.”:- The Mercury 22 Feb 1938

[53] The Mercury (Hobart) 5 Jan 1938 p 8

[54] The West Australian 14 June 1898 p 6

[55] Winner (Melb) 30 June 1915 p 11

[56] The Autralasian (Melb) 7 Dec 1895 p 19

EIGHT FOOTERS – 8’6″ LOA, 4′ max beam, 80ft sail  Ballaet YC history. They were sailed at St Kilda, Ballarat and Albert Par.

[57] The Telegraph (Brisbane) 1 Nov 1894 p 2

[58] Sydney Morning Heraldn 28 mar 1953 p 8

[59] Personal communication from Phil Briggs to author; also  “Phil Briggs, 88 not out” by Bob Ross, Australian Sailing, Sept 2003 p 66.  Sydney Mail 26 Sep 1934 p 33 mentions that several prototypes were made which appears likely since

[60] See for example “For youngers only – how to build a ‘Vaucluse’ Sharpie”, The Australian Motor Boat and Yachting Monthly, June 1934 p 14.

[61] “For youngers only – how to build a ‘Vaucluse’ Sharpie”, The Australian Motor Boat and Yachting Monthly, June 1934 p 14.

[62] The Mail (Adelaide) 14 Dec 1935 p 1 S

[63] The Sunday Herald, 18 Jan 1953 p 10 S

[64] “Evolution of the 16-Foot Skiff”, Bryce Mortlock, Seacraft Sept 1948 p 158.

[65] “Which Moth is best?” Len Morris, Seacraft Oct 1960 p 22

[66] The Australian Motor Boat and Yachting Monthly Aug 1 1925 p 21 and Novmber 1925 p 31

[67] Australian Motor Boat and Yachting Monthly Aug 1 1925 p 36

[68] Known to me only by a brief mention of three new boats of the class sailing at the Prince Edward YC in Dec 1925 issue of Australian Motor Boat and Yachting.

[69] “A Sailing-boat club at Port Adelaide”, history of Port Adelaide SC John Compton-Smart, Adelaide 2008


Pt 1.24: The skiffs and dinghies of the east coast

The “fishing boats” and 22s may have been the most spectacular of the open boat classes, but while the big “troopships” with their unrestricted beam were catching the public eye, many of the open boat sailors of Sydney, Brisbane and the smaller states of the east coast raced smaller boats or under tighter rules.

The small boats of the east coast, especially the 14 Footers, show a significant split in Australian sailing. Centreboarder sailing not only developed earlier in the east; it also created classes that were significantly different to the boats of similar length that developed to the south and west of the continent. Once again, the key seems to have been geography. The waters along the east coast were warmer, the winds normally more moderate, the waters well sheltered and flat, and the launching sites normally calm. It allowed the sailors of the east to put the priority on speed over seaworthiness.

The smaller open boats fell into four breeds – the skiffs, the dinghies, the sharpies, and the canvassers. Of course, just as with the larger open boats the sailors of the day used some terms in the opposite way to their current meaning, just to make life confusing. To Australian sailors a “skiff” was a boat with a slender hull like that of a rowing skiff, and normally with a smaller rig and crew to match. A “dinghy” (or “dingey”, “dingy” or even “dinghey”, depending on the mood) was a miniature version of a 22 Footer – an unrestricted class ruled only by maximum length, where every boat was free to crowd on as much sail, beam and crew as they could. To the sailors of the day, there was a vast difference between the two breeds.

The Sydney dinghies included the 6 Foot, 8 Foot, 10 Foot and 14 Foot classes, and by the standards of the day their fleets were huge.  “In the palmy days of the mosquito fleet it was a regular thing to see a fleet of a dozen sixes, some ten eights, nearly a score of tens, and perhaps eight to 12 14-footers starting in their respective classes” recalled one commentator.

The 14 Foot Dinghy Marjorie in January 1899. She sailed with the Sydney Dingy Sailing Club, but by this time the 14 Footers were on the verge of fading out of popularity in Sydney. William Hall pic from the Australian National Maritime Museum.

The unrestricted “dinghies” were regarded as the ideal training ground for the bigger unrestricted boats, and there were many tales of the crack pros from the 18 and 22 Footers meeting their match when they tried to race 14s and 10s against the youth.[17] “Skippers and crews moving up from the dinghies to the larger classes have always done well, as the beamy and big-sailed dinghies conform more to the types of the 18-footers and other large boats than, say, the skiffs do” wrote a commentator in 1925, when the word “skiff” still meant a lighter and narrower boat with a smaller rig. “The dinghies and skiffs are two totally different classes of boats to handle.”[16]

In the late 1800s, the 14 Foot Dinghies were a hotbed of talent in Sydney.  It was in the 14s that Chris Webb, generally said to be the greatest of the early Sydney Open Boat sailors, first came to fame.[18]  The early 14s were classic examples of the unrestricted “troopship”.  The average 14 racing with the hot Johnstones Bay Sailing Club in 1898 had 6’6″ beam, a 21′ boom, and a jib with a 16′ foot and 22′ luff. Some had a beam of up to 7ft, a bowsprit sticking 10′ to 11′ in front and a 24′ boom. Some 14s crowded on 400sq ft of sail upwind in light airs and up to 1000ft2 or more downwind.

Above: Volant, national 14 Foot Dinghy champion in 1907 and 1909. The class started in Queensland around 1897 and apparently took over from the unrestricted 12 Foot and 16 Foot classes. State Library of Queensland pic. Below: somewhere under that sail is Ida, another Brisbane 14 Footer, which lost the 1909 national title because of a premature start. State Library of Queensland pic.


The 14 Footers were also a major class in Brisbane; a “semi-legendary” class and the “keenest and most competitive in the history of Brisbane yachting” was one description from 1912. But despite their status, around World War 1 the 14 Foot Dinghy started to fade away in Sydney and Brisbane, perhaps because of competition from the growing 18 and 16 Footer fleets.

14s I think anmm commons
What appears to be a fleet of 14 Foot Dinghies runs past Balmain on the upper reaches of Sydney Harbour. These narrow and flat waters upstream of the site where the Harbour Bridge now stands were a stronghold of the small Dinghies and Skiffs. ANMM Wikicommons pic.

The other widespread dinghy class was the Ten Footers. According to open boat expert Ian Smith, the Tens evolved from the canvas-covered dinghies that started racing in the 1870s.  Up until 1922 the Tens had a national title that was fought out between cities of Brisbane, Perth, Sydney, and Newcastle. Like the 22s and 14s, the basic concept was simple – pile as much sail and beam and as many bodies as you could into a boat that was limited only by the length of the hull.  A Ten Foot Dinghy like the 1910 champion Commonwealth carried a big rig of around 22ft 6 inches long, a boom of  5.9m/19ft 6in, a bowsprit (or bumpkin, as open boat sailors called it) of 16ft, and a four-piece 21ft spinnaker pole. The big rig had a mainsail of 280 sq ft, a “balloon jib: of 300ft2 for reaching, and a spinnaker of around   450 sq ft. When the breeze kicked in at over ten knots, she switched down to a smaller 2nd or 3rd rig.

Five grown men in a 10 Foot Dinghy as the 1931 NSW champion plugs along. She was one of many boats called Australia; it seems that patriotism outweighed originality. Hall photo from the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Commonwealth was built and sailed by Norman Wright Snr, scion of a family that still runs a major boatbuilding firm in Brisbane and still wins races. Norman Wright Snr created the boat when he was just 16, and went on to win three national titles in her. They were major players in Brisbane’s keen and innovative open boat scene, which bred sailors that often beat the much-hyped Sydney fleet. In 1990, the late Norman J Wright Jnr, an Australian and world 18 Footer champion, wrote to Rob Tearne (himself a world 18 Footer champ) about the 10 Footer’s history. “In 1883 the Brisbane River flooded the worst recorded ever, and a cedar log floated down and secured by father at the old family home at Quay Street Bulimba. The cedar log father pit sawed into ½ inch planks and had them planed and they became the “Commonwealth’s” planking…..I have a press cutting from the Brisbane Courier telling the story of her being launched on the Saturday morning and winning the Australian Championship on the Saturday Arvo….”.

Cropped 10 footer
A 10 Footer hard to windward near Balmain on the upper reaches of Sydney Harbour.  Fleets of reproduction Historical Tens now race in Sydney and Brisbane. The photo below shows one of the reproduction boats, a century away in time but probably only a few hundred metres away in distance. Top pic by Hall, from the Australian National Maritime Museum site. Bottom pic from the class association site.


Commonwealth, 1910 national champion. Hall/ANMM pic.

Like many of their big sisters, the Tens were completely open boats- or at least as far as their timberwork went. To keep some of the water out, they had a canvas “booby hatch” cover where the foredeck would have been, and “lee cloths” to stop water coming over the leeward gunwale. Like the rest of the open boats, they didn’t have enough buoyancy to allow them to recover from a capsize; as far as their crews were concerned, it was only fair that you should be punished by a long swim or tow to the nearest beach if you capsized. It was an attitude that remained strong in the open boat classes long after other types had switched to self bailing cockpits and buoyancy.

Commonwealth nosediving
Above: Commonwealth, national 10 Footer champion, nosedives – and keeps on nosediving. I think I had a copy of the magazine with this photo in it, left over from my father, before I was old enough to sail. If I remember rightly, the caption said that the Commonwealth stayed in this position, with the “booby cloth” cover on the foredeck keeping the water our, for a mile or so until she cross the finish line. This copy of the pic is from the class site.                                       Below: the happy crew of the successful 10 Footer Gerard, with what is probably a winner’s pennant flying. This cropped version of a Hall pic from the Australian National Maritime Museum shows how crowded the Dinghies were, and how hard they must have been to sail in an era of manila rope and cotton sails.


Not even the Ten Footers pushed the limits of design harder than the smallest classes, the Eight and Six Foot dinghies. These tiny boats normally lived on the flat waters of the upper reaches of Sydney Harbour, and were effectively the junior classes of their day.  One of the most successful of the small open boat was the Eight Footer Zephyr.  A “snub-nose” or pram-bowed boat eight feet long, eight feet in maximum beam and 7’2″ wide at the transom, she was said to be “the greatest sail carrier for her size ever known on Port Jackson” and her reaching power made her almost unbeatable.  Zephyr’s bowsprit extended 13 feet from her square stem and she carried a 13 foot long gaff, 19 ft boom, and an eight foot wide “ringtail” sail that extended the mainsail down the square runs. Despite her outrageous dimensions, George Ellis Snr, one of the most famous of early Open Boat sailors, rated her more comfortable than most 14 Footers.

Zephyr cropped
Zephyr, built for the Pritchard children by their boatbuilder father and steered by Irene Pritchard (who seems to be missing her hat for once in this pic) with the shipyard of Cockatoo Island in the right background. Zephyr was as long as she was wide, which allowed her to carry so much sail that she was unbeatable. Pic from the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Zephyr was skippered for years by Miss Irene Pritchard, the only well-known female skipper of the old “open boat” days, and crewed by her brothers.  Together they won so many races that after the boat was sold to a new owner, “the eight footer owners put their heads together and refused to race if the Zephyr’s entry was accepted.”  Since Zephyr’s owner had already paid his entry fees and refused to back down, it was the end of the Eight Footers – one of many old classes killed by an “unbeatable” boat. As blogger Åsa Wahlquist has noted, the fame of Zephyr and Irene Pritchard spread across Australia and even to England, but for some reason no other women followed Irene’s lead. Although many encouraged her, it’s also interesting, and rather sad, that many years later there was at least one claim that Irene Pritchard “merely” steered while her brothers did the trimming and tactics. Given the difficulty of sailing any Eight Footer, much less winning repeatedly when wearing a full skirt and Victorian-era hat, it sounds like sexist sour grapes.[20]

Even Zephyr looked almost sane alongside the bizarre Six Footers, which sometimes had overhanging gunwales that made them 6”/15cm wider than they were long. Upwind they set up to 150ft of sail on 10ft to 12ft bowsprits and 14ft-15ft booms.  The mast was raked forward and the bowsprit bowed down so that it dragged in the water upwind; without the bowsprit and the tack of the jib in the water to counteract the sideways push of the jib, the boat would just bear away uncontrollably.  As late as the 1920s there were up to ten of them racing.[21]

Six Footer
Six Footers from the Hall collection of the Australian National Maritime Museums. Yes, the bowsprit are supposed to be in the water – with so much sail on such a short boat, even with a huge rudder the directional stability was so poor that the tack of the jib was stuck in the water to help keep the boat on course. The top pic is a cropped version of this shot. The sight of Fort Denison in the background shows that this photo was taken off the current site of the Opera House, in the main part of Sydney Harbour. It must have been a wide and choppy waterway for a Six Footer. If you look at the larger version of the lower pic here, you can see the water lapping over the bow and only being kept out by the canvas foredeck cover. There’s also a third body somehow crammed into the tiny boat.



The Sixes, Eights and Tens faded out in the 1920s. For all their spectacle and challenge, in many ways the small unrestricted dinghies seem to have been a bit of a dead end in design terms. Such short and comparatively heavy boats would struggle to move into a new world of planing. In those days before wetsuits and buoyancy, even the challenge of just keeping the tiny hulls upright under those vast rigs must have eventually palled. They seem to have been replaced by a lighter, cheaper and more efficient type – the Skiffs.

The Skiffs

Open boat classes faded and bloomed, but one type was almost immortal – the 16 Foot Skiffs. As in so many cases, details of the early evolution of the 16 Foot Skiffs are scanty.[4]  It appears that as early as the 1870s there were race starts for 16 footers that were “skiff style, the beam being limited to 5ft, and the depth 20 in….. for many years”. [5] These boats were said to be “of the open skiff class, very small and fine, and carrying small silk sails and kites” and have “wonderful running powers” compared to beamier, bigger-rigged boats.  For some reason, the hull restrictions on Sydney’s 16s were later dropped, and in typical open boat style rigs and their live-ballast crews got bigger and bigger until by 1881 the 16s were said to be carrying “immense clouds of calico”. Around 1897 the class, which was sometimes now being referred to as the “16 Foot dinghies” in reflection of their increased rig size, died out. The big rigs seem to have been making them too costly, and the emerging 18 Footers seemed like a better boat for the cash.[6]

Our boys and sophia
The Sydney Mail of 30 January 1897 called these two boats “the present-day champions of the 16s” and noted that they were originally built to the old restrictions of 5ft beam and 20 in depth. The pic was taken during the phase when unrestricted rigs and crews were allowed. The skippers of these boats were both to go on with their careers; Holmes as a professional skipper, boatbuilder and scion of a famous family of “skiffies”, and Doran as a fan of light and efficient boats.
Close up of pic entitled yachting, hk tyr pow with probable big rig 16s cropped
Judging from their length, slim lines and rigs, the boats in the foreground of this close-up of a busy Sydney Harbour scene seem to be among the last of the old 16 Footers, during the period when they had unrestricted sail area on top of the old narrow-gutted hulls; the booms seem to be too long for them to have fitted within the 16 Foot Skiff class rules. Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum


Almost as soon as the big-rig 16s died out, the old style of restricted 16  was revived. In November 1901, the Port Jackson Skiff Club (the first club to bear the “skiff” label)  was formed in a pub in the working-class suburb of Balmain in the small-boat hotbed of upper Sydney Harbour.  Many gave much of the credit to the boatbuilder Billy Golding; “Golding was a well-known builder of boats, and was more than interested in the activities of the youth of the waterfront along the Balmain and Snails Bay shores” a veteran said many years later. “These lads used to spend a great amount of their time crab fishing, and they pulled in about in an odd assortment of craft of all sizes. Golding conceived the idea of building a type of 16 ft Skiff which could be rowed or sailed. They had clinker-built hulls with small heels and fine sections. They were equipped with centre boards and rigged with small sprit sails and. stem head jibs. Little was it known that these were to be the prototypes of the now famous Port Jackson skiff.”

There are also indications that the founders of the Port Jackson club were reacting against what they saw as extremes of design and of professionalism in other open boat classes; as an early account noted, the club “caters for a class outside of the ordinary racing boat”. Instead of the normal open classes, restricted in length only, the PJSC formed four classes; (18 footers, 16 footers, 14 footers and 12 footers) that were restricted in beam and crew (four for the 18s and 16s, three for 14s and 12s) and was “confined to pleasure sails, namely, mainsail and jib only”.[7],[8]  Sail area was restricted by limiting the length of the booms, and  even poling the jib out was prohibited.

Although the PJSC concept broke the mould of Sydney’s open boats, the 16s were an immediate success. A sketch of the early boats drawn many years later by class champion and naval architect Bryce Mortlock shows their classic long rowing boat shape – quite similar, in fact, to that of overseas classes like the Delaware Tuckups. As Mortlock wrote, these early 16 Footers “really were “skiffs” – actually rowing skiffs, to which a narrow fincase had been fitted so that they could be used for sailing now and then. They had all the characteristics of the good old style of pulling boat, so easy to propel at low speeds” he wrote; “long straight heel to give direction; deep built-in heel, and high, small, slack-bilged transom, giving excellent clearance aft; plenty of length, so that the weight could be kept out of the ends, and so that they wouldn’t stop between oar-strokes; moderate beam (not more than one-third of the waterline length), and then a slack-bilged midship section as well, with a steep rise of floor so that with normal loads the waterlines were narrow; plumb stem with deep rounded forefoot; no flare to the bow, and a fine entrance.”

The 16s quickly became by far the most popular of the new “skiff” classes, and as time went on and competition got hotter, the PJSC introduced more rules to enforce the slender shape of the 16s and stop them from going down the familiar route of bigger and bigger hulls and sails.  Within a few years there were restrictions on transom width (3’9″) and gunwale width (2″) as well as hull depth (18”-21”). When sailors made their rigs taller to get around the boom-length limit, the club limited the 16s sail area to 220 sq ft. Not until 1912 was a spinnaker (of a “mere” 140sq ft) allowed to stave off a breakaway movement.[11]  Such restrictions were unknown in open boats at the time and the historian Bruce Stannard, whose great-grandfather was a 16 champion of the era, they caused a sensation among builders who were not used to rules.[9]


Designer Bryce Mortlock’s sketch of an 1800s style 16 Foot Skiff (top) compared to the 16s of the mid 1900s (below), as seen in Seacraft magazine September 1948. The older boat’s origins in a rowing skiff can be easily seen in the narrow waterlines fore and aft and the wineglass-shaped transom. Note the prominent skeg-like deadwood or “heel” under the stern. The lower boat shows the flatter and fuller “heel less” stern shape that the 16s pioneered and popularised in Australia. The very flared bow was common in Australian open boats.


Champion 16 foot skiff known as Orchid ca
Orchid, a national champion 16 Foot Skiff in 1910/11 and 1911/12. Like many of the best and most innovative of the early open boats, Orchid came from the northern city of Brisbane.

While the builders may have fumed, many sailors felt that the restrictions made the 16 a better boat than the over-rigged dinghies.  The limits on the 16s prevented them from going down the simple path of increasing beam and sail area, as the unlimited classes did.  Instead they encouraged a lighter, slimmer, more easily driven boat – something that was to cause a huge split in the most famous of all the open boat classes in years to come. They 16 Foot Skiffs were also much cheaper than the big-rigged dinghies; “a skiff is not an expensive craft, and the cost of keeping one up is well within the mean of the small man.”[12]   By the end of the decade, the 16 was the most popular class of all the open boats with fleets of up to 30 boats and state and interstate championships, and old classes like the unrestricted 14 Foot Dinghy were in their death throes in the open boat strongholds of Sydney and Melbourne. [10]

The slender lines and fine ends of the early 16s meant that while they were “wonders to windward”, like similar oar-and-sail classes they were not good at carrying sail and had a limited top speed.  In the 1920s, the 16 Foot Skiff sailors from the norther city of Brisbane changed all that.  They added flare at the bow to keep water out, and boatbuilder Jim Crouch eliminated the tedious job of bending the structural ribs to fit the built-in “heel”, the hollow section formed at the stern by the wineglass transom, by filling in the heel but adding on a small “deadwood” skeg.  Alf Whereat, a veteran of the open boats, then removed the deadwood and apparently flattened the stern lines, accepting a drop in upwind performance in exchange for better speed downwind.

Quest 16 footer 1922 snub planing.png
The year is 1922, and the 16 Foot Skiff Quest is undeniably up and planing. Quest was the first snub-nosed 16 Foot Skiff. Pic from the Bryce Mortlock article on 16s in Seacraft magazine of September 1948.

These innovations gave the Queensland 16 Foot Skiffs a long run and flattish sections aft – a planing hull. The new boats “had a speed potential right out of the class of the older type, and would always show a clean pair of heels running before a good breeze”.[13]  Photos of the “Queensland type” from the early 1920s show them planing in flat-water areas with the bow out of the water as far aft as the mast.  [14]  At a time when other open boats were heavy and beamy displacement boats, the 16 Foot Skiff seems to have become the first popular Australian class that could regularly plane downwind.


A “heel less” 16 Foot Skiff planing down Sydney Harbour. Note the number “167” at the head of the mainsail. This doesn’t denote the boat’s sail number, but the area of that sail. When boats had more than several spars and sails it made sense for each sail to have the area displayed, so that competitors could check that no one was using more than the class limits.  As always, I’d love to get more information about this boat (or any corrections). Hall/ANMM pic. 

The Twelve Foot Skiffs

Although the 16 Foot Skiff was the most popular class that formed from that meeting at a working-class pub,  two of the other proposed classes also survived. There had been 12 Foot “Dingheys” in Brisbane and Sydney in the 1890s, but they died out around the turn of the century.  The 12 Foot Skiffs appear to have run silently until around 1920, when they suddenly came into prominence on Lane Cove River, a narrow offshoot from upper Sydney Harbour. Although no clear evidence of a link exists, accounts of the time indicate that they ran under the rules created back in 1901 at the Port Jackson Sailing Club’s inaugural meeting. In 1924 a breakaway group formed the Greenwich Flying Squadron to race under “best and best” rigs; that is, using unrestricted sails but still keeping to the Skiff class hull dimensions.

From the slender hull, three-man crew and L (for Lane Cove club?) insignia it seems that this Hall pic from the ANMM shows a 12 Foot Skiff. The double-ended ferry behind was another archetypal Sydney craft. I’m still trying to track down information on this boat; as always, if anyone has any I’d be delighted.

The 12 Foot Skiff class didn’t spread out of its tiny enclave until the Greenwich club arranged a “national” championship in 1926.  The first 12 Foot Skiff ever built in Brisbane, Alf Whereat’s Defiance, “planed great” in a squall to seal the title.[23]  [24]  After some inter-club conflict the 12s dropped their sail area limit but kept the maximum beam and depth rule. Although as early as 1931 the NSW state championship in Sydney attracted a fleet of  42, the Twelves were never popular outside of their Sydney and Brisbane bases, but they survived when the small unrestricted dinghies like the 14s and 10s died away. Today the 12 Foot Skiffs are the least restricted of all of the Skiffs – the last of the traditional Australian classes where sailors can just throw on as much sail as they dare, in the spirit of the early open boat days.

This 1924 vintage William Hall shot from the ANMM appears to show the 12 Foot Skiff Viking, from the Middle Harbour fleet. Cropping the shot (below) shows some interesting details. The slim lines of the skiff type hull form an interesting contrast to the broad beamed and powerful dinghies. If I have the boat and skipper right, the man at the helm is owner John Muston, who like many skiff sailors turned to ocean racing in later life.



Canvassers and Sharpies

In an era before junior classes and when even the smallest boats had expensive rigs, many sailors cut cost by using cheaper hulls. For unknown reasons, sailors in two major centres of Sydney and Brisbane took different avenues when it came to cutting costs. The Sydney sailors favoured round-bilge canvas-covered boats, while the Brisbaneites adopted sharpies.

The canvas-hull dinghies were long a feature of the Sydney sailing scene.  As early as 1878 there was the first racing for “boats made of wooden frame covered with painted canvas”. Some of them were made up cheaply out of scraps, with home-made sails, a framework of cask hoops as ribs, rudder and centreboard made from enamelled iron advertisement hoardings. Others carried second-hand rigs off more expensive timber boats and some had new sails made, and it wasn’t unknown for a canvas dinghy just 8ft long and 3ft6in wide to carry a bowsprit sticking 6’ from the bow and a 13’ boom.[22]  At first they seemed to race in loose classes of 12 to 14 footers, often aimed at boys and young men and with handicap based on length.

A canvas dinghy. Hall/ANMM collection

The popularity of the canvas dinghies seemed to ebb and flow even more than the other types. One 1890s report states that “as time rolled on the canvas dingy was gradually put aside and genuine wooden craft substituted”, while another states that and within a few years there was separate racing for canvas and wooden boats “as the former were nearly always the faster.”newspaper reports speak of 20 new boats one year and then despair of the collapse of the fleet a couple of seasons later.  Exactly what happened to the canvas dinghies is hard to know; one comment was that they ended up with professional boatbuilders involved, and the frames so close together that they ended up basically the same as a normal planked boat.

Somewhere under all that sail is the champion 14 Foot Sharpie Nell. State Library of Queensland pic.


Up in Queensland, sailors on a budget seem to have opted for a different type – the sharpie. The city bred its own unique set of different classes of sharpie, including restricted 10 footers for juniors,  “Restricted 14 Footers” at the top end of the Brisbane River, and open 14 footers and 18 footers where it enters the wide expanses of Moreton Bay. Like the round-bilge open boats, they carried big rigs, especially on the days when they had to stem the force of the outgoing tide as they ran back home up river before the prevailing wind.

Cairns sharpies 1920s
Sharpies in the city of Cairns, in the far north of Queensland, in the 1920s. The two boats to the right seem to have considerable stern rocker. I’ve yet to find much information about these boats.

Like the canvas dinghies, the Brisbane sharpies are long gone and almost forgotten- yet more evidence that the proof that the claim “development classes don’t die” could not be more wrong.  Like their canvas sisters, the sharpies don’t seem to have had much influence on mainstream dinghy design – the era of the lightweight hard chine champion was yet to come. Although they must have been cheaper and easier to build than the round-bilge boats, for unknown reasons they were normally banned from competing against them. The only one of the Brisbane sharpie that raced the round bilge types was the 14ft Oxley Restricted Sharpies – and that is where our tale meets the Australian breed of the International 14, one of the world’s greatest classes. 




It was in the 14s that Chris Webb, generally said to be the greatest of the early Sydney Open Boat sailors, first came to fame.[18]

“Queensland’s Etna of 1898 had a mainsail that was 24 feet long on the boom, a bowsprit of 11 ft,  and a jib that measured 13ft along the foot”:- The Telegraph (Brisbane) 13 Jan 1899 p 6

“The class started in Queensland around 1897”:-  The Telegraph (Bris) 10 Sep 1897

[1] Evening News, 24 March 1879 p3

[2] The Sydney Mail and new South Wales Advertiser, 22 March 1879 p 460

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

[4] There had been early 16 foot Open Boats, but they were “big rig” versions, with “immense mainsails and jibs, topsails, balloon jibs and squaresails, as mentioned in the Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser of 20 March 1880.

[5] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 30 Jan 1897 p 239

“These boats were said to be “of the open skiff class”:- The West Australian, 14 Feb 1898 p 6. The quote comes from a remark about a match race between two Brisbane-based 16s, one a “Sydney boat of the old class” and the other a “low, beamy boat, carrying a great sail-spread and crew”. In the Daily Telegraph for 6 Nov 1894 it was noted that the rise of the 18 Footers “probably lies in the fact that they are built and fitted out at little more expense than is attached to the 16ft. dinghies, which they seem likely to supplant altogether.”

[6] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 30 January 1897, p 239.

“immense clouds of calico”; Sydney Mail 15 Oct 1881 p 658

[7] 6ft, 5’6”, 5’ and 4’6” respectively, with booms 16, 14, 12 and 10; Sydney Morning Herald 16 Nov 1901 p 14

“The founders of the Port Jackson club were apparently reacting against what they saw as extremes of design and of professionalism in other open boat classes.”

Apart from the obvious design restrictions, it was said that the club was “founded for pleasure sailing….and not as a benefit institution for professionals. …the skiff people fear that if the professional element is introduced it will not be long before the sport of skiff sailing will become as tainted as racing amongst the larger class of boats is said to be.” Sydney Sportsman 27 Apr 1904 p 7

“Initially sail area was restricted only by a limit on boom length”: Sydney Sportsman, 19 Aug 1903 p3

[8] Australian Town and Country Journal, 23 Nov 1901 p 54

[9] Blue Water Bushmen, Bruce Stannard p 40

[10] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 9”, Evening News 7 Dec 1907 p 6; 16 Foot Skiff class history. The sail area was apparently increased in 1936; Referee, 11 June 1936 p 18.

[11] Sydney Sportsman 24 April 1912 p 4; Sydney Morning Herald 23 Aug 1912 p 12

[12] Sydney Sportsman, 9 May 1906 p 5

[13] “The evolution of the 16-Footer” Bryce Mortlock, Seacraft Sept 1948 p 156

[14] See for example “The evolution of the 16-Footer” Bryce Mortlock, Seacraft Sept 1948 p 156

The 16s are now the most conservative of the traditional Skiff classes, but as early as 1932 the Western Australian fleet seems to have been using trapezes or “outrigger halyards”; The Daily New (Perth) 25 Feb 1932 p 2.  About 1951 Uffa Fox judged the 16s to be “20 years out of date”. He got a chance to make his point that year when he was given free rein to design two 16s. Surprisingly, both Fox and Ratsey, guru of British sailmakers, agreed that the standard gunter rig remained the best setup for such a boat. But the Fox hulls caused a sensation. Photographs show boats with the typical Fox lines, close sisters to the Thistle or a blown-up International 14. Australians were convinced that Fox’s U-ed underwater bow sections would pound in chop, and the lack of flare would cause the boats to take too much water. The stern, they said, was too narrow for top speed in a breeze.

So who was right? The two Fox boats, both well-sailed and well geared, had no major wins. They caused no revolution, showed no superiority to the “old fashioned” Australian boats. It seems that the home-grown 16s were at least as good as the northern style.

[16] The Australian Motor Boat and yachting Monthly, Oct 1 1925 p 38

[17] The Australian Motor Boat and yachting Monthly, July 1925 p 27

[18] Webb’s first win was the James Deering Cup, for boys under 16; perhaps Australia’s first junior trophy?

“The average 14 racing with the hot Johnstones Bay Sailing Club in 1898″:- The Queenslander 12 March 1898.

” Some had a beam of up to 7ft”- See for example Brisbane Courier 11 Apr 1899

“a “semi-legendary” class and the “keenest and most competitive in the history of Brisbane yachting””

“Some sources claim that they died out because of competition from the growing 18 Footer fleet”;-  See for example Referee, 27 Sep 1924. It must also be significant that the bulk of Sydney 14 Footers moved from the harbour south to Botany Bay, where the clubs then turned to 16 Foot Skiffs.

“Up until 1922 they had a national title that was fought out between Perth, Sydney, and Brisbane.”:- The Sun, 4 Sep 1933.

“Despite her outrageous dimensions”:- The Queenslander 10 Dec 1898. This is also the source for information on her boom and transom width.

[19] Blue Water Bushmen, Bruce Stannard, p 38

[20] Information about Zephyr from Australian Motor Boat and Yachting Magazine, Nov 1925 p 35;

[21] “Calling all old-timers” Seacraft Dec 1953 p 441

[22] Dixon Kemp, [22] A Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing, Southampton 1988, reprint of 1895 edition p 440

“Golding was a well-known builder of boats”:- ‘The story of the 16 Foot sailing skiff”, Maryborough Chronicle, 9 Nov 1951

“two of the other proposed classes also survived”:- although there are no records of 12s and 14s racing as “skiffs” for some years after the PJSC was formed, there are strong indications of a link between that club and the two classes. Some accounts of the ’20s speak of the skiffs


[23] The Telegraph (Brisbane) 5 Feb 1926 p 11 and 19 March p 12

[24] The Telegraph (Brisbane) 15 March 1926 p 11

“In 1924 a breakaway group formed the Greenwich Flying Squadron to race under “best and best” rigs:- The Sun, 16 Nov 1925 p 4.  The term “best and best” referring to allowing boats to carry spinnakers and other “racing sails” rather than smaller “working gear”.  “After some inter-club conflict”:- Arrow, 16 April 1926 reported that Lane Cove would not follow the Brisbane and Greenwich fleets in carrying unrestrictred sail area.

“Although as early as 1931 the NSW state champoionship”:- SMH 21 Feb 1931 p 17

“One 1890s report states”;- ‘Open Boat Sailing. The Old Boats.’ by HC Packham, Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 30 January 1897, p 239

“boats made of wooden frame covered with painted canvas”:- SMH 9 Oct 1912

“as the former were nearly always the faster.”:- SMH 9 Oct 1912

“Exactly what happened to the canvas dinghies is hard to know”;- The Sun, 24 Jan 1938 p8 and Referee, 11 June 1936 p 18.  As late as the 1930s there was a separate canvas dinghy club and at least one new canvas dinghy racing with the 10 Footers, apparently without great success. Perhaps the timber boats had improved, perhaps the canvassers could not handle the increasing rig sizes.

NOTE TO SELF The Birchgrove Fourteen Foot Skiff Club – 5’ beam, 21” depth; no sail area restriction; 15’ boom[19]