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.

9886027145_ca1d2a4d15_c
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.

statelibqld_1_290959_volant2c_14_foot_dinghy_under_sail_in_brisbane2c_1907
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.

championship-of-australia-racing-skiff-ida-in-full-sail-1909

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.

australia-10-footer
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.

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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.

gerard-2

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.

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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]

 

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Designer Bryce Mortlock’s sketch of an 1800s style 16 Foot Skiff (top) compared to the 16s of the mid 1900s (below). 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.

 

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. [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, accepting a drop in upwind performance in exchange for better speed downwind.

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.

 

16-planing-cropped
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.

12-foot-skiff
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 champoionship 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.

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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.

viking-cropped

 

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.

canvasser
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.

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

 

Up in Brisbane, 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.

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.  Although they must have been cheaper and easier to build than the round-bilge boats, they were either banned from competing against them or, as in the case of the 14ft Oxley Restricted Sharpies, were not competitive. And also 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.

 

 

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]

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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.

1 thought on “Pt 1.24: The skiffs and dinghies of the east coast”

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