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


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.

7 thoughts on “Pt 1.24: Fourteens dominant; the early history of southern and western Australian dinghies”

  1. The photo purporting to be JOHN NIMMO is incorrect. Mick Brooke’s 14’s all carried the cresent moon logo -even after he sold it to SA it is thought to have been renamed JOHN SAVAGE & carried the same logo. Cannot ID the boat but doubt very much it is JOHN NIMMO, unless it is using a borrowed main.


      1. Is that the boat I thought may be John Nimmo? Thanks for that. I’d still love to find a pic of the John Nimmo.


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