Musing: Less is more boats – visual simplicity and the mega classes.

Our own private flotilla this year had some reinforcements this year after a couple of minor incidents (a sinking and writing-off, to be honest) that led my wife and I to update our cat and get another yacht. I was pondering the collection the other day, while I was trying to explain to myself why we had three dinghies, two yachts, a cat, a RIB, a kayak and 22 windsurfers (or maybe I was wondering where I would fit the next one we get) when I realised we’ve now got a complete collection of the marques that powered popular sailing through the 1970s and 1980s – a time when the sport was probably stronger than it ever was before, and perhaps stronger than it will ever be again.

There has never been a racing class as simple as the original Windsurfer or the ’80s modification that is known as the Windsurfer One Design (below).  Well over 100,000 were sold. Although the Windsurfer’s mega-class status has long gone, it had 84 starters at the 2017 40th anniversary Australian nationals, and over the last decade the Italian section has gone from 10 occasional sailors to about 100 racers. The ’80s redesign cured the original’s balance problem and compared to the modern “windSUPs” (or modern racing longboards when allowances are made for weight and rig size) it’s a fast and extremely nimble board. And yes, I am biased and I do know it.



Our little collection includes the Windsurfer One Design, the board that launched the entire sport. Next up in size is the Laser, followed by the Hobie. Our Hobie is actually a Tiger Formula 18, but let it represent the famous Hobie 14 and 16 that launched the plastic surfcat (until we get a 14). Biggest of the pack is a J/36, Rod Johnstone’s third design and standing in for its older, smaller and more popular sister, the J/24 – the boat that became the first truly international “offshore” one design. Between them, the Windsurfer, Hobie 14 and 16, Laser and J/24 put over half a million craft on the water, and the classes that copied them added many more. We’ll never know how many millions of people got into sailing through these mega classes and their competitors, but we do know that the sport needs more classes like them today.

It’s interesting to consider the boats and the marques they represent and try to work out why they appealed to people so strongly. Are they just a random collection of craft that appealed in different ways, or is there a common thread that runs between them?

None of these “mega classes” are perfect designs. Each of them has significant balance or helm issues. Two of them (the Windsurfer and Laser) are easy to throw around and tack, but the Hobies are notoriously slow to turn. There’s no pattern there, apart from a reminder that a light helm doesn’t sell boats. Some of them love heavy air, one tends to fall over and sink. No pattern there either.

None of these “mega classes” were slow boats, but perhaps the only one that is significantly faster than its rivals is the Hobie 16, which had the sail area of a 20 footer.   There’s no common ground in the level of design innovation among them; the Windsurfer brought a whole new sport into being and the Hobies were a radical reinvention of the catamaran, but the Laser was arguably simply a thoroughly modern shape in its day, and the J/24 may have lagged behind competitors like the Moore 24.  I don’t think any of them were particularly cheap for very long. A couple of them got external funding as start-ups (which turned out to be a very mixed blessing) and at least one was a garage operation in the early days. As soon as they became established, each met competitors backed by bigger companies like Bic Pens, Chrysler and Catalina, so they didn’t succeed because of financial clout. So if we discount all those factors, what common ground can be found between made the mega classes succeed?

The Laser seems to be the only boat that was designed to fit the Sunfish market that had the same austere appearance as the original. It may not be a coincidence that it was the only one that really caught on and succeeded against the marketing power of AMF.  While the Sunfish is popular in the western hemisphere it’s never really caught on elsewhere. In global terms, it’s not really a mega class.


One point that all these great designs have in common is toughness. Sure, they have flaws, but all of them used state of the art foam sandwich construction and clever detail design that meant they could take the knocks when racin’ became rubbin’.

Another obvious thread is that in each case, the creators pushed the one-design class racing message, and it wasn’t just a paragraph in a corporate business plan; in every case the creator themselves were out there on the beaches, sailing the races, spreading the word. And those who made the mega classes didn’t just talk – they heard. The way they heeded their customers shone through when I interviewed Rod Johnstone and the three men behind the Laser, and it comes through in the stories of Hobie Alter and the early days of the Windsurfer. Today, many people are telling the sailors of the world what they should be doing. The people who created the great classes listened.

One of the most obvious features these designs share is that they are about as simple as they could be, and the class rules kept them that way.  But it was only when we picked up our new toy that I started to realise that there’s another and more subtle common thread in the details of the design of each of the mega classes.  Each of them is not just a simple craft – it’s one that looks simple. A Banshee or Tasman Tiger may be as simple to operate as a Laser, but it doesn’t look like it. The mega classes remind you of their simplicity at every glance.


When you look at early reports and tests of the J/24, you see time and time again there’s a reference to the boat’s simplicity in both form and function. Simplistic, almost stark, appearance remains a feature of the J line, and it’s interesting to see that from their early designs like 1980’s J/36 (below) and all the way to the current J/111 (bottom) the company seems to often head its brochure pics with shots that are so simple they show a moored boat sans wake, sails or crew.  The shots run counter to most ideals of advertising and are so simple it seems they haven’t even changed the location or composition in 30 years, but the theme runs so strongly through J/Boats highly intelligent marketing that it must be intentional. And it gives me some excuse to include a photo of a J/36, now that we’ve got one. Damn that’s a nice boat.




Compare the low curved deck and straight unadorned sheer of the J/24 to the complex topsides and rubbing strake of the Moore 24, or the cabintop of the Capri 25. The simple deck of the J/24 sent a loud and clear message that simplicity was an vital part of the class.  As Rod Johnstone noted,  he was cautious when he first exposed the boat to top notch sailors, but they appreciated the minimalist design.  “We didn’t know how these guys would react to a boat with no adjustable jib leads, a fixed headstay length and very few other things to fiddle around with. But when the week was over, everyone told us, ‘don’t mess around with the boat, you’ve got a great thing going here.”

While major competitors like Beneteau tried to break new ground with complex deck designed created by professional design studios like Pininfarina and Starck, Johnstone and his J/Boat team have maintained the same “less is more” aesthetic style all the way to the present day and inside and above decks. I’m sure I can recall an early ad showing a J/24 with its sails down in front of a rocky shoreline, as in the pics of later Js above. Nothing could have emphasised the simplicity more.

Hobie Alter followed a similar functional appearance with his surfcats. The only details that may break the stark functionality of the Hobie are the pylons that support the beams, but even they are a functional way to reduce the hull size and weight while maintaining freeboard. Compared to most of their contemporaries the rig and fittings are starkly simple. And the Hobie hulls themselves, of course, are utterly minimalist in size and in appearance. There’s the lack of centreboard and perhaps most importantly, the way the sheerline and rocker line echo each other as they run through the minimalist hull and to the tiny transom.

Recreational sport catamaran
The odd little Aqua Cat was the top selling multi in the USA until the Hobie 14 came alone. With its centreboards and the awkward looking rig, forebeam and traveller beam and mast supports, the “plumber’s nightmare” was a far cry from the visual simplicity of the Hobie.


Volvo Youth Sailing ISAF World Championship 2006
From an aesthetic angle, the Hobie 16 has always struck me as a collection of simple and swooping lines. There’s the curve of the keel and the complementary curve of the rocker; the sweep of the mainsail roach; and the simple and powerful lines formed by the forestay and its alignment with the heavily raked mast. Even the way the clew drops down to deck level seems to emphasis the single continual arc of the leach from masthead to stern, as it does in the Laser.


Of course, nothing that ever sailed has been simpler than the original Windsurfer. The board itself, modelled off a Matt Kevlin “tanker” dual malibu surfboard, is a combination of utter simplicity and subtle curves. With a simple daggerboard, no rudder and no sheet, vang, traveller or adjustable outhaul or downhaul, the Windsurfer was and is the sailcraft stripped bare. Even a shortboard looks more cluttered with its footstraps and full battens.

The original Windsurfer was doomed in a way because the concept was too much of a brilliant leap. No one could anticipate the direction how far windsurfing could go and where the sport would head, in both positive and negative ways. Schweitzer and Drake aimed to create a craft that went like a Sunfish but was easier to move around and more fun. They couldn’t realise where windsurfing could go, and how sailors would push the original board way beyond its design parameters and show up the problems with mast placement and foil and rig design. These days “windSUPS” – stand up paddleboards with sailing rigs – and the Kona One Design are bringing a revival of the sort of sailing we used to do when windsurfing was young, and they are proving just how well the Windsurfer One Design, the ’80s modification of the original, compares with the latest designs aimed at the same “light wind beach toy” market as the Windsurfer.

The Laser is another example of visual minimalism. Where competitive boats like the Banshee and Force 5 went for the utility of larger cockpits, the Laser stayed with a simple trench footwell.  In reality the Laser may not have been all that much easier to rig or sail than its competitors, but the stark design gives you a subconscious reminder of its simplicity at every glance. Like the Hobie 16, it’s got a low clew and from a distance, there appears to be one elegant line from mast tip to stern, without the visual clutter you get with the normal clew height. It’s a boat that you can sketch with half a dozen lines. Every time you look at it you are reminded that it takes only a few minutes to rig and launch. The cluttered look of some other boats reminds you at every glance that just rigging up is an expedition in itself.

The Tasar, the first of the minimalist Bethwaite boats, was heavily influenced by the industrial design skills of Ian Bruce.  Skiffs are complicated boats by definition, but Julian Bethwaite, who readily admits he learned much from Bruce, somehow managed to make the 49er into a sleek and simple craft. Pics from the class sites.


Perhaps it’s no coincidence that arguably the most significant marque to hit the dinghy world since the Laser is the Bethwaite boats – a breed that also sits in our driveway in the form of the Tasar. Julian and Frank Bethwaite were both strongly influenced by the industrial design skills of Ian Bruce. The 29er and 49er are, of course, by nature more complex, but details like the solid wings and vangs ensure that they look as simple as possible.

Oh, and of course there is one other thing that the mega classes have in common – they come from North America. North American sailors are often abused for being conservative, particularly by other North American sailors, but when they do break out they create many of greatest breakthroughs in sailing history. Exactly why that happens is something else to muse about.





Pt 1.25: Hard chines and one designs

Sharpie start
The Australian version of the 12 Square Metre Sharpies in a national championship off Adelaide in 1949.  The Australian one designs started using fully battened mainsails in the 1930s.  State Library South Australia pic B 7798/660

While the more expensive round-bilge development-class open boats dominated the high profile end of the Australian dinghy sailing scene, around the coast most sailors sailed cheaper boats like one designs and smaller hard-chine local development classes. In the early part of the 20th century it seemed as if each city had its own range of local budget boats, which raced alongside three widespread one design classes.

The mindset of those who sailed the one designs and the local development classes seems to have been different to the men who raced the 12, 14, 16 and 18 Footers in several important ways. Their choice of hull shape and construction were two obvious areas. All but one of the major one design classes had hard chine hulls, which were considered to cause more drag and were often heavier, but were cheaper and easier to build. Length for length, with very few exceptions, the hard-chine classes carried less than half the sail and half the crew of the 12s, 14s, 16s and 18s. The hull construction, small rigs and small crews made the hard-chine boats much cheaper to build and run than the big-rig open boats. We could perhaps call the dinghies the “Australian lightweights”, for even when if their hulls were sometimes as heavy as the open boats and skiffs, the much lighter crews that they carried meant that they were much lighter when sailing.

Many of those who favoured the one designs and lightweight development classes also seem to have been more openly interested in and influenced by designs and concepts from other countries than the open boat men. They took designs and ideas from overseas and gave them the local treatment, adding more sail area and more crew to adapt them to local conditions or culture.  The boats that they created were not as famous or spectacular as those of “skiff” stream, but arguably they had as least as much influence in the evolution of design as the “skiff” types, and by many measurements they were often faster than their big-rig cousins.

Although there was plenty of talk in the newspapers about the success of the one design classes in England, the strong Australian development-class ethos meant that it was all just talk.  The first one design class to hit the water, the ten foot one designs from Perth, seem to have only lasted a few races in 1898. The only pic I can find shows a rather strange little boat with a vast boom, spoon bow and low freeboard – probably a very unsuitable design for the windy Swan River.

Perth one designs
Australia’s first one design. About ten were built, but the records show that they did little class racing.


Albert Park, that little cradle of Victorian dinghy sailing, was the venue for what seems to have been the first successful one design class in the country. From about 1910 the Albert Park Dinghy Club sailed a fleet of hard chine 8 Foot Dinghies, built and sailed by boys. From the scanty evidence it seems to have been a one design that spread inland to Ballarat and down to the rough waters of Port Phillip Bay, where it was the junior boat for the St Kilda Fourteen Footer fleet.  The 8 Foot Dinghy seems to have survived into the 1940s and was still said to be faster than the Sabot that replaced it, but it was never widespread or influential.

The year is probably 1913, and the spectators for the Albert Park regatta watch the Victorian class of Eight Foot Dinghies on the tiny Albert Park Lake near downtown Melbourne.  The little cat-rigged hard-chine boat seems to have spread to Ballarat and St Kilda in the 1930s but vanished without trace later.


The boat that finally turned the one-design dinghy talk into popular reality was the 12 Foot Cadet.  As the name implies, the Cadet was designed to train young sailors, specifically to fill the shortage of crew for the 21 Footer class centreboard yachts.  One later writer stated that the Cadet was inspired by the International 14, but given the Cadet’s size, general style, clinker construction and the fact that it was designed a few months before the 14 class was formed, it seems more likely that the older International 12 was the model. The clinker hull carried three boys and a 100 sq ft of upwind sail area, in an era when comparable overseas trainers had much longer hulls and proportionately smaller rigs and crews.  This pattern of a hull modelled from a Northern Hemisphere design but supercharged by a bigger rig and crew was to be followed by all of the major dinghy classes that grew up in Australia between the wars.

The Cadet was an instant success. “At first disappointment was expressed by many yachtsmen that the class of boat was so small, but the tiny craft have proved a fine type of boat for the purpose of training young yachtsmen, their stability and speed exceeding expectations.”

An early 12 Ft Cadet on Sydney Harbour. Hall pic through ANMM Commons
Tas Cadets
12 Ft Cadets in Hobart. The southern capital was the first city outside Australia to pick up on the class. The class still survives today, although only sailed in a few clubs. pic.


The first class race was in January 1923, and just over a year later the first national championship was fought out in Hobart.  By 1930 they became the first class to be sailed in every state, and the list of champions includes names that went on to helm Olympic and America’s Cup boats. The class still survives today, although in another example of the north/south divide in Australian sailing it has long since vanished from the east coast states.

Despite the fact that it became Australia’s first widespread one design dinghy class, in some ways the 12 Foot Cadet was an anomoly. It was a round-bilge clinker hull that was normally sailed from the establishment big-boat clubs.  Many of the Cadets were owned by big-boat owners – the first fleet was entirely owned by yachtsmen who named the Cadets after their yacht – and they were dedicated to training big-boat sailors.  As early as the 1930s there were comments that the Cadet was too expensive to survive. The boats that came to form the backbone of dinghy sailing around Australia’s coasts were hard chine boats, often home built and often sailing from clubs that specialised in dinghy racing.

Snipes in Ballarat
A mass christening of Snipes in Ballarat draws a crowd on the club open day in 1947. Snipes were raced as a class in Western Australia, Tasmania and Victoria, but they kept a low profile and never seem to have had a class association or national title. Their existence seems to be completely forgotten today. Perhaps the fact that they were not sailed in the major centres kept them under the radar, but it may also be significant that no foreign class succeeded in Australia without significant modifications until the 1950s. Pic from the Ballaarat YC history “Ballaarat Yacht Club 1877-2002” by Peter Mansfield. And yes, the spelling of the YC and the town is inconsistent.

The boat that was to take the 12 Ft Cadet’s crown as the major training class was born in 1931.  The Depression had hit Sydney hard, and the local youth had to resort to building canoes from corrugated iron to get on the water.  Watching these deathtraps was sporting goods retailer Sil Rohu, and along with naval architect Charles Sparrow he decided to create a boat that was safe but still cheap and simple enough for juniors to build.

Veteran Vaucluse sailor Phil Briggs recalls that for inspiration, Rohu, Sparrow and members of the Vaucluse 12 Ft Skiff Club looked towards a Snipe that his brother had built. Briggs claims that the prototype Splinter was was basically a Snipe scaled down to 11’3” and carrying a borrowed set of 12 Foot Cadet sails.[58]  He recalled that Splinter was “very temperamental and twitchy”, so the hull was modified and widened by naval architect Sparrow and fitted with a more suitable rig, becoming the first major bermudan-rigged dinghy class in the country. [59]  The hull was flat in rocker and in section; so flat that early on it was known as the “Vaucluse Sharpie.”[60]  Sparrow created detailed plans and a simple structure for amateur construction “so that any boy of fourteen or fifteen could, with only very occasional assistance from a senior, build his own boat’ and generously waived his commission. [61]

Above – Splinter, the Vee Jay prototype, with its Cadet rig. Pic from the class site. Below – an early sailplan illustration.

Early VJ sailplan

The word “boy” was significant.  Rohu did not believe that women should sail. Teenager Suzanne Hawker, who was so determined to build her own boat that she had already earned a certificate in cabinet making, went to see the VJs at their home club when visiting Sydney.  “I picked my way over miles of wharves before I found the club – only to see a notice which said ‘No girls allowed’.” she recalled. [62] It took years to convince Rohu that women should be allowed in the class.[63]

The original Vee Jays adopted the old canoe trick of fitting the cockpit with a canvas bag, which could be picked up to empty the well after a capsize; later boats were fitted with a tiny 2’6” long waterproof footwell.  At a time when a capsize meant the end of the race in almost all Australian small-boat classes, in a Vee Jay race it was “not in the least unusual for several to capsize in a race if there is enough wind, but all will finish as if nothing had happened.”  To sailors bred in Skiffs and other Open Boats, this was anathema; a self-bailing boat was “useless as a trainer beyond a certain point” wrote Skiff designer Bryce Mortlock; “…you can make a mistake in them and learn nothing from it.”[64]  To others, the “self rescue” capacity of the Vee Jay made it a safer and better craft, and Sil Rohu himself advertised it as “the safety sailing boat”.

1934_Howard_Ash Vee Jay
Above – In 1934, when this pic (from the class site) was taken the Vee Jay was a long way short of the highly developed powerhouse it became, but it was still a fast boat in a breeze by the standards of the day. Pic below, showing a Vee Jay at Connels Point, from the Australian National Maritime Museum Commons.

Vee Jay

The Vee Jay was not just safe. With its flat hull, low freeboard and low aspect rig it was also a good performer in a breeze even in its early days. Rohu’s marketing acument and the Vee Jay’s speed and safety made it an instant hit. The Vee Jay even spread overseas in small numbers. One of the British boats was bought by a young man who gave it a high-aspect rig with a fully battened and big-roach mainsail. “Under this rig she gained a first in every race in which she sailed that season” he wrote years later. “She gave me an immense amount of pleasure, and I think probably taught me more about sailing than any other boat that I have since owned.” The Englishman was Ian Proctor; creator of classes like the Olympic Tempest keelboat, the Wayfarer cruising dinghy, and the little Topper scow, one of the world’s most popular boats.

The loose class rules allowed the Vee Jay to transformed from a simple little boat to a lighter, flatter planing machine powered by twin hiking planks. Pic of an early boat above from Hall ANMM Commons; brochure below of a 1960s boat from the class site.


Although it was always largely concentrated in NSW, the Vee Jay put more Australian kids afloat than any other boat. By the 1950s it was one of the world’s biggest classes, with 2,800 registered boats and 8,000 plans sold, and a generation of VJ graduates were transforming the skiff classes.

Just as the little Vee Jay was starting to cause a stir in the eastern states, a bigger sharpie type arrived in the southern states.  It was Germany’s long, skinny International 12 sq metre Sharpie. The Sharpie’s plans were brought to Australia in 1933 by a sailor, M Lotz, with experience of the class in England and the Netherlands. He showed the plans to “several leading Perth yachtsmen, who very quickly declared that the Swan River was far too rough for such craft, and refused even to consider the idea.” Nothing daunted, Lotz took the plans to the Royal South Australian Yacht Squadron, who decided to sponsor the class.  “For some years South Australian yachtsmen have been trying to evolve a class of day-sailing boat, which will be cheaper than the fourteen-footers and the 21 ft. restricted class, and will be a stepping stone for the lads becoming too old to sail In the 12 ft. cadet dinghies” said a paper. “The main advantage of the new craft is that they are entirely of one design, so that racing with them resolves itself into a pure test of seamanship” noted another. “No longer will the rich man, with his several suits of sails and his superior designed hull, have an overwhelming advantage over his poorer yachtsman.”

Sharpies off Adelaide in the 1940s. State Library of South Australia photo B7798/661

While the class was still in the planning stages the Sharpie was viewed as a stepping stone for intermediate-level sailors. You get the feeling that the skinny Sharpie was so foreign to Australian eyes that many sailors didn’t realise how fast it would be. They learned the lesson as soon as the Sharpie Comet entered her first race in August 1934. In a classic example of the typical Australian approach to one designs, the foreign hull had been turbocharged with a spinnaker and a third crewman to provide more righting moment. Sailed by 14 Footer champions O J  and A J O’Grady against the best 14 Footers in the state, Comet “quickly established a useful lead” upwind before she “streaked away with free sheets” on the reach and “further increased her lead to an unassailable position” on the run. Comet beat the 14 Footers home by four minutes. The 14 Footer sailors, so used to being the Grand Prix class of the state, promptly demanded that the Sharpie be handicapped, saying that “a boat of 19 ft. 7 in, and narrow in the beam, will always do better in the short choppy waves of the beaches in a moderate breeze than the beamier 14-footers.” The fact that the Sharpie had a fraction of the 14’s sail, crew and cost was ignored.

“Surprise win by new class boat at Henley” read the headlines, and from then on the Sharpie made “meteoric” progress. Here was a boat that could be built for just 35 to 45 pounds instead of the 300 pounds for a top-class 14 Footer or a cheap 21 Footer. Within a year there were nearly 40 boats racing in South Australia, and the class was becoming the major high-performance boat in Tasmania, Western Australia and Victoria. In yet another indication of the geographic divide between the east coast states and the rest of the country, the Sharpie took longer to develop fleets in NSW and Queensland, and it never became as popular as the Skiffs and Open Boats in those states.

The Sharpie Havoc in the mid ’50s, showing the fully battened mainsail that was used in Australian versions of the 12 Square Metre. Pic from the class site.

The arrival of the Sharpie seems to have caused a lot of angst amongst the 14 Foot Dinghy sailors. Here was a boat that could not only threaten their class’ pre-eminence in the southern states, but was also promoted by former 14 Footer legends like “Pat” O’Grady, HC Brooke and Rymill. “This swing over to one-designers is following the trend of yachting enthusiasts throughout the world, and the policy seems a sound one” wrote 14 Footer legend H C Brooke in his newspaper column.

The Sharpie may have been one of the most important standard bearers for one designs. Its size and speed took Australian one design classes into a new area. No longer were one designs restricted to training boats – they had become a prestigious form of high performance racing boat for experts.

The local development classes

The Vee Jay and Sharpie were not the first light hard-chined boats in the country. While the media obsessed over the big-rigged Skiffs and Open Boats, all across Australia there were local classes of lighter, smaller-rigged development dinghies. All but one of these classes has long gone, but the men who were involved with them played a significant part in the development of the racing dinghy.

Perhaps the earliest of all of the cheap local types were the 18ft “flat bottomed square ended punts” that were sponsored by the great open boat sailor J.H. Whereat as a junior class in Brisbane as early as 1883. The punt racing only lasted a few years, but from 1894 Brisbane adopted a bewildering variety of local sharpie classes, ranging from 18 footers that carried huge rigs (but were barred from racing with the round-bilge 18 Footers, in yet another example of the restrictions the 18s often adopted) down to 10 footer for juniors. [57]

Regatta on the Brisbane River 1883 JPEG
“Regatta on the Brisbane River 1883” from the State Library of Queensland showing what appear to be the entrants for the “flat bottomed square ended punts, sailed and manned by youths under 18 years”, not exceeding 18 ft in length”.  The class was sponsored by J.H. Whereat, one of the champions in the early Open Boat era.
Nell champion fourteen footer Sharpie ca
Brisbane evolved its own menagerie of hard chine boats, like the spectacular 14 Foot Sharpie Nell (above) Brisbane champion around 1914. John Oxley Library pic. For decades the Oxley Sailing Club had its own  class of 14 foot “restricted sharpies” with smaller 220 sq ft rigs (below). Pic from the Oxley SC site.

Oxley sharpies

Sharpie skiff Brisbane river SLQ
One of the big unrestricted sharpies of the Brisbane River, probably an 18 footer. John Oxley Library pic. They were barred from racing with the normal 18 Footers.


Across in Western Australia there was a class of flat and wide punts that raced on small lakes inland from Perth, and claimed surprising speeds. Down in South Australia a group of teenagers formed the Grange Punt Club, and built skinny 18 footers that could beat the grand-prix 14 Footers downwind in strong winds.  They were cheap, rough and hard to handle, and there were plans to replace them with a more seaworthy 14 foot canoe. [66]  Over in Melbourne, another group of youth formed the Williamstown Punt Club, which also raced canoe-like “punts” in the period before and after WW1. The Williamstown youths even got their own clubhouse, which was opened by none other than the Governor General, the head of state of the country.

Grange Punts
Above – Grange Punts. These skinny 18 footers bred many of the early champions in the 14 Foot Dinghy and Sharpie classes in South Australia. The 14 Footer SA can be seen astern. State Library of South Australia.


Williamstown Punt
The Williamstown Punt was created by youths shortly before WW1.  The Williamstown Punts were about 19ft long and restricted to 3ft beam and 70 sq ft of sail. Pic and information from Williamstown Maritime Association and Williamstown SC.


Despite their economy and the outstanding performance they could show at times, especially downwind in a breeze, none of the development-class sharpies or punts ever grew outside of their home port. It seems they may have been too one-dimensional; too likely to capsize (although some, like the Grange Punts, were self-draining) and unable to beat the round-bilge big-rig boats upwind and in light airs.

“Flatties” in Perth around 1914. This class of 12’6″ boats was said to normally beat the 16 ft Rudder Lark scow. The bottom boat is a typical design. Made in kauri, they weighed only 90 to 130lb. The pic was taken only a few years after club members were permitted to swim in the lake wearing ‘neck to knee’ swimsuits to preserve public dignity. From Yachting World Dec 1915.

WA Flattie plans.png


Around the same time, a very different local development class was sailing in Hobart, the capital of the island state of Tasmania.  Despite Tasmania’s tiny population and struggling economy, the capital city of Hobart has had an amazingly strong sailing scene for many decades.

Although details are scanty, it appears that the first significant local dinghy classes were among the few dinghies that have been governed by waterline length alone, just like the contemporary local yacht classes.  As always, measurement by waterline length led to extreme scow types.  The bigger classes included radical designs like a 37 foot long Clapham “Bouncer” type built to the 21 foot LWL class and called “the distorted result of a horrible nightmare.”[56] Little information can be found about the 12’6″ waterline class dinghies of the 1890s. What we do know is that Pinega, a champion of the class, was a hard chine boat “of the Bouncer style” that carried as much as 250ft2 of sail in a gunter lug rig, which probably indicates that she had long, scow-type overhangs.[55]  There is one intriguing but unidentified photo of something that looks like a hard-chine scow type of about the right LWL with overhangs and perhaps some form of hiking aid – was it one of this vanished class, or Pinega herself?

One of “Skipper” Batt’s “Boxy” type 15 Footers shows off her lines.  Flat bottomed, hard chined and decked, the Tasmanian boats of the early 1900s seem to be more modern in concept than their contemporaries in other areas, but they died out around WW1.  Pic from “Tasmanian Yachts on the Derwent in old picture postcards” by Graeme Broxam.

The two waterline-length dinghy classes seem to have been succeeded by the “15 Foot Dinghies”, also known as “Boxies”; an appropriate title for these beamy and almost flat-bottomed hard chine boats. The Boxies were unlike just about anything else in Australia; perhaps closer in style to the type that was to emerge in New Zealand decades later. Up to six feet in beam and with just two or three crew, they had wide decks and buoyancy tanks at a time when most Australians were sailing open boats.  It seems likely that Tasma, a “freak” hard chine brought in from Tasmania to race with much success in Victoria’s early 14 Footers, was a scaled-down Boxie. She was soon banned, and with her may have gone the chances of Tasmania to influence mainstream (and mainland) Australian dinghy design.

Lallah berri and boxie tas mar mus
Lalla Berri and another “Boxy”. The “Boxies” were Tasmania’s top dinghy class for a few years. These hard chine 15 footers had extensive decking; a rarity in Australia at the time but probably a good idea in the windy and chilly waters of the southernmost state. Lalla Berri, one of Skipper Batt’s early boats, was a champion around 1907.  I can find little information on the Boxies and their career.  It looks like they could have formed the basis of an interesting hard chine class, and it would be interesting to find why they died out.  Tasmanian Maritime Museum pic

The Boxie’s main influence on centreboarder design was probably the fact that it brought to light the talent of “Skipper” Batt, a Boxie designer/skipper who went on to great success in the 21 Footers. These centreboard yachts, 21 foot at the waterline but with long overhangs, became the prestige national class for yacht racing in the early part of the 20th century, and Batt dominated for years. When “Skipper” and his brother Neal moved into yachts around 1909 the Boxie class may have lost heart, for they seem to have vanished soon after. In some ways they seem to be perhaps the most modern of all the Australian dinghies of their time, and their early death could have killed off a very promising line of development.

The Boxies, the development-class sharpies and the punts have all long gone, like the Connewarre punts before them. But one of these early hard-chine development classes has not only survived, but become one of the most influential dinghy classes of all.

In 1928 a small-town dairy manager, Len Morris, decided to build a boat light enough to trailer down to the narrow inlet at Inverloch and fast enough to sail against the inlet’s rapid tidal currents. Morris comes down the decades as the sort of man you’d like to know. He started sailing on Albert Park Lake on a canvas canoe before becoming a partner in one of the low and fast 25 foot centreboard yachts that sailed there and in Ballarat.  A World War 1 hero, he put a lot back into the sport as a volunteer and sailed – and won – in Moths well into his old age.

As Morris sketched designs in the dairy depot he thought back to his childhood memories of the descriptions in “Rudder” magazine of the Seawanhaka Cup scows, mixed with information he had recently obtained on a trip to the USA for business purposes. He decided to create a little hard-chine 11 footer as “an easily-constructed version of a small scow.” [65] It was a very simple hull; dead flat bottom sections, square vertical hull sides, and rather crude looking. She had a single daggerboard instead of the normal scow’s bilgeboards. “I have thought of using two bilge boards but have given the idea away” wrote Morris years later, referring to the problem of handling the boards and the extra weight or two boards and cases.

Olive as she is today in Albert Park Sailing Club. Pic from the International Moth site.
Olive sailing
A poor quality pic, but the only one I can find of Olive under sail. The sail insignia was adopted from the Crosby-designed Moth from Rudder magazine, although other American Moths had a different insignia.  News (Adelaide) 22 March 1934

Morris’ boat was a singlehander, an unusual thing in Australia at the time. The sail area was a generous 80 sq ft bermudan rig, and inspired by Germany’s renjollen Morris soon fitted the sail with full battens.

Fast and seaworthy because of her small cockpit and wide decks, Morris’ boat Olive inspired a class known after its home town as the “Inverloch 11 foot class”. In 1933, the Inverloch sailors read “Rudder” accounts of the slightly later US Moth class and noted how similar it was to their own 11 footer. They adopted the “Moth” name and the symbol of the boat in the Rudder, but they kept their own taller and larger rig and flatter, more stable hull; the chance of international competition seemed so slim that there was no reason to bring the rules into line.

At first the Moth’s growth was slow; the little country town of Inverloch was not the ideal place to launch a class. Sailing events topped the bill in the annual regatta, but they shared the day with events like motorboat races, greasy pole climbing, musical chairs on horseback, and a guess-the-sheep’s-weight competition.  It wasn’t until 1936 that the Moth spread to another small club, which also introduced versions of American Moths including one designed by Rudder Magazine’s Crosby and the “Little Bear” design. “Both with the American and Australian rigs, my Moth Flutterby outclassed them” wrote Morris many years later, who referred to the Vee-bottom US designs and the British Moth as “hopeless” at planing because they “did not exploit the inclined bilge of the true scow”.

The Moth started to make even more of a name for itself when Morris sailed Flutterby in  on Port Phillip Bay, centre of Victorian sailing. “It was when Flutterby sailed in a full-sail breeze and steep seas while putting up second-fastest time” said a later report “that Len Morris began to suspect that Moths were something out of the normal”. “Built on the lines of a scow, they made fast times, and more than held their own against the larger boats and should prove very popular” said a report of the time.


Moth No 3
Len Morris sailing Moth Number 3, Flutterby. Pic from the class site.

There seems to have been some resistance to the Moth from those who felt that a cat rig was “useless as trainees for larger classes” because of the lack of a jib and spinnaker. It wasn’t until after WWII that the Moth class exploded in popularity, spreading singlehanded sailing across the country.

In 1946, Morris consulted hydrodynamic experts from the national science organisation to design the “Mk 2”, sharing Olive’s flat sections and square sides but adding a wider bow and smaller cockpit. The Mk2 set the standard for Moths for a decade or more, and still survives today in the form of the small one-design class known as the NZ Moth. The other great survivor from the Moth’s earliest days is Olive herself.  Today, she still hangs inside a sailing club on the lake inside the Melbourne Formula 1 car-racing course, a unique survivor from the birth of one of the world’s most innovative classes.

NZ Moth plans
Plans of the Mk 2 from the NZ Moth site. Despite its utter simplicity, it remained competitive against big fleets of round-bilged boats for many years.
Stewarts Gully Moth
Above – NZ Moths, a one design version of the Mk II Moths, still survive as a small class in New Zealand. Pic from the Stewarts Gully SC site.


wingmasted Moth
Although the MkII Moth was dominant in Moths for years, there were still innovators. One champion tried bilgeboards unsuccessfully. Another, Pat Smith, built two wingmasts (above) but found the weight made the boat perform poorly. Seacraft October 1949.

The Moth, 12 Ft Cadet, Vee Jay and Sharpie seem to have set the pattern for Australian one designs and small development classes. First, you chose a hull that followed international concepts, and made sure that it had hard chines for economy and wide decks for safety. But, as the relative lack of success of the Snipe showed, that alone was not enough. To succeed in Australia an overseas-style design needed to be turbocharged with a slightly bigger rig, extra righting moment, and a flat hull to get the most from the extra power and strong winds.

Classes like the Sharpie and Moth give us a major insight into an aspect of the future of dinghy racing. In recent years it has often been said that the “skiff type” is the leader of design trends and the future of the sport. The truth is that we have over 80 years of experience that shows us that the dinghy types, with their smaller sails and lower righting moment, often lead the way in design trends. Even more importantly, the continuing popularity of the Australian dinghy classes and the fact that the skiffs are still only widely popular within a limited area proves that the skiff types do not replace the dinghy types – they are merely an important sub-type. The final part of SailCraft’s look at pre-WW2 Australian boats deals with the most famous of them all- the 18 Footers.






“specifically to fill the shortage of crew”: Yachting and the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club Graeme Norman, p 75. The RPAYC was the club that started the 12 Foot Cadet class.

“At first disappointment was expressed by many”;- Mercury 4 March 1924

“The class still survives today”:- One account says that the class died out in Sydney because “The Sydney dinghy Clubs were too numerous and too far apart, so the boys went into the 18ft. and 16ft. skiffs.” See Mercury 9 May 1947

“Under this rig she gained a first in every race in which she sailed that season”:- Seacraft magazine, June 1950 p 395.

“Watching these deathtraps was sporting goods retailer Sil Rohu”: – The Sunday Herald, 18 Jan 1953

“Rohu did not believe that women should”;- The Sunday Herald, 18 Jan 1953

“”For some years South Australian yachtsmen have been trying to evolve a class of day-sailing boat”:- Advertiser 21 Sep 1934

” “The main advantage of the new craft”:-  The Mail 10 Nov 1934

“quickly established a useful lead” :- Advertiser 29 Oct 1934

“The 14 Footer sailors, so used to being the Grand Prix class of the state”;- Advertiser, 2 November 1934

“The sharpies have become popular”: Advertiser, 20 Sep 1935

“Within a year there were nearly 40 boats racing in South Australia”:- Advertiser, 17 April 1936

When the Sharpie and 14 Footer nationals were run  concurrently in 1938, in a pre-champoionships race the Sharpies were rated at 4% faster.

“14s were expensive boats to run – they were built fairly light, carried very big sails and a big crew – usually 6.  Wooden masts 28 to 31ft long, very lightly made and easy to break. Mainsail at 230 sq ft is small, 265 sq ft is normal and 300 sq ft

“They were barred from racing with the normal 18 Footers”:-

“Built on the lines of a scow”;- Williamstown Chronicle, 26 Nov 1938.

“I have thought of using two bilge boards”;  ‘Which Moth is best?’ by Len Morris, Seacraft Oct 1960.

“”Both with the American and Australian rigs” ibid.

“There seems to have been some resistance”:- The Moth Class Story, Seacraft May 1957



NOTE: There were many other one designs that started in the period before the 1950s that may be covered in a later post. There were Fergusons (15 or 16 foot sharpies sailed in Hobart), Kiwis (simply the NZ Idle Along design sailed in Hobart, and also under their normal name in Melbourne).   There were “19-ft One-design Skiffs”[68].  “Trainer dinghies” in Adelaide were hard-chine sharpie-like 12’ gunter sloops pre WW2;[69]

The Fourteen Footer movement tried to get several one design classes going, including a design (or two) by Bill Osborne and the Brooke design referred to in a previous post.

Earlier attempt to get one designs going included a “1900 proposal for a 20 footer in Adelaide”;- the proposed design was by AG Rymill, who had designed and sailed the One Rater Geisha in the Inter Colonial One Rater challenge in Auckland a few years before; Weekly Times (Melb) 17 March 1900. Rymill then turned to become Australia’s top powerboat racer but sponsored his nephew A G Rymill, in a Fourteen Footer.