Pt 1.25: The myths and legends of the 18 Footers


Note – this post doesn’t include any information from Robin Elliott’s “Galloping Ghosts” or Ian Smiths “The Open Boat”, which could probably be called the Bibles when it comes to 18 Footers. I’ve got huge respect for both authors and the reasons I haven’t quoted from them are simple – firstly, I try to rely on my own research for blogs rather than taking too much from other modern researchers, partly to try to create my own slant and partly because I don’t like leaning too hard on the shoulders of others. Secondly, I’ve been too slack to get copies of them yet! For those who are fascinated by the history of the 18s, both books seem like a ‘must read’ item.


In both myths and legends, the 18 Footers dominate Australian dinghy sailing. The normal tale is that Sydney Harbour’s 18 Foot Skiffs, sailed hard by wild waterfront workers, were the fastest and most radical craft afloat for decades. It was the 18 Footers, it’s said, that broke up a sailing scene that was the pinnacle of conservatism by innovations such as handicap starts and sail insignia. The Sydney Harbour 18 Foot Skiffs, the legends say, were interested in pure and simple performance and they had had just two rules – “they had to be 18 Feet long, and the races start at 2 o’clock.”

The truth is neither pure or simple, and the history of the early 18 Footer class has become shrouded in myths.  The famous early 18 Footers were not called skiffs – to most of the 18 Footer sailors, “skiff” was almost an insult. They weren’t even Sydney Harbour boats per se – the city of Brisbane was equally vital to the early history of 18 Footers. They not only had class rules, but they fought to the death – or at least to the death of clubs – to maintain them. And of course they don’t even all start at 2:00; pursuit racing has long been a feature of the class, and arguments over starting times have caused the entire Sydney fleet to boycott a national titles.

Poss 18 Yvonne Tyrell poer
Bill Golding’s Yvonne was one of the best of the early 18s. Built in 1895, she was 8ft in beam – over a foot wider than boats of a year or two before, but narrower than those of a year or two later. Above: William Hall pic from Australian National Maritime Museum Flickr. Below……errr Sydney Mail, I think.


The 18 Footers are one of the world’s great classes, but the reality is more complex and more nuanced than the myths and legends. It is not a tale of rollicking radicals battling conservatives, or hard-driving working sailors who threw away all the rules. It’s a story of a class that, like any other, had to deal with the tensions between development and conservation, between performance and practicality, and between development and maintaining an existing fleet. The reality tells us far more about our sport than the myth.

The 18 Footer class seems to have had pretty humble origins. In the 1880s there was a scattering of 18 foot long open boats racing in Sydney regattas and clubs under a variety of loose rules. Some raced in classes with restricted beams, some raced with husband-and-wife crews, others competed against 19 Footers with handicaps based on length. In 1893, the old restrictions faded away and a class limited only by a length of 18 ft (5.5m) “came into prominence” in Sydney . “The reason probably lies in the fact that they are built and fitted out at little more expense than is attached to the l6ft. dinghies, which they seem likely to supplant altogether” an 1894 paper noted. “Moreover, they are easily handled with a small crew, and, as for speed, they have shown themselves little wonders in anything like moderate weather.”  In the same year the 18 Footers were said to be “more numerous than any other class in Port Jackson”, and the Port Jackson Sailing Club’s 18 Footer races became so popular that spectators grumbled against being “jammed together like sardines” alongside a bookmaker on the spectator ferry.


Yvonne Aztec
Another Hall pic from the ANMM Flickr collection, this seems to show Yvonne (to left) and Aztec. Although their booms are pretty impressive, these early boats with narrow beam (about 7 to 8ft) carried much smaller downwind sails or “extras” than later 18s. The squaresails were soon replaced by earlier spinnakers, apparently to the great relief of the forward hands who no longer had to hoist the heavy yards. The sailmakers may have soon compensated by cutting bigger spinnakers!

Classes surged and faded regularly in Sydney, and the 18s may well have followed the 20 Footers, the 19 Footers and the unrestricted 16 Footers into oblivion in a season or two. What may have saved them was the fact that since the 1880s, an 18 Footer class had been developing in the city of Brisbane in Queensland, the other main home of the Open Boats. The rivalry that developed between the two fleets seems to have done much to strengthen the class in its early days.

britannia from Qld
Although the 18 Footers have become synonymous with Sydney Harbour, for many years the city of Brisbane in Queensland was responsible for many of the developments in the class. This is Britannia (no relation to the Sydney 18 of the same name) which won the second “Intercolonial” championship in January 1896, before the nation of Australia was formed. Britannia was 9 ft wide, showing how quickly the Brisbane fleet adopted the beamy “troopship” design that the 22 Footers and smaller Dinghies had already explored. Oxley Library pic.


In 1895, the first Intercolonial championship between the Sydney and Brisbane fleets was raced. It was, in many ways, an amazing feat to commence an annual “national” championship spanning 475 nautical miles in a sparsely-settled area at a time when almost no other class in the world held a similar event, and before the colonies had come together to form a nation.  The annual battle of Sydney against the Queensland fleet (and, for a brief period, the West Australians) may have been vital, for despite the myths that refer to the “Sydney 18 Footers”, the northerners led many of the major developments in the class. The early Sydney 18 Footers carried big rigs, but on a comparatively narrow hull of around 6′ 1″ to 7′ in beam. A pic of the early boat Aztec on Ian Smith’s wonderful Open Boat site shows a slender skiff-like hull with a square sail for downwind legs. In contrast, Brisbane champion Britannia was a full 9ft wide, and the Queenslanders claim to have led the way to developing the beamier boats that are the star in so many ageing photos.

The early 18 Footers were not, as sometimes claimed, the fastest thing afloat. When Queensland’s Britannia won the 1896 Intercolonial championship she was rated three minutes slower per race than the best 22 Footers, and only 90 seconds faster than a dinghy-type 16 footer. On long courses, 18s could receive 10 minutes start from the 22s. But the 18s were fast enough, and they were cheaper and more practical than the bigger Open Boats.  “The cost is inconsiderable when compared with the outlay on a 24-footer, which in some instances runs into just half the sum that the 40-rater Volunteer was sold for to the Now Zealanders last season” said one paper when explaining the 18 Footer’s growth. “Then the small crews for the 18-footers are easily obtained and kept together, not by any means an unimportant item in racing.”

The convenient size and the Intercolonial competition made the early 18s into a major class. The man that made them into a legend was Mark Foy.  Foy was an ideas man, a passionate Open Boat fan, and he had money. As one writer said, Foy “the lavish patron of open-boat sailing, made things boom. The big fields and splendid contest were practically due to his organisation and liberality.”

In 1891 Foy formed the Sydney Flying Squadron Yacht Club. Foy’s concept was to attract more paying spectators, and to use the profits for the cash prizes that the expensive Open Boats needed to survive.  At first, he intended to attract paying spectators to a beach (instead of the usual viewing platform of “a crowded smokey steamer”) where they would be entertained by a band as well as the sailing. The Squadron even applied to have one of the harbour’s main islands turned over to their exclusive use so that it could erect buildings and charge for tickets for prizemoney, and “also that the rowdy element might be excluded”; an interesting comment given the myths that the 18s were the preserve of the tough working man. The profits would go to the owners, increasing prize money from 5 to 12 pounds per race up to 30.

Foy’s plan also called for several short triangular courses in view of the spectators each race day; a big change from the usual courses that ran up the harbour and out of sight. He also planned handicap starts to ensure a close and exciting finish. It was, in fact, not a new idea – even the English Royal Yacht Squadron had done the same eons before. Foy had got the Johnstones Bay Sailing Club to use the system, and the SASC adopted it the same day as the SFS.

To ensure that the spectators could easily tell the boats apart, Foy required them to carry coloured sails.  Early accounts make it clear that at first, even the Open Boat sailors objected, just as they had earlier complained when regatta organisers required them to “disfigure” their sails with “most objectionable black numbers”. Foy had to stand firm, using the example of “the harbor of Venice, where the gondolas, with their colored sails, formed the most pleasing feature in the lovely scene in that delightful bay”. Perhaps one reason the sailors preferring all-white sails was an economic one – the insignia cost about two weeks’ wages for the average worker.

The initial rules required boats to use striped sails when racing and to have another plain set for all other sailing. They also had to carry all downwind sails when finishing. Both rules seem to have been indications that the SFS was happy to introduce rules that satisfied the audience – this was not a wild “damn the rules” organisation for hard driving wildmen as often implied, but a businesslike plan to attract an audience in order to subsidise the expense of racing the boats.

Flying Squadron
Although it’s been said that the Sydney Flying Squadron was exclusively for 18 Footers, in both its incarnations the early fleets were mainly larger boats. This pic shows the 24 Footer Volunteer leading the fleet in a race in 1891. On the short courses that the SFS sailed the 18 Footers were normally given about two minutes handicap from the 22s, 24s, Raters and Mark Foy’s cat Flying Fish, which incidentally was generally no faster than the monos.  National Archives of Australia photo.


Although the Sydney Flying Squadron name has become became synonymous with the 18 Footers, originally there was going to be “no distinction made as to the class of boats joining the club”, and the early plans called for racing for groups as diverse as 24 Footers, canvas dinghies, singlehanders, professionals and women. The 18 Footers were just another small group to be catered for.

The first race was a success for the club. Nearly 1100 spectator tickets were bought. In the early races, the race for fastest time was normally fought out by the 22 and 24 Footers in the “big boat” class. The plans to cater for smaller boats seem to have fallen away, and the 14s and 18s in the “small boat class” raced at a different time and seem to have been in the shadow of the big boats.

In a famous confrontation, within weeks the organisers of Sydney’s top event, the National Regatta (now the Australia Day regatta) decided to exclude boats carrying sail emblems. There’s a popular myth that the regatta organisers were from the “conventional yachting establishment” who were more interested in “the dignity of the sport” than innovations or spectators. Nothing could be further from the truth. Detailed accounts of the day show that most of those on the organising committee who pushed for the ban were members of Open Boat clubs. The organising committee, who depended on public donations and their own wallets for the four hundred pounds needed for organisation and prizes, had been trying innovations to make the event more spectator friendly for years before the Flying Squadron was formed.  They had required rowers to wear distinctive club colours, and in 1887 they had required the sailing boats to carry sail numbers for the benefit of spectators – an unheard of thing at the time. Both the Open Boat men and the yachtsmen had objected to “disfiguring” their sails in such a way, and a number of the top “yachties” had withdrawn from the regatta in protest.

While reports of the committee meetings show that some members did believe that the coloured sails would “lower the standing of aquatic sport”, the big issue was that they saw the SFS as a commercial operation set up to encourage gambling.  Today it’s easy to think that gambling on watersports was a light hearted business. The truth is that at the time Australia’s number one aquatic sport was not sailing but rowing, and rowing was showing what happened when gamblers got involved in watersport.

Rowing’s appeal as a spectator sport around the turn of the century made even the Flying Squadron’s races look like an underground sport.


Rowing’s status around the turn of the century made sailing look like small beer. Australians dominated the world professional rowing title, champions were national idols, and crowds of over 90,000 were reported at events. But the crowds were partly attracted by gambling, and gambling attracted cheating.  In one famous incident in Brisbane in 1888 the world champion Henry Searle backed another competitor to win a race and ensured that it happened by interfering with a former world champion. Sports historian John O’Hara has said that such scams meant that around the turn of the century the support for rowing almost collapsed “largely to do with scandals resulting from corruption or perceived corruption, to do with betting.”  As the papers of the era noted “it is when races are ruled by the betting market and when men are unashamed to use unfair tactics that the public draws off and turns its attention to other forms of amusement.”

Sailing, where a race could be lost on purpose with a quick capsize, a missed shift or fiddling with the rig, was ripe to be exploited by professional gamblers or crooked sailors, and the men of the SFS put up a weak defence to the allegations.  Some publicly admitted that it occurred at all sailing events (including those for large yachts) and for decades afterwards the “bookie” was an accepted, albeit illegal, fixture aboard the spectator ferries.

The men of the regatta committee may have sincerely thought that the SFS was a front for gambling that could harm the sport. They may also have been playing politics, protecting their own Open Boat clubs by putting the SFS down. Whatever their true motivation, when they insisted on banning coloured sails they played for high stakes. The Flying Squadron was flush with cash from men like Foy.  “The squadron had money behind them, and if it took 2000 pounds they would make their club the finest in the world” a Flying Squadron spokesman thundered defiantly at a “public indignation meeting”. Most of the Open Boat sailors of Sydney boycotted the traditional regatta and turned instead to a rival one organised by the SFS on the same day.


Public indignation meeting


The myth says that the SFS regatta was so successful that the regatta organisers changed their mind and allowed coloured sails from then on. The truth is rather different. The traditional regatta had attracted reasonable fleets, but blaming old debts, rowing politics, the passion of horse racing and “the spirit of gambling had taken such hold of the community, that it had banished all love of honest manly sport as far as rowing and sailing were concerned”, the regatta committee disintegrated soon afterwards. The coloured sail controversy seems to have been a side issue.

The victory over the regatta organisers has become a symbol that Foy had made sailing into a spectator sport and dumbfounded those who predicted that the Flying Squadron would not last. He hadn’t. When Foy went on a world trip in early 1892, the club that was to be “the finest in the world” promptly disintegrated without his personal attention. Meanwhile, Sydney’s two Royal Yacht Clubs stepped in to revive the ancient annual regatta and allowed Foy’s men to use their coloured sails. The irony is that Foy’s fight over coloured sails fight appears to have helped the “establishment yachties” to take control of the country’s biggest regatta from the Open Boat men.

The official notice of the end of the Sydney Flying Squadron Yacht Club, two years after formation.


The insinkable Foy revived the Sydney Flying Squadron (minus the “Yacht Club” tag, and with smaller sail insignia) on his return to Australia. The revival may have come close to killing off the 18s, for Fay had decided that his new Squadron would not cater for boats under 20 feet. He changed his mind, he said, only when he found that “the 18-footers, of which there were now seven in the harbor, would be an important class next year”. If Foy had kept to his original plan, the 18s may have vanished alongside the 19 Footers, the open 16 Footers and many other Open Boat classes.


Arline, one the top 18s of the early 1900s. 18 Footer expert Ian Smith, author of The Open Boat, notes that her famous skipper resigned after being accused of being influenced by bookmakers.  Smith notes that when she was known as Australia (II) in 1909, she carried a total of 1882 sq ft of sail, with a main of 455 sq ft hanging from a 27ft 6in boom, jib of 170, topsail of 63 sq ft, ringtail 384 sq ft, balloon reaching jib 350 sq ft, and spinnaker of 630 sq ft. Her beam was 8ft 2in. Pic from Australian Star, 21 May 1904


With support from the SFS and other clubs, the 18s finally became the hottest class of the harbour.  Thousands of people packed the spectator ferries each weekend, and the clubs took the cut that allowed them to present the big cash prizes that were necessary to support the fleet. The sail insignia that had once caused controversy became accepted in many Open Boat fleets across the country, easing the path for sponsor’s logos many years later. The bigger Open Boats died away; the last of the Sydney fleet, the 22 Footer Desdemona, stopped racing in 1912, although even they seem to have been much faster than the 18s.

Just like the 22s and the Dinghies, the 18s soon expanded in every direction apart from length. These were the boats of legend; the boats that led old time builder Andrew Reynolds to say “I don’t call them boats; they are ships.”  By 1898, the average 18 Footer had a beam of 8ft, a boom of 26ft, a 15ft gaff, 17ft topsail yard, and a jib 26ft on the luff with a 14ft foot. Later boats had even bigger rigs; spinnaker poles grew to 40 feet, and booms reached 28ft. Downwind a “ringtail” was set off the leach of the main, effectively extending the boom another 17ft. A boat like Keriki (replacement for the 22 of the same name) could stretch 77ft from the tip of the spinnaker pole to the end of the ringtail.

To balance the big rigs, skippers packed more and more crew aboard, stacking them two or three deep on the windward gunwale. Some boats raced with a crew of up to 13 men and a hard-working bailer boy who spent their time avoiding being trampled while frantically bailing.

The myth says that the men who packed themselves aboard the early 18s where all working men who spent their days in manual labour around the harbour’s waters and shoreline of the Harbour. The reality seems to be different, and probably healthier. The 18 Footer sailors were not all the wild men of myth.  Just as with the earlier Open Boats, the 18 Footer sailors came from a wide range of backgrounds. The men who “swung” from the gunwales included labourers and football players, but they shared the course and the boats with rowers from elite private schools and successful owners and skippers who did gardening and needlework in their spare time. The well known Desdemona was owned by the state government’s top lawyer; others were owned and sailed by public servants. Foy’s own brother was a friend of Edward, king of England and owner of the 130′ cutter Britannia. Several of the 18 Footer sailors were also accomplished yachtsmen in the Royal clubs.

Above: Syd Dempster had three early 18s, including Anzac, and was known for promoting the class in the early 1890s. A former merchant mariner, he went on to become a mainstay of the Sydney big yacht scene, sailing with the Royal clubs.                                    Below: The 18s also attracted professionals like boatbuilder Billy Golding, who often raced against Dempster in the early days of the class. Golding later became identified with the 16 Foot Skiffs.


Of course, as the case of well known 18 Footer owner Reginald Holmes proved, a respectable appearance could be deceptive. In 1935, a freshly-captured tiger shark in a Sydney aquarium vomited up a human arm. The police investigations into what became known as the “Shark Arm Murder” revealed that Holmes, a respected churchgoer and boatbuilder, used his speedboats for cocaine smuggling and was linked to blackmailers, razor gangs, bank thieves, illegal bookmakers, forgers, and small-time crooks, including the former owner of the arm. Holmes became involved in searches for bodies and a four-hour high-speed powerboat chase before he shot himself, only to survive. He was soon found shot dead in his own car; it’s been alleged that under threats from underworld figures, he took out a contract for his own murder – a crime for which another 18 Footer sailor was charged and acquitted.


The 18 Footer Gloria, a competitive boat of the 1930s. William Hall photo from ANMM Commons


Meanwhile, on the water the 18 Footers were attracting almost as much attention as the Shark Arm Murder. In 1933 up to 30 boats raced weekly at the Sydney Flying Squadron, with a smaller but healthy fleet in Brisbane and a scattering of boats in West Australia and North Queensland.  But the era of huge rigs and huge crews was coming to an end.

The 18 Footers did not carry vast rigs and huge crews because those who sailed them could not conceive that a lighter boat with smaller sails and less crew could be faster, as sometimes claimed. They packed on more beam, more crew and bigger rigs because in the technology of the day, the powerful “troopships” were normally faster than the older and narrower boats with smaller rigs such as Yvonne and Aztec.  And the sailors realised that many of the spectators who crammed the ferries and whose support kept the fleet alive wanted to see giant clouds of sail. They wanted to marvel at the skills of forward hands who juggled the vast spinnaker poles through the gybes, and of course to be able to jeer at those who dropped the ringtail pole or caused a capsize.

Old 18 footer rig plan from side
Taken from the pages of the long-defunct Seacraft magazine, these drawings show the complexity of the gaff rigged 18 Footers.

Old 18 footer roig plan from astern



The famous 18 Footer Britannia bursts through a wave under her “ballooner” headsail. In 1939 it was said that she had the largest sails of any 18 Footer. Her spinnaker was 996 sq ft, mainsail and just 880 sq ft, and ringtail 530 sq ft. Britannia raced for decades before being turned into a power launch. She is now a museum exhibit and one of only two survivors of the 18 Footers’ early days. Naval architect, curator and skiff designer David Payne took her lines and prepared the sailplan below.

Britannia sailplan

Britannia lines
Britannia’s lines show the wide beam, prominent “heel” or deadwood and widely flaring bow of her era. The design seems to have been intended to create a fast but forgiving hull that could handle a big rig and minimise the water flowing into the open hull.


But not everyone liked the “troopships”. Some owners objected to paying for the huge light wind sails. Others got sick of trying to find competent crew, and that may imply that competent crew weren’t always very keen to spend their weekend getting squashed between a narrow gunwale and a football player, or swimming the boat ashore after a capsize. Others probably just preferred the feel of lighter boats to powerful ones.

Even in the early 1900s, some sailors were experimenting with narrower 18s with smaller sails and smaller crews. Boats like Charlie Dunn’s Crescents, Qui Vive and first Mascotte were as narrow as 6ft, like the early 18s. “In a stiff leading breeze, with, balloon canvas aloft, no speedier craft than Qui Vive has ever engaged in racing” wrote one observer. “In a dead muzzle to windward with a brisk nor’-easter and a choppy sea, the small boats, when in the hands of expert, helmsmen and properly crewed, invariably triumph over the boats with a big, flare bow punching into the sea. The reason is obvious—the smaller boat can be.more snugly rigged and lighter crewed than her rival. This enables the boat to offer less resistance in the seaway, whereas the larger craft is inclined to “flounder.” Under light weather conditions the big geared boat makes the bravest showing, for if a craft has good beam, initial stability keeps the boat up to her work when going to windward.”

To many 18 Footer sailors, though, the idea of a smaller boat was anathema. To them, the skill and spectacle of 18 Footer racing lay in handling the powerful boats and huge rigs. If the spectators were turned off by seeing smaller but more efficient boats, the stream of gold that kept the whole class alive would dry up, and the 18 Footers would die with it.

Glory days. Bruce Stannard, whose famous book “The Blue Water Bushmen” did so much to bring the Open Boats back to public consciousness, identifies the armada above as the spectator fleet for the 1924 national 18 Footer championships.
Despite the strain of the big rigs and big crews, many of the 18 Footers lasted for decades. Scot had an incredible career of 50 seasons of racing. Her most competitive years were in her old age, when she was racing among the other old-style “big 18s” in the Sydney Flying Squadron, but even at 28 years of age she was able to win a light-wind heat in the national titles against the famous Aberdare. A replica now races in Sydney.


The contest between wide and narrow 18s came to open warfare in 1908 when a former 16 Foot Skiff owner moved into the 18 Footers with his latest Oweenee, “a ‘small’ boat, of the skiff type… with the wind on her quarter had few equals”.  “This craft is a skiff ‘pure and simple, and she looked a midget alongside her beamier opponents” noted another writer. With excellent upwind performance and good downwind speed in a breeze, Oweenee shocked the fans when she won the NSW state championship and led the selection trials for the national championship ahead of the legendary Chris Webb and his conventional boat Australian after two races.  Oweenee was barred from the final selection race because of her narrow (5ft 8in) beam, causing an uproar on Sydney Harbour. “The skiff Oweenee proved herself twice in succession the superior of Australian, but the push (ed: contemporary Australian for gang)… debarred the Oweenee from taking part in the third event, ostensibly because she is under 7ft. in beam, but really because she is too fast.”


Owenee the lone hand 1 Jan 1908
The “skiff type” 18 Footer Oweenee. She was a slender boat with a small gunter rig in the style of a 16 Foot Skiff, rather than the low-peaked gaff of the more powerful “dinghy type” 18s. From The Red Hand.


The furore over Oweenee and another narrow boat, Young Jack, proved that the 18 Footer sailors of Sydney were not the development-mad speed freaks of legend. Like other sailors, their priority was on maintaining a strong fleet of competitive boats, even if that required them to cut off promising angles of development. The claim that they had only one rule is pure myth. They had a clear concept of the boats they wanted and the direction they wanted the class to go, and they were willing and able to exclude any boat that did not fit their ideal.

The irony is that the Oweenee incident also showed that to many 18 Footer sailors, the word “skiff”, now so closely allied with the class, was then little more than an insult. A “skiff” was still thought of as a slender boat with a fairly small rig, like the 16 Foot Skiffs – a real 18 Footer was something entirely different in nature and in name. Real 18 Footer sailing was “a feat of endurance, plus ability to think and act quickly in meeting the exigencies of the moment. The big sail spread in comparison with the size of the boat ensures plenty of thrills for the large number of spectators which crowd the decks of the official steamers. As the hoisting and manipulation of extras is the spice of open-boat racing, and as beam gives initial stability, the advocates of the (beamy) skimming dish type undoubtedly have many supporters.”

It was the sailors from Brisbane who were to revive the drive to smaller boats, perhaps because their smaller population resulted in smaller budgets and a smaller existing fleet to protect. From the mid 1920s, inspired by the way that the lighter and narrow “heel less” 16 Foot Skiffs sometimes showed downwind speed “superior to that of any other class”, they created “skiff type” 18 Footers like Valena. She was just 4’6′ wide and with a 16 Footer type fully-battened gunter rig she showed great downwind speed at times.

The Brisbane sailors proposed “that the beam restriction be .done away with to allow a boat with smaller lines to be constructed.. They designate the new style boat’ an ‘eighteen foot skiff.’ , They claim that it is cheaper to build, the upkeep is smaller, it does not require such a big crew, it is a better sporting boat on account of the diversity of design which no beam restriction allows, and that a greater speed is developed on a smaller waterline.” They even claimed the support of Mark Foy himself.  But the 18 Footer sailors from NSW and the small north Queensland and West Australian fleets were unimpressed with the Brisbane “freaks”, and firmly resisted attempts to reduce the minimum beam and depth rules. For several years the Brisbane and NSW fleets each held their own “national” championship without interstate entries.

JC 2
JC was one of the first of Brisbane’s “skiff type” 18s. Compare her small crew and comparatively tiny high-aspect gunter to her great local rival Marjorie, bottom, a conventional “big 18”. Although JC sometimes struggled upwind, downwind her “extreme speed” when “bounding over the waves” in strong winds made Marjorie look “extremely slow” despite her huge rig.


State Library of Queensland photo.


For the 1929/30 national titles, Brisbane’s Jim Crouch added extra flare to the topsides of his “skiff type” J.C. so she could meet the minimum beam rules followed by the Sydney fleet. JC proved herself to be faster than the beamy Sydney boats but capsized when in the lead just 50 metres from the finish. Some said that she copped a gust bouncing off a nearby ship. Others claimed that Crouch lost concentration while waving in triumph to the spectators. Crouch’s premature victory salute could have changed the course of 18 Footer design.

It was in 1933 that former 16 Foot Skiff owner Fred Hart, skipper Vic Vaughan and veteran designer/builder J H Whereat unveiled Aberdare, the boat that changed the whole class. She was “of skiff design, but conforming to the restrictions of a minimum beam of 7 feet, and depth of hull of 2 feet.”  Here was a new threat – a “skiff type” boat that undeniably fitted within the 18 Footer rules. Aberdare carried a crew of around seven instead of the normal dozen or more, had what seem to be the first hollow spars in 18s, and a smaller and lighter centreboard than the conventional boats.  Like earlier “skiff types”, she had a rig that was dramatically smaller than that of the standard 18s and had a high-aspect long-battened 16 Foot Skiff style gunter mainsail instead of the conventional low-aspect gaff sail.  She also adopted the “heel less” stern, with its flat rocker without a deadwood or skeg, that had been common in the 16 Footer for years.

Although Aberdare fitted within the class rules, compared to the conventional boats and was small in hull and tiny in rig, as an excellent photograph on Ian Smith’s The Open Boat website shows. With her light weight and flatter stern, she was the first 18 Footer that was a true planing boat. The accounts claiming that she was clocked doing speeds in the high 20 knots are doubtless exaggerated (and they are certainly inconsistent) but even by today’s standards the photos of her downwind bursts are spectacular.

Contrasting visions of the 18 Footer; above is Aberdare, the 16 Foot Skiff-style boat that became known as the “galloping ghost”. With her slim hull, lighter crew and straighter “heel less” shape, she became the first true planing 18 Footer. Below is the older “big boat” Keriki dragging a tugboat wake.

Keriki to use


Aberdare re-ignited the battle to define what an 18 Footer was and where the class should go. The fight that followed showed how closely the supposed “no rules” 18 Footer sailors would fight to maintain the rules they wanted, and also how the word “skiff” was seen as little more than an insult by many 18 Footer sailors. There was “strong criticism of the Queensland skiff type of 18-footer” which was merely “glorified skiff racing” that would “lead to disaster” for the class. “Such boats are definitely ruining the sport” some Sydney owners were quoted as saying. “Where is the wonderful sight of balloonors and big sails bellying in the wind?” Even some Queenslanders openly condemned Aberdare; “The skiff type eighteen, with skiff type sails, was spoiling the spirit of 18 footer racing (and was) detrimental to spectacular sailing.”

The complaints couldn’t stop Aberdare, but the weather could. At her first nationals, she was beaten by conventional boats that carried much more sail in the light winds. The next year she came back, with a bigger rig, and won the first of four national titles in a row.

Aberdare in action with her full crew on board
Aberdare again. Although the Brisbane fleet lead the move to “small” 18s, they kept using the “ringtail” (the sail set outside the mainsail leach) long after it had been abandoned in Sydney.  This was said to be partly because when it was the Queenslanders’ turn to run the national championship, they would schedule the races so that the boats would face long square runs against an outgoing tide, giving the local boats more chance to use their local knowledge and more time to get an advantage from the extra sail area the ringtail gave them. For this reason the NSW fleet refused to race the 1926 championships, a boycott which seems to have exaggerated the feud over beam.


Aberdare and the similar Sydney boat The Mistake caused a furore that involved both warring personalities and warring ideas of what the 18 Footer movement represented. The debate on the future of the class became bitter as old personality differences arose. For all the claims that the Sydney 18 Footer men and the Flying Squadron were against rules and pro development by nature, they were willing to fight hard to stop the faster, lighter skiff types.  In 1937, the Squadron brought in rules that increased the minimum beam to 6’6″, banned the “heel less” hull shape, and mandated a long gaff.  Brisbane fans of the “big 18s” formed a new club to cater for the old boats, while Sydney fans of the “skiffs” formed a new club, the 18 Footers League, to cater for the new planing hulls. For years, they raced two separate classes of “modern 18s” and “large 18s”, with parallel club racing and separate regattas.

The sight of an Aberdare type planing downwind under 1100 sq ft of sail may not have stirred the traditionalists, but it turned out that the public loved the skiff types just as much as they had loved the old troopships. Eventually the “big 18” clubs gave up the battle; the Queensland club folded while the Flying Squadron allowed the new type to compete. Aberdare had set a general style that was to last until the 1950s.

In recent years, the magnificent gaff rigged 18 Footers have returned to Sydney Harbour. A “Historical Skiff” movement, centred around the SFS, has built about a dozen replicas of the old boats. The replicas use some modern technology and gear, but they provide a vivid glimpse of an earlier period, a link to the earlier sailors. And what fascinating beasts these replicas are. These are hard boats, for hard men. The concessions to modern times don’t include modern pulleys or cleats, and every heavy-air race is a battle against viciously heavy gear.

I stepped aboard the replica of Aberdare a few years ago at Balmain Sailing Club on the upper reaches of Sydney Harbour. It was an appropriate spot to step back in time; an earlier Balmain Sailing Club was, by one old account, the class where the 18 Footers really started off, and the revived Balmain Regatta is the lone survivor the last of the traditional local events that were the breeding ground for the 18 Footers and the other Open Boats. It’s a perfect hot summer’s day, with the glaring Sydney sunshine and a fresh seabreeze blowing over one of the world’s most beautiful harbours; as expat writer Clive James wrote, we were to be “racing over the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires”.

The first shock for a tyro Historical Skiff sailor is more mundane. Even before you cast off, you realise that with slack bilges and a heavy 15’ gaff slung high up the rig, the Historical 18s manage to be both heavy to handle and shockingly tender. Despite the weight of seven or more crew piled body-on-body over the windward rail, the boats reel under the gusts. When the gunwale goes under, there’s a general scream of “dump it, dump it” as the thick sheets slowly cruise out through the multiple heavy blocks. The galvanised iron daggerboard (shifted back and forth in the long slot to keep the helm balanced) does little to keep the boat up, or to give it directional stability. Upwind, the two men on the jibsheet must sweat it in and out in synch with the mainsheet hands; if only the mainsail is eased, the leverage of the jib on the long bowsprit will force the boat to bear away uncontrollably. Every tack is a mad dive through the boat to a runner or sheet, a shove and bitch to find a space on the windward rail, and then it’s back to frantic work on the sheets and insane rushes back to leeward in the lulls. It’s a combination of a rugby scrum and the mob scene in a disaster movie.

Life only gets tougher at the top mark. The massive spinnaker is not set from the masthead, like sane sailors do, but from the peak of the gaff itself. The enormous spinnaker pole lives in the bilge in sections; as the forward hands drag the spinnaker 12m/40’ up to the peak, the sheethands fight each 1.8m/6’ by 25cm/9” section out from underneath feet and tangled ropes and then assemble all 24 ft of the monster. This telegraph pole of a spar is controlled by nothing but a downhaul leading to the bowsprit tip and a single long brace, which leads through an open block and then to a wooden horn cleat. The sheethand doesn’t even get a cleat – the sheet goes straight from the spinnaker, to windward of the jib and then to an old-style wooden block on the centerboard case.

And so just as you draw breath from the hoist you get a gust, and the sheet hand just swears, braces himself around the mast and holds on like death itself as seven guys and quarter of a ton of boat takes off under a kite like a 30 footer’s. Aberdare rises up onto a slow plane, with the solid feel of a small yacht like Soling, Etchell or Flying 15. The replicas of older designs dig deeper and deeper holes in the water, dragging a wake like a tugboat as we leave them astern. One or two capsize, and that’s the end of their race – the Historicals ban buoyancy tanks, so the only option is a rescue.

Then comes the gybe, and all that has come before seems simple. The “flatty” spinnaker has only one brace and only one sheet, gybing involves passing brace, sheet and massive pole manually around the forestay, heavy labour while fighting for a spot in a tippy, crowded 18 footer. While the forward hands are battling the pole, the afterguard is struggling to pass the gaff’s backstay and the runners from side to side. At the back “Angry” Tearne, the former world champion who built and runs the boat is giving the guy who paid for it some uninhibited feedback on his steering skills. A few directions like “up” or “down NOW” come through the string of “f’in’ do this….f’n’ do that”.

The replica Aberdare showing the speed of her legendary predecessor. Bruce Kerridge/SFS photo.

As we go down the final run, our long lead disappears as our local knowledge expert sends us to the wrong mark. A rival comes alongside on port tack. “F’in STARBOARD” calls Tearne, followed by “F’IN’ DUCK” as our opponent gybes and 25 feet of boom sweeps in low and vicious arc across the top of Aberdare, scattering crew into the bilges.

Our rival ignores the foul as we drop the kite at the last mark, sections of spinnaker pole being thrown down and thudding into the crew as we maintain our inside position. “Tack f’in NOW!  EASE! TRIM!!” calls Tearne as we fight a covering duel. I’m pretty good at being noisy on a boat, but Angry’s a master at it.  The opposition misjudge a tack and with a dull whir, their bobstay wire runs along Aberdare’s gunwale and the bowsprit poked into our cockpit. We leap in to shove it clear, hoping they’ll get caught aback and capsize. It’s not needed. Having fouled twice, they meekly follow us to the finish, where we are literally cheered across the line by the crowd on the bank.

“Great race guys” says Angry with a friendly grin and a warm handshake. “Sorry if I got a bit excited… come back any time”.  A former 18 Footer world champion who has been watching in his powerboat comes up to give his verdict. “Best skiff race I’ve seen in ages” he says with a grin.


“The cost is inconsiderable when compared with the outlay on a 24-footer”:- Australian Star, 21 Nov 1894.

“On long courses, 18s could receive 10 minutes start from the 22s.”:-

 “Britannia showed how quickly the Brisbane 18s adopted the beamy “troopship” style of design that the 22s had already explored”:- Cairns Post 26 April 1922
“By 1898, the average 18 Footer at the JBSC had a beam of 8ft”:- The Queenslander, 12 March 1898. The same source has information on the average dimensions of 22, 14 and 10 Footers.

“The profits would go to the owners”:- Sydney Morning Herald 8 Sep 1891

“in order also that the rowdy element might be excluded”:- Daily Telegraph 27 Aug 1891

“Foy had got the Johnstones Bay Sailing Club to use the system”:- Sydney Morning Herald 11 Jan  1890

“Perhaps another reason for all-white sails was an economic one”:- See Australian Star, 19 Dec 1891 for Foy’s estimate of the sail badge cost.

1100 spec  Australian Star 23 Oct 1891

“the SASC adopted it the same day as the SFS”:- Sydney Mail 31 Oct 1891

“Running the Anniversary Regatta cost 300 pounds”:- Sydney Morning Herald 31 Dec 1891

“In a famous confrontation”:- Australian Star 12 Dec 1891

“Most of those who spoke for the ban were members of rival Open Boat clubs”:- Sydney Morning Herald 31 Dec 1891 has the details.

“Reports of their meetings”;- See for example Sydney Morning Herald 31 Dec 1891

“Most of those who spoke for the ban were members of rival Open Boat clubs”:-  See Australian Star 31 Dec 1891 for details. PW Craig, renowned owner of the famous 24 Footer Eileen, was also on the regatta committee for years (see for instance Sydney Morning Herald of SMH 12 Aug 1913).

“in 1887 they had required the sailing boats to carry sail numbers”:- Telegraph 20 Dec 1887. The yachtsmen who had withdrawn in protest included some of Sydney’s most prominent, including Jack Want and Milsom.

2000 pounds – Daily Telegraph 5 Jan 1892

“some publicly admitted that it occurred at all sailing events”:- Australian Star 18 Jan 1892. The writer said that even the Royal clubs ran sweepstakes on their races. Decades later the NSW sailors argued that the organisation of national championships should be altered

“the spirit of gambling had taken such hold of the community, that it had banished all love of honest manly sport as far as rowing and sailing were concerned”:-  Cootamundra Herald, 10 Dec 1892. See also Sydney Mail 17 Dec 1892 and others.

“Meanwhile, the two Royal Yacht Clubs stepped in to revive the ancient annual regatta.”- Australian Star 21 Dec 1892

“The Port Jackson 18 Footer races became so popular”:- Truth 21 Jan 1894

“The indefagitable Foy revived it”:- Australian Star, 12 Apr 1894

“When Queensland’s Britannia won the Intercolonial championship she was rated three minutes slower”:- Brisbane Courier, 26 Sep 1895

“Foy’s own brother was a friend of Edward, king of England”:- letter from Mark Foy’s daughter, Seacraft magazine, Feb 1967

“A new boat cost in the region of 200 to 300 pounds”:- See for example


“In 1939 it was said that she had the largest sails of any 18 Footer.”;-  The Sun 5 Mar 1939

“In the mid 1930s up to 30 boats raced weekly at the Sydney Flying Squadron”:- Sydney Morning Herald 5 Dec 1933

“”This craft is a skiff ‘pure and simple”:- West Australian 5 Dec 1908

“The skiff Oweenee proved herself twice in succession the superior of Australian”:- Sportsman 20 Jan 1909.  The issue was complicated by club politics, as the third heat was to be held at the Sydney Sailing Club which had a minimum beam limit. Newspapers complained that the selectors could have held a fourth race to give Oweenee another chance, but declined. See Evening News 11 Dec 1908 and Sydney Sportsman 13 Feb 1907. Oweenee’s owner complained that since he felt that Oweenee had already proven his point that she was faster than the “big boats” he had already agreed not to send her to the nationals and therefore there was no sense in banning her from the third race. See Sydney Morning Herald 19 Dec 1908.


“Although JC sometimes struggled upwind”:- Truth (Bris) 22 Sep 1929

“”Queensland proposes that the beam restriction be .done away with”;-  Townsville Daily Bulletin, 22 Jan 1927; Referee 16 Feb 1927

“They even claimed the support of Mark Foy himself”:- Telegraph (Bris) 21 June 1929

“For the 1929/30 titles, Brisbane’s Jim Crouch added extra flare”:- The Telegraph (Bris) 1 Nov 1929

“But the NSW 18 Footer sailors from other areas were unimpressed with such Brisbane “freaks”:- See for example Townsville Daily Bulletin, 20 Mar 1928

 “For this reason the NSW fleet refused to race the 1926 championships”:- Townsville Daily Bulletin, 22 Jan 1927. Information about the Brisbane boats retaining the ringtail from a personal conversation with Len Heffernan.
“of skiff design, but conforming to the restrictions of a minimum beam of 7 feet, and depth of hull of 2 feet.”:- Bowen Independent 7 May 1932 and 3 April 1935
“strong criticism of the Queensland skiff type of 18-footer” :- Courier Mail  29 Nov 1933
“The small type eighteen, with skiff type sails, were detrimental to spectacular sailing.” Brisbane Courier 7 Feb 1933
“Such boats are definitely ruining the sport”:- Telegraph (Bris) 4 Dec 1933
“In 1937, the Squadron brought in rules that increased the minimum beam to 6’6”, banned the “heel less” hull shape, and mandated a long gaff.”:-  Courier Mail 4 Nov 37
Another early Sydney skiff type was HC Press: see The Sun 28 Aug 1933

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.

2 thoughts on “Pt 1.25: The myths and legends of the 18 Footers”

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