Pt 1.31 – “Of all models and builds”: US one designs 1895-1925

Marblehead around the 1930s, and what appears to be a fleet of Brutal Beasts is waiting for a start. Pic from the wonderful Boston Public Library Flickr page.


The late 1800s and early 1900s seem to be a period of turbulent growth in American centreboarder sailing. The sandbagger era was over. The canoes and the Raters had been almost killed by their excesses. The industrialisation of the Delaware had killed the tuckups. In their place came a shift to the one design concept, but a version that was quite different to the one we hold today.

The rise of the one designs in the USA was, as WP Stephens noted, “a protest against the extremes of modern racing” under simplistic rating systems and restricted class rules that had created expensive and fragile racing machines that quickly became obsolete.  It was an issue that ran from the elite Seawanhaka Cup racers all the way down to local club level. As early as 1887, Forest and Stream had recognised the difficulty;  “there are thousands of miles of water throughout the United States and Canada which are suitable for sailing and racing in small boats with as much benefit and as keen sport to the sailor as is found in yachts of the largest class. Already these streams and rivers float an immense pleasure fleet of canoes, sailing skiffs, catboats and similar crafts”.  The problem lay in organising fair racing between such a variety of boats. “At first the fleet includes a lot of odd boats of all models and builds, perhaps a few rowboats with sprit sails, a duckboat or two, a sneakbox, and a few canoes, the dimensions varying from 12 to 16ft., with beam from 2 ½ to 5ft…..It is an extremely difficult matter for a rule which will afford fair racing to the mixed fleet of boats, canoes and sneakboxes that are usually found in first forming a club, and yet it is necessary that all be given a fair chance.” The technology of the time allowed for no such rule. The racing machines always won. One designs seemed to be the answer.

Herreshoff’s beautiful keel/centreboard Buzzards Bay 15 was one of the 15 foot waterline length one-designs inspired by the Seawanhaka Cup. The original design was for the Beverly YC in Buzzards Bay. In the typical fashion of the day, when two other clubs requested boats the design was modified slightly, so although over 120 of the three designs were built they could not race as a combined class.


As Stephens wrote, the move to one designs arose “with no concerted action on the part of clubs and associations”. It also occurred in an era when the concept that “one-design boats….are confined to special local waters” was almost universal.  “The idea seemed to be that each club must have a distinctive one-design class of its own, a boat especially designed for its particular weather conditions and different from any other one-design class” explained George W. Elder, who bought into a local 22′ Long Island Sound one design in 1914. “In other words a one-design class was considered a strictly local proposition and the private property of a given club. That was fine for the designers, but it isolated every group of small boat skippers and prevented them, as well as the clubs, from having any interests in common.”

The logistical issues of getting small boats from club to club in those days before trailers and hoists were part of the problem, but so was the mindset.  As late as the early 1920s, Elder claimed, “the hundreds of little one-design classes, each restricted to one club, were keeping yachtsmen apart.”  One design sailors, he wrote, “just could not visualize any small one-design being successfully developed on a widespread scale. Their yachting horizon was limited. They knew that yachts were being raced in some other places, but it was too far away to amount to much. It is difficult to understand such a frame of mind today, but conditions were very different them.”

21 footer Fore'n'Aft volume 2
Above: Even after the Raters died, North America still had some radical development-class or box-rule yacht classes, like the 21 Footer above. The “21”, of course, referred to the waterline length. Fast but fragile boats like this encouraged sailors to move to one designs, the largest of which was the New York 70, 106ft overall without including the bowsprit. Designed and built by Herreshoff, the four NY70s (below) suffered from construction issues and the class effectively only lasted a season. They are a symbol both of the move to one designs, and of the short life of many such classes. JS Johnston pic.


The parochial viewpoint that Elder lamented and the lack of cooperation between clubs and associations meant that the idea of joining forces to create national classes was foreign to most sailors.  Many of them probably believed that no one design class could survive long enough to spread from coast to coast as the Universal Rule rating yachts had done, for the horizon of early one designs seemed to be limited in time as well as in space. Sailors, sailing journalists (who were normally vocally against one designs, claiming they stopped the development of the sport) and designers commonly expected that interest in such small local classes would fade away within two to three seasons; as late as 1902, WP Stephens found it notable that the Newport 30s had survived for seven years.

This mindset meant that just when small boat sailing was growing, it became largely restricted to small and isolated pockets of local one designs that sprang up in a confusing array of widely different classes, with no national classes or overall structure.  There were classes derived from Raters, and fishing dories, from little duck-hunting “sneakboxes”, from scows, sharpies, skiffs and skipjacks, from rowing dinghies, prams and working catboats. Dozens of types appeared and faded, leaving no influence on the wider world of dinghy design. Small boat sailing had become a disorganised and localised sport without a high-profile type such as the canoes or sandbaggers. Just when centreboarders had taken over the lead in design development, they retreated into local racing and the shadow of the big yachts.

Many of these small local classes were specifically design for young sailors. In Elder’s words, “these were the days of the large yacht, when racing was a rich man’s game….. small boats were considered playthings for boys”.  Once young sailors had learned the ropes, they were to move into a “real” boat – one that carried lead and was 25 ft long or more. There was no almost US equivalent to the contemporary expensive high-performance adult centreboarders that were sailed in places like England and Australia; perhaps there was no place for them in the colder waters, lighter winds and more affluent society of the USA’s sailing heartlands.

Lark class start.png
A James S Johnston pic of a what appears to be a Lark class start. Around this time Larks were sometimes racing as a class at the Knickerbocker Yacht Club and at Philadelphia’s Corinthian YC. WP Stephens, never a fan of the scow type, noted that while many scow one-designs were started in the late 1890s, they were “suited only for the aqua-acrobatic performances of boys in bathing suits” and they soon vanished.


Given the credibility boost that the Seawanhaka Cup gave to small boat racing, it was not surprising that some clubs adopted Raters or similar types, such as the modified versions of Question that were sailed at Yale Corinthian YC. Some of them were designed by the top designers of the day, like Herreshoff, Clinton Crane, but they seem to have been comparatively expensive boats and few of them seem to have survived long or spread far. One of the most popular types, and perhaps the last survivor, was the Herreshoff 15 footers. Over one hundred were built for three clubs, but in the typical style of the day instead of sharing a single design that could allow interclub racing, each club had its own variation on the basic design. As George Elder wrote, clubs “wanted a special class of their own…unless the designer made some changes, he would hardly feel entitled to his fee.”

The expensive Rater-style one designs were an exception. Most one design fleets were modelled off the bewildering variety of cheap local working and hunting craft that had been bred by the diversity of America’s waterways. One of the first and most popular such types was the dory. In the 1890s, dory racing became popular around Massachusetts, with the usual sequence of events;  “each season there would be new boats built of a newer design and perhaps larger in some ways, and would consequently be faster, which would mean that the owners of the old craft must sell at a great sacrifice and get a new one. After a while it got too expensive and the interest died out”.

Cohasset 15 footer
The Rater-style Cohasset YC 15 foot LWL one design followed the lines of WP Stephen’s Scarecrow. Like the original, it had a lifting keel that was normally left down.

The result was the formation of the one design Swampscott Club dory class in 1898. The ubiquitous and versatile Charles Mower designed the boat, which retained the dory style “because it could be built and maintained for much less than any other type”.  The Swampscott sailors were an evangelical lot who promoted their class to other clubs and formed the Massachusetts Racing Dory Association in 1903. It may well have been the first class association of the modern style in the sport. Previously classes had been run by more general bodies like the American Canoe Association, regional sailing associations or a powerful club.

Within a few years there were fleets of Swampscott Dories and the related Massachusetts Racing Dory restricted class as far north as Nova Scotia, west to the Great Lakes, as far south to the Panama Canal Zone, and apparently as far east as Holland. A 1907 challenge between the Nova Scotia and Massachusetts fleet may have been the first international event for an indigenous American dinghy type, and fittingly the US team dominated. In 1908, Massachusetts sailor George Gardiner Fry (a man who could afford a big boat but preferred a small one) won an international event in Holland.

Despite the promising start, dory racing seems to have quickly faded so completely that few traces remain. Perhaps the problem was that in the typical chaotic style of the era, many clubs adopted similar but not identical one-design or restricted classes. Perhaps the Swampscott Dory’s low initial stability was another problem; most boats it inspired, like the Indian One Design and the Gravesend Knockabout, had firmer bilges and wider sterns. Sadly, not only is the class long dead but even the Swampscott Dory Club itself, once so keen and innovative, is now a social club with no interest in sailing or the boat they created.

Swampscott Dory.png
Above; a Swampscott Dory from the pages of Forest and Stream Jan 21 1905. Below dory racing in 1898; Bolles pic. Dories like this could cost as little as $60 to $250 in 1909.



Further south in Massachusetts around the same time, the 14ft Cotuit Skiff was developed as the “Mosquito” class for an unusual club preserved for unmarried people under 25. The Cotuit Skiff was derived from from local hard chine clamming and oyster skiffs, and remarkably it has survived to the present day almost unchanged – even tiller extensions are still banned.  At one time few more than half a dozen Cotuit Skiffs were left active, but the classic boat resurgence has seen fleets climb to 30 and sometimes more. As with so many other classes of its day, the Cotuit Skiff remained a local class only.

Cotuit Skiffs are another example of a unique local one design derived from indigenous working boats. This pic from Mary Keally is so sharp that it deserves to be seen at high res.

In the same area and around the same time, the brilliant America’s Cup designer, aircraft creator and poet Starling Burgess created the Brutal Beast, named after his Great Dane dog. Another hard chine 14 ft catboat with a wide (6ft2in) beam, by the 1930s it was so popular around Marblehead that it had to be sailed in several divisions. Like many classes, the boats built for many fleets differed slightly, which would have done little to help the class grow widespread momentum. The Brutal Beast died out in the ’60s, apparently killed by construction costs and probably the move to more widespread classes.

Sea Mew
The Sea Mew

Several other classes followed the same general (and logical) style of hard-chine catboat. There were designs like the Cricket, St Petersburg One Design, Flattie and Shelter Island Sharpie mentioned earlier. The 14ft Sea Mew, a design from The Rudder, was sailed on the Gulf, Pacific and Atlantic coasts and on the Great Lakes. Some can still be found in California, but class racing never seems to have become organised.

The most popular of all the hard chine cat-rigged classes was the Snowbird, designed in 1921 by boatbuilder Willis J Reid and quickly adopted by several clubs around Boston. The Snowbird also became popular around southern California, and when Los Angeles was chosen as the host for the 1932 Olympics it was the obvious choice for the singlehander in an era when local cities traditionally chose a local boat.

Snowbird Rudder April 1921 sailplan.png

Snowbird Rudder April 1921 hull.png
Above – the plans of the Snowbird as seen in The Rudder of 1921. Below – the Flight of the Snowbirds, the largest one-design race in the world for years.

Flight of the Snowbirds

In the typical style of the era, the Snowbird’s loose rules meant that in California many of the earlier boats and those built for hire fleets soon became uncompetitive, but in the ’50s and ’60s the annual “Flight of the Snowbirds” race around Newport Harbour attracted over 150 boats, making it allegedly the world’s biggest one-class sailing event.  The Snowbird’s weight and construction cost killed the Californian class in the late 1960s, although there’s one mention of them sailing at Quincy YC in Massachusetts, one of the original clubs, as late as 1982. But despite a “national” association, its brief Olympic glory, its popularity in Southern California and its toehold in the east, like so many other designs of its era the Snowbird remained essentially a local class.

Rudder 1921 Beetle catboat.png
Beetle Cat sketch, from The Rudder of 1921

Many other catboats followed the more traditional round-bottomed form. One of the smaller and longest-lasting ones is the Beetle Cat, designed in 1921 as a junior boat and still not only racing today, but still being built in traditional timber planked construction.

Oddly enough, few of the local US classes followed the style of the classic round-bilge sailing dinghy or oar-and-sail boats. Small groups of 12 and 14 footers could be found along the southern shore of the Great Lakes and the New York Canoe Club adopted a one design dinghy, but there seems to have been few US equivalents of the International 12 or the British classes that were to form the genesis of the International 14. Sailors of the USA stuck firmly to a preference for types developed as working and hunting boats.

A montage from Yachting magazine in 1914, showing the activities of the little Genesee Dinghy Club of Rochester on Lake Ontario. The 12 footers they raced were one of the few “dinghy type” one-designs in the USA at the time. The montage shows some of the trials of the dinghy sailor’s life a hundred years ago; tiny fleets, unsuitable clothing, and poor facilities to handle the heavy boats. The Genesee sailors had no harbour, so they made their own little marine railway (top row) to bring the boats ashore.


One of the oldest and most popular types that was developed from hunting boats was was the Sneakbox, which evolved on the lagoon-like waters of Barnegat Bay in New Jersey south of New York. The Sneakbox is one of those rare traditional types that can be traced back to being the creation of one individual, boatbuilder and enthusiastic wildfowler Captain Hazelton Seaman. About 1836, he developed the low-sided spoon-bowed boat he called a “devil’s coffin”, but which others called the Sneakbox.  The typical hunting sneakbox was only about 12 ft long, so it could easily be paddled, poled or sailed and lifted over patches of land and marsh. They were almost completely decked over, with a crowned deck. The low profile allowed the sneakbox to slip up to unsuspecting wildfowl, while the wide decks allowed them to handle the windy waters of Barnegat Bay. Equipped with a cockpit cover and an offset centreboard to keep the cockpit clear, the hardy hunters could sleep aboard a 12 ft Sneak Box for days.

Chapelle sneakbox.png
A classic Sneakbox with offset centreboard. Illustration from “American small sailing craft, their design, development, and construction” by Howard Chapelle.

The unique structural design dispensed with the normal keel timber; instead it relied for longitudinal strength on the planking itself. The keel-less structure and rounded bow sections allowed builders to simply run the planks up to the gunwales at the bow, rather than taking on the complex job of fitting them to a conventional stem. Many Sneakboxes were built with frames that followed different parts of a master curve to further simplify construction and cut costs.

As the renowned historian Howard Chapelle noted, “the sneak box, being practically a small racing scow in model, is a very fast boat under sail when properly modelled, rigged, and fitted” and racing and cruising sailors started adopting and adapting the Sneak Box late in the 19th century. To the apparent disgust of observers like Chapelle they abandoned the offset centreboard and moved it to the conventional centreline position, which required the boat to be extended to about 15ft to maintain sufficient cockpit space.

In 1875, Nathaniel Bishop sailed a sneakbox from Pittsburgh to the Gulf of Mexico and made the type famous with his book “Four Months in a Sneak Box”. By the 1890s, sneakbox racing had developed in 16 to 18 footers which soon developed into 20 foot sandbaggers. The 20 foot sandbagger Sneak Boxes sound like beasts of boats, carrying up to eight crew and 35 30lb sandbags and hard both on the crew who had to throw the bags from side to side, and on the helmsmen, who often required a second man to handle the weather helm. In 1914, the versatile designer Charles D Mower, of Lark and Swallow fame, created a lighter 20ft “sneakbox” that was basically an inland racing scow. The Mower type was a sneakbox in name only (as Chapelle noted, the yachtsmen had basically ‘improved’ the sneak box out of existence) and it was itself made obsolete in the 1920s by true inland scows from the Midwest. Barnegat Bay remains the eastern-most stronghold of the inland Scow classes.

Sneakbox ad


But after the 20 foot sneakboxes died out, the smaller versions kept on sailing on Barnegat Bay and far further afield. Boatbuilder J H Perrine, whose grandfather had built one of the very first sneak boxes, built almost 3,000 sneak boxes from 1900 to 1958. From 1918, strong fleets of Perrine-built 15 Foot Sneak Boxes developed around Barnegat Bay and in pockets along the US east coast and even into other countries. Strong club fleets and a regatta circuit developed in Barnegat Bay, with most of the racing restricted to sailors under 17 and only boats built by Perrine and one other builder were allowed. Weighing in at 400lb, they cost only $225 and performed well for their time, although an old yardstick seems to indicate that they were barely faster than a Mirror and slower than a Sunfish. The 15 ft Sneak Box was claimed to be perhaps the most widespread one design in the world, with some 3,000 boats spread across the world, but although the Barnegat Bay fleet formed probably the biggest centre of junior racing in the USA the 15 ft Sneak Box never seemed to become organised as a widespread class. An even smaller version, the 12 ft Duck Boat, was designed in 1951 and became an established junior class around Barnegat Bay.

Above: the 15ft Sneakbox still survives as a small class on Barnegat Bay. BBYRA pic. Below: the Butterfly, a 14 ft one design built by Perrine, was one of the many Sneakbox types that were to be found outside Barnegat Bay.  In 1916 future America’s Cup skipper Arthur Knapp had his first Butterfly bought for him for the princely sum of $20. Note the use of the spritsail, as in the early hunting type Sneakboxes. Pic from Rudder 1913.

Butterfly Sneakboxes Rudder 1913

The performance of the smaller Sneak Boxes seems to be the subject of dispute; some early fans praised their seaworthiness while others called them tender, hard to steer in a breeze, and prone to nosediving. Others steer a middle course and say that while they do not handle when when pressed hard and unforgiving of bad handling,  they are safe when sailed conservatively and well.

Despite their spread, their popularity and the strong class scene around Barnegat Bay, the Sneakbox had oddly little effect on the general course of dinghy design. Even in its home waters, it almost died out decades ago. As historian Eric Stark noted, it took much longer to build than a chine boat, took more time to maintain, could only carry a small crew, and it was hard to make in fiberglass. Not surprisingly, the arrival of Optis, Sunfish and Lasers carved a swathe through the ranks of the Sneak Boxes. Today, results show only a half a dozen 15 Footers apparently racing regularly. But the Sneakbox is part of the history of Barnegat Bay, an area that has its own sailing culture and history, and once a year local sailors dragged out their old 12 Ft Duck Boat sneak boxes together for an event they call the “Duck Boat worlds”.  For years, the Duck Boat Worlds has been sponsored by philanthropist Phil Kellogg (a classic boat fanatic, who helped revive the bigger local catboats and paid for the replica Sandbaggers Bull and Bear) who provides a donation to charity for each Duck Boat that came to the line. Today the Duck Boat Worlds sees a fleet of  70 or more restored 12 ft Sneakboxes (and even one or two new ones) crossing the line every summer.

12 Ft “Duck Boat” Sneakboxes fighting it out in the World Duck regatta.

But the traditional sneakbox was more than boat for summer racing; it was a boat for winter work, and the ‘box or one of its descendants may have developed that heritage to be the fastest sailing dinghy in history. One of the sneak boxes’s tricks was that it became an amphibious boat in the winter. When the shallow waters of Barnegat Bay started to ice over, the rounded hull and sloping bow of the sneak box allowed it to be dragged onto the ice and even sail over it, steered by dragging a pole. Sneak box sailors claimed to hit speeds of up to 40mph as they careered across the ice.

While the racing sneak boxes of Barnegat Bay were evolving into boats for “soft water” only, further north in the Great South Bay of Long Island off New York a descendant of was evolving the other way. The Great South Bay freezes, but because it’s sea ice it is often rough, unstable and full of “air holes” or patches of unfrozen liquid water. Back in the 1800s, hunters and lifesavers found themselves blocked by the Bay in winter; a normal boat could not cross the ice unless it was dragged on a sled, while a normal iceboat could not handle the rough ice or the water gaps in between.

The answer was the South Bay Scooter, a development of the sneak box. Like the sneak box, the Scooter could be rowed, poled or sailed over both the water and the ice, but it soon developed lower freeboard and a shape aimed more at ice sailing. Instead of the sneak box’s standard cat rig, the Scooter developed a sloop sailplan with a long bowsprit, to allow the boat to be steered on ice by easing the jib in and out. Inevitably, they also started racing during the winter.

Scooter plan.png
South Bay Scooter plan from Forest and Stream, Feb 27 1904 . It was claimed that “in smooth water its rowing and sailing qualities are all that could be expected in any boat the same size”.

“Roughly, the scooter is a Barnegat “sneak box”, mounted on runners” said one 1909 guide to building a Scooter. “This craft will sail in the water as well as on ice, consequently the sailor does not fear soft ice or air-holes, but sails merrily along taking ice or water, whichever happens to be in his course….when crossing an air-hole less than forty or fifty feet…the speed of the scooter, with a good wind, is sufficient to carry her across and out on the ice again in jig time…This ability to pop in and out of the water constitutes a novel sensation and makes scootering a very fascinating sport”.

Ice Scooter, 1909
Above; a 1909 pic of a Scooter doing its party trick of planing off the ice and across the water. From the site for the book Along the Great South Bay by Harry W Havemeyer. Below: the first Scooter race on “soft” water was held in 1906 and was won by one of the boats that had been winning on the ice, fitted with leeboards. The organiser commented that handling their comparatively big rig with only a steering oar required both physical effort and skill. Fore’n’Aft November 1906.

Scooters sailing on water

“No scooter sailor would call the day complete unless he had dashed into and out of a dozen or more air holes” wrote a Scooter sailor in Rudder. “The water, cleaved as if by a shot hurled from a cannon, is thrown into the air a distance of twenty feet, completely shrouding the schooter from view until, with speed little diminished, it glides smoothly and triumphantly out upon the ice at the other side of the opening” said one account.


A modern Scooter. I sometimes wonder whether the low US interest in high performance dinghies could be related to iceboating. If you can do 50 knots on hard water, even a 49er may seem a bit dull. Pic from

As they developed the Scooters became optimised more for ice sailing, and by the early 1900s they were capable of averaging 27 knots around a course. By the 1940s they had developed roachy full-battened pocket luff rigs, but the hull had wasted away to little more than a board-like platform for the rig and runners.

Today, the Scooters reach 50 knots or more on the ice – way faster than any sailing dinghy, but they can no longer sail on “soft” water.  Well, actually, they can – but only for short distances. Scooter sailors still delight in finding waterholes in the ice and planing across them. The problem is that, like a waterski or a sinker sailboard, the modern Scooter is so low on buoyancy that it sinks when it drops off the plane. If they don’t get to the ice on the other side of the hole soon enough, the Scooter and Scooter-ers will end up in icy water.  Scooter sailors, obviously a strange breed, think the occasional swim in icy water is all part of a good day’s sailing. And who’s going to argue with members of a class that can claim to have been the fastest-sailing dinghy ever??




round-bowed little lug riggers”:- The Rudder   . At the time they had just been changed to gunters of 96 sq ft. See also Yachting feb 1914

“There were 18 foot Prams in Portland Oregon”:- Rudder May 1911 and

“WP Stephens, never a fan of the scow type”:- ‘One Design Classes in Yachting’, WP Stephens, Outing 1902 p 481

“The influence of the Seawanhaka Cup”:- ‘Fifteen-Footers from a Massachussets Standpoint”, Forest and Stream, April 9 1904

“”The idea seemed to be that each club must have a distinctive one-design class of its own’:- Forty Years Among the Stars”, George W Elder p 36

” “wanted a special class of their own…unless the designer made some changes, he would hardly feel entitled to his fee.”  Elder p 44

“”the hundreds of little one-design classes, each restricted to one club, were keeping yachtsmen apart.” George W Elder and Ernest Ratsey, ‘The International Star Class’ in Sailing Craft, Schottle (ed) 1928

“”these were the days of the large yacht, when racing was a rich man’s game….. small boats were considered playthings for boys”. Elder and Ratsey, ibid. Numerous biographies of US yachtsmen of the day show them being bought yachts of 30 ft or longer when still in their teens or early 20s.

““each season there would be new boats built of a newer design and perhaps larger in some ways:”- Forest and Stream Jan 21 1905

“The Swampscott sailors were an evangelical lot”:- ‘The Massachusetts Racing Dory Association” by J Samuel Hodge, Fore’n’Aft, April 1907

“A 1907 challenge between the Nova Scotia and Massachusetts fleet”:- Fore’n’Aft October 1907. Part of the US domination was because they hiked until “there was nothing in the boat but their feet” which is just one more piece of evidence contradicting Antipodean sailors who claim that they created the art of keeping a dinghy afloat by hiking.

“They included the Cohasset YC one design class, modelled off WP Stephens’ Scarecrow”:-  Forest and Stream, Oct 10 1895.

“The typical hunting sneakbox was only about 12 ft long”:- American Small Sailing Craft; their design, development and construction, Howard I Chapelle, 1951, p 214.

“as Chappelle noted, the yachtsmen had basically ‘improved’ the sneak box out of existence”:- American Small Sailing Craft p 211. This was probably a reference more to the 20 footers than to smaller Sneak Boxes, which still bore a strong resemblance to the originals.

“built almost 3,000 sneak boxes from 1900 to 1958”:- Eric Stark, Wooden Boat magazine issue 47.

“As historian Eric Stark noted”:- Eric Stark, Wooden Boat magazine issue 47.

“”In winter when used for gunning,” Sailing Craft TBA

” “No scooter sailor would call the day complete unless he had dashed into and out of a dozen or more air holes” The Rudder. Vol 17 1906 p253

“The water, cleaved as if by a shot hurled from a cannon, is thrown into the air a distance of twenty feet, completely shrouding the schooter from view until, with speed little diminished, it gliges smoothly and triumphantly out upon the ice at the other side of the opening”. Sci Am

Pt 1.34 – The classic US one designs


Another apology; the only boats I’ve ever sailed in the USA are a Farr 52 and the 12 Metre Weatherly. I’ve had no experience at all with US dinghy sailing. But with any history that ranges widely through time and space, there are many times when you just have to research, interview and hope you get it right. Any feedback and corrections will be gratefully received.


The Snipe, first of the great American one design dinghies, emerged in 1931. It was the fourth year of the Great Depression. A quarter of the US workforce was unemployed. It may have seemed like the worst possible time to introduce something as frivolous as a sailing dinghy. But the Snipe not only became the world’s most popular dinghy, but also set the pattern for the later boats that created the great 1950s boom in dinghy sailing.

The Snipe was designed by Rudder magazine editor William F Crosby for a new development class in Florida that could be “towed about the state from regatta to regatta”.  The proposed class had few rules – a limit of 100 sq ft of sail and 16′ overall length – but rather than go for a racing machine, Crosby designed the Snipe with economy and ease of construction as the keywords. By keeping the length down to 15ft 6in Crosby ensured that the Snipe could be made from standard 16ft planks. Choosing hard chine construction was another obvious choice, which meant that be built without steam-bent timbers or spiled planks.

Snipe article
The article that launched 31,000 ships – the original piece in Rudder magazine for July 1931.


Exactly what inspired the Snipe’s deeply Veed sections and heavy rocker remain unclear. It’s said that Crosby knew that the boat would have to handle all conditions, from light-wind inland lakes to the windy Gulf coast and it may have been his way of creating a boat with comparatively low wetted surface and good high-wind handling. It may also be significant that the Snipe’s hull looks quite similar to that of existing Florida dinghies, like the Cricket development class or the St Petersburg One Design. Crosby may have been influenced more by the design of big yachts than by other dinghies; certainly when he created the similar but larger National One Design, he enthused to Gordon Douglass about her resemblance to a baby International Six Metre, and some say that the modern Snipe still has the feel of a small yacht.

Snipe plan.png
The first Snipe sailplan as shown in the Rudder. Note the “Trailer Class” sail insignia, original large cockpit and the small jib that was used to keep the sail area within the 100 sq ft limit of the Trailer Class. Crosby later wrote that this “foolish little working jib was not entirely satisfactory” and a few years later when the Trailer Class failed to take off (“only a few were built and most were freaks”, he claimed, although the class survived into the ’50s) an overlapping genoa was fitted to increase the Snipe’s sail area. It proved faster in exhaustive testing and was phased in over two years, as the old jibs were replaced. This was the only major change in the class’ early years.

There was a hint of yacht-type construction in the Snipe, too. At the time, the normal way to plug the seams between planks in a lightweight dinghy hull was to fit “seam battens”, consisting of a strip of timber running along the inside of each seam. Crosby took the simpler option of leaving the seam battens off and simply running caulking between the seams, as in a yacht – but that meant he had to provide thick 19mm (3/4in) planking to hold the cotton caulking. The hull weighed a hefty 204kg (450lb) until the ‘70s, and today it still measures in at 159kg (351lb).

The distinctive high boom came about partly for safety and partly because Crosby intended the main to be carried high in light winds (to reach the stronger winds above the water) and lower down in the breeze. It was soon found that the higher position was better all-round.  Crosby trialled a taller rig in his own boat before returning to the standard sailplan.

The Snipe was launched in Rudder magazine of July 1931. The Rudder’s designs had often been popular across the world and the article confidently predicted that “it is expected that a great many “Snipes” will be built during the summer and winter”, but not even Crosby could believe the way the readership took the humble little Snipe to heart. This was not a high-performance design like the famous Rudder Lark and Swallow of earlier times, or a cruiser like the old Sea Bird, but every copy of that month’s magazine sold out, and the office was besieged with requests for reprints.

The grinding misery of the Depression may actually have been one of the reasons why the Snipe grabbed the popular imagination. Work was so rare that it had become something prized. “Both the unemployed and the under-employed needed to fill the hours that had once been devoted to work” notes social historian Steven M Gelber “ and those who had full-time jobs may not have had more leisure but they frequently had less money, so they too needed new ways to occupy non-work hours that were less expensive than commercial entertainment.”[1]

To the victims of the Depression, a hobby like building and sailing a Snipe was an antidote to a wounded work ethic. To the wider society, a productive hobby was something to be encouraged, lest idle hands seek escape in distractions like gangster movies, bars and marathon dancing competitions. Magazines and social commentators praised and prized hobbies as a productive and moral way to pass time. Even the rich were caught up in the home handyman craze, and the popular press featured tales of the home workshops of company presidents. To sailors and dreamers of the world, the Snipe presented an affordable way to spend time constructively and to achieve the dream of getting afloat.

Snipe Number 1, Adelaide, was built in three weeks “under the dense shade of live oaks near our work shop” by 14 year old Jimmie Brown, his father and friends. She was launched on August 2, just a few weeks after the plans were published. “She sure handles sweet and is the prettiest ever” said Jimmie in a letter to The Rudder of October. “I find the Snipe is a real boat with all the qualities of a Star for a boy my age”.

Adelaide Snipe
Adelaide, Star No 1, was the property of 14 year old Jimmie Brown, seen on the right in these photographs that accompanied his proud letter to The Rudder of October 1931. Her sails were cut down from a donated set of Star sails. Adelaide still survives as museum piece (below, from the class site). Note the original large cockpit.


With feedback from his readers, Crosby developed the design over the next few months. He reduced the cockpit size, to make “it possible to use the boats in very bad water which would fill an ordinary open cockpit boat of this size”. But there was one thing that he insisted on, time and time again – once the final design was developed there would be no more alterations.  The earlier Rudder designs like the Swallow and Lark had spread across the globe. Letter after letter was published in the magazine with enthusiastic tales of their performance, their building – and the alterations the owners had made to them. Those who built earlier Larks, Swallows and other Rudder designs seemed unable to resist the temptation to modify them, and they never formed widespread one design classes.

Snipe racing
Early Snipes as pictured in the Rudder for June 1934. The pic below is one of quite a few showing early Snipes being sailed very poorly. I’m not sure whether the skipper was trying to show how forgiving the boat was or whether he was really a beginner. Personally I’ve started to enjoy seeing badly sailed boats, because they seem to be showing that the sport is attracting new blood.


Snipe eloise


Crosby was obviously determined that the Snipe should not fall into the same trap, and throughout the development process he was “constantly adding measurement guidelines as his friends found loopholes in the design.” Perhaps because the Star class had provided the model, the old pre-war concept that each region or club needed its own design, or its own version of a design, was gone. New technology like the boat trailers that the Snipe was designed for had opened up the possibility of easy inter-club racing.  Crosby demanded that every racing Snipe, from Western Long Island Sound to Western Australia, should conform strictly to the class rules. “Your proud new Snipe for which you paid a goodly sum of money would not be worth ten cents if it were not kept in style by restrictions and if you don’t like ’em and have plenty of money, enter a restricted class instead of a one-design” he told class members who were keen on tweaking his design. “After all, sail boat racing is a game of skill and is not like power boat racing where most regattas are won in the machine shop weeks before the race.”

Within three years of its launch there were 800 Snipes afloat, and the Snipe was on its way to becoming the world’s most popular dinghy.  By March 1933, the class had spread internationally with a fleet in Dover, and just four years later, it claimed the title of world’s most popular racing class. Following the lead of the International Star, Crosby led the organisation of an efficient class, including a ranking based on local fleet racing so that “it is possible for boats in Oshkosh to compete with the boats in England without actually coming into competition or seeing the other fellow.”

“Low cost plus speed and sport have made these little fifteen foot six knockabouts known all over the world” Crosby wrote proudly in 1934. “Good appearance has also helped but the most important reasons of all is because these little craft are built to strict one-design restrictions and owners who have tried to bring in expensive refinements and make other changes, which would antiquate many of the older boats, have been voted down.” It was a far cry from the thinking just 25 years before, when it was accepted that each one design fleet was restricted to its own locale.

By 1947, the year when a new breed of homebuilt dinghies arrived, the Snipe was holding world championships in Europe and had become a sophisticated racing boat. Snipes were racing in North and South America, in England, in loosely-organised pockets in Australia, and in Asia. In Germany it had inspired the similar Pirat, which was on its way to becoming the most popular youth class in northern Europe.


Boston Pub Lib Snipe postcard

The Snipe has never been a particularly fast or a light boat, even by the standards of earlier decades. The weight and heavy stern rocker reduce its speed, but makes it docile to handle and contribute to the close racing and “feel” that makes Snipe sailors love their boat. It is, they say, the tactical dinghy per excellence, with superb balance and handling. “I often describe the boat as an ultra light keelboat, which describes the feel” says a British Sniper. “The boats are impressive in very light conditions, and yet in 20 knots of wind nearly the whole fleet is still concentrating on tactics rather than speed and survival.”

The Snipe, wrote world champion and Olympian Gary Hoyt, was “one of the most misunderstood boats, often held in quite low esteem by yachtsmen who consider it to be old-fashioned and low in performance….the quickest cure for the critics and the cynics alike would be to put them in a modern Snipe in a competitive fleet. The cynics would find the Snipe a very responsive boat, and the critics would probably find themselves badly in the tank.”

When I was growing up as a kid in Sydney, with Moths mouldering in the yard, Frank Bethwaite sailing his experimental proas out front and strong fleets of development-class skiffs and dinghies dotting the harbour, most of the little I knew of Snipes came from the pages of a 1950s library book titled Scientific Sailboat Racing, by world champion Ted Wells. In the Antipodes the Snipe was then seen as an American oddity, and legends like gold medallist Peter Mander, who admitted that Well’s book gave a valuable insight into tuning, publicly called Crosby’s design “dull”.  What sort of person, I used to wonder with the arrogance of youth, could have enjoyed sailing the heavy boat revealed in those black and white photos of low-speed tactical sailing in Wells’ book? Could anyone who was interested in technology and design have enjoyed a Snipe?


An illustration from Ted Well’s Scientific Sailboat Racing. From

The answer, it turned out, was a very loud yes. Wells was not just the first Snipe World Champion, but also one of the greatest aircraft designers of his day. He had built his own plane as a teenager, before becoming the very first student at the prestigious Princeton University to qualify as an aeronautical engineer. While still at university he bought an old biplane and became a professional “barnstormer” before winning the Transcontinental National Air Race and becoming a test pilot and chief engineer.

In 1932, just as the Snipe was spreading its wings, Wells led the design of the iconic Beech Staggerwing; a technologically advanced private plane that was fast enough to win air races and luxurious enough to attract business flyers. Despite the fact that he was an intuitive designer rather than a master of structural analysis, Wells followed up with the design of the enormously successful and advanced twin-engined Beech 18 and oversight of the famous Vee-tail Bonanza, which have each held the record for the longest continuous production run in aviation history. Other high-tech Snipe sailors included top-class boatbuilder Carl Eichenlaub and yacht designer German Frers Snr, whose son became one of the great designers of the IOR era, who introduced the class to Argentina. That arrogant question of my youth got a clear answer – yes, people who were interested in design and technology could relish the cut and thrust and meticulous nature of Snipe sailing.

Beechcraft C17L Staggerwing at the Museum
The Staggerwing – an iconic aircraft designed by outstanding sailor Ted Wells, photographed by Sports Illustrated folding sails in his living room below.

Snipe well at home

Wells, who had started sailing in a small (35 member) club at little lake in Kansas that sometimes dried up in droughts, told Sports Illustrated that the appeal of the Snipe was the competition created by its big fleets; “you get so much interfleet competition in the Snipe class that it gives us a much higher proportion of very good skippers than any other class can claim”. The competition attracted Wells so much that he retired from Beechcraft under pressure in 1953 after he was called to a management meeting from a Snipe regatta. His sin, allegedly, was that he had become more interested in sailing Snipes than in designing leading edge aircraft.

The Snipe seems to have set the pattern for the boats that later created the great international boom in several ways. For one, it had promotion from the media. Secondly, it caught on with wider pressures and trends in society. Thirdly, it did not pretend to be a scorching high-speed machine but it was fast enough, safe and it sailed well. Fourthly, it was easy to build. Fifth, it was able to attract a wide range of sailors. As Crosby noted in 1934, “the Snipe class is particularly interesting because it is not confined to any one area or sailed by any one type of skipper….you will see these little boats being raced by youngsters from twelve to seventy years of age…many clubs have already adopted the class for teaching junior sailors…”. But the Snipe sailors were diverse not just in age, but also in location. “Outside of junior activities, though, the most interesting development of all lies in the fact that through Snipes, yacht racing has been brought to many localities where such sport has never before been enjoyed” wrote Crosby. The old model, where US one designs were limited to one club or region had been exploded. Here was something novel in dinghy sailing – a truly worldwide class.

The Snipe was soon followed by a stream of slightly bigger boats in the same general style – a heavy hard-chine one-design. A couple of years later, the 16’ Comet (designed by a Star world champ for a mother who was looking for a boat for her sons, and originally called the Star Junior) and the 18’ Interlake (designed by Star draftsman Francis Sweisguth) arrived. Both followed the Star style of hard chine arc-bottomed hull and big rig, which was fitting since the Star was the first class to show US sailors the true potential of the one design concept. In 1938, the Lightning hit the scene. Like the Snipe, all were simple hard chine boats with sawn frames, all were cheap and easy to build, and most were run by associations that tried to spread the class far and wide. The Interlake and Lightning remain strong classes today. For many years, boats of this style formed the backbone of dinghy racing in the USA.

The Comet once claimed 125 fleets in the USA. A 1932 article in Yachting Magazine claimed that the arc-bottomed hull (below) was a combination of a Star and a Chesapeake bay skipjack.


Comet lines


As American sailor George Moffatt wrote for a British audience in 1961, typical US one designs like the Lighting and Comet were a product of “weather, water and economics (which) all tend to emphasize a larger, heavier and less manoeuvrable boat than finds acceptance in England.”  The light airs common through most of the North American summer encourage big rigs, and perhaps means that planing performance is less of a consideration.  The water tends to be cold; even in California the ocean is chilled by currents flowing down from the Arctic. Andy Dovell, a former New Englander turned Australian yacht and skiff design, recalls how geography affected the dinghy sailors of his homeland. “Even when when you’re racing in the summertime, the water’s cold, so they tend to sail boats that don’t tip in quite so easily.”  As L. Francis Herreshoff noted, the short, tippy British style of dinghy would turn off US sailors as soon as “their ardour has been somewhat cooled by a swamping or capsizing a 14 in cold water.”

North America has huge expanses of semi-protected waterways, which encouraged big, dry and stable boats that were designed more for family day sailing than racing. “In New England where there’s lots of interesting geography to explore, performance of the boat isn’t so important. Every day you can explore a different harbor and have a new experience with any type of boat” explains Bob Johnstone, who marketed dinghies like the Laser and Sunfish before he became a partner of the hugely successful “J/Boat” yacht company.  But in some of the most densely populated and influential areas, most sailors live in cities located some distance away from their sailing grounds. Even the keenest racers cannot always practice on weekday afternoons, like sailors in other areas.  “When I look back, I remember that the helmsmen were all pretty skilled, but they were all guys who had jobs in the city” Dovell remembers. “They hadn’t grown up on the water every afternoon, they had only ever sailed on weekends their whole life. You can’t have a bunch of workaday guys who race just on the weekends, sailing a (tippy high-performance) skiff in cold water.”

Many of the one designs also had to be stable enough to live on moorings, because getting access to the waterfront is difficult in many areas. “Access to the water has a lot to do with boat type” notes Ben Fuller, former curator of the famous Mystic Seaport maritime museum. “Most of the New England clubs developed in a mooring environment, and many still do not have space for dinghy parks. What happens to boats when they are not being used is in many ways more important than the boats in use.”

In the middle of the 19th century the USA was the wealthiest society on earth, and sailors tended to be rich even by US standards. The sport still felt the echoes of the 19th century clashes that killed classes like the sandbaggers and Delaware Hikers and pushed the working class out of the sport. In the US, even dinghy sailing was the preserve of the successful middle class and the wealthy, and American sailors had the money to buy big dinghies, the money to own big garages to build and store them, and the big cars to tow them.

Another historical hangover meant that sliding seats and trapezes were frowned upon despite the big rigs that many US one designs carried. “There were long-set bad reactions to shifting ballast boats like sandbaggers and hikers” explains Ben Fuller. So North American boats compensated for their big rigs by having extra form stability, heavy construction, and carrying more crew. Popular dinghies like Thistles and Lightnings carry three crew, and even cat-rigged boats like the little Frostbite classes or the 20’ M Scow and 12’ Butterfly scow often carry two sailors.


The Lightning remains one of the most popular classes in the USA. So why is this pic showing a Finnish boat? Because the Lightning is one of three indigenous US classes (the others being the Snipe and E Scow) that are sailed in Finland and I wonder what the connection is., that’s why. Pic from the WB Sails site; an excellent place to go for interesting information on aerodynamics and sails.

Once the big, heavy hard-chine one-design style caught on in the US northeast, the heartland of North American sailing, it spread throughout the continent. Legendary “establishment” sailors like “Corny” Shields told their readers that planing boats were only for expert racing fanatics, and they listened. “The influence of the northeast yachting establishment was huge” says Fuller. “These boats set the scene for much of North American sailing”.

Probably the final factor that established the classic American classes was a national passion for one design sailing. The excesses of the development classes, from Sandbaggers to Frostbiters, may have scared the sailors towards strict rules. Some say that the American work ethic suits the big one design dinghies perfectly. Victory comes from working harder at training and perfecting technique, whereas in development or high-performance classes, success can come through dreaming up some nifty new design or inherent “seat of the pants” boathandling skill.

The Interlake was designed by Star class draughtsman Francis Sweisguth and the heritage is easy to see. At 84 years of age the class is still what it has always tried to be – a strong local class in the Midwest.


As sailors like Dennis Conner and George Moffatt said, the steady moderate winds and strong one design fleets led American sailors to put an emphasis on tuning and technology that saw them dominate Olympic sailing for decades.  “In the department of techniques and technical innovation we Americans have always felt that we have had something of an edge” wrote Moffatt. “On our long, open and usually tideless courses boat speed is vital….  true, we have not had excellent small boat designers like Fox or Proctor, but we have had many superb builders such as Robert Lippincott, John Nichols, Skip Etchells and others who have been willing to try endless refinements of shape and gear.”

The lure of this highly developed one design racing has kept many of the older classes – the ones which could establish the first major fleets – on top in popularity ever since. The appeal of one design principle also ensures that there have been few moves to harm the equality of the fleets by updating the designs. It creates highly competitive racing that often lead to advances in the nuances of rig, gear, sails, and technique. The downside is that there has been little room for development in basic design. Only in the US would a 70 year old, 127kg (280lb) 16 footer still be advertised as “modern” and “light weight” in the 21st century. But these boats remain popular because they suit their designed purpose admirably, and they provide great racing in durable boats that last for many decades.



[1] “A job you can’t lose: work and hobbies in the great depression” Steven M Gelber, Joiurnal of Social History, June 1 1991

“Crosby knew that the boat would have to handle all conditions, from light-wind inland lakes to the windy Gulf coast.” Snipe News Winter 2011

“Crosby later wrote that this “foolish little working jib was not entirely satisfactory”:- the Jib Sheet Feb 1946. In the same article he noted that the only other change made in the class for many years was allowing a centreboard instead of a daggerboard at the request of early adopters Minnefords and Indian Harbour YC.

“constantly adding measurement guidelines as his friends found loopholes in the design”. Snipe News Winter 2011

“”Low cost plus speed and sport have made these little fifteen foot six knockabouts known all over the world”.  ‘800 boats in three years’ Rudder June 1934.

“makes it possible to use the boats in very bad water”; ‘800 boats in three years’ Rudder June 1934.

“Your proud new Snipe:’  The Jib Sheet

“”one of the most misunderstood boats, often held in quite low esteem by yachtsmen who consider it to be old-fashioned and low in performance” Go for the Gold, Gary Hoyt, 1971

“”You get so much interfleet compettion in teh Snipe class ” Sports Illustrated

“”weather, water and economics (which) all tend to emphasize a larger, heavier and less manoeuvrable boat than finds acceptance in England.” ‘The American Scene’ by George Moffatt in The Dinghy Year Book 1961, Richard Creagh-Osbourne (ed)

Information from Bob Johnson, Andy Dovell and Ben Fuller from personal correspondence and interviews.


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 the 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 truth 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 start at 2:00, because pursuit racing has long been a feature of the class.

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 18s racing in Sydney; some with restricted beams, some with husband-and-wife crews, some racing against 19 Footers with handicaps based on length. In 1893 the class “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.  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 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”. 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.

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, the two Royal Yacht Clubs stepped in to revive the ancient annual regatta. They were happy to allow coloured sails, but the irony is that coloured sails fight may 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. Police investigations 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 implied. 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 one club and therefore kept out of the national championship 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 – 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 measurements. JC capsized when in the lead just 50 metres from the finish. She copped a gust bouncing off a nearby ship, some said. Crouch was too busy waving his at in triumph at the spectators, said others. 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 skiff-type “galloping ghost”. With her slim hull 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 sail (the one set ouside the mainsail leach) long after it had been abandoned in Sydney.  This was partly because when it was their 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 Footer’s 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; one 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. 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

“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

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 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. It seemed as if each city had its own range of local budget boats, and above them all were three widespread one designs.

The mindset of those who sailed the one designs and the local development classes seems to have been different to the 12, 14, 16 and 18 Footers in several important ways. Their hull shape and construction was one obvious area. All but one of the major one designs 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 own than the “skiff” types.

Many of those who favoured the one designs also seem to have been more openly interested in and influenced by designs and concepts from other countries. 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 their better known cousins.

Although there was plenty of talk in the newspapers about the success of the one design classes in England, the strong development-class ethos meant that the concept was slow to take hold in Australia.  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 either was the junior boat for the St Kilda Fourteen Footer fleet.  The 8 Foot Dinghy seems to have survived into the 1940s, 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 one-design talk into popular reality was the 12 Foot Cadet, the first widespread one design in the country.  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 clinker construction and the fact that the Cadet was designed a few months before the 14 class was formed, it seems more likely that the 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 its success, in some ways the 12 Foot Cadet was an exception. 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 naval architect Charles Sparrow he decided to create a boat that was safer, 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 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 sometimes 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 class president 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, another and 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 many sailors didn’t realise how potent the Sharpie, so foreign to their eyes, could be. They learned the lesson as soon as the Sharpie Comet, modified to carry a third crewman and a flat-cut spinnaker, 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, 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 best 14 Footers in the state by four minutes. The 14 Footer sailors, so used to being the Grand Prix class of the state, promptly demanded that Comet 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.”

“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 slender, light development classes with small rigs. 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 was sponsored by the great open boat sailor J.H. Whereat 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 by the round-bilge 18s) 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.  Cheap, rough and hard to handle 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

The development-class sharpies and the punts have all long gone, like the Connewarre punts before them. But one of the 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 its growth was slow; the little country town of Inverloch was not the ideal place to launch an International 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 Les 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 has 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 you also also needed flat hull sections for high winds, a bigger rig for more speed, and extra righting moment to match. The light and comparatively small-rigged boats that this recipe created were in striking contrast to the famous 12, 14 and 18 Footers, but just as influential on the history of dinghy design.




“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.



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

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

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

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

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

In the West

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Snub angled

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 Foot Skiffs rigging at Sydney’s Birchgrove 14 Ft Skiff Club. The 14 Foot Skiffs were built different class rules to the 14 Foot Dinghies (although they fitted within the Dinghy restrictions) and were essentially a smaller version of the 16 Foot Skiffs.  Incidentally, these were the first members of the Australian branch of the 14 Footers to bear the “skiff” label that has now become synonymous with big-rig high-performance centreboarders. Photos of the Sydney 14 Foot Skiffs are hard to find; the one below comes from The Rudder in 1920.

14 Foot Skiff Rudder 1920

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

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

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

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

Today some would see the ban on “outriggers” as a retrograde step, but when experts like Nimmo’s skipper Brooke agreed with the ban it’s apparent that there was sound cause. Canoes had already vanished from the Australian sailing scene, and canoe-like 14s would probably have gone the same way.  The cost of alterations must also have been an issue. Australia was one of the countries hit worst by the great depression, and by 1930 it looked as if the national championship may have to be cancelled due to lack of funds.

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

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

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

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

1948 nats 14s

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

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


The state of Tasmania was an island in more ways than one – it is the only state that has never had a 14 Footer fleet. Despite its tiny population and struggling economy, Tasmania’s capital city of Hobart has had an amazingly strong yacht racing scene for many decades, and a small but distinctive dinghy scene. Although details are scanty, it appears that the first significant local dinghy classes were among the few that have been governed by waterline length alone, just like the 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” Batts “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 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 they may have killed the class, and soon afterwards the 15 Footer vanished. In some ways they seem to be perhaps the most modern of all the Australian dinghies of their time.

Although the 1938 national 14 Footer titles were held in Hobart, the Tasmanians never adopted the class. The hearts of the island’s sailors was taken by a type that is often under-rated and under-appreciated – the national one design classes that form the next part of the SailCraft story.



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

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

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

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

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

NSW withdrew from 14s 1929[43]

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[19] The Ballarat Star, 21 June 1880

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

[21] Brisbane Courier, 12 Dec 1866 p 2

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

[23] The Australasian, 6 April 1907 p 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[30] The Age, Oct 27 1913 p 8

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

[31] The Brisbane Courier 3 Nov 1898 p 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[40] Western Mail, 30 Jan 1904 p 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[47] The West Australian 20 Jan 1936 p 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[54] The West Australian 14 June 1898 p 6

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

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

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

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

[58] Sydney Morning Heraldn 28 mar 1953 p 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pt 1.24: The skiffs and dinghies of the east coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Commonwealth, 1910 national champion. Hall/ANMM pic.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

The Skiffs

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

The Twelve Foot Skiffs

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

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

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

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



Canvassers and Sharpies

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

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

A canvas dinghy. Hall/ANMM collection

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

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


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

Like the canvas dinghies, the Brisbane sharpies are long gone and almost forgotten- yet more evidence that the proof that the claim “development classes don’t die” could not be more wrong.  Although they must have been cheaper and easier to build than the round-bilge boats, they were either banned from competing against them or, as in the case of the 14ft Oxley Restricted Sharpies, were not competitive. And also like their canvas sisters, the sharpies don’t seem to have had much influence on mainstream dinghy design – the era of the lightweight hard chine champion was yet to come.



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

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

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

[1] Evening News, 24 March 1879 p3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Blue Water Bushmen, Bruce Stannard p 40

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

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

[12] Sydney Sportsman, 9 May 1906 p 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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