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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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




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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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





Pt 1.25: Hard chines and one designs

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Early VJ sailplan

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

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

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

Vee Jay

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The local development classes

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

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

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

Oxley sharpies

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


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

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


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


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

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

WA Flattie plans.png


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

In the West

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Snub angled

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 Footers rigging at Sydney’s Birchgrove 14 Ft Skiff Club. The tale of the Sydney 14 Footers is complicated by the fact that there were essentially three different types. First were the old “14 Foot Dinghies” with no restrictions and huge rigs. They died out and then the “14 Foot Skiff” class evolved. Essentially a smaller version of the 16 Foot Skiffs, they had class rules that mandated narrow hulls, fewer crew and smaller rigs. Photos of the Sydney 14 Foot Skiffs are hard to find; the one below comes from The Rudder in 1920. Incidentally, these were the first members of the Australian branch of the 14 Footers to bear the “skiff” label that has now become synonymous with big-rig high-performance centreboarders. The Sydney 14 Foot Skiffs then tried to race within the 14 Foot Dinghies which had evolved in the southern states, but they were not powerful enough in hull or rig. The Sydney 14 Foot Skiffs then adopted the 14 Foot Dinghy rules about 1924. The boats in the foreground of the top pic appears to be one of the snub-nosed types that were developed in the southern states, which indicates that the photograph could have been taken during a national title or after the southern state rules were adopted.

14 Foot Skiff Rudder 1920

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

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

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

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

Today some would see the ban on “outriggers” as a retrograde step, but when experts like Nimmo’s skipper Brooke agreed with the ban it’s apparent that there was sound cause. Canoes had already vanished from the Australian sailing scene, and canoe-like 14s would probably have gone the same way; under the heavy rigs of the time, they would have been too tippy for the fleets to maintain critical mass.  The cost of alterations must also have been an issue. Australia was one of the countries hit worst by the great depression, and by 1930 it looked as if the entire national championship may have to be cancelled due to lack of funds. This was not a time to make the existing boats obsolete.

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

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

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

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

1948 nats 14s

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

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

Even as the 14 Footers became firmly established around the country in the 1930s, a new style of boat was developing.  Australia had always had a long but little-known group of local classes, mostly with hard chine hulls, that were much lighter and carried much smaller rigs than the 14s, skiffs and 18s, and in the 1930s. In the 1930s, the lightweight dinghies started to come out of the shadow and take on a distinctive form that would go on to play a vital but under-appreciated role in the development of the modern racing dinghy.



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

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

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

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

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

NSW withdrew from 14s 1929[43]

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[19] The Ballarat Star, 21 June 1880

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

[21] Brisbane Courier, 12 Dec 1866 p 2

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

[23] The Australasian, 6 April 1907 p 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[30] The Age, Oct 27 1913 p 8

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

[31] The Brisbane Courier 3 Nov 1898 p 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[40] Western Mail, 30 Jan 1904 p 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[47] The West Australian 20 Jan 1936 p 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[54] The West Australian 14 June 1898 p 6

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

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

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

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

[58] Sydney Morning Heraldn 28 mar 1953 p 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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), as seen in Seacraft magazine September 1948. 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. The very flared bow was common in Australian open boats.


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 in the open boat strongholds of Sydney and Melbourne. [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 and apparently flattened the stern lines, accepting a drop in upwind performance in exchange for better speed downwind.

Quest 16 footer 1922 snub planing.png
The year is 1922, and the 16 Foot Skiff Quest is undeniably up and planing. Quest was the first snub-nosed 16 Foot Skiff. Pic from the Bryce Mortlock article on 16s in Seacraft magazine of September 1948.

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 championship 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 Queensland, 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.

Cairns sharpies 1920s
Sharpies in the city of Cairns, in the far north of Queensland, in the 1920s. The two boats to the right seem to have considerable stern rocker. I’ve yet to find much information about these boats.

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.  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. Although they must have been cheaper and easier to build than the round-bilge boats, for unknown reasons they were normally banned from competing against them. The only one of the Brisbane sharpie that raced the round bilge types was the 14ft Oxley Restricted Sharpies – and that is where our tale meets the Australian breed of the International 14, one of the world’s greatest classes. 




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]

Pt 1.28 – The German one designs

The Dutch 12 Sq Metre Sharpie “All weather”, built in 1932, shows the beauty and durability of the first international two-person dinghy. Pic from the Dutch class site.


The early 1930s saw the creation of some influential German one designs; classes that have not only influenced dinghy design but also thrive today.  The class that had the most widespread influence was the 12 sq m Sharpie. It was one of three designs entered by brothers Karl and Hans Kroger brothers and their friend and boatbuilding partner Walter Braur in 1931 as an entry into a design competition for a new German youth class. Like many German classes, the Sharpie was designed as a cruiser-racer, stable enough to be slept aboard and also to be moored, as there was often little space to pull a boat ashore on the crowded shoreline of some German lakes. It was built like a house, with simple and robust sawn framing and 14mm thick planking, and it weighed as much as one too, with the bare hull coming in at 230kg (508lb) and an all-up sailing weight of around 300kg (650lb) complete with 27.5kg/60lb steel centreboard.

The plan of the Sharpie shows the strong construction, straight lines and fine bow. Illustrations from the 1954 book “British and International Yacht Racing Classes”.


The cheap and tough construction and the compromises inherent in the Sharpie’s specified role could have created a flop, yet the Krogers and Braur team managed to give the Sharpie a beautifully efficient hull. Some sharpie types had raced successfully in the free renjollen classes, but many other contemporary sharpies were shaped more like large Snipes, with more rocker and more Vee. The 12 Sq Metre Sharpie had a flatter hull with less rocker and vee, a fine, slab-sided bow, and the BMAX well aft. Like many sharpies, the Kroger/Braur design had a flat area running along the keel – a development that round-bilged boats only picked up decades later. The centerboard was an “old fashioned” low-aspect shape, but it was set well aft. The stern was proportionately wider than many other renjollen types and the hull was narrower than many comparable sharpie types.

Like any renjolle-style boat, one of the 12 sq metre’s “secrets” is simply lots of length a slender shape. It’s one of the longest dinghies of all (5.9m/19’6″) yet it has a maximum beam of just 1.43m/4.7ft. Its long, slim shape and vertical topsides mean that its bow was finer than  most contemporary boats, and ever finer than later performance boats like the 505. Yet (unlike some other sharpie-shaped renjolle of the time) the waterlines at the bow are fairly straight, rarely taking on the hollow lines that are generally considered to be slow.

The Sharpie’s strengths were not confined to its shape. Perhaps because the Krogers and Braur were engineers and practical boatbuilders, the Sharpie was also cheap for its size and performance and easy to build. The first British boats cost just 45 pounds; less than half as much as a contemporary International 14 and similar to the 35 pounds maximum of a National 12 without sails. Peter Mander and Jack Cropp, the New Zealanders who won the Sharpie’s only Olympic contest, built their boat “Jest” from planks they helped cut themselves from the timbers of an old church. Graham Mander, who helped to build Jest and almost won the trials in his own Sharpie, recalls that the Sharpie’s plans were excellent and that it was a beautiful boat to build. “The Sharpie plans supplied to us from overseas were the most carefully detailed I’ve ever seen, and the method of construction was extremely good” wrote the late Peter Mander in his wonderful autobiography. “We found the Sharpies great boats to build.”

With its small rig, considerable heft and no spinnaker the 12 Sq Metre Sharpie was never going to rival the full-on renjollen types for pure speed, but it was highly competitive on a knot-per-dollar or knot-per-square foot basis. It planed well downwind in strong winds. By the standards of the 1950s, wrote Peter Mander “we found the Sharpies fast and lively…great craft to sail.”  Racing in England in the ‘40s indicated that the big but cheap Sharpie was as fast as the small but expensive International 14.

Yes, they are a heavy boat; this pic from the class site shows a load cell during a weigh-in.

The Sharpie carried a gunter rig with a nominal area of 12 sq m boosted to an actual area of 16 m2 by the big overlap on the genoa. There was (and still is) no spinnaker, but the big headsail and long pole keep the boat moving downwind.  Bermudan rigs were also allowed initially, but they not only caused the boats to capsize at their moorings but were also slower. In the ‘50s, the hot Dutch fleet realized that they could get more speed by dropping the gaff back about 30 degrees and lowering the boom. The extra area was said to increase performance, but today one wonders whether it wasn’t the more vertical leach that helped. It’s intriguing to see that the class moved away from the high-peaked gunter sail which looked almost like a Bermudan rig, back to a gaff style.

In an astonishingly short space of time the design had outgrown both Germany and the youth category and become the world’s most widespread performance dinghy, with big fleets in Germany, Holland, and Portugal and as far afield as South America and Australia. In 1934, for example, there were 8 or 9 nations racing Sharpies at Kiel.[1]

Despite its chines and one design nature, the slender shape of the Sharpie showed the renjolle style. Note the forked rudder, a common device in the European boats. Pic from the Netherlands Sharpie class site.
It seems that we can learn a lot about the world’s most important classes by looking at their rivals. This sharpie was designed by Erdmann for the competition that was won by the 12 Sq Metre. It was said at the time to be very fine in the bow compared to other sharpie types, but the Kroger design appears to be even finer. The Erdmann design shows far more rocker than the 12 Square Metre, both along the sheerline and along the chine line. The Erdmann boat’s high-aspect centreboard looks more efficient but the lower centre of lateral resistance may have caused the boat to heel too much, given the technology of the day.
The 12 sq m Sharpie became the most popular and widespread large dinghy in the world. Here the modified Australian boats, which carried a spinnaker and three crew, race in a national titles off Adelaide. State Library of South Australia photo B7796/661.

The Sharpie’s influence spread all the way across the world. As early as 1934, the first Sharpie was built in South Australia. At the time, South Australian dinghy sailing revolved around the 14 Foot Dinghies; over-canvassed craft of the type we know call skiffs.  Although the 14s carried over twice the sail area and about twice the crew, the first Sharpie in the country quickly proved itself by winning its first race by four minutes against some of the best 14s. Modified to carry long battens, a spinnaker and a third crewman, the Sharpie quickly became the most widespread dinghy class in the southern states, where the conditions were often too rough for the skiff types that had dominated Australian dinghy sailing.

The Sharpie’s greatest glory came long after it had fallen behind the leading edge in design. For many years, Olympic hosts had a say in selecting Olympic classes, and when it was decided to introduce a two-man centreboard class for the first time in the 1956 Olympics, the Australians opted for the Sharpie. Not only did they have hundreds of the local version racing, but despite its age the 12 Sq Metre was the most widespread of the bigger two-man boats.  The Dutch, who had dominated the class for years, boycotted the event in protest at the Russian invasion of Hungary, and in their absence the gold medal went to Mander and Cropp – sailing a home-made boat with home-made sails that came from a country that had only about five Sharpies and no Olympic sailing history at all. It was a pivotal moment in the history of sailing in New Zealand, a country that was about to produce a cohort of sailors and designers that would dominate world sailing.

Jest, 1956 Gold medal winner, sailing upwind in her home waters of New Zealand (above) and downwind to victory in Melbourne, past silver medallist Rolly Tasker of Australia. The New Zealanders learned to ease to gaff aft to depower the main, in the same way as a bendy mast works. Pics from the wonderful “Give a Man A Boat” by Peter Mander and Brian O’Neill.


The Melbourne Games was the Sharpie’s only time in the spotlight. By the time the next Olympics came around it had been replaced by the Flying Dutchman, another boat inspired by the Renjolle ideal. Today, Sharpies still race in Holland, Germany, England, Brazil and Portugal. Numbers are small – 50 active Dutch boats, and 12 to 30 in the other centres. Its varnished mahogany construction is frozen in time, but the growing interest in classic classes is seeing numbers climb once more.

The other major two-person one design of the era was the Pirat. Inspired by the Snipe, it is very similar, but said to be easier to build.  Cheap and stable, it put sailors on the water throughout Central Europe and Scandinavia and is still a popular class.

A Pirat shows off its long, straight lines. Pic from the Czech class site.



Why do many Europeans sail ‘conservative’ boats? Oh yeah, that’s why…. Pic from the Czech Pirat class site.


A third one design of significance, the singlehanded O Jolle, was designed for the Munich Olympic of 1936 after an intensive series of trials against several other designs. It was the first of the great international trials to select a new Olympic class, a process that was to launch or create great boats such as the Finn, Flying Dutchman, the 505, the Tornado, and the 49er, as well as less successful ones like the Tempest.

The long, slender lines of the O-Jolle, as drawn for Juan Baader’s book The Sailing Yacht. The class remains one of the most popular dinghies in Germany and is gaining ground in other areas.


The criteria were demanding. The boat had to be strong and stable enough for Kiel, yet lively for the lakes. It had to be fast, yet handle a wide range of sailor weights. In the European way, it also had to combine top-level racing with camping and cruising ability. It was a tall order, yet amateur designer Helmut Stauch met it with a design that beat the best that the great Drewitz, perhaps the best renjollen designer, could create.

The O-Jolle shows Renjolle influence in its size and weight. It’s a big boat for a singlehander, 5m/16ft long, weighing 220kg/490lb, and carrying 11.5m2/124 sq ft of sail. It had wide flare for its day, giving enough leverage to control the big rig. The sections have firm bilges and flat floors. The bow lines are fine for such an old boat, and the boat’s age is revealed mainly in the narrow stern and the short, moderately rockered run aft. Apart from the stayed rig and the big cockpit (a cruising feature), the O-Jolle looks superficially quite similar to a Finn.

The O-Jolle proved as fast (or faster) in light airs than the Finn, but its size and weight (bronze medallist Peter Scott, used to the shorter English types, described it as “a very blunt instrument”) and a dash of post-war anti-German sentiment stopped it from being selected for later Olympics. But it has remains an active class in parts of Europe and was a test-bed for a major leap in design when, in 1955 Ruth Lindemann, daughter of the man who invented Airex foam, built a run of Airex O-Jolle – probably the first dinghies ever made in the foam sandwich construction that now dominates boatbuilding.

Airex foam O-Jolles. From Juan Baader’s book “The Sailing Yacht”, 1965 edition.

The O Jolle performs best in light airs and flat water and is less effective in breeze when the big rig becomes overpowered and the boat planes later than a Laser or Finn despite the sail size. Although it is decades older than the Laser it’s similar in speed.  Like so many of the great old classes, the O-Jolle is showing no sign of fading out. In fact, it’s in a long term revival. It’s one of the most popular of all classes in Germany, claiming 600 active boats. The Dutch fleet has 100 active sailors and about 15 new boats per year. Smaller fleets sail in Italy, Austria and Switzerland.



“Graham Mander, who helped to build Jest and almost won the trials in his own Sharpie”;- Personal conversation with the author. See also ‘Give a man a boat’ by Peter Mander and Brian O’Neil; Mander’s autobiography and my favourite dinghy sailing book.

“Bermudan rigs were also allowed initially, but not only proved to cause boats to capsize at their moorings but were also slower”: – ‘Uffa’s sharp: a shape too fast’ by Nicola Bell, Classic Boat magazine, April 1999.

[1]  Uffa Fox’s Second Book, p 93

“the first Sharpie in the country quickly proved itself”:- The Advertiser (Adelaide) 29 October 1934

Pt 1.25 – The sailing scientists of the renjollen

Perhaps the ultimate example of the scientific approach to renjolle design; Manfred Curry’s Z Jolle Aero II. The streamlined hull with its rounded gunwales and low freeboard were symbolic of Curry’s fascination with airflow. Pic from his 1937 book “Regatta-Taktik”.

The renjollen had a deep influence on the rigs we use, and the way we sail. They played a major role in encouraging serious systematic study of the way of a boat in the wind and sea, and many of the basic ingredients of the modern boat were developed in renjolle or by former renjolle sailors.

Renjolle racer Manfred Curry, who was born in America but spent most of his life in Germany, has gone down in history as the man who brought science into sailing. At a time when tuning and design were often rough and ready skills based on experience and the seat of the pants, Curry strove towards scientific study and explanation. Many agreed with New Zealand’s Peter Mander (who won a gold medal in a renjolle type in the 1956 Olympics) when he wrote that Curry’s work was “the basis for all subsequent writings on the subject”.

Manfred Curry, with a “Currycleat” on the sidedeck.

Like many of the great names of the early dinghy scene, Curry seems to have been a renaissance man.  He studied nature, examining birds and their wings, the streamlined shape of ice floes on rivers and other free-flowing forms. A skilled photographer, his quest for knowledge lead him to create a book of nothing more than photographs of the natural effects of light, wind and waves on sea. Curry’s fascination about the flow of fluids even extended to his creation of the “landskiff”, an efficient streamlined recumbent four-wheeled bicycle.

But for his studies in the workings of sails, Curry also moved away from observations of nature and adopted the newest technology of the day. He set up model rigs in the wind tunnel of aircraft designer Dr Hugo Junker (of “Stuka” fame) and took photos of smoke streaming over tin sails. He burned smoke pots aboard renjolle and photographed the plumes as they blew past the rig. He probed the mystery of the boundary flow by stitching tufts to sails; standard today but a new idea at the time. He advocated the genoa jib, and claimed to have invented it (as do Sweden’s Sven Salen and Francis Herreshoff).

Aero was a boat with everything, even brakes. Curry said they were extremely useful at mark roundings and starts, but they must also have been expensive and complicated. Pic from Regatta-Taktik.

Influenced by traditional rigs from India and Chinese junks, Curry started experimenting with long battens in 1922. Within a few years, he claimed, sails with 14 or more battens were popular in the renjolle, although given that canoes had used them in the 1800s Curry’s exact influence is unclear. In those days, though, long battens were fragile and heavy, and had to be removed after each sail. Their weight and inconvenience lead to them dropping from favour in the northern hemisphere for many years, but the reminiscences of men like England’s Austin Farrar, a very influential sailmaker of the 1950s and 1960s, leave no doubt that it was Curry’s influence that kept full battens alive in classes like Canoes long enough for them to return to favour in catamarans and then other classes.

Many of Curry’s ideas found physical expression in his renjolle. Fascinated by cleaning up the airflow over the sails, he experimented with a bi-pole mast system, and adopted a low and streamlined design with a curved sheer and gunwales to allow a cleaner airflow over the feet of the main and jib. He appears to have developed the cam cleat in its modern form; a step on from the lever-operated cam of Paul Butler. He created gybing centreboards and lightweight fittings in aluminium- an exotic materials in the days.  Curry’s boats had everything – even brakes. A pair of foils projected astern of the transom and could be dropped into the water to slow the boat at starts and mark roundings.

The brilliance of Manfred Curry – the 1928 plan for a gybing centreboard (above) and the cam cleat on his renjolle Aero II. The description accompanying the drawing, from his book “Yacht Racing”, indicates that Curry understood the effect better than many modern sailors. Bottom pic from Yacht magazine.



Curry was a skilled sailor as well as a theoretician. It’s said that he won over 1000 races in Germany, and he finished mid-fleet when he sailed 8 Metres and International 12s for the USA in the 1928 Olympics. Curry’s writings on racing tactics are still often valid today; for example, as early as the 1920s he set out in some detail the concept of tacking downwind.

But there’s another side to Curry’s story.  Some great sailors believed that Curry tilted his experimental results to back up his theories (and he’s not the last in the field to suffer that charge). L. Francis Herreshoff went as far as calling Curry a “myth lover” and claiming that his renjolle designs were uncompetitive. Tony Marchaj, a leading sailing scientist of a later era and a qualified aerodynamicist, was scathing about Curry’s lack of scientific grounding; basic theories, like the concept of induced drag, “incorporated in every classic textbook on low-speed aerodynamics were unknown to Manfred Curry” he wrote.  Curry’s ideas of the basic mechanics that allow a boat to sail to windward “contradicts elementary principles of mechanics and of aerodynamics…” claimed Marchaj, who labelled Curry’s wind-tunnel as “amateurish”.


Curry; brilliant but fallible. He created such effective devices as the streamlined “Land Skiff” recumbent bicycles, but also came up with the pseudo-scientific concept of “Curry lines” of electro-magnetic force that could not be identified by scientific instruments.

There are other flaws in Curry’s claims to scientific credibility. He became an advocate of the discredited “science” of physiognomy; the belief that personality could be judged by facial structure.  Among water diviners and dowsers and other followers of alternative medicines, he is revered as the “discoverer” of “Curry Lines”; lines of “geo electricity” that somehow find their way up from the bowels of the earth but can be diverted byt moving a stone, and remain mysteriously hidden from physicists and their instruments. He apparently also promoted the existence of “Aran”, a “heavier form of oxygen”. Curry’s claims to have brought science into sailing should perhaps be judged against his claims to have discovered geomagnetic faults that can only be found by believers armed with divining rods.

There is sadness in the tale of this brilliant man. The “authorities” about Curry Lines whom I could contacted know nothing of his sailing career. The lakeside medical institute he founded now lies in ruins. Curry possessed many talents, but perhaps the ability to separate fact from fiction was not among them.

But in the end, for sailors the problems with Curry’s science may seem minor compared to his contribution to the sport. He inspired designers such as Ben Lexcen, of America’s Cup fame, and many sailors.  As Frank Bethwaite wrote, Curry’s books helped to create a fundamental change; “the technique of sailing ceased to be a mysterious art….Curry explained a logical technology (which) could be discussed with others in a common language”.

Perhaps nothing shows the problems of do-it-yourself aerodynamics better than the story of another German dinghy sailor of the same era. Like Curry, he was ignorant of the established aerodynamic theories. In 1914, he decided that simply applying the theory of the Swiss century mathematician Daniel Bernoulli would create the perfect wing section. When his theory was put to the test, the plane barely flew and the test pilot barely survived. “That is what can happen to a man who thinks a lot but reads little” noted the sailor later. His name? Albert Einstien.

Dinghy sailing was one of Einstien’s greatest passions. When he first discovered the sport he would take an uncomfortable Marie Curie out on Lake Geneva in a small dinghy; two of the world’s greatest minds adrift in a cockleshell. He sailed through heart problems until his doctor ordered him ashore, and graduated to a “Jollenkreuzer” or dinghy cruiser – basically a renjolle with a cabin.  When he moved to the USA his greatest pain was to leave his beloved “Tummler” behind, but he found solace in sailing unpretentious little boats.

Einstein’s Tummler (above) was a Jollenkreuzer or “dinghy cruiser”. Many Jollenkreuzers (like the modern development P Class one below) are more racing oriented, and with their stunning varnished finishes they look magnificent. Okay, I admit, I’m happy to take any excuse to post a pic of a boat like a Jollenkreuzer.


Some photos show in a nondescript boat that looks like a hard chine design, but others speak of him sailing an 5.5m/18’ Cape Cod Knockabout. “He was crazy about his little sailboat” a neighbour later recalled. Sailing became his way to fleet from fame; “whenever Einstein spotted a stranger’s car coming up the drive to his summer home, he escaped in his sailboat”, until his wife complained that he could never be found ashore.

Einstein was no racer. He may not even have been much of a sailor. He never made any great contribution to the sport. But he showed that dinghy sailing could be a source of never-ending delight to the most brilliant of humans. He also showed that even the greatest of scientific minds cannot always understand the theory of sailing.

But while Manfred Curry and Albert Einstein were floundering in their attempts to understand the science of aerodynamics, the men who sailed the renjollen were making great strides in a more pragmatic approach to sailing. For many early dinghy sailors, “tuning” was simply adjusting rake and making sure the stick was straight. But the sophisticated renjolle sailors were keenly interested in development. Sailors in boats like the Z Jolle and H Jolle crafted lightweight hollow masts, gaffs and booms, and ended up with gaffs that bent like a modern flex-tip rig. Sailors in classes like those in the H Jolle and 12 m2 Sharpie played the gaff like a modern downhaul, allowing the head to drop aft and to leeward to depower.

The bendy yards of classic H-Jolle racing on the AussenAlster harken back to the days of Von Hutschler, who is credited with introducing the bendy rig when he moved from jolle into Stars. Pic from the Norddeutscher Regatta Verein site.

One of the renjolle sailors who were familiar with bendy gaffs was Walter Von Hutschler, Brazilian by birth but German by descent and residence. When he moved from the H Jolle fleet to the International Star class, he seems to have taken his experimental attitude with him. He shaved away at his boom until it bent to so that the “foot of the mainsail conformed to aero‑dynamic principles more so than when a rigid boom was used…”. Perhaps inspired by his background in the efficient and development-minded renjollen, Von Hutschler saw further development avenues. “This experience led me to try to apply similar conditions to the mast. By tightening or loosening the shrouds, (upper, middle, and lower) the mast would bend and by doing so, it vitally improved the aero‑dynamics of the mainsail” he wrote. Von Hutschler’s technique made him dominant in the Star class and launched the bendy mast into the sailing world. There is little doubt that the Star class was the test-bed for this huge leap in sailing techniques, but it also seems more than a coincidence that it was created by a former renjolle sailor.



“He was crazy about his little sailboat”: –     p 280, “Einstein, a Life”, Denis Brian, John Wiley & Sons Inc, 1996.

“He may not even have been much of a sailor:” – see for example Brian p 262-3, although some sources speak of him as an excellent skipper.

Pt 2.2: Shapes in the liquid: the hull of today’s performance dinghy

Note: this is the first part of the section dealing with hull shape. It relies on interviews with designers that were done some time ago, and it could do with some updating and further information. If there’s enough interest in SailCraft being published as a book – and I’ll be putting up a poll to gauge that shortly – sections like this will be updated and revised.


The shape a 12 footer singlehanded skiff designed by Paul Bieker for famous C Class cat sailor Fred Eaton shows many of the characteristics of the modern performance dinghy, as drafted by one of the greatest of modern dinghy designers. Pic from the Bieker site.

The ratios and the numbers are the main factors that drive performance, but when it comes to class racing and and handling, hull shape is all-important. It’s hull shape that largely determines the way a boat moves through waves, the way it survives heavy air, and the last fraction of a percent of boatspeed when the numbers are fixed by rules.


It seems that there are everlasting trends in dinghy design. Construction and gear gets lighter, and that allows bows to get narrower and the point of maximum beam to move aft. Bruce Farr has been known to say that if you lined a fleet up by going from the boat with the finest entry angle to the widest, you’d find they were in the order of fastest boat to slowest. Narrower bows are thought to reduce the bow wave and allow the hull to slice through waves. “In the three prototypes for the Vector skiff, we learned quite a bit” recalls Steve Clark. “The bows got finer and the maximum waterline beam moved aft.  I think this works for several reasons. It makes wave encounters less abrupt, so the boat isn’t slowed by chop both upwind and down. It also had the effect (in my view) of easing the transition to planing.  If one accepts that to start planing a boat has to pass its bow wave, then the shape forward has to be such that you can stick a lot of boat through the wave before you actually have to climb over it. Naturally you make it easy on yourself if you can have a long shallow wave to pass (like an IC or catamaran) but if you are stuck with a relatively heavy boat (and almost any two man boat less than 25′ long will be “heavy”)  it seems that you should keep the waterlines forward very straight and narrow.”

So why is the “sharp end” getting sharper, year by year? Designers of the past probably wanted to create the narrowest possible bow, but they were restricted by old technology. Modern hulls are lighter, especially in the ends, so they need less buoyancy to lift them over waves. Perhaps more important is the huge reduction in rig weight. Because the weight of the rig is so high, it’s got a huge amount of leverage on the bow. Every time the bow hits a wave, the rig forms a massive pendulum, five or ten metres high, that swings the bow around. If you had put a modern fine bow on old boat, the momentum of the massive rig weight swinging overhead would push simply push the nose under many waves.

The influence of modern spinnakers, especially asymmetrics, also had an influence. Although computer models don’t agree, most designers feel that asymetrics provide a powerful lifting force to control downwind nosedives. They also mean that the forward hand can stay well aft during sets, drops and gybes, instead of going forward to the mast to wrestle with the pole. Some designers estimate that this allows them to reduce waterline beam around the mast by about 12mm/ ½”. Even in some more conventional classes, technology has had an impact. The National 12s carry no spinnakers, but they’ve recently gone to self launching jib poles so the forward hand no longer has to go forward.

Steve Clark notes that the International 14’s mid-point measurement may have delayed designers from making bows fine enough. The rule “seems normal enough, to require  minimum waterline beam at the mid point of the hull, but what it in fact has done is drive the bow fairing of I-14s into a shape they would not naturally want to be. The max waterline beam wants to be further aft, and getting I-14 designers to branch away from their successful 14 designs is hard to do.” Since the I-14 has been one of the most influential of dinghies, that rule has had a historic influence on many other boats.

The standard measurement for the sharpness of a bow is the bow or entry “half angle”. It is simply the angle between one side of the bow (at the waterline) and the centerline. Looking at a range of dinghy designs show that the half angle generally becomes narrower as boats get newer and longer. An excellent paper by UK Cherub designer Kevin Ellway, worth reading for many reasons, shows that most modern UK Cherubs have half angles of a bit over 13 degrees. Sixteen Foot Skiffs and 14s like the Schumacher 3 design have half angles of around 12 degrees, while 18 Foot Skiffs used their extra length to reduce bow half angle to around 10 degrees and became upwind demons at the cost of nosediving problems at the top mark.

Some designers, like skiff designer and professional naval architect Rob Widders, measure another entry half angle. It runs between the front end of the chines and the centerline and is normally 2 to 3 degrees wider than the entry half angle, because the chine sits in the more flared section of the topsides.


In the modern era, the move to wings and narrower hulls has emphasised hull section shapes that pack the greatest volume and dynamic lift into narrower waterlines. In broad terms, most boats have turned further away from the old Vee sections that were a heritage of the Uffa Fox era and outmoded materials. The standard is now U-shaped sections in the bow, sweeping into elliptical sections further aft and then developing a flat area along the keel in the midships and stern areas.

The attraction of the U and elliptical sections is simple geometry. A circular section provides the minimum possible surface area (and therefore, the lowest wetted surface) for a given volume. Elliptical hull sections allow the volume that is necessary to support the boat to be contained in a package with less wetted surface and (in a fairly typical hull) about 2in/5omm less waterline beam.

The NS14 class was largely responsible for introducing the elliptical sectional shape to Australian development classes. This is a Tequila design from naval architect Stuart Friezer.

If we stick to U-shaped sections as we move aft from the bow, to the area where the boat get wider and flatter, they tend to distort into an ellipse in the form of a U with a flat patch along the keel line. Apart from being the lowest shape for wetted surface, the ellipse creates more dynamic lift than the old Vee shapes. Remember, any surface planing over the water generates lifting force at a right angle. With the old angled Vee sections, much of that lifting force was directed inwards, where it did nothing for performance.

With a flat planing section, all of the lift is directed vertically upwards. That extra efficiency allows a designer to create a boat that can plane earlier, or have narrower sections for the same lift. This combination of ellipse and flat forms the midsection of most modern boats, with the notable exception of the Bethwaite designs. “The flat area off the centreline gives you more dynamic lift, and the elliptical sections have lower drag at the speeds that the NSs, Moths and smaller skiffs sail at” says designer and naval architect Stuart Friezer. Merlin Rocket designer Keith Callaghan points out that the planing patch also reduces keel line rocker (and therefore form drag) for the same displacement.

The centreline planing flat and narrow waterline shape of the modern-era hull shows clearly on this Friezer NS14 design.

Sometimes the planing patch is subtle, where the flat is merely a slightly straighter section of the graceful curve of the ellipses that create the hull. Other flats are almost brutal. In some it seems almost as if a giant plane has ripped along the boat, tearing off the normal keel line and leaving in its place an area as flat as a table. Where it meets the graceful ellipses of the hull, the junction is hard enough to almost be called a chine. This is not a crude shape, but a product of years of development by professional naval architects. Many such boats are highly successful, a shock to those more comfortable with the idea that flowing lines are fast.


The modern bow is getting longer and narrower, but at the same time it’s carrying more volume. Designers are achieving this trick by turning away from the old Vee sections, which have little volume. Instead, they are carrying elliptical or U sections right forward to the stem. In part, the shift towards U sections is an inevitable result of bows getting narrower. If the fine-bow boats didn’t have flotation somewhere at the pointy end, they’d just go down like a U Boat. “If you go narrow, you’ve got to have good volume from the middle right to the nose” notes Michael Nash.

The U shape gives the bow the required volume and flotation, but it pushes the bulk down low under the water. Moving the flotation down allows the modern boats to be narrower around the level of the sailing waterline, which is generally agreed to be the critical point for wavemaking. “I think extra width has the most effect at the waterline, so everyone’s making boats as narrow as possible at that point. It doesn’t matter much that they have to put more volume under the water” says Nash. “It’s where the boat is breaking the water that’s important” agrees Thorpe.

“The Bieker boats are fuller low down in the bow, and the extra volume gives you more lift” confirms top 14 sailor and sail designer David Alexander. “They are better upwind in chop; the Bieker will go straight through waves that would stop a Wedge (one of the classic Aussie 14 designs). Downwind, the Bieker is easier to sail because the extra volume and rocker forward allows the bow to lift”.


Not all boats follow the high-volume U shape. The best shape and extent of the U and the planing flat under the bow may vary according to the basic speed of the boat. In slow and moderate speed boats powered by hiking crews or a single trapeze, the extra dynamic lift is very valuable and the lower speed of the boat means that the flat area is normally submerged, even in waves. But a faster boat planes faster and higher. If the bow is too flat and U-ed forward, the “slamming” effect as the U or flat rattles over waves may well cost the boat more speed than it will save through the wetted surface reduction and dynamic lift. Not surprisingly, too much flat area along the keel line forward seems to have the same effect as the full, low-chined bow shape on some older Southern Hemisphere designs. The skiff-type Topper Boss had very flat bow sections, which helped it plane very early but slowed it upwind it waves. “As for upwind in a chop, well she doesn’t slice through the water let’s put it like that!” recalls a runner-up in the national titles for the Boss class.

The theme carries through when one looks at the bow shapes of the fastest upwind performers; the 49er and 18. They tend towards very fine, Vee shape bows because they are long boats that travel at such speed that dynamic lift is already plentiful. Their speed increases the impact and rate at which they meet the waves, making it vital to ease the shock. Julian Bethwaite also notes that you have to look at an angle to assess a bow’s wave-handling characteristics. “The top of the wave is normally coming up when it hits the bottom of the boat, so the actual impact is at 30 or 45 degrees. You actually have to look at the boat from that angle, not look at it from the horizontal or the section.”


The area around the mast is generally the deepest part of the boat. This, say many designers, is the area that gives a boat its buoyancy, and a lot of its power. Some designers, especially skiffies, like to put a lot of extra volume in the topsides around the mast area. This far back in the boat, the extra volume doesn’t smack the waves as badly as it would if it was further forward. The extra volume in the topsides will be a long way to leeward, and the buoyancy and planing surface will providing good “leverage” to force the boat upright when the boat is heeled over a long way. Andy Patterson notes that Bethwaite boats (especially the 59er) tend to be very veed and deep under the mast, which “makes them easier to sail, less critical for pitch angle.


One of the most widespread shifts in design in the last few years is the emergence of the “slab-sided” hull. Just about every development class that where the topsides shape is not dictated by rules is moving away from flare in the topsides, especially in the bow. The move is largely designed to reduce resistance in waves. “If you only need the volume below the waterline to go sailing on, why have the rest of it?” asks Andy Dovell. “What’s the rest of it doing for you? It’s hitting waves and getting knocked around and knocking you around and slowing you down. So if you come straight off the waterplane and straight up, you can poke through waves much more efficiently than if the hull is flared out”.

The Stealth 1 International 14, designed by David Lugg, shows the slab sides of the typical modern performance dinghy. Pic from the Western Australian class site.

Designers also feel that slab sides also reduce pitching. When a flared bow is driven into a wave, the extra buoyancy up high lifts the bow abruptly. A slab-sided boat has a more gradual increase in buoyancy as it drives into a wave, so it doesn’t accelerate upwards quickly. “Slab sides minimize hull volume in the topsides, which reduces hull weight and resistance when punching upwind in a chop” agrees Bieker. “They weren’t done in 14’s until I put racks on which made the hull shape independent of the beam necessary for trapezing”.

Top sailors like former International 14 world champion Grant Geddes feel that the switch from flared gunwales to racks also helps to cure nosediving. “Waves go shooting straight through the hole between the gunwhale and the racks, where the water would have hit the underside of the flare and driven the bow down.”.  Racks can also be angled up high in the air, giving the crew more clearance from big waves that could wipe them off a lower conventional gunwale. And as Geddes points out, that has another advantage – when the crew don’t have to heel the boat to lift themselves above the waves, they can sail flatter and therefore faster.

Most designers feel that a bit of topsides flare is still safer, because it provides more buoyancy down to leeward when the boat is heeled. Some of Phil Morrison’s 14s have almost vertical topsides, but he went back to flare with the RS 800, where safety was a key word. “Prototype 1 originally had near vertical topsides, but it made capsize almost instantaneous. Flaring the topsides made the boat only marginally slower, looked nicer (in my opinion) and gave the crews a few moments in which they might be able to recover from an error.” Similarly, the 12 foot skiffs, where massive rigs make stability and the ability to sail fast while heeled into a major issue, still have very wide flare.


Pt 1.24: “It would be difficult to improve upon them”- the high performance dinghies of the European lakes




Author’s note: much of the information in this chapter came from the work of German sailing historians Michael Krieg, Manfred Jacob and Dr.Joachim Schuhmacher. I am very grateful for their assistance and would like to emphasise that I take responsibility for any errors in my understanding. 

Modern and classic H-Jolle development class dinghies race together on the AussenAlster in Hamburg, one of the ancestral homes of German dinghy sailing. This photo by Peter Kahl was taken from the webside of the Norddeutscher Regatta Verein.

The lakes of central Europe may seem like an unlikely breeding ground for high-performance dinghies. The waters are often cold, the winds often light and fluky, and in its early decades the development of the sport lagged behind that of the English-speaking countries. But by the 1930s, the sailors of Germany, Austria and Switzerland were creating dinghies that were probably the fastest and most sophisticated racing dinghies of their era, and they influenced dinghy design across the world.

Sources such as club histories and the sailing historian Dr.Joachim Schuhmacher date the genesis of organised German sailing from the mid 1850s, when centreboarders were exported from the UK to the northern city of Hamburg. Around the same time (1855) the oldest German sailing club, Segelclub Rhe near Konigsberg, was formed in after a high school student bought an old fishing boat. These tales of the genesis of the sport in Germany form a striking contrast to the early history of many other major sailing nations, where the early clubs numbered the richest and most powerful in their membership. In several central European countries, the sport of sailing was created by the middle classes.

It does not seem to have been a coincidence that Hamburg, Konigsberg and Berlin were centres of early central European sailing; they were all members of the ancient Hanseatic League of merchant towns, with significant expatriate populations and strong links with countries like the UK, where sailing was already a popular sport. The internationalism that ran so richly through the dinghy world of the 1800s was further demonstrated in 1864 when the sandbagger Laura, built in New York by the famous “Hen” Smedley, arrived in Hamburg. Under the power of her huge rig and broad beam, she changed the face of German centreboarder sailing and reigned as champion until the sandbagger Ella was built in 1877. For years, the beamy, big-rigged sandbagger type was to dominate the top end of German centreboarder racing, and the pages of books like Georg Belitz’s 1897 work “Seglers Handbuch”, digitised by the German Classic Yacht Club, present a fascinating array of German sandbagger-style boats.

Just as in the USA, the sandbaggers faded out in the 1890s, replaced by the new style of light displacement boats. The fin keel yachts of Nat Herreshoff  appear to have made a big impression. So too do Linton Hope’s light displacement Rater types; if Google Translate is correct, the famous Sorceress herself was imported in 1896, taking a string of wins in Hamburg and Berlin and introducing the high-aspect centreboard to the Continent. She was followed by locally-designed Rater-style boats and other imported designs such as Linton Hope’s Blitz VI, which looks like a slightly longer version of Maid of Kent. Judging from contemporary German books, Dixon Kemp’s famous Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing and its plans of Rater, canoes and early dinghies also seems to have been influential.

During the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, German sailing took on a different slant. Wilhelm saw sailing as a means to make his people more sea-minded, and when he moved into big boat sailing he was followed by aristocrats and industrialists who were keen to curry his favour. But the big-boat era ended with the Kaiser’s reign, and one German source speaks of a massive boom in small boat as post-war politics turned Germans from international tourism to sailing.

Getting ready for a sail on the AussenAlster in Hamburg, an early centre for German centreboarder sailing; “Buute auf der Aussenalster” by Ulrich Hubner, date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.


The the archetypal Central European style of racing boat –  a long, lean hull compared to those from the English-speaking countries – seems to have followed the style of the Raters. The emphasis was often on creating the fastest boat for the sail area, not the fastest boat for the overall length. It’s a foreign concept to many from Anglo-Saxon countries but a very logical one in many ways, and it seems to have led to a style of design that was ideally suited to the inland lakes. The length made the boats fast even when gliding through the light winds that were common inland. The size of the hulls made most of them roomy and stable enough for weekend camping trips and to sit on moorings or jetties off the crowded lake shorelines when space ashore was unavailable. Although hulls as long as 8.38m/27’6″ could have planks and decks as thin as 8mm, on the flat water of the inland lakes the long, light hulls were not subject to the wave impact that helped break up (literally) the similar Rater classes along the coastlines of other countries.

Such long hulls could not have been cheap, but (as in other regions) the expense of the boats probably served the social purpose of keeping out the “undesirable” working- and lower middle- classes out of the sport for many decades. As sailing historians like Manfred Jacob and Dr Schumacher note, in the early days of German sailing there was a significant social divide between the aristocratic and wealthy yachtsmen and the bourgeoisie who sailed the small dinghies. Even the dinghy sailors were split, between the cruisers and the racers, and between those who sailed in the windier and choppier waters of the north and those who sailed the inland lakes. The long dinghies that evolved may have been large enough to form a bridge between these disparate factions.

Francis Herreshoff, who was familiar with the German classes through his family heritage and his own design work, was one English-speaking designer who thought that the long and often slender style of dinghy of Central Europe was infinitely superior to the short, tippy style of dinghies favoured by the British. The European type was “faster for their sail area, safer, cheaper and drier” he said. Herreshoff didn’t hold his punches when he compared them to the British dinghies that were becoming popular in the US. The International 14s, he wrote, were “dangerous freaks…not as fast as they should be for their sail area and weight (because) they are too short”. The British type was “so vastly inferior” he thundered “that there is no comparison.”


J Jolle. Photo by Chris Falter through Wikimedia Commons.

The first of what would become the classic Central European style of renjolle (“racing dinghy”) was born in Germany in 1909, when the yacht sailors who dominated the national sailing federation created the J Jolle as a national training class for young sailors. Their bias towards larger craft seems to have led them to choose a massive boat for such a role, and the J Jolle is 6.1m (20ft) overall and weighs up to 350 kg (772lb).

The J Jolle is a development class with simple rules – the length limit, a restriction on the sum of the overall length and the beam (7.8m/25ft7in) and 22 m2 (237ft2) of sail. The potential of the class soon attracted serious racers who developed it from a kid’s boat into the Grand Prix class of the lakes. Sailors like Manfred Curry, still remembered by many as the man who brought science into sailing, quickly brought in refinements such as fully-battened mains, high-aspect rigs, streamlined hulls, and cam cleats. The waterline stretched, the rounded hull sections were replaced by firm-bilged Vee sections. The moderate measured sail area of 22m2 was soon increased by a big overlapping genoa and wide roach on the mainsai, which brought the actual sail area up to 28 to 30 m2 (301ft2 to 323ft2).

Uffa Fox himself, that great fan of the short British dinghy, noted that the J Jolle were “exceptionally fast in the lightest of airs, as they will ghost along without any wind at all and will plane along at a very high speed in any breeze 12 miles an hour or over…” Although comparing yardstick ratings and other indications of speed across countries and decades is a very loose “science”, some rough calculations indicate that J Jolle were probably faster than the dinghies of any other country, with the exception of the bigger E and A Scows of the US Midwest. Today the restored vintage J Jolle are rated only 5% slower than a 505 and 3% faster than a 470. Even allowing for the advantage they get from size, it’s a tribute to the standards that the Renjolle achieved 75 years ago.

If the J Jolle was the refined “grand prix” class of the central European lakes, the high-performance fringe was filled by the “free” renjolle – perhaps the fastest and most advanced dinghies of their era. The free renjolle were so fast that even today the restored classics of the 1920s are rated among the world’s fastest dinghies (skiffs and big scows apart); on the pace with the Flying Dutchman and faster than a 505.

The “free” classes earned their name from their lack of restrictions. Unlike most of the other Central European lake boats, they were strictly for racing, with no compromises for cruising or day sailing. They were restricted only in sail area, minimum waterline beam, and some restrictions on construction and flotation. The “N” class carried 10 m2 (108ft2) of measured sail area, the “M” class set 15m2 (161ft2), and the spectacular “Z” class spread 20m2 (215ft2).

The renjolle were beautiful examples of excess in motion; extreme in every way. The Z-Jolle grew from 7.4m (24ft3in) LOA to 8.6m (28ft2in) and more in length, on a slender beam of just 1.76m to 1.82m (5ft10in to 6ft). They weighed as little as 390kg  (860lb) but carried rigs in which the theoretical 20m2 rig had been stretched to 30m2 (323ft2) with the addition of genoas and roachy, fully battened mainsails. The N Class, with an actual sail area about the size of a Snipe or 420, stretched out to almost 6.5m (21ft4in) – longer than a Flying Dutchman.

The extravagant beauty of the free renjolle. The “N” class, the smallest of the free rejolle development classes, has a rig with a measured area (not including genoa) that is similar to that of a Snipe or Finn set on a hull 18″/50cm longer than that of a Flying Dutchman. Sail No. 2 is an Einheitszehner, a one-design class within the rules of the N class, also depicted in the plan below from Juan Baader’s classic yacht design text “The Sailing Yacht”. The Einheitszehehner hull was planked in Okume or Gaboon just 8mm thick, over 10 by 15mm frames set only 75mm apart. The Ns survive in very small numbers in Germany, Austria and, oddly enough, Japan. Pic from the class site.


Stretching the free renjolle did more than just give them sheer waterline length. Narrowing the overall beam also has the effect of sharpening the waterlines at the bow. The bows of many vintage renjolle have a “half angle” of just ten degrees – in the same region as a modern 18 Foot Skiff.

A series of sections of Z Class boats, published in ancient copies of Die Yacht magazine, show astonishingly little alteration over a period of decades. All have softly curved bilges, wide flare to reduce waterline beam, and narrow, deeply Veed sterns (to prevent the boats going bow-down when they heeled, wrote Curry). Some modern reports say that the Z Class “had not learned the lesson of Uffa Fox” and were too narrow in the stern to plane, but in fact Fox held them up as an example of an outstanding lake racer. “For racing and sailing inland” he wrote, the Z Class “would be difficult to improve upon”.

The renjolle carried gaff sailplans long after Bermudan rigs had taken over in other dinghies. Today it seems anachronistic to think of gaffers as being efficient, but the renjollen used slender and lightweight hollow spars, with a gaff that fell away to leeward in puffs like a bendy mast. When the breeze kicked in hard, the gaff could be reefed to create a snug rig, without the windage and weight of a naked Bermudan topmast above the mainsail. In those days before trapezes and modern gear such things mattered, and as late as the 1930s foreign observers like Uffa Fox and L. Francis Herreshoff recognized that the gaff was the best option for big rigs such as those that the Z Jolle and J Jolle carried. Decades later, aerodynamics expert Tony Marchaj said that the high-peaked gaff was closer to the theoretically ideal elliptical outline than the Bermudan rig. Even today, when modern gear, sails and trapezes have shifted the balance to Bermudan rigs, the surviving gaffers are rated only a few percent slower than their contemporaries that have been updated to high-aspect Bermudan sailplans.

A M-Jolle on Lake Starnberg; pic from Wikimedia Commons. The lines from the class site below show the fine bow sections that were common among the long, slender hulls of the free renjolle. The design below was 6.25m long; a huge hull for a boat with a measured sail area of just 15m2.



The other key to the renjolle rigs were the many full battens, which supported what Uffa Fox called an “enormous” roach. The battens were also used to force draft into the sail; at about 11%, the renjollen sails were very deep and powerful for their day and Fox noted their “heavy camber or fullness”.

As development continued, the free renjolle got longer and longer, and faster and faster in all but the lightest of winds (when the older Z Jolle and the J Jolle, which had less wetted surface because of their shorter hulls, could beat them). Some were sent to the US, and contemporary US reports speak them easily beating boats like Suicides and Stars. They must have been the fastest dinghies of their day, by a margin almost as long as their decks. It was probably not until the early 1960s that an 18 Foot Skiff became faster, and the International 14 probably only caught up to the Z Class in the ‘80s or ‘90s. The traditional belief was that the speed record was held by “Agra”, which allegedly recorded an extraordinary 27.3 knots in 1937.

Ferret, the Carl Martens Z-Klasse that Uffa Fox wrote about in his book “Racing Cruising and Design”, from where these plans come. Uffa noted that although she was 8.38m/27ft6in long, she was narrower than a British National 12! Note the deep sections, wide flare and soft bilges that were the standard shape in the class, and the very fine bow waterlines. Unlike the smaller British-style dinghies, the renjolle did not have a long flat rocker line aft; it probably doesn’t work on such long and slender hull.

ferrett-linesThe expense and maintenance of the free renjolle caught up to them when lighter, cheaper and sometimes faster boats like the Flying Dutchman came out. Many of the renjolle classes faded away, only to be revived in recent times by those who valued their beauty, history and performance. Today, there are still about two dozen active classic Z Jolle, mostly relics of the glory days of the ‘20s and ‘30s, but with a sprinkling of newer boats. Many have now been re-rigged with high aspect Bermudan rigs and sport twin trapezes. The Bermudan rigged Z Jolle are rated at a yardstick of 96. That puts them as one of the fastest “real” (ie those that are not skiff, scows or foilers) dinghies afloat – 2% slower than a Flying Dutchman, 1% slower than a 505.

A classic example of the Z Jolle fleet is Hex III, a champion of the 1920s. She was designed by the two greatest names in renjolle, Reinhard Drewitz and Manfred Curry. Like Curry’s own Z Jolle, Aero II, she features low reverse sheer and curved gunwales that were meant to smooth the aerodynamic flow over the foot of the sails.

Hex III. Pic from the class site.

Eighty years after her heyday, boatbuilder George Smits found Hex III sheltering in a boatshed on the shores of Lake Constance. The lightweight structure was carefully restored by his son Sammy, one of the world’s top designers in the 5.5 Metre class. Hex III still sports her gaff rig but even by modern standards, report the Smits and their friend Claas van der Linde, she feels like a dinghy. She accelerates very quickly and is easily capsized. “Between 2 and 4 Bf (4 to 16 knots) are the best conditions for Hex III” reports van der Linde. “A J Jolle is faster until about 1.5 Bf (two to three knots of wind) because the wetted surface is less, beyond that Hex III is faster. Her upwind performance is quite good (or better than good), downwind she is good. The Z Jolle will plane often and easily from about 4 Bf on.”

The extraordinary streamlined shape of Hex III shows the influence of Manfred Curry. Pic from the class site.

“The Flying Dutchman on the plane will be faster than Hex III, but her max speed has been estimated to be above 15 knots. Beyond an estimated 15 knots she becomes difficult to steer. Ventilation of the rudder is a problem, and while boats like the 49er become more stable at high speeds, Hex III’s round hull makes her less stable the faster she goes.”

Sammy Smits fell so much in love with Z Jolle that he built his own, to a new design by Patrick Sager. “Fastwood” is about a metre shorter than Hex III and wider both overall and at the waterline (2.1m/6.9ft overall beam and 1.75m/5ft9in waterline beam, compared to Hex III’s overall beam of 1.75m and waterline beam of about 1.25m/4ft1in). The new boat is much fuller in the hull, particularly forward, and carries too much sail to race as a Z Jolle. Instead, she races in the Formula Libera B class – the smaller version of the famous 13m monster skiffs that prowl the lakes with up to 13 crew on wings and traps.

Despite the bigger rig (inherited from an 18 foot skiff), Fastwood needs Bf4 (16 knots) and more to beat her longer, slimmer older sister. However, the newer boat is very stable and easily controllable, even in winds of Bf 5-6 (17-27 knots) when the classic Z Jolle are becoming difficult to handle. Max speeds seen on Fastwood are said to have been around 21 knots, and at that pace she remained well under control.

The beauty of Fastwood, now ZZ Top, a modern interpretation of the Z Jolle style. Many of the Central European wooden racing dinghies show the stunning craftmanship displayed by boatbuilders like Smits’ company.


The most popular of the classic lake dinghies of Central Europe isn’t a renjolle; it’s a “wanderjolle” or cruising dinghy. The pages of old German dinghy books are full of dinghy cruising; of pics of boom tents, tables hanging off centreboard cases, and dinghies moored to the shore overnight. The most popular of the “wanderjolle” classes is the H Jolle; a development class that is about as big as a Flying Dutchman (6.20m) but with class rules that mandated much more beam (a minimum of 1.70m overall and 1.50 m at the waterline) and weight (minimum 190kg) than the frei renjolle of similar length. The rig is still generous; a measured sail area of 15m2 on a 7.5m mast is dramatically increased by the roach and the massive overlap of the genoa is taken into account.

In its early years, the class followed two strands. The H Jolle sailors who braved the rougher waters of the northern seas developed solid oak boats that weighed 500 kg. The boats that sailed the light winds of the inland lakes dropped the full battens and the wooden headsail luff spars in the quest for light weight. In its heyday before WW2 there were 800 H Jolle in Germany, making it the most popular class of its era.

When I walked along the shores of Hamburg’s Aussenalster lake in 2014, it seemed that every one of the 160 hectares of the beautiful lake adjacent to the city centre included at least one classic wooden H-Jolle. The H-Jolles I saw were almost certainly actually Elb H-Jolle, a one-design class from the 1930s that fits into the H Jolle rules) and to watch them showed how well the Central European dinghies fitted their environment. The Aussenalster (or Outer Alster) presents an extraordinary scene to a sailor. Measuring just 164 hectares (405 acres), it supports at least three sailing clubs, including the Nordeutscher Regatta Verein, one of the largest in Germany, and staggering numbers of boats including a fleet of 50 International Dragon yachts. Little marinas jutting out into the lake were filled by row upon row of dinghies, almost all of them designed in the 1970s or earlier. There is little space for big clubhouses or dinghy parks on the shorelines of the Central European lakes, and the Elb H-Jolle sat in rows in tiny marinas or on docks. Some of them, perhaps club-owned hire boats, were obviously being sailed by inexperienced crews, but they found the long, stable gaffers easy to handle. There seemed to be a rich variety of ages and experienced aboard. The wealthy and sophisticated citizens of Hamburg could easily afford newer boats, but they find a deeper joy in these varnished classics.

An Elb H-Jolle on the Aussenalster. Wikimedia Commons pic.

While the Elb H-Jolle remains faithful to the original conception of the wanderjolle type, the H-Jolle class itself has kept on changing with the times in the development class spirit. Bermudan rigged and carrying a trapeze, the modern H Jolle looks to be close to a modernized Flying Dutchman, or a blown-up Merlin Rocket or MG 14. The bottom sections are flat, apparently because of the minimum waterline beam rules, and the topsides are flared. It’s also rated as the fastest conventional dinghy (skiffs and foilers apart) in Germany – 2 % quicker than the FD, 3% faster than the 505, 4% than the Bermudan-rigged Z Jolle.

The modern H Class; now built in carbon and with a noticeably flat hull, it’s rated faster than the Flying Dutchman. This beautiful pic is from the class site.


Despite their speed and beauty, the development classes of the inland lakes never spread much beyond Central Europe. Their major influence on the world beyond came when they taught the sailors of the world a new approach to sail tuning and the science of sailing.




“Early German dinghy designs came from England and from the USA”:- most of the information about early German dinghies is courtesy of Mandred Jacob; see

“If Google Translate is correct, the famous Sorceress herself was imported in 1896”; see Belitz p 240.

“and brought with them the high-aspect centreboard”:- Belitz p 207

“One German source speaks of a massive boom in small boat as post-war politics turned Germans from tourism to sailing.” The source is sports editor Gustav Gruttefien, quoted in “After the day; Germany unconquered and unrepentant” by Hayden Talbot, London, 1920

“They were almost certainly actually Elb H-Jolle; a one-design class that fits into the H Jolle rules”. The Elb H-Jolle actually started out in another development class of similar dimensions, but was later fitted into the H Class; the class history is unclear about the details.





Pt 1.51 – What we’re sailing today 2.0 – the USA

With its flat and heavy hull, low aspect rig and no spinnaker the X-Boat is no speedster but it seems to attract strong fleets on the lakes of the US midwest. The class manufacturer, Melges, built 9ers for a while but now seems to have dropped them in favour of its traditional classes.


Let’s get one thing straight – I know I’m not a US dinghy sailor, so although I’ve done a lot of research into the history of US dinghy sailing and interviewed some of the leading minds of the modern scene, I’m not an expert on the subject. However, just as with every other region, when there’s a choice between doing what research I can or ignoring one of the main regions of the sport, it seems that the former is the best option. I have interviewed the creators of some of the most popular classes in the country (as shown here and here, and in more posts to come later) but I’d love to hear some more informed feedback from those who are more familiar with US dinghy sailing.

To try to work out what is happening in dinghy sailing in the US, rather than go on hype and impressions it seems to be a good idea to try to track the popularity of various dinghy classes.  As noted earlier, the best (albeit imperfect) source of information seems to be the fleet sizes for the national (or North American) titles, as shown in the table below. For the years 2007-2012 my information is based on those compiled by “Roger Jolly”, a poster on Sailing Anarchy. Roger’s work was great but he was only interested in adult’s classes, and he only counted the “main event” – that is, the open national titles rather than the separate events that many classes run for Junior, Youth, Masters and Women. I prefer to count these “alternative” fleets, because it gets closer to measuring the true number of active boats. It’s also a pain, because it means more digging and often means going through every results sheet to make sure the same sailors aren’t being counted twice. There’s a bunch of notes at the bottom of the table to give more information about the “alternative” fleets and other details.

The “alternative” fleets have a significant impact on the US national title attendance numbers, because American sailors don’t seem to follow the pattern of having the kids sail kids boats and the adults sailing adult’s boats as much as the rest of the world. Of course there are specialised classes for juniors and youth, like the 420 and Opti – but in the USA you also get significant fleets of kids sailing adult-sized boats, like the 50 or so who do the Junior nationals in the 16 foot X-Boat, a heavy hard-chine dinghy from the lakes of the Midwest, the 40 or so who sail the 12 foot Butterfly scow in the same area, or those who sail the separate junior nationals offered by Snipes and similar classes.  There’s also a number of adults who sail little prams designed for kids, like the Sabot and El Toro, which is a rather endearing feature of US sailing that runs counter to the general preference for big boats.

So what do the numbers show? For a start, looking at the classes where we have sufficient data, the average attendance over the last three years shows a decline of almost 10% in attendance over the past three years, compared to the period 2007-2012 (see the right-hand column for the comparative percentage). Not good. In fact the state of the sport in the US may be even worse than these numbers indicate, when one takes a longer view and sees the number of classes, once strong, that are now long gone. Some of them give a sobering picture of how even the biggest classes can vanish.  The original Windsurfer – a class I still sail down here, and one of the other types I included for added interest – had around 300 starters in the ’80s but died in the ’90s, and unlike Europe (where the class is now very strong in Italy) sadly the attempt to restart it appears to have failed. The Laser II is another example of a class that was once very strong but is no longer active – perhaps an indication that the US market seems to suffer more than other regions from SMOD manufacturers or regional associations who decide to no longer support a class.

Quite a few US sailors have told me that their country is full of sailors who are too conservative and worried about appearances. If that’s true, why are quite a few of them very happy to race tiny dinghies like the Naples Sabot (above) or Interclub frostbiter (below)?



Like the World Sailing figures that were given in the last post, the US numbers show the strength and dominance of the Opti, Lasers and Club 420 compared to all other classes.  Although there’s a fair bit of doom and gloom being expressed around the internet, for these classes the picture given by the championship attendances is reasonably good taking into account issues like the economic situation and Laser’s legal problems.

The Club 420, by the way, is basically a tougher and simpler version of the International 420, with tighter one design rules. This brings up another major point about the US scene – many boats are owned by clubs rather than private owners. As people like Steve Clark (high-performance cat and canoe guru and former co-owner of the country’s biggest dinghy manufacturer) points out, this tends to encourage boats that are heavy and tough enough to handle the bashing that is often handed out by people who won’t have to fix the scars and bruises.

The second bracket of classes includes the traditional big and rather heavy hard-chine boats, like the Lightning (which includes open, junior and masters fleets that I have yet to check for double counting), X Boat, Snipe and Interlake. The strength of the Midwestern classes like the X Boat and Interlake is interesting, although any such “regional” classes are likely to have disproportionately large attendance at their nationals due to the shorter distances involved. Despite their unfashionable nature, these classes seem to be doing pretty well in terms of maintaining their fleet size. Let those who reckon they can do better prove it, before they criticise the classes that are still strong.

We have to get a long, long way down the list before we strike some high-performance dinghies, namely the 505 and 29er. The three high-performance development dinghies – the Int 14, Int Canoe and Moth – each only average 14 starters, with the Moth numbers actually dropping. Of course, no one is claiming that these numbers are a perfect illustration of the health or direction of any class, but it’s apparent that while these boats are fantastic, they are not attracting big numbers of sailors despite their age, performance and high profile.

I’ve included some sportsboats, kites, cats and windsurfers to give some idea of relative numbers. The scary thing is seeing how tiny some of the classes that have been proclaimed as the way forward really are. Hydrofoil kiting is on my own bucket list to get into, but the numbers at world level and national level demonstrate that it’s not attracting significant numbers. The high-performance windsurfer classes are all struggling, as are many of the high-performance boats. The growth of kitefoilers is less than the drop in Formula Windsurfers. For every high performance cat class like the As that is growing, there is another like the F18HT, Hobie Tiger, Hobie 20, or F20 that has dropped off or died.  Just like the Australian numbers, these figures seem to show that many pundits are aiming their criticism the wrong way – the “establishment” classes are not the problem with the sport but its saviour. The new wave and high performance development classes are fantastic (I own a couple of them) but they are showing no signs of growing popular enough to replace the older classes.

Looking from the outside, one of the main points about the US scene seems to be the love of big hard-chine one designs like the Lightning (above) which is still showing good championship attendances. In contrast the smaller “training version”, the Blue Jay (below) is now dead as a national class and only sailed in small numbers at a few clubs. The US would seem to have lost far more dinghy classes than any other major sailing nation. Pics from the class sites.


The main message from these numbers could be the vital importance of manufacturer, club and association support, and the fact that the sport’s health still depends on the classes that have been around for decades. We cannot keep on attacking these classes, as some pundits do, until we have found new types that can truly show the potential to attract the same sort of support, and that has not happened.

Perhaps a less negative end note is that looking at the USA (and  Canada, which of course has its own and very interesting scene) brings home once again the strange combination of consistency and diversity we see as we look across different regions. Obviously, most regions have the big four classes (Optimists, Lasers, Radials and 420s) and a sprinkling of Olympic classes and 29ers, but underneath them are still many of the regional classes that were born in the middle of the 20th century and reflect local culture and conditions. Even the patterns of racing and usage vary widely from country to country. It’s perhaps just another reason why when we try to shape the future of the sport, we should probably be concentrating on learning from the existing sailing scenes rather than trying to impose our own concepts of the future.


1980s 07/09 av. 10-12 av. 2014 2015 2016 14-16 av.
Optimist US Nationals 88.7 228 273 243 248.0
Sabot Jnr & Open (1) 166.7
Radial Open & Masters (2) 133 150 131 138.0
Sabot Jnr 173 120 118 133 123.7
Club 420 115 74 150 113.0
Laser Radial Open 106.7 112.7 107 127 101 111.7 102%
Laser Std Open & Masters (2) 124.0 130 90 114 111.3 90%
Lightning ALL (3) 107.0
X-Boat ALL (4) 94 73 107 92 90.7
Duckboat “worlds” (5) 78 77 77.5
Lightning Open 88 68.7 61.0 106 46 74 75.3 116%
Hobie 16 Open/Jnr/Wmn (6) 74.0
Sunfish – Open & Youth (7) 61.0 85.9 73 62 82 72.3 98%
MC Scow 69.3 70.0 81 54 67.5 97%
Butterfly (8) 77 62 136 91.7
Snipe (9) 67.0
E Scow 48 55.7 65.7 79 59.00 58 65.3 108%
Laser Standard – Open 87.0 61.7 67 55 59 60.3 81%
Sunfish Open 61.0 85.9 60 58 59 59.0 80%
Club FJ 70.7 62 59 54 58.3 83%
Laser Masters 43.0 64 35 68 55.7 129%
C Scow 59.3 55.3 42 57.00 65 54.7 95%
Thistle 92 68.7 70.3 54 50 58 54.0 78%
Hobie 16 96 53.3 44.0 46 73 43 54.0 111%
J/70 71 49 39 53.0
Lightning (10) 53 53.0
X Boat – Junior 39 57 56 50.7
Snipe 66.5 46.0 48.0 37 43 67 49.0 104%
Interlake 43 38.0 34.0 39 57 48.0 133%
Melges 24 40.7 46 46.0 113%
A Class 41.7 45 41 43 43.0 103%
Naples Sabot Snr 54 32 43.0
Bic O’pen 42 42.0
Flying Scot (11) 79 81.3 61.7 31 48 46 41.7 58%
Int. 505 43.3 27.0 38 33 49 40.0 114%
X Boat – Senior Fleet 34 49 36 39.7
Butterfly – Youth 47 28 37 37.3
Vanguard 15 50.3 39.7 29 33 50 37.3 83%
Int. 420 35 35 35.0
29er 56.3 46.0 42 25 35 34.0 66%
Force 5 57 29 38 33.5
Radial Masters 33 33.0
F18 46.7 40 28 30 32.7 70%
Flying Scot H&W (11) 31 31.0
Highlander 35 28 30 31.0
Lido 14 37.5 33.0 44 19 30 31.0 94%
Foilboard (12) 28 34 31.0
Windmill 33.5 37 25 25 29.0
Butterfly – Open 40 49.0 38.0 30 27 28 28.3 65%
Sandpiper catboat 46 10 28.0
Interclub 45.0 28.3 29 25 27.0 74%
Radial Masters 26 23 30 26.3
Buccaneer 18 29.7 30 28 17 25.0 84%
Aero 7 24 24.0
Albacore 51.0 23 22 22.5 44%
JY15 25.0 20 22 21.0
F 16 21 21.0
Jet 14 37 18 25 19 20.7
Kona Windsurfer 20 11 29 20.0
A scow 20 20 20.0
Rebel 24 21 13 19.3
CC Knockabout 18 18.0
Snipe US Jnr/wmn 11 25 18.0
Melges 17 17 23 13 17.7
Formula Kite 16 16.0
Wayfarer 18 15 10 21 15.3
Classic Moth 16 17 12 15.0
RSX 15 15.0
Y Flyer 59 14 15 14.5
Hobie 14 72 14 15 14.5
Int 14 10 18 14.0
Int Canoe 14.0
Coronado 15 81 17 11 14.0
Int Moth 23 12 6 13.7
Hydrofoil Kite (12) 13 13.0
Penguin 28.5 12 15 10 12.3
Techno 293 12 12.0
49er 9 14 11.5
Comet 35 13 9 11.0
Puddle Duck (10) 9 12 10.5
Byte CII 3 18 10.5
Hobie 16 Youth 10 10.0
Hobie 16 Women 48 10 10.0
Flying Dutchman 27 9 9.0
Nacra 17 10 7 8.5
Open Canoe ACA 8 8.0
I-20 Scow 10 5 7.5
Sunfish Youth 13 4 5 7.3
Laser 4.7 5 8 9 7.3
49erFX 8 9 5 7.3
Contender 7 7.0
Open Canoe 5m 7 7.0
Fireball 17 7 6 6.5
Int 470 6 6.0
Aero 9 6 6.0
Aero 5 4 4.0
Flying Scot Jnr&W (11) 4 4.0
Formula Windsurfing 28.7 12 7 9.5 33%
Freestyle windsurfing 6 6.0
Slalom windsurfer 37 29 33.0
Windsurfer (Original) 286 Not held Not held Not held
Windsurfer Div 1 and 2 175 Not held Not held Not held
Laser II 60 Not held Not held Not held
Laser M 47 Not held Not held Not held
Tornado 42 Not held Not held Not held
Nacra 5.2 56 Not held Not held Not held
Blue Jay 60 13.7 Not held Not held Not held 0.0
Mobjack 28 12.0 Not held Not held Not held 0.0


1- Includes both the adult and junior fleets added together, although they race separately.

2- Includes open and masters fleets. There doesn’t appear to be any significant number of people who do both championships.

3- Including the competitors in the open championship, the womens’ championship and the masters championship. Has NOT been checked to see if sailors who did more than one event are double counted.

4- Includes both open and junior fleets added together, although they race separately.

5- Not a national championship. The Duckboat is a Sneakbox, a traditional local type. This appears to be much more of an annual social regatta.

6- Including the competitors in the open championship, the womens’ championship and the youth championship. Has NOT been checked to see if sailors who did more than one event are double counted.

7- Includes both youth and open fleets. Sailors who did both events have only been counted once.

8- Includes both youth and open fleets added together, although they race separately. Does NOT include those who race in the separate singlehanded championship.

9- Includes open, Youth and other fleets – still to be checked.

10- Open fleet only.

11- This class has several championships (like the Husband and Wife title) which are listed, but my ISP has a problem with the class site so I cannot get further details.

12- I don’t know the difference between a foilboard and a foiling kiteboard. This may be related to turf wars between the two kiting bodies.

These figures use the higher of either North American or US titles. The exception is the Opti, which attracts too many people from central America and the Caribbean and therefore would not give an accurate figure of US interest. Before anyone complains, I know that North American titles include Canadian entries and Canada has its own sailing scene, but I don’t have the time to run separate numbers for Canada. Sorry.

Not every year’s data or every class can be found. I’ve still got to put in Finns and Tasars, for example.

To make it clear, no one’s claiming that numbers like this are perfect – just that they are one hell of a lot better than just going off the hype or gut feeling. If anything, I think that they make the smaller classes look comparatively more popular, relative to the bigger classes, than they really are. But given the issues involved in other measurements (for example, policies regarding membership of a class association varies so much between classes that counting members is completely unreliable) it’s the best we can get at the moment.




The Hobie 20 (said to be a copy of the Hurricane 5.9 and a “street legal Tornado”) was averaging about 60 boats in the late ’90s; now it’s down to about a quarter of that.


Pt 1.50 – What we’re sailing today, 1.0

The utterly bizarre start line at the Lake Garda Optimist regatta brings home the enormous and continuing success of the little design from Florida. This is where I first saw an Opti in real life, and the quick look I gave it confirmed to my biased eyes that it was a terrible boat. It was only years later, when I took the time to watch the way kids used them and watched my own kids start sailing, that it became obvious how much the class offers to kids and to sailing.
The RS200 has become one of the most popular boats in the world’s biggest dinghy market. RS boats comprise about 10% of the British dinghy fleet, as measured by national titles attendance. Sometimes I think we should just let them run the sport for a couple of years, since they arguably do a better job than the people in charge now.

While I find the history of the sport fascinating, much of the motivation behind SailCraft is learning the lessons of the past in order to understand the present and the future. An essential part of that is finding out what sailors have sailed and are still sailing. There’s no perfect measure (although if anyone is interested in getting involved in a large scale exercise to count the boats actually being raced in the world they can count me in) but given all the variables, the best seems to be looking at the size of the fleets that turn up to national titles. It’s far from perfect for reasons that are all too apparent, but to me nothing else comes close when it comes to tracking trends and getting a reality check.

The International classes

Before we get on to the national pictures, let’s get a picture of the worldwide popularity of the major classes by turning to the reports that each international class sends to World Sailing each year. The classes pay dues on each boat sold, so they have an incentive to keep the numbers realistic. Although they are sometimes pretty loose, they don’t fall into the realm of outright fiction, like some other claims do. Two major manufacturers have an arrangement with ISAF to keep the numbers of boats they sell confidential, so since they are shy we may as well ignore them.

Over the last five years, the major International and Recognised classes have each sold the following number of boats;

Optimist  – 15210
Laser – 8808
Sunfish – (est) 5000
RS Aero – (est) 2750 (new class – five year sales estimated on current annual sales)
RS Feva – 2300
Int 420 – 1642
RS Tera – 1283
Topper – 1134
Finn – 1000 (approximate, due to ISAF allegedly being slow to provide information)
J/70 – 980
470 – 912
Formula 18 – 739 (this figure is obtained by adding the number sold each year. The class claims 1000 new boats over this period. Oh well, we F18 sailors aren’t very good at maths).
29er – 584
49er/FX – 564
Moth – 550
Byte CII – 500
RS 100 – 410
A Class – 400
Snipe – 384
Nacra 17 – 331
J/80 – 300 approx
Viper 16 cat – 259
RS 500 – 250
Glide Free Laser foiling kits – 250 (not an ISAF class; industry claim put in for reference and based on pro-rata annual rate)
Zoom 8 – 250
Formula 16 – 235
TopKat 16 – 233
Micro 18 – 230
SL16 – 223
FJ – approx 200
Europe – 180
GP14 – 147
Int OK – 143
Mirror – 143
Dragon – 140
Enterprise – 139
Contender – 125
Tasar – 120
505 – 101
Star – 101
Splash – 100
Int Cadet – 99
Melges 20 – 96
Fireball – 93
MPS – 91
Lightning – 85
FD – 56
Vaurien – 52
Dart 18 – 50
Int 14 – 45
Flying 15 – 38
SB20 – 36 in four years
B14 – 22
Tornado – 4
Laser II – 0

The thing that is striking about this list is the utter dominance of the Opti and Laser. Given that most Sunfish are sold as beach toys (which is great) the Opti and Laser are just in a different class (sorry) to every other boat. It is bizarre that some people want to destroy the classes on which so much of the sport obviously depends – the ones that are actually doing more than any other classes to keep it alive.

It’s also interesting to see the presence of a very strong “second XI” of classes like the 420 and RSs. The first of the classes that some people claim to be the future of the sport are way down the list.

The national pictures

Back in the 1970s, the UK’s Yachts and Yachting magazine started analysing the size of the fleets that turned up to the biggest national titles. The magazine still maintains a fascinating table showing the attendance at just about every national championship regatta, which is an invaluable numerical guide to what people really sail, and also shows just how far off beam many pundits are when it comes to looking at the reality and the future of the sport. I’ll look at the Y&Y data, modified to include the many sailors who do the Masters nationals in Lasers, later.

More recently, the contributor “Roger Jolly” analysed the size of the fleets at North American and US titles for several years. The US and Australia both have the problem of large variation year-by-year in many classes due to the vast distances between championship venues, which makes it even harder to analyse trends, so Roger maintained a three-year rolling average of championship attendances. The latest of them can be found here; scroll down and you’ll see a list of the 50 most popular classes, excluding juniors. Note that like Y&Y, Roger’s figures ignore the huge fleets that do their Laser nationals as part of separate Masters championships. I’m currently preparing an updated version of Roger Jolly’s list and will put that up soon.

As far as I can find, no one has yet done a similar analysis of class popularity in other major sailing countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand.  I have been obtaining as much information on long-term national title attendance in Australia for years. The latest figures, averaging over the last three years as Roger Jolly did (and for the same reasons) are below.

Some classes (marked with an asterix) have only one set of figures, partly because they are such popular classes that they will not move up or down the rankings significantly when further information information is added; they can be polished later. Some classes seem to be shy about giving out their numbers.  The Laser and Radial numbers allow for the sailors who did the separate Masters nationals. Those who did both Open and Masters nationals have been deducted from the total, as have overseas competitors who took part in an Australian title associated with a world or interdominion (Australia v New Zealand) championship.

Australian national title attendance – three year rolling average 2014-2016

Optimist* 1 Jnr Hike 1d 219.0
Laser Radial* 1 Light/Youth Hike SMOD 183.0
Laser* 1 Open Hike SMOD 137.0
Sabot* 1 or 2 Jnr Hike 1d 104.0
Tasar 2 Open Hike SMOD 77.0
Sabre 1 Open Hike 1d 75.0
Int. Cadet* 2 Jnr Hike 1d 67.0
Flying 11 2 Jnr Hike 1d 58.7
Moth 1 Open Assist Dev 56.3
Minnow 1 Jnr Hike 1d 56.0
Laser 4.7* 1 Jnr Hike SMOD 54.0
29er 2 Youth Assist SMOD 47.7
Impulse 1 Open Hike 1d 44.5
Sharpie 3 Open Assist 1d 42.0
Spiral 1 Open/Light Hike SMOD 42.0
Int. 420 2 Youth Assist 1d 37.7
Manly Junior 2 Jnr Hike 1d 36.0
16 Foot Skiff 3 Open Assist 1d 35.3
Mirror 2 Jnr/Light Hike 1d 32.0
Heron 2 Light Hike 1d 31.5
OK 1 Open Hike 1d 31.3
NS14 2 Open Hike Dev 31.0
Int. 14 2 Open Assist Dev 29.0
MG14 2 Open Assist Dec 28.5
125 2 Youth/Light Assist 1d 27.7
Cherub 2 Youth/Light Assist Dev 27.0
Int. 505 2 Open Assist 1d 26.5
B14 2 Open Assist SMOD 25.0
12 Foot Skiff 2 Open Assist Dev 23.0
Finn 1 Open Hike 1d 20.5
Javelin 2 Open Assist Dev 20.0
18 Foot Skiff 3 Open Assist 1d 19.0
Musto Skiff 1 Open Assist SMOD 16.0
Contender 1 Open Assist 1d 14.0
13 Foot Skiff 2 Youth Assist 1d 13.0
Pacer* 2 Open Hike 1d 14.0
RS 100* 1 Open Hike SMOD 13.0
Fireball 2 Open Assist 1d 12.0
Flying Dutchman 2 Open Assist 1d 12.0
RS Aero* 1 Open Hike SMOD 12.0
Int. 470 2 Open Assist 1d 11.7
49er 2 Open Assist SMOD 11.0
Skate 2 Open Assist 1d 11.0
49erFX 2 Open Assist SMOD 9.3
Vee Ess 3 Open Assist 1d 9.0
National E 2 Open Assist 1d 9.0
Formula 15 2 Open Assist SMOD 8.0
RS200* 2 Open Hike SMOD 8.0

Notes: “Assist” refers to classes that have some form of “hiking assistance” such as wings, trapeze, plank or a combination. The second column from the left refers to crew numbers, the third refers to rough age/weight categories. A few classes, such as the Bic O’pen which is going very well, have been left out because I can’t find the information.

I may declare my own interests here. Counting all of the classes I have kit for (ie boards, boats, and the cat) three of them sit right at the top of the list. Three sit solidly in the middle, one is one of the smallest active classes, and three of them can no longer get enough entries to organise a championships. I think that mean I can be called fairly unbiased!


So what can we learn from these numbers? Well, the hiking boats and singlehanders are dominant in the sport. There appears to have been a move away from crewed trapeze classes, although I’ll be doing a comparison over time later to get more perspective. Another area that is suffering is the small “family” boats, like the Mirror and Heron and long-lost classes in the same bracket, which produced huge fleets at the peak of the dinghy boom.

There has been no big shift to skiffs or high-performance boats. Despite all the hype, Australia is not a nation of skiff sailors – in fact it is probably further away from being so than it was 30 or 70 years ago. Wonderful as they are, the skiff classes are a minority interest, even among the big and fast boats – the Sharpie is clearly on top as a national large high-performance dinghy.

In a similar vein, the occasional commentator who infers that Australia’s recent international successes are due to Aussie kids growing up on skiffs with asymmetric spinnakers have got it wrong. Most (although not all) of the junior classes are similar to their northern-hemisphere counterparts, and none of the popular ones have an asymmetric kite.

As in the USA, the major classes are old ones. Some see this as a bad thing. To me it just indicates that people may have just been more realistic when they created classes in earlier decades. The success of the Opti (which is basically a fairly new class in Australia) and 29er indicate that new classes can succeed, but as in the USA it is difficult to build a big new class in such a vast and empty country. Not even RS hasn’t managed to really build up the numbers. The class that is growing fastest is probably the Moth (New South Wales and the south coast of the UK seem to be the two places where the vast majority of growth is centred in the class, with very strong championship fleets) but other development classes have not done well. Classes like the Sabot, Sabre, Minnow, Impulse and Sharpie also show quite clearly that a class can succeed without the backing of International status, a big (by Australian standards) manufacturer or the big clubs.

Analysis of the catamaran numbers, incidentally, shows that they are not increasing strongly, despite the complete load of rubbish that plenty of people were spouting when the America’s Cup switched over.  There is a lot of churn inside the cats, with a move towards the bigger singlehanders.

So what’s the main lesson? Sadly, the four sets of numbers referred to above show that many of the comments about where the sport is going are based on hype and ignorance. Contrary to some of the hype spouted by those talking about “where the sport is going”, there is no big move towards faster boats or newer classes in general.  The main lesson is that there has been a shift towards medium to medium/slow boats in some countries, and that the kids seem to be loving the sport in their early years. They do drop off in big numbers later in their teens, but as major surveys of other sports show, that’s the case with organised sport in general. The arrival of the 29er doesn’t seem to have killed the 420 or lead to more kids staying in the sport, nor are they staying in classes like the Laser after they leave their teens.

Over the next few days, I’ll look at other comparisons across time frames and across countries. While none of this data is definitive, it seems to show is that the successful sectors of the sport are the ones that are taking a path that is very different from that forecast by the media, World Sailing and other members of the chattering classes who enjoy instructing other people how they should spend their time and money.