History of the model skiff racer

Leaning over

While racing in the State Open Water Championships (during October 1947 in Rose Bay, Sydney) a competitor reaches under the hull to move the keel aft.

Model skiff designs were based on their larger, fully crewed 18 foot cousins and usually built by their skipper.

The big skiff origins go back to the 1870s when a number of classes raced regularly on Sydney Harbour. The 1890s saw the 18-footers begin their rise to dominance as the showpiece skiff class, and the massive 22-footers and 24-footers faded into history.  Meanwhile as always, there were people playing with and racing model boats, largely on ponds and lakes. In Sydney,  the south of the city, the natural water plains and ponds that drained towards Botany Bay had been landscaped to become parklands, areas now known as Centennial Park and Moore Park. The lakes were ideal model boat venues and the pond boats were a regular weekend feature.  View historic images of a 1947 race in Rose Bay, Sydney.

About a year or so before 1910 some model yachtsmen developed the idea of open water model skiffs, sailing on Sydney Harbour or Parramatta River. The first club was at Berrys Bay in North Sydney.  Soon after a club was created on the opposite shore at Balmain and another started at Iron Cove. In 1918 a state council was formed with various pond and open water clubs participating.

At least 10 clubs were formed to race the skiffs on open water, some were short lived, others such as the Iron Cove 2 ft Club spanned almost the full history of the skiffs. Whilst most were located in the inner western suburbs along Parramatta River there was an outpost at Sans Souci on the Georges River, and briefly, another at Cammeray on Middle Harbour.

Racing appears to have stopped by 1954, but during the four decades before hand racing was extremely active. Designs evolved, racing reached great heights and the support from competitors and spectators was very strong. The model skiff and pond classes were quite numerous – from eight to 10 inches up to 32 inches. However, the predominant classes for the open water skiffs were 12 inch and the mighty two foot class.

The skiffs were raced in winter; summer was for the real boats. An integral part of racing was for the skiffs to be followed by their skippers in rowing boats. No ordinary rowing boat either, something at least three metres (10 feet) long. There was also someone else on board to row – sitting aft and facing forward with the skipper in the bow.  The rower could be a colleague of the skipper, or a family member – many were women; sisters, cousins or girlfriends.

It was a team effort, but the rower’s principle job was to manoeuvre the dinghy alongside for the skiff’s skipper to make adjustments to his boat during the race.  While the skipper and rower had their independent tasks, in some instances they worked together on tactics and shared observations on the conditions and their rival’s position. The rower had to make sure he kept clear of other skiffs and their rowers. Interference or contact with the opposition could bring instant disqualification from the officials adjudicating the race.  The skipper had a pair of oars too; in between fiddling with his boat he had to row as well so they could keep up with the speedy blighters.

With 20 or more skiffs racing in a strong breeze, the sight must have been something to behold. Spread out over a bay in panorama was a migrating flock of little white sails and emblems being herded and chased by people in clinker dinghies.

Yet this was serious stuff for the skippers, many had designed and built their craft.  Built at home, often on the kitchen table, the hulls and fittings were a true example of expert craftsmanship, and these days are treasured like artefacts. Some people won’t even put them in the water. The early examples were hollowed out of a solid timber, usually the light Queensland red cedar. Later craft had miniature skiff construction with keels, frames, floors, planks, beams and knees. Brass fittings were hand made from sheet and stock sections, halyards and sheets with sliding cleats and jappara sails.

It was all big boat design and construction on a ridiculous scale. And not for show under a glass case either – these racers had to work in a good breeze out on the Harbour.

— Story contributed by By David Payne –  a yacht designer and curator at the museum. View his website.

More information about model skiffs

Model skiffs make a come back
Build your own model skiff
Recollections of model skiff racing – a personal story

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