History of the Australian 16ft Skiffs

This restricted class open sailing boat is unique in the world and peculiar to Australia.  The class was founded in 1901 by a small group of sailing enthusiasts at a meeting held in Balmain, Sydney.  From NSW, the class first spread to Queensland and by 1908 sufficient skiffs were racing in both states to hold the first Australian Championship.  This was sailed in Brisbane during the season 1908-09 and was won by "Minouri" skippered by Horace Rodrick from NSW.

After WWI the class spread to Western Australia where, during the 1925-26 season, Perth had the first Australian Championship carnival with Skiffs from NSW and Queensland competing.  An Australian Carnival was held in Hobart in 1930-31 and was won by "Ajax" skippered by A Whereat from Queensland.  The class was introduced into Victoria in 1944 and the first Australian Carnival there was won by "O'Johnny" skippered by William “Billo” Hayward from NSW in 1949-50.  Currently, 16ft skiffs are now only actively racing in NSW and Queensland, however, the numbers and enthusiasm in both those States is strong.

The original 16ft skiffs were built along the lines of the "Waterman's" rowing skiff which was noted for its stability and ease of propulsion.  A number of design changes have taken place over the years, always with the view of producing a faster boat.  Clinker planked construction gave way to carvel and in 1926 the "no heel" boat was introduced.  New adhesives developed in the 1940's made plywood construction practical and shortly afterward diagonally planked "moulded" timber construction was introduced.  This method had enormous weight benefits and led to a minimum weight limit being adopted.

Further changes to the class restrictions governing boat construction were made in 1973 to allow the use of glass reinforced plastics and again in 1976 to allow any material to be used.  The advantage of less maintenance and reduced water absorption were considerable, but unfortunately, cost reduction through mass production was not achieved due to the small number of any one shape being produced.

The cotton sails that were carefully tended in the pre 50's have been replaced by a series of synthetics which not only provide a sail whose shape and size can be accurately produced, but will stand up to wear, tear and abuse that would have ruined the cotton material.  Sail setting is a science which plagues the unsuccessful skipper.  A well set up suit of sails is not only a thing of beauty but an absolute necessity for success.  The mast systems are these days are designed to flex and when suitably stayed, are controlled to produce the most desirable sail shape for the prevailing breeze.  Crews have become so expert at driving a skiff downwind with a spinnaker that long bowsprits, ballooners and reaching jibs are no longer used.  The adoption of the 30 square metre double luff spinnaker in 1983 increased the boat speed of the 16ft skiff considerably and changed the whole concept of downwind tactics.

The approval of trapeze for swinging out was introduced in the late 1950’s and altered the manning of skiffs in such a way that three crew hands of average weight could balance and sail a skiff in almost all weathers and a three man crew was ultimately approved in 1986 (previously the minimum allowed was four).  On the other hand, this has created greater pressure on the mast hulls and equipment resulting in more breakages whilst racing.

As with most other sophisticated racing craft, cost has become an ever increasing burden on the boat owner.  During the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons an evolution in both hull and sail configurations was attempted to address the high cost of entering the Class.  A fixed hull design was introduced along with asymmetrical spinnakers on fixed poles.  

In 2002, it was decided to introduce a feeder Class to encourage younger people into the 16ft Class.  The 13ft skiff was designed along similar lines to the 16 footer, but with a smaller sail area, so that the jump from junior classes to a 16 is not as marked.  After being adopted by the Manly and Middle Harbour Clubs in NSW, the Class was subsequently introduced into Queensland in 2008.  (For more detail on the 13’s refer to the 13ft skiff website).

A further evolution of the 16ft skiff occurred during the 2010/11 season with the adoption of carbon masts, effective from the start of the 2011/12 season.  The change had been discussed for several seasons, with cost being the biggest concern, compared to the traditional aluminium which had been in use for nearly 50 years.

With the cost of putting a new skiff on the water being identified as one of the factors that was impacting on Class numbers, the Australian Association had been investigating ways of reducing that cost for several seasons. Towards the end of the 2014/15 season, a prototype of a skiff hull manufactured in China was imported as a trial.  With hull proving successful, and being half the cost of a hull manufactured in Australia, eight hulls were ordered and commenced sailing early in the 2015/16 season at the Manly Club.  

The 16ft Skiff has enjoyed remarkable popularity for over 100 years and when the good management laid down by the founders is coupled with the drive and enthusiasm of the present generation, we are optimistic of the future during this 21st century.

 

Skiff registration number in NSW

Click Here to view details of the number of skiffs that have been registered with the NSW 16ft Skiff Association since 1947.