Those Crazy Old Boats

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Stephen Whiteside
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Those Crazy Old Boats

Post by Stephen Whiteside » Sun Oct 23, 2011 6:06 am

I wrote this article for our yacht club newsletter, but it did occur to me that there might be some sailors amongst the membership of the ABPA, so I thought I might as well post it here as well.


Those Crazy Old Boats

© Stephen Whiteside 23.10.2011

Thomas and I missed the Opening Regatta this year due to a family function. Next best thing, we enjoyed lunch at the Brighton Baths restaurant, with views out over the bay. A 29er (a new class) and a 505 (a very old design) launched just below us, and we watched them chase each other during the course of the afternoon. It set me thinking, as I am wont to do from time, about the differences between today’s dinghies, and those of my childhood.

I learnt to sail at Somers on Westernport Bay in the 1960s. Looking back on those boats now, they were bewildering in their number and variety. Plywood was a relatively new construction material, and fibreglass was only just beginning. The idea of inbuilt bouyancy tanks was fairly new. There were still boats that got by with air-bags secured inside the cockpit - absolute death-traps by today’s standards. And there was the odd clinker built boat made out of planks, too. Many sails were made out of cotton. They rusted, rotted, tore and stretched. Apart from that, they were really good. When I first started racing a Mirror with my father, jib cleats were illegal, so my job was essentially to be a ‘human jib cleat’. It wasn’t bad on a light day, but those wild windy days (of which there were a lot!) weren’t much fun.

Sails generally had a lower aspect ratio than they do now. The result of this was that masts were shorter, and booms longer than they are today. Of course, I was not aware of that at the time. A sail was a sail. It is very obvious looking at the old photos now, though.

The Heron was a boat that amazed me. My memory may be deceiving me here, but it seemed like a Mirror without any of the Mirror’s natural advantages. First it was shorter. Secondly, it was a lot heavier, and slower. It had a long mast, compared to the Mirror’s two-piece job. I don’t think it had any tanks, although I might be wrong about that. One thing I will give it - it did look like a proper boat; lovely lines, very seaworthy, but in all respects really a throwback to an earlier time. A similar thing could be said of the International Cadet. I know they are still quite popular, but they are such small, slow boats, I find it a bit hard to see their appeal.

The VJ (Vaucluse Junior) was an incredible beast. It was made of heavy ply, and was very narrow. It compensated for this by having two large hiking boards to sit on. These replaced trapeze wires. Of course, every time you went about you had to throw the hiking board over to the other side of the boat before you scrambled out onto it. Even back then it all looked very clunky, but it did have a certain drama about it nonetheless.

In light winds the heavy VJs were real tubs, but above 15 knots they went like the absolute clappers. The other remarkable feature about them was this amazing boom that extended for miles past the transom, and also went up at a severe angle, so the end of the boom was much higher than the boom at the goose-neck. A similar boat was a Rainbow. Again, it was made for strong winds.

The Sailfish was quite a popular class. It was essentially a surfboard with a mast and sail, centre board and rudder. In some respects, it could be seen as a precursor of the windsurfer.

Of course, Moths had no foils back in those days. They came in two types, skiffs (with a pointy bow) and scows (with a blunt bow). We had quite a few scows, but no skiffs at our club.

Mirrors were incredibly popular. I believe we had 140 registered at Somers. One day I walked along the beach, counting all the red-sailed Mirrors lined up fully rigged and waiting to race. 120! I heard somewhere that we had the largest Mirror dinghy fleet in the Southern Hemisphere, though I don’t know who would count such things. We sailed in two divisions - the top 20 in one division, and the rest in another division (or something like that).

The Gwen 12 was another marvellous boat. They were all wooden. I don’t recall any glass ones. I am pretty sure they were an Australian design. They were a great boat to step up to when you had outgrown the Mirror. We had about a dozen of them. They had a single trapeze and a fixed bowsprit. The spinnaker was symmetrical (they all were back then) but very flat. On a shy reach they absolutely tore along.

My father originally had it in mind that I would one day sail a Gwen 12, and it seemed like a pretty good idea to me, too. When the day finally came, though, there were no Gwens on the market, only a Cherub. We also had a couple of Cherubs at the club, and I knew that they weren’t all that different so, desperate to buy SOMETHING, I grabbed the Cherub instead. What followed for me was several years of fierce rivalry with the Gwens. As I say, there were about a dozen of them, and only about three of us. I must admit, we tended to get the worst of it because the reaches were so long and fine (they may have been primarily set for the cats) that we couldn’t set our fuller spinnakers, while the Gwens managed quite easily. So we often found we had lost touch with them by the first wing mark. Still, I had no regrets. The Cherub was an absolute excitement machine. Often with the spinnaker up I could not see anything at all with the amount of spray in my eyes. I’d have done just as well to close my eyes completely, and sometimes did.

Speaking of cats, they were the absolute stars of the show. There were three in particular - the Quickcat, the Shearwater and the Yvonne. The Quickcat was 16 feet long. Looking back at it now, I am struck by how close together the two hulls were. For a catamaran, it was actually quite a narrow craft. The hulls themselves were also quite narrow, but very high, or deep. The most notable feature of the Quickcat was the elaborate timber scaffolding around the mast base. It was incredibly complex, and must have weighed a ton. The Quickcats were tough as nails and once again, like so many of those old boats, really came into their own in high winds.

The Shearwaters and Yvonnes were a little larger - probably 18 feet, I would guess. They were both quite similar, the principal difference to my eye being the shape of the hull. The Shearwater hulls were universally convex - from the bow to the stern the deck described a gentle upwards curve. The Yvonnes were something else again. The back two thirds of the hull was convex like the Shearwater, but the front third was actually concave - so the overall effect was something like a figure ‘S’. It was very odd, but rather beautiful.

When the new generation of big cats arrived at the club - led, I think, by the Mosquito - I was struck by how uninteresting they looked compared to those older classes.

I can’t finish without a mention of the LWS (Lightweight Sharpie) and FD (Flying Dutchman). These were the glamour monohulls of the club. The LWS was 18 feet, and the FD 20. The first thing to note about the LWS was its name. Lightweight! They weighed an absolute ton! If these were ‘lightweight’, how much did the Sharpies weigh?

The other interesting thing about them was that they were a three man boat. Every other class at the club was a one or two man boat. Of course, it was no easy feat to gather a crew of three, and I guess that was part of the reason why we only had two at our club - the black one and the blue one. (My regular crew eventually defected to join one of these.) On the other hand, it looked like a lot of fun having three men in a boat like that.

From memory, we only had one or two FDs at the club, but what a boat! It had a genoa-style jib that was almost as big as the mainsail, which generated a huge overlap. And talk about a foredeck! You could just about play a game of cricket on the broad flat plywood foredeck of an FD! Of course, getting these monsters off their trailers and into the water was another matter entirely!

And lastly, the dear old 505 itself. I thought this was the most beautiful boat of all. In a sense, it was like an FD, but being only 5.05 metres long (get it?) it was not quite as unmanageable. It was a wonderfully balanced looking boat, at least to my eye. When the time came for Thomas and me to move out of the Pacer, part of me was hankering to just go out and track down an old 505!

The modern Pacers and Javelins are superbly designed - lightweight, fast and efficient - but to my mind they lack a little of the character of those crazy old boats.
Stephen Whiteside, Australian Poet and Writer
http://www.stephenwhiteside.com.au

Neville Briggs
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Re: Those Crazy Old Boats

Post by Neville Briggs » Sun Oct 23, 2011 3:31 pm

The only sailing I ever tried was a couple of goes with a small catamaran at the holiday beach, and a friend of mine lent me his sailing dinghy called a Laser, which I managed to turn upside down off Pearl Beach near Woy Woy.

There's a classic VJ displayed fully rigged at the Technology Museum in Sydney, a wonderful piece of history.
Neville
Singleton Bush Poets.

william williams

Re: Those Crazy Old Boats

Post by william williams » Sun Oct 23, 2011 4:18 pm

Yes those were the days Stephen.

Stephen the time that you spent at Somers were in the days of civilization
Between 1950 – 1958 I’ve camped at with my parents at Somers, Bittern, Baxter, Hastings, and Shoreham

But my favourite place was at Finders (West Head) to be precise. Before the Navy took it back over again and made it a gunnery school.
Hastings at that time was only a town and Navel school HMAS CERBUSS I hope that is how it is spelt.
No deep water port or Navel Dock yard then and Hastings Hospital was, just a bush nursing home. Though the year it enlarged and became a hospital I was their first Snake bite customer the day it was opened.

You talk of Sailing Stephen my mates father often took his son and I out in his 28 foot Couta Boat and sailed from Flinders to Cape Shank and pull 28 crayfish pots all under sail and fish for Couta all the way home to Flinders. The return trip would be in the region of 30 to 40 miles return taking between 10 and 12 hours. Sometime the Lister motor was used but often not

Bill Williams the old battler

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Stephen Whiteside
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Re: Those Crazy Old Boats

Post by Stephen Whiteside » Mon Oct 24, 2011 5:54 am

Thanks for that, Neville. Incredible history, Bill. Much to ponder in what you have written.
Stephen Whiteside, Australian Poet and Writer
http://www.stephenwhiteside.com.au

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