TAIPAN is an 18-Foot skiff class sailing dinghy built in Queensland in 1959 at Norman Wright's yard in Bulimba. TAIPAN was designed by Bob Miller, later known as Ben Lexcen, who worked with Norman Wright jnr on the concept and then the construction. It was a revolutionary craft in the 18-Foot skiff class, paving the way for the extreme planing vessels of the 21st century. TAIPAN helped begin a successful design career for Miller, culminating in the design of the America's Cup winning yacht AUSTRALIA II in 1983.
DescriptionTAIPAN revolutionized the 18-foot skiff class after its debut in late 1959. TAIPAN's principal designer was Bob Miller, and he explored a completely new concept for the class, supported by Norman Wright Jnr, for whom he worked at the time. The craft was built close to the minimum beam of 6 ft (1.83 m) with a lightweight, single-chine, vee-shaped planing hull built from plywood, three crew, overlapping headsails and some decking. This was almost the opposite to the existing fleet of heavy craft with 5 or 6 man crews.
The opportunity for Miller to create the design for TAIPAN probably would not have happened if he had not been working for Norman Wright Jnr. At Wrights invitation he had moved to Brisbane in the late 1950s to work for the boatbuilders Norman Wright and Sons where he was employed as a sail maker in their subsidiary business called Florite Sails. Wright was an experienced sailor and long-time supporter of the 18-Foot skiff class in Brisbane. The skiffs he had designed, built and skippered all had the name JENNY and were champion craft in their time. He had recognised Miller's talent as a sail maker, but at the time perhaps did not realise what Miller's personality was like. It was apparent quite early when Miller arrived unannounced on their doorstep ready to start work, and then ended up living with Helen and Norman Wright Jnr for some time while he was in Brisbane.
The 18-Foot skiff class in Queensland was in a gradual decline in the late 1950s, and the Queensland 18-Foot Skiff Association began looking for ways to help rebuild numbers. Norman Wright Jnr considered the idea of a single chine plywood hull as a fast and less expensive concept; meanwhile, while still based in Sydney, this idea was something that had already been created in Miller's fertile mind. For Miller it began as an idea from his experience with friends sailing on the Flying Dutchman class. They knew that this fast 2-handed craft from Europe could beat an 18-foot skiff upwind, and Miller could see how to adapt the concept of a lightweight hull and high performance rig to the 18-foot skiff class. He was also aware of Uffa Fox's many planing dinghies for the International 14-Foot class from reading Fox's books, and another influence at that time was probably the WA 14-foot skiff DARKIE which was featured in SEACRAFT and in turn had elements of the Sydney VJ class, another lightweight chine, plywood skiff.
The opportunity arose for Miller to put his ideas into a real project when he injured himself quite badly falling from a mast and spent time in hospital recovering. Norman Wright Jnr made him a drawing board he could use in bed, and amongst the things he drew were sketches or plans that were the basis of the TAIPAN. Wright was also familiar with the comparative speed of the Flying Dutchman and even the relatively new Light-Weight Sharpie class, yet another chine hull form, between the two personalities there was a wealth of experience and new ideas. Surviving documents include the lines plan drawn by Miller for TAIPAN with various notations including a reference to DARKIE in one comer, and a calculation by someone for the displacement.
When he returned to work Miller began building the boat later in 1959, but his impatience was evident as the project slowed. Wright had to get others in to help, notably Brian Hamilton, so that TAIPAN would be finished. Everything was built as light as possible, but Wright insisted it carry one piece of tradition, the stem was fashioned from a grown knee section as used on the JENNY hulls.
Brian Hamilton and Norman's son Norman Wright III were the crew for Miller, and not one of them had previous sailing experince in the class. TAIPAN’s early racing race was unspectacular. Sailing first with borrowed sails from a Flying Dutchman class dinghy it failed to perform, but when it finally raced with its full sized battened main and overlapping genoa TAIPAN sailed away from the fleet to be over a leg in front on the Brisbane River course. TAIPAN then went on to win a number of races in the early part of 1960. At different times Miller experimented with endplates and fences on both the rudder and centreboard, as well as developing better sails and understanding how to get the most out of this new concept. After the Queensland State titles TAIPAN was chosen to represent Queensland in Auckland New Zealand for the world title contest later in that summer.
TAIPAN was regarded as the outstanding boat at the World Championship, even though it failed to win and only finished fourth. Prompted by dissension from Sydney club representatives, the race committee judged that it was not built to the rules with regard to its decking, even though it satisfied the class definition of an open or half-decked boat. Miller was forced to cut large holes in the fore and aft deck panels which weakened the hull and caused it to take on more water. Twice it was dismasted, but despite all these setbacks it showed enough speed and potential for its rivals to realize that this was the future of the class. It nearly won the first race despite not setting a spinnaker, won another race by a substantial margin, and was leading comfortably in a third race when the rig fell down.
On its return to Australia, TAIPAN took part in a special challenge race on Botany Bay late in March 1960. Racing against a champion 16-foot skiff and one of the best of the Sydney 18-foot skiffs, TAIPAN won comfortably without needing to set a spinnaker and on a course that probably favoured the best point of sail for a 16-foot skiff. TAIPAN was sailed in the race by Miller's close friend Carl Ryves, who had never sailed the boat before and this further underlined the dominance of the concept.
Miller, once again with Norman Wright Jnr's support, then built a new and very streamlined hull he called VENOM. It had straighter lines in its run aft, and the cockpit and decking allowed for the rule interpretations that had been an issue with TAIPAN. VENOM went on to dominate and win the next world championship with Craig Whitworth in the crew as a steadying influence. This ensured that the concept started by TAIPAN became the path for all future designs. TAIPAN changed hands, and as CRYSTAL LAD won the Australian title a year later with Len Heffernan of NSW at the helm. Eventually the craft found its way to owners in the ACT early in the 1980s, but it was in need of repair. The final owner in Canberra rebuilt various parts of the structure and it sailed again on Lake Burley Griffin. In the late 1980s the owner donated the historic craft to the Australian National Maritime Museum where it is now part of the National Maritime Collection.
In 2007 a project was completed which has restored TAIPAN to its early 1960 arrangement. Working closely with the Australian National Maritime Museum's curatorial and conservation staff, Sydney Harbour Wooden Boats expertly rebuilt the hull and rig based on plans prepared at the museum by curator David Payne. These plans were developed from details seen on contemporary images, evidence of structure on the existing hull, and detailed advice or recollections of people involved with TAIPAN during this period, including Bob McLeod, Carl Ryves, Brian Hamilton and Norman Wright III. In mid-October TAIPAN sailed again, and looked just as it did when it created a furore in 1960.
The story of TAIPAN captures the key elements of the life of its creative designer. Miller was always ready to experiment with new and original ideas, and not only was the whole concept quite novel in the class, but he also continued his experiments with endplates on the rudder and centreboard. His impatience and lack of attention to detail was always coming to the surface and those supporting him often had to work behind the scenes to patch up or attend to things that were otherwise overlooked. Much of this is repeated elsewhere in his career, and TAIPAN leads directly to the winged keel concept of his victorious 12 metre design AUSTRALIA II, (HV000074) winner of the America's Cup in 1983.
Current status:inside building
Current status:not on display
Deck material and construction:timber plywood
Hand propulsion/steering mechanism:tiller
Hull material and construction:plywood/chineply/chine
Hull material and construction:timber
Hull shape:plumb stemvertical stem
Hull shape:plumb transomvertical transom
Keel/centreboard/rudder type:dagger boarddrop board
Keel/centreboard/rudder type:transom rudder
Related materials:news clippings
Previous title: Crystal Lad
Previous title: Glamel
Primary title: Taipan