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BRONZEWING, a 2&1/2 rater on Sydney Harbour in 1892. Note the lug rig which helped give the yacht its impressive performance.

The Small Raters

Many of the developments in yachting of the late 1880s and early 1890s are encapsulated in the story of the small rating classes for yachts, in particular the 2 ½ raters, a class that was initially established in England on the Solent in about 1887. When a class for smaller yachts was proposed in Sydney yachting circles, the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron voted against adopting yachts under 5 ton rating into their programme, but the Prince Alfred Yacht Club thought better and took them on during 1889. Four new boats were then built, and along with a couple of existing small boats, they were able to establish a fledgling fleet of "miniature yachts" as they were called. They bore all the trademarks of the bigger cutters' rigs and appearance, but could safely race in the harbour with only three or four hands. "Hencoops" was also a term of description; they were popular with the few ladies who had taken to yacht racing in England. The rating, from the Waterline and Sail Area Rule, or YRA Rule (from the Yacht Racing Association in England), is worked out as the product of the LWL times the Sail Area, divided by 6000, using imperial dimensions.

The First Boats

The Sydney naval architect Walter Reeks designed three of the four new yachts that started the class. Two were sister ship's LOUELLE and JENNY WREN, and they were cutters with clipper or raked bows. They were 8.2 m (27 ft) long by 6.1 m (20' ft) on the waterline, with 69 sq. metres (740 sq ft) of sail. His third boat NORNA was straight stemmed and longer at 8.5 m (28 ft) long by 6.9 m (22 ft 10 in) on the waterline and with 61 sq. metres (657 sq. ft) of sail area. All three were built by Berry’s Bay shipwright, Mr. T. Cubitt, formerly on the staff at WM Ford's yard. Mr. E.Thompson is initially recorded as the owner and designer of the 4th boat called SIRONA, built by Captain Dudley at Drummoyne.

PAYC ran a regular series of races on Sydney Harbour over the 1889/90 season, and the results were largely shared by the Reeks designs, including the little 2 rater ELF, an earlier design of his. From the Sydney Mail of November 9 1889:

'The 2 1/2 raters were the novelty of the day, this being the first appearance of this class of boats. ELF won a hard race from JENNIE (sic) WREN by 7 seconds on her time. Mr. Stevens had a reefed mainsail, his sail being too big for her spar. Harold (Stevens) lost a little time through a dinghy getting in his way first time around the flagship'.

Then follows a leg-by-leg description of the race, noting that in fact JENNY WREN ' ran down a dinghy' an action that seemed to cause no concern or further comment. Better luck was to follow.

'The Jenny Wren scored her second win this season…for a prize of 5 pounds…The meeting of these tiny yachts under racing canvas has been looked forward to with a great deal of interest amongst aquatic men generally, they being quite a new departure from what we have been accustomed to see in Sydney Harbour'

Another leg-by-leg, tack-by-tack description follows in the column, with sail changes and weather variations noted, and times at each buoy. It is a long read, but this reflects the level of interest in yachting. The race was followed by steamer, another common occurrence for the yacht racing on the harbour and offshore. The PAYC secretary, Mr. Bennett, took care of the guests on board.

Taking advantage of the rules was apparent even then. Mr. Gilchrist, owner of the LOUELLE upset some of his colleagues by having three different ratings (and therefore 3 different time allowances) at once, depending upon how much sail area he declared for each race. Leaving the jack yard tops'l and the jib tops'l ashore on a windy day dropped the rating to below 2, thus giving LOUELLE a significant time allowance over the other boats that had the extra sails on board but did not use them. An off season meeting closed off that practice, only one certificate was to be allowed for the 1890/91 season, but then a new problem was highlighted. The introduction of centre boarders was noted, and with it possibilities of taking the class away from the yacht basis. It was seen that if the big open boats of local design such as the 22 or 24-footers were entered, even with reduced sail, they could dominate the yachts with deep keels.

Developments, the Lug Rig

In England where the small raters were very popular, it does seem that some of the classes evolved into big dinghy designs to suit local conditions. No decision by the PAYC on action to stall this trend locally is noted, but in the meantime Reeks still saw potential in the bigger yacht type design, with less sail area. He designed a new cutter for Mr. Maccabe called ASTROEA and built by Cubitt again. It was an incremental step forward from NORNA. Straight bowed, 8.9 m (29 ft 2 in) long, 7 m (23 ft) on the waterline with 60.5 sq metres (652 sq ft) of sail area, ASTROEA started the1890/91 season with good form.

At the same time J.O. Fairfax sold his small 2 rater ELF over the winter, and went to the well known designer William Fife from Scotland for a new design in late 1890. A little twist in the story is that while this yacht, called BUL BUL, was also built by Cubitt, it is reported that she was built under Reeks supervision. Relative to the bigger Reeks' design ASTROEA the Fife boat was a major step in size, being 10.97 m (36 ft) overall and 7.6 m (25 ft) on the waterline, with only 55.7 sq. metres (600 sq ft) of sail area. The key was how this sail area was deployed. BUL BUL abandoned the cutter and top's sail plan and sported a rig new to the class in Australia, with a single small headsail, and a large scotch lug headed mainsail. There were no tops'ls at all. The simplicity of this two sail rig is obvious when compared with the multiple sails, spars and stays on the cutters, and it was much more efficient. BUL BUL romped away from the 2 ½ rater fleet with a runaway win on its first outing, just before Christmas 1890. Then followed an even more startling result, as the Sydney Mail records.

"Her next race was sailed against ISEA, SAO and IOLANTHE (all much bigger boats). On the beat to Manly she was 2 minutes ahead of these boats, which are all over 7 rating, and eventually saved her time and won the race."

The exploits of BUL BUL appears to have caused the owners of the other 2 ½ raters to loose interest for the rest of the season. The 1891/92 season began without the regular mentions of the 2 ½ raters in the aquatic columns, and BUL BUL raced with bigger yachts. Then, early in 1892 it was BUL BUL’s turn to meet stiff opposition. Samuel Hordern imported a lug rigged 2 ½ rater, from the board of the other major Scottish designer of the period, GL Watson. BRONZEWING had the same sail area and waterline length as BUL BUL with a straighter stem. With a note of despair, the Sydney Mail made the point that the rig, while “not particularly attractive, it is the latest development of the best designers"

The pair had three match races, and BRONZEWING won them all, but when the 1892/93 season opened, neither of the two was certain of being commissioned to race, and it was noted "we may expect to see the model yachts under their sails again, but only in the event of their fleeter sisters not returning" Late in Spring BRONZEWING changed hands, and then a race took place, against NORNA and LOUELLE. Perhaps there was some wishful thinking on the outcome by the latter two, because BRONZEWING won again, by 7 minutes.

Fin Keels and Centreboards

The freak boat or quantum step forward is a recurring theme in yachting history. Just as a class or rule seems settled, along comes an interpretation or improvement that produces a design significantly faster then the existing craft in the class. BUL BUL and BRONZEWING were two such craft in regards to the Sydney fleet, but in England, the class had its following on lakes, where the designer A.E. Payne was dominating the fleet with fin keeled hulls.

These new ideas were soon copied locally, but in smaller rating classes. In January a 1 rater was launched called NAIAD and designed by Ernest Thompson, now credited in the media reports as a naval architect. In November a 0.75 rater from Neutral Bay is noted, coming from Mr. Farmer, the owner, builder and designer. Then in December the VIVA BRANDON, built in Newtown and rating about 2 ½ is launched. All these boats carried fin or centreboard keels, lug main sails and jibs on pole masts.

Walter Reeks was also tempted to follow the field and his design TAIPO for Mr. Hunt had the same rig and hull features including a centreboard. It became a very successful craft, and was proposed as a model for a NSW One Design class of about 7.3 m (24 ft) long. Reeks prepared the plans and specifications, but it is unclear from the reports if even one boat was eventually built, despite there being keen interest in the potential of a one design fleet. This stands as one of the earliest attempts at creating a one design class which was a novel concept of the period.

Not everyone went that way though. In the September 23 1893 issue of the Sydney Mail there is the following entry.

"A new yacht has been launched from the yard of Messrs E. Thompson and Co. Drummoyne, built to the order of Dr Eric Sinclair, from a design furnished by Mr. Russel (sic) Sinclair…The KELPIE is built of teak…She will be cutter rigged and in appearance will somewhat resemble the JENNY WREN".

Russell Sinclair was an engineer and designer who founded the long lived engineering firm Wildridge and Sinclair, which undertook a variety of work in the marine field, including vessel design. The plans he furnished for the KELPIE, reported to be a 2 rater in a subsequent column, were a throwback to the deep keeled hull form, but by now the class for the 2 ½ raters had dissolved. The newspapers only mention general events for yachts under 5 rating, which race with limited entries on some days. The PAYC even initiated moves to abandon the YRA rule and choose some other method of handicapping.

The end of the YRA rule:

The bank crash and subsequent economic slowdown made matters worse. Yacht racing suffered in the difficult times that followed, and also had to battle for spectator popularity with horse racing which had become more organised. When it emerged again with strength at the end of the decade the new Linear Rating Rule was then adopted, and a cross Tasman invasion of New Zealand Logan Bros. designed yachts began to take charge on Sydney Harbour. They managed an early start in the last days of the YRA rule with the 1 rater MERCIA from 1898. It came across to challenge the crack boats on Sydney Harbour, and through misadventure lost the event to LAUREL. Following this poor start it soon took charge of the small boat fleet racing under the ownership of Fred Doran and paved the way for the bigger 30 foot Linear Rating designs from the Logans, founding the class which took over from the 2 ½ raters as the popular small inshore yacht of the early 1900s.

The Sydney Mail newspaper, (specific dates as noted in the text)