Search the Register
Advanced Search

12-Foot Skiff Class

1914 - 2011

The colorful and dynamic progression of skiffs that passes by on summer weekends as a fleet of the 12-Foot Skiff class has been a fertile ground of innovation, training, highly skilled sailing and unequalled performance for almost a century in Australia and New Zealand. Since 1958 it has also been another arena for the long-standing cross-Tasman sporting rivalry between the two countries, with crew’s racing for the Interdominion Trophy. The 12-foot skiff with its unrestricted sail area and vibrant history captures almost all the features of the iconic Sydney Harbour 18-foot Skiff Class, but tries to fit them into a boat only 12 feet (3.65 metres) long, resulting in a boat that is a floating, high-speed pressure cooker, frequently reaching boiling point, and often blowing the lid on the narrow confines of the Parramatta or Lane Cove Rivers, or creating mayhem out on the open harbour. The 12-foot skiffs have raced in Sydney NSW, the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay in Qld or out on the mighty Waitamata Harbour in Auckland, New Zealand.

Whilst the larger 18-foot skiff is a world recognised feature of Australian yachting and sporting culture, the 12-footers have done the same at a regional level, initially in Sydney and Brisbane in the 1920s, before linking up with similar craft in New Zealand in the late 1950s. The vibrant class captures the same 18-foot skiff vision of exciting sailing, while it is probably the boat as much as the people associated with it that captures the larrikin side of the Australian character. The 12-footers have been both a training class for bigger skiffs, an exciting example of highly skilled sailing, and a reflection of the changes in technology, all factors that have all kept the class sailing for over century.

The appeal of the 12-foot skiff was captured early on by JF Black, writing in the Australian Aquatic Annual 1938.

"When it is realised that these small boats, 12 feet in length, with a maximum of 5 feet beam, have no lee cloths or hoods, and carry the gear they do, one wonders how the skippers and crews are able to do so well and perform the remarkable feats that they do, keeping their boats going under all weather conditions. It is not unusual for a 12-footer, off a breeze, to have 600 square feet of sail. When you realise that this means carrying a mast of from 21 feet to 22 feet, a gaff of 17 feet to 18 feet, with peak-head extras off the gaff, it is not hard to understand the enthusiasm that the followers of this class feel, and the skill of skippers and crews in getting results."

The 12-foot skiffs probably began as a formal class around 1914. In many respects they are a smaller version of their bigger relations the 18-foot skiffs. As with the 18-footers, these were often boats for the working class and tradesmen families of the foreshores, but with clubs being established in the North Shore and eastern suburbs of Sydney, it captured a broader cross-section of Sydney society. It was often a boat for youths at apprentice age or younger perhaps. For them this was their skiff apprenticeship for the bigger things to come, and for many this was their introduction to the type of boats being sailed by their fathers. Others stayed loyal to the 12-footer; they had found their challenge and did not need to move on to another class. The skiffs were well adapted to both streams, simple but robust craft with an unrestricted and therefore out of proportion sail area, crewed by sailors already bonded by their family and neighborhood background and looking to follow the family's well worn boating path. Over-rigged, sailed on the edge with fierce rivalry, the skiffs were their weekly adventure to look forward too.


The Cremorne Sailing Club in 1914 is recognized as the first club to promote 12-foot skiff racing, and three of the Muston family, a well known sailing name on the harbour at the time, owned skiffs withy that club. It only lasted a short period and is understood to have ceased around 1917. The Lane Cove Club (originally founded in 1896) and reformed around 1916 then took over the class, and as the Lane Cove 12 Foot Sailing Club it has been a mainstay for 12-foot skiffs ever since. In 1924 the Greenwich Flying Squadron was formed nearby at Greenwich, and in 1926 another club was formed at Vaucluse. 1924 was also the year the class adopted an unrestricted sail area, up to this point they had a comparatively small sail plan, but with the abolition of that rule the boats quickly began to develop exceptionally large sail areas. They were planked as seam-batten carvel hulls in Queensland cedar, and sailed by four crew, with gaff mains, ringtails and enormous spinnakers. The rig dwarfed the tiny hull, and nothing has changed with that concept over the decades.

By the mid 1920s the NSW skiffs were competing between clubs for a state pennant awarded to the boat with the best record over three races. However 1926 marked a major milestone in the class development when the first Australian Championship was held. Ben Roff from the Greenwich Flying Squadron decided to take his club champion 12-footer SCHEMER to Brisbane to race with two 12s being built in Brisbane and to promote the class on the Brisbane River. In Queensland J Gould built VICTORY while the legendary Brisbane shipwright Alf Whereat took two feet from the stern of a 14 foot skiff he was building and finished it off as a 12-footer called DEFIANCE, and promptly won this inaugural event. Queensland then established club racing for the skiffs and very quickly built a solid foundation of crews and boats to match the NSW clubs.

With both states having strong fleets the Australian Championship became a regular event, closely fought and honours were evenly shared. Ben Roff in SCHEMER eventually won four events, but Queenslanders Jack McCleer in DOVE I and J Crouch in C.C.II also took the honours as the event location alternated between the states. Both states had also formed 12 Foot Skiff Councils to oversee the individual clubs racing 12-footers, and in NSW the first president was well known champion sailor and designer James Alderton. Alderton had been a founding member of the 21-Foot Restricted Class of yachts, by this time the premier national yacht racing class, and subsequently designed and established the Australian 12 Foot Cadet dinghy class, the primary national training dinghy, so he was an excellent person to guide the new council through its early years. Meanwhile another towering figure in Australian and Queensland yachting and commerce, the 'pearl king' James Clark (d. 1933) had awarded the James Clark Memorial Cup to be raced for in conjunction with the Australian Championships.

Numbers were impressive, the Australian Aquatic Annual in 1937 lists six NSW clubs sailing 12 foot skiffs, with a combined total of over 80 craft registered amongst them. One was skippered by a lady Miss Kath Farr, and in 1936 she won the James Clark Memorial Trophy in AUSSIE, representing the Vaucluse Club.

The skiffs continued in both states after the war, and development centered on the potential for a narrower hull form, three handed skiff. Success came in the early 1950s with ESTRALLITA from Queensland, skippered by sailmaker 'Chic' Ware and designed and built by Don Piper. Having established the potential other similar designs followed and as the decade moved ahead the concept was refined in both states. The major change in direction for the class at this time came toward the end of the 1950s with the introduction of an Interdominion Championship, initially raced for by a combination of 12-foot dinghy and skiff classes from Australia and New Zealand.


In New Zealand an unrestricted style of 12 footer began in 1951 with boatbuilder Dave Marks at the Glendowie Boating Club in Auckland. He demonstrated the value of increasing the sail area on the 12 foot long Pennant Class and this led to the Q Class of unrestricted 12-footers. A Q Class Owner's Association was formed in 1955-56 with racing at the Tamaki Yacht Club

The idea of a cross-Tasman contest began soon after when New Zealand 18-foot skiff crews who also sailed in the various 12-foot classes in New Zealand came to in Australia for the 18-footer championships. In discussion with their Australian colleagues they all noted that 12-footers were being raced in various forms on both sides of the Tasman. An Interdominion series was suggested, open to all classes of 12 foot long skiff or sailing dinghy, and the first event took place in January 1957 on Sydney Harbour.

The New Zealand visitors were led by Don Brooke, owner of the Q class NIMBLE. The fleet included three Q class from New Zealand, six 12-foot skiffs from NSW and one from Queensland, four Victorian Gwen 12s, five NSW Gwen 12s, one Gwen 12 from South Australia and two Port Phillip 12s. The Interdominion series was also held in conjunction with the Australian Championships, which was still considered the primary event for the Australian 12-footers at that time. The event comprised four heats and included a ruling that any capsize meant instant disqualification; in fact if any of the Australian 12s capsized they became swamped and could not be righted again. The Silasec Trophy for the winner was donated by Mr. Keith Golding of Sealwall Trading Company, who had an association with the Abbotsford Club, and the winner was NSW Gwen 12 FARWAC sailed Frank Rance and Bill Cavey. Gwen’s had always been sailed by two crew, one on trapeze, and the 12-footers were now adopting something similar, and soon had both crew on the trapeze.

At a 1957 meeting it was decided that six boats would represent each dominion, the 2nd edition of the Interdominion constitution was reviewed by the Australian clubs, and a note was inserted indicating "that the NSW Association pay for the repair of the beds at the NZ team accommodation". The larrikin side of the sport was very much alive.

Innovation was the next highlight, but the actual novel idea was soon banished. The second series in 1959 was held in Auckland New Zealand, and only two Australian boats went across, the remainder of the Australian fleet went to Brisbane for the Australian Championships as they considered it more important. Meanwhile the resounding winner of the Interdominion series was a NZ catamaran called KITTY, 12 feet long and skippered by John Peet, which had joined the Q class in 1958. Fortunately the catamarans broke away and formed their own class known as 'Kittycats', but a legacy of that incident is a clause in the hull definition that effectively rules out catamarans.

The third event took place in Sydney in early January 1961 over 5 heats. This event established two precedents - a new venue of Clifton Gardens on Sydney Harbour (including the temporary erecting of a marquee to house the boats) and the Australian championships were no longer part of the event. The series also included two Gwen 12s, two Port Phillip 12s, and six Cherubs from New Zealand alongside the New Zealand Q class and Australian 12-foot skiffs. The NSW team was chosen by selection based on race results, but NZ dominated the sailing with FLAMINGO skippered by John Chapple winning 3 of the 4 heats. The best Australian boat was 'VALHALLA skippered by Alan Ridley from Greenwich which placed 9th.

For the 1963 event in Auckland, the NSW Association made preparations to ensure a larger, quality team was sent and even commissioned a blazer as part of a uniform. At the event two proposals were adopted, the series would be held each year, and the previous winner was automatically able to defend the title if they sailed in the same boat. FLAMINGO skippered by John Chapple then managed this feat, and defended its title successfully.

The 5th Interdominion was held in 1965 sailing from Clifton Gardens, and was won by John Chapple in a new boat SOPRANINO, but as he had migrated to Australia, he represented NSW. The NZ team won the inaugural Don Brooke Trophy for the best overall team results, and the NZ Trade Commissioner attended the presentation night, a reflection on the importance attached to the series. New Zealand continued through the decade with wins to Don Lidgard, then Russell Bowler in JENNIFER JULIAN, the first of the foam sandwich hulls, and Bruce Farr. sailing BEAZLEY HOMES, a sign of the times as sponsorship began to be involved. Farr and Bowler were later to become the driving force behind Bruce Farr yacht designs, one of the top international firms from the 1980s onwards, and Lidgard and his crew Tony Bouzaid have been at the top of the sail making industry in NZ. The only Australian to win was Dave Porter in AUSSIE in 1966 and 1967.

Australia then began a long period of domination over the 70s and 80s. Long time 12-footer skipper Michael Chapman won in 1972 with POL, and introduced downwind gybing angles to the class. The stitch-and-glue plywood hulls and then the bigger safety-first boats pushed the performance ahead. Some sailors were now helped by sponsorship which covered some of the costs, but it was still very much an amateur, self-funded sport for most sailors. Teenager Iain Murray, later to dominate 18-foot skiffs with seven successive world titles, moved into 12s from the Cherub Class. With a big, relatively safe hull of his own design called SUNSET MOTELS he won the 1975 series. Michael Coxon then won successive trophies in 1976 and 1977, a feat repeated by Larry Cargill and then Alan Broadbent in the 1980s.

Throughout this period the New Zealanders kept sailing, but reached a critical low point in 1983 when they could only afford to enter one crew, who sailed a borrowed NSW boat in a series sailed from the Vaucluse Club. Their fortunes were reversed soon after in 1985, when Tim Bartlett won the first of his six Interdominion titles in his Australian designed hull called DIMENSION SAILCLOTH, the only NZ winner from 1969 to 1991. Other hulls were built and the class expanded again. The 1992 Interdominions went to the NZ team in BAYFERROX, and then Australia won it back with GUS & DICKS EXCELLENT ADVENTURE.

From 1993/94 through to 2001/2002 New Zealand was on top, including four successive wins to Tim Bartlett in DIMENSION POLYANT SAILCLOTH, a feat that has never been repeated. After that the title has changed between the two countries every year or so and in 2003 Queensland scored its first win when Paul O'Malley Jones won in EAST COAST PILE & DRILLING. In 2011 the current holder after an exciting series on Sydney's Parramatta River hosted by the Lane Cove club is DIMENSION POLYANT SAILCLOTH, but this is now an Australian boat sailed by Nic Press. It has successfully defended its championship win from 2010 in Auckland. The 52nd series will be sailed in Auckland in January 2012.

Over the years the Interdominions have been raced at a number of clubs in Sydney, in Brisbane, at Saratoga north of Sydney, in Auckland and Wellington NZ, and down at Geelong in Victoria. It has been the premier event on the 12-footer calendar for decades and is often closely followed by the yachting media.

However it was not the only series In Australia or New Zealand. NSW and Queensland sailed their own state championship series, and then joined together for an Australian title, often sailed during Easter over four heats. Individual club Invitation races were also held throughout the season. Around Sydney this created a challenge for some as they tackled the difficult, narrow courses at Abbotsford and Lane Cove. It was always a relief to spend the weekend in November at Saratoga for their Invitation races on Brisbane Waters at the Central Coast - open water without ferries, headlands, rocks or Searle's Monument to get wrapped around. In New Zealand they also sailed their own local titles and special events, and for reasons best known to them they even sailed occasionally on the lake or duck pond at Hamilton in the centre of the North Island.

Wherever they sail 12-foot skiffs grab people's attention; somewhere under that huge rig is a boat, with crew on trapeze, the whole thing looks balanced yet it is being constantly trimmed by the crew and sailing way faster than anything else around its size. The attraction and challenge of the 12-foot skiff should ensure its longevity for many more seasons.


The class has always been at the forefront of lightweight construction relative to the era, but the contrast between the first cedar hulls and the 2011 composite hulls is huge.

The early hulls were cedar planked, seam-batten carvel construction, supported by closely spaced hardwood frames, a hard wood keel and stem, stringers or risers for the thwarts, solid timber masts, and steel plate centreboards- all typical for the era of open boats, craft that swamped when you capsized. It is the opposite of the 2011 monocoque composite paneled hulls. These have minimal internal framework, they are allowed buoyancy tanks and a foredeck, they have carbon fibre spars, and if they capsize they can be righted and then sail on with a chance to win. The modern 12 still shares the concept of carrying as much sail as possible, but has evolved to reflect the technology of the times.

The evolution has largely been a story of finding ways to make a faster boat, usually looking to make it lighter and narrower, or improving the rig. This has been achieved through occasional significant changes followed by periods of incremental improvements. Among the constants has been the option of different rigs to suit the weather, changing from the original solution of just having a smaller suit of sails to the multiple three and sometimes four complete sets of masts and sails, with the rig chosen at the last minute based on the expected pattern for the race.

The first cedar planked hulls were relatively buoyant, with plenty of volume forward of the mast. Some sported a snub bow, popular on the 14-foot skiffs and seen briefly on three 18-foot skiffs, but otherwise the conventional sharp stem was used with flared sections above the waterline. They had to support four crew members, and a big sailplan ready to drive the nose under if things got out of control. They were built over moulds, probably based on carved half models, but the legendary Queensland builder Alf Whereat conjured up his first 12 by cutting two feet off the stern of a fourteen footer he was building.

The boom and bowsprit extended the length of the vessel to over twice its 12 foot long hull. The rig was a gaff, soon peaked up so high that it was a gunter style, with no topsail. This was the status quo up to the Second World War, hull and sail shapes were refined, rigs tweaked and sail areas crept up as they pushed the limits of what might be possible. Spinnakers were set on poles made up in two sections.

After the war the first significant change occurred with the introduction of a narrower hull and a three person crew. Queensland boat ESTRALLITA was the first of this type to be successful; it was designed by builder Don Piper, and sailed by sailmaker 'Chic' Ware to win the 1951 and 1953 Australian Championships. Another person who thought the idea might work was naval architect Alan Payne. In the late 1940s he drew a narrow, smaller hull design for long time 12-foot skiff skipper Malcolm Anderson. The first of these designs was not built, but later BROLGA's designed by Payne for Anderson followed this path that was now the preferred concept for the 1950s boats.

The 1960s boats sported Marconi or Bermudan rigs, the gaff disappearing in the 1950s. They introduced the crew on trapeze, and crew numbers were down to two by the end of the decade. Lightweight plywood construction was adopted, either as moulded hulls or plywood chine shapes. Centreboards were wooden, sailcloth was nylon or Dacron, and with reduced spring or curvature to the hull bottom profile they planed across the water, inspired by the Cherub and Gwen 12 designs that were now popular and rival 12 foot long classes. In Australia Dennis Dignam, a forward hand and builder brought out a series of round bilge designs which pushed on into the early 70s as the dominant style. Russell Bowler with JENNIFER JULIAN introduced a foam and fibreglass construction hull, with a clean looking interior. It was ahead of its time, and the method was not widely adopted until the mid 1970s. Meanwhile the Farr designs from New Zealand introduced the U-sectioned hull shape.

Early in the 1970s Phil Stevenson brought the tortured stitch-and-glue plywood method with the seams stitched together before being taped and sealed with fibreglass. He produced a veed narrow shape and once again, a smaller hull. WALPURGIS WRATH showed enough potential for the Kulmar Bros to build their own version VAGABOND, another Interdominion winner.

Iain Murray introduced the next big change in direction in the mid 1970s, a reverse in the trend to small and narrow. Murray built a higher freeboard, bigger volume hull that could carry a powerful rig, bigger crew and was safer to push hard downwind. His first boat SUNSET MOTELS won the Interdominions, and later hulls for PHILLIPS, ADVANX RUBBER and INTERNATIONAL PAINTS refined his ideas for planing shapes with wide transoms and fine bows. Michael Coxon developed U sectioned double chine shapes starting with CONTRACT ENGINEERING that had fuller bows and narrower sterns to reduce the nose-diving dramas, while other designers such as Bill Bollard and sailmaker Bruce Hewish with FRESHWATER SAILS developed their own versions along the same themes. The final stage in this avenue was David Payne's SOS MARINE hull for the Walsh Bros at Vaucluse. With fair lines, little hollow or concavity at the bow, no concave flare, parallel bottom sections aft and a more even shape all round it was a balance between speed and safety. Tim Bartlett in New Zealand recognised it as the fastest hull of the 1984 season, and built a balsa and fibreglass version DIMENSION SAILCLOTH that won the Interdominions in 1985. Sister hulls were built and began a revival of the class in Auckland.

1985/86 brought the next big step, and once again it was a narrower hull shape. NS 14 designer Michael Nash pulled the waterline in and drew semi-circular hull bottom panels with his AERO design, and once crews mastered the lower stability in maneouvers it was clearly the fastest shape. He produced variations to suit different crew weights, and his designs dominated the titles well into the 90s. By the end of the 1980s the fixed spinnaker pole on the centreline had replaced the two and three-section mast mounted poles that had survived decades as the means of setting huge spinnakers. The high aspect ratio rigs developed in the 1960s and 70s had big mainsail roaches, lots of mast bend and generous rake aft. The combination, aided by the ability of the fixed pole to lift the bow rather than drive it under, pushed the craft to a new level of performance, it was all becoming a little easier to handle and generally less dangerous downwind, so crews just pushed them harder.

The introduction of carbon fibre spars as the standard material reduced rig weights and therefore improved stability, but this was then interpreted as a means of reducing hull width again. The Jim Walsh and Brendon Egan WOOF design from around 2000 had no chines and was a clean looking easily driven hull shape, with a bit more spring to the keel line. It was made freely available for class members to use and the association owned the mould, making it a cheaper hull. It became the standard design, but also allowed others to experiment with changes to suit their own ideas. Alex Vallings reintroduced a chine and managed to reduce waterline beam, while Queensland Cherub builder Brendon Matthews has brought out the narrow, flatter bottom slab sided style seen before in Moths and Cherubs, with the design winning the Interdominions in 2008. Variations on all these ideas are now amongst the fleet, while rig development has brought out square top mainsails that begin to look like gaff sails, and rig development is again asserting itself as the area for the next improvements.

In the past 'Chick' Ware had been one of the key sailmakers after World War II, then followed by Jack Hamilton, both from Queensland. In the 70s, Sydney based Bruce Hewish, Michael Coxon and Kevin Wadham shared the market, before Michael Carter perfected many of the details to produce consistently superb rigs. Ben Gemmell is now one of the prime sailmakers in Sydney. In New Zealand Ken Fyfe has been a primary sailmaker and rig designer for some decades. Once thing shared by all these names is that they have sailed in the class and almost all have been champions at some point.


This is a class that can take pride in some of the great names who have been part of it alongside the unsung heroes, and most of the now well known sailors were yet to make their mark at the time they sailed 12-footers. They moved on to become champions in other classes, Olympic sailors, America's Cup sailors, internationally respected designers, boatbuilders, sail makers, and public figures in non-sailing related professions. Bruce Farr teamed with Russell Bowler to set up Farr's yacht design business, which has been at the forefront of the profession since the 1980s. Don Lidgard and Tony Bouzaid are reknowned sail makers in New Zealand. Iain Murray went on to dominate the 18-Foot skiffs for seven years, and has since been involved in the America’s Cup and the Olympics. Michael Coxon started his own sail making business, but ended up as a senior part of the huge American North Sails business, as well as being a sought after helmsman on offshore racing yachts. Adrienne Cahalan is a senior maritime lawyer and much sought after navigator for offshore events, including round the world races. Bowler's crew in 1968/69 was Don McGlashan, now one of New Zealand's most popular and well known contemporary musicians.

All of these people though would recognize the sailing ability of one of the stalwarts of the class in the 70s and 80s, Peter Cowie from the Lane Cove Club. Peter lost an arm in a tram accident as a youth, but this setback did not stop him from following the family path of skiff sailing. For years he skippered his 12- footer COWIE ENGINEERING with longtime crew Ross Gardner, rarely missing a race and as a team they often showed more able bodied crews how to do things.

Text prepared with assistance from Glenn Farquhar and the 12-Foot Skiff Association of NSW. David Payne, the Curator of the ARHV was once a 12 foot skiff forward hand, and designed 12 foot skiffs in the 1980s.