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A  VJ sailing on Sydney Harbour off Vaucluse

VJ Class

1931 - 2012

The VJ class has been an outstanding Australian racing dinghy for training young people since the first boat was launched in the early 1930s. Two prototypes led to an initial small fleet sailing out of Vaucluse in Sydney’s east, but over a few years spread around the state and then nationally. The design was a combined effort from two sailing enthusiasts Sil Rohu and Charles Sparrow, supported by their fellow club members. Created during the Depression era in response to the difficult social and economic times, it then thrived when the situation improved, and maintained a strong following over the post war decades despite developments in yachting that had made other classes obsolete.

Sil Rohu and Charles Sparrow combined to produce the design of the VJ, but the first ideas came from Rohu who was a founding member of the Vaucluse 12 ft Amateur Sailing Club in 1926. He owned a prominent sports goods store in Elizabeth Street Sydney, and was a keen sailor and fisherman. During 1931, Rohu put down his ideas for a sailing boat which would be designed specifically for children and teenagers as a training and racing craft. The only craft that had been designed and built for young sailors was the heavy Cadet dinghy from the mid-1920s, It had been popular, but the Depression era made craft like that very costly to build and own, and Rohu could see an alternate concept. He was heavily involved in community support activities, and could see that a simple easily built sailing boat would help in various ways, many of them social. It would allow fathers and sons to build a craft together at home, and provide a low cost activity in difficult times, as well as then providing a healthy sporting outlet.

There were three major objectives in the concept for the craft:
• It was to be crewed by two 2 children or teenagers so they could learn about sailing and racing together
• The boat would be unsinkable and easy to right after a capsize ( unlike the heavy, open Cadet which would remain swamped if it capsized)
• The boat would be inexpensive and could be made by a father and son

Charles Sparrow was a sailing colleague of Rohu at Vaucluse, and an ex Cockatoo Dockyard shipwright apprentice who had then taken several jobs from 1928 until 1931. He was out of work at the time he combined with Rohu to help with the project by drawing the plans to develop the design and then allowed amateurs to build the craft.

Sparrow produced the first plans within a week, and the prototype SPLINTER was built by the members of the Vaucluse 12 ft Amateur Sailing Club in their clubhouse. It was launched on May 1st 1931 but trials showed it had low stability so they widened the chines by two inches or 50 mm overall and this became the final shape. A second boat CHUM was then built by the Vaucluse 12 ft Sailing Club members in their clubhouse and was launched in August. Two sailing club members F. Sargent and R. Banks built the first two prototype VJs, supported by Sil Rohu who covered all the costs for the two boats. After CHUM’s successful launch and trials more boats were built to establish a small class quite quickly. The plans went on sale for 10 shillings and 6d. The timber materials - Pacific maple, clear Oregon and Colonial Pine cost 4 pounds 10 shillings; fastenings were 13 shillings and 6 pence, sails were 3 pounds 5 shillings. The early VJ cockpits had oiled canvas, wood or galvanised iron lining to make them as waterproof as possible and there was also a small hand plunger pump. From the mid-1930s marine plywood was used for the planking and decks. It had a mild steel 3/16 in plate centreboard.

Rohu called the class the ‘Vaucluse Junior’ which soon became ‘VJ’. Rohu’s boatshed at his The Crescent Vaucluse residence was the first Vaucluse Junior Amateur Sailing Association headquarters, meeting place and storage shed. The first class race and therefore the official year the class was founded was 1933. As numbers grew the nearby McKlellan’s boatshed at the south end of Kutti Beach was used and eventually a new clubhouse was built nearby in Marine Parade. It housed VJs and the bigger VS class boats as well and was opened in October 1939. This club later became the Vaucluse Yacht Club.

The class continued to grow and spread to the other states. Plans were also sold to countries overseas, but the stronghold was always Australia. During the 1940sto 60s the well-known department store Nock and Kirby’s sold the VJ plans plus the materials needed to build the boat, and amateur builders all-round the country were able to make their own VJ. Professional builders also made craft, and many champion sailors in other classes began their racing in a VJ. Bob Miller, Kay Cottee and Warwick Hood are just some of the famous names to have raced a VJ. Fiberglass versions became available, and the boats were improved by adding sliding planks to lean further out board.

In 2012 the class is gearing up for its 80th anniversary in 2013, and remains popular around the country in a number of locations.