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RIVAL  from the 1930s on display at Wharf 7, Darling Harbour.

16-Foot Skiff Class

1901 - 2011

The 16-Foot Skiff Class of Australian sailing skiffs, the legendary open boat classes almost unique to the country, has been widely adopted around the nation. In 2011 it is probably the strongest of the major skiff classes with significant fleets racing locally and at the major championship events. The main centres were NSW, Queensland and Western Australia, where the class had support in the regional areas of these states, rather than being restricted to the major cities which has been the general situation with the 12-Foot Skiff class and 18-Foot Skiff class. In contrast to these skiffs, the 16s adopted a limited set of restrictions to the hull and sail areas, and have found a balance between high performance and controlled development.

Whilst the 16 foot length was one of the many typical sizes of open boats on Sydney Harbour in the second half of the 1800s, it is generally accepted that the formal origins of a 16 foot class date from 1901, when Balmain and Iron Cove boat builder Billy Golding built two identical 16 foot long skiffs that could be rowed or sailed. Called WREN and ROMP, they appear to have been based on a waterman's skiff with the addition of a centre case and sailing rig. More were built, and the ‘Golding skiff’ evolved into a distinct class with the establishment of the Port Jackson Skiff Sailing Club on 6th November 1901. A committee headed by Mr QL Deloitte drafted rules, a constitution and regulations, and the basis of the boat was the dimensions of the Golding hulls, 16 foot long, 5' 6" beam and 21 inches depth. In 1902 the sail area was restricted to 220 sq feet, and in 1910 when spinnakers were introduced, crew numbers were limited to five maximum.

They became known as the Port Jackson Skiff, and whilst they raced as a class around Balmain with the Port Jackson Skiff Sailing Club, examples of the type raced in mixed fleets at other clubs. In 1907 the first race for a NSW Champion was held, with boats coming from Middle Harbour and Vaucluse. By this time a small fleet raced in Queensland with South Brisbane Sailing Club, and on the Brisbane River on Christmas day 1909, MINORU from NSW defeated HEATHER and MURIEL from Queensland to be recorded as the first ever Australian Champion. Fleets were soon established outside of Sydney in NSW at Newcastle on the Hunter River port area and in Toronto on Lake Macquarie. Early in the 1920s a State Association was formed in NSW to coordinate the various clubs now sailing the skiffs.

In the meantime the class was established on the Swan River in Perth, Western Australia after World War I, and in the 1925-26 season, Perth held the first full regatta for the Australian Championship. Skiffs from NSW and Queensland made the long journey to compete. The championship regatta moved to other states and one was held in Hobart Tasmania in 1930-31. The class was introduced into Victoria in 1944 and the state’s first Australian Championship regatta was held in 1949-50.

In 2011 16-foot skiffs are only now racing in NSW and Queensland, with strong support at a small number of regional and city based clubs.

Whilst the original lines and construction grew from Golding’s waterman’s skiff based 16s and stayed more or less the same for two decades, the design evolved when regular interstate competition began in the 1920s. Queensland brought in the no heel skiffs, which had no built- in or deadwood keel, giving a significant increase in speed downwind. Clinker construction also declined in favour of carvel planked seam-batten hulls.

The next significant change was the introduction of plywood hulls in the 1940s, and diagonally planked, moulded timber hulls that were significantly lighter became the fastest hulls. A minimum weight was then introduced to keep that line of development under control. In 1973 fibreglass construction was allowed, and in 1976 this was opened to any form of material being permitted.

Sails began with just cotton material, and spars were wooden, with gaff and then gunter rigs. This then evolved in stages, through the introduction of the Marconi rigged mast and Bermudan main during the 1950s, and followed soon after by synthetic sail cloth, then aluminium spars in the 1960s. During the 1980s a bigger spinnaker was trialled and finally adopted, and crew numbers came down to three. The trapeze had been allowed since the late 1950s, and the fourth crewmember had become almost a token position filled by a lightweight youngster. Asymmetric spinnakers set off fixed poles made their way in during the mid- 1990s to keep up with other skiffs, and a fixed hull design was adopted to try and reduce costs at the same time. The change to allow carbon masts was only made in the 2010/11 season.

In 2011 the 16-Foot Skiff Class is one of the last but also possibly most popular of the original open boat classes that began back in the late 19th century, primarily racing in Sydney and Brisbane.