SYDNEY HARBOUR 18 FOOTERS
Classic Boat|January 2021
The Sydney 18s were among the most radical racing dinghies in the world in their heyday. These days, they still are
NIGEL SHARP

The Sydney Harbour 18-Footers and their development are probably well known throughout most of the sailing world: always seemingly over-canvassed, developing from relatively heavy 19th-century, centreboard boats with lots of crew (some of which, supposedly, had to jump overboard and swim for it at the beginning of a last downwind leg or when the wind went light) to lightning fast skiffs with just three trapezing crew, in the latter part of the 20th century. But what is much less known is that there is still a fleet of traditional 18-Footers actively racing from the wonderfully-named Sydney Flying Squadron on the north shores of Sydney Harbour.

Sailing races were first held on Sydney Harbour at the very beginning of the 1800s and by the middle of the century boats from 6ft (1.8m) to 26ft (8m) were actively raced in large numbers. Mark Foy was a keen sailor and a wealthy businessman who had founded Australia’s first department stores. He wanted to make sailing races more interesting for spectators, in two ways in particular: coloured insignia on sails for easier identifi cation, and staggered handicapped starts to provide exciting finishes. But the established Sydney clubs would have none of it so, in 1891, he and a group of like-minded people formed a new club, the Sydney Flying Squadron. Not only did this allow Foy to further his ideas, but it also provided a base where working-class people could feel much more at home than at other clubs. Many of the SFS’s sailors played rugby league in the winters which is how the tradition of sailing in hooped rugby shirts began. Initially boats of various sizes raced at the new club but it wasn’t long before the 18-Footers emerged as the predominant class.

The 18s had no restriction regarding sail area and so in the 1890s and early 1900s wider beam boats – 8ft (2.6m) or more – emerged to allow them to carry more crew and more sail. But as time went on, some began to think that narrower boats with fewer crew might be faster. Early experiments met with mixed success but in the early 1930s two boats with a 7ft beam and no skeg (or heel, as it is called in Australia) – Aberdare and The Mistake – began to dominate the class. The Sydney Flying Squadron banned the narrow skeg-less boats, as a result of which, in February 1935, the New South Wales 18-Footer Sailing League was formed, where they were welcomed. The number of participating boats soared, with 20–30 boats regularly sailing at each club.

For some years the 18-Footers had attracted large numbers of spectators ashore and afloat on specially chartered ferries, and with this a great deal of gambling took place. The New South Wales Sailing League’s races took place on Sundays which initially caused outrage among religious groups, but it also provided greater opportunities for the bookies, many of whom were committed to horse-racing on Saturdays. A proportion of the gambling money found its way to the two clubs and also to the more successful sailors in the form of prize money.

Soon after the Second World War, boats with a 6ft beam started to appear and, in a strange twist of irony, they were accepted by the Sydney Flying Squadron after the Sailing League banned them.

THE NEED FOR SPEED

But then the boats began to develop at a much faster rate. Hulls were cold-moulded or hard-chined, then built of lightweight composite materials; rigs were bermudan and made up of increasingly modern materials and with vast asymmetric kites set on long bowsprits (known locally as bumkins); and crew numbers were down to just three, each of whom trapezed on formidably wide racks for extra leverage. Today, a fl eet of 16 or so of these boats – now with one-design hulls to keep costs down – are based at the Australian 18-Footers League Club at Double Bay in the south side of Sydney Harbour.

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