The original pocket-rocket, the Balmain Bug is one of the 6ft skiffs which used to hurtle around Sydney Harbour, and a predecessor to the iconic 18ft Skiffs. Crosbie Lorimer discovered what it takes to keep this unlikely looking boat the right way up
The Balmain Bug is a 1.83m (6ft) Australian skiff class dinghy, of which just two remain in existence. First raced in 1899 at Balmain in Sydney, the fleet expanded throughout the 1900s, until it was overtaken by the larger skiffs, including the iconic 18-footers.
Ask any Sydneysider what they know about the ‘Balmain Bug’ and they’ll probably tell you about the primordial, lobster-like creature at the Sydney Fish markets. Few residents of the Emerald City – most sailors included – would know of the other Balmain Bug, a tiny historic wooden skiff replica with a 6ft long hull and an absurdly oversized rig that trebles her length overall.
Looking for all the world like a children’s toy that a couple of adults have hijacked for a laugh, most people’s reaction to first sighting the Balmain Bug under sail is to chuckle. But the heritage of the 6ft skiff has its roots in what was arguably the genesis of Australian sailing’s rich sailing culture and its high profile on the international racing scene today. It can also boast a direct lineage to the current lightweight carbon 18ft skiffs that skate across Sydney Harbour every summer Sunday afternoon.
Fame and fortunes
Modelled on the carvel seam construction of the American open whaling boats that frequented Australia’s coastline in the late 1800s, the first Sydney Harbour skiffs quickly became a highly competitive development class, ranging in length from 6-22ft and boasting as much sail as they could conceivably carry.
In their heyday during the 1920s the skiff classes would attract football-sized spectator crowds afloat and ashore, with prize money on offer and large sums changing hands through illegal betting on the day’s winner.
As the smallest of the Australian skiff family, the ‘six footer’ was typically built and raced by young adults, many of whom were apprentices in the dockyards on the Parramatta River, upstream of the Harbour Bridge.
Campbell Reid, commodore of the Balmain Sailing Club and forward hand for our demonstration sail of the Balmain Bug, relates that there was a strong correlation between the length of boats built and the changing fortunes of the owners: “The legend is that the boats cost a pound per foot. So, when times were good you built a 22-footer and when they were tough you built a ten-footer or a six-footer!”
Balmain Bug is one of only two replica six-footers in existence today. Built in 1994 by boatbuilder Ian Smith she resides in the dinghy shed of her owners, Balmain Sailing Club. She makes occasional guest appearances at regattas, usually sailed by Reid and his skipper David Hodgson, both of whom are former ‘skiffies’ in the 12, 16 and 18-footers.
“When we got it out of the shed the first time, everyone told us it was pretty much impossible to sail. It’s not impossible to sail at all, but it’s very much like any of the other skiffs, really – too much sail and not enough boat!” says Reid.
Trim to win
Despite the chasm between the top boat speed of a six-foot skiff (perhaps 8-10 knots) and its modern counterparts such as the 49er, many of the sailing techniques are common to old and new. “I hang onto the jib sheet,” says Hodgson, who helms the boat, “as you can feel when the gust comes that the head wants to go away; if you let the headsail out a few inches she’ll stay straight.”
“Originally we had it the other way around,” adds Reid. “But by the time the crew eases the sheet it’s too late, the bow’s going away, so as forward hand I trim the main.”
“It’s weird when you think about the crew having the mainsheet, because I was racing in a 49er championship recently and it’s exactly the same thing,” he adds.
LWL 1.8m (6ft)
LOA 5.5m (18ft)
Beam 1.6m (5ft 3in)
Weight circa. 105kg
Upwind sail area 13m2 (140ft2)
Downwind sail area 13m2 (140ft2)
For such a short and beamy hull, fore and aft trim is more critical than correcting lateral heel, with close quarters choreography required to counter the boat’s penchant for ‘going down the mine’.
“Downwind it wants to bury itself,” says Reid. “But then if the bowsprit is a foot out of the water the whole boat is rearing up in the air; so you really try to keep it [the bowsprit] just kissing the water.”
The need for coordinated movement is no less challenging when the boat is on the breeze either. “Upwind we sail with the bowsprit in the water; it sort of tricks the boat into believing it’s bigger than it is,” says Hodgson.
Tacking looks like a coordinated limbo dance under the boom and over the tiller, but the turn through the wind is actually swifter than one might imagine, accelerated by the short hull length.
Gybing is, however, a major undertaking, with the three-part spinnaker pole having to be dismantled and re-assembled on the new gybe before the spinnaker can be re-trimmed. “For gybing you need two halyards, because they are cleated off at the stern [acting as a quasi running backstay for the spinnaker which is set from the peak of the gaff], so it’s fair to say gybing is something we avoid,” says Reid wryly.
“Life’s too short for gybing,” quips the skipper. “And besides, we’re usually in enough trouble as it is!”
Not surprisingly the six-foot skiff has a relatively modest upper wind limit of about 15 knots, with even the shortest waves amplifying its submarine tendencies. The Balmain Bug does have a smaller rig for her higher wind range, but since Reid and Hodgson have been in charge it has not seen the light of day.
“Yes, we have a smaller rig” says Reid, “but we are believers in the old skiff adage: ‘big rigs win big races’.”