Skippers and their boats

Lightning on Sydney Harbour
Lightning on Sydney Harbour

Skippers and their boats

- as told by Dennis Burchill -

(October 2009)

When I joined the Brisbane 16ft Skiff Club in 1947, the skippers were on a par with the best in Australia. Anyone winning from a scratch start, in a normal club race, could travel interstate and hold their own with the best in the land. All my skiff sailing was as a crew member with Ron Wright, of the famous Wright family, and a very capable skipper. All his skiffs were named after his sister Joyce, but shortened to Joy. In my 10 years as a crewhand there were two Joys, Joy V and Joy VI. Our opposition always kept us honest, in the form of Vic Lucas, John Thorburn, Horrie Crouch, Cyril Pitman, Lucky Holstock and Col Johnston. I would like to present a word picture of all the skippers that I knew and the skiffs that they sailed.

Vic Lucas. Certainly one  of the finest skippers to pick up a tiller, having won 52 championships in the 16's, 18's and restricted yachts, over a period of more than 40 years, and a true gentleman, with a kind word for everyone he met. In the period that I competed against him, he was sailing Vi V and Vi VI for the owner Bob Dath. The skiffs were named after Vida Nissen of the Jewellery family who dies after eating oysters off the rocks at Newstead, and who was a close friend of Bob Dath's.

John Thorburn in his skiff Chillie III always finished amongst the leaders. He had a reputation as a hard skipper, never giving up at any part of the course and with a full vocabulary of common english swear words.

Horrie Crouch sailed Venture to many successes over more than fifteen years. Horrie excelled in light winds and saw an Australian title slip from his grasp on the Brisbane river by choosing the wrong bank for a run to the finish.

Ron Wright was a brilliant tactician, and won two Australian titles in his Joy's, with his ability to outsmart the opposition when the chips were down.

Harold Watts had a good mentor in his father Lance, but he proved that he was up to the challenge in driving Frolic over the line in first place on many occasions.

One of the real characters in sailing was Eric 'Lucky' Holstock. Eric married and lived at Albion with his mother Sally, who followed every race with keen interest. Eric sailed several skiffs including Ajax VIII, but the skiff he sailed at our club was Maratana owned by the Yates brothers.

Jack Hamilton graduated from the trainees to the skiffs after his father bought the former Imp and renamed it JMH. He had moderate success.

Cyril Pitman was also a trainee graduate, with a long list of successes in this class. On graduating to the greyhounds of the sea, he proved to be a formidable opponent with his skiff Narwhal.

Another to come up from the junior ranks was Col Johnson. His first skiff was a pine boat built by George Marks which used to make up the numbers, but this changed when Bill Dickinson who owned three skiffs at the one time had a fire sale. Col was offered his choice of any of the three skiffs and he picked one called Atomic built by Norman Wright. He called it Niloc which is his name spelt backwards, and as it was his second skiff he added two after Niloc. He was very successful with this skiff, winning the South Queensland Championship, and many club races.

Some of the other skippers I remember at this time were Black Adder - Peter Grant, Destiny - Wally Johnson, and Cleone - Nev Buckley.

The skiffs changed forever when Jack Cassidy turned up for the Australian Championships on Waterloo Bay in 1955 with a black plywood sharpie called Evelyn which won the title and made all the cedar carvel hulled skiffs redundant. Much the pity but you can't stand in the way of progress. Most of the skippers I have mentioned have passed on but it was my privilege and pleasure to have met them, sailed with and against them, and I feel I am a better person for having done so.

Although the skippers from the Brisbane Skiff Club feature prominently in past winners of Australian championships, the other brisbane clubs provide spirited opposition in all races that they contested. South Brisbane skiff club had 'Tinner' Ware in Irene, Sam Lucas in Graylex, Wally Wallace in Frolic, Arthur Venemore in Athenic, George Milne in Joyous, 'Chic' Ware in Flight, and John Kennedy in Atlanta.

The Darling Point Skiff Club provided many tried and proven skippers, especially in heavy weather. 'Wilfie' Port in Mercia was the stand out champion, however he was kept honest by Reg Lipke in Heather, Val Curtis in Cardonia, Frank Paten in Quick Step, Ron Fletcher in Flight, and Don Piper in Revel.

On the other side of the bay at Sandgate, the Sandgate Skiff Club also featured excellent heavy weather sailors in the form of Len Johnson in Marina, Bill Stanley in Perth, Graham Kattens in The Trump, 'Aussie' Walker in Alowyn, Les Dommit in Scammp, and Sam Buchanan in Query.

I believe I sailed with the 'Sixteens' at the height of their popularity and it saddens me that the numbers have dropped to the point that you can count the skiffs competing in club races with the fingers of one hand. No one can take away from me the memories of the hundreds of wonderful human beings that I have met through the sport of sailing, and to the lifetime friendships that I have formed with many of them. When my time comes to cross the bar, I hope to meet up with them again.

Dennis Burchill (October 2009)

16ft Skiffs in early 30's
Frolic on the Milton Reach
Start of Skiff Race
Waterloo Bay 1952
Down the mine at Colmslie
January 1st 1934 Trophy Race
Entertainment at Skiff Club
Ladies Committee
Bob Dath's Boat Shed
Easter Carnival - Scarness Beach 1952
Barmen Brisbane Skiff Club

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