[Update below - 14th June] Eighty three years ago, William Fife was commissioned by William Dagg of Melbourne to design for him the latest – and what he hoped would be the fastest, Six Metre racing yacht that had ever been seen in Australia.
Dagg was planning to win one of the most keenly contested interstate yachting trophies in Australia – the Northcote Cup.
In the fickle world of yachting things rarely go to plan.
In her first challenge for the Northcote Cup in January 1931, Toogooloowoo II lost the first heat, won the second heat, and in the deciding heat was leading on the final leg by 3/4rs of a mile. Her opponent, in fluky winds and fading light beat her to the line by 12 seconds.
This did not deter William Dagg – he challenged again and won the Northcote Cup for two contests in a row. The yachting establishment took notice of this beautiful creation of William Fife.
Between the wars Australians was looking for a fast one design class, and after a meeting of the Sydney Yacht Racing Association in 1934, voted to adopt William Fife’s Plan No 790 as the basis for a one design class in Australia.
Fife agreed to make a full set of plans available for £25 per set. Over the next four years a further five yachts were built off the same plans.
The outbreak of war in 1939 brought about a premature end to the one design class and only four yachts managed to race against each other at any one time.
After the war they carried on racing a in mixed fleets and against more modern hulls. Yeoman II – a 1937 Camper and Nicholson build was imported from England in 1947 after being bought from Owen Aisher by William Dagg. Avenger was built in Sydney in 1946 to a Bjarne Aas design.
The Australian Fife Sixes differed from their European counterparts because they were all planked in Huon Pine – a Tasmanian Pine that is very slow growing and incredibly resinous. It is very resistant to rot and is virtually indestructible in saltwater. It ensures that a well built yacht will last for a century or more. All of the surviving Australian Fife sixes have retained all of their original planking.
There is something of a renaissance underway with the Six metre class in Australia. The 1937 Camper and Nicholson Yeoman 11 is nearing the end of a heroic rebuild by her owner Geoff Docker. The Fife Six metres are being rediscovered and, one by one, rescued and restored.
Five of the six hulls have been located. Two are currently overseas – Clipper was sailed to New Zealand in 1999; and Toogooloowoo 11 was sold to European owners in 2006, pending a full restoration.
Each yacht has an amazing history of racing, and ultimately most were converted into small cruising yachts.
The most remarkable tale uncovered so far is the voyage of Clipper. After being converted into a cruising yacht she was sailed by her then owner, Ian Balmer from Sydney – via Lord Howe Island, across the Tasman Sea to Auckland in New Zealand.
She weathered two tropical storms whilst sheltering in Lord Howe and made the passage in 16 ½ days of sailing. Clipper had been optimised for harbour racing and her keel profile was altered to put more lead into her forefoot. This worked around the buoys, but made her a wetter yacht in any seaway. Her owner of the time Jim Kilborn remarked that she was more like a submarine – not the ideal choice of vessel for a Tasman crossing.
Shipwright Simon Sadubin from Sydney Harbour Wooden Boats has commenced a rebuild of the 1937 built Rendezvous. She has undergone a first stage stabilisation and been put back to her open cockpit layout. She is now sailing again under a slightly smaller cruising rig. She will be put back to her original sail plan during a second round of work.
During work on Rendezvous a full set of Fife plans No 790 has been assembled with assistance from Duncan Walker of Fairlie Restorations to ensure that the yachts will be accurately rebuilt to Fife’s original concept.
At the time of writing Simon Sadubin and carpenter, Tom Coventry, from Sydney Harbour Wooden Boats have started a major rebuild of the 1934 built Sjo-Ro for owner Jeremy Arnott.
The Sjo-Ro is a very intact yacht with a racing history spanning almost eight decades. She was still winning races one month before being transported to Sydney Wooden Boats’ boatshed for a restoration that will be completed in time to celebrate her eightieth year afloat.
It is early days for the revival of Australian Fife Six metres but many people are now interested in these yachts as a part of our yachting heritage. They have a unique position of being a true one design class. It is hoped that as many as possible of the original yachts can be restored and brought back together as a small but significant fleet. Sydney Wooden Boats would be happy to be contacted by people who can assist with information about these masterpieces from a bygone age.
Uffa Fox once commented on sailing the Fife six metre, Lintie from Cowes, to Burnham in a rough sea: ‘I thanked Fife from my heart for designing such a well balanced vessel – a little thoroughbred’.
Update 14th June 2o13: We knew there was something familiar about Sydney Harbour Wooden Boats. A site search proved we were right. Back in 2009, as our contribution to Homecoming 2009, we published a series of articles on anything with the name ‘Argyll’ but located elsewhere in the world – a notional repatriation. One of these was a classic yacht, a 50′ gaff-rigged ketch named Ron of Argyll. She was built in 1928 at Robertson’s yard at Sandbank in Cowal and made her way via the West Indies to an arrival in Australia in the early 1970s. In 1990 she went in to the Sydney Wooden Boats yard for major restoration. By 2009 she was one of a small, specialist fleet of tall ships, cruising Australia’s magical Whitsundays, a group of seventy four islands off the coast of Queensland and part of the Great Barrier Reef.
Editor: The article above was written for us by a friend of Mark Riley – the Australian sailor with 20 years experience of Fifes and who is looking for a crew place on any of the Fife fleet taking part in the Fife Regatta from 28th June to 5th July 2013. [Email: firstname.lastname@example.org].Marks’ friend, the author here, is currently restoring a Fife 6 metre in Sydney, about 5 minutes from Mark’s house. Both photographs above are of the Fife yacht of his friend’s, Rendezvous, that Mark sails on in Sydney, on Pittwater – which he describes as ‘the most magical sailing place in the world’. Mark is also sending us photos of Sjo-ro, just into the shed now for a full restoration – and which we will add as an update to this article when we get them.
Note 1: The top photograph shows Rendezvous (ex Georgina) sailing on Port Phillip Bay in 1958, with George Stooke on the helm. Photo: collection of Roger Falkner. The photograph above shows Rendezvous sailing on Pittwater in 2013. Photo: Mark Riley.
Note 2: Contact details for Sydney Harbour Wooden Boats are:
Address: 93 Darley Street Mona Vale NSW 2103
Mobile: 0421 545 294