Our Past

Australian Vintage Model Yachts.




The land of OZ has hidden some of these vintage models for the last 100 years. People would be amazed when told about our history in regards to vintage model yachts. Australians are a resourceful race that can turn theirs hands to almost anything. These vintage models have been found in many places in and around the country.  People have a tendency to just put away stuff, while they are not actually using it, which will be close to hand when they need to have another go at it.


I would suppose we could divide these vintage boats up into eras and they would go something like this, Pre WW1, between wars, Post WW2 and Modern. Now you might think modern can’t be vintage. A modern boat can have all the lines of a vintage model and still be new, for all these boats were new at one stage.


The ‘Balmain Bug’ comes from a waterfront sport that had its roots in the boatmen (circa 1860s) of Balmain on Sydney’s, Western Harbour. This suburb of Sydney is roughly a mile as the crow flies from the city and has the harbour on two sides of it. The place in the early days was for the working class who were engaged in shipbuilding, waterside workers, and of all things, coal mining for there was actually a working coal mine in Balmain. There was some sailing clubs there as apposed to Yacht Clubs, that were for the gentry. The sailing (skiff) clubs were for the workers.


These skiff people had strict rules about who could skipper a skiff in racing. And at what age a person had to be to do this irrespective of how much money a family had. The sons of people sailing skiffs didn’t have much chance of joining in this skiff racing at a young age except as a bailer-boy on a skiff. So if one wanted to participate one could join a model sailing club in and around Balmain or at the many ponds around in Southern Sydney. These models were a lot like the full-size boats having skiff proportions with a pointed bow and broad transoms, with a long bowsprit, (that they called a ‘bumpkin), arching out from the bow.  A huge amount of sail festooned the sailing rig. This big rig gave these little boats a startling performance downwind. The only difference to the bigger boats was a keel protruding from the bottom of the hull in place of a dagger board. With a bulb type piece of lead on the bottom.


After a while these model skiffs started to develop their own followers. It wasn’t long before the local larrikins started to bet on them, for there was no betting on anything in NSW on Sundays. For it was highly illegal practice and it could be carried on in virtual seclusion in ferries. This developed a lot of local interest, particularly among the gambling working class. In the model history (1900 to 1954) it attracted a lot of the famous names of the full-size skiff sailors, who started in these model fleets as boys. This model skiff racing was practiced only as a winter sport, as apposed to the big skiffs, which were only raced in summer.


The Balmain Bug as it is now called was divided into classes based on length of the actual hull such as: 8”, 10”, 12”, 18”, 2ft and 32”er.  The 32”ers are an actual scale version of the 16 foot Skiffs that sailed around Balmain, even to this day. Only some clubs sailed more than one class.


These boats really stand out from the normal type of model yachts, for it is quite squat, as though it was chopped off at some stage. The boat was mostly underwater when it was sailing with only this enormous mast and sails showing, with the owner’s colour patch on the Mainsail to identify it. Never the less these little boats could attain some phenomenal speeds that could out distance two fit oarsmen in a very quick time. There are still legendary stories of this happening in the upper Sydney Harbour where this sport was practiced. These little models were raced as a fleet around a proper triangular course, with an attending rowing boat for each model. The rowing boat and the model skiff were considered as a sailing unit. There was only one race per day. They were sailed only on Sunday for the locals were fanatical about their football (Rugby League) in a big way. So they had a pleasant time of Open water model skiff racing on Sundays and ‘footy’ on Saturdays in winter.  The model skiff racing fraternity was divided up into the professionals and the hobbyist clubs. Both received Money prizes. A first prize in the professional model skiffs was 35 shillings (per race) or about a normal labourers weekly wage for those days.


The racing model skiffs finally died out in about (circa) 1954. I have been told many reasons for this occurrence. The version I like is; there was a big race on Iron Cove. Four ferries containing the barrackers and punters of the Drummoyne Model 2ft Sailing Club were watching this model skiff race. The favorite was heavily backed to win for it was the scratch boat. In actual fact it was coming last, coming into the last leg of the course. The bookies, friends or some persons (who will remain nameless) picked up the loosing scratch boat and carried it some distance and put it in again for a better finishing place. It was a blatant act, so much so that this club withdrew their boats and never raced as a professional club again. The Iron Cove club was the last of the Open Water Model Skiff Clubs in Sydney Harbour.



Stephen Crewes, National Historical Officer ARYA. shcrewes@bigpond.net.au   Phone 02 9558 5675.



Try www.themodelyacht.com for more Balmain Bugs.   

Anyone who is interested in the full story of Model Skiff Racing. Can Purchase the Book, “Sydney’s Model Racing Skiffs”- a history.(limited edition)  56 pages, landscape, whole page original photos. From the historical person above.




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