The VJ has come a long way since its beginnings as a sail training boat for youngsters in the early 1930s. Little has changed from the very first VJ, except for slight refinements and of course the adaption of technology and materials.
Now approaching its 70th anniversary, the VJ has also been instrumental in training some of Australia’s yachting stars. America’s Cup winning skipper John Bertrand, as a kid with the Chelsea Yacht Club in Melbourne, won his first major championship, the Junior Australian title, in a VJ. Winning designer Ben Lexcen sailed them, and solo round-the-world sailor Kay Cottee also started out in the VJs.
Greg Fryer, past-president of the VJ Association, says that the longevity of the design is “unparallelled for a racing dinghy of its type in Australia, and probably the world”.
“One might consider that a sailing boat designed in 1931 would now be quaint and old fashioned, and bear little relevance to the fast, technically sophisticated craft that grace our waters,” he says. “The fact that the fast modern VJ has only slight updates to its design over the years bows testament to (its) ingenious design.”
In his book Born With The Wind, John Bertrand describes the VJ as: “A real racing boat, the fantastically fast Vaucluse Junior, 12ft long with twin hiking boards, a speed machine that can travel as fast as a Flying Dutchman. This is a high performance training boat and its power to weight ratio is nothing short of phenomenal,” he writes. Bertrand later describes the VJs as “hair raising little boats, and you need the nerves of a World War One pilot to sail them.”
Greg Fryer says that the boat revolutionised sailing for young people all over Australia, and “absolutely dominated Australian sailing till the 1970s when a host of new designs began to gain popularity”.
The birth of a class
After returning from the Great War, Sil Rohu set himself up in a gunsmith and fishing tackle shop in the heart of Sydney. By all accounts he was a keen sportsman and an affable entrepreneur, organising fishing tournaments and other such events as well as being involved in community activities.
Brought up in Australia but of Scandinavian descent, Sil lived in the harbour-side suburb of Vaucluse, towards Port Jackson heads, in a house that fronted onto the beach and that was very close to the local sailing club. An enthusiastic yachtsman, he of course became involved. It was there, at the Vaucluse Amateur 12ft Sailing Club in 1931, that Sil Rohu hit upon the idea of developing a boat specifically for the younger boys that tended to swarm about the club, always eager to get afloat on one boat or another.
In the ordinary course of events, younger crew members usually found themselves in the position of “officer in charge of the bailing bucket”. Sil was not only keen to encourage new blood into the sport, but saw that there was much room for improvement when it came to introducing and training this new blood in the pleasures and responsibilities of sailing. He also saw an opportunity to direct the energy of youth into more communally spirited activities – energy that otherwise had to find its own outlets.
To this end, he approached his friend and sailing comrade Charles Sparrow to design a boat specifically for the kids – one that could be sailed by one or two boys, a one-standard boat that was both exciting and safe to sail and that could ideally be built as a backyard project by the young sailors themselves.
Charles Sparrow was at this time working as a naval architect at the shipyard on Cockatoo Island, in Sydney Harbour, but on weekends could usually be found on the beach at Vaucluse or sailing in the 12 footers from the club there. Aged 90 when interviewed in the late 1990s, but now passed away, Charles remembers well the time Sil raised with him the notion of a new type of boat.
“It was in 1931, I remember Sil said to me could I design a boat that would be safe for the kids,” he says. “Part of the idea was that they could built it for themselves too.” His solution, in hindsight such a simple and effective idea, was to come up with a completely decked and sealed boat that even upside-down or lying on its side would not allow water inside. The resulting yacht was called the Vaucluse Junior, but in a short time came to be known simply as the VJ.
In order to keep expenses down, the boat was designed at 11 feet six inches, which allowed standard 12 foot planks from any woodyard to be used. In keeping with this theory, the sides also were determined by the standard 12 inch wide planks that were available, although this required a one inch stealer to be used forward. The moulded depth was 13 inches, and the whole boat was completely decked over with the exception of the cockpit. This was initially made of canvas but later on tended to be made of timber.
Since the boat was intended to be such a design that could be built by the sailors themselves, Charles not only drew up a very detailed set of plans, including the building frame, but also furnished complete instructions together with a list of materials covering every single piece of timber in the boat, including fastenings and fittings. Interestingly, the original instructions even suggest that, for cheapness, fencing wire could be used for stays and shrouds.
“There was no boat that I recall that I got my idea from (to make a completely sealed over boat),” Charles says. “The proposal from Sil was to have a safe boat, and the only way I could think about having that was to make a boat that was completely watertight. The case went right through, so that didn’t let any water in. And if it tipped over they could get it up again.”
This last feature, which Charles deems to have been a major innovation for the early 1930s, could have actually been introduced much earlier in the Williamstown Punts of Melbourne, but not much is known about these by this writer (but he’d like to know more, if readers can provide information). Today, of course, it is standard in a great number of smaller yachts to be able to right the boat after a capsize. “That was the main idea,” says Charles. “They could go out and there was no worry about them tipping over and having to wait in the water for hours to get picked up. Parents of course were happy with that.”
And it seems that word of mouth soon made the VJ’s unsinkable feature well-known. “They became very popular,” Charles says. “Even, you know, some days I’d be sailing past one of the (Sydney Harbour) ferries, and someone would call out: ‘Tip it over – I want to see you get it up again’. Of course nowadays a lot of boats have the same idea, and it makes a lot of sense. You have no chance of sinking.”
Plans were being sold everywhere, and enquiries started to come in from America, England, Japan and even India. Sil Rohu went to England in 1933 and seems to have had some success introducing the design there. The British magazine Yachting World and Motor Boating Monthly published a full set of plans and offsets in its December issue of that year.
The popularity of the class continued to grow, with clubs being formed at Lake Macquarie as early as 1935. Sil Rohu died young, in 1940, and his passing was a blow to the Vaucluse club as well as to the class. The VJ Association’s Greg Fryer says that Sil was really “one of the great unsung champions of the era. The VJ was his brainchild, and he bankrolled the whole project, and guided the VJ class through its formative years.”
Charles Sparrow says that he built the first VJ really to try out the idea, and to see how the boat performed. “We put it in the water and let everyone have a go at it, and in that way got an idea about what we thought should change,” he says. “Well the only thing we did end up doing was increasing the beam a little, as the first was a wee bit tender.”
In the early days, the VJs had no planks or trapezes to hang out on, “just our bums on the gun’le”, as Charles says. But as the first VJs had canvas cockpits, it was possible to get your toes just under the opposite edge of the cockpit opening to aid in leaning out a little. “The canvas reached to the bottom of the boat, so was loose enough to move a bit.”
Once bottled and put upright again, the cockpit would of course fill up with water. But canvas straps that were sewn into the bottom of the cockpit allowed this to be spilled out simply by lifting the cockpit up and inside out, as it were.
The first VJs were planked with Red Pacific Maple, batten seamed, but were later made of plywood. Battens were also used behind the deck planking. “You would rivet along both edges,” says Charles. “No caulking was needed anywhere, and we never had any problems with planks opening. That method was very watertight.” And the VJs were still light enough to be carried up the beach easily by the skipper and his crew of one.
The VJ is renowned for its planing ability, and this was also a key feature of the design in its heyday. Charles Sparrow says he kept the sail design deliberately straightforward – “Just simple leg o’mutton” he says.
But the VJ’s ability in other conditions seems to be quite up to scratch as well. Not long after launching the class at Vaucluse, Sparrow ended up getting a job in New Guinea. The Depression was in full swing at the time, so it was a matter of ‘any job will do’. “I managed to get a job in a technical college on one of the missions, and I built a VJ up there,” he says. “And one of the natives would sail this thing from our island 100 miles to Samurai. He’d tie a few coconuts to the mast and off he’d go.”
“The Mild One”
The honourable Justice Barry O’Keefe, AM, QC, and was head of the Independant Commission Against Corruption in NSW until 1999. As such he found he had precious little time for many leisure activities – and those letters after his name didn’t come about without some sacrifice of time and personal life.
But as people who know him will testify, Barry is enthusiastic when it comes to recalling the time he spent on the water in his youth, sailing in the VJ Shadow VI, which he co-owned with his brother Johnny.
In their salad days, the brothers O’Keefe would be out every weekend, and even every day during the holidays. ‘What we’d do is leave it rigged, on the beach at Gibson’s Beach,’ Barry says. ‘We’d take the sails down and take the centreboard and rudder off, but we’d leave the rest with the boat on the beach. In those days there wasn’t any vandalism or any problem about leaving the boat there. Now if you did that either somebody would knock it off or burn it, but that wouldn’t happen back then. Anyway, you’d come down the next morning, put the sails on and away you’d go.’
The boys bought Shadow VI in 1949, paying £40 for it. ‘What we did was we raised £20 and my father gave us the other £20. That was the deal to start with,’ Barry says. ‘We raised the money largely by weeding the garden and by collecting bottles. Beer bottles, gin bottles, whisky bottles – every sort of liquor bottle. This was when the bottle-o used to come around, but we used to take them to the bottle yard, where you’d get a better price. And we lived opposite a bloke who was an alcoholic, which was a great help to us.’
After that, both Barry and John got to and learned how to sail the VJ properly down at the Vaucluse club at Watson’s Bay. Both VJs and VSs were there, the Js on the higher racks and the Ss on the lower, because they were heavier. The boys had sailed before, but the VJ was a different proposition for them. By 1950, Shadow VI had won the club championship – so they were obviously fast leaners.
‘In the time I was sailing we moved from the planks, from swinging out on the planks, to trapezes. You could used these either alone or in conjunction with the planks,’ Barry says.
‘There was a rope that went from (base of) the mast back to a cleat just in front of the cockpit and back again two or three times, and you would put the board under that. This had felt on it to give it smooth running over the deck.
‘Then they introduced the trapezes. They were generally anchored just below the crosstrees and you could swing out on that. And then you could sometimes use the board and the trapeze, but that was taking a bit of a risk. If the wind dropped even slightly you’d finish up in the pickle! But it was good fun, right out there, with your toes on the end of the plank,’ he says.
But time marched on as it always does, and Barry soon found himself immersed in his law studies. John was doing economics, but gave that up to go and work in the family furniture shop before pursuing a singing career. Barry continued with his law studies. ‘But anyway, neither of us ended up having the time,’ Barry says – so they sold the boat.
‘But they were a good boat, and we had the time of our lives in ours,’ Barry says.
Footnote: Of course Johnny went on to become known as “The Wild One”. Some wags took to calling Barry “The Mild One”.