The design allowed for the dinghy to be carried onboard Her Majesty’s Ships so that adequate training is sail and racing was available wherever HM Ships were, whether in Port or in foreign waters.
The Royal Air Force Yacht Club at Calshot, England also had a fleet of 14’ Island Class dinghy’s and sail racing was keenly contested between the Forces. The dinghy’s were built at Portsmouth, Devonport Chatham, Rosyth and Sheerness Naval Dockyards and were issued to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force bases in Malta, Gibraltar, Bombay, West Indies, Singapore and the Dominions.
The designer of the dinghy Mr Charles Nicholson and member of the Island Sailing Club, England conducted strenuous trials with special attention to the design of the keel, rudder and rig. The design was found to be fast, strongly built and had excellent seaworthy qualities. Uffa Fox, a most experienced dinghy racer on the Solent designed the rigging and sail plan.
The dinghy’s were built at the Portsmouth Naval Base by Royal Naval shipwright apprentices and were built on a production line except for those individually built by apprentices in their final year of studies as part of their final examination.
The principal measurements of the dinghy are:- Length overall 14’, Breadth 5’ 51/2”, Depth 2’, Sail area 124.5 sq ft
Scantlings were: Keel - American elm, Hog - English Elm
Sometime after World War 2 the plans and specifications were forwarded to the Royal Australian Navy and production of the dinghy’s commenced at Garden Island Naval Dock Yard, Sydney much in the same manner as in England some 10 -15 years prior and again with naval apprentice shipwrights building them.
About 1963 I joined the Sea Cadets at the Unit, Training Ship Warrego, Woolich, Sydney. As the Unit was on a good part of the Harbour sailing was a sought after activity. All I wanted to do was sail one of the dinghies however, it was some time before this would happen. Back in those days squad and rifle drill played a bigger part of the training. When “Boatwork” was set on the Training Program it was started with swimming tests and sea survival courses. When the big day came for “Boatwork” it was pulling (rowing) a 27’ whaler both single and double banked, this went on for some considerable time. When at last sailing was mentioned it again was in the whaler. It appeared you had to be proficient in pulling and sailing a whaler before consideration was given for “dinghy” sailing. I really wanted to sail a dinghy but training in the whaler seemed endless. To be proficient in a whaler, evolutions consisted of rigging /unrigging, pulling, coxswain both under oars and sail, crew in all positions, sea safety, rules of the road (the navy way) hoisting and lowering on davits, away sea boats, semaphore, learning all this and now only about 14-15 years old.
The day finally came; dinghy sailing was on the training program. I was on the crew list for Warrego, boat No. 354. The dinghy had a coxswain and crew of 3, far less than the whalers, which had a coxswain and crew of 6. Although the unit had three 14’ Island Dinghy’s, Boat No 354 was my favourite from day one. There was just that “something” about her. Twelve months admiring boat No 354 and at last I was to go sailing in her. The coxswain was a SBLT Grimley and I should have known by the name what lay ahead – GRIM.
Boat had to be ship shape and all that. All rigging unrigged, all fittings removed from the boat. Weeks of sanding and varnishing went by, polishing brass and more bloody polishing. New standing rigging and new running rigging spliced on the newly varnished poles and spas.
At last “Warrego” was ready for the water. SBLT Grimley pulled us aside to check our qualifications. Semaphore OK, rules of the road ok, damn, the swimming and sea survival certificates has expired.
I still remember that swimming test, middle of winter, in the shark infested black dirty water of the Lane Cove River, very cold but I did it, certificate endorsed. Now I can go dinghy sailing.
It turned out that SBLT Grimley liked dinghy sailing as much as I did, he never let go of the tiller. I never got to sail her, crew, crew, crew, always on the crew list. We sailed everywhere; full days were sailing on Sydney Harbour, across the heads to Manly Cove only to have to row her home after the wind dropped with SBLT Grimley sounding the words heave, heave, heave, heave, for hours on end.
Happy days on Sydney Harbour
It was the happiest day of my life when SBLT Grimley was transferred out of the place. We all waited for the new Boats Crew list, yes Leading Seaman Gibson, coxswain, I knew the boat well. I had been involved in the maintenance, sailing, rowing and racing of her for over twelve months.
I was coxswain of “Warrego” for a further two years. At one maintenance period replacing the Egyptian cotton sails with a new 4 oz Terylene set, the same sails that are on her to this very day.
I resigned from the Sea Cadets in about 1969 but returned to the unit often and always checked out “Warrego” and freely offered advice to the proceeding coxswains.
In about 1972 the newly elected Federal Government disbanded all Navy, Army and Air Force Cadet Units and all equipment, stores and assets were ‘disposed of’.
End of story. What a shame for everyone really as the Cadet Force was an excellent organization and was only disbanded as a cost cutting exercise by the newly elected Government. The Cadet Force was re-established about 1978 and known as the Naval Reserve Cadets and I was approached for Officer Training in about 1982, which I accepted as an opportunity to put something back into a fantastic organization. By this stage all the Navy Units had been supplied with “Corsair” class fiberglass sailing boats that in my view weren’t suitable at all for sail training, you had to sit “on it” not “in it”.
Some years went by and I ended up Lieutenant Commander Gibson Training Officer NSW & ACT. This saw me being chauffeured about in Government vehicles doing pre inspections and inspections of the various Naval Reserve Cadet Units throughout NSW and the ACT.
On one of the trips inspecting Units on the North Coast of NSW I asked my driver to stop whilst I had a look through a small coastal museum. As I walked up towards the building I noticed that at the rear of the premises was an upturned timber boat in very poor condition. I was quite astonished to discover that it was a 14’ Island Class dinghy and further inspection found that it had a patch of “plastibond” filling a hole in the bow starboard side that I had patched when I hit the bowsprit of a moored yacht some 15 years earlier. I couldn’t believe it, it was “Warrego”. She looked very sad, had some 30 holes punched through her with a steel fence post, was badly sagged from being upside down for many years and had most of her brass missing. I called my driver and we managed to turn “Warrego” over, she was a very sad sight.
After some lengthy negotiations with the museum staff I was able “to have” “Warrego” provided I replaced her with “something” similar, this was done and that I may add is another quite long story.
I hired a car trailer from the local garage but damn, no tow bar on the vehicle. So around to the local GMH dealer and had a tow bar fitted. When I went to pay for it I was told they had already billed the Dept of Defence as they had a service contract with them. Hmmm, this could spell trouble I thought.
Rescued for restoration
After much huff and puff we had “Warrego” on the trailer and much to my amazement I was offered the two piece mast, spars, sails and lots of bits and pieces, all of which they previously denied having. Back to Sydney we went, I was very happy and couldn’t believe my luck that “Warrego” was mine. And yes, I did have some explaining to do as to why I had a tow bar fitted to a vehicle owned by the Dept. of Defence.
Some years went by with me pondering what to do with “Warrego”, she really was a mess. I spent one weekend sorting out all her rigging and actually rigged her. Sorting through boxes and sail bags I was amazed that “Warrego” was about 90% complete. This spurred me into action and after approaching many boat builders I was lucky to find Micky Floyd a shipwright from Pittwater Sydney who was as keen as I to have “Warrego” restored.
“Warrego” was stripped down only in a way that a shipwright knows how. Work was made easier because I knew the boat so well; also I was given a full set of drawings and construction specifications for the 14’ Island Class Dinghy by the RAN archives. “Warrego” was re-ribbed and re-planked, the time upside down did its toll and along with the smashed planks made by the steel fence post made saving any timbers impossible. Planks and ribs were replaced with spotted gum ribs and Pacific Maple planks as called for in her specifications.
“Warrego” was restored exactly as per her build as Boat No. 354 date stamped 1952.
Approximately 3000 roves and rivets later “Warrego” was looking very smart indeed. She didn’t look restored either as other than the planks and ribs all the other timbers are original or there are a lot of them. Word got about the water as to the dinghy being restored and out of the blue an original Admiralty Flax boat cover in mint condition was given to me as well as a spare rudder, two masts and a boom. I was even given a new tiller still with the Dept of Defence part number attached to it.
In 2003 and after using about three litres of varnish she was all finished. I have shown “Warrego” to the public at two Wooden Boat festivals at Darling Harbour Sydney and at the International Wooden Boat Festival Hobart Tasmania, where she always seemed to be able to pull a crowd.
In 2009 I entered “Warrego” in the NZ Antique and Classic Boat Show, Lake Rotoiti. It was the first time I had “Warrego” in the water and under sail since 1969.
“Warrego” sailed just as I had remembered her, but she seemed a lot smaller now.
The plans and specifications make for interesting reading in themselves as they show the evolution of the dinghy as new materials became available over the years e.g.
- Gun metal blocks - stainless steel
- Egyptian cotton sails - terylene
- Muntz metal buoyancy tanks - fibreglass
- Steel wire rope stays - stainless wire stays
- Galvanised thimbles - stainless thimbles
- Galvanised shackles - stainless shackles
- 2004 – Wooden Boat Festival, Australian Maritime Museum Darling Harbour Sydney
- 2005 - International Wooden Boat Festival, Constitution Dock, Hobart Tasmania
- 2006 - Wooden Boat Festival, Australian Maritime Museum Darling Harbour Sydney (Best Dressed Boat)
- 2009 - NZ Antique and Classic Boat Show, Lake Rotoiti, Nelson
- 2009 - Akaroa Boat Show (Best Un-restored Boat) & (People’s Choice)
- 2010 - NZ Antique and Classic Boat Show, Lake Rotoiti, Nelson(Overall Winner of Boat Show) Jens Hansen Cup
- 2010 - Lake Hood, Ashburton (Best Restored Sailing Boat)