The original pocket-rocket, the Balmain Bug is one of the 6ft skiffs which used to hurtle around Sydney Harbour, and a predecessor to the iconic 18ft Skiffs. Crosbie Lorimer discovered what it takes to keep this unlikely looking boat the right way up.
The Balmain Bug is a 1.83m (6ft) Australian skiff class dinghy, of which just two remain in existence. First raced in 1899 at Balmain in Sydney, the fleet expanded throughout the 1900s, until it was overtaken by the larger skiffs, including the iconic 18-footers.
Ask any Sydneysider what they know about the ‘Balmain Bug’ and they’ll probably tell you about the primordial, lobster-like creature at the Sydney Fish markets. Few residents of the Emerald City – most sailors included – would know of the other Balmain Bug, a tiny historic wooden skiff replica with a 6ft long hull and an absurdly oversized rig that trebles her length overall.
The skiffs desire to ‘go down the mine’ especially downwind, puts a premium on fore and aft trim. Speed drops away sharply even with minor imbalances.
Looking for all the world like a children’s toy that a couple of adults have hijacked for a laugh, most people’s reaction to first sighting the Balmain Bug under sail is to chuckle. But the heritage of the 6ft skiff has its roots in what was arguably the genesis of Australian sailing’s rich sailing culture and its high profile on the international racing scene today.
Trim to win
Despite the chasm between the top boat speed of a six-foot skiff (perhaps 8-10 knots) and its modern counterparts such as the 49er, many of the sailing techniques are common to old and new. “I hang onto the jib sheet,” says Hodgson, who helms the boat, “as you can feel when the gust comes that the head wants to go away; if you let the headsail out a few inches she’ll stay straight.”
“Originally we had it the other way around,” adds Reid. “But by the time the crew eases the sheet it’s too late, the bow’s going away, so as forward hand I trim the main.”
“Downwind it wants to bury itself,” says Reid. “But then if the bowsprit is a foot out of the water the whole boat is rearing up in the air; so you really try to keep it [the bowsprit] just kissing the water.”
The need for coordinated movement is no less challenging when the boat is on the breeze either. “Upwind we sail with the bowsprit in the water; it sort of tricks the boat into believing it’s bigger than it is,” says Hodgson.
Tacking looks like a coordinated limbo dance under the boom and over the tiller, but the turn through the wind is actually swifter than one might imagine, accelerated by the short hull length.
Not surprisingly the six-foot skiff has a relatively modest upper wind limit of about 15 knots, with even the shortest waves amplifying its submarine tendencies. The Balmain Bug does have a smaller rig for her higher wind range, but since Reid and Hodgson have been in charge it has not seen the light of day.
“Yes, we have a smaller rig” says Reid, “but we are believers in the old skiff adage: ‘big rigs win big races’.”