85 years of Sharpie sailing on the Derwent

  • April 3, 2020

Sharpies under sail on the Derwent in a national championship.

85 years of Sharpie sailing on Derwent

With interest in sailing Sharpies looks set to expand once yacht racing resumes on the River Derwent, Peter Campbell looks back at the history of this iconic class that began with the creation of the 12 Square Metre Sharpie in Germany in 1931.

At a time when there is no racing and little sailing throughout the world to write about, yachting journalist Campbell has decided to delve into some of the great days of sailing with the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania in classes such as Diamonds, Dragons,   21-foot Restricted Class and the Forster Cup, Cadet Dinghies and Sharpies.

He would welcome contributions from Members, words and old photos about the history of our great club that began in 1880.  Please email any stories and photos to:


Now back to the Sharpies, with the Club’s history ‘Sailing On…1880 to 1980’ an invaluable source of information for this article.

The history of the current Australian ‘Lightweight’ Sharpie began in 1931 when a German, Herr Kroger, designed a half-decked centreboard boat, six metres overall in length, gunter rigged, with a sail area of approximately 30 sq ft. It was a comparative narrow design, fine forward and flat aft, and therefore capable of easily planning and high speeds.

The class quickly spread to other European countries and, in 1933 it was granted international status by the International Yacht Racing Union (now World Sailing).

About that time the RYCT felt there was a need for a modern high-performance open boat and the 12 Square Metre Sharpie was the class to come to the fore.

Gull was the first International 12 Square Metre Sharpie in Hobart.

In 1935 the class was introduced into Australia and in the same year, RYCT member George Peacock purchased Gull in Adelaide and brought her to Hobart.  Local sailors showed immediate interest and, as a result, five boats were built by Taylor Brothers at Battery Point.   David O’May built the seventh boat at Bellerive.

The start of the 1936 season saw six 12 Square Metre Sharpies out in racing trim, with many well known sailors in their crews.  That year Tasmania was represented for the first time at the Australian championships in Adelaide, the helmsmen being Ediss Boyes in a borrowed boat and Harry Batt steering Gull.

Back in Tasmania, interest in the class spread to the Mersey Yacht Club at Devonport and the Tamar Yacht Club in the late 1930S. (Peter Campbell began his sailing career as bailer boy on a ‘heavyweight’ Sharpie on the Tamar in the 1940’s where  tacking between mudbanks was a major hazard).

At the start of the 1938-39 season, 15 Sharpies were registered with the RYCT with Gull going on to win the Australian title skippered by Jim Taylor with Reg Gorringe and Reg Hornsey as crew, on the Brisbane River. This was Tasmania’s first National title victory in Sharpies, but certainly not the last.

Interstate yachting was abandoned during World War II; but, by 1945, interest in the class was being revived.  In 1950 the National title was again won by Tasmania when Sam Purdon sailed his brand new boat Swan to victory on the Derwent.  The following year, Ediss Boyes won the Nationals, sailing his new boat Skimmer, built by Jack Hansen, to victory in Brisbane.

In 1956 the International 12 Square Metre Sharpie was selected as a class for the Melbourne Olympics.  West Australian Rolly Tasker, sailing Falcon, won the silver medal, many considering him unlucky not to have won gold.

This marked the peak of interest in the class in Australia and with the advent of new materials allowing stronger and lighter classes of open boats the ‘heavyweight’ Sharpies’ fortunes slowly waned,  to be replaced by today’s  Australia ‘Lightweight’ Sharpie, the distinctive hulls now built of fibreglass and carrying a fully battened mainsail, jib and spinnaker.

One Hump or Two hitting high speed.

.A new era in Sharpie racing began in the  1961-62 season,  the new boat with its distinctive kangaroo logo on the mainsail capturing the eye of many up and coming yachtsmen throughout Australia.  Sharpie champions of the 1960s and 1970s who went on the international yachting fame included Dragon Olympic gold medallist John Cuneo, America’s Cup winning skipper John Bertrand,  Olympian Mark Bethwaite, America’s Cup guru Grant Simmer, and Tasmanians Gary Smith and Stuart Hamilton

According to ‘Sailing On…”, older and more staid members of the Club were heard to comment that “you do not have to be crazy to sail a Lightweight Sharpie, but it helps somewhat to be so”.

Early comers to the class included Peter Clifford, Peter Angus, Vaughan Chapman and Bruce Darcey, who was set to conquer the Lightweight Sharpie Fleet with Margo.

The Muir family was first represented by John in a boat named Crusader. Ross later followed in Venom while Greg joined the class, sailing Snowgoose.

1966 saw the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania host the National Lightweight Sharpie Championship on the Derwent and the Club was represented by some of Tasmania’s best young sailor up against the best mainlanders, among them being John Bertrand.  Angus Campbell, an Australian Rainbow champion and his crew of Terry Daw and Bruce Craw, sailing Trad, stood out, but costly capsizes ended their title chances.

Former Australian champion Sharpie crew of One Hump or Two.

From 1970 to 1980 saw the River Derwent fleet expanded to its biggest ever, a blending of ‘evergreen’ sailors such as Bruce Darcey Bill Dobson, Stephen Boyes and John Muir and juniors such as David Healy, Scott Brain, John McCreary and Alan Gumley.  Andrew Hunn and Richard Norris joined the Sharpies from a 470 and a 505.

1978 was a great year for the local fleet.  Andrew Hunn, Richard Norris and Bill Rostron brought the National Lightweight Sharpie title back to Hobart for the first time in their boat, Dynamo Hum.

Tasmanians continued to do exceptionally well at the Nationals, Olympian Gary Smith sailing Sticky Fingers to victory on the Derwent in 1986. Stuart Hamilton scored a remarkable three wins with Impact, in 1992 (Hobart), 1993 (Melbourne) and 1995 (Adelaide). Frazer Read won the Nationals sailing Impala on the Derwent in 1998 and again in 2004 when the championships were again sailed on his home waters, this time with his boat named City Motor Volkswagen.

Tasmania’s most recent National Sharpie Champions were Drew Latham, Nick Carter and Nick (‘Camel’) Johnston sailing One Hump or Two to victory in Victoria.  In 2015-16, Sandy Bay Sailing Club hosted the Nationals with One Hump or Two finishing third overall to the South Australian winner.

Young Alec Bailey, helming Gentlemen’s Relish, won the first race. (There is a great video of the regatta on the class website www.sharpies.com.au along with spectacular photos by Lou Hollis.

Tasmania’s Sharpie fleet has waned since then, but it is on the up and up once more, with the Nationals to be sailed here in the summer of 2021-22.  Driving force is young Sandy Bay Sailing Club member Oli Burnell, the recently elected Tasmanian association president, backed up by a group of enthusiast ex-Laser and SB20 sailors.

History was made at the 2020 Tasmanian Sharpie Championship when a woman skippered the winning boat for the first time in the history of Sharpie sailing in this State. Kirsty Salter helmed Gun Smoke to four wins in six races, her crew being her husband Julian Salter and his uncle, Stephen Salter.

Former Australian champion crew of Drew Latham, Nick Carter and Nick Johnston sailed One Hump or Two to second overall, winning the other two races, while third place went to Bonfires, skippered by Oli Burnell with brother Toby Burnell and Josh Brown as crew.

In addition to Hobart boats, entries came from Port Dalrymple Yacht Club on the Tamar River and from Port Cygnet Sailing Club down the Channel.

Recent Tasmanian Sharpie championship on the Derwent

While Kirsty is the first woman skipper to win a Tasmanian Sharpie Championship.  Back in 1985 Jenny Potter (Read) helmed the first-ever all-female Sharpie crew with Sharon Watkins and Anita Nicolson. Sailing Slingshot, they competed in the Australian championships in the Derwent that season.

Since the first Australian National Championship for the International 12 Square Metre Sharpie was held in 1936, Tasmanian yachtsmen have achieved outstanding results,  winning four titles in the ‘heavyweights’ between 1939 and 1962 (there were no championships during World War II) and eight in the modern Lightweight Sharpie between  1960 and 2011. (There was an overlap with the old and new boats competing in the same regatta but getting individual results.)

To quote the class website:  ‘The Australian Sharpie remains one of the most iconic off-the-beach classes for sailors in Australia,  and its rich and vibrant history makes it a class that most sailors have some level of affinity towards.  The hull shape (with its distinctive hard chine design) has not altered since the 1960s and only a few minor changes to the rules have been allowed…as a restricted development class, the  aim of the Sharpie Association is to safeguard the one-design element.’

Words:   Peter Campbell (credit to ‘Sailing On..” and the Australian Sharpie website).

Photos:  ‘Sailing On…’,  Australian Sharpie web site, RYCT Commodore  Tracy Matthews, Lou Hollis.