Two-footer recollections

Harry Hugh McGoogan, born in Balmain in 1927 and a Cockatoo Island shipwright by trade, recalls the last days of 2-foot model skiff racing. This account is edited from his handwritten notes.
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George McGoogan with Joan 11, the two-foot model skiff he built.

From the age of five years I was interested in sailing boats. Each Sunday I watched and helped the sailors rig their boats in Mort Bay, Balmain, and as I got older I would be invited to crew in a boat as  the bailer boy, on a windy day.

They raced from Clark Island to the Sow and Pigs. In the winter months, when the skiff season was over,  the Balmain 2-foot model sailing boats raced off White Horse Point each Sunday. They had a fleet of approximately 16 starters. My uncle Hugh McGoogan sailed the Marie, its colour patch was a round black circle. My father George McGoogan was his rower.

I first became involved with the 2-foot boats in 1942, when I was 15 years old, the year before I was apprenticed at Cockatoo Island. Brother George made sails and fitted out a boat called the Jean. I was his rower. We sailed at the North Sydney 2’0” Model Sailing Club for one year, and the following two seasons we sailed with the Drummoyne club.

A group of sailors from Balmain got together and formed the Birchgrove 2’0” Model Sailing Club. They held their meetings on Sunday mornings in Mr Dodds’ boat shed at Birchgrove, and raced around Snails Bay in the afternoons.

Brother George then built me a 2-foot clinker boat called the Joan, named after his wife. My handicap was eight minutes. My father George, an experienced rower, rowed for me and I learned a lot from him about 2-foot sailing. I won four races during my first season.

Brother George was a shipwright by trade, he built a number of 2-footers in his early years. His rower was brother Jack McGoogan, whose nickname was ‘Up Jackie’! During their racing career George’s was usually the scratch boat. The combination of skipper and rower was important to racing 2-footers.

The rower could position the dinghy to assist the 2-footer into the wind, or pull it away to achieve fast speed through the water. Likewise, off the wind the position of the dinghy could change the direction of the model boat without the skipper doing any adjustments to the sails, rudder or fin. When a strong westerly or nor’easter blew  it was necessary to have two pairs of oars in the dinghy to catch the model boat.

Two-foot model boats had four sets of sails. The biggest was used in light conditions, then there were intermediate, second and the small heavy weather rig. The sails were made of Japara silk or unbleached  calico.

Model boats were built in a jig. The keel consisted of Huon pine (when available) planked with cedar and fastened with swaged boat nails. The construction was generally carvelbuilt, though the early models were dug out of solid cedar logs. The 2-foot models had a sliding fin fabricated from mild or stainless steel, 25” long, 4” wide and carrying 22 pounds of lead.

In 1946 I built a new 2-footer called the Margaret after my girlfriend Margaret Ritchie, whom I later married. She volunteered to be my rower and was extremely good. The Margaret model is now 62 years old and in excellent condition. I sailed her off the Drummoyne shore in an easterly breeze not all that long ago.

In 1946 moorings were placed in Snails Bay to berth the timber ships from overseas. This prevented further sailing in Snails Bay. The Birchgrove club moved their courses adjacent to Cockatoo Island and started their races off Cove Street wharf, Birchgrove. The club was changed back to Balmain 2’0” Model Sailing Club. It had a big following, and hired a 60-foot ferry every Sunday to follow the race.

Sailor families were on board and for those who were interested in having a bet on the race, the bookmakers’ prices were advertised on a blackboard.

During the racing season there were various inter-club races and State championships sailed down the harbour off Shark Island. Sailing continued during the 1940s and until the 1950s. It probably ended because people’s way of life changed. Families started getting motor cars and they might go for a Sunday drive instead.

The television arrived in Sydney not long after and that was the end of a great winter sport sailed on Sunday afternoons.

- Post written from Harry McGoogan’s  handwritten notes. First published in the museum’s magazine, Signals.

More information

- Read how model racing skiffs are making a comeback.

- Build your own model racing skiff.

- View images from a recent model skiff race on Sydney Harbour.


4 thoughts on “Two-footer recollections

  1. I heard your radio interview on Sunday I think I was interested in the Models you were refering to My late Father had one of these models in his army locker which I inherited, as I always sailed as a kid I am now 60 yrs old I have kept the model and have it on display in my home along with several other models. A trip to Sydney I say a model nearly the same in a window near
    Wynard the price was $2000.00 I could not believe it I can send you a Picture if you are interested I am worried when I depart this world what my children would do with it so if you can tell me if it is one of the models your were refering to

    Many thanks

    Lee Day

  2. Pingback: History of the model skiff racer «

  3. i can remember my grandfather talking about how his dad built his boat and raced it on the harbour and how he rowed after them to change the tact my own father had the boat and we as kids swam with it when he sailed it on catti creek unfortunetly he passed away while still restoring it is there a group that can help as i would like sail it in its true enviroment. ( i do remember my grandfather telling me it won a cup for racing and that he got a pound from the bookies for rowing the boat)

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