The Early Years
MHYC: The First 60 Years
Article by: Arthur Prigge
At the end of the 1930s there were four yacht clubs in Sydney catering for keel boats: Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club, Royal Prince Edward Yacht Club and Sydney Amateur Sailing Club. The combined membership was less than 1300, and the number of boats less than 300. Of these, the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club had the largest fleet, with about 100 boats.
Races were only conducted on Saturday afternoons on the harbour and starting lines were in the vicinity of Kirribilli and Clarke Island. To participate in club racing, those of us moored in Middle Harbour had to get from work (nearly everybody worked on Saturday until noon) to the Spit by tram, rig our boats and get to the starting line by 2.30 pm. Many of us had no engines and often missed the start.
This was the scene that drove some of us to get together in the 1938-39 season and organise a few races starting and finishing at The Griffin Boatshed. George Griffin was the starter, positioned at the end of the boatshed veranda. He would start the race, run down to his own boat, and chase the rest of the fleet. He often won!
During the winter months, under the leadership of George Griffin and Togo Middows, meetings were held with boat owners whose boats were mainly moored on Griffin Bros moorings and, as a result, The Middle Harbour Cruising Yachts Association was formed. A set of rules was drawn up and adopted at an early meeting. Dick Down, who had been commodore of the Sydney Amateurs from 1914 to 1934, Was invited to join the association and he became its president.
Because many of the boats racing regularly did not have spinnakers, it was decided that races would be sailed under 'cruising conditions' with no extras, only working sails. This rule led to some heated arguments as to what constituted an 'extra'. At the time, genoa jibs were cut fuller than they now are, and they were not carried to windward: they therefore were not considered to be part of a working rig.
George Griffin insisted that any sail which could be carried all around a course and on any point of sailing must be considered a 'working sail'. But Wally Ward, who designed and built Janaway, argued that any sail sheeted abaft the mast should be considered as an 'extra'. When a Tumlaren-designed vessel joined the fleet there were further complications. Its rig carried a foresail which set inboard from the bow and sheeted well abaft the mast.
There were many other differences between yachts of then, and those of today. Sails were made of cotton (synthetic sails did not appear until two decades later). After a race, sails had to be dried out. It was disastrous to bag sails wet, because they were likely to be black with mildew by the following weekend. Taking them home, to spread out and dry in the lounge room, was not a popular idea and, no doubt, led to many arguments. There were also no man-made fibre ropes. Manilla ropes were mainly used, or if you could afford it, Italian hemp (for halyard falls, etc.) and laid cotton (for the sheets). For anchor warps and sea grass ropes, coir was most common, as it resisted rot. Pulpits, pushpits and safety rails on yachts were looked on as being rather sissy!
Diesel engines were too big and heavy for use as auxiliary power, except in very large yachts. Nearly all motors were petrol-driven, yet fire or explosion were rare because people were careful and accustomed to petrol.
Outboard motors were pretty crude and not used for power on a yacht. I was probably one of the first in Sydney to have and use a bracket mounted on the stern of my boat. When I showed it to George Griffin, and pointed out that it was four horsepower, he dryly suggested that they must have been very small horses!
George Griffin was an amazing man. He was prodigiously strong and agile and, although he had no formal training, had designed and built many fine vessels, including Sea Gypsy, Valiant and Titania - all magnificent, sturdy vessels. Some of his boats are still around today, and under MSB survey for charter. George's last design was a 32-foot boat called Ariel. She included design features way ahead of her time, for instance she carried a genoa as part of her Working rig, and sometimes set it from the masthead.
I was impressed With Ariel and asked George how much it would cost to build one. He prepared a quote which included its construction, the supply of one suit of sails (main and jib) and the installation of an engine: coming to 469 pounds ($938). I had no chance in the world of being able to afford it, so I told him I would have to start buying tickets in the lottery. 'Good-o Arthur,' said Griffin, 'I'll plant some acorns, it may as well be built in oak!'
At the beginning of the 1989/40 season, war was declared in Europe, but that seemed a long way away. Racing continued with a small fleet under the 'cruising conditions' rule. By the end of that year there were about a dozen boats on the club's register.
At the beginning of the 1940/41 season, it was decided to have an official opening day, and to invite boats from other clubs to participate in races starting and finishing off the club's rooms at Griffin's Boatshed. The day was a great success and visiting crews joined members for drinks in the club rooms after the race. The shed was then an old wooden structure, and George was very nervous that the floor would not support the weight of the expected crowd. So he disappeared downstairs and put extra supports under the floor joints and the stairway (just in case)!
When Japan entered the war in December 1941, just about all racing and social activities ceased. Many of us were in the services or otherwise involved in the war. Only a few informal races were held until the war finished in 1945.
In January 1946 the Middle Harbour Cruising Yacht Club (MHYC: the name had been changed during the war) was in dire straits and meetings were held with the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club to discuss a proposal of a takeover by the Amateurs and amalgamation. However, the proposal was not accepted and the club carried on under its own steam.
The original members of the association included George Griffin (the true founder, with Ariel), Togo Middows (Flying Cloud), CW Robson (Wyuna) and CWR Powell (Veronique). Others who raced with the club for many years included Eric and Karl Sadustain (Saga), Pat Service (Asgard), Wally Ward (Janaway), John Shannon (Gwennil), Reg Thompson (Nangah), Roy 'Snowy' Pearson (who crewed with George Griffin), and Arthur Prigge (Thara).
Never in our wildest dreams did any of us who attended the first few meetings foresee that this 'poor man's club' would, in later years, become a club larger than the combined clubs of the time. Nor did we foresee the explosion that was to happen in the sport that we all love and will no doubt love until we die.