Vintage Forum
 1. The Lure of the Balmain Bug, Part One  
  2. The Lure of the Balmain Bug, Part Two   
     3. The Lure of the Balmain Bug, Part Three  
    4. The Lure of the Balmain Bug, Part Four    
5. The Lure of the Balmain Bug, Part Five
6. The Lure of the Balmain Bug, Part Six   

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The Lure of the
Australian Balmain Bug
-Part One-

Steve Crewes, 2002

Now if you’re an Aussie, a Balmain bug can conjure up the thought of a seafood dinner or a old model racing yacht. We're going to talk about the latter.

It’s around 50 years since these little boats were last seen racing in Sydney’s harbour foreshores. They were prevalent particularly around where I sail now in the western end of the harbour. This part of the harbour has been the cradle for sailing/boat building since the first fleet came to Sydney in 1788. This is an area that is dotted with Islands, for in the space of I mile there is 4 islands, namely Goat, Cockatoo (the largest) Spectacle and Snapper (the smallest). All these island had slipways on them, small and large, except Snapper. Snapper is about 30 yards at its widest part. It was a boys sail training school from the early days. All along the foreshore in this region were small shipwright establishments with their own little slips. So this was a hive of industry around 1900 to 1950. For Sydney in those days was a working port. Today all the ships are in Botany Bay, about 10 miles south of Sydney heads.

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The islands of Drummoyne

It was in this environment that the ‘Balmain Bugs’ first grew to prominence. The boat I suppose came about largely by the shipwrights having "down Time" in the work on their slips or time to fill in with something. Shipwrights made the little racing machines almost exclusively in that era. It was said one could buy one for about 20 pounds all found and that includes everything. These boats were never painted, because the shipwrights wanted to show their skills off in the planking, or use them as a sample of their yard’s workmanship. This goes to explain why so many of these boats are in good condition even today.

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Left: George McGoogan's 2'er   Right: 32" and 12" Balmain Bugs
(Note: Detachable, deep keels not shown)

Generally these "extreme" racing machines, for that is exactly what they were, had a colour patch on their sail. These colour patches were like the owner’s flags but were painted on the main sail, a boat was not considered to be complete till it had a name and its colour patch on.

The boats ranged in fixed sizes from 6", 8", 10," 12,"18", 2ft, 32"s. The measurement for the hulls were taken from the bow to the transom only. The basic rule was the length of the hull. These were no other measurements taken for one could have any sail area one could keep aloft. One of the ‘canny’ scratch boats used a shortened keel on his boat to cut corners (or go closer to the shoreline) when sailing the course. Racing these models one can get an idea what a boat can carry in most range of winds.

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George McGoogan's 12" Joan
displayed without detachable keel)

The Open water skiffs were divided up in to two classes that raced around my area, they were the 12" and the championship 2' ers.

Gambling was rife in those days, in fact some gamblers would say that the models were there for them, it got that blatant. Of course all this gambling attracted the Cops, who were trying to catch them "at it", which went in some ways to increase the stakes for those that took part in the gambling. Quite a few in the community frowned on gambling, for there was a lot of young kids that followed this sport and in the later years a special club was set up (the Drummoyne 12"Sailng club) to teach the kids sailing in a "gambling free zone" to use the modern jargon.

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The Lure of the Australian Balmain Bug
Part 2

Steve Crewes

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The 2' Skiff

 These Balmain Bugs were built either by carving the hull or doing “bread and butter” or planking.  Carving the hull was the only method of building for the smaller boats 6”, 8”, 10”, The “bread and butter’ method is still used, if one wants a special plank effect. This method entailed building 1” thick planks (the bread) on top of each other with glue (the butter) in between the planks, till it was built up to the required hull depth, for a 2fter, about 8” or 8 planks. By using this method a lot of the wood on the inside the hull could be cut out before the hull was put together. Different colour planks could be used alternately to give the hull a striking colour effect in the wood. See photo of the famous boat “the Imp”.

The bread and butter "Imp"

 Planking of hulls came to the fore around 1927s. George McGoogan, a prominent shipwright of the area, started planking these little boats to race for himself in middle 1940s and he has been making them even to this day, May 2002. George prides himself on all his boats as having double copper nails in fixing the planks on to the frames, an old shipwright’s trick; in fact George reckons this is sort of his trademark. He has built-up a large stock of these copper nails up, till this day, they are impossible to buy now. 

George McGoogan and a "12-incher"

These boats generally look the same in overall shape but they have differences in beam, depth of hull, fullness in the forward sections, etc to suit the builder’s individual tastes. The smaller classes 6”, 8”, 10” were more suited as pond boats for the hulls needed a certain power to get through the chop of open water.  It was found that the smaller classes were more acceptable to carving out of the hull and not to many were planked. I have seen some of these little models made down to 2” long for mantle models, which are quite unique.

A McGoogan 12-incher, showing copper nail construction

The Booms for these racing model were tapered through out. No jib boom was used. A long bow sprit was used and called a Bumpkin. This bumpkin was about 4’ long on a 2fter it was made to a taper and went from the front of the boat forward. This spar, (if I can use that term here) on the extremities of this spar a wire came from the end (called a Bobstay), back to the bottom of the bow and was adjustable to give tension to the bumpkin and curved downwards to touch the water when the jib sail was in, tensioned, use. No backstays were used for there wasn’t room to fit any, rather, two side stays angled back to take the place of side / back stays. Generally speaking, there were usually only two side stays on these boats (one on each side) and a forestay.

A little carved "bug"

The building frame was made in a sturdy frame (not unlike a picture frame) so the building frame could be moved around and held in a vise at any angle. This was necessary because of the complexity of building the hull.

The "picture frame" building frame

 The sails were exceptionally big, about double bed size. The sails were always made out of Japarah cloth, a heavy fabric by today’s standard, not unlike old umbrella material.

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The Lure of the Balmain Bug
Part 3
Steve Crewes, 2002

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The main boom was canted up so it would not drag through the water when heeling and was about 4 ft long. It should be mentioned here that the secret in sailing these boats to windward was using the elastic on the jib sheet or the elastic attached to the jib clew and the forehorse. Now this elastic had to be the right weight or elasticity for the weight of wind. Knowing the right elastic for the day was the "secret" of sailing these model skiffs properly.

John Leftowich's "Rockot"
A complete Balmain Bug

The main and jib sheets were adjusted by means of large wooden bowsers about 1" long. They were that big so one could grasp them with wet, cold hands. In fact all the adjustment points were large for this reason. On tall masts the spinnaker had to be put on a halyard and pulled to the top of the mast, again using an oversized bowser. All hooks on the sails and rigging were oversized as well.

Kevin McGrath's "Melody"
running downwind.

In the early days the spinnakers tended to be flat or had what they called a Ringtail spinnaker. This was like a spinnaker but had a horizontal boom at the top. It was necessary to have the Bumpkin arcing forward to put tension on the forestay because of the lack of a backstay. To keep the tension on the jib. There was also a method of increasing the tension on the bumpkin of tying some cord between the bumpkin and the bobstay and pulling it tight, thereby arcing the bumpkin further and increasing forestay tension. In the sailing mode to windward you will know things are set right when the fore sail and bowsprit are just slicing through the top of the water. The mast position was fixed, a mast deck fitting was used and it incorporated a tube that went to the bottom (inside) the hull and the mast in most cases went right down too.

Notice the Gooseneck

The arching, tapered bumpkin

On deck was a little fitting that looked like a nut with a bolt screwed into it. This was the drain hole for the hull. The Rudder hung off the back of the transom. The top of the rudder had a long arm going forward to a serrated curved plate, that held the rudder in a fixed position. This was in no-way to steer the boat around the course. This rudder was used to put weight on to drive the sails. The keel that slid along the keelson plate in actual fact ‘balanced’ the boat to the course of sailing. This sailing concept is not unlike the Kon-Tiki raft that pushed the boards down to sail the Pacific Islands.

The rudder on the "Ada May"

The deck and bumpkin on
a 10 incher

The keel was held onto the keelson plate with two pairs of keel attachment fittings. Now an explanation should be made here of these fitting and of this boat in general. We have all be brought up to believe that anything on the underwater profile should be as smooth and fined down as much as possible and this is in NORMAL circumstances right! This is not right in the case of Balmain Bugs, where one has almost unlimited sail power, to push the brute along. So, the fittings on the keel can be "chunky" and nobody cares, least of all the boat. Fitting slender keel fittings will lead to disaster in a big way.

The keel fitted to a "bug"

Keel fittings on a "bug"

I should mention here that building Balmain Bugs is not easy. Yes, they look like a cute little boat but can be a fair bitch to build unless you're going to ‘bread and butter’ them or carve them, You’ve been warned. With these boats are almost impossible to do the usual plank and frame method.

Deck view of an adjustable keel

In some models the rudder is cut away so that the keel can be slid further back for running down wind. The keel must be able to be slide back and forward with some EASE. Don’t worry about it sliding off because it won’t happen, because there will be a little pin up the front and the rudder down the back, stopping it from coming right off. The weight of the keel will hold it in its place as it is sailing. I wonder who will first come up with an idea of "R/C ing" a sliding keel?? (All Marbleheads should have one, for it cuts down wetted surface area by not needing a rudder.) The colour patch on the mainsail will be about 6"to 8" diameter. Put one on, for it makes it authentic... and don’t forget the boat name, like "Boomerang" or "Kookaburra", a good Aussie name. You get the drift.

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For Sale:
12" Balmain Bug

Contact: struanrobo@ozemail.com.au  

to be continued

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The Lure of the Balmain Bug: Part Four
The True Balmain Bugs.

Steve Crewes


Kevin McGrath's "Melody"
running downwind

Up to the time that the book "Sydney’s Model racing Skiffs" came out (Feb.2002), there were no material available on the very interesting subject of Balmain Bugs or open water racing skiffs as some people call them.

I have noticed for sometime now, some weird rigging ideas have been creeping in these types of boats. While there were differences in the individual boats they were all basically the same in rigging.

Problems have crept in at the re-vamping of these boats and the thoughts that if it was right in model yachting, it was right with these little boats. This is not correct at all, For this boat in actual fact is not a model but an extreme racing machine in their own right.

"Ada Mae", rigged wrongly.

It would be remiss of me not to mention what is happening in this little type of boat so that the type will remain sound. You want your boat to look "in period" don’t you? The worst thing that can happen is to take it for valuation and the man says " Mate, who rigged this Bug? It’s all wrong!"

So as a service to all Bug owners out there, here are a few pointers on what a bug should look like in the general sense and I will show you photos to demonstrate the points.

On our first point, you notice the rigging! There should be 2 wire (copper or brass or steel or heavy cord) side stays attached to an eye fitting (not in line with the mast) back from inline from the mast about 1 to 2"ers. There must be two stay each side, for 18"ers and up. One stay each side for less than 18 inchers. The main sheet line comes from the end of the main boom, straight down to the back horse, that straddles the rudder arm. It must be adjusted be a large Bowser about an 1" long, quite often made from toothbrush handles, something you can grab with wet, cold hands.

Ron Abraham's "Ace of Spades"

The gooseneck is NOT to be of the type that one finds on a model yacht! The main boom is attached to the mast by bending flat brass around the mast and screwing the ends on the boom. This mast type band is very loose, looser the better.

Near the jib horse there are some more large eyes. These are not used like in the photos below, but should take the elastic for beating to windward. The back eyes are for the spinnaker sheets to attach to the hull. The photo below shows the elastic eyes fittings as (somehow) a bumpkin stays?? And the bumpkin has to be fined down for it to bend, readily. See Ron Abraham’s "big" 2-fter "Ace of Spades," above.

Notice the gooseneck

Bowsprits, in general, were fined or tapered down, so they could arc down towards the water. If your bug has got half a telegraph pole for a bowsprit, then it is clearly wrong. Totally round Bumpkins are wrong too. See phots below of its size in relation to the mast and booms on ‘Rockot’, a really good 12"er. Clearly people get into a whole lot of trouble trying to reconstruct old rigging for some reason. I read some advice once, I think it was from Russell Potts, who said that before you start restoring something, you make a sketch of it first.

Tapered bumpkin

"Rockot": A complete skiff

"Rockot's" tapered bumpkin

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The Lure of the Balmain Bug: Part Five
True Bugs: The Keels

Steve Crewes
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Keels? Probably the main thing you should know about keels are  that they are not made out of thin brass. They were generally made of 1/8th" steel plate, so they did not bend very well. Bending is not good.

18 incher keel up close

The keel claws that the plate attaches to the keelson plate are NOT brass plate either. If yours are made from brass plate, then your in trouble, Big trouble, for in the not too far future, your keel is going to part from your hull. Sounds traumatic and it is. Keels made of these thin claws, end up dropping off the boat while being carried around and probably landing on your foot.

Notice the keel brackets

A closer look

What I need to do, is impress on you about the need to have claws that are very robust. Here was a boat that had unlimited power available to push the darn boat along . One could hang two half house bricks underneath as well as the keel from this model and still get a good performance out of it. So the claws are to be 1/8th" minimum thickness.

The keel claws

The aft end of the keel fin, where it is slid back on the keelson plate. The fin shape at the top back of the fin is not to collide with the bottom of the rudder. The back of the fin is cut at an angle to just miss the rudder, when it is all the way back. These boats are supposed to have a range of keels.

The relation of keel to rudder

The leads range from torpedoes to flatten balls shapes. Paint was used on keel plates to protect them from rust, except the fins that were made out of stainless steel, a quite a few were made out of that.

An 18 incher keel

A 10 incher keel

 The front face of the keel did not come any further forward than the mast. If yours does, then a stop will have to be put on it.

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The Balmain Bug: Part 6
Sails and Sail plans
Steve Crewes

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12-incher sail plan for a working rig

Let me be up front and say, the sails on these little sailing Machines should be made out of Dacron sailcloth. Don’t go playing around with Egypt cotton Sails, they get wet, they rot, they stink, they have uneven shrinkage between sewed cotton and material. Go for the normal sail cloth but not drawing paper, heavy duty Ripstop (spinnaker cloth) might work. These sails should be basically cut flat, for you want them to go in different weights of wind. While there are other suits, you should have a main working suit, the one your generally going to have on the boat, most of the time. On the main, seam the side next to the mast and the side next to the mainboom, for you will need to attach the sail to both these spars. Traditional method is the lacing type, I think you could go to the sail mast rings and put them also on the main boom, this might be easier than the lacings.

12-incher, showing the bowsprit

See on the plan the way the main sheet is positioned. This gives the boat a type of vang arrangement.

For those who want to model a pond boat, just delete the Roach on the mainsail, also delete battens, so the main is a triangular shape. While you are learning to sail one of these boats, just stick to the sail plan and not use the spinnaker. The spinnaker adds a whole lot of different sailing problems.

I do not know where you’re going to sail these boats but would advise you to think about it before you try it in open water.

Keep the gooseneck and the mainboom as close as possible to the deck, use the elastic on the jib sheet, it definitely makes things easier.

Another view of the 12-incher

There are still some copies of "Sydney’s Model Racing Skiffs" the book left. My new book "Model Racing Skiffs of Australia", will be out soon. It will cover the 18"ers, the 32"ers and some more BALMAIN BUGS, more colour patches, as well as plans. If you want to race these little machines, I suggest you read my books on this subject.

Happy Sailing

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