18ft Skiffs – The DONNELLY name in 18 footers

Honouring a pioneer boat builder in the 18s 

One of the famous boat names in the 18 footers 131-year history is ‘Donnelly’, which originated in the 1890s, to honour a pioneer boat builder, and remained on Sydney Harbour until the early 1970s. 

It began when George Holmes ordered a boat to be built by one of Sydney’s finest boat builders, Joe Donnelly, which first raced at the Balmain Regatta in 1898. 

The boat was named Donnelly I (after the builder) and carried a blue diamond in a red diamond sail patch/insignia on her mainsail. 

According to Ian Smith’s ‘The Open Boat’ website https://openboat.com.au/index.html, Donnelly I dimensions were 18’ x 3’4” x 2’6”. 

She raced at Johnstones Bay Sailing Club (JBSC) for a few seasons (until that club disbanded) and the Sydney Flying Squadron, and later raced with the Sydney Sailing Club after the demise of JBSC. 

She was a competitive boat which was generally near ‘scratch’ in handicap races, without winning a championship. 

In 1910 Holmes ordered a smaller, more skiff-like boat from Joe Donnelly, which he named Donnelly II. 

Donnelly II capsized during her first race in 1911, and while Holmes continued to race her for the next season and a half, she was retired and Holmes returned to Donnelly I. 

Holmes later retired from sailing in 1913 and handed the boat over to his two sons, who continued to race her until the 1919-20 season.  Donnelly I didn’t race again. 

Joe Donnelly’s boat building reputation came from being a designer and builder of racing boats, which established most of the features that typified the Australian open boats from the 1880s until well into the 20th century, and paved the way for the emergence of the 18s as the dominant class. 

Among the 18s built by Joe Donnelly were, Ariel (1894), Donnelly I (1898), Zena (1905), Scot (1906), Oweenee (1907) and Donnelly II (1911). 

George Holmes’ grand-son, Bill Miller was born around 1905 and is said to have sailed 12ft skiffs at both the Lane Cove Sailing Club and Greenwich Flying Squadron before turning to the 18s in 1946 with a boat he built and skippered, named Donnelly I. 

Bill Miller went on to skipper six boats (the first four built by him, the latter two by Tom Fisher) in the NSW 18 Footers League fleet, all named Donnelly and carrying the red & blue diamond sail patch, until he retired from sailing 18s in April 1973 at the age of 68. 

His boats were Donnelly I (1946), Donnelly II (1949), Donnelly III (1953), Donnelly IV (1957), Donnelly V (1960) and Donnelly VI (1962). 

Bill contested the 1961 worlds in Brisbane with Donnelly V and the 1963 worlds at Auckland at a time when a maximum of only four boats were permitted to represent NSW at the championships. 

Bill Miller became Commodore of the then NSW (now Australian) 18 Footers League in 1965, a position he held until 1988, and was also made a Life Member of the club. 

The club has since honoured Mr. Miller’s memory with the Bill Miller Memorial Trophy, which is raced for each year at the J.J. Giltinan World Championship on Sydney Harbour. 

Credits:   Ian Smith (‘The Open Boat’ website), John Steamer Stanley OAM, Robert Chapman 

Frank Quealey

Australian 18 Footers League Ltd.

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