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Len Heffernan: Champion skipper who changed the style of Sydney 18 footers in the 1960s

by Frank Quealey 20 Sep 01:01 PDT
The Sun and Donnelly © Archive

Len Heffernan was a champion 18ft Skiff skipper, designer and boat builder of the 1950s and 60s, who changed the style of the Sydney 18 footers in the early 1960s, but never gets the recognition that he deserves.

Along with his talent in all areas of the sport of 18 footer racing, Len had a 'relaxed', fun-loving, attitude and enjoyed the sport. It was this 'love' of the sport and a determination to make it better that stamps him as a special individual in the 129-year history of the class.

His knowledge, together with a wonderful vision, and the skill to put the vision into reality, is what allowed him to change the style of Sydney 18 footers in the 1960s.

It was a knowledge and skill learnt over a lifetime. From the time (as a seven-year-old) that he built his first boat, from driftwood, which capsized and sank the first time she went in the water, until he died, as a 93-year-old, in 2017, he never lost his love of sailing.

Len was still only ten-years-old when he went into the 12ft skiffs, as a crew, at the Balmain club, and at 17, skippered his first '12', named Aie, and eventually won the club championship.

He made an unassuming entry into the 18s as a crew, on Ernie Bell's Betty, then moved on to crew on Tom Doyle's Desdemona, before purchasing his first 18 footer in 1949. It was Bill Stanley's Australia, which had won the 1946-1947 Australian Championship, in Sydney. He re-named her Ace, and represented NSW at the 1950-51 and 1951-52 Australian titles.

In collaboration with the great Bill Barnett, Len built his next boat, named Apex, in 1952 and finished third behind the top two Queensland skippers, Norman Wright Jr. and Harold Watts, in the 1952-53 Australian Championship. A year later, he was runner-up in the 1953-54 nationals, behind his great boat-building friend and mentor, Bill Barnett.

In 1954, Len Heffernan built the first of the Jantzen Girl skiffs, which were prominent on Sydney Harbour with the distinctive 'diving girl in the red costume' logo on the mainsail until 1962. This was a conventional boat that had a crew of six, but the following boat was anything but conventional.

In October 1956, the Sydney Flying Squadron (SFS) gave Len permission to build a 5ft6in beam hull to race with the club, and Len began to build the hull (Jantzen Girl II) prior to the 1956-57 season, but just before the 1956-57 Australian Championship the SFS delegates squashed a move by Queensland to have the minimum beam rule abolished.

Len had almost completed the boat to the proposal he put to the SFS but now it had been rejected it could not race outside of NSW. Jantzen Girl II was still legal to race at the SFS and was launched towards the end of the 1956-57 season, where it competed in a few races before the season ended.

In the meantime, Len borrowed another boat, Sam Lands, which he sailed at the 1956-57 Australian Championship, on Sydney Harbour. (Sam Lands was the first moulded boat built by Bill Barnett and Len Heffernan in 1957).

With the dramas of 1956-57 behind him, Heffernan built Jantzen Girl III and won the 1958 Giltinan world Championship on Sydney Harbour. He and Bill Barnett, SMV, dominated the racing and each skipper scored two wins in the five-race regatta.

Len built a Norman Wright Jr. designed, chine hull for 1958-59, which he raced as Jantzen Girl IV, and won the Australian Championship on Sydney Harbour. During that period, the Giltinan world Championship was only held every two years and Len would not be able to defend his title until 1960 in Auckland.

He believed that a return to a round bilge hull would be best suited to conditions on the Brisbane River, where the 1959-60 nationals were being sailed. He built Jantzen Girl V and won the SFS, NSW and Australian Championships, but was impressed by the potential of the runner-up, Taipan, that he took up the challenge to introduce the new style boat to Sydney.

The 18 footers of the 1950s were large-hulled, big sail-area carriers, manned by crews of five or six, while the new style, smaller, lighter three-handers, with moderate sail areas, could plane upwind.

Bob Miller (aka Ben Lexcen) and Norman Wright Jr. had designed the radical hard-chined, plywood Taipan in response to the Brisbane club's request for a cheap, east to build skiff. The resulting 'package' was a light, chine 6ft beam ply hull, two-thirds decked, a three-man crew and an inboard rig with a large overlapping genoa.

Taipan went to Auckland for the 1960 Giltinan world Championship but she had to be 're-built' at the venue, prior to the regatta, to meet class rules. Numerous gear problems ruined any hope of a successful regatta for the revolutionary skiff but, despite the problems experienced by Miller at Auckland, there was little doubt about the follow-up to the Taipan design in 1961.

Miller's follow-up new skiff, Venom, proved emphatically the success of the design when she won the 1961 world title contest on the Brisbane River. Len Heffernan's latest creation, Jantzen Girl VI won the first race, after Venom had capsized before the start, but Venom then won the next four races to dominate the championship.

Heffernan tried to get the SFS to allow three-handers to race with the club, but many members wanted to retain the 'open boat' spirit of the older 18s, and strongly resisted the move. Len built a compromise four-handed boat for the 1960-61 season, while Miller built Venom.

Back in Sydney, Heffernan finally got the three-handers accepted by the SFS, but unfortunately it was September, which was too late for him to build one for the new season so Len decided to go to Brisbane and bought Taipan, which he re-named Crystal Lad and, with new sails, easily won the 1961-62 Australian Championship in Cairns, NQ.

Heffernan spent nearly 12 months building six three-handers to the Taipan/Venom style and got the 'new style' boat going in Sydney. He won the final two of his five Australian Championship victories (1962-63 and 1963-64) in one of them, Aberdare III.

An official publication, at the time, described the dimensions of Aberdare III as follows:

Aberdare III was a round bilge hull, with a 6ft beam and 20 inches deep amidships. She was built of moulded cedar veneer finished at 3/16" or less, had a plywood floor, wooden fin and straight down rudder, almost a second fin. The finished hull weighed around 150 lbs, with few nails in construction.

She 'generally used' an aluminium mast of 28 to 30 feet with wooden booms of up to 15ft, and 16 to 17ft aluminium spinnaker poles.

Her sails were dacron or terylene comprising, mainsail 200-250 sq ft, genoa jibs 110-130 sq ft, spinnakers 500-700 sq ft and ringtails with up to 15ft spars.

No bumpkin was used, self-drained by venture pump and funnel in the stern and no buoyancy tank.

While Heffernan's Aberdare III was the star at the Squadron, a four-handed version at the League, named Schemer, easily won the 1963 Giltinan world Championship for Ken Beashel. The same boat, re-named as TraveLodge, gave Bob Holmes the first of his five Giltinan world Championship victories when he won on Sydney Harbour in 1965.

Len built Aberdare IV in 1964, then Apex II in 1965. At the 1966 Giltinan world Championship in Brisbane, all races counted for the overall championship points - there was no discard. Len beat Bob Holmes in four of the five races, but capsized in one heat and lost the title by half a point.

A series of four boats named 'The Sun', a daily Sydney newspaper where Len Heffernan worked at the time followed then his last skiff, prior to retiring in 1971, was Hymix Concrete.

Following his retirement from the 18s, Len's love of sailing continued. At the request of Reg Barrington to help him, they completed the build of Historical 18, Tangalooma, in 1994, then Scot in 1997.

At the same time Bob Tearne built a 6ft skiff and a 10ft skiff, and started the Historic Replica Movement, Len also built 10ft replicas and won five Australian titles. He took a five-year break then came back and won his sixth title.

His friendship with Bill Barnett suffered a severe blow sometime late in the 1950s (reason was not known) and the pair didn't speak for the next 40 years, until John Steamer Stanley, in 2000, invited them to join him and a few friends for lunch as part of historical research, and the friendship of the two 18 footer legends was renewed.

It was a shame that the main part of Len Heffernan's career ended before the high-profile 'golden decade era' of the 1970s.

Credits: Robin Elliott (Galloping Ghosts), John Steamer Stanley, Ron Hann (Seacraft), Jack Hamilton

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