VJ History

'Splinter' VJ number 1 built in the Vaucluse 12ft Amateur Sailing Clubhouse in 1931

‘Splinter’ VJ number 1 which was built in the Vaucluse 12ft Amateur Sailing Clubhouse in 1931

Charles Sparrow at the helm with brother Tom crewing, sailing the second VJ built, 'Chum' on Sydney Harbour at Vaucluse 1932. Chum's chines were drawn one inch wider than 'Splinter' which Charles said was a little tippy and unstable, and all the later boats were built to plans based on 'Chum'.

Charles Sparrow at the helm with brother Tom crewing, sailing the second VJ built, ‘Chum’ on Sydney Harbour at Vaucluse 1932. Chum’s chines were drawn one inch wider than ‘Splinter’ which Charles said was a little tippy and unstable, and all the later boats were built to plans based on ‘Chum’. Photo courtesy of Graeme Andrews

Vaucluse 12ft Amateur Sailing Club opening 1930. This was where 'Splinter' and 'Chum' were built by Sil Rohu, Charles Sparrow, F Sargent and R Banks

Vaucluse 12ft Amateur Sailing Club opening 1930. This clubhouse was where ‘Splinter’ and ‘Chum’ were built by Sil Rohu, Charles Sparrow, F Sargent and R Banks

Howard Ash sailing a VJ on Sydney's Middle Harbour 1934

Howard Ash sailing a VJ on Sydney’s Middle Harbour 1934

Photo above from 1934 courtesy of Howard Ash (please see Photo Gallery for more Howard Ash VJ photos)

Charles Sparrow’s VJ plan no 1237 from 1938

(Please click on images to enlarge)

This original VJ plan including its materials specifications sheets was given to Greg Fryer when he visited Charles Sparrow in January 1994. Charles thought that this plan would have been from about 1938.

6 pages of materials specifications and building/rigging guide accompanied the plan. Charles did not mention to Greg whether these sheets were the same age as the above VJ plan but it would seem likely that they are and that they were the originals which accompanied the plan.

This also seems likely because the sheets contain 3 pages of VS building instructions and discuss the reasons for the designing of the VS which occurred in 1936. Because the VJ had a competition age limit of 18, Sil Rohu considered it important to have another boat designed for the boys over that age and also as a father/son boat.

(The materials specifications and building/rigging guide sheets from the 1938 plan are below the VJ History piece)

VJ History by Greg Fryer:

The 2011-2012 sailing season has seen the 80th birthday of the Vaucluse Junior or VJ, one of the great icons of Australian sailing. The VJ, according to marine historian Graeme Andrews, changed the sailing scene in Australia radically and immediately and its effect has been felt for generations since its introduction in the 1931-32 sailing season.

The VJ was the brainchild of Sil Rohu who was a founding member of the Vaucluse 12 ft Amateur Sailing Club in 1926 and who owned a prominent sporting store in Elizabeth Street Sydney from 1919 until his death in 1945. Sil was a sailing boat and fishing enthusiast, and his gunsmith and fishing supplies sports store ‘Sil Rohu’ became known throughout the country due to Sil’s entrepreneurial and promotional flair. Charles Sparrow said that Sil would often bring out American film celebrities for deep sea game fishing promotional events and had a knack for this kind of promotion.

During a short period of illness in 1931, Sil crystallised his vision for a sailing boat which would be designed specifically for children and teenagers as a training and racing craft.

Prior to the invention of the VJ there were no sailing boats that were designed specifically for children and teenagers so they could learn to sail. Boys would sometimes learn to sail as ‘bailer boys’ in the open skiff classes, but others  would venture out onto Sydney Harbour in home made ramshackle ‘sailing canoes’ made from roofing iron and held together with pitch wood and nails usually with a bedsheet for a sail. These were anything but seaworthy and had mixed results, and Sil was concerned by the lack of formal sailing activites for children and teenagers and also by the lack of suitable boats for them to learn to sail on.

Sil Rohu’s vision for the VJ required 3 things:

1. It was purposely designed for 2 children or teenagers so they could learn to sail and learn to race

2. The boat would be unsinkable and easy to right after a capsize (most other craft at the time such as the open skiffs had to be towed ashore after a capsize)

3. The boat would be made at home by a boy and his dad and would be inexpensive to construct (in the 1930s the boat cost 5 pounds 7 shillings and sixpence, and the sails cost 3 pounds 5 shillings)

In 1931 during the depths of the Great Depression Sil saw all around him the effects of social upheaval. Work was scarce with over 20% of Sydney’s workers unemployed, and poverty and hardship was everywhere around. This must have been disturbing for a community minded man like Sil Rohu. In 1923 Sil along with other returned servicemen helped set up Legacy in Sydney which looked after widows and families of World War I soldiers killed or injured during that conflict.

Sil Rohu was a founding member of the Vaucluse 12 ft Amateur Sailing Club in 1926 and sailed regularly with Charles Sparrow who was 22 years his junior. Charles said in a conversation with me in 1994 that Sil was very concerned that the boys and teenagers had little to do with their time during the Great Depression and that lack of activities and structure was causing many social problems. Charles said that it was Sil’s goal that the VJ should be built at home for a low cost and that family and social cohesion would be strengthened by the boys being actively involved in an organised healthy outdoor sport.

Charles Sparrow was unemployed at the time he designed the VJ in 1931, with his shipwright apprenticeship at the Cockatoo Island Dockyards coming to an end in 1928. He had several jobs from 1928 until 1931 including State Dockyard Newcastle, Morts Dock in Sydney, Australian Steam Navigation Company, and Holden Body Builders.

After Sil commissioned him to design the boat, Charles took only 7 days to produce the final drawings. In a generous gesture, Charles donated the money earned from his design to the Vaucluse Junior Amateur Sailing Club.

The first VJ prototype called ‘Splinter’ was built by the members of the Vaucluse 12 ft Amateur Sailing Club in the clubhouse and was launched on 1st May 1931. It proved to be a little ‘tippy and unstable’ as Charles told me. He then set about widening the chines by one inch either side to arrive at the final design.

The final version prototype called ‘Chum’ was built by the Vaucluse 12 ft Sailing Club members again in their clubhouse and was launched in August 1931. Two sailing club members F. Sargent and R. Banks were instrumental in the building of these first two prototype VJs and presumably were experienced in workworking and boatbuilding. Sil Rohu bankrolled the project and paid for the design costs plus all materials for these first two boats from his own pocket.

Charles Sparrow said that at the time he designed the VJ the well known Sydney boatbuilding company Halvorsen Bros was also working on a similar idea, so therefore the race was on to produce a suitable boat and capture the public’s imagination.

Once the final prototype VJ “Chum’ was launched in August 1931, the idea caught on rapidly and numbers began to grow. Sil named the boat the ‘Vaucluse Junior’ and his concept was that the ‘VJ’ would train the youngsters up to the age of 18 when they would then graduate with accomplished sailing skills into the open 12 ft skiff class or other open skiff classes.

According to Charles it was Sil’s idea for the VJ to have a colour patch or insignia on the mainsail which served to make the boats stand out and be eyecatching when out on the harbour. This has continued to be a distinctive feature of the VJ over the years and one which contributes strong character to the boats.

The boatshed at Sil’s house at The Crescent Vaucluse served as the first Vaucluse Junior Amateur Sailing Association headquarters, meeting place and storage shed, but soon the numbers of boats being built overcame its capacity. For a few years the VJs were housed in the nearby McKlellan’s boatshed at the south end of Kutti Beach at Vaucluse (the 12 ft Sailing Club was located at the northern end of the beach) and soon a new clubhouse was built nearby.

The new clubhouse in Marine Parade built for the Vaucluse Amateur Sailing Association which would house the VJ and VS boats was opened by the Postmaster-General Eric Harrison in October 1939. Construction of the clubhouse was substantially funded by Sil Rohu’s sailing friend Norman Nock who owned the well known George Street Sydney hardware store Nock and Kirby’s. Many decades later the club would become known as the Vaucluse Yacht Club.

During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s Nock and Kirby’s sold the VJ plans plus all the materials needed to build the boat.


Sil Rohu

Sil Rohu at front and friends early 1920s

Sil Rohu (at left front in sleeveless shirt) and friends circa early 1920s (pic courtesy of Peter Johnson)

Sylvester Edwin Rohu was born in 1882 in Sydney of Irish descent on his father’s side and of English and German descent on his mother ‘s side. With the outbreak of World War I, Sil who was 33 at the time enlisted in the Australia Imperial Forces which was a volunteer force and departed Sydney on the troopship ‘Argyllshire’ on 11th May 1916. Sil spent the next 2 1/2 years on the Western Front in France as ‘acting bombardier’ with the 7th Field Artillery Brigade.

Sil and two mates produced the 7th Field Artillery Brigade newspaper “The Yandoo” for the duration of the war.  Their old typewriter was once captured by the advancing German army but was retaken when the Australian A.I.F. lines pushed back again, and the typewriter is now preserved at the National War Memorial in Canberra.

295,000 Australians served on the Western Front in WWI and 46,000 made the ultimate sacrifice. Sil returned to Sydney in August 1919 and was discharged in October of that year.

Sil Rohu 1916 7th Field Artillery brigade

Sil Rohu 1916 on the way to war: 7th Field Artillery Brigade photo from the ‘Yandoo’ journal. Sil is in the second from front row, standing at the far left hand side

Sil Rohu appears in both the upper and lower photos, from the 'Yandoo 'journal. In the lower photo Sil is on the far left hand side as part of the winning tug of war team on board HMAT Karmala 1919

Sil Rohu places a wreath on the Cenotaph for the 7th Field Artillery brigade 12th May 1930

From the Sydney Morning Herald 12th May 1930

Shortly after he returned from the war in 1919, Sil Rohu purchased a gunsmith store which was located firstly at 110 Bathurst Street Sydney and later moved to 143 Elizabeth Street Sydney. Although Sil was not experienced in this area of business with his previous area of employment being listed as ‘naturalist’ in his WWI enlistment papers, Sil developed the store’s activities wider into the areas of fishing and other sports and promoted his business so well that it became well known throughout Australia.

In 1923 at the age of 41 Sil married Laura May Young at Marrickville. Later the two lived at 50 The Crescent Vaucluse where they had a waterfront house with a boatshed. Vaucluse was a more relaxed low key place in those days compared to the upmarket sought after suburb it would become in later years. Sil’s boatshed served as the first clubhouse for the Vaucluse Junior Amateur Association until weight of numbers meant that boats had to be stored elsewhere. The boatshed also served as the meeting place for the VJ Association for many years.

For the last couple of years of his life Sil was not in good health, and died suddenly probably from a heart attack or stroke on the 24th March 1945 aged 62. His wife Laura who was born in Newcastle in 1890, lived to be 91 years old and died in 1981.

Photo of Sil Rohu from 1933:

‘First capture of the Newcastle and Port Stephens Game Fishing Club, Shoal Bay 1933’. Pic features from left Newman Silverstone, Athel D’Ombrain, and our Sil Rohu on the right

Photo is courtesy of the game fishing website http://www.antiquegamefishingreels.com

For Peter Johnson’s excellent website charting the Rohu family history please see:


Charles Sparrow:

Charles E. Sparrow was born in England in 1906. His father who Charles referred always to as “The Major” when I spoke to him in 1994, was in the British Royal Navy but retired from it after World War I and later joined the Royal Australian Navy. The Sparrow family came to Australia via New Zealand Charles said. In Sydney the family lived at Rose Bay and Charles’ father “The Major” was occupied in his Navy work on the training ship ‘Tingira’ which was anchored permanently in Rose Bay at this time.

In 1922 or 1923 Charles finished school in Sydney and accepted a job as shipwright at the Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney Harbour near Drummoyne. His apprenticeship finished in 1928 and Charles worked at different jobs until 1931 when he was unemployed at the time Sil Rohu asked him to design the VJ.

In 1933 Charles accepted a job in Papua New Guinea as technical instructor and left Australia for approx 5 years, returning in 1937 . In 1936 Sil Rohu wrote and asked Charles to design the Vaucluse Senior. Fortunately the VJ Association has in its possession copies of 4 letters between Sil and Charles which were written from 1933 to 1936, in one of these letters Sil discusses the idea of the larger VS (please see letters below)

Charles returned to Australia to work as a ship’s draughtsman in the Navy base at Garden Island in Sydney.

At the beginning of World War II Charles moved to Brisbane to become Naval Overseer at the Evans Deakin Shipyard which constructed corvettes and frigates and repaired war damaged ships. After WWII Charles returned to Garden Island in the position of Chief Draughtsman and Senior Naval Architect in change of the drawing office.

Charles retired from the Navy in 1960 due to problems with cataracts in his eyes, and he and his wife Grace moved from Eastwood in Sydney to Tuggerah on the NSW Central Coast. He continued to design boats and to do technical drawings for new houses.

 For many years in their later life Charles and Grace Sparrow lived at Wyoming on the Central Coast near the Tuggerah Lakes. In 2000 Charles Sparrow was awarded the Order Of Australia for his services to sailing.

Charles died in 2004 aged nearly 98.

Photos of Charles Sparrow from 3rd January 1999 taken at Saratoga on the Brisbane Water, Central Coast, NSW:

Charles Sparrow and John Arens

Charles Sparrow and John Arens

Graeme Andrews, Charles Sparrow and others 3rd jan 1999

From left to right: Graeme Andrews, Alan Mimmo, Irene Arens, Les Simmons, Charles Sparrow, Wyn Andrews, Margaret Mimmo, June Simmons

Graeme Andrews, Charles Sparrow and others

The VJ and VS classes held a sail-past in honour of designer Charles Sparrow on this day 3rd January 1999


A good article from the VS website about Charles Sparrow, with information provided by Graeme Andrews:

Please see: http://www.vs.asn.au/vs-history.html

Charles Sparrow – VS Designer – RIP


Charles Sparrow was born in the United Kingdom in 1906 but completed his  schooling in Sydney after a short period in New Zealand. His coming of age roughly coincided with the Great Depression, when work for trainee  and  qualified naval draughtsmen were hard to come by. When not struggling to  make a living around Sydney during which time he worked in the Drafting Office  at Cockatoo Dock, helping prepare drawings for such ships that were still  being built, to working on the Captain Cook at Morts Dock and producing drawings for mudguards for Holden bodies pre-war, Charles Sparrow, was a keen sailor of small yachts.
“I occasionally sailed in the open 12 footers of the Vaucluse  Sailing Club with Mr Sil Rohu. He owned a gun ship in Castlereagh Street in the city and lived on the waterfront at Vaucluse.  He knew how water sports appealed to young lads and wondered if there might  not be a need for a safe and exciting, easily sailed small yacht,  that could be built at home by, perhaps, a boy and his father. Such a boat might be skippered by one lad with another as forward hand and it would need to be unsinkable and be able to be righted by the crew without help”.
Sil Rohu suggested to Charles Sparrow that he might be the person to design such a craft and Sparrow soon produced a preliminary design of a boat which was  completely decked in except for a small well, big enough for  two pairs of boys feet. The plan gave the size and shape of seven frames and the tuck and the  shape of the stern, and a jig frame. The jig frame was built from  6in by 1.5in planks, slotted at the position of each frame. The slots were cut at different  depths so that when the made frames were placed in their allotted spaces, the  shape of the hull was automatically fixed and was ready for attaching the keel,  chines, planking and so on.
“The first boat built was Splinter and she was built by the  members of the newly formed Vaucluse Amateur Sailing Club and was then  thoroughly tested. A few minor adjustments were made and final drawings were  then prepared for sale. The first boat built to the modified plans was ‘Chum’ and  she was owned by Sil Rohu and was launched in August 1931. Chum is now in the keeping of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
“We showed off the VJ ‘Sparrow’ at the first Aquatic Show in 1933  in Sydney which was held by Nock and Kirby’s and I still have the  small leaflet which we handed out at the show. It was a very successful exercise, even in a  Depression.
Complete details were furnished with each set of plans sold, together with a list of materials covering every single piece of timber in the boat, including fastenings and fittings. At that time the completed boat was  expected to cost five pounds  seventeen shillings and sixpence and the sails about three pounds five shillings! I donated the plans and the specifications to the Vaucluse Junior Amateur Sailing Club for their use, with any revenue earned to go the Club’s future development of the class (this was at a time when Sparrow was desperately trying to earn enough money to keep himself and his wife Grace afloat and was unemployed at the time – Graeme Andrews).We had hoped that boys once they reached the age of 18 would go  onto sailing the larger, open boats, that were so popular on the harbour, in all sorts of sizes. We eventually found that this wasn’t happening so, in 1936, I designed an adult version of the VJ.

This was known as the VS or Vaucluse Senior. She was designed upon the same lines as the VJ but was three foot six inches longer and had a cockpit that was big enough to allow two lads to sleep in it, using the sail over the boom to make a tent.
The VS quickly caught on. Soon after the war 100 of them were built in Sydney and were shipped to Japan for use by the Australian Occupation Forces. With the growth of the two classes a need arose for a new clubhouse and larger facilities.
A site was found in Marine Parade, Watsons Bay, which is where the Vaucluse Yacht Club now stands. The new club was officially opened by Sir Eric Harrison (then Postmaster General) on 28 October 1939.


Letters from Sil Rohu to Charles Sparrow 1933 to 1936:

Sil Rohu's letter to Charles Sparrow 13th Dec 1933

Sil Rohu’s letter to Charles Sparrow 13th Dec 1933

Sil Rohu's letter to Charles Sparrow 16th Mar 1934

Sil Rohu’s letter to Charles Sparrow 16th Mar 1934

Sil Rohu's letter to Charles Sparrow 24th April 1934

Sil Rohu’s letter to Charles Sparrow 24th April 1934

Sil Rohu's letter to Charles Sparrow 13th Nov 1936 p1

Sil Rohu’s letter to Charles Sparrow 13th Nov 1936 p1

Sil Rohu's letter to Charles Sparrow 13th Nov 1936 p2

Sil Rohu’s letter to Charles Sparrow 13th Nov 1936 p2


VJ materials and specifications sheets included with Charles Sparrow’s 1938 plans:

Charles Sparrow’s 1938 VJ specifications sheet #1

Charles Sparrow’s 1938 VJ specifications sheet #2

After the final prototype version VJ “Chum” was launched in August 1931 the VJ enjoyed rapid success and growth in numbers around Sydney Harbour and elsewhere around Australia. A few years later Sil Rohu then had a ‘problem’ on his hands to solve when the VJ age limit meant that many of his enthusiastic VJ sailors were barred from competition once they turned 18. In 1936 Charles Sparrow was asked by Sil to design the VS.

Charles Sparrow’s VS 1938 specifications sheets #1

Charels Sparrow’s VS 1938 specification sheets #2

Charles Sparrow’s VS 1938 specifications sheets #3

Charles Sparrow’s VS 1938 specifications sheets #4

Please also see information from the Powerhouse Museum which has on display the 1955 VJ ‘Giselle’. Its VJ article features information from marine historian Graeme Andrews:



5 Responses to VJ History

  1. Peter says:

    Hi Guys, Just letting you know that Sil Rohu (Sylvester Edwin Rohu) was of Irish, not Scandinavian descent. He was the eldest son of Henry Bonaventure Rohu and Ada Jane Tost. Henry hailed from Ireland and Ada Jane from England. They set up a curiosity shop in Sydney, called the Tost and Rohu Museum. It was described as ‘the queerest shop in Australia’. See http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rohu-ada-jane-13285

    Henry Rohu was a bit of a rogue and during his life claimed to be from Scotland and Sweden. He left his wife and children at the turn of the 20th century, moved to England, married again and set up a taxidermy business in Bournemouth.

    Great site though. Thanks for all the additional info. Peter Johnson (married to Gwenda Rohu, great granddaughter of Henry’s brother, Alfred)

  2. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for your information on Sil Rohu, it is much appreciated. In January 1994 when I met Charles Sparrow, he told me that he thought Sil was of Scandinavian descent but obviously must have had the information incorrect.

    In recent months the VJ Association has been handed many old records from Alan Kildey the former long serving Association registrar, and these documents shed light on the origins of the VJ and include much correspondence between Sil and Charles from the 1930s. Over coming months we will present more of this information on the website.

    Hooroo, Greg

  3. Peter says:

    Hi Greg,

    Great work digging into the past! Must say it humbled me when I saw that photo of Sil Rohu and the AIF boys going to the Western Front in 1916.

    The story of the VJ reminds me of the Mirror Dinghy on this side of the world.


  4. Tom Jacobs says:

    My father Bill Jacobs raced a VJ named “Chum II” in Sydney as a teenager in the 1940s before moving back to the states to go to college, have a family and enjoy a lot of small boat sailing before dying way too young in 1979. I have a silver trophy with his name on it for the 1947 – 1948 ES VJ & VS Sailing Club VJ Championship. I also have a couple of pictures of him and His boat, none under sail. Is there anybody around who might remember sailing with him or his younger brother Tom? I know it was a long time ago. Anybody who remembers anything about VJ sailing in Sydney in the mid-1940s and is inclined to get in touch can contact me at tvjacobs@gmail.com.

  5. Ric says:

    What a trip down memory lane … Middle Harbour VJ Club at the Spit round the late fifties, early sixties. Afternoon southerly buster swinging round and over middle head, waves braking on Grotto, big fat swells rolling toward the Spit but never making it. Singlehanded, toes on gunnel, kite cleated off, working the main and feeling the pressure on my rudder surfing the incoming swells, at times only a third of my trusty VJ swell wetted, rooster’s tail tearing away.
    What an amazing dinghy … all elements encapsulated in a thriling sailing experience. I will always cherish what sailing my VJ meant to me … and my dear old Dad who harangued mercilessly my penchant for Chinaman’s lee. Ric.

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