Introduction and contents

The SailCraft blog was really born years ago, when I realised that no one had tried to tell the story of the racing dinghy and the forces that shaped it.   It’s a complex tale; a web of interaction between factors such as emerging technologies, differences in geography and economies, the physics of wind and water, real estate and liquor laws, the width of an Austin A40 sedan and an English seaside laneway, and changing gender roles. It’s a tale that has spawned many myths, often ones about conservatives stifling development, but where the reality has few such villains and many heroes.*

This is an ideal time to tell this story. The arrival of on-line archives allows us to find information that has been hidden away in ancient newspapers and rare mouldering books. It’s a time when even the shyest dinghy designer can be coaxed into giving priceless nuggets of information over email. Many of the world’s top dinghy creators, including Paul Bieker, Frank and Julian Bethwaite, Ian Bruce, Rob Brown, Steve Clark, Stu Friezer, Mike Jackson, Bruce Kirby, Andrew McDougal, Phil Morrison, Andy Paterson and many more, have been happy to be interviewed for this project.

The same changes in technology have also delayed SailCraft by years. I’ve been waiting for digital publishing to develop to the stage where it can provide images of boat designs and photographs well enough to show intricate details like the hull lines of a Bieker 14, or the workmanship of an Uffa Fox classic. Such technology still isn’t here, and sadly my ability to write well still hasn’t returned, so I have turned to this blog to pass on the information that so many people have helped me to gather.  Many thanks to them and the many other people who have given their time and knowledge in the past, and my apologies for the long delay.

SailCraft comes in three parts. Part 1 is a history of the development of the racing dinghy (and the bigger boats that influenced them) from the 18th century to the present day. Part 2 is an examination of the design principles and philosophies that dinghy designers follow. Part 3 is an examination of individual classes and types and their design and development.

This blog is concentrating on Part 1 at first, starting from the 1700s, when the first racing centreboarders arrived. Part 1 is generally being posted in chronological order, but some out-of-sequence posts will be put up at times. Some sections from Parts 2 and 3 will also be posted out of order at times.

There are still many gaps in the story of the racing dinghy and its design. I would love to hear from anyone who wants to provide any information, comment or corrections.

Chris Thompson

*(and a few heroines, but, sadly, not too many.)


Part 1 – history

1.1  – “The sliding keels that took advantage”: the dawn of the racing centreboarder

1.2 –  “Truly as fast as the wind”: catboats and skimming dishes (minor update 30/9/2016)

1.3 –  “A little too marvelous to be real” – the story of the Una boats

1.4 –  The sandbaggers

1.5- The mysterious history of the sharpie (updated 24/8/16)

1.6 –  The raincoat boat bed and the shoe-shine missionary – the story of the sailing canoes, the first high performance centreboarders

1.7 –  “Skidding over the water” – enter the planing hull

1.8 – “We have written too many obituaries of its victims” – the end of the sandbagger

1.9 – “These little clippers” – from rowing boat to racing dinghy

1.10 – “All built and rigged the same” – the invention of the one design class

1.11 – “Racers in every sense of the word” – the Raters

1.12 – “In every respect a sport suited to our sex” – the women who changed small-boat sailing

1.13- The Seawanhaka Cup 

1.14 – “A radical departure” – the scows

1.15 – Introducing the era of nationalism: dinghy sailing in the early 20th century

1.16 – “Fox hunting”; Uffa, Avenger and the planing dinghy

1.17 – Thunder, Lightning and the Tali Dogang: the classic  racing dinghy and the trapeze.

1.18 – Classic boats through modern eyes.

1.19 – From Kings to bouncing cats – the British development classes

1.20 – the local classes

1.21- “A great rage for the type” – the first Australian centreboarders

1.22- Painted boats, varnished ships and yellow dogs – the ancestor of the skiffs part 1

1.23 – The skiffs and dinghies of the east coast

1.24 – “it would be difficult to improve upon them”- the high performance dinghies of the European lakes

1.25 – The sailing scientists of the Renjollen

1.28 – US dinghies – in draft

1.30 – Tuckups and Hikers – the vanished world of the Delaware dinghies

1.33 – The third phase of dinghy sailing – the new internationalism and the dinghy boom

“A diabolically ingenious machine” – the Finn

“This was considered revolutionary” – the Flying Dutchman and the trapeze

“We just wanted a nice little boat”; the story of the Laser

Laser lines – the shape that launched 200,000 ships

From fizzers to Forty Niner – the production skiff types emerge

 1.50 – What we’re sailing today, 1.0

1.51 – What we’re sailing today, 2.0 – the USA

Part 2 – Design

2.1 – The numbers game

2.2 – Shapes in the liquid: the hull of today’s performance dinghy

Other posts

The real story of Amaryllis and the first racing catamarans

The skiffs and dinghies of the east coast

The “fishing boats” and 22s may have been the most spectacular of the open boat classes, but while the big “troopships” with their unrestricted beam were catching the public eye, many of the open boat sailors of Sydney, Brisbane and the smaller states of the east coast raced smaller boats or under tighter rules.

The small boats of the east coast, especially the 14 Footers, show a significant split in Australian sailing. Centreboarder sailing not only developed earlier in the east; it also created classes that were significantly different to the boats of similar length that developed to the south and west of the continent. Once again, the key seems to have been geography. The waters along the east coast were warmer, the winds normally more moderate, the waters well sheltered and flat, and the launching sites normally calm. It allowed the sailors of the east to put the priority on speed over seaworthiness.

The smaller open boats fell into four breeds – the skiffs, the dinghies, the sharpies, and the canvassers. Of course, just as with the larger open boats the sailors of the day used some terms in the opposite way to their current meaning, just to make life confusing. To Australian sailors a “skiff” was a boat with a slender hull like that of a rowing skiff, and normally with a smaller rig and crew to match. A “dinghy” (or “dingey”, “dingy” or even “dinghey”, depending on the mood) was a miniature version of a 22 Footer – an unrestricted class ruled only by maximum length, where every boat was free to crowd on as much sail, beam and crew as they could. To the sailors of the day, there was a vast difference between the two breeds.

The Sydney dinghies included the 6 Foot, 8 Foot, 10 Foot and 14 Foot classes, and by the standards of the day their fleets were huge.  “In the palmy days of the mosquito fleet it was a regular thing to see a fleet of a dozen sixes, some ten eights, nearly a score of tens, and perhaps eight to 12 14-footers starting in their respective classes” recalled one commentator.

The 14 Foot Dinghy Marjorie in January 1899. She sailed with the Sydney Dingy Sailing Club, but by this time the 14 Footers were on the verge of fading out of popularity in Sydney. William Hall pic from the Australian National Maritime Museum.

The unrestricted “dinghies” were regarded as the ideal training ground for the bigger unrestricted boats, and there were many tales of the crack pros from the 18 and 22 Footers meeting their match when they tried to race 14s and 10s against the youth.[17] “Skippers and crews moving up from the dinghies to the larger classes have always done well, as the beamy and big-sailed dinghies conform more to the types of the 18-footers and other large boats than, say, the skiffs do” wrote a commentator in 1925, when the word “skiff” still meant a lighter and narrower boat with a smaller rig. “The dinghies and skiffs are two totally different classes of boats to handle.”[16]

For many years, the 14 Foot Dinghies were a hotbed of talent in Sydney and Brisbane.  It was in the 14s that Chris Webb, generally said to be the greatest of the early Sydney Open Boat sailors, first came to fame.[18]  The early 14s were classic examples of the unrestricted “troopship”.  They had a beam of up to 7ft, carried 400sq ft of sail upwind in light airs, and crowded up to 1000ft2 or more downwind. A boat like Queensland’s Etna of 1898 had a mainsail that was 24 feet long on the boom, a bowsprit of 11 ft,  and a jib that measured 13ft along the foot.


Top; Volant, national 14 Footer champion in 1907 and 1909, was one of the many top-class boats from Brisbane. The northern city played a significant, but often overlooked, part in the development of the open boats. State Library of Queensland pic.  Below; somewhere under that sail is Ida, another Brisbane 14 Footer, which finished first in the 1909 national title but was DSQd for a premature start. State Library of Queensland pic.


The 14 Footers were also a major class in Brisbane; a “semi-legendary” class and the “keenest and most competitive in the history of Brisbane yachting” was one description from 1912. But despite their status, around World War 1 the 14 Foot Dinghy started to fade away in Sydney and Brisbane, perhaps because of competition from the growing 18 and 16 Footer fleets.

14s I think anmm commons

A fleet that looks to be made up of 14 Foot Dinghies runs past Balmain on upper Sydney Harbour.  These narrow and flat waters, upstream of the area where the Harbour Bridge now stands, were a stronghold of the small dinghies and skiffs in Sydney. ANMM Wikicommons


The other widespread dinghy class was the Ten Footers. According to open boat expert Ian Smith, the Tens evolved from the canvas-covered dinghies that started racing in the 1870s.  Up until 1922 the Tens had a national title that was fought out between cities of Brisbane, Perth, Sydney, and Newcastle. Like the 22s and 14s, the basic concept was simple – pile as much sail and beam and as many bodies as you could into a boat that was limited only by the length of the hull.  A Ten Foot Dinghy like the 1910 champion Commonwealth carried a big rig of around 22ft 6 inches long, a boom of  5.9m/19ft 6in, a bowsprit (or bumpkin, as open boat sailors called it) of 16ft, and a four-piece 21ft spinnaker pole. The big rig had a mainsail of 280 sq ft, a “balloon jib: of 300ft2 for reaching, and a spinnaker of around   450 sq ft. When the breeze kicked in at over ten knots, she switched down to a smaller 2nd or 3rd rig.

Five grown men in a 10 Foot Dinghy as the 1931 NSW champion plugs along. She was one of many boats called Australia; it seems that patriotism outweighed originality. Hall photo from the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Commonwealth was built and sailed by Norman Wright Snr, scion of a family that still runs a major boatbuilding firm in Brisbane and still wins races. Norman Wright Snr created the boat when he was just 16, and went on to win three national titles in her. They were major players in Brisbane’s keen and innovative open boat scene, which bred sailors that often beat the much-hyped Sydney fleet. In 1990, the late Norman J Wright Jnr, an Australian and world 18 Footer champion, wrote to Rob Tearne (himself a world 18 Footer champ) about the 10 Footer’s history. “In 1883 the Brisbane River flooded the worst recorded ever, and a cedar log floated down and secured by father at the old family home at Quay Street Bulimba. The cedar log father pit sawed into ½ inch planks and had them planed and they became the “Commonwealth’s” planking…..I have a press cutting from the Brisbane Courier telling the story of her being launched on the Saturday morning and winning the Australian Championship on the Saturday Arvo….”.

Cropped 10 footer
A 10 Footer hard to windward near Balmain on the upper reaches of Sydney Harbour.  Fleets of reproduction Historical Tens now race in Sydney and Brisbane. The photo below shows one of the reproduction boats, a century away in time but probably only a few hundred metres away in distance. Top pic by Hall, from the Australian National Maritime Museum site. Bottom pic from the class association site.


Commonwealth, 1910 national champion. Hall/ANMM pic.

Like many of their big sisters, the Tens were completely open boats- or at least as far as their timberwork went. To keep some of the water out, they had a canvas “booby hatch” cover where the foredeck would have been, and “lee cloths” to stop water coming over the leeward gunwale. Like the rest of the open boats, they didn’t have enough buoyancy to allow them to recover from a capsize; as far as their crews were concerned, it was only fair that you should be punished by a long swim or tow to the nearest beach if you capsized. It was an attitude that remained strong in the open boat classes long after other types had switched to self bailing cockpits and buoyancy.

Commonwealth nosediving
Above: Commonwealth, national 10 Footer champion, nosedives – and keeps on nosediving. I think I had a copy of the magazine with this photo in it, left over from my father, before I was old enough to sail. If I remember rightly, the caption said that the Commonwealth stayed in this position, with the “booby cloth” cover on the foredeck keeping the water our, for a mile or so until she cross the finish line. This copy of the pic is from the class site.                                       Below: the happy crew of the successful 10 Footer Gerard, with what is probably a winner’s pennant flying. This cropped version of a Hall pic from the Australian National Maritime Museum shows how crowded the Dinghies were, and how hard they must have been to sail in an era of manila rope and cotton sails.


Not even the Ten Footers pushed the limits of design harder than the smallest classes, the Eight and Six Foot dinghies. These tiny boats normally lived on the flat waters of the upper reaches of Sydney Harbour, and were effectively the junior classes of their day.  One of the most successful of the small open boat was the Eight Footer Zephyr.  A “snub-nose” or pram-bowed boat, she was said to be “the greatest sail carrier for her size ever known on Port Jackson” and her reaching power made her almost unbeatable.  Eight feet long and eight feet in beam, her bowsprit extended 13 feet from her square stem and she carried a 13 foot long gaff and an eight foot wide “ringtail” sail that extended the mainsail down the square runs.

Zephyr cropped
Zephyr, built for the Pritchard children by their boatbuilder father and steered by Irene Pritchard (who seems to be missing her hat for once in this pic) with the shipyard of Cockatoo Island in the right background. Zephyr was as long as she was wide, which allowed her to carry so much sail that she was unbeatable. Pic from the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Zephyr was skippered for years by Miss Irene Pritchard, the only well-known female skipper of the old “open boat” days, and crewed by her brothers.  Together they won so many races that after the boat was sold to a new owner, “the eight footer owners put their heads together and refused to race if the Zephyr’s entry was accepted.”  Since Zephyr’s owner had already paid his entry fees and refused to back down, it was the end of the Eight Footers – one of many old classes killed by an “unbeatable” boat. As blogger Åsa Wahlquist has noted, the fame of Zephyr and Irene Pritchard spread across Australia and even to England, but for some reason no other women followed Irene’s lead. Although many encouraged her, it’s also interesting, and rather sad, that many years later there was at least one claim that Irene Pritchard “merely” steered while her brothers did the trimming and tactics. Given the difficulty of sailing any Eight Footer, much less winning repeatedly when wearing a full skirt and Victorian-era hat, it sounds like sexist sour grapes.[20]

Even Zephyr looked almost sane alongside the bizarre Six Footers, which sometimes had overhanging gunwales that made them 6”/15cm wider than they were long. Upwind they set up to 150ft of sail on 10ft to 12ft bowsprits and 14ft-15ft booms.  The mast was raked forward and the bowsprit bowed down so that it dragged in the water upwind; without the bowsprit and the tack of the jib in the water to counteract the sideways push of the jib, the boat would just bear away uncontrollably.  As late as the 1920s there were up to ten of them racing.[21]

Six Footer
Six Footers from the Hall collection of the Australian National Maritime Museums. Yes, the bowsprit are supposed to be in the water – with so much sail on such a short boat, even with a huge rudder the directional stability was so poor that the tack of the jib was stuck in the water to help keep the boat on course. The top pic is a cropped version of this shot. The sight of Fort Denison in the background shows that this photo was taken off the current site of the Opera House, in the main part of Sydney Harbour. It must have been a wide and choppy waterway for a Six Footer. If you look at the larger version of the lower pic here, you can see the water lapping over the bow and only being kept out by the canvas foredeck cover. There’s also a third body somehow crammed into the tiny boat.



The Sixes, Eights and Tens faded out in the 1920s. For all their spectacle and challenge, in many ways the small unrestricted dinghies seem to have been a bit of a dead end in design terms. Such short and comparatively heavy boats would struggle to move into a new world of planing. In those days before wetsuits and buoyancy, even the challenge of just keeping the tiny hulls upright under those vast rigs must have eventually palled. They seem to have been replaced by a lighter, cheaper and more efficient type – the Skiffs.

The Skiffs

Open boat classes faded and bloomed, but one type was almost immortal – the 16 Foot Skiffs. As in so many cases, details of the early evolution of the 16 Foot Skiffs are scanty.[4]  It appears that as early as the 1870s there were race starts for 16 footers that were “skiff style, the beam being limited to 5ft, and the depth 20 in….. for many years”. [5] These boats were said to be “of the open skiff class, very small and fine, and carrying small silk sails and kites” and have “wonderful running powers” compared to beamier, bigger-rigged boats.  For some reason, the hull restrictions on Sydney’s 16s were later dropped, and in typical open boat style rigs and their live-ballast crews got bigger and bigger until by 1881 the 16s were said to be carrying “immense clouds of calico”. Around 1897 the class effectively died out, perhaps because the end of the restrictions allowed them to become too big and costly, perhaps because of the growth of the 18s that occurred around the same time.[6]

Our boys and sophia
The Sydney Mail of 30 January 1897 called these two boats “the present-day champions of the 16s” and noted that they were originally built to the old restrictions of 5ft beam and 20 in depth. The pic was taken during the phase when unrestricted rigs and crews were allowed. The skippers of these boats were both to go on with their careers; Holmes as a professional skipper, boatbuilder and scion of a famous family of “skiffies”, and Doran as a fan of light and efficient boats.
Close up of pic entitled yachting, hk tyr pow with probable big rig 16s cropped
Judging from their length, sail area and their slim lines, the boats in the foreground of this close-up of a busy Sydney Harbour scene could be among the first of the new breed of 16 Foot Skiffs, in the days when they sailed under a beam restriction of 5ft and a depth restriction of 20 in but without limits on sail area. Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum

Almost as soon as the unrestricted 16s died out, the old style of restricted 16  was revived. In November 1901, the Port Jackson Skiff Club (the first club to bear the “skiff” label)  was formed in a pub in the working-class suburb of Balmain in the small-boat hotbed of upper Sydney Harbour.  Many gave much of the credit to the boatbuilder Billy Golding; “Golding was a well-known builder of boats, and was more than interested in the activities of the youth of the waterfront along the Balmain and Snails Bay shores” a veteran said many years later. “These lads used to spend a great amount of their time crab fishing, and they pulled in about in an odd assortment of craft of all sizes. Golding conceived the idea of building a type of 16 ft Skiff which could be rowed or sailed. They had clinker-built hulls with small heels and fine sections. They were equipped with centre boards and rigged with small sprit sails and. stem head jibs. Little was it known that these were to be the prototypes of the now famous Port Jackson skiff.”

There are also indications that the founders of the Port Jackson club were reacting against what they saw as extremes of design and of professionalism in other open boat classes; as an early account noted, the club “caters for a class outside of the ordinary racing boat”. Instead of the normal open classes, restricted in length only, the PJSC formed four classes; (18 footers, 16 footers, 14 footers and 12 footers) that were restricted in beam and crew (four for the 18s and 16s, three for 14s and 12s) and was “confined to pleasure sails, namely, mainsail and jib only”.[7],[8]  Sail area was restricted by limiting the length of the booms, and  even poling the jib out was prohibited.

Although the PJSC concept broke the mould of Sydney’s open boats, the 16s were an immediate success. A sketch of the early boats drawn many years later by class champion and naval architect Bryce Mortlock shows their classic long rowing boat shape – quite similar, in fact, to that of overseas classes like the Delaware Tuckups. As Mortlock wrote, these early 16 Footers “really were “skiffs” – actually rowing skiffs, to which a narrow fincase had been fitted so that they could be used for sailing now and then. They had all the characteristics of the good old style of pulling boat, so easy to propel at low speeds” he wrote; “long straight heel to give direction; deep built-in heel, and high, small, slack-bilged transom, giving excellent clearance aft; plenty of length, so that the weight could be kept out of the ends, and so that they wouldn’t stop between oar-strokes; moderate beam (not more than one-third of the waterline length), and then a slack-bilged midship section as well, with a steep rise of floor so that with normal loads the waterlines were narrow; plumb stem with deep rounded forefoot; no flare to the bow, and a fine entrance.”

The 16s quickly became by far the most popular of the new “skiff” classes, and as time went on and competition got hotter, the PJSC introduced more rules to enforce the slender shape of the 16s and stop them from going down the familiar route of bigger and bigger hulls and sails.  Within a few years there were restrictions on transom width (3’9″) and gunwale width (2″) as well as hull depth (18”-21”). When sailors made their rigs taller to get around the boom-length limit, the club limited the 16s sail area to 220 sq ft. Not until 1912 was a spinnaker (of a “mere” 140sq ft) allowed to stave off a breakaway movement.[11]  Such restrictions were unknown in open boats at the time and the historian Bruce Stannard, whose great-grandfather was a 16 champion of the era, they caused a sensation among builders who were not used to rules.[9]


Designer Bryce Mortlock’s sketch of an 1800s style 16 Foot Skiff (top) compared to the 16s of the mid 1900s (below). The older boat’s origins in a rowing skiff can be easily seen in the narrow waterlines fore and aft and the wineglass-shaped transom. Note the prominent skeg-like deadwood or “heel” under the stern. The lower boat shows the flatter and fuller “heel less” stern shape that the 16s pioneered and popularised in Australia.


Champion 16 foot skiff known as Orchid ca
Orchid, a national champion 16 Foot Skiff in 1910/11 and 1911/12. Like many of the best and most innovative of the early open boats, Orchid came from the northern city of Brisbane.

While the builders may have fumed, many sailors felt that the restrictions made the 16 a better boat than the over-rigged dinghies.  The limits on the 16s prevented them from going down the simple path of increasing beam and sail area, as the unlimited classes did.  Instead they encouraged a lighter, slimmer, more easily driven boat – something that was to cause a huge split in the most famous of all the open boat classes in years to come. They 16 Foot Skiffs were also much cheaper than the big-rigged dinghies; “a skiff is not an expensive craft, and the cost of keeping one up is well within the mean of the small man.”[12]   By the end of the decade, the 16 was the most popular class of all the open boats, with fleets of up to 30 boats and state and interstate championships and old classes like the unrestricted 14 Foot Dinghy were in their death throes. [10]

The slender lines and fine ends of the early 16s meant that while they were “wonders to windward”, like similar oar-and-sail classes they were not good at carrying sail and had a limited top speed.  In the 1920s, the 16 Foot Skiff sailors from the norther city of Brisbane changed all that.  They added flare at the bow to keep water out, and boatbuilder Jim Crouch eliminated the tedious job of bending the structural ribs to fit the built-in “heel”, the hollow section formed at the stern by the wineglass transom, by filling in the heel but adding on a small “deadwood” skeg.  Alf Whereat, a veteran of the open boats, then removed the deadwood, accepting a drop in upwind performance in exchange for better speed downwind.

These innovations gave the Queensland 16 Foot Skiffs a long run and flattish sections aft – a planing hull. The new boats “had a speed potential right out of the class of the older type, and would always show a clean pair of heels running before a good breeze”.[13]  Photos of the “Queensland type” from the early 1920s show them planing in flat-water areas with the bow out of the water as far aft as the mast.  [14]  At a time when other open boats were heavy and beamy displacement boats, the 16 Foot Skiff seems to have become the first popular Australian class that could regularly plane downwind.


A “heel less” 16 Foot Skiff planing down Sydney Harbour. Note the number “167” at the head of the mainsail. This doesn’t denote the boat’s sail number, but the area of that sail. When boats had more than several spars and sails it made sense for each sail to have the area displayed, so that competitors could check that no one was using more than the class limits.  As always, I’d love to get more information about this boat (or any corrections). Hall/ANMM pic. 

The Twelve Foot Skiffs

Although the 16 Foot Skiff was the most popular class that formed from that meeting at a working-class pub,  two of the other proposed classes also survived. There had been 12 Foot “Dingheys” in Brisbane and Sydney in the 1890s, but they died out around the turn of the century.  The 12 Foot Skiffs appear to have run silently until around 1920, when they suddenly came into prominence on Lane Cove River, a narrow offshoot from upper Sydney Harbour. Although no clear evidence of a link exists, accounts of the time indicate that they ran under the rules created back in 1901 at the Port Jackson Sailing Club’s inaugural meeting. In 1924 a breakaway group formed the Greenwich Flying Squadron to race under “best and best” rigs; that is, using unrestricted sails but still keeping to the Skiff class hull dimensions.

From the slender hull, three-man crew and L (for Lane Cove club?) insignia it seems that this Hall pic from the ANMM shows a 12 Foot Skiff. The double-ended ferry behind was another archetypal Sydney craft. I’m still trying to track down information on this boat; as always, if anyone has any I’d be delighted.

The 12 Foot Skiff class didn’t spread out of its tiny enclave until the Greenwich club arranged a “national” championship in 1926.  The first 12 Foot Skiff ever built in Brisbane, Alf Whereat’s Defiance, “planed great” in a squall to seal the title.[23]  [24]  After some inter-club conflict the 12s dropped their sail area limit but kept the maximum beam and depth rule. Although as early as 1931 the NSW state champoionship in Sydney attracted a fleet of  42, the Twelves were never popular outside of their Sydney and Brisbane bases, but they survived when the small unrestricted dinghies like the 14s and 10s died away. Today the 12 Foot Skiffs are the least restricted of all of the Skiffs – the last of the traditional Australian classes where sailors can just throw on as much sail as they dare, in the spirit of the early open boat days.

This 1924 vintage William Hall shot from the ANMM appears to show the 12 Foot Skiff Viking, from the Middle Harbour fleet. Cropping the shot (below) shows some interesting details. The slim lines of the skiff type hull form an interesting contrast to the broad beamed and powerful dinghies. If I have the boat and skipper right, the man at the helm is owner John Muston, who like many skiff sailors turned to ocean racing in later life.



Canvassers and Sharpies

In an era before junior classes and when even the smallest boats had expensive rigs, many sailors cut cost by using cheaper hulls. For unknown reasons, sailors in two major centres of Sydney and Brisbane took different avenues when it came to cutting costs. The Sydney sailors favoured round-bilge canvas-covered boats, while the Brisbaneites adopted sharpies.

The canvas-hull dinghies were long a feature of the Sydney sailing scene.  As early as 1878 there was the first racing for “boats made of wooden frame covered with painted canvas”. Some of them were made up cheaply out of scraps, with home-made sails, a framework of cask hoops as ribs, rudder and centreboard made from enamelled iron advertisement hoardings. Others carried second-hand rigs off more expensive timber boats and some had new sails made, and it wasn’t unknown for a canvas dinghy just 8ft long and 3ft6in wide to carry a bowsprit sticking 6’ from the bow and a 13’ boom.[22]  At first they seemed to race in loose classes of 12 to 14 footers, often aimed at boys and young men and with handicap based on length.

A canvas dinghy. Hall/ANMM collection

The popularity of the canvas dinghies seemed to ebb and flow even more than the other types. One 1890s report states that “as time rolled on the canvas dingy was gradually put aside and genuine wooden craft substituted”, while another states that and within a few years there was separate racing for canvas and wooden boats “as the former were nearly always the faster.”newspaper reports speak of 20 new boats one year and then despair of the collapse of the fleet a couple of seasons later.  Exactly what happened to the canvas dinghies is hard to know; one comment was that they ended up with professional boatbuilders involved, and the frames so close together that they ended up basically the same as a normal planked boat.

Somewhere under all that sail is the champion 14 Foot Sharpie Nell. State Library of Queensland pic.


Up in Brisbane, sailors on a budget seem to have opted for a different type – the sharpie. The city bred its own unique set of different classes of sharpie, including restricted 10 footers for juniors,  “Restricted 14 Footers” at the top end of the Brisbane River, and open 14 footers and 18 footers where it enters the wide expanses of Moreton Bay. Like the round-bilge open boats, they carried big rigs, especially on the days when they had to stem the force of the outgoing tide as they ran back home up river before the prevailing wind.

Like the canvas dinghies, the Brisbane sharpies are long gone and almost forgotten- yet more evidence that the proof that the claim “development classes don’t die” could not be more wrong.  Although they must have been cheaper and easier to build than the round-bilge boats, they were either banned from competing against them or, as in the case of the 14ft Oxley Restricted Sharpies, were not competitive. And also like their canvas sisters, the sharpies don’t seem to have had much influence on mainstream dinghy design – the era of the lightweight hard chine champion was yet to come.



It was in the 14s that Chris Webb, generally said to be the greatest of the early Sydney Open Boat sailors, first came to fame.[18]

“Queensland’s Etna of 1898 had a mainsail that was 24 feet long on the boom, a bowsprit of 11 ft,  and a jib that measured 13ft along the foot”:- The Telegraph (Brisbane) 13 Jan 1899 p 6

[1] Evening News, 24 March 1879 p3

[2] The Sydney Mail and new South Wales Advertiser, 22 March 1879 p 460

[3] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 May 1881 p 867

[4] There had been early 16 foot Open Boats, but they were “big rig” versions, with “immense mainsails and jibs, topsails, balloon jibs and squaresails, as mentioned in the Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser of 20 March 1880.

[5] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 30 Jan 1897 p 239

“These boats were said to be “of the open skiff class”:- The West Australian, 14 Feb 1898 p 6. The quote comes from a remark about a match race between two Brisbane-based 16s, one a “Sydney boat of the old class” and the other a “low, beamy boat, carrying a great sail-spread and crew”.

[6] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertister, 30 January 1897, p 239.

“immense clouds of calico”; Sydney Mail 15 Oct 1881 p 658

[7] 6ft, 5’6”, 5’ and 4’6” respectively, with booms 16, 14, 12 and 10; Sydney Morning Herald 16 Nov 1901 p 14

“The founders of the Port Jackson club were apparently reacting against what they saw as extremes of design and of professionalism in other open boat classes.”

Apart from the obvious design restrictions, it was said that the club was “founded for pleasure sailing….and not as a benefit institution for professionals. …the skiff people fear that if the professional element is introduced it will not be long before the sport of skiff sailing will become as tainted as racing amongst the larger class of boats is said to be.” Sydney Sportsman 27 Apr 1904 p 7

“Initially sail area was restricted only by a limit on boom length”: Sydney Sportsman, 19 Aug 1903 p3

[8] Australian Town and Country Journal, 23 Nov 1901 p 54

[9] Blue Water Bushmen, Bruce Stannard p 40

[10] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 9”, Evening News 7 Dec 1907 p 6; 16 Foot Skiff class history. The sail area was apparently increased in 1936; Referee, 11 June 1936 p 18.

[11] Sydney Sportsman 24 April 1912 p 4; Sydney Morning Herald 23 Aug 1912 p 12

[12] Sydney Sportsman, 9 May 1906 p 5

[13] “The evolution of the 16-Footer” Bryce Mortlock, Seacraft Sept 1948 p 156

[14] See for example “The evolution of the 16-Footer” Bryce Mortlock, Seacraft Sept 1948 p 156

The 16s are now the most conservative of the traditional Skiff classes, but as early as 1932 the Western Australian fleet seems to have been using trapezes or “outrigger halyards”; The Daily New (Perth) 25 Feb 1932 p 2.  About 1951 Uffa Fox judged the 16s to be “20 years out of date”. He got a chance to make his point that year when he was given free rein to design two 16s. Surprisingly, both Fox and Ratsey, guru of British sailmakers, agreed that the standard gunter rig remained the best setup for such a boat. But the Fox hulls caused a sensation. Photographs show boats with the typical Fox lines, close sisters to the Thistle or a blown-up International 14. Australians were convinced that Fox’s U-ed underwater bow sections would pound in chop, and the lack of flare would cause the boats to take too much water. The stern, they said, was too narrow for top speed in a breeze.

So who was right? The two Fox boats, both well-sailed and well geared, had no major wins. They caused no revolution, showed no superiority to the “old fashioned” Australian boats. It seems that the home-grown 16s were at least as good as the northern style.

[16] The Australian Motor Boat and yachting Monthly, Oct 1 1925 p 38

[17] The Australian Motor Boat and yachting Monthly, July 1925 p 27

[18] Webb’s first win was the James Deering Cup, for boys under 16; perhaps Australia’s first junior trophy?

“a “semi-legendary” class and the “keenest and most competitive in the history of Brisbane yachting””

“Some sources claim that they died out because of competition from the growing 18 Footer fleet”;-  See for example Referee, 27 Sep 1924. It must also be significant that the bulk of Sydney 14 Footers moved from the harbour south to Botany Bay, where the clubs then turned to 16 Foot Skiffs.

“Up until 1922 they had a national title that was fought out between Perth, Sydney, and Brisbane.”:- The Sun, 4 Sep 1933.

[19] Blue Water Bushmen, Bruce Stannard, p 38

[20] Information about Zephyr from Australian Motor Boat and Yachting Magazine, Nov 1925 p 35;

[21] “Calling all old-timers” Seacraft Dec 1953 p 441

[22] Dixon Kemp, [22] A Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing, Southampton 1988, reprint of 1895 edition p 440

“Golding was a well-known builder of boats”:- ‘The story of the 16 Foot sailing skiff”, Maryborough Chronicle, 9 Nov 1951

“two of the other proposed classes also survived”:- although there are no records of 12s and 14s racing as “skiffs” for some years after the PJSC was formed, there are strong indications of a link between that club and the two classes. Some accounts of the ’20s speak of the skiffs


[23] The Telegraph (Brisbane) 5 Feb 1926 p 11 and 19 March p 12

[24] The Telegraph (Brisbane) 15 March 1926 p 11

“In 1924 a breakaway group formed the Greenwich Flying Squadron to race under “best and best” rigs:- The Sun, 16 Nov 1925 p 4.  The term “best and best” referring to allowing boats to carry spinnakers and other “racing sails” rather than smaller “working gear”.  “After some inter-club conflict”:- Arrow, 16 April 1926 reported that Lane Cove would not follow the Brisbane and Greenwich fleets in carrying unrestrictred sail area.

“Although as early as 1931 the NSW state champoionship”:- SMH 21 Feb 1931 p 17

“One 1890s report states”;- ‘Open Boat Sailing. The Old Boats.’ by HC Packham, Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 30 January 1897, p 239

“boats made of wooden frame covered with painted canvas”:- SMH 9 Oct 1912

“as the former were nearly always the faster.”:- SMH 9 Oct 1912

“Exactly what happened to the canvas dinghies is hard to know”;- The Sun, 24 Jan 1938 p8 and Referee, 11 June 1936 p 18.  As late as the 1930s there was a separate canvas dinghy club and at least one new canvas dinghy racing with the 10 Footers, apparently without great success. Perhaps the timber boats had improved, perhaps the canvassers could not handle the increasing rig sizes.

NOTE TO SELF The Birchgrove Fourteen Foot Skiff Club – 5’ beam, 21” depth; no sail area restriction; 15’ boom[19]

Pt 1.26 – The German one designs

The Dutch 12 Sq Metre Sharpie “All weather”, built in 1932, shows the beauty and durability of the first international two-person dinghy. Pic from the Dutch class site.


The early 1930s saw the creation of some influential German one designs; classes that have not only influenced dinghy design but also thrive today.  The class that had the most widespread influence was the 12 sq m Sharpie. It was one of three designs entered by brothers Karl and Hans Kroger brothers and their friend and boatbuilding partner Walter Braur in 1931 as an entry into a design competition for a new German youth class. Like many German classes, the Sharpie was designed as a cruiser-racer, stable enough to be slept aboard and also to be moored, as there was often little space to pull a boat ashore on the crowded shoreline of some German lakes. It was built like a house, with simple and robust sawn framing and 14mm thick planking, and it weighed as much as one too, with the bare hull coming in at 230kg (508lb) and an all-up sailing weight of around 300kg (650lb) complete with 27.5kg/60lb steel centreboard.

The plan of the Sharpie shows the strong construction, straight lines and fine bow. Illustrations from the 1954 book “British and International Yacht Racing Classes”.


The cheap and tough construction and the compromises inherent in the Sharpie’s specified role could have created a flop, yet the Krogers and Braur team managed to give the Sharpie a beautifully efficient hull. Some sharpie types had raced successfully in the free renjollen classes, but many other contemporary sharpies were shaped more like large Snipes, with more rocker and more Vee. The 12 Sq Metre Sharpie had a flatter hull with less rocker and vee, a fine, slab-sided bow, and the BMAX well aft. Like many sharpies, the Kroger/Braur design had a flat area running along the keel – a development that round-bilged boats only picked up decades later. The centerboard was an “old fashioned” low-aspect shape, but it was set well aft. The stern was proportionately wider than many other renjollen types and the hull was narrower than many comparable sharpie types.

Like any renjolle-style boat, one of the 12 sq metre’s “secrets” is simply lots of length a slender shape. It’s one of the longest dinghies of all (5.9m/19’6″) yet it has a maximum beam of just 1.43m/4.7ft. Its long, slim shape and vertical topsides mean that its bow was finer than  most contemporary boats, and ever finer than later performance boats like the 505. Yet (unlike some other sharpie-shaped renjolle of the time) the waterlines at the bow are fairly straight, rarely taking on the hollow lines that are generally considered to be slow.

The Sharpie’s strengths were not confined to its shape. Perhaps because the Krogers and Braur were engineers and practical boatbuilders, the Sharpie was also cheap for its size and performance and easy to build. The first British boats cost just 45 pounds; less than half as much as a contemporary International 14 and similar to the 35 pounds maximum of a National 12 without sails. Peter Mander and Jack Cropp, the New Zealanders who won the Sharpie’s only Olympic contest, built their boat “Jest” from planks they helped cut themselves from the timbers of an old church. Graham Mander, who helped to build Jest and almost won the trials in his own Sharpie, recalls that the Sharpie’s plans were excellent and that it was a beautiful boat to build. “The Sharpie plans supplied to us from overseas were the most carefully detailed I’ve ever seen, and the method of construction was extremely good” wrote the late Peter Mander in his wonderful autobiography. “We found the Sharpies great boats to build.”

With its small rig, considerable heft and no spinnaker the 12 Sq Metre Sharpie was never going to rival the full-on renjollen types for pure speed, but it was highly competitive on a knot-per-dollar or knot-per-square foot basis. It planed well downwind in strong winds. By the standards of the 1950s, wrote Peter Mander “we found the Sharpies fast and lively…great craft to sail.”  Racing in England in the ‘40s indicated that the big but cheap Sharpie was as fast as the small but expensive International 14.

Yes, they are a heavy boat; this pic from the class site shows a load cell during a weigh-in.

The Sharpie carried a gunter rig with a nominal area of 12 sq m boosted to an actual area of 16 m2 by the big overlap on the genoa. There was (and still is) no spinnaker, but the big headsail and long pole keep the boat moving downwind.  Bermudan rigs were also allowed initially, but they not only caused the boats to capsize at their moorings but were also slower. In the ‘50s, the hot Dutch fleet realized that they could get more speed by dropping the gaff back about 30 degrees and lowering the boom. The extra area was said to increase performance, but today one wonders whether it wasn’t the more vertical leach that helped. It’s intriguing to see that the class moved away from the high-peaked gunter sail which looked almost like a Bermudan rig, back to a gaff style.

In an astonishingly short space of time the design had outgrown both Germany and the youth category and become the world’s most widespread performance dinghy, with big fleets in Germany, Holland, and Portugal and as far afield as South America and Australia. In 1934, for example, there were 8 or 9 nations racing Sharpies at Kiel.[1]

Despite its chines and one design nature, the slender shape of the Sharpie showed the renjolle style. Note the forked rudder, a common device in the European boats. Pic from the Netherlands Sharpie class site.
It seems that we can learn a lot about the world’s most important classes by looking at their rivals. This sharpie was designed by Erdmann for the competition that was won by the 12 Sq Metre. It was said at the time to be very fine in the bow compared to other sharpie types, but the Kroger design appears to be even finer. The Erdmann design shows far more rocker than the 12 Square Metre, both along the sheerline and along the chine line. The Erdmann boat’s high-aspect centreboard looks more efficient but the lower centre of lateral resistance may have caused the boat to heel too much, given the technology of the day.
The 12 sq m Sharpie became the most popular and widespread large dinghy in the world. Here the modified Australian boats, which carried a spinnaker and three crew, race in a national titles off Adelaide. State Library of South Australia photo B7796/661.

The Sharpie’s influence spread all the way across the world. As early as 1934, the first Sharpie was built in South Australia. At the time, South Australian dinghy sailing revolved around the 14 Foot Dinghies; over-canvassed craft of the type we know call skiffs.  Although the 14s carried over twice the sail area and about twice the crew, the first Sharpie in the country quickly proved itself by winning its first race by four minutes against some of the best 14s. Modified to carry long battens, a spinnaker and a third crewman, the Sharpie quickly became the most widespread dinghy class in the southern states, where the conditions were often too rough for the skiff types that had dominated Australian dinghy sailing.

The Sharpie’s greatest glory came long after it had fallen behind the leading edge in design. For many years, Olympic hosts had a say in selecting Olympic classes, and when it was decided to introduce a two-man centreboard class for the first time in the 1956 Olympics, the Australians opted for the Sharpie. Not only did they have hundreds of the local version racing, but despite its age the 12 Sq Metre was the most widespread of the bigger two-man boats.  The Dutch, who had dominated the class for years, boycotted the event in protest at the Russian invasion of Hungary, and in their absence the gold medal went to Mander and Cropp – sailing a home-made boat with home-made sails that came from a country that had only about five Sharpies and no Olympic sailing history at all. It was a pivotal moment in the history of sailing in New Zealand, a country that was about to produce a cohort of sailors and designers that would dominate world sailing.

Jest, 1956 Gold medal winner, sailing upwind in her home waters of New Zealand (above) and downwind to victory in Melbourne, past silver medallist Rolly Tasker of Australia. The New Zealanders learned to ease to gaff aft to depower the main, in the same way as a bendy mast works. Pics from the wonderful “Give a Man A Boat” by Peter Mander and Brian O’Neill.


The Melbourne Games was the Sharpie’s only time in the spotlight. By the time the next Olympics came around it had been replaced by the Flying Dutchman, another boat inspired by the Renjolle ideal. Today, Sharpies still race in Holland, Germany, England, Brazil and Portugal. Numbers are small – 50 active Dutch boats, and 12 to 30 in the other centres. Its varnished mahogany construction is frozen in time, but the growing interest in classic classes is seeing numbers climb once more.

The other major two-person one design of the era was the Pirat. Inspired by the Snipe, it is very similar, but said to be easier to build.  Cheap and stable, it put sailors on the water throughout Central Europe and Scandinavia and is still a popular class.

A Pirat shows off its long, straight lines. Pic from the Czech class site.



Why do many Europeans sail ‘conservative’ boats? Oh yeah, that’s why…. Pic from the Czech Pirat class site.


A third one design of significance, the singlehanded O Jolle, was designed for the Munich Olympic of 1936 after an intensive series of trials against several other designs. It was the first of the great international trials to select a new Olympic class, a process that was to launch or create great boats such as the Finn, Flying Dutchman, the 505, the Tornado, and the 49er, as well as less successful ones like the Tempest.

The long, slender lines of the O-Jolle, as drawn for Juan Baader’s book The Sailing Yacht. The class remains one of the most popular dinghies in Germany and is gaining ground in other areas.


The criteria were demanding. The boat had to be strong and stable enough for Kiel, yet lively for the lakes. It had to be fast, yet handle a wide range of sailor weights. In the European way, it also had to combine top-level racing with camping and cruising ability. It was a tall order, yet amateur designer Helmut Stauch met it with a design that beat the best that the great Drewitz, perhaps the best renjollen designer, could create.

The O-Jolle shows Renjolle influence in its size and weight. It’s a big boat for a singlehander, 5m/16ft long, weighing 220kg/490lb, and carrying 11.5m2/124 sq ft of sail. It had wide flare for its day, giving enough leverage to control the big rig. The sections have firm bilges and flat floors. The bow lines are fine for such an old boat, and the boat’s age is revealed mainly in the narrow stern and the short, moderately rockered run aft. Apart from the stayed rig and the big cockpit (a cruising feature), the O-Jolle looks superficially quite similar to a Finn.

The O-Jolle proved as fast (or faster) in light airs than the Finn, but its size and weight (bronze medallist Peter Scott, used to the shorter English types, described it as “a very blunt instrument”) and a dash of post-war anti-German sentiment stopped it from being selected for later Olympics. But it has remains an active class in parts of Europe and was a test-bed for a major leap in design when, in 1955 Ruth Lindemann, daughter of the man who invented Airex foam, built a run of Airex O-Jolle – probably the first dinghies ever made in the foam sandwich construction that now dominates boatbuilding.

Airex foam O-Jolles. From Juan Baader’s book “The Sailing Yacht”, 1965 edition.

The O Jolle performs best in light airs and flat water and is less effective in breeze when the big rig becomes overpowered and the boat planes later than a Laser or Finn despite the sail size. Although it is decades older than the Laser it’s similar in speed.  Like so many of the great old classes, the O-Jolle is showing no sign of fading out. In fact, it’s in a long term revival. It’s one of the most popular of all classes in Germany, claiming 600 active boats. The Dutch fleet has 100 active sailors and about 15 new boats per year. Smaller fleets sail in Italy, Austria and Switzerland.



“Graham Mander, who helped to build Jest and almost won the trials in his own Sharpie”;- Personal conversation with the author. See also ‘Give a man a boat’ by Peter Mander and Brian O’Neil; Mander’s autobiography and my favourite dinghy sailing book.

“Bermudan rigs were also allowed initially, but not only proved to cause boats to capsize at their moorings but were also slower”: – ‘Uffa’s sharp: a shape too fast’ by Nicola Bell, Classic Boat magazine, April 1999.

[1]  Uffa Fox’s Second Book, p 93

“the first Sharpie in the country quickly proved itself”:- The Advertiser (Adelaide) 29 October 1934

Pt 1.25 – The sailing scientists of the renjollen

Perhaps the ultimate example of the scientific approach to renjolle design; Manfred Curry’s Z Jolle Aero II. The streamlined hull with its rounded gunwales and low freeboard were symbolic of Curry’s fascination with airflow. Pic from his 1937 book “Regatta-Taktik”.

The renjollen had a deep influence on the rigs we use, and the way we sail. They played a major role in encouraging serious systematic study of the way of a boat in the wind and sea, and many of the basic ingredients of the modern boat were developed in renjolle or by former renjolle sailors.

Renjolle racer Manfred Curry, who was born in America but spent most of his life in Germany, has gone down in history as the man who brought science into sailing. At a time when tuning and design were often rough and ready skills based on experience and the seat of the pants, Curry strove towards scientific study and explanation. Many agreed with New Zealand’s Peter Mander (who won a gold medal in a renjolle type in the 1956 Olympics) when he wrote that Curry’s work was “the basis for all subsequent writings on the subject”.

Manfred Curry, with a “Currycleat” on the sidedeck.

Like many of the great names of the early dinghy scene, Curry seems to have been a renaissance man.  He studied nature, examining birds and their wings, the streamlined shape of ice floes on rivers and other free-flowing forms. A skilled photographer, his quest for knowledge lead him to create a book of nothing more than photographs of the natural effects of light, wind and waves on sea. Curry’s fascination about the flow of fluids even extended to his creation of the “landskiff”, an efficient streamlined recumbent four-wheeled bicycle.

But for his studies in the workings of sails, Curry also moved away from observations of nature and adopted the newest technology of the day. He set up model rigs in the wind tunnel of aircraft designer Dr Hugo Junker (of “Stuka” fame) and took photos of smoke streaming over tin sails. He burned smoke pots aboard renjolle and photographed the plumes as they blew past the rig. He probed the mystery of the boundary flow by stitching tufts to sails; standard today but a new idea at the time. He advocated the genoa jib, and claimed to have invented it (as do Sweden’s Sven Salen and Francis Herreshoff).

Aero was a boat with everything, even brakes. Curry said they were extremely useful at mark roundings and starts, but they must also have been expensive and complicated. Pic from Regatta-Taktik.

Influenced by traditional rigs from India and Chinese junks, Curry started experimenting with long battens in 1922. Within a few years, he claimed, sails with 14 or more battens were popular in the renjolle, although given that canoes had used them in the 1800s Curry’s exact influence is unclear. In those days, though, long battens were fragile and heavy, and had to be removed after each sail. Their weight and inconvenience lead to them dropping from favour in the northern hemisphere for many years, but the reminiscences of men like England’s Austin Farrar, a very influential sailmaker of the 1950s and 1960s, leave no doubt that it was Curry’s influence that kept full battens alive in classes like Canoes long enough for them to return to favour in catamarans and then other classes.

Many of Curry’s ideas found physical expression in his renjolle. Fascinated by cleaning up the airflow over the sails, he experimented with a bi-pole mast system, and adopted a low and streamlined design with a curved sheer and gunwales to allow a cleaner airflow over the feet of the main and jib. He appears to have developed the cam cleat in its modern form; a step on from the lever-operated cam of Paul Butler. He created gybing centreboards and lightweight fittings in aluminium- an exotic materials in the days.  Curry’s boats had everything – even brakes. A pair of foils projected astern of the transom and could be dropped into the water to slow the boat at starts and mark roundings.

The brilliance of Manfred Curry – the 1928 plan for a gybing centreboard (above) and the cam cleat on his renjolle Aero II. The description accompanying the drawing, from his book “Yacht Racing”, indicates that Curry understood the effect better than many modern sailors. Bottom pic from Yacht magazine.



Curry was a skilled sailor as well as a theoretician. It’s said that he won over 1000 races in Germany, and he finished mid-fleet when he sailed 8 Metres and International 12s for the USA in the 1928 Olympics. Curry’s writings on racing tactics are still often valid today; for example, as early as the 1920s he set out in some detail the concept of tacking downwind.

But there’s another side to Curry’s story.  Some great sailors believed that Curry tilted his experimental results to back up his theories (and he’s not the last in the field to suffer that charge). L. Francis Herreshoff went as far as calling Curry a “myth lover” and claiming that his renjolle designs were uncompetitive. Tony Marchaj, a leading sailing scientist of a later era and a qualified aerodynamicist, was scathing about Curry’s lack of scientific grounding; basic theories, like the concept of induced drag, “incorporated in every classic textbook on low-speed aerodynamics were unknown to Manfred Curry” he wrote.  Curry’s ideas of the basic mechanics that allow a boat to sail to windward “contradicts elementary principles of mechanics and of aerodynamics…” claimed Marchaj, who labelled Curry’s wind-tunnel as “amateurish”.


Curry; brilliant but fallible. He created such effective devices as the streamlined “Land Skiff” recumbent bicycles, but also came up with the pseudo-scientific concept of “Curry lines” of electro-magnetic force that could not be identified by scientific instruments.

There are other flaws in Curry’s claims to scientific credibility. He became an advocate of the discredited “science” of physiognomy; the belief that personality could be judged by facial structure.  Among water diviners and dowsers and other followers of alternative medicines, he is revered as the “discoverer” of “Curry Lines”; lines of “geo electricity” that somehow find their way up from the bowels of the earth but can be diverted byt moving a stone, and remain mysteriously hidden from physicists and their instruments. He apparently also promoted the existence of “Aran”, a “heavier form of oxygen”. Curry’s claims to have brought science into sailing should perhaps be judged against his claims to have discovered geomagnetic faults that can only be found by believers armed with divining rods.

There is sadness in the tale of this brilliant man. The “authorities” about Curry Lines whom I could contacted know nothing of his sailing career. The lakeside medical institute he founded now lies in ruins. Curry possessed many talents, but perhaps the ability to separate fact from fiction was not among them.

But in the end, for sailors the problems with Curry’s science may seem minor compared to his contribution to the sport. He inspired designers such as Ben Lexcen, of America’s Cup fame, and many sailors.  As Frank Bethwaite wrote, Curry’s books helped to create a fundamental change; “the technique of sailing ceased to be a mysterious art….Curry explained a logical technology (which) could be discussed with others in a common language”.

Perhaps nothing shows the problems of do-it-yourself aerodynamics better than the story of another German dinghy sailor of the same era. Like Curry, he was ignorant of the established aerodynamic theories. In 1914, he decided that simply applying the theory of the Swiss century mathematician Daniel Bernoulli would create the perfect wing section. When his theory was put to the test, the plane barely flew and the test pilot barely survived. “That is what can happen to a man who thinks a lot but reads little” noted the sailor later. His name? Albert Einstien.

Dinghy sailing was one of Einstien’s greatest passions. When he first discovered the sport he would take an uncomfortable Marie Curie out on Lake Geneva in a small dinghy; two of the world’s greatest minds adrift in a cockleshell. He sailed through heart problems until his doctor ordered him ashore, and graduated to a “Jollenkreuzer” or dinghy cruiser – basically a renjolle with a cabin.  When he moved to the USA his greatest pain was to leave his beloved “Tummler” behind, but he found solace in sailing unpretentious little boats.

Einstein’s Tummler (above) was a Jollenkreuzer or “dinghy cruiser”. Many Jollenkreuzers (like the modern development P Class one below) are more racing oriented, and with their stunning varnished finishes they look magnificent. Okay, I admit, I’m happy to take any excuse to post a pic of a boat like a Jollenkreuzer.


Some photos show in a nondescript boat that looks like a hard chine design, but others speak of him sailing an 5.5m/18’ Cape Cod Knockabout. “He was crazy about his little sailboat” a neighbour later recalled. Sailing became his way to fleet from fame; “whenever Einstein spotted a stranger’s car coming up the drive to his summer home, he escaped in his sailboat”, until his wife complained that he could never be found ashore.

Einstein was no racer. He may not even have been much of a sailor. He never made any great contribution to the sport. But he showed that dinghy sailing could be a source of never-ending delight to the most brilliant of humans. He also showed that even the greatest of scientific minds cannot always understand the theory of sailing.

But while Manfred Curry and Albert Einstein were floundering in their attempts to understand the science of aerodynamics, the men who sailed the renjollen were making great strides in a more pragmatic approach to sailing. For many early dinghy sailors, “tuning” was simply adjusting rake and making sure the stick was straight. But the sophisticated renjolle sailors were keenly interested in development. Sailors in boats like the Z Jolle and H Jolle crafted lightweight hollow masts, gaffs and booms, and ended up with gaffs that bent like a modern flex-tip rig. Sailors in classes like those in the H Jolle and 12 m2 Sharpie played the gaff like a modern downhaul, allowing the head to drop aft and to leeward to depower.

The bendy yards of classic H-Jolle racing on the AussenAlster harken back to the days of Von Hutschler, who is credited with introducing the bendy rig when he moved from jolle into Stars. Pic from the Norddeutscher Regatta Verein site.

One of the renjolle sailors who were familiar with bendy gaffs was Walter Von Hutschler, Brazilian by birth but German by descent and residence. When he moved from the H Jolle fleet to the International Star class, he seems to have taken his experimental attitude with him. He shaved away at his boom until it bent to so that the “foot of the mainsail conformed to aero‑dynamic principles more so than when a rigid boom was used…”. Perhaps inspired by his background in the efficient and development-minded renjollen, Von Hutschler saw further development avenues. “This experience led me to try to apply similar conditions to the mast. By tightening or loosening the shrouds, (upper, middle, and lower) the mast would bend and by doing so, it vitally improved the aero‑dynamics of the mainsail” he wrote. Von Hutschler’s technique made him dominant in the Star class and launched the bendy mast into the sailing world. There is little doubt that the Star class was the test-bed for this huge leap in sailing techniques, but it also seems more than a coincidence that it was created by a former renjolle sailor.



“He was crazy about his little sailboat”: –     p 280, “Einstein, a Life”, Denis Brian, John Wiley & Sons Inc, 1996.

“He may not even have been much of a sailor:” – see for example Brian p 262-3, although some sources speak of him as an excellent skipper.

Pt 2.2: Shapes in the liquid: the hull of today’s performance dinghy

Note: this is the first part of the section dealing with hull shape. It relies on interviews with designers that were done some time ago, and it could do with some updating and further information. If there’s enough interest in SailCraft being published as a book – and I’ll be putting up a poll to gauge that shortly – sections like this will be updated and revised.


The shape a 12 footer singlehanded skiff designed by Paul Bieker for famous C Class cat sailor Fred Eaton shows many of the characteristics of the modern performance dinghy, as drafted by one of the greatest of modern dinghy designers. Pic from the Bieker site.

The ratios and the numbers are the main factors that drive performance, but when it comes to class racing and and handling, hull shape is all-important. It’s hull shape that largely determines the way a boat moves through waves, the way it survives heavy air, and the last fraction of a percent of boatspeed when the numbers are fixed by rules.


It seems that there are everlasting trends in dinghy design. Construction and gear gets lighter, and that allows bows to get narrower and the point of maximum beam to move aft. Bruce Farr has been known to say that if you lined a fleet up by going from the boat with the finest entry angle to the widest, you’d find they were in the order of fastest boat to slowest. Narrower bows are thought to reduce the bow wave and allow the hull to slice through waves. “In the three prototypes for the Vector skiff, we learned quite a bit” recalls Steve Clark. “The bows got finer and the maximum waterline beam moved aft.  I think this works for several reasons. It makes wave encounters less abrupt, so the boat isn’t slowed by chop both upwind and down. It also had the effect (in my view) of easing the transition to planing.  If one accepts that to start planing a boat has to pass its bow wave, then the shape forward has to be such that you can stick a lot of boat through the wave before you actually have to climb over it. Naturally you make it easy on yourself if you can have a long shallow wave to pass (like an IC or catamaran) but if you are stuck with a relatively heavy boat (and almost any two man boat less than 25′ long will be “heavy”)  it seems that you should keep the waterlines forward very straight and narrow.”

So why is the “sharp end” getting sharper, year by year? Designers of the past probably wanted to create the narrowest possible bow, but they were restricted by old technology. Modern hulls are lighter, especially in the ends, so they need less buoyancy to lift them over waves. Perhaps more important is the huge reduction in rig weight. Because the weight of the rig is so high, it’s got a huge amount of leverage on the bow. Every time the bow hits a wave, the rig forms a massive pendulum, five or ten metres high, that swings the bow around. If you had put a modern fine bow on old boat, the momentum of the massive rig weight swinging overhead would push simply push the nose under many waves.

The influence of modern spinnakers, especially asymmetrics, also had an influence. Although computer models don’t agree, most designers feel that asymetrics provide a powerful lifting force to control downwind nosedives. They also mean that the forward hand can stay well aft during sets, drops and gybes, instead of going forward to the mast to wrestle with the pole. Some designers estimate that this allows them to reduce waterline beam around the mast by about 12mm/ ½”. Even in some more conventional classes, technology has had an impact. The National 12s carry no spinnakers, but they’ve recently gone to self launching jib poles so the forward hand no longer has to go forward.

Steve Clark notes that the International 14’s mid-point measurement may have delayed designers from making bows fine enough. The rule “seems normal enough, to require  minimum waterline beam at the mid point of the hull, but what it in fact has done is drive the bow fairing of I-14s into a shape they would not naturally want to be. The max waterline beam wants to be further aft, and getting I-14 designers to branch away from their successful 14 designs is hard to do.” Since the I-14 has been one of the most influential of dinghies, that rule has had a historic influence on many other boats.

The standard measurement for the sharpness of a bow is the bow or entry “half angle”. It is simply the angle between one side of the bow (at the waterline) and the centerline. Looking at a range of dinghy designs show that the half angle generally becomes narrower as boats get newer and longer. An excellent paper by UK Cherub designer Kevin Ellway, worth reading for many reasons, shows that most modern UK Cherubs have half angles of a bit over 13 degrees. Sixteen Foot Skiffs and 14s like the Schumacher 3 design have half angles of around 12 degrees, while 18 Foot Skiffs used their extra length to reduce bow half angle to around 10 degrees and became upwind demons at the cost of nosediving problems at the top mark.

Some designers, like skiff designer and professional naval architect Rob Widders, measure another entry half angle. It runs between the front end of the chines and the centerline and is normally 2 to 3 degrees wider than the entry half angle, because the chine sits in the more flared section of the topsides.


In the modern era, the move to wings and narrower hulls has emphasised hull section shapes that pack the greatest volume and dynamic lift into narrower waterlines. In broad terms, most boats have turned further away from the old Vee sections that were a heritage of the Uffa Fox era and outmoded materials. The standard is now U-shaped sections in the bow, sweeping into elliptical sections further aft and then developing a flat area along the keel in the midships and stern areas.

The attraction of the U and elliptical sections is simple geometry. A circular section provides the minimum possible surface area (and therefore, the lowest wetted surface) for a given volume. Elliptical hull sections allow the volume that is necessary to support the boat to be contained in a package with less wetted surface and (in a fairly typical hull) about 2in/5omm less waterline beam.

The NS14 class was largely responsible for introducing the elliptical sectional shape to Australian development classes. This is a Tequila design from naval architect Stuart Friezer.

If we stick to U-shaped sections as we move aft from the bow, to the area where the boat get wider and flatter, they tend to distort into an ellipse in the form of a U with a flat patch along the keel line. Apart from being the lowest shape for wetted surface, the ellipse creates more dynamic lift than the old Vee shapes. Remember, any surface planing over the water generates lifting force at a right angle. With the old angled Vee sections, much of that lifting force was directed inwards, where it did nothing for performance.

With a flat planing section, all of the lift is directed vertically upwards. That extra efficiency allows a designer to create a boat that can plane earlier, or have narrower sections for the same lift. This combination of ellipse and flat forms the midsection of most modern boats, with the notable exception of the Bethwaite designs. “The flat area off the centreline gives you more dynamic lift, and the elliptical sections have lower drag at the speeds that the NSs, Moths and smaller skiffs sail at” says designer and naval architect Stuart Friezer. Merlin Rocket designer Keith Callaghan points out that the planing patch also reduces keel line rocker (and therefore form drag) for the same displacement.

The centreline planing flat and narrow waterline shape of the modern-era hull shows clearly on this Friezer NS14 design.

Sometimes the planing patch is subtle, where the flat is merely a slightly straighter section of the graceful curve of the ellipses that create the hull. Other flats are almost brutal. In some it seems almost as if a giant plane has ripped along the boat, tearing off the normal keel line and leaving in its place an area as flat as a table. Where it meets the graceful ellipses of the hull, the junction is hard enough to almost be called a chine. This is not a crude shape, but a product of years of development by professional naval architects. Many such boats are highly successful, a shock to those more comfortable with the idea that flowing lines are fast.


The modern bow is getting longer and narrower, but at the same time it’s carrying more volume. Designers are achieving this trick by turning away from the old Vee sections, which have little volume. Instead, they are carrying elliptical or U sections right forward to the stem. In part, the shift towards U sections is an inevitable result of bows getting narrower. If the fine-bow boats didn’t have flotation somewhere at the pointy end, they’d just go down like a U Boat. “If you go narrow, you’ve got to have good volume from the middle right to the nose” notes Michael Nash.

The U shape gives the bow the required volume and flotation, but it pushes the bulk down low under the water. Moving the flotation down allows the modern boats to be narrower around the level of the sailing waterline, which is generally agreed to be the critical point for wavemaking. “I think extra width has the most effect at the waterline, so everyone’s making boats as narrow as possible at that point. It doesn’t matter much that they have to put more volume under the water” says Nash. “It’s where the boat is breaking the water that’s important” agrees Thorpe.

“The Bieker boats are fuller low down in the bow, and the extra volume gives you more lift” confirms top 14 sailor and sail designer David Alexander. “They are better upwind in chop; the Bieker will go straight through waves that would stop a Wedge (one of the classic Aussie 14 designs). Downwind, the Bieker is easier to sail because the extra volume and rocker forward allows the bow to lift”.


Not all boats follow the high-volume U shape. The best shape and extent of the U and the planing flat under the bow may vary according to the basic speed of the boat. In slow and moderate speed boats powered by hiking crews or a single trapeze, the extra dynamic lift is very valuable and the lower speed of the boat means that the flat area is normally submerged, even in waves. But a faster boat planes faster and higher. If the bow is too flat and U-ed forward, the “slamming” effect as the U or flat rattles over waves may well cost the boat more speed than it will save through the wetted surface reduction and dynamic lift. Not surprisingly, too much flat area along the keel line forward seems to have the same effect as the full, low-chined bow shape on some older Southern Hemisphere designs. The skiff-type Topper Boss had very flat bow sections, which helped it plane very early but slowed it upwind it waves. “As for upwind in a chop, well she doesn’t slice through the water let’s put it like that!” recalls a runner-up in the national titles for the Boss class.

The theme carries through when one looks at the bow shapes of the fastest upwind performers; the 49er and 18. They tend towards very fine, Vee shape bows because they are long boats that travel at such speed that dynamic lift is already plentiful. Their speed increases the impact and rate at which they meet the waves, making it vital to ease the shock. Julian Bethwaite also notes that you have to look at an angle to assess a bow’s wave-handling characteristics. “The top of the wave is normally coming up when it hits the bottom of the boat, so the actual impact is at 30 or 45 degrees. You actually have to look at the boat from that angle, not look at it from the horizontal or the section.”


The area around the mast is generally the deepest part of the boat. This, say many designers, is the area that gives a boat its buoyancy, and a lot of its power. Some designers, especially skiffies, like to put a lot of extra volume in the topsides around the mast area. This far back in the boat, the extra volume doesn’t smack the waves as badly as it would if it was further forward. The extra volume in the topsides will be a long way to leeward, and the buoyancy and planing surface will providing good “leverage” to force the boat upright when the boat is heeled over a long way. Andy Patterson notes that Bethwaite boats (especially the 59er) tend to be very veed and deep under the mast, which “makes them easier to sail, less critical for pitch angle.


One of the most widespread shifts in design in the last few years is the emergence of the “slab-sided” hull. Just about every development class that where the topsides shape is not dictated by rules is moving away from flare in the topsides, especially in the bow. The move is largely designed to reduce resistance in waves. “If you only need the volume below the waterline to go sailing on, why have the rest of it?” asks Andy Dovell. “What’s the rest of it doing for you? It’s hitting waves and getting knocked around and knocking you around and slowing you down. So if you come straight off the waterplane and straight up, you can poke through waves much more efficiently than if the hull is flared out”.

The Stealth 1 International 14, designed by David Lugg, shows the slab sides of the typical modern performance dinghy. Pic from the Western Australian class site.

Designers also feel that slab sides also reduce pitching. When a flared bow is driven into a wave, the extra buoyancy up high lifts the bow abruptly. A slab-sided boat has a more gradual increase in buoyancy as it drives into a wave, so it doesn’t accelerate upwards quickly. “Slab sides minimize hull volume in the topsides, which reduces hull weight and resistance when punching upwind in a chop” agrees Bieker. “They weren’t done in 14’s until I put racks on which made the hull shape independent of the beam necessary for trapezing”.

Top sailors like former International 14 world champion Grant Geddes feel that the switch from flared gunwales to racks also helps to cure nosediving. “Waves go shooting straight through the hole between the gunwhale and the racks, where the water would have hit the underside of the flare and driven the bow down.”.  Racks can also be angled up high in the air, giving the crew more clearance from big waves that could wipe them off a lower conventional gunwale. And as Geddes points out, that has another advantage – when the crew don’t have to heel the boat to lift themselves above the waves, they can sail flatter and therefore faster.

Most designers feel that a bit of topsides flare is still safer, because it provides more buoyancy down to leeward when the boat is heeled. Some of Phil Morrison’s 14s have almost vertical topsides, but he went back to flare with the RS 800, where safety was a key word. “Prototype 1 originally had near vertical topsides, but it made capsize almost instantaneous. Flaring the topsides made the boat only marginally slower, looked nicer (in my opinion) and gave the crews a few moments in which they might be able to recover from an error.” Similarly, the 12 foot skiffs, where massive rigs make stability and the ability to sail fast while heeled into a major issue, still have very wide flare.


Pt 1.24: “It would be difficult to improve upon them”- the high performance dinghies of the European lakes




Author’s note: much of the information in this chapter came from the work of German sailing historians Michael Krieg, Manfred Jacob and Dr.Joachim Schuhmacher. I am very grateful for their assistance and would like to emphasise that I take responsibility for any errors in my understanding. 

Modern and classic H-Jolle development class dinghies race together on the AussenAlster in Hamburg, one of the ancestral homes of German dinghy sailing. This photo by Peter Kahl was taken from the webside of the Norddeutscher Regatta Verein.

The lakes of central Europe may seem like an unlikely breeding ground for high-performance dinghies. The waters are often cold, the winds often light and fluky, and in its early decades the development of the sport lagged behind that of the English-speaking countries. But by the 1930s, the sailors of Germany, Austria and Switzerland were creating dinghies that were probably the fastest and most sophisticated racing dinghies of their era, and they influenced dinghy design across the world.

Sources such as club histories and the sailing historian Dr.Joachim Schuhmacher date the genesis of organised German sailing from the mid 1850s, when centreboarders were exported from the UK to the northern city of Hamburg. Around the same time (1855) the oldest German sailing club, Segelclub Rhe near Konigsberg, was formed in after a high school student bought an old fishing boat. These tales of the genesis of the sport in Germany form a striking contrast to the early history of many other major sailing nations, where the early clubs numbered the richest and most powerful in their membership. In many of the central European countries, the sport of sailing was created by the middle classes.

It does not seem to have been a coincidence that Hamburg, Konigsberg and Berlin were centres of early central European sailing; they were all members of the ancient Hanseatic League of merchant towns, with significant expatriate populations and strong links with countries like the UK, where sailing was already a popular sport. The internationalism that ran so richly through the dinghy world of the 1800s was further demonstrated in 1864 when the sandbagger Laura, built in New York by the famous “Hen” Smedley, arrived in Hamburg. Under the power of her huge rig and broad beam, she changed the face of German centreboarder sailing and reigned as champion until the sandbagger Ella was built in 1877. For years, the beamy, big-rigged sandbagger type was to dominate the top end of German centreboarder racing, and the pages of books like Georg Belitz’s 1897 work “Seglers Handbuch”, digitised by the German Classic Yacht Club, present a fascinating array of German sandbagger-style boats.

Just as in the USA, the sandbaggers faded out in the 1890s, replaced by the new style of light displacement boats. The fin keel yachts of Nat Herreshoff  appear to have made a big impression. So too do Linton Hope’s light displacement Rater types; if Google Translate is correct, the famous Sorceress herself was imported in 1896, taking a string of wins in Hamburg and Berlin and introducing the high-aspect centreboard to the Continent. She was followed by locally-designed Rater-style boats and other imported designs such as Linton Hope’s Blitz VI, which looks like a slightly longer version of Maid of Kent. Judging from contemporary German books, Dixon Kemp’s famous Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing and its plans of Rater, canoes and early dinghies also seems to have been influential.

Getting ready for a sail on the AussenAlster in Hamburg, an early centre for German centreboarder sailing; “Buute auf der Aussenalster” by Ulrich Hubner, date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.


The arrival of the long and light “Rater style” boats seems to have set the model for what became the archetypal Central European style of racing boat –  a long, lean hull compared to those from the English-speaking countries. The emphasis was often on creating the fastest boat for the sail area, not the fastest boat for the overall length. It’s a foreign concept to many from Anglo-Saxon countries but a very logical one in many ways, and it seems to have led to a style of design that was ideally suited to the inland lakes. The length made the boats fast even when gliding through the light winds that were common inland. The size of the hulls made most of them roomy and stable enough for weekend camping trips and to sit on moorings off the crowded lake shorelines. Although hulls as long as 8.38m/27’6″ could have planks and decks as thin as 8mm, on the flat water of the inland lakes the long, light hulls were not subject to the wave impact that helped break up (literally) the similar Rater classes along the coastlines of other countries.

Such long hulls could not have been cheap, but (as in other regions) the expense of the boats probably served the social purpose of keeping out the “undesirable” working- and lower middle- classes out of the sport for many decades. As sailing historians like Manfred Jaocob and Dr Schuhmacher note, in the early days of German sailing there was a significant social divide between the aristocratic and wealthy yachtsmen and the bourgeoisie who sailed the small dinghies. Even the dinghy sailors were split, between the cruisers and the racers, and between those who sailed in the windier and choppier waters of the north and those who sailed the inland lakes. The long dinghies that evolved may have been large enough to form a bridge between these disparate factions.

Francis Herreshoff, who was familiar with the German classes through his family heritage and his own design work, was one English-speaking designer who thought that the long and often slender style of dinghy of Central Europe was infinitely superior to the short, tippy style of dinghies favoured by the British. The European type was “faster for their sail area, safer, cheaper and drier” he said. Herreshoff didn’t hold his punches when he compared them to the British dinghies that were becoming popular in the US. The International 14s, he wrote, were “dangerous freaks…not as fast as they should be for their sail area and weight (because) they are too short”. The British type was “so vastly inferior” he thundered “that there is no comparison.”



J Jolle. Photo by Chris Falter through Wikimedia Commons.

The first of what would become the classic Central European style of renjolle (“racing dinghy”) was born in Germany in 1909, when the yacht sailors who dominated the national sailing federation created the J Jolle as a national training class for young sailors. Their bias towards larger craft seems to have led them to choose a massive boat for such a role, and the J Jolle is 6.1m (20ft) overall and weighs up to 350 kg (772lb).

The J Jolle is a development class with simple rules – the length limit, a restriction on the sum of the overall length and the beam (7.8m/25ft7in) and 22 m2 (237ft2) of sail. The potential of the class soon attracted serious racers who developed it from a kid’s boat into the Grand Prix class of the lakes. Sailors like Manfred Curry, still remembered by many as the man who brought science into sailing, quickly brought in refinements such as fully-battened mains, high-aspect rigs, streamlined hulls, and cam cleats. The waterline stretched, the rounded hull sections were replaced by firm-bilged Vee sections. The moderate measured sail area of 22m2 was soon increased by a big overlapping genoa and wide roach on the mainsai, which brought the actual sail area up to 28 to 30 m2 (301ft2 to 323ft2).

Uffa Fox himself, that great fan of the short British dinghy, noted that the J Jolle were “exceptionally fast in the lightest of airs, as they will ghost along without any wind at all and will plane along at a very high speed in any breeze 12 miles an hour or over…” Although comparing yardstick ratings and other indications of speed across countries and decades is a very loose “science”, some rough calculations indicate that J Jolle were probably faster than the dinghies of any other country, with the exception of the bigger E and A Scows of the US Midwest. Today the restored vintage J Jolle are rated only 5% slower than a 505 and 3% faster than a 470. Even allowing for the advantage they get from size, it’s a tribute to the standards that the Renjolle achieved 75 years ago.

If the J Jolle was the refined “grand prix” class of the central European lakes, the high-performance fringe was filled by the “free” renjolle – perhaps the fastest and most advanced dinghies of their era. The free renjolle were so fast that even today the restored classics of the 1920s are rated among the world’s fastest dinghies (skiffs and big scows apart); on the pace with the Flying Dutchman and faster than a 505.

The “free” classes earned their name from their lack of restrictions. Unlike most of the other Central European lake boats, they were strictly for racing, with no compromises for cruising or day sailing. They were restricted only in sail area, minimum waterline beam, and some restrictions on construction and flotation. The “N” class carried 10 m2 (108ft2) of measured sail area, the “M” class set 15m2 (161ft2), and the spectacular “Z” class spread 20m2 (215ft2).

The renjolle were beautiful examples of excess in motion; extreme in every way. The Z-Jolle grew from 7.4m (24ft3in) LOA to 8.6m (28ft2in) and more in length, on a slender beam of just 1.76m to 1.82m (5ft10in to 6ft). They weighed as little as 390kg  (860lb) but carried rigs in which the theoretical 20m2 rig had been stretched to 30m2 (323ft2) with the addition of genoas and roachy, fully battened mainsails. The N Class, with an actual sail area about the size of a Snipe or 420, stretched out to almost 6.5m (21ft4in) – longer than a Flying Dutchman.

The extravagant beauty of the free renjolle. The “N” class, the smallest of the free rejolle development classes, has a rig with a measured area (not including genoa) that is similar to that of a Snipe or Finn set on a hull 18″/50cm longer than that of a Flying Dutchman. Sail No. 2 is an Einheitszehner, a one-design class within the rules of the N class, also depicted in the plan below from Juan Baader’s classic yacht design text “The Sailing Yacht”. The Einheitszehehner hull was planked in Okume or Gaboon just 8mm thick, over 10 by 15mm frames set only 75mm apart. The Ns survive in very small numbers in Germany, Austria and, oddly enough, Japan. Pic from the class site.


Stretching the free renjolle did more than just give them sheer waterline length. Narrowing the overall beam also has the effect of sharpening the waterlines at the bow. The bows of many vintage renjolle have a “half angle” of just ten degrees – in the same region as a modern 18 Foot Skiff.

A series of sections of Z Class boats, published in ancient copies of Die Yacht magazine, show astonishingly little alteration over a period of decades. All have softly curved bilges, wide flare to reduce waterline beam, and narrow, deeply Veed sterns (to prevent the boats going bow-down when they heeled, wrote Curry). Some modern reports say that the Z Class “had not learned the lesson of Uffa Fox” and were too narrow in the stern to plane, but in fact Fox held them up as an example of an outstanding lake racer. “For racing and sailing inland” he wrote, the Z Class “would be difficult to improve upon”.

The renjolle carried gaff sailplans long after Bermudan rigs had taken over in other dinghies. Today it seems anachronistic to think of gaffers as being efficient, but the renjollen used slender and lightweight hollow spars, with a gaff that fell away to leeward in puffs like a bendy mast. When the breeze kicked in hard, the gaff could be reefed to create a snug rig, without the windage and weight of a naked Bermudan topmast above the mainsail. In those days before trapezes and modern gear such things mattered, and as late as the 1930s foreign observers like Uffa Fox and L. Francis Herreshoff recognized that the gaff was the best option for big rigs such as those that the Z Jolle and J Jolle carried. Decades later, aerodynamics expert Tony Marchaj said that the high-peaked gaff was closer to the theoretically ideal elliptical outline than the Bermudan rig. Even today, when modern gear, sails and trapezes have shifted the balance to Bermudan rigs, the surviving gaffers are rated only a few percent slower than their contemporaries that have been updated to high-aspect Bermudan sailplans.

A M-Jolle on Lake Starnberg; pic from Wikimedia Commons. The lines from the class site below show the fine bow sections that were common among the long, slender hulls of the free renjolle. The design below was 6.25m long; a huge hull for a boat with a measured sail area of just 15m2.



The other key to the renjolle rigs were the many full battens, which supported what Uffa Fox called an “enormous” roach. The battens were also used to force draft into the sail; at about 11%, the renjollen sails were very deep and powerful for their day and Fox noted their “heavy camber or fullness”.

As development continued, the free renjolle got longer and longer, and faster and faster in all but the lightest of winds (when the older Z Jolle and the J Jolle, which had less wetted surface because of their shorter hulls, could beat them). Some were sent to the US, and contemporary US reports speak them easily beating boats like Suicides and Stars. They must have been the fastest dinghies of their day, by a margin almost as long as their decks. It was probably not until the early 1960s that an 18 Foot Skiff became faster, and the International 14 probably only caught up to the Z Class in the ‘80s or ‘90s. The traditional belief was that the speed record was held by “Agra”, which allegedly recorded an extraordinary 27.3 knots in 1937.

Ferret, the Carl Martens Z-Klasse that Uffa Fox wrote about in his book “Racing Cruising and Design”, from where these plans come. Uffa noted that although she was 8.38m/27ft6in long, she was narrower than a British National 12! Note the deep sections, wide flare and soft bilges that were the standard shape in the class, and the very fine bow waterlines. Unlike the smaller British-style dinghies, the renjolle did not have a long flat rocker line aft; it probably doesn’t work on such long and slender hull.

ferrett-linesThe expense and maintenance of the free renjolle caught up to them when lighter, cheaper and sometimes faster boats like the Flying Dutchman came out. Many of the renjolle classes faded away, only to be revived in recent times by those who valued their beauty, history and performance. Today, there are still about two dozen active classic Z Jolle, mostly relics of the glory days of the ‘20s and ‘30s, but with a sprinkling of newer boats. Many have now been re-rigged with high aspect Bermudan rigs and sport twin trapezes. The Bermudan rigged Z Jolle are rated at a yardstick of 96. That puts them as one of the fastest “real” (ie those that are not skiff, scows or foilers) dinghies afloat – 2% slower than a Flying Dutchman, 1% slower than a 505.

A classic example of the Z Jolle fleet is Hex III, a champion of the 1920s. She was designed by the two greatest names in renjolle, Reinhard Drewitz and Manfred Curry. Like Curry’s own Z Jolle, Aero II, she features low reverse sheer and curved gunwales that were meant to smooth the aerodynamic flow over the foot of the sails.

Hex III. Pic from the class site.

Eighty years after her heyday, boatbuilder George Smits found Hex III sheltering in a boatshed on the shores of Lake Constance. The lightweight structure was carefully restored by his son Sammy, one of the world’s top designers in the 5.5 Metre class. Hex III still sports her gaff rig but even by modern standards, report the Smits and their friend Claas van der Linde, she feels like a dinghy. She accelerates very quickly and is easily capsized. “Between 2 and 4 Bf (4 to 16 knots) are the best conditions for Hex III” reports van der Linde. “A J Jolle is faster until about 1.5 Bf (two to three knots of wind) because the wetted surface is less, beyond that Hex III is faster. Her upwind performance is quite good (or better than good), downwind she is good. The Z Jolle will plane often and easily from about 4 Bf on.”

The extraordinary streamlined shape of Hex III shows the influence of Manfred Curry. Pic from the class site.

“The Flying Dutchman on the plane will be faster than Hex III, but her max speed has been estimated to be above 15 knots. Beyond an estimated 15 knots she becomes difficult to steer. Ventilation of the rudder is a problem, and while boats like the 49er become more stable at high speeds, Hex III’s round hull makes her less stable the faster she goes.”

Sammy Smits fell so much in love with Z Jolle that he built his own, to a new design by Patrick Sager. “Fastwood” is about a metre shorter than Hex III and wider both overall and at the waterline (2.1m/6.9ft overall beam and 1.75m/5ft9in waterline beam, compared to Hex III’s overall beam of 1.75m and waterline beam of about 1.25m/4ft1in). The new boat is much fuller in the hull, particularly forward, and carries too much sail to race as a Z Jolle. Instead, she races in the Formula Libera B class – the smaller version of the famous 13m monster skiffs that prowl the lakes with up to 13 crew on wings and traps.

Despite the bigger rig (inherited from an 18 foot skiff), Fastwood needs Bf4 (16 knots) and more to beat her longer, slimmer older sister. However, the newer boat is very stable and easily controllable, even in winds of Bf 5-6 (17-27 knots) when the classic Z Jolle are becoming difficult to handle. Max speeds seen on Fastwood are said to have been around 21 knots, and at that pace she remained well under control.

The beauty of Fastwood, now ZZ Top, a modern interpretation of the Z Jolle style. Many of the Central European wooden racing dinghies show the stunning craftmanship displayed by boatbuilders like Smits’ company.


The most popular of the classic lake dinghies of Central Europe isn’t a renjolle; it’s a “wanderjolle” or cruising dinghy. The pages of old German dinghy books are full of dinghy cruising; of pics of boom tents, tables hanging off centreboard cases, and dinghies moored to the shore overnight. The most popular of the “wanderjolle” classes is the H Jolle; a development class that is about as big as a Flying Dutchman (6.20m) but with class rules that mandated much more beam (a minimum of 1.70m overall and 1.50 m at the waterline) and weight (minimum 190kg) than the frei renjolle of similar length. The rig is still generous; a measured sail area of 15m2 on a 7.5m mast is dramatically increased by the roach and the massive overlap of the genoa is taken into account.

In its early years, the class followed two strands. The H Jolle sailors who braved the rougher waters of the northern seas developed solid oak boats that weighed 500 kg. The boats that sailed the light winds of the inland lakes dropped the full battens and the wooden headsail luff spars in the quest for light weight. In its heyday before WW2 there were 800 H Jolle in Germany, making it the most popular class of its era.

When I walked along the shores of Hamburg’s Aussenalster lake in 2014, it seemed that every one of the 160 hectares of the beautiful lake adjacent to the city centre included at least one classic wooden H-Jolle. The H-Jolles I saw were almost certainly actually Elb H-Jolle, a one-design class from the 1930s that fits into the H Jolle rules) and to watch them showed how well the Central European dinghies fitted their environment. The Aussenalster (or Outer Alster) presents an extraordinary scene to a sailor. Measuring just 164 hectares (405 acres), it supports at least three sailing clubs, including the Nordeutscher Regatta Verein, one of the largest in Germany, and staggering numbers of boats including a fleet of 50 International Dragon yachts. Little marinas jutting out into the lake were filled by row upon row of dinghies, almost all of them designed in the 1970s or earlier. There is little space for big clubhouses or dinghy parks on the shorelines of the Central European lakes, and the Elb H-Jolle sat in rows in tiny marinas or on docks. Some of them, perhaps club-owned hire boats, were obviously being sailed by inexperienced crews, but they found the long, stable gaffers easy to handle. There seemed to be a rich variety of ages and experienced aboard. The wealthy and sophisticated citizens of Hamburg could easily afford newer boats, but they find a deeper joy in these varnished classics.

An Elb H-Jolle on the Aussenalster. Wikimedia Commons pic.

While the Elb H-Jolle remains faithful to the original conception of the wanderjolle type, the H-Jolle class itself has kept on changing with the times in the development class spirit. Bermudan rigged and carrying a trapeze, the modern H Jolle looks to be close to a modernized Flying Dutchman, or a blown-up Merlin Rocket or MG 14. The bottom sections are flat, apparently because of the minimum waterline beam rules, and the topsides are flared. It’s also rated as the fastest conventional dinghy (skiffs and foilers apart) in Germany – 2 % quicker than the FD, 3% faster than the 505, 4% than the Bermudan-rigged Z Jolle.

The modern H Class; now built in carbon and with a noticeably flat hull, it’s rated faster than the Flying Dutchman. This beautiful pic is from the class site.


Despite their speed and beauty, the development classes of the inland lakes never spread much beyond Central Europe. Their major influence on the world beyond came when they taught the sailors of the world a new approach to sail tuning and the science of sailing.




“Early German dinghy designs came from England and from the USA”:- most of the information about early German dinghies is courtesy of Mandred Jacob; see

“If Google Translate is correct, the famous Sorceress herself was imported in 1896”; see Belitz p 240.

“and brought with them the high-aspect centreboard”:- Belitz p 207

“They were almost certainly actually Elb H-Jolle; a one-design class that fits into the H Jolle rules”. The Elb H-Jolle actually started out in another development class of similar dimensions, but was later fitted into the H Class; the class history is unclear about the details.





Pt 1.51 – What we’re sailing today 2.0 – the USA

With its flat and heavy hull, low aspect rig and no spinnaker the X-Boat is no speedster but it seems to attract strong fleets on the lakes of the US midwest. The class manufacturer, Melges, built 9ers for a while but now seems to have dropped them in favour of its traditional classes.


Let’s get one thing straight – I know I’m not a US dinghy sailor, so although I’ve done a lot of research into the history of US dinghy sailing and interviewed some of the leading minds of the modern scene, I’m not an expert on the subject. However, just as with every other region, when there’s a choice between doing what research I can or ignoring one of the main regions of the sport, it seems that the former is the best option. I have interviewed the creators of some of the most popular classes in the country (as shown here and here, and in more posts to come later) but I’d love to hear some more informed feedback from those who are more familiar with US dinghy sailing.

To try to work out what is happening in dinghy sailing in the US, rather than go on hype and impressions it seems to be a good idea to try to track the popularity of various dinghy classes.  As noted earlier, the best (albeit imperfect) source of information seems to be the fleet sizes for the national (or North American) titles, as shown in the table below. For the years 2007-2012 my information is based on those compiled by “Roger Jolly”, a poster on Sailing Anarchy. Roger’s work was great but he was only interested in adult’s classes, and he only counted the “main event” – that is, the open national titles rather than the separate events that many classes run for Junior, Youth, Masters and Women. I prefer to count these “alternative” fleets, because it gets closer to measuring the true number of active boats. It’s also a pain, because it means more digging and often means going through every results sheet to make sure the same sailors aren’t being counted twice. There’s a bunch of notes at the bottom of the table to give more information about the “alternative” fleets and other details.

The “alternative” fleets have a significant impact on the US national title attendance numbers, because American sailors don’t seem to follow the pattern of having the kids sail kids boats and the adults sailing adult’s boats as much as the rest of the world. Of course there are specialised classes for juniors and youth, like the 420 and Opti – but in the USA you also get significant fleets of kids sailing adult-sized boats, like the 50 or so who do the Junior nationals in the 16 foot X-Boat, a heavy hard-chine dinghy from the lakes of the Midwest, the 40 or so who sail the 12 foot Butterfly scow in the same area, or those who sail the separate junior nationals offered by Snipes and similar classes.  There’s also a number of adults who sail little prams designed for kids, like the Sabot and El Toro, which is a rather endearing feature of US sailing that runs counter to the general preference for big boats.

So what do the numbers show? For a start, looking at the classes where we have sufficient data, the average attendance over the last three years shows a decline of almost 10% in attendance over the past three years, compared to the period 2007-2012 (see the right-hand column for the comparative percentage). Not good. In fact the state of the sport in the US may be even worse than these numbers indicate, when one takes a longer view and sees the number of classes, once strong, that are now long gone. Some of them give a sobering picture of how even the biggest classes can vanish.  The original Windsurfer – a class I still sail down here, and one of the other types I included for added interest – had around 300 starters in the ’80s but died in the ’90s, and unlike Europe (where the class is now very strong in Italy) sadly the attempt to restart it appears to have failed. The Laser II is another example of a class that was once very strong but is no longer active – perhaps an indication that the US market seems to suffer more than other regions from SMOD manufacturers or regional associations who decide to no longer support a class.

Quite a few US sailors have told me that their country is full of sailors who are too conservative and worried about appearances. If that’s true, why are quite a few of them very happy to race tiny dinghies like the Naples Sabot (above) or Interclub frostbiter (below)?



Like the World Sailing figures that were given in the last post, the US numbers show the strength and dominance of the Opti, Lasers and Club 420 compared to all other classes.  Although there’s a fair bit of doom and gloom being expressed around the internet, for these classes the picture given by the championship attendances is reasonably good taking into account issues like the economic situation and Laser’s legal problems.

The Club 420, by the way, is basically a tougher and simpler version of the International 420, with tighter one design rules. This brings up another major point about the US scene – many boats are owned by clubs rather than private owners. As people like Steve Clark (high-performance cat and canoe guru and former co-owner of the country’s biggest dinghy manufacturer) points out, this tends to encourage boats that are heavy and tough enough to handle the bashing that is often handed out by people who won’t have to fix the scars and bruises.

The second bracket of classes includes the traditional big and rather heavy hard-chine boats, like the Lightning (which includes open, junior and masters fleets that I have yet to check for double counting), X Boat, Snipe and Interlake. The strength of the Midwestern classes like the X Boat and Interlake is interesting, although any such “regional” classes are likely to have disproportionately large attendance at their nationals due to the shorter distances involved. Despite their unfashionable nature, these classes seem to be doing pretty well in terms of maintaining their fleet size. Let those who reckon they can do better prove it, before they criticise the classes that are still strong.

We have to get a long, long way down the list before we strike some high-performance dinghies, namely the 505 and 29er. The three high-performance development dinghies – the Int 14, Int Canoe and Moth – each only average 14 starters, with the Moth numbers actually dropping. Of course, no one is claiming that these numbers are a perfect illustration of the health or direction of any class, but it’s apparent that while these boats are fantastic, they are not attracting big numbers of sailors despite their age, performance and high profile.

I’ve included some sportsboats, kites, cats and windsurfers to give some idea of relative numbers. The scary thing is seeing how tiny some of the classes that have been proclaimed as the way forward really are. Hydrofoil kiting is on my own bucket list to get into, but the numbers at world level and national level demonstrate that it’s not attracting significant numbers. The high-performance windsurfer classes are all struggling, as are many of the high-performance boats. The growth of kitefoilers is less than the drop in Formula Windsurfers. For every high performance cat class like the As that is growing, there is another like the F18HT, Hobie Tiger, Hobie 20, or F20 that has dropped off or died.  Just like the Australian numbers, these figures seem to show that many pundits are aiming their criticism the wrong way – the “establishment” classes are not the problem with the sport but its saviour. The new wave and high performance development classes are fantastic (I own a couple of them) but they are showing no signs of growing popular enough to replace the older classes.

Looking from the outside, one of the main points about the US scene seems to be the love of big hard-chine one designs like the Lightning (above) which is still showing good championship attendances. In contrast the smaller “training version”, the Blue Jay (below) is now dead as a national class and only sailed in small numbers at a few clubs. The US would seem to have lost far more dinghy classes than any other major sailing nation. Pics from the class sites.


The main message from these numbers could be the vital importance of manufacturer, club and association support, and the fact that the sport’s health still depends on the classes that have been around for decades. We cannot keep on attacking these classes, as some pundits do, until we have found new types that can truly show the potential to attract the same sort of support, and that has not happened.

Perhaps a less negative end note is that looking at the USA (and  Canada, which of course has its own and very interesting scene) brings home once again the strange combination of consistency and diversity we see as we look across different regions. Obviously, most regions have the big four classes (Optimists, Lasers, Radials and 420s) and a sprinkling of Olympic classes and 29ers, but underneath them are still many of the regional classes that were born in the middle of the 20th century and reflect local culture and conditions. Even the patterns of racing and usage vary widely from country to country. It’s perhaps just another reason why when we try to shape the future of the sport, we should probably be concentrating on learning from the existing sailing scenes rather than trying to impose our own concepts of the future.


1980s 07/09 av. 10-12 av. 2014 2015 2016 14-16 av.
Optimist US Nationals 88.7 228 273 243 248.0
Sabot Jnr & Open (1) 166.7
Radial Open & Masters (2) 133 150 131 138.0
Sabot Jnr 173 120 118 133 123.7
Club 420 115 74 150 113.0
Laser Radial Open 106.7 112.7 107 127 101 111.7 102%
Laser Std Open & Masters (2) 124.0 130 90 114 111.3 90%
Lightning ALL (3) 107.0
X-Boat ALL (4) 94 73 107 92 90.7
Duckboat “worlds” (5) 78 77 77.5
Lightning Open 88 68.7 61.0 106 46 74 75.3 116%
Hobie 16 Open/Jnr/Wmn (6) 74.0
Sunfish – Open & Youth (7) 61.0 85.9 73 62 82 72.3 98%
MC Scow 69.3 70.0 81 54 67.5 97%
Butterfly (8) 77 62 136 91.7
Snipe (9) 67.0
E Scow 48 55.7 65.7 79 59.00 58 65.3 108%
Laser Standard – Open 87.0 61.7 67 55 59 60.3 81%
Sunfish Open 61.0 85.9 60 58 59 59.0 80%
Club FJ 70.7 62 59 54 58.3 83%
Laser Masters 43.0 64 35 68 55.7 129%
C Scow 59.3 55.3 42 57.00 65 54.7 95%
Thistle 92 68.7 70.3 54 50 58 54.0 78%
Hobie 16 96 53.3 44.0 46 73 43 54.0 111%
J/70 71 49 39 53.0
Lightning (10) 53 53.0
X Boat – Junior 39 57 56 50.7
Snipe 66.5 46.0 48.0 37 43 67 49.0 104%
Interlake 43 38.0 34.0 39 57 48.0 133%
Melges 24 40.7 46 46.0 113%
A Class 41.7 45 41 43 43.0 103%
Naples Sabot Snr 54 32 43.0
Bic O’pen 42 42.0
Flying Scot (11) 79 81.3 61.7 31 48 46 41.7 58%
Int. 505 43.3 27.0 38 33 49 40.0 114%
X Boat – Senior Fleet 34 49 36 39.7
Butterfly – Youth 47 28 37 37.3
Vanguard 15 50.3 39.7 29 33 50 37.3 83%
Int. 420 35 35 35.0
29er 56.3 46.0 42 25 35 34.0 66%
Force 5 57 29 38 33.5
Radial Masters 33 33.0
F18 46.7 40 28 30 32.7 70%
Flying Scot H&W (11) 31 31.0
Highlander 35 28 30 31.0
Lido 14 37.5 33.0 44 19 30 31.0 94%
Foilboard (12) 28 34 31.0
Windmill 33.5 37 25 25 29.0
Butterfly – Open 40 49.0 38.0 30 27 28 28.3 65%
Sandpiper catboat 46 10 28.0
Interclub 45.0 28.3 29 25 27.0 74%
Radial Masters 26 23 30 26.3
Buccaneer 18 29.7 30 28 17 25.0 84%
Aero 7 24 24.0
Albacore 51.0 23 22 22.5 44%
JY15 25.0 20 22 21.0
F 16 21 21.0
Jet 14 37 18 25 19 20.7
Kona Windsurfer 20 11 29 20.0
A scow 20 20 20.0
Rebel 24 21 13 19.3
CC Knockabout 18 18.0
Snipe US Jnr/wmn 11 25 18.0
Melges 17 17 23 13 17.7
Formula Kite 16 16.0
Wayfarer 18 15 10 21 15.3
Classic Moth 16 17 12 15.0
RSX 15 15.0
Y Flyer 59 14 15 14.5
Hobie 14 72 14 15 14.5
Int 14 10 18 14.0
Int Canoe 14.0
Coronado 15 81 17 11 14.0
Int Moth 23 12 6 13.7
Hydrofoil Kite (12) 13 13.0
Penguin 28.5 12 15 10 12.3
Techno 293 12 12.0
49er 9 14 11.5
Comet 35 13 9 11.0
Puddle Duck (10) 9 12 10.5
Byte CII 3 18 10.5
Hobie 16 Youth 10 10.0
Hobie 16 Women 48 10 10.0
Flying Dutchman 27 9 9.0
Nacra 17 10 7 8.5
Open Canoe ACA 8 8.0
I-20 Scow 10 5 7.5
Sunfish Youth 13 4 5 7.3
Laser 4.7 5 8 9 7.3
49erFX 8 9 5 7.3
Contender 7 7.0
Open Canoe 5m 7 7.0
Fireball 17 7 6 6.5
Int 470 6 6.0
Aero 9 6 6.0
Aero 5 4 4.0
Flying Scot Jnr&W (11) 4 4.0
Formula Windsurfing 28.7 12 7 9.5 33%
Freestyle windsurfing 6 6.0
Slalom windsurfer 37 29 33.0
Windsurfer (Original) 286 Not held Not held Not held
Windsurfer Div 1 and 2 175 Not held Not held Not held
Laser II 60 Not held Not held Not held
Laser M 47 Not held Not held Not held
Tornado 42 Not held Not held Not held
Nacra 5.2 56 Not held Not held Not held
Blue Jay 60 13.7 Not held Not held Not held 0.0
Mobjack 28 12.0 Not held Not held Not held 0.0


1- Includes both the adult and junior fleets added together, although they race separately.

2- Includes open and masters fleets. There doesn’t appear to be any significant number of people who do both championships.

3- Including the competitors in the open championship, the womens’ championship and the masters championship. Has NOT been checked to see if sailors who did more than one event are double counted.

4- Includes both open and junior fleets added together, although they race separately.

5- Not a national championship. The Duckboat is a Sneakbox, a traditional local type. This appears to be much more of an annual social regatta.

6- Including the competitors in the open championship, the womens’ championship and the youth championship. Has NOT been checked to see if sailors who did more than one event are double counted.

7- Includes both youth and open fleets. Sailors who did both events have only been counted once.

8- Includes both youth and open fleets added together, although they race separately. Does NOT include those who race in the separate singlehanded championship.

9- Includes open, Youth and other fleets – still to be checked.

10- Open fleet only.

11- This class has several championships (like the Husband and Wife title) which are listed, but my ISP has a problem with the class site so I cannot get further details.

12- I don’t know the difference between a foilboard and a foiling kiteboard. This may be related to turf wars between the two kiting bodies.

These figures use the higher of either North American or US titles. The exception is the Opti, which attracts too many people from central America and the Caribbean and therefore would not give an accurate figure of US interest. Before anyone complains, I know that North American titles include Canadian entries and Canada has its own sailing scene, but I don’t have the time to run separate numbers for Canada. Sorry.

Not every year’s data or every class can be found. I’ve still got to put in Finns and Tasars, for example.

To make it clear, no one’s claiming that numbers like this are perfect – just that they are one hell of a lot better than just going off the hype or gut feeling. If anything, I think that they make the smaller classes look comparatively more popular, relative to the bigger classes, than they really are. But given the issues involved in other measurements (for example, policies regarding membership of a class association varies so much between classes that counting members is completely unreliable) it’s the best we can get at the moment.




The Hobie 20 (said to be a copy of the Hurricane 5.9 and a “street legal Tornado”) was averaging about 60 boats in the late ’90s; now it’s down to about a quarter of that.


Pt 1.50 – What we’re sailing today, 1.0

The utterly bizarre start line at the Lake Garda Optimist regatta brings home the enormous and continuing success of the little design from Florida. This is where I first saw an Opti in real life, and the quick look I gave it confirmed to my biased eyes that it was a terrible boat. It was only years later, when I took the time to watch the way kids used them and watched my own kids start sailing, that it became obvious how much the class offers to kids and to sailing.
The RS200 has become one of the most popular boats in the world’s biggest dinghy market. RS boats comprise about 10% of the British dinghy fleet, as measured by national titles attendance. Sometimes I think we should just let them run the sport for a couple of years, since they arguably do a better job than the people in charge now.

While I find the history of the sport fascinating, much of the motivation behind SailCraft is learning the lessons of the past in order to understand the present and the future. An essential part of that is finding out what sailors have sailed and are still sailing. There’s no perfect measure (although if anyone is interested in getting involved in a large scale exercise to count the boats actually being raced in the world they can count me in) but given all the variables, the best seems to be looking at the size of the fleets that turn up to national titles. It’s far from perfect for reasons that are all too apparent, but to me nothing else comes close when it comes to tracking trends and getting a reality check.

The International classes

Before we get on to the national pictures, let’s get a picture of the worldwide popularity of the major classes by turning to the reports that each international class sends to World Sailing each year. The classes pay dues on each boat sold, so they have an incentive to keep the numbers realistic. Although they are sometimes pretty loose, they don’t fall into the realm of outright fiction, like some other claims do. Two major manufacturers have an arrangement with ISAF to keep the numbers of boats they sell confidential, so since they are shy we may as well ignore them.

Over the last five years, the major International and Recognised classes have each sold the following number of boats;

Optimist  – 15210
Laser – 8808
Sunfish – (est) 5000
RS Aero – (est) 2750 (new class – five year sales estimated on current annual sales)
RS Feva – 2300
Int 420 – 1642
RS Tera – 1283
Topper – 1134
Finn – 1000 (approximate, due to ISAF allegedly being slow to provide information)
J/70 – 980
470 – 912
Formula 18 – 739 (this figure is obtained by adding the number sold each year. The class claims 1000 new boats over this period. Oh well, we F18 sailors aren’t very good at maths).
29er – 584
49er/FX – 564
Moth – 550
Byte CII – 500
RS 100 – 410
A Class – 400
Snipe – 384
Nacra 17 – 331
J/80 – 300 approx
Viper 16 cat – 259
RS 500 – 250
Glide Free Laser foiling kits – 250 (not an ISAF class; industry claim put in for reference and based on pro-rata annual rate)
Zoom 8 – 250
Formula 16 – 235
TopKat 16 – 233
Micro 18 – 230
SL16 – 223
FJ – approx 200
Europe – 180
GP14 – 147
Int OK – 143
Mirror – 143
Dragon – 140
Enterprise – 139
Contender – 125
Tasar – 120
505 – 101
Star – 101
Splash – 100
Int Cadet – 99
Melges 20 – 96
Fireball – 93
MPS – 91
Lightning – 85
FD – 56
Vaurien – 52
Dart 18 – 50
Int 14 – 45
Flying 15 – 38
SB20 – 36 in four years
B14 – 22
Tornado – 4
Laser II – 0

The thing that is striking about this list is the utter dominance of the Opti and Laser. Given that most Sunfish are sold as beach toys (which is great) the Opti and Laser are just in a different class (sorry) to every other boat. It is bizarre that some people want to destroy the classes on which so much of the sport obviously depends – the ones that are actually doing more than any other classes to keep it alive.

It’s also interesting to see the presence of a very strong “second XI” of classes like the 420 and RSs. The first of the classes that some people claim to be the future of the sport are way down the list.

The national pictures

Back in the 1970s, the UK’s Yachts and Yachting magazine started analysing the size of the fleets that turned up to the biggest national titles. The magazine still maintains a fascinating table showing the attendance at just about every national championship regatta, which is an invaluable numerical guide to what people really sail, and also shows just how far off beam many pundits are when it comes to looking at the reality and the future of the sport. I’ll look at the Y&Y data, modified to include the many sailors who do the Masters nationals in Lasers, later.

More recently, the contributor “Roger Jolly” analysed the size of the fleets at North American and US titles for several years. The US and Australia both have the problem of large variation year-by-year in many classes due to the vast distances between championship venues, which makes it even harder to analyse trends, so Roger maintained a three-year rolling average of championship attendances. The latest of them can be found here; scroll down and you’ll see a list of the 50 most popular classes, excluding juniors. Note that like Y&Y, Roger’s figures ignore the huge fleets that do their Laser nationals as part of separate Masters championships. I’m currently preparing an updated version of Roger Jolly’s list and will put that up soon.

As far as I can find, no one has yet done a similar analysis of class popularity in other major sailing countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand.  I have been obtaining as much information on long-term national title attendance in Australia for years. The latest figures, averaging over the last three years as Roger Jolly did (and for the same reasons) are below.

Some classes (marked with an asterix) have only one set of figures, partly because they are such popular classes that they will not move up or down the rankings significantly when further information information is added; they can be polished later. Some classes seem to be shy about giving out their numbers.  The Laser and Radial numbers allow for the sailors who did the separate Masters nationals. Those who did both Open and Masters nationals have been deducted from the total, as have overseas competitors who took part in an Australian title associated with a world or interdominion (Australia v New Zealand) championship.

Australian national title attendance – three year rolling average 2014-2016

Optimist* 1 Jnr Hike 1d 219.0
Laser Radial* 1 Light/Youth Hike SMOD 183.0
Laser* 1 Open Hike SMOD 137.0
Sabot* 1 or 2 Jnr Hike 1d 104.0
Tasar 2 Open Hike SMOD 77.0
Sabre 1 Open Hike 1d 75.0
Int. Cadet* 2 Jnr Hike 1d 67.0
Flying 11 2 Jnr Hike 1d 58.7
Moth 1 Open Assist Dev 56.3
Minnow 1 Jnr Hike 1d 56.0
Laser 4.7* 1 Jnr Hike SMOD 54.0
29er 2 Youth Assist SMOD 47.7
Impulse 1 Open Hike 1d 44.5
Sharpie 3 Open Assist 1d 42.0
Spiral 1 Open/Light Hike SMOD 42.0
Int. 420 2 Youth Assist 1d 37.7
Manly Junior 2 Jnr Hike 1d 36.0
16 Foot Skiff 3 Open Assist 1d 35.3
Mirror 2 Jnr/Light Hike 1d 32.0
Heron 2 Light Hike 1d 31.5
OK 1 Open Hike 1d 31.3
NS14 2 Open Hike Dev 31.0
Int. 14 2 Open Assist Dev 29.0
MG14 2 Open Assist Dec 28.5
125 2 Youth/Light Assist 1d 27.7
Cherub 2 Youth/Light Assist Dev 27.0
Int. 505 2 Open Assist 1d 26.5
B14 2 Open Assist SMOD 25.0
12 Foot Skiff 2 Open Assist Dev 23.0
Finn 1 Open Hike 1d 20.5
Javelin 2 Open Assist Dev 20.0
18 Foot Skiff 3 Open Assist 1d 19.0
Musto Skiff 1 Open Assist SMOD 16.0
Contender 1 Open Assist 1d 14.0
13 Foot Skiff 2 Youth Assist 1d 13.0
Pacer* 2 Open Hike 1d 14.0
RS 100* 1 Open Hike SMOD 13.0
Fireball 2 Open Assist 1d 12.0
Flying Dutchman 2 Open Assist 1d 12.0
RS Aero* 1 Open Hike SMOD 12.0
Int. 470 2 Open Assist 1d 11.7
49er 2 Open Assist SMOD 11.0
Skate 2 Open Assist 1d 11.0
49erFX 2 Open Assist SMOD 9.3
Vee Ess 3 Open Assist 1d 9.0
National E 2 Open Assist 1d 9.0
Formula 15 2 Open Assist SMOD 8.0
RS200* 2 Open Hike SMOD 8.0

Notes: “Assist” refers to classes that have some form of “hiking assistance” such as wings, trapeze, plank or a combination. The second column from the left refers to crew numbers, the third refers to rough age/weight categories. A few classes, such as the Bic O’pen which is going very well, have been left out because I can’t find the information.

I may declare my own interests here. Counting all of the classes I have kit for (ie boards, boats, and the cat) three of them sit right at the top of the list. Three sit solidly in the middle, one is one of the smallest active classes, and three of them can no longer get enough entries to organise a championships. I think that mean I can be called fairly unbiased!


So what can we learn from these numbers? Well, the hiking boats and singlehanders are dominant in the sport. There appears to have been a move away from crewed trapeze classes, although I’ll be doing a comparison over time later to get more perspective. Another area that is suffering is the small “family” boats, like the Mirror and Heron and long-lost classes in the same bracket, which produced huge fleets at the peak of the dinghy boom.

There has been no big shift to skiffs or high-performance boats. Despite all the hype, Australia is not a nation of skiff sailors – in fact it is probably further away from being so than it was 30 or 70 years ago. Wonderful as they are, the skiff classes are a minority interest, even among the big and fast boats – the Sharpie is clearly on top as a national large high-performance dinghy.

In a similar vein, the occasional commentator who infers that Australia’s recent international successes are due to Aussie kids growing up on skiffs with asymmetric spinnakers have got it wrong. Most (although not all) of the junior classes are similar to their northern-hemisphere counterparts, and none of the popular ones have an asymmetric kite.

As in the USA, the major classes are old ones. Some see this as a bad thing. To me it just indicates that people may have just been more realistic when they created classes in earlier decades. The success of the Opti (which is basically a fairly new class in Australia) and 29er indicate that new classes can succeed, but as in the USA it is difficult to build a big new class in such a vast and empty country. Not even RS hasn’t managed to really build up the numbers. The class that is growing fastest is probably the Moth (New South Wales and the south coast of the UK seem to be the two places where the vast majority of growth is centred in the class, with very strong championship fleets) but other development classes have not done well. Classes like the Sabot, Sabre, Minnow, Impulse and Sharpie also show quite clearly that a class can succeed without the backing of International status, a big (by Australian standards) manufacturer or the big clubs.

Analysis of the catamaran numbers, incidentally, shows that they are not increasing strongly, despite the complete load of rubbish that plenty of people were spouting when the America’s Cup switched over.  There is a lot of churn inside the cats, with a move towards the bigger singlehanders.

So what’s the main lesson? Sadly, the four sets of numbers referred to above show that many of the comments about where the sport is going are based on hype and ignorance. Contrary to some of the hype spouted by those talking about “where the sport is going”, there is no big move towards faster boats or newer classes in general.  The main lesson is that there has been a shift towards medium to medium/slow boats in some countries, and that the kids seem to be loving the sport in their early years. They do drop off in big numbers later in their teens, but as major surveys of other sports show, that’s the case with organised sport in general. The arrival of the 29er doesn’t seem to have killed the 420 or lead to more kids staying in the sport, nor are they staying in classes like the Laser after they leave their teens.

Over the next few days, I’ll look at other comparisons across time frames and across countries. While none of this data is definitive, it seems to show is that the successful sectors of the sport are the ones that are taking a path that is very different from that forecast by the media, World Sailing and other members of the chattering classes who enjoy instructing other people how they should spend their time and money.