1.29: From fizzers to Forty Niner – the production skiff types emerge

Author’s note:

This is another piece that I’m running out of chronological sequence, for several reasons.  One reason is because it’s now twenty years since the ISAF trials that chose the 49er as the new Olympic class, and because the 49erFX is about to make its Olympic debut. 

At a time when sailing may be losing its way, the story of the 1996 ISAF trials is also important because it marks a time when almost all the sailing industry got the future of the sport wrong. Manufacturers, organisers and the sailing media spent a lot of the ’90s telling everyone that skiffs were the future of the sport. Funnily enough, none of them actually noted that even in the place the 49er came from, even after a century of promotion and development skiffs still hadn’t take over the sport. And as any glance at a typical club will show, the hype was misplaced, and skiff types certainly have not taken over the sport. Sadly, the lesson seems to be ignored.

Because this piece is being presented out of sequence, it may appear that the 49er hull shape (described below and in other pieces still to come) is superior in all applications. In fact, as other chapters in Parts 1 and 2 will show, the “Bethwaite shape” works brilliantly in some situations, but the more rounded lines shown by boats like the Laser 4000 and the International 14s below are better in others. Hull shape remains a complex set of tradeoffs that produce different answers for different craft.


The Circolo Velo Torbole sits on a small ledge of flat land near the steep cliffs where the Dolomites throw themselves into the depths of northern Italy’s Lake Garda. Garda is one of the world’s windsurfing hotspots and the venue for the annual Centromiglia race, contested by boats like the Libera A Class, giant 13.5m (44ft) skiff types where a dozen crew trap from wings. The valley in which the lake sits in is a natural wind tunnel, with strong breezes funnelling down from the mountains in the morning, and back towards the mountains in the afternoon. The only way to get the fabled lake winds to stop blowing is for me to enter a national or world windsurfing titles at Garda…. that gets it every time.

It’s here where the most recent of the great ISAF dinghy trials were held, in 1996. It was an era when much of the world’s sailing press and many officials were proclaiming a new age in which the world of dinghy sailing would be taken over by skiff-type boats that were more attractive to young sailors – or so they claimed. “There is no doubt that the world’s top sailors are rapidly gravitating towards a new generation of fast, fun and exciting boats” claimed Seahorse magazine. A new boat “is what the young sailors are looking for” claimed ISAF chief Paul Henderson.

Sailing was also allegedly under pressure from the International Olympic Commission to switch to more spectacular classes that would attract more spectators and higher TV ratings. In May 1991 ISAF announced that it was interested in a new Olympic class; a two-person twin-trapeze strict one design, in which the boats for the Olympics would be provided by the host nation as had been done with the Laser and with the Finn in earlier years.

Olympic 5000
The “Olympic 5000” was a detailed proposal by a talented British group for a boat to fit ISAF’s specifications and with the addition of a crew weight equalisation system. This drawing, created to promote the concept, seems to be a fairly accurate depiction of the boat that became the Laser 5000.

The trials attracted 11 designs, from Germany, Italy, Australia, the USA, and the UK, and varying from 14 to 20 feet overall. The evenrt was run by Britain’s Michael Jackson, of March Hare fame. His experience in the ISAF singlehander trials of the ‘60s convinced him that the boats should be sailed by sailors representing national authorities, as well as by sailors representing the builders. Eleven countries sent two sailors each. Each sailor was asked to rank each boat according to a variety of criteria, and the sailors’ voting scores were released after the trials to give an insight into selection process.

The trials underlined the superior pace of the skiff-style boats when the FD and 505, representing the classic dinghies, finished the only “official” race in seventh and eighth place, minutes behind the winning 49er.

One old class did rate well – the International 14 was judged to be the second most popular boat in “general feeling” by the sailors, even if almost none of them rated it suitable for the Games. Ironically, apart from the 49er all of the newer classes that turned up to the trials are either dead or close to it and weight equalisation systems are a thing of the past, while the 505 and (to a lesser extent) the FD remain popular today,

LASER 5000

The Laser 5000 was sparked when a group of top British sailing minds heard ISAF’s call to arms and got together in the town of Warsash. To illustrate the possibilities they created the “Warsash 5000”, designed by Phil Morrison. The concept was for a 5 metre long boat, weighing 300kg complete with crew, and with a weight equalisation system designed to allow crews of different physiques to compete on an even playing field. Each sailors’ weight and height were measured, to calculate their boat’s righting moment with crew trapezing from the end of the racks. The span of the sliding wings was then adjusted between 1.9 and 3.05m (6ft3in to 10ft), so that each crew had the same righting moment. Finally, corrector weights were added so that the combined weight of each boat and crew was at least 300kg. It was a complex system that meant that ballast had to be laden onto a boat that was already heavy and light crews had to sail with wide racks (which tends to be more difficult than sailing with narrower ones) wide racks, but from most accounts crews of varied statures were very competitive on the water.

The British manufacturer of Lasers and Laser 2s was as convinced by the skiff hype as the rest of the industry and media. They took on the Warsash design, called it the Laser 5000, and started to promote it as only the British dinghy industry can.

With the hefty claimed hull weight of 109kg due to its simple and strong solid polyester/glass construction, but an actual weight considerably higher, the 5000 inevitably attracted the nickname “five tonner”. The hull was a typical Morrison shape; high and rather “soft” chines sweeping up at the stern, flat centerline sections, and curves throughout rather than flats. It all added up to a “grunty” boat that generally handled impeccably and was extremely tough, but suffered from its weight and the corresponding high sheet loads and its steady, rather than leading-edge, handling and performance. The 5000 was rated about third fastest in the trials and was finally ranked as one of the four boats for further evaluation.


The Laser 4000, the little sister of the “Five Tonner”, missed the Garda trials but was for some years the most successful of that first northern generation of skiff types. In some ways it’s marginal in terms of being a skiff type, but with narrow racks, an assy, a trap and 99% of a 505’s performance on a shorter hull, it satisfies many people’s criteria.

The 4000 has only one trap and a simpler weight equalization system than the 5000, but it shares the same impeccable Morrison manners and durability and weighs much less (80kg hull), which is generally considered to change its whole flavour. It has a pole that can be rotated out to windward slightly, in an attempt to make the assymetric more “user friendly” for the often tight British waters, but most of the time  it is gybed downwind. The class seems very happy with the weight equalisation system, which adjusts rack width and ballast for crew weight without allowing for height like the 5000 did, but still allows a wide range of shapes and sizes to win.

The rounded stern sections seen on the L4000 are a Phil Morrison trademark.  They reduce wetted surface and transom drag in light winds, and make for forgiving downwind characteristics in survival conditions. The payoff is lower planing performance in medium and strong winds.

At  4.6m (15ft) overall, with 1.5 to 2.3m (4ft11in to 7ft6in) wingtip beam depending on crew weight and carrying 14.7m2 (158ft2) upwind sail and a 17.1m2 (184ft2), the 4000 is rated slightly faster (2%, or 70 seconds per hour) faster than the 29er which is 15cm (6in) shorter. The two boats make an interesting comparison. General opinion is that the 4000 is faster in the light, because of its bigger rig and the more buoyant and curved Morrison hull shape. The lighter, lower-drag 29er may accelerate quicker, is more sensitive and goes faster once planing, until the going gets rough when many crews find the 4000 (well known for its heavy-air handling) to be a safer boat.

“I think the 4000 is so good in a blow because it is everyone’s happy medium basically!” says UK sailor Stu Hadfield. “I don’t think it has any particular design characteristics which help it in a breeze. I think that it is basically a very balanced design both in hull profile and rig design. There is very little weight in the helm at all times although it gives plenty of feedback and so you know exactly what the boat is trying to do underneath/above you. It has a medium amount of rocker and an average length pole and the size of the genny isn’t so big so as to start pulling the boat around on every little change in wind strength/direction. It will head straight down the mine if you bear away down the wrong bit of chop but you have to really try.”

Laser4000bandol (1)

The two sister classes had very different careers. Despite its early prominence and success, the 5000 class dwindled until it ceased holding UK national titles in 2011; doomed perhaps by its weight. In contrast the 4000 regular attracted over 50 competitors to titles and remained a contender (along with the RS800 and 29er) for the title of “UK’s most popular production skiff type” until the mid 2000s, when it too started struggling. Changes in policy by the manufacturer must have been a factor, but the 5000 and 4000 also proved that those who forecast that skiffs were the future of dinghy sailing were very wrong.


One of the top boats in the trials was the Boss, king of a new range from British manufacturer Topper. Topper had had huge success with their eponymous little plastic scow, but in the ‘90s they decided to move move into higher-performance boats that could be sold at a lower price than the existing classes like Fireballs and 505s.  The first effort was the ISO, designed by Ian Howlett, designer of winning 14s, Metre Boats and America’s Cuppers. At 4.74m (15ft7in), it carried 16.5m2 (178ft2) of sail upwind with a fully battened main, a 21m2 (226ft2) assymetric, and one trapeze. The solid fibreglass construction cut costs but meant that with a 95kg (209lb) hull and 120kg (264lb) rigged weight it was heavy for a skiff type. Film sails were used in an age when dacron was more common. To equalise leverage and weight, lighter crews had to fit small wings, weighing about 18kg (40lb), which were not allowed for heavy crews.

This was perhaps the first of the production skiff-inspired boats to hit the UK market, and its initial success (400 boats inside two years) lead to many cries that they would sweep away most of the older classes. They didn’t. The ISO, never a realistic Olympic prospect, finished at the tail end of the trials fleet. The national title fleet is down to a few boats and like the Laser products, its career shows there’s little doubting that the predictions that skiff types would rule the future were wrong.

The Boss was a very powerful machine, which looks somehow more reminiscent of the flat mid ‘80s Aussie 14s than the world champ Howlett 1b International 14 it was said to be derived from. The Boss had some seriously fast measurements – at 4.9m (16ft) overall, the hull weighed a competitive 85kg (187lb) and had a wingspan of 2.37m (7ft9in). It had a roachy main, 17.9m2 (192ft2) of upwind sail and a 33m2 (355ft2) spinnaker off a long pole.

Howlett 1
The very versatile Ian Howlett designed fast 12 Metres, winning International 14s, and production skiff types. This is the Howlett 1 International 14; precursor of the 1b that the Boss was apparently developed from. Lines from The International Fourteen 1928-1989, courtesy of the I-14 class association.

The Topper/Howlett boats tended to have extremely flat sections right through to the bow, soft bilges, and flat bow rocker, giving them lots of planing area. “She will plane before any other boat and in these conditions she is unbeatable!” said one Boss sailor. While the shape has been successful in the Boss’ singlehanded sister, the Blaze, some feel that it hasn’t worked so well in the bigger boats. “She has a flat shape with a lot of wetted surface area and she is sticky when it’s light and there is too much drag when it’s windy. Upwind in chop; well, she doesn’t slice through the water, let’s put it like that!” said another top Boss sailor who nevertheless liked the boat for its excellent mid-range speed.


The Boss was one of the outstanding performers of the ISAF trials, rated second in the rankings as a potential Olympic class and third in the “general feeling” list. Despite the early promise and excellent performance at times, the Boss has died as a class. The manufacturer ran into production difficulties, and attempts to rejuvenate interest by fitting a massive  masthead spinnaker and bigger jib failed to help. Boss sailors say that the bigger kite lifted the bow and got the boat trimming better, but the class ran its last nationals just eight years after the Garda trials.


Mach II

Mader, one of the great FD manufacturers, broght out a supercharged FD for the trials. The Mach II was basically a FD hull with twin traps, wings about a metre wide, a big fully battened mainsail and an asymmetric.

The Mach II was not much faster upwind than the FD, but it was a big improvement off the breeze. While the sailors were unenthusiastic about sailing it as a boat to sail or own, they voted it as their fourth choice for an Olympic boat. The effort to turn a big traditional dinghy into a skiff type was not a success, and only about 10 were built.


In the Australian 1987/88 season, Julian Bethwaite was approached by an entrepreneur who could see a market for a more affordable skiff-type boat. The result was the B14 – one of the first “production skiffs”.

Like most Bethwaite designs, the B14 is a very clean-looking low-slung boat with a fine bow, Vee sections forward and a wide, flat stern. The hull shape was developed from the third in the “Prime” series of 18 Foot Skiffs. Where the B14 differs from many other skiff types is that it carries no traps. Instead, it has wide wings (3.18m/10ft5in) and the footstraps are out on the wings, giving the crew the same leverage as a boat with both crew trapping from the gunwale like a “normal” skiff. The typical low-profile, sandwich construction Bethwaite hull is extremely light for a production boat at just 64kg (141lb).

The B14 played an important role in the development of the highly-touted “flex tip” rig. The Bethwaites gave the boat a fibreglass topmast to cut costs and ensure consistent mast bend characteristics. There was also a legal concern – an American Hobie cat sailor had recently been electrocuted when his alloy mast hit a powerline, and (like Hobie) the Bethwaites saw a plastic topmast as a way of getting away from the hazard.

As the Bethwaites developed the plastic topmast, they found it offered some other advantages. At the time, the 18 Foot Skiffs like the champion Entrad (on which Julian had been crewing) had complex hydraulically-controlled rigs. The Bethwaites pondered on the challenge of achieving skiff-style performance, without the complex controls. “I went through that era when we had 14 controls on Entrad” Julian recalled. “We could move the mast back and forward, but you ended up finding the magic positions and didn’t move them after that. We went into it and worked out whether  it was really necessary to have a set of hydraulics. We found by moving the ratio between the forestay and the  shrouds around, you could achieve everything a set of hydraulics did, so why would you have a set of hydraulics?” Once the Bethwaites started exploring the simplicity path, says Julian, they found other benefits in weight and drag reduction. Frank Bethwaite believes that the B14 development process also taught them a lot about correct planing area to sail-area ratios and spinnaker sizes, although the class has since moved to a larger kite.


In terms of sail to length and power to displacement, the B14 is in the region of skiff types. With just 17.2m2 (185ft2) of upwind sail it lacks the outright sailpower and speed of an Int.14 or similar skiff, and the Australian 14 Footer chairman and former champ, Brad Devine, has strongly denied the claims that early in its career the B14 “won” the Australian 14 nationals as an unofficial entrant – other records of the time bear him out. But the B14’s qualities were highlighted in the Garda trials, when it finished fourth in the “general feelings” list and was one of the four boats recommended for further consideration in the Olympic trials. No-one saw the boat as a rival for the 49er, but its performance and handling seemed to fit it for a role as a women’s skiff or 49er trainer.

Strangely, the B14 sold only moderately around the world. Perhaps a skiff-type boat without traps seemed wrong, perhaps it was too far ahead of the market in some countries, perhaps it was a bit hard to extract its best performance in light winds or confined waters. But even former UK vendors LDC, now manufacturers of the rival RS range, say that the B14 is a fine boat that was only dropped from their range so they could market a homogenous line-up.

The OD 14

While the Bethwaites were working on the B14, a university sailing coach was doodling an asymmetric junior boat. His eyes, he says, were opened to asymmetrics by one of Julian Bethwaite’s skiffs when the 18s visited Newport for a series in 1981. “His Prime skiff looked awesome” the coach recalled later. “Watching that asym 18 is still burned in my memory.”

The coach was Peter Johnstone, scion of the J/Boat family. His roommate was the son of the International 14 world president. And so Johnstone linked up with Jay Cross, whose Cross III design was then the world 14 champ. Cross had also sketched up an asymmetric, and together they created the One Design 14. It was basically the Cross III, fitted with what Johnston claims to be the first retractable bowsprit for an assymetric.

The OD 14 used the hull shape of the Cross III International 14, but carried an asymmetric long before it was permitted by the Int. 14 class. The lines plan below is from the Int 14 class history, The International Fourteen 1928-1989, reprinted by permission of the association.  Like most International 14 hulls, it has U shaped sections. These sections minimise wetted surface and waterline beam and are almost universally accepted to be faster in development classes, which tend to be shorter than boats like the 49er.

Cross III

The standard rig version was aimed straight at the 420 market and had 11.6m2 (125ft2) of upwind sail. The “Grand Prix” version featured a full-size Int.14 rig, with fractional kites to reduce the cost and complexity of the masthead rigging. Johnstone launched the class in 1987, while still at college. He wore out four cars promoting it, had some success and heartbreak, and learned a lot about the boat business.

The OD 14 was also one of the classes chosen for the “Ultimate Yacht Race”, a televised professional sailing event that attracted sailors like the McKee, Melges and McDonald brothers, Chris Dickson, Paul Forester and Ed Baird. It was probably America’s first centreboarder series with prize money since the sandbagger days, but like later attempts to get televised sailing going in the USA, it soon faded away.

The bowsprit prevented the OD 14 from racing in the Int.14 class for several years, by which time Johnstone had sold the business, the Cross III was outmoded, and the class died after running near the back of the Garda trials. “I always wonder what would have happened if the Int.14 class had backed the OD14 as an Olympic bid before the Laser 5000, Boss and others were created” muses Johnston.

The 49er emerges

Roll forward to 1989. Johnstone has become the Laser and Sunfish manufacturer for the USA, and Julian Bethwaite has dropped by to discuss Laser 2 business. Together, after bringing in Japan’s Takao Otani  and Britain’s Dave Ovington, they hatch the plan for probably the most influential design of the 1990s – the 49er.

The 49er used 18 Footer concepts modified for a wider audience, for this was designed from the outset as an international boat. “We’re very much team players; there were four partners and each of those partners was responsible for a different area, we listened to them and we took on board their advice” says Julian. He’s understandably proud of the result; “We took existing 18 Foot Skiff technology, we took existing 14 Foot Skiff technology, we took existing Moth technology, we looked at the whole project, we put together brilliant brains from around the world, and we meshed it and came up with a breakthrough product.”

Many of the triallists went to Garda with significant support from the manufacturer. The 49er also had support from AAMI, the insurance company that had been sponsoring Julian Bethwaite’s 18 Foot Skiffs. LDC Racing Sailboats, one of the 49er dealers listed at the bottom of this ad, is now behind RS, arguably the world’s most successful dinghy company.

Breakthrough was an apt word. It was the fastest at the trials by a considerable margin, and it was ranked about twice as good as the next best craft by the evaluation team. The 49er’s victory, says Jackson, was “overwhelming”. “It was so outstanding to anybody who had sailed all the boats. It was dominant, tough, and usable; the one boat I wished I’d designed. It was such a fabulous boat that I bought one myself, and sailed it until I was 71.”

“The real point was that virtually all the other boats were somehow inhibited by a vision of what a racing dinghy was like, whereas the 49er was lifted from the skiff tradition. Skiff development was a long way ahead of the dinghy development, and here was a boat developed in the skiff environment – hull, rig, everything, and Dave Ovington engineered it very soundly. They had taken leaps, and it was a beautiful boat”.

Chris Nicholson, winner of three 49er worlds and three 505 worlds and many 18 Footer races, agrees with the plaudits; “They’re good, one of the best boats. They are very lively, and to me it’s a bit like the 505 where you trapeze very early on in the wind range, but you can take them to extreme breezes. There’s obviously an issue with wave conditions for the 49er, but they’re so good to race- you get to have the closeness of the Laser without the pain, and you’ve got a whole lot more fun in terms of the ride and the downwind tactics and options.”

49er jumping
After the 49er was selected, some were concerned that its wide stern and flat lines made it all but unmanageable in high winds and big waves. It didn’t take long for the OIympians to get it all sorted.

The 49er achieves this performance without its dimensions and ratios being particularly outstanding. The hull measures 4.99m (16ft5in) overall and weighs 92kg (203lb), the wingtip beam is 2.9m (9ft6in). The sail area is 18.1m2 (195ft2) upwind, with a 28.9m2 (311ft2) spinnaker. The spinnaker is higher in aspect and the mainsail smaller in the roach than most of its contemporaries, the mast the “flex tip” made so famous by Frank Bethwaite’s writings.

The 49er’s secret, says Julian Bethwaite, lies in minimalism. “I have always been a minimalist; it’s all about making more from less. It comes back to drag minimisation and to ensuring that the thing is easy; getting the ratios right, getting the centreboard in the right position, doing all that sort of stuff, making the thing as small as possible rather than as big as possible.” The 49er was lower, narrower in the hull and lighter than its main rivals in the trials (about 25kg lighter than the Boss, 55kg lighter than the 5000).

Frank Bethwaite believed that wider wings make a boat harder to get around the corners, and therefore slower around a short modern racetrack, than the more modest ones of the 49er. The 9er’s solid wings, he claimed, are also easier for crew to sail from and offer less wind resistance because of their “streamlining” (round sections like wing bars are very high in drag) and the way they sit close to the water due to the boat’s low freeboard – once again, minimalism in action.

Another example of minimalism was the weight equalisation system; it was simply to allow a range of wing positions, but it has since been abandoned as the Bethwaites believe that “skiff dynamics” and rigs mean that sailors of a wide weight range are inherently similar in speed. That meant that the 49er didn’t carry the ballast of some other Olympic contenders.

Julian fitted these minimalist items around a hull shape that he describes as “a combination of the B14 and AAMI Mk3 ; there’s more B14 in the 49er than anything else; it’s quite easy to go bigger, it’s very hard to go smaller. It’s got the Vee all the way through which means the boat stays in the water.”

The 49er, like many Bethwaite boats, planes at a very flat angle. While many top-class skiffies believe that the 49er’s attitude restricts its top speed because of increased wetted surface and nosediving, Julian believes that it reduces drag by factors such as lower angle of incidence of the planing surface. He actually prefers his boats to stay comparatively bow-down for longer as they accelerate, so their fine and Veed bows carve along and use their length instead of going bow-up and planing earlier.

49er sections
In 2007, the 49er’s master plug was measured so that a fairer and more symmetrical mould could be built. This photograph of the measurement process shows the Vee shape along the centreline of the 49er’s bow.  The Bethwaite designs are among the few modern boats that have retained Vee shaped sections.  Most other designers have moved to U shaped bow sections.  Each shape has its own strengths and weaknesses; the Vee shape works well in a boat like the 49er, which has a long hull and a powerful rig. All else being equal, Vee-shaped sections have higher wetted surface and wider waterline beam than U-shaped ones, so in classes where sail area and other dimensions are restricted the Vee shape is slower in light winds.   More on this to come in Parts 1.27 and 2.3 of SailCraft.

“Ultimate speed is a ratio of take off speed. ‘Take off’ is coming unstuck – the boat hitting that free looser feeling. If you take off at 10 knots you’ll make 20 knots, if you take off at 5 knots you’ll make 10 knots. So length allows you to delay getting unstuck longer. A lot of people complain cause a 49er sticks or stays down longer and doesn’t lift its bow, but the fact that it doesn’t lift its bow and the fact that it stays under control for longer means you can achieve a higher average speed, and top speed isn’t what it’s about – higher average speed is what it’s all about, and it’s the fact that it’s still fairly low drag around 8, 9, 10, 11 knots that gives a 49er that high average speed”.

He also believes that the lower planing angle actually makes his designs easier to handle in extreme conditions. “At the 29er worlds in San Francisco we were in a speedboat, pacing one of the Danish girls at 23 knots. The fact that this girl from Denmark, who wasn’t overly big and who has been brought up on fairly traditional boats, can actually get into a 29er and drive at 23 knots in the middle of San Francisco Bay is testimony to the fact that it’s a fairly easily driven forgiving boat. Now, if that boat had come out of the water at 8 knots and was now right up and skating at 16 knots, she would never have made it to 23 knots – the thing would have pig rooted or squirreled or something. The thing about the Bethwaite type boats is you can go as fast as you dare, and the limiting factor would not be the boat. If you go to the other extreme, like the 470 and 420 with their big round rear ends, the thing will just squirrel – you end up chine walking and you’ll be in the water.”

Minimalism has its drawbacks, and one of them is that the 49er’s foils are very small, making the boat demanding to handle through low-speed manoeuvres and putting the emphasis on going low and fast and using heel through tacks. Triple world champion Chris Nicholson agrees that the small foils are demanding on techniques through turns. “We’ve basically got to reduce the amount of time you’re not on the wire, through all manoeuvres, and when you do get to the other side through a tack and on the trapeze the boat needs to be pointing in the direction you want to go; you don’t want to be on the wire with the boat a little bit high and you sitting there with the rudder stalled to get the boat headed away. The whole idea is to get the boat turning fairly fast when the crew are in the centre moving through and the boat’s flat.”

“When we are not double trapping comfortably, we heel the boat coming into a tack and then roll it down as we go through” says Nicholson. “When the boat’s fairly flat in a tack, turn the boat fairly fast at that point. It takes an exceptional tack to make a 49er come out faster than it went in.”

Another minimalist trait, the low freeboard, has attracted criticism from those who sail other Aussie skiff types and believe that the 49er is unnecessarily hard to handle in chop, but Chris Nicholson feels it’s unwarranted. “It’s fine, if you’re having difficulty with that you just trapeze a little bit higher, but at the moment the inclination we trap is at is getting lower and lower, we’re dropping lower all the time. Obviously the class thinks righting moment is more important than clearing the waves or boat trim. I haven’t made my decision on which way to go at the moment, we’re running middle road, not trapezing too low and trying to keep the boat trimmed where we think is best.”

Another strong point for the 49er is that it’s simply a long boat for a two-person skiff type. That gives it superior upwind speed to the other two-person skiffs. “The 49er feels sleeker and faster upwind than the International 14” says top-class 14 sailor Dave Alexander “but more docile because it’s heavier.” And while Bethwaite boats are not renowned for their light-wind speed, some top-class sailors feel thats length gives it an advantage over some similar boats in very light winds.

While boats like the Boss, Iso and 5000 used single-skin fibreglass construction, the 49er used epoxy and foam sandwich. It ended up significantly more expensive, but also weighed in at 25-55kg lighter than comparable boats. There were some initial construction issues and to some who were used to custom-built boats it seemed heavy, but although he is interested in minimalism, Julian prefers his one designs to be on the stronger side, especially when they travel at 49er pace. “That’s the flip side, you actually build these boats to be able to stand these impacts and speeds”.

49er waterlines
The 49er’s hull lines show the straight waterlines typical of Bethwaite boats. Because Bethwaite’s boats are normally free of the length restrictions of a development class, they can have long, fine bows.

The 49er was designed to be user-friendly to a wide range of sailors, especially those outside the skiff’s friendly home waters of eastern Australia. “We sit here with 25 degree water and think a wave over the top is not a big issue; but over there in Europe it’s a bloody big issue – the water’s bloody cold, it literally kills you” says Julian. The distinctive hooked chine or spray-rail is an example of user-friendly design; it is meant “more than anything else, to keep the water out of the skipper’s eyes. There’s a whole ergonomic issue here; it’s one thing to make a boat go fast, it’s another to be able to sail it. You just can’t sail some of the other boats; yes freaks and guys who are putting an Olympic campaign can, but no one else”.

“If the 49er was an Australian boat you’d have a plumb bow, and the thing would be 10 or 30kg lighter, the mast would be bigger and the sail more roachy – but it’s not an Australian boat, and that’s why it sells well internationally.”

The 49er’s international strength makes many sailors believe that the class has pushed skiff sailing to a new level. “I guess we haven’t pushed the 18 as hard as we now push the 49er” says Nicholson. “Maybe one day I’ll go back and do a year or two in the 18s with a good 49er crew. At the time when we were sailing 18s we were a professional crew and we trained quite well, but we didn’t train as much as we have to train now and that makes differences as to how you sail; things like how you tack. How we used to tack the 18 was acceptable at that time but it wouldn’t be now.”

“The 49er will give the 18 footer a real big shake around a short course, especially in the heavy stuff; a couple of tacks and a couple of gybes and the 49er will be shaping up OK. That’s a combination of the shorter wings and the lower drag rig; the 49er’s weight is quite high, which is a bit of a shame but it’s normal in a production boat.”

Bethwaite agrees that the Olympic intensity could see the 49er beating even the best 18 Foot Skiffs around the track. “The 18 should go faster, it’s just that the 18 guys don’t the time to sail seven days a week, whereas the 49er guys are paid to sail seven days and a week and the boat doesn’t fall apart.”



Author: cthom249

A former sailing journalist and magazine editor, I was lucky enough to grow up in Sydney, one of the world's sailing hotspots and to win national and state championships in classes like J/24s, Windsurfer One Designs, offshore racers, Laser Radial open, Windsurfer OD Masters, Raceboard Masters and Laser Radial Masters, to get into the placings in a few other classes, and do a few Sydney to Hobarts.

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