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



The beauty and efficiency of the Rater – the Charles Sibbick design Diamond from 1897.

The next ancestor of the modern racing dinghy, the Rater, was created by a new style of sailor and a new style of rules. The catboat, sandbagger, sharpie and canoe were created in the same way as earlier craft; they had evolved out of workboats or the inventions of enthusiastic amateurs. But the Rater was influenced by four new factors – rating rules, professionally trained designers, a move to smaller boats, and women skippers – and it created a new style of boat, and may have proven to the world that the future of performance lay in efficiency rather than brute force.

The Rater was basically the first type where restrictions on sail area dominated design, and drove it towards light, efficient hulls. Until the Raters arrived, there had been two basic ways to classify and rate sailing boats – overall length and by hull volume. The simple length measurement was normally used in small boats, like the sandbaggers and catboats. Larger yachts were rated according to existing rules that were used to assess the size of merchant ships for harbour dues, light fees and other taxes.

Like most simple rules, the tonnage measurement had simple flaws. For a start, the use of a tonnage measurement for rating implicitly assumed that a bulkier boat was a faster one, irrespective of whether the bulk came in the form of excessive beam (which reduces speed) or extra length (which increases speed).  Secondly, since commercial craft had to be able to measured while they were afloat in port and with a hold full of cargo, the various tonnage rules often used measurements that designers could easily avoid. In Britain, for example, the problem of measuring the depth of a commercial boat full of cargo meant that the various tonnage rules assumed that a boat’s depth was linked to its beam.

The British tonnage laws were one of the biggest, and most harmful, forces that drove British yacht design for half a century. Designers realised that because volume created by beam was taxed but draft was not, if they created a narrow boat it would rate lower than a beamy one. They could then give the narrow boat enough stability by increasing the draft to lower the ballast. “Slowly at first, but steadily, yachts became longer, narrower, and deeper; the crack yacht of one year being displaced the next by something with more length, less beam, and more ballast” wrote George Watson, one of the greatest of all designers. Beam was taxed so heavily that over just 13 years, boats in the “5 ton” class increased their length by one third and their sail area by two thirds, merely by reducing beam. This was the era of the British cutters that were so long, thin and deep that they were called the “planks on edge”.

The raters took design from unrestricted clouds of sail (above) to unfettered efficiency. The Sydney 22 Footers, which had been able to beat all the other small yachts, met their match in craft like the One Rater Laurel (below) which had just a fraction of the 22’s sail area, cost and crew. Top pic, unknown photographer, Tyrell Collection Powerhouse Museum; bottom pic from Robin Elliott’s history section on the Royal Akarana Yacht Club site.


The American clubs changed their tonnage rules to get away from the beam problem, but they shared another problem with the Brits. Perhaps because the tonnage rules were a hangover from taxation laws, and the taxman was only concerned about cargo capacity, neither American or British rules rated sail area. Sailors recognised early on that the type of rig was a vital factor in racing, and as early as the 1840s, schooners were given a huge advantage under the rating rules so that they could compete with single-masted rigs. But as far as the rating rules were concerned, sail area was irrelevant, and sailors could hang watersails, topsails, staysails and anything else they wanted onto spars that were as long as they could keep up.

Rule makers faced practical problems with measuring sail area; it was a tricky issue in those days when boats could set and drop topmasts, jackyards, square sails and a variety of jib than it is with modern rigs. And to many sailors, it wasn’t just that sail area couldn’t be measured; it was also that it shouldn’t be measured. To them, a boat that could carry more sail was a better boat. “If the builder of a yacht improves her form of hull while keeping the general dimensions in length, breadth, depth, and weight of ballast the same so that she is able to carry more sail, he is at once taxed for his ingenuity in having accomplished this improvement” complained one sailor when sail area was finally measured. “It is the object of a builder to develop as much boat for length as is consistent with a good model” wrote another, ignoring the fact that such boats were expensive and unseaworthy. Even the great naval architect Scott Russell felt that measuring sail area stopped the designer from being “left free to make the best ship that could be built”. The fact that the old rules that did not restrict sail area led to vast, inefficient and costly rigs on top of hull distorted to carry more sail at the expense of efficiency seems to have escaped many sailors and designers.

raters again by wyllie
Raters racing; a sketch by W L Wyllie, from the UK’s National Maritime Museum. This probably shows the East Coast (UK) fleet that was dominated by Linton Hope designs. Linton Hope was an expert in lightweight structures and went on to become a significant figure in early seaplane design, which tragically lead to his early death as a result of a crash.

It was the designer and journalist Dixon Kemp who, in 1880, proposed a new type of rating rule, one which measured sail area and length alone. It seems that Kemp and other trained designers were driven partly by disgust at the direction of development under the old rules, partly by a more scientific and sophisticated understanding of the physics of sailing, and partly by the recognition that, in Kemp’s terms, “increase of sail-spread meant extra cost for the sails themselves, and extra cost for the means of carrying them”.  Kemp’s rule was as simple as could be – simply measure the waterline length, multiply it by the sail area, and add a divisor so that the final result was a simple figure that sailors could understand and relate to older rules.

In 1882, Kemp’s rule was adopted as an optional system by the RYA, although clubs held firmly to the flawed tonnage rules. In the same year the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club of New York adopted a modified version of the rule, and was later followed by other US clubs. The US versions of the Length and Sail Area concept allowed much bigger sailplans than Dixon Kemp’s original version, and measured both overall and waterline length. The adoption of the “Seawanhaka Rule” and its variations helped to kill off the dangerous rigs in small boats, and led to a breed of rather conservative big, beamy and heavily canvassed cruiser/racers that W P Stephens called “the high point of designing in America” but others like designer B.B. Crownshield called over-rigged “brutes”.

It was only when a committee lead by former Mersey centreboarder and canoe sailor Sir William Forwood abolished the British tonnage rule and adopted the Dixon Kemp rule in 1886 that the full potential of the concept was unleashed to create the fastest and most radical development in small boat design in history.[1]  The Dixon Kemp rule applied across the board, from 14 foot dinghies to the 130ft cutters of the “Big Class”, but the small yachts, large centreboarders and canoes drove the developments.

Even before the new rules arrived, the UK sailing scene was moving to small boats.  The problems with the old tonnage rule had almost killed off the big racing cutters. The building and racing of the giant cruiser/racer schooners had also almost stopped when cruisers moved to the new steam yachts. The increasing wealth and leisure time of the middle and upper-middle classes allowed many new sailing clubs to form, but few of them could afford to offer the rich cash prizes that were needed to entice the big boats to race.  Instead, owners and clubs turned to smaller yachts (although “small” in those days could mean something similar to a 30 Square Metre) which could be sailed by amateurs.

To put the small Raters in perspective and to see their development from mini yacht to big dinghy, we have to look at the boats they replaced. Once again, the first developments started in small yachts rather than in dinghies – but it was almost for the last time. By the time the story of the Rater was over, dinghies were to take over as the driving force in the development of the entire sport of sailing.

Mascotte; LOA 8.64m/28.3ft, beam 1.45m/4ft7, draft 1.73m/  5ft7, displacement 7 tons

Mascotte is an example of the style of extreme “plank on edge” cutter that the British were turning away from. The famous dinghy designer Uffa Fox sailed a replica and noted that although it could reach a surprisingly high speed, it was only when it was heeling over so far that half the deck was buried and the narrow interior was unusable.

Itchen boat rig flipped
Above, a typical sail plan of one of the racing Itchen Ferries. Below, the lines of the Itchen Ferry Centipede. The external ballast keel was added to the Ferries under the pressure of racing. Both plans from Dixon Kemp’s “A Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing”.


Even the classes that were not rated under the Tonnage Rules often became victims of their own excess. Among them was the Itchen Ferry, a traditional fishing boats of the Solent. Many of the top designers rated these stubby, heavy but shapely boats highly, and many of the best professional big-boat skippers hailed from the type’s home village of Itchen. When the pros raced their own Itchen Ferries at the end of the season after the big yachts had been laid up, the competition was furious. The classes were restricted only by overall length, with the inevitable result that under the pressure of racing sail area grew and keels became deeper. The plans above show Centipede, designed by the famous Dan Hatch for the 21 foot class. She weighed in at a solid 3.5 tons with a hefty 8ft of beam, and carried a healthy 630 sq ft of sail upwind.

Itchen boat Frolic cropped

Minima 2
Minima, one of the distorted yachts built to race in the 21 Foot waterline length class that grew from the Itchen Ferry racing. Arthur Payne was known as the great master of the “Solent Length Classes” and this experience in classes that were limited by length rather than by the tonnage rules seems to have given him an appreciation of the advantages that could be gained by extra beam.

The Itchen Ferries became one of the ancestors of the “Solent Length Class” racing yachts, which were restricted by waterline length only. Minima was designed Arthur Payne, the “master of the length classes”, to fit the same class as Centipede and shows what happens when you design a class restricted only by waterline length.  “There being no limit to sail in the length classes, it was not a difficult matter to outbuild the crack boat of the year every winter. Each succeeding boat had longer overhang, greater beam, draught, and displacement than her predecessor, and consequently won, being a larger boat and carrying more sail” noted Dixon Kemp. “The result was a rather expensive type of boat, with excessive overhang, and enormous sail spread”.  The “21 footers” ended up with deep hulls about 33′ overall and carrying over 1300 sq ft of sail.

Not surprisingly, when Payne started to design to the “length and sail area rule” he quickly reduced rig size and started to create a lighter, more efficient boat than the powerful Length Class boats – but he kept the wide beam that had worked so well in the Itchen Ferries and the Length Classes. Payne’s Lady Nan was built in 1888 and dominated the 2.5 Rater class. Although about 2ft longer on the waterline than Minima, she carried less than half the sail area. It was an early indication of a design trend that was to see sail sail area drop from 70 to 20 sq ft per foot over length during the Rater era.

Lady Nan

Lady Nan shows Payne moving from the long keel of the Itchen Ferry type, towards a fin keel. Her beam of 8ft3in on a 23 ft waterline was vast compared to contemporary yachts designed by the British designers who had become used to the “plank on edge” cutters. Lady Nan weighed in at 4.1 tons and had 654sq ft of sail. Development moved so fast that by her second season, she had gone from a dominant force to an also ran.

Humming Bird April 1890 hull only
Humming Bird

Humming Bird, a 2.5 Rater designed by Payne for the Hughes family in 1889, was a “wonderful performer to windward” and dominated the class in its Solent stronghold. When I look at Humming Bird the first thing I notice is that she represents a further stage in the development of the fin keel (perhaps influenced by the fin keel that Hughes’ father had fitted on the old family boat the previous season) but from the perspective of rival designer George Watson, who was used to designing heavy and skinny “plank on edge” cutters, the important thing about Humming Bird was that she showed “what could be done with large beam and moderate displacement.” The short ends may have been a reflection to the fact that overhangs were “considered a crafty method of cheating the rule” (as Rater skipper Barbara Hughes noted) and in its first year the class allowed no more than one foot of stern overhang – perhaps a rather logical reaction to the excessive overhangs in the Solent Length Classes.

Ninie of 1891
Niny, designed by Arthur E Payne in 1891, was a near sister to 1891’s top Half Rater, Kittiwake. Niny was only 18.7ft long overall with a waterline


The “Solent lug” rig was all but universal on the small Raters in the Solent in Niny’ day. Many of the smaller Raters also had a roller-furling headsail, like Niny.

The Half Rater class, smallest of the “Raters”, was formed in 1891 by a group from the famed Bembridge Sailing Club on the Isle of Wight. Payne’s Kittiwake, a sister to Niny, was the first champion. Their hull shape showed distinct development from boats like Lady Nan and Humming Bird; the keel has become more of a distinct fin, the skeg aft has been cut away to reduce wetted surface, and a spade rudder has been fitted. These Half Raters were described as “capital little boats—miniature yachts, in fact….wonderful sea-boats,” and weighed in at 550-600kg with about 75% of that in ballast.

There was a huge variation in design among the Half Raters. One or two big dinghies also raced, but with little success; since the Half Raters were often restricted to two crew, it was hard for the dinghies to compete since they relied on crew weight for ballast.  Some of the Smith brothers’ Oxford Canoe Yawls also competed, with considerable success; perhaps their smaller rigs and very light and slender hulls didn’t need as much righting moment as the dinghy types.

Coquette continued the swift development towards a lighter boat with longer overhangs and a shorter keel.

Coquette, another Half Rater from 1891, was one of the early designs from Charles Nicholson, a man who was to become one of the greats of English design. Coquette shows early steps towards one of the features that was to become a hallmark of the Rater – the overhangs bow and stern. One of the 1891 crop of Halves, Willie Fife’s Jeanie, had a stern overhang of 4.6 feet, or about a third of her waterline length – a shape, literally, of things to come.

Wee Win from Badminton
The Herreshoff Half Rater Wee Win.  At 7.24m/23ft9in overall, she was only 4.72m.15ft6in on the waterline and displaced 900kg/1984lb.

The “One Rater” Wenonah caused a sensation in the Scottish One Rater classes in 1892, and a few weeks later Wee Win did the same to the Solent Half Raters.  Nat Herreshoff had only recently returned to yacht design after many years working in steamships when he had created the famous Gloriana in 1891. She is normally credited with launching the concept of fuller waterlines forward that took a major step towards fuller ends that created extra sailing length at speed or when heeled, but boats like Coquette indicate that other designers were working in the same area.

Many people claim that Dilemma, a bigger Herreshoff similar to Wee Win and launched on October 9 1891, was the first fin-and-bulb-keel boat, but both fins and bulbs had been used earlier in England and the USA. It’s also been said that Wee Win caused a change in rules to penalise fin keelers, but the contemporary sources indicate that she was merely one of many boats that caused the change, years later. The Herreshoff boats were brilliant boats in design, construction and performance, but it seems that rather than radical breakthroughs, they were simply part of a clear, steady and rapid line of development that other designers were also taking as the world moved from boats like Lady Nan to boats like Sorcerer (below).

When the L x SA rules led to the first boats with long overhanging “spoon” or “Viking” bows first appeared, sailors who were used to vertical stems or clipper bows were appalled at its ugliness.”The first design for the 90-ton ‘Vanduara’ was drawn with a clipper or out-reaching stem; but I had not the heart to disfigure the boat (as I then considered I should be doing) by building her in this fashion”wrote George Watson, one of the great designers of the day. “The rising generation of yachtsmen, however, is entirely reconciled to the clipper bow on a cutter-rigged yacht, and may eventually (though this seems improbable) look with complacency on such cutwaters as ‘Dora’s’ or ‘Britannia’s.'” Today,the spoon bow as seen in boats like Britannia, the J Class, Dragons and Metre boats is seen as the epitome of classic beauty.

Riverside cropped
To be hip in the 1890s, you needed a small Rater in the davits of your schooner or steam yacht. This R B Burchard pic of the Rater “Riverside” is from Outing magazine, August 1896.

Fast and aristocratic little yachts like Wee Win and Niny gave small boats a new social status and attracted many sailors from big boats.  By 1892 Dixon Kemp noted that owning a 200 ton yacht was unfashionable in a world where the trend was towards owning a small racing machine and a steam yacht.[13]  As one paper noted, the One Raters and Half Rater were “scarcely dignified (but) many well-known yachtsmen are found sailing them.”[14]  Of course, many of those who moved into the small Raters managed to maintain their conspicuous consumption by having a palatial tender; Barbara Hughes noted that “a fifty ton steamer, or perhaps one a little smaller, is essential” as well as “a little house in Cowes” that could be rented for a season for as much as a small Rater cost to build. Buying a Rater and racing it in style and comfort for one season cost far more than the typical Briton would earn in their entire lifetime.


Maharanee lines

maharanee section
Maharanee, a One Rater designed by Payne in 1893. Comparison between Maharanee and Minima, Lady Nan and Humming Bird (above) shows the amazing speed of development in just five years. Boat design has never changed so quickly.


Payne’s 1893 creation Maharanee to Humming Bird or Niny shows the extraordinary pace of development. At 8.99m/29ft6in overall, Maharanee displaced just 1.07 tons, or about two-thirds of a modern inshore racer like a Melges 32. She scored 29 wins in 34 starts. By this time, the One Raters and Half Raters were becoming the hottest classes, partly because many bigger Raters had become  were so light they had no accommodation space, and therefore owners thought that if they only had a day sailer they may as well have a small one.

The tiny and shallow rudders of these fin-keel Raters made them many of them hard to steer. “Steering has been steadily becoming more difficult hitherto,” wrote Barbara Hughes, one of the top skippers “but now I fancy there will be a return to the fixed rudders we began with, which are much easier to handle than the balanced ones of later years.” While Hughes may have been influenced by her upbringing in more conventional boats, it seems more likely that the rudder materials and the understanding of hydrodynamics in her time just weren’t good enough to create a boat that steered well with a spade rudder under the forces of the stretchy and flexible rigs of the day. Designers as brilliant as Herreshoff later returned to hanging their rudders off the back of the keel. Even the contemporary iron-clad warships, the highest technology of their day and with the advantage of extensive tank testing and design analysis by brilliant minds such as the hydrodynamicist Froude, were almost impossible to steer with their balanced spade rudders, whereas the slightly older ironclads with rudders attached to their keels handled comparatively well.

Unorna sailplan

Unorna lines
Unorna, One Rater, 1894. These plans come from Uffa Fox’s wonderful 1938 book “Thoughts on Yachts and Yachting” with permission from Uffa Fox Ltd. Uffa has spelled the name two different ways in these two drawings; all typos in this blog are put there on purpose in honour of Uffa’s mistake.

Unorna was a Charles Sibbick design One Rater of 1894. With her deep high-aspect bulb keel and fine bows, Unorna marks another clear step forward in design. At 8.32m/27ft6in overall and 5.94m/19ft6in on the waterline, she displaced just 1,219kg/1.2 tons and carried 28.6m/308 sq ft of sail in her gaff rig.

Decades later, Uffa Fox used to admire the model of Unorna and other Sibbick Raters hanging in her former owner’s house. “The one-raters were racers in every sense of the world” he wrote in the 1930s, when the Raters had been replaced by Metre Boats. “They were light, lively and exciting craft to sail, as they were capable of such high speeds, and as well as this they were quite cheap to build…the small racer of the ‘nineties was far faster than her present-day counterpart.” They inspired him to design the 6m/20’ LOA Flying Fifteen, one of the world’s first planing keelboats and now one of the world’s most popular racing yachts. Just like the Raters, the early Flying 15s were known for their heavy weather helm, which is another example of the surprising amount of difficulty designers encountered with spade rudders.

The Flying 15’s lines show both clear Rater inspiration and the very different rocker line that Uffa Fox claimed to be one of the reasons for the success of his boats. The Flying 15 remains one of the world’s most popular keelboats.


The One Rater Sorceress represents the truly dinghy-style Rater. She was designed, built and sailed in 1894 by the brilliant but temperamental Linton Hope, one of the many canoe sailors who moved into Raters, and proved all but unbeatable on the lower Thames.  She was 28 feet overall and 8 feet in beam, but her canoe hull drew just 0.55” and displaced a featherweight 667kg/1470lb.  Her only ballast was a deep, narrow centre-board, “a form which has been found marvellously effective in sailing canoes” which weighed 90lb. [5] It was designed to “twist the boat to windward”, although the exact mechanism remains unclear.[6]  What seems clearer is that the Hope foil was the first high-aspect centreboard, and a model for other designers.[7]  Known as the “Linton Hope Dagger”, it seems to have been the origin of the term “daggerboard”. It was actually a pivoting centreboard, rather than a vertically-dropping daggerboard in the sense we use the term now, and the name came from the dagger-shaped outline.

sorceress sail plan

sorceress hull

Sorceress had only about 0.5m/17in of maximum freeboard on a waterline of almost 19 feet and set 319 ft of sail. To the surprise of many, she performed better in strong winds than in the light; her designer reported that she could carry full sail when the 130’ racing cutters Britannia and Valkyrie were reefed.[8].

With boats like Sorceress, Hope claimed to have pioneered a new form of construction. He used lighter but much more closely-space frames (just 51mm/2in apart instead of the usual 152mm/6in) and light mahogany lattice girders (mainly 6mm/1/4in by 19mm/3/4in), including one running the complete length of the boat. It allowed him to leave off the usual riband that ran behind each seam in conventional Rater construction and to reduce the planking thickness from the earlier 6mm/1/14in or more down to 4.7mm/3/16in. Hope claimed that his construction saved at least 15% of weight, as well as creating a stronger hull. His Half Rater Kismet, made in 1895 or 1896, was 25ft/7.62m long but her complete hull and bamboo-sparred rig weighed just 136kg/300lb – barely more than a 505 for a boat 50% longer. With her 68kg/150lb centreboard and crew, she displaced just 356kg/740lb to 363kg/800lb. It’s been said that Kismet had internal bracing of piano wires, but an article by Hope indicates that although he considered the idea, he was worried that one may snap suddenly where the lightweight wooden frames would just give without breaking. Kismet won 40 of her first 45 races and lasted in good condition for several years.

With their narrow cockpits, light weight and wide sidedecks, Raters like Sorceress helped to erode the old fear of capsizing. Their wide decks allowed many of them to recover and sail away. “Having a watertight bulkhead at each end of the cockpit, she is quite unsinkable, and shows about half her normal freeboard when the cockpit is full and the crew on board, so that she is not so dangerous in the event of a capsize as she is supposed to be, and so far has shown no signs of doing anything of the sort” wrote Linton Hope about Sorceress.[10]  “Half a dozen capsizes in a race used to be nothing unusual”[11] when the Raters sailed on the confines of the Thames, and even on the Solent Hope’s Raters could easily be re-righted.  In the Raters “to a youth who can swim, a capsize means nothing more than a ducking” noted WP Stephens.


Rater capsized
A shot in Folkard’s book “Sailing Boats” shows the downside of racing in the extreme Raters. Note the narrow centreboard, with no ballast bulb. Many Raters were self righting, and some could capsize and just be righted and sailed away, dinghy style, but in a world without rescue boats a capsize normally meant, at the least, inconveniencing other boaters and often stopped the race for other competitors, who were bound to come to assistance.

Capsizes were still discouraged, for very good reasons.  In  a world with no rescue boats, when one boat capsized others often had to abandon their own race to check on their safety.[12]  Wet cotton sails and tangle-prone ropes were dangerous to sailors clad in heavy wet street clothes or oilskins. Even if the boat popped upright quickly, the cotton sails would shrink and lose shape, and cleated and knotted lines would also shrink and become hard to undue. To many sailors, capsizing remained a sin against seamanship, but the Raters seem to have continued the trend to making capsize into a racing incident rather than a calamity.

The “length by sail area” rule covered an enormous size range. At the top end there were boats like Satanita (rating 162 and 40m/131ft LOA, too long for the America’s Cup) and the Royal yacht Britannia (above, rating 151 and 122ft LOA) and at the bottom end there were sailing canoes and 14 foot dinghies that rated 0.3 or 0.5 like the Theo Smith design Menemopete below. However, the smaller yachts like the 2 1/2 and then the One and Half Raters drove the design development and led the way for their larger sisters. George Watson, designer of Britannia, thought that her spoon bow would always be thought ugly, but within a few years her shape became known as “the Britannia ideal” and it was regarded for decades as the perfect all-round hull.


Boats like Sorceress achieved a level of efficiency that only the sailing canoes had reached, and demonstrated that long, light boats with moderate sail area were faster than heavy over-canvassed boats. She was simply a big dinghy, and she and her ilk took the Rater concept too far for many people. The rapid obsolescence had driven many owners out of the classes, and the fragility and instability of the extreme Raters scared other sailors and the rulemakers. In 1896 the British created the Linear Rating rule to encourage heavier and less radical boats, and then instituted a minimum displacement. The Linear Raters looked more like Wee Win than Sorceress, and many of the earlier Raters fitted into the new classes.

The Raters quickly spread across the world. They seem to have quickly moved to Germany, where they were known as “Rennflunder” (“racing flounder”, a reference to the flat fish if I’m correct), to France where a similar local rule was to give rise to the famous One Ton Cup, and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It was the Raters that seem to have been the ancestor of the long, low and slender boats that race on many of the world’s inland lakes today.

The Thames Rater Vagabond, one of the most famous of the fleet and still able to beat just about any dinghy afloat in the right conditions as she approaches her 110th birthday. Pic from the Thames Sailing Club site.

There is still one stronghold of the original Raters. The Thames, where Linton Hope had won so many races, still has a strong class of “A Raters”, originally rated between the One and Half Raters. The A Raters make even Sorceress look conservative. They are long, low and graceful, with long overhangs stretching their hull out to 8.2m/27 ft.  They are unballasted, weigh as little as 340kg (750lb) for hull, foils, and fittings, and can definitely capsize (and come back up dry, thanks to their wide decks).

The oldest surviving A Rater was built in 1898, and many of her sisters are a century old, but whether rebuilt or reproduced in modern materials, the A Raters are no museum pieces. They are sailed hard, and carry the highest and narrowest rigs in dinghy racing. At 13.7m (45ft), they have an aspect ratio around 6:1, both for aerodynamic efficiency and to reach the wind above the riverside trees. Even without their trapezes and spinnakers (which the Raters do not use on the narrow river) these are fast boats – they are rated mid-way between the 49er and the International 14. In light airs on inland waterways they are outstanding performers and their sky-scraping rigs can push them to “first and fastest” in the massive 300 boat pursuit events that are a feature of British racing; but more importantly, they provide a rare glimpse of Victorian-era performance afloat.

The new Thames A Rater Adventurer winning the Queen’s Cup, the major prize for the class. Tamesis Club pic. Designer James Stewart notes that despite their enormously tall masts, the A Raters are one of the rare classes that doesn’t reduce rig weight to the maximum, because a little bit of momentum in the rig helps with roll tacking and slowing the reaction time to gusts. James is one of the people who provided information to the SailCraft project years ago, which I stupidly lost in a computer crash.

But perhaps the most significant social effect of the Raters was that they brought a new type of skipper to the forefront, and vice-versa. It wasn’t just that the Raters brought female sailors to the top of the sport in England – it was that the female sailors were among the leaders in the design of the Raters. The dawn of the female small-boat racer didn’t just change boat design, but may also have played a role in changing the image of women in sports as a whole.







In 1878, the British YRA started measuring boats on the LWl rather than from the stem to the sternpost.

[34]  In 1880 Kemp had suggested L x SA rule which was adopted in 1886.[35]   1896 Linear Rating adopted with girth


There is no doubt that some changes in design have been met


1888 SBA formed

“If the builder of a yacht improves her form of hull (while keeping the general dimensions in length, breadth, depth, and weight of ballast the same 0 so that she is able to carry more sail, he is at once taxed for his ingenuity in having accomplished this improvement.” [Letter to the editor, Outing 1884 p 145

“”It is the object of a builder to develop as much boat for length as is consistent with a good model”:- Letter to the editor in Spirit of the Times sporting paper, May 13 1871

“We know that the sail area rule taxes the form of he yacht, whether combined with length or not, or, in other words, handicaps the yacht of the best lines over another of the same type which can cry  the most sail in consequence of her form” moaned another. Letter to editor Outing 1884 p 224

“”increase of sail-spread meant extra cost for the sails themselves, and extra cost for the means of carrying them”.  Dixon Kemp in the discussions following his paper ‘Fifty Years of Yacht Building’, Transactions of the Royal Institute of Naval Architects v 28 1887.

“the high point of designing in America.”  – Traditions and Memories p 123

“There being no limit to sail in the length classes”; Small yacht racing in the solent, Thalassa, Yachting vol 1, Badminton library

[34]  In 1880 Kemp had suggested L x SA rule which was adopted in 1886.[35]   1896 Linear Rating adopted with girth

“Even the great naval architect Scott Russell felt that measuring sail area stopped the designer from being “left free to make the best ship that could be built”. These remarks were made in response to the talk from Dixon Kemp referred to above.

[1] Yachting Vol 1, Badminton Library    .

[2] Some of these boats were quite conventional long keel designs.  They were rated under the

[3] It has often been claimed that Dilemma was the first successful fin keeler, but as shown above earlier Raters like Humming Bird were fin keelers.  The Raters were not the first, and plans and fin-keeled boats had stretched back as early as 1870.  In 1882, the sandbagger Daisy was fitted with a ballast keel, as depicted in both WP Stephens’ “Traditions and Memories” and an article in July 1892 Outing by  A J Kenealy, which included details of other early fin keelers and this illustration of Daisy;

Fin keeled sandbagger Daisy





“Many people claim that Dilemma, a bigger Herreshoff similar to Wee Win and launched on October 9 1891”:- This date was mentioned by Stephens in his presentation “Yacht Measurement; Origin and Development”, http://www.sname.org/HigherLogic/System/DownloadDocumentFile.ashx?DocumentFileKey=d1875acd-17bc-4ce2-a9ec-d40254abbc6d

“One season in a Rater would therefore cost far more than the typical Briton would earn in their entire lifetime.”- Rater costs from Hughes’ article in The Sportswoman’s Library, average earnings information from “Real Incomes in the English-speaking world, 1879-1913” by Robert C. Allen in G. Grantham and M. MacKinnon, eds., Labour Market Evolution, London Routledge, 1994.

[4] In a classic example of the subjective nature of design, when   Watson’s first “spoon bow

[5] Australian Town and Country Journal, 22 December 1894 p 38

[6] NY Times Sept 10 1895

[7] As /one example, Field and Stream for Nov 2 1895 called the “Hope knife model…the best form of centreboard for a small boat now known.”  WP Stephens’ articles about the 1895 Seawanhaka Cup had referred to the Hope centreboard as a “daggerboard”, apparnetly because of its dagger-like outline rather than because it dropped like a modern daggerboard.

[8] Australian Town and Country Journal, 22 December 1894 p 38

[9] So Some of these boats were quite conventional long keel designs.  They were rated under the me of these boats were quite conventional long keel designs.  They were rated under the rule

[10] Australian Town and Countyry Joiurnal, 22 Decembver 1894 p 38

[11] “Queens of the Thames” Ingrid Holford, Yachting World

[12] See for example a report of the Trent Valley Sailing Club in the
Nottinghamshire Guardian (London, England), Saturday, August 12, 1893; pg. 3.

[13] As quoed in Southampton Herald , June 25, 1892, Issue 4804, p.8.  Kemp was talking about 5 Raters which were about 40’ overall, but they were stripped-out lightweight dayboats like their smaller Rater sisters.

[14] The Saturday Review, Aug 1 1891 p 134

[15] “Ladies at the Helm”,     Outing vol 16,

[16] WOMEN IN RATERS    http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=CHP189601042.97

[17] Solent classes yachting Voil 1

[18] The actress Fanny Davenport had a racing catboat in 1896; Rudder 1908 p 90

[19] Firest and Stream, Aug 17 1895 p 150

[20] E.L. Snell, Detroit Free Press, “Fair Skippers” reprinted in The Press, Lyttelton NZ, Vol 4 Jan 1896 p 9

[21] It may be a symbol of the close relationships between canoes and small Raters, and the confused definition of “canoe yawl” that some of the press reported Spruce IV as ”a new canoe yawl”; for example, The Sunday Times (London, England) , May 19, 1895, Issue 3763, p.6.

[22] Brand was quoted by the NY Times of  Sept 10 1895 as saying that Spruce was 24’ overall, with a waterline length of 15’7”, 5’7” beam. 5’6” draft with the steel board down, and 210 ft2 of sail set on a gunter rig with bamboo spars.  The Times reported that like other British Half Raters, she carried a roller-furling genoa which was rolled to headsail size for sailing upwind.  It appears that spinnakers were not used in Half Raters at the time.  Although most accounts say she carried 100lb of ballast on the fin, others say there was either a 50lb or no bulb.

[23] Forest and Stream, Nov 30 1895.  This is just one of many similar comments that demonstrate that the various claims that sailors from the northern hemisphere did not hike are incorrect.

[24] While the “length x sail area” rules followed the same general concept, they used different formulae.  The British        ; the Seawanhaka Rule was             ; and the NYYC rule      . The 1895 and 1896 Seawanhaka Cups were sailed in “15 foot class’ boats under the Seawanhaka Rule measurements, which were the same size as British Half Raters. In    this was changed to the “20 foot class”.

[25] NY Times Sept 21 1895.

[26] Traditions and Memories in American yachting, MotorBoating oct 1941 p 58

[27] Spruce, for example, won Race 2 by only 23 seconds after the lead had changed many times; Rockland County Journal, 28 September 1895 


[28] The Indianapois Journal, 27 Sept 1895 p 5 reported that Ethelwynn withdrew from Race 3 when nine minutes astern, her owner (who was crewing) insisting that the 15 mph breeze was “not halfrater weather, the wind being too strong.”[28]   The skipper withdrew from the series in protest, but in the moderate conditions of the last race Ethelywnn was an easy winner.  Like other designers since, Stephens felt that his boat was much faster but not always sailed at her best.

[29] Southampton Herald , September 4, 1895,

[30] As confirmed by letters in the Francis Herreshoff collection in the Mystic Seaport Museum.

[31] Iselin actually asked Herreshoff to design Reliance as a scow, but Herreshoff refused to go that far.  The term “scow” was used very loosely at the time and had not gained the fairly specific meaning it has in American sailing and the dinghy world today. Even as early as 1844 and as late as the early 1900s it seemed that “scow” was often used as little more than an term, often used as an insult, for any boat that was flatter and faster than others.

[32] To give just some of many examples; in       the Seawanhaka Cup was sailed under a sail-area limit; in 1901 the Massachusetts Bay Yacht Racing Association restricted the ratio of the sail area and ballast to beam; in 1905 a class for Cape Cod cats with overhang, beam and cabin headroom restrictions was created around Boston; and

[33] Stevens in MotorBoating Jan 1941 p 200

[34] The first Seawanhaka was reported in Indiana (Greencastle Banner and Times, 27 September 1895)


[35] Stevens MBoating Jan 1941 p 288


Pt 1.40: “A diabolically ingenious machine”: the Finn


Ainslie Finn
One of the greatest dinghy sailors on one of the greatest dinghies; Ainslie at the Finn World Cup 2011. Pic by Robert Deaves/International Finn Association

In 1949, on the crux of the dinghy boom, an amateur created a boat that would would raise the standard and profile of dinghy sailing and become the greatest of all Olympic dinghy classes. It was the Olympic Finn, and although in some ways – its construction, its weight and its method of creating stability (good old-fashioned gut-busting hiking) – it was similar to pre-war boats, in other ways the Finn was the precursor of the dinghy boom that would make sailing into a popular sport.

The Finn story started when five men sat down to create the criteria for a design competition for the Finnish Yachting Association. They were looking primarily for a boat for inter-Scandinavian competition, and only secondarily for a singlehander for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Like most European boats of the day, the new singlehander had to be suitable for cruising as well as racing.

In a move symbolic of a new internationalism in the sport, the Finns had handed over the selection of “their” class to the Swedes, the accepted leaders of Scandinavian dinghy sailing.  The boat that the Swedes chose as winner of the design competition was a boat called Spicle, designed by professional naval architect Harry Karlsson and similar to the classic British dinghy style. Spicle was a flawed concept as a singlehander, a winner only on paper, but by looking at her we can see what made the Finn so special.

Splicle sail plan
Spicle – a flawed design chosen as the winner of the design competition. She was heavily redesigned before the second set of trials, with the rake of the stem reduced, the camber on the deck reduced, a conventional rudder fitted, and the mast moved forward to reduce weather helm.

Spicle hull


While Spicle was being touted as the new Olympic class, Sweden’s Rickard Sarby had been developing a design from a much older heritage. Sarby had finished fourth in the singlehanded Firefly in the previous Olympics, but he had come from the canoe classes that dominated Swedish centerboard sailing. The Swedish canoes, which still survive in smaller numbers, are substantial cruiser-racers up to 6m long and 1.75m in beam. They look more like expanded versions of 1890s canoes than the slender ICs. But they were highly developed and fast, and Sarby had already shaken them up when he introduced a lighter, flatter-sterned planing hull. He was so concerned with saving weight that he actually reduced overall length, something which is anathema to most designers. Sarby’s home-built designs were so successful that boats like his 1949 E Class canoe “Schock” were still racing at national level into the 21st century, and his reputation was so strong that he was one of those chosen to create the specifications for the new singlehander.


Spicle photo
Spicle (seen here each side of the Finn) before she was modified and renamed Pricken. Note the tiller, which was mounted forward of the stern and must have been connected by rods or lines. It apparently “resulted in a pronounced absence of ‘feel'” and was one of the changes requested by the selection committee after the first trials.


Despite his success in canoe design, Sarby was still a barber – a common working man, at a time when dinghy sailing in Sweden was a rich man’s game. There is a legend among some Finn and canoe sailors that he did not know how to draw plans and could not afford to have someone draw them for him, so he did his designing with a saw. “The story was that one day Richard went down to his shop and cut off the pointy stern of one of his C-canoes and also removed the mizzen mast” says one of Sweden’s top Canoe sailors “I have seen many C-canoes and the older ones bear close resemblance to the Finn. Cutting off the stern on one of those boats would essentially give you a Finn hull.”


05c kanot
A C Class Swedish sailing canoe, looking very much like a Finn. An E Class is similar. Note the fold-out hiking seats. Pic from Westerviks Segelsallskap.


The truth according to Sarby is a bit more prosaic. The Finn does look like uncannily like a cut-down C Class Canoe, but Sarby’s account indicates that that the boat was designed with full-size plans (in “the usual canoe manner”) before the prototype was built by Sarby and his brothers while the designer was recovering from losing two digits to an electric cutter.

Fred Miller Jr, a hot sailor in the Finn’s early days, heard a third story which manages to combine the previous two into a plausible tale. “Sarby had some definite ideas, but then (as today) Sarby has been incapable of making a drawing any builder, other than himself, could understand and build to” he wrote. “So, the story goes, Sarby set to building a duplicate hull of his fastest (before or since) boat of the open-design class E sailing canoe. After doing so, making a few minor alterations here and there, he sawed off the last four feet and nailed on a transom…..He went sailing, coming right back in to telephone a naval architect to come up and make a drawing as quickly as possible”.

Finn lines 2
The lines of the early show that the designed waterline ended short of the transom, an example of Sarby’s interest in reducing wetted surface. Class development later shifted the weight aft so the waterline extended 6in/15cm further back. The widest point of the Finn was very far back for a boat of its age.

Plans that have recently come to light at the superb Norwegian/Swedish digitalmuseum.org project prove that Sarby could in fact draft a plan, although not to the standards or level of detail of his professionally qualified rivals and perhaps not well enough to give a builder enough information to achieve Sarby’s concept. But however she was created, the Finn would never have become an Olympic fixture if it had just stayed an idea on paper. It failed in the design competition (she looked too small, the judges told Sarby) and Sarby was only invited to the trials when the FYA learned he had already built a prototype.  In the light-air trials, the Finn proved competitive with the bigger Spicle, but the old O-Jolle was as fast or faster as both of them. The jury asked for the Spicle to be re-designed, and invited competitors to return for a second set of trials.

Sarby had no intention of participating in the second trials, but the sailors of the middle of the century had an unstoppable urge to build boats. A sailing magazine published the Finn plans, and people were so attracted by the boat and its simple building method that 25 were built over the winter of 1949-50. The popularity of the Finn encouraged Sarby to enter the second trials, and in stronger winds the Finn dominated, scoring five wins and a second. The Finn was declared the new Olympic class, and Sarby himself went on to take the bronze medal at the Helsinki Games. Here, in a nutshell, we can find a pattern of the dinghy boom. If not for those 25 keen home builders, the Finn would not have been selected. All of the best-laid plans of international associations and professional designers were beaten by the popularity of a simple boat that amateurs could build at home.

So why did the hairdresser’s boat beat the professional design? The hull of Spicle (renamed Pricken after being redesigned for the second trials) looks like a standard racing dinghy of 1949 – “not unlike a somewhat elongated Merlin” was one verdict. Her rig is similar to the Finns and the foils are higher in aspect and look more modern.

Spicle sections
Spicle’s sections (above) show a bow with Vee-shaped sections down below, but wide flare and lots of volume above the water. Her nosediving tendencies were probably caused by the lack of volume and planing lift due to the Vee sections, while the very full sections above the waterline would have made her slow through waves. Even a low-quality copy of Finn lines (below) indicate that Sarby’s design has comparatively more flotation down low and less volume in the topsides, allowing it to carve through waves better.

Finn sections

But Spicle was slow in chop and nosedived. The fatal flaw, perhaps, was the shape of her bow sections. Like many boats of her day, she was very fine and Veed down underneath the waterline, and very wide and flared further up. It is often a lethal combination – too little flotation down low to prevent nosediving, but too much topsides bulk to cut through the waves.

Spicle’s bow shape may not have been a problem in a crewed boat, but upwind grunt is a perennial problem for the hiking singlehander. Although they’ve got most of the wetted surface and weight of a comparable crewed boat, they’ve got about half of the righting moment. Life is even tougher in waves. Planing over the waves upwind is not an option for a hiking boat without wings or trap. Somehow, the singlehander has to punch through the swell and chop.

One of the Finn’s secrets was its long slim, canoe-style bow, which was much narrower than other boats of the time. The widest point of the waterline is well aft. There’s little flare above the waterline for a boat of its age, and the deepest point of the keel line is right forward – further forward, in fact, than any other major class. The Finn’s deep, fine slab-sided bow carves through chop and swell, while its sheer weight gives it the momentum to punch through. As Frank Bethwaite has noted, it performs much better in light airs and waves than any boat of its dimensions deserves to do. The Finn’s bow showed sailors the way to the finer entry of the future.

The plans at the Digitalmuseum.org site show that when he designed the Finn bow, Sarby was following a style he had been using in his canoes. He had also designed a 3.6m long Finn-style in 1944 that had the same sort of fine, deep bow.

There’s no real deep and meaningful reason to put this pic here; it’s just one of those shots that makes you wish you were out there in the frame, as long as you’d just come off a nice period of intensive boathandling practice! Pic by Jonathan Hoare from the Finn class site, with permission.

For some reason, the Finn missed out on one of the Swedish canoes’ other great assets – the twin pivoting seats that flip out over each gunwale for hiking leverage, like floppy little wings. Ironically, as early as 1967, the class president contemplated fitting hiking seats, pivoting out from each gunwale, to stay competitive with the new breed of trapeze and sliding seat singlehanders. Perhaps it was because of the lack of hiking power that Sarby gave the boat its low-aspect centerboard; it’s not the best shape to prevent leeway, but it is forgiving and has a lower less heeling tendency than a deep foil.

Considering that Sarby introduced the flat “planing stern” to Swedish canoes, the Finn’s stern seems strangely archaic – more like ancient Avenger shape, or a yacht’s. The sterns of the O-Jolle and Spicle look more modern. Sarby had already shown that he wasn’t concerned about getting maximum length. He wrote years later that his main concern was reducing wetted surface, and the Finn’s narrow stern is probably the result. To reduce wetted surface, he designed the boat to sail bow-down, with the transom well above the water and a waterline shape very reminiscent of the Swedish canoes. The Finn didn’t take up its current fore-and-aft trim until construction developments allowed weight savings in the centerboard case and bow.

Finn by de Thier
A sketch of an early Finn by Brett de Thier, New Zealand Finn class Olympic representative, architect and designer. Notice the fascinating mainsheet winch. The boom runs through a slot in the mast. Instead of controlling the bend via a vang, sailors used wedges jammed between the boom and the slot. This drawing comes from “Give a Man a Boat” the wonderful autobiography of NZ gold medallist Peter Mander, courtesy of Brett de Thier.

By modern standards the Finn’s stern helps to make it notoriously hard to handle downwind in a breeze, but Sarby believed that she handled better than the other triallists on the square runs. What terrors they must have been!

The Finn’s unstayed rig was new to most sailors, who did not realize that the Swedish canoe sailors had already been taking the first steps towards the self-adjusting unstayed rig.  In light airs and downwind, when the mainsheet was slack, the mast stayed upright, forcing draft into the sail. As the breeze picked up, the mainsheet was wound in, flattening the cloth. Once the Finn sailors got to grip with the concept, they realized that they could tune masts and sails to match their leverage. They had to- few singlehanded boats without hiking aids have to handle such a big sail. The well equipped Finn sailor spent hours with plane and glue, carving timber off the mast to make it softer or adding slivers to make it stiffer. It was, it seems, the first real example of a rig tuned to the individual’s weight. It was the Finn’s combination of basic simplicity and technical complication that lead Peter Mander, fourth in the 1956 Olympics, to christen it “a diabolically ingenious machine.”

In the early Olympics, though, the Finn was a strict one design as supplied by the organizers and no alterations were allowed. At the time, it was said to be the best way to test a sailor’s skill – although ironically today the powerful Olympic Finn lobby says that its looser one design rules make it a better test of a sailors skill than the strict OD Laser.

Sarby in a Finn.png
The man and the boat; Rickard Sarby in a Finn. Pic by Gustav Grahm via Sjohistorika museet pic and digitalmuseum.org.

Attrbution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)Attrbution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)

Perhaps, though, the Finn’s greatest influence came not in bow shapes and rigs, but in sailing techniques and standards. At first it was not only the sole Olympic dinghy, but also the fastest and most widespread of singlehanded dinghies. Its dual status attracted a brilliant clan of sailors who set new marks in training, sailing technique and development.  They did not have the financial assistance to sail full time like modern Olympians (while Elvstrom sailed eight hours a day before every major event, it was only for the preceding week) but their dedication was the same – Elvstrom and his training partners sailed every Saturday and Sunday through the winter unless there was too much ice, and that was in the days before wetsuits. Others strove to catch up, and the list of Finn sailors include many – Bruce Kirby, Ian Bruce, Peter Mander, Hans Fogh, JJ Herbulot – who were to leave major marks in dinghy design.

The man who put dinghy sailors on top; Finn legend Paul Elvstrom at the 1956 Olympics. Pic Bruce Howard/National Library of Australia

The Finn also changed the status of dinghy sailors.  Keelboat sailors, especially those in the Star class, had always claimed to be the most skilful of all racers. As Finn Olympian Garry Hoyt noted “the Star class skippers for a long time let it be known, officially and unofficially, that they were the world’s best class with the world’s best sailors. They were sustained in this modest claim largely by the questionable evidence of their own applause…the 5.5’s also picked up this bit, and somehow were able to translate ‘spending power’ to read ‘sailing skill”. Then Finn legend Elvstrom moved from Finns into 5.5s and Stars. First, he won the 5.5 worlds with an old boat. “I heard later that some Star-boat skippers immediately said “There you see what sort of class the 5.5 metre is when a dinghy sailor just can go out and clean them all up. You wait till he gets to the Star class” was the way 5.5 champion George O’Day said it.  And what happened when he did? The “dinghy sailor” cleaned up one of the hottest Star fleets ever seen.

“It was with a great sense of vindication that the small-boat sailors of the world saw Paul Elvstrom smite the philistines from their pedestals” Hoyt wrote with relish. “And-oh sweet revenge- he did it to them by frequently employing dinghy tactics like sailing by the lee, and other little peasant pursuits that the aristocrats had missed…”.  As a Finn champ, Richard Creagh-Osbourne may have been slightly biased when he said that the Finn was “the design which must have done more to influence boat performance and competition in all racing classes than any other in the history of yachting” – but he may also have been correct.

Pt 1.42: “This was considered revolutionary”: the Flying Dutchman and the trapeze.

The date is 1953. The place is an area of lakes and bays along the low-lying coast of Holland. The contest is a series of trials held by the International Sailing Federation (then the IYRU) for a new two-man International high-performance racer. In five days of racing, 17 designs from the northern hemisphere will compete in one of the most influential dinghy regattas ever held.

The new class is intended to replace the International Tornado; not the catamaran, of course, but a 5.5m (18ft) design by Uffa Fox design in collaboration with ISAF’s technical committee.  Launched in 1950 to replace the ageing 12 sq m Sharpie as the International 2-man dinghy, initially under the title of “European Lakes class” until it was renamed “so it should not be considered as a class suitable only for such waters[1]”, the Tornado was probably doomed from the start. Hard chine construction had been specified for economy,[2] despite the fact that Uffa felt that a chine boat “looks like a box”.  While Uffa was a fan of the hard chine in powerboats, like many British sailors of the time he felt that it was “the wrong thing for the lower speeds of sailing craft, as it increases the wetted surface and…being continually pushed in and out of the water sets up a great deal of resistance.” In its keel rocker and in the plan of its sheerline, the Tornado was typical Uffa but it used the same old-style metal rudder and low-aspect centerboard of the Sharpie, apparently in the hope that the foils from scrapped Sharpies would be used in new Tornadoes.

Tornado sailplan
The Uffa Fox-designed International Tornado dinghy; a failure in both performance and popularity. Compared to the 12 Square Metre it was designed to replace it seems to be very fat and flat in the bow, and the standard Uffa Fox rockerline with its maximum depth well forward and a long, straight run aft may also have been unsuitable for a long, flat hull like this. It’s interesting to note that Uffa’s next design in the same category, the round-bilged Jollyboat, had a much finer and more veed bow.

Tornado hullISAF selected the Tornado as the new two-man International class before the first one was launched, and there were even rumours that it would replace the Star in the Olympics.  But although it weighed only half as much as the old Sharpie and seems to have planed well off the breeze, it appears that the Tornado’s extra beam, low chine-line forward and fuller bow made it slow upwind. Even with the advantage of a spinnaker it was struggling to beat the Sharpie around the course. It was, everyone agreed, no advance on pre-war boats. To save face, ISAF decided that the Tornado would become an International three man class, but few would have been fooled. It disappeared so swiftly and so completely that even Uffa’s draughtsman Tony Dixon, the man who did the drawings, basically forgot it.

But while everyone was sure they didn’t want the Tornado, the variety among the 17 entrants for the official trials for the new class was proof that no-one could agree on the type of boat that should replace it. They were a blend of old and new, of styles and lengths. At the back of the field was a bunch of boats that were small (the Dinghy Herbulot and S Class from Italy) and those that were big but so slow that few details of them remain. At the front of the fleet was a diverse bunch that raced for second place in a surprisingly close pack. There were Renjollen types, like the 6m H-Jolle and 21.63’/ Einheitszechner, and the 12m2 Sharpie itself. There were several variations on France’s fast 5.05m/16’ hard-chine Caneton development class, and the big, interesting but unprepared hard chine Typhoon from England. Representing both the USA and the classic Uffa Fox style was the 17.5’/     m Thistle, sailing two-handed without hiking straps and winning in the light but struggling upwind in the heavy. There was the Osprey, described as being a stretched I-14 or Merlin Rocket, representing the contemporary British style. There was the Dutch Vrijbuter, a big fast boat that has almost faded from history, and the little sharpie-style Dinghy Herbulot.

Flying Dutchman trials 1
The early Flying Dutchman at the trials. With her small jib, big cockpit and splashguards and no trapeze, she had little of the grace of the modern FD. It didn’t stop her from winning over half of the races.

But none of them could beat the Flying Dutchman, which took the last seven races straight in a crushing victory. She may have been helped by the fact that she was sailed by the Kraan brothers, 12 Sq M Sharpie champions (who had taken their own 12 Square to 2,1 results in the trials before hopping onto the FD), but it was the start of the Dutchman’s 40 year reign as the fastest of conventional dinghies and an Olympic class.

In many ways, the Dutchman was an international boat from the start. In that respect she may have been the symbol of a new order, for many of the greatest classes from then on were to be similar cross-breeds that took the best of the indigenous designs from each region, rather than reflecting only their homeland’s ideas. The father of the class was Conrad Gulcher, one of the Dutchmen who were keen for a new class but disappointed by the Tornado. Even before the Tornado was launched, he had been pouring over magazines, studying the secrets and performance of the fastest types. When he asked Jan Loeff, head of the ISAF technical committee that had chosen the Tornado,  whether a better hull could be placed underneath the Tornado rig, Loeff said the matter could be discussed – provided that Gulcher’s concept could prove itself faster than the Tornado before the next ISAF meeting in ten weeks’ time.

Flying Dutchman lines
The FD was a blend of concepts from different countries. Many later successes have had the same sort of mixed inspirations.

Gulcher had no boat or even a finished design, but within a fortnight Gulcher and naval architect Uus Van Essen created a design that combined some of the virtues of the long slender European style with some of the strengths of the shorter, planing-style English breed of dinghy. They sent the drawings to 30 top British and Continental sailors for criticism and comments, and used the feedback to draw a new design within a week. Less than a week later, the first hull moulded ply hull was complete.

FD sailplan
The FD’s first sailplan was to use the rig off the Tornado; in fact the “T” insignia of the Tornado can be seen on some early FD pics.

The specifications for the FD were in many ways a contradiction. It had to be ultra-modern, but not scare the conservative. Good upwind performance was essential, even in chop, but it had to plane fast. The crew weight could not greatly affect performance so it had to be beamy and stable, but it also had to be light. It had to be easy to sail and a good weekend cruiser, but it had to have a “fine feel on the tiller”.  Inspired by the way the small British boats were towed to regattas, Goacher demanded that the FD must be capable of not only living on a mooring, but light enough to be trailered and even carried on a car roof!  It needed wide side decks, like those of the Merlins of the day, so it would not fill easily in a capsize. And, to top it off, it had to be “the fastest boat possible in this size” without having any strong-wind vices.

Z class
For years this photo from a magazine report of the trials intrigued me. It was said to be a Dutch Vrijbuiter (Pirate) but the only boats that seemed to fit that description looked quite different, so I assumed it was a mis-labelled pic of the 10 sq M renjolle, which also uses as “Z” sail insignia.  Recently, there was a small-scale Vrijbuiter revival in the Netherlands, and a bunch of Vrijbuiter plans turned up on the wonderful maritiemdigitaal.nl website.   The Vrijbuiter turns out to have been a renjolle-style class that was raced between WW1s and 2. Now, only seven appear to survive but those who sail them are searching for more of these fast and beautiful boats. The boat’s shape and the fact that it shares a similar insignia to two German classes may point to a close historical link. The Vrijbuiter was second-fastest boat in the trials.
Maritiemdigitaal.nl, a website for the Dutch maritime magazines, actually has the plans, a model and and basic information for Thedo, the Vrijbuiter that raced in the trials. It’s an interesting boat, 23.6ft long and carrying an inboard rudder on a skeg. Although Thedo was already 19 years old when the trials were run, only the FD was faster.


It was a tall order, but somehow Goacher and Van Essen managed brilliantly. Length and lightness were keys.  The freeboard was kept low to reduce weight (and windage) so despite her 6.06m (19ft10in) long hull, the FD has a hull of just 130kg (285lb) and even early boats were just 165kg (363lb) rigged. For its size (if not in absolute terms) the FD is a very light boat. Gulcher was inspired by the speed of scows but Loeff wanted “a real ship”, so the result was a narrow and deeply Veed bow leading back to very flat and firm-bilged sections, with a deadrise near the mast of around 10 degrees compared to the 15 degrees of contemporary Int 14s.  It was, as Gulcher said later, a compromise between “the stern of a scow and a normal front.”  The German magazine Die Yacht saw it as a blend of the deep V English-style bow with the long German-style stern.

Osprey hiking
The Osprey started out as a design study; a “tangible expression of a clear mental picture of the kind of boat Ian Proctor hoped would be chosen” to quote Yachting World magazine of May 1952. A group of dinghy sailors were so impressed by Proctor’s design, which was very much along the lines of a classic English dinghy developed to fit the IYRU’s requirements, that a syndicate formed to have one built and sent to the trials. The Osprey switched from being a hiking boat (above) to a trapeze boat (below) during the trials. Although it’s sometimes claimed that she was faster than the FD, the results (below) show that there was actually a big gap between the two in the trials. However, the Osprey’s use of the trapeze seems to have had a significant influence on other designers. The class’ all-round qualities have made it an enduring success and it still attracts good fleets in the UK.

Osprey trap

“The FD has a beautiful hull, which does a lot of the same things as a modern boat in other ways” notes Stuart Friezer, a naval architect and champion designer in the highly-developed and modern Australian NS14 class. “It’s got a fat bow (by modern standards), but the waterline fines up with Vee when the boat is planing and the bow is up. The 20 ft length allows it to have very subtle rocker and a long waterline.”

The penalty for the long flat hull came in wetted area, which was about 5.2sq m (56sq ft).  With the original Tornado rig with its 6sq m (65sq ft) jib, the sail area to wetted surface ratio was unspectacular.  But (despite later claims from disappointed rivals) nothing could stop the FD from dominating the 1952 trials, both on the confined waters of Loosdrecht and the wide expanse of the Ijsselmeer.

The Typhoon was a British design, intended to be home made and about the same size as the FD. Despite her potent dimensions, she was only a mid-fleet performer. Plans from Yachting World, May 1952

Typhoon sections

Despite the Dutchman’s huge victory margin, in some ways the boats that finished second and fifth were almost as influential.  The little 16ft hard chine Hornet, designed by England’s Jack Holt, had been designed for amateur construction and female crews.  It was the cheapest of the entries, and carried one of the smallest rigs. But at a time when every other entry relied on hull shape and “gut-busting” hiking for stability, the Hornet had a weapon – a canoe-style sliding seat. When the other entries heeled and staggered, she planed away. On elapsed time over all races the little Hornet was second fastest.

The Hornet was, along with the FD, the sensation of the 1952 trials. Despite being one of the smallest boats, it was second fastest, partly because of the power of the sliding seat. Pic from Allen Brothers, the veteran fittings manufacturers. Formerly Holt-Allen, the brothers were inspired to get into fittings manufacturing after building their own Hornet.

The Hornet’s example may have inspired Peter Scott to urge Ian Proctor to fit his Osprey with a trapeze for three of the races at Medemblik. It took just an hour’s work and a few pounds and improved the Osprey’s heavy-air speed for the final races so much that it became the third fastest boat.

Despite the FD’s total victory, the British and French were not satisfied.  The British, Gulcher recalled later, “argued that such a low, straight boat couldn’t sail on the sea. And the French were afraid her big length would make manoeuvring on rivers too hard.” [3]  The FD was declared to be an International class only for inland lakes, and a second set of trials were scheduled for the open sea off La Baule in France.

Flying dutchman decks
The FD rules were set up to ensure close tolerances on hull shape and rig dimensions, but with a wide variety of deck layouts and fitting. The boat on the right used a forked tiller, a common replacement for a tiller extension in European boats of the time.

By the time the second trials opened, high performance dinghy design had been transformed. Designers and sailors had seen the effect of the Hornet’s sliding seat and the Osprey’s trapeze. Many who had been doubtful became convinced. Almost every entry carried a trapeze or a seat, and dinghy performance leapt up to a new level.  As legendary sailing theorist Frank Bethwaite wrote, “this was considered revolutionary.”  The trapeze took the FD and similar dinghies over a threshold where they could achieve a driving force of 10% of their total weight, and therefore step into a region where they could plane upwind, as well as down. Perhaps just as importantly for the FD, the trapeze gave it so much extra sail-carrying power that the jib could be replaced with a massive 8.6 sq m (90sq ft) genoa (as a result of a beating in light winds and slop by the Osprey in an event in the UK, some said). The FD’s light-air performance was transformed to match its increase in heavy air speed.

The Kraan brothers, champions in the 12 Sq Metre Sharpie class, sailed the FD for most of the first trials. They were obviously interested in the potential of the trapeze, as shown by this photo of them sailing a Sharpie with a trapeze in September 1954. Photo from the excellent Maritiemdigitaal.nl site.

By the time the FD finished the second trials it had proven that, far from being an inland boat, it was as fast and seaworthy as the best in open water and heavy weather. The “lakes only” restriction was lifted, the Italians chose the FD for the 1960 Olympics, and the class took off internationally. Like the FD itself, the class adopted international concepts; it followed a US tradition and was run by the sailors rather than by a national authority or ISAF. “It was a one-man-organisation at first, but we immediately started to publish FD-bulletins, bearing in mind the Star and Snipe classes” Gulcher said later. “This way of organising a class was new in Europe at that time, so I had a head start on the others.”

Fast but stable, the FD spread throughout the established sailing world and to places such as Morocco, Portuguese East Africa, and Thailand.  Some sailors from countries like England, Australia and New Zealand, where smaller dinghies were the norm, felt that the FD was too big, expensive and slow-tacking to be a “real” dinghy, but reading back through some accounts of its early years one gets the feeling that the powerful but stable FD may have been an excellent platform to spread the concept of the trapeze-powered planing sailboat into new regions. The FD’s upwind excellence gave it the title of “world’s fastest dinghy” for years and it remained an Olympic class until 1992. Steering an FD upwind remains a thrill, with an indefinable feeling of smooth, aristocratic power. Even a leading-edge skiff designer such as Julian Bethwaite calls the FD “a beautiful boat when it gets going”.  The introduction of the FD and the trapeze can be seen as the arrival of a format that still dominates two-handed high-performance dinghy sailing.

Flying Dutchman results
Above; details of entries in the trials and their placings. A quick pointscore count, dropping the two worst races and race 4 (which used different helms in some boats and therefore showed inconsistent performances) and giving average points to DNFs gives the following placings; 1- Flying Dutchman 14 pts; 2- Vrijbuiter – 31 pts; 3- Hornet 35 pts; 4- Caneton, 44 pts; 5- Osprey, 47 pts; 6- Thistle, 60 pts; 7- Einheitszehner, 63 pts; 8- 12 Sq M Sharpie, 73 pts; 9- Typhoon, 73 pts; 10- Wanderjolle, 83.8 pts; 11- Caneton, 97 pts; 12- Hecht, 98 pts; 13- Bristo Vlieger, 106 pts; 14- Stormy Weather, 125pts; 15- S Class, 138 pts; 16- Dinghy Herbulot, 138 pts; 17- Dodo, 141.5 pts. While the races were not intended to be a normal regatta, the dominance of the FD and the excellent performances of the small Hornet and Caneton are clear.

[1] The Times (London, England), Saturday, Oct 29, 1949; pg. 6;

[2] Uffa estimated the cost at about 200pds International Yacht Conference. From Our Yachting Correspondent.
The Times (London, England), Saturday, Oct 29, 1949; pg. 6;

[3] Gulcher quotes and significant information related to the FD’s development were taken from Flying Dutchman Bulletin, No 152, April 2007, quoting Watersport, Jaap Kramer et al, Hollandia 1964, and Flying Dutchman Bulletins 1963. See also the list of required attributes in Yachting World, January 1952.

“The Hornet’s example may have inspired Peter Scott”:- ‘Contrivances outboard, sliding seats, trapezes and body belts’ by Ian Proctor, Yachting World, May 1953.

Scott had used the trapeze to win the Prince of Wales Cup, the British championship for International 14s, just before WW2 and had written the rules that banned it. However, it was not the International 14, the Thames Rater or New Zealand’s M Class that had pioneered the trapeze, but an almost unknown class from Asia. That’s a story that will be told later……..

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


Gitana sailing
The schooner Gitana. The dinghy in the rear davit may be the first of the North Haven Dinghies, the oldest one design surviving in its original form and perhaps the oldest of them all. Yacht tenders seem to have showed many big-boat sailors the joy of small boats and to have played a significant role in the development of the modern dinghy. Pic from the Nathaniel L Stebbings Collection from Historic New England.org.

In the 1880s, the wealthy summer visitors to the town of North Haven in Maine in the north-eastern US started to race a mixed class of small dinghies that they bought or hired from the locals. At first the boats that raced on the cold, misty waters of Penobscot Bay, nestled between the coast of Maine and the low-lying Fox Islands, were probably just the usual assortment of little sail-and-oar boats that were popping up in many similar harbours. Almost all the sources provide contradictory information about exactly what happened next, but it seems that in 1884 the big black schooner Gitana entered North Haven carrying in her davits a boat that heralded a change in the entire sport of sailing.

Gitana was owned by William F Weld, one of the extremely wealthy Weld brothers, big-boat owners and scions of a rich shipping family from Boston. The Welds were obviously interested in boat design; Dr Charles G Weld sponsored naval architecture research at MIT and his alma mater Harvard for years, while William was one of the syndicate that paid for Puritan, the 1885 America’s Cup defender that cemented the arrival of the compromise cutter.

Gitana on board
From the brass binnacle and miniature cannon to what is thought to have been the first North Haven Dinghy sitting in the davits, this photograph of Gitana catches both yachting in the “grand tradition” and the emerging modern style of sailing. The vast yachts of the late 1800s are often said to represent the great days of yachting. I wonder exactly what was so great about the days when few people could afford to get afloat in their own boat. The future represented by the North Haven Dinghy was to lead to a much greater era. Pic from the Nathaniel L Stebbings Collection from Historic New England.org.

It’s said that when Gitana’s new tender proved to be faster than the existing boats, the sailors and boatbuilders of North Haven started to build new boats. It was a story that was probably as old as sailboat racing – but the way it happened in North Haven was almost unique at the time. Someone, some time, somehow decided that the new boats would all be the same design as Gitana’s tender, and what may be the earliest one design class was born.  An old MotorBoaTing magazine article claims that Dr Charles G Weld “turned out a fleet” in 1884 with local boatbuilder William H Brown, whose family boatbuilding firm survives today. Several accounts say that while Gitana’s dinghy arrived in 1884, it wasn’t until August 1887 that the class had its first official event. [1]  Whether or not the North Haven Dinghy was actually the first boat to be built or to race as a one design class will probably never be known – as we’ll see, there were two other boats with very good claims to the same honour – but the wealthy and conservative summer visitors have been racing boats built to the same design  ever since, making the North Haven Dinghy the oldest one design to survive basically unchanged since it was created.

With its hollow bow lines, prominent deadwood, 350lb/160kg of ballast and curved buttock lines the North Haven Dinghy is a floating time capsule and a classic example of the early type of oar-and-sail dinghy. Today Charles G Weld’s position at the front of the fleet is sometimes taken by Cam Lewis, Finn and Laser champion and famous pro sailor best known as the skipper of the giant carbon fibre catamaran “Team Adventure” in The Race around the world, but the boat remains almost unchanged from the slender lines of her hollow bow to her curvaceous transom.  “The NH Dinghy was the boat that I started racing in and spent most of my younger years playing in” Lewis recalled in an email to me. “It’s quite an amazing boat today and was even more fun to sail back when the fleet was all wood and so many more kids sailed them. These boats taught me lots; independence was the best, I could do something myself, accomplish goals and have a ball doing it. By the time I was 10 or 11 I was out racing by myself and winning races in the midget fleet. We raced in the mornings on Mondays and Saturdays, when light air was the norm, so being light was fast. When the breeze got up to 8 knots, though, a crew was handy.”

North Haven Dinghy
An old pic for an old class; North Haven Dinghies as seen in the book “The Sailboat Classes of North America”. Like so many other of the early dinghies that evolved from small sail-and-oar types, the North Haven Dinghy seems to have maintained a very low profile, especially in its early days, and as early as about 1904 they appear to be unknown to the sailing press and authorities such as W P Stephens. I’ve been unable to find any contemporary account of their early days that would sort the contradictory claims of their origin.

“The boats themselves are very responsive to wind strength changes and are actually pretty tippy. The lead ballast saves the boat from being too unstable, and few capsizes happen as with only one sail and lots of cold water, the sheet usually gets eased out once the leeward gunwale is under.  These boats ghost along in light winds, they do not leap out of the water in puffs, but with the narrow waterlines and mass they coast very well. The big transom hung rudders do not take much to change course and tacking and jibing are best done slowly through a nice arched radius; a fast turn is slow as rudder drag is huge if turned hard.”

“The old wooden boats suffered from the demise of good wood boat builders and old boats not being cared for. The mast being so far forward puts huge loads on the hull and only a headstay is rigged to counter upwind main sheet loads, so there are big side loads and twisting of the hulls when two are hiking out against a full powered main.  In the end of my wooden boat days in the NH dinghies (I started to restore my favorite old boat called Runaway, sail #2, but lost it in a fire), the crew had a lot of pumping to do to keep the boat afloat in breezy races where the seams were opening and the waves and spray come onboard; especially off the breeze as these boats do not get up and plane, but sink lower and lower as they are serious displacement boats.”

“It would be fun to sail them without ballast in a big breeze, but I have never tried. The North Haven is not much like a Finn, yet when you have one sail and a cat boat rig, many similarities are there, and any sailing I did in a NH dinghy helped me in my Laser and Finn racing days.”

The Welds must have caught onto a wave, because two other pioneer one designs were formed at the same time as the North Haven Dinghy class. It was through Ewan Kennedy’s excellent scottishboating blog that I became aware of an almost contemporary class of three stout 19ft one-design keelboats owned by the Clyde Canoe Club, which were launched around August 1887. [1]  Whether they and their later sisters raced as a one design class, as such, seems to be unknown.

But the Clyde Canoe Club boats and the North Haven Dinghy seem to have almost no effect on the wider sailing scene.  The CCC boats seem to have died out early, while the North Haven Dinghy raced only in its obscure home waters.  The first evidence of the class that may perhaps have been the first one design and was certainly the major early promoter of the ideal was a letter from Dublin sailor Thomas B Middleton in September 1886 in the Irish Times.

Middleton had been sailing one of the Norwegian “praam” dinghies of the Shankhill Corinthian Sailing Club. They raced under a rating system, used shallow keels and stone ballast, and were understandably hard to tack, so when Middleton saw a centreboard made from boilerplate in Scotland he fitted one to his own praam, Cemiostomia.  But although Middleton was involved in a local development class, he was also aware of the excesses of the contemporary rating rules and the damage created by the depreciation and expense that they created.

Although Middleton’s letter proposed a new class of centreboard dinghies, his concept went much further than just a new design of boat. He proposed “a class of sailing punts, with centreboards all built and rigged the same, so that an even harbour race may be had with a light rowing and generally useful boat…..” He did not want to just build a new dinghy, but to encourage “the promotion of amateur seamanship and racing in boats similar as regards size, lines and sail area, where the contest shall be one of skill”.

A circular promoting the class and probably written by Middleton conceded that “the fleet will not have the speed of the clippers of the Dublin Bay Sailing Club, yet speed is only found by comparison, and as all boats will be the same, a true and most exciting race will ensure, a race where every boat will have the same chance…a race that will be a contest of the crew and not one of designers and sailmakers.” Here was the one-design vision fully formed and clearly expressed.

The design that Middleton later created became famous as the first Water Wag; a name that referred not just to birds but also to “wags” as in boisterous young men.  Like so many other craft it was shaped by its location, but Middleton’s writings indicate that pratical issues and economy rated highly. The Water Wag was designed for Shankhill in Dublin, where there was (to quote Dixon Kemp) “a shingly beach open to the surf of the Irish Channel, and where the boats have to be beached and carried up often by only two men, and where ballast is consequentially inadmissable”.  A rather unusual looking boat, it was a 13ft long double-ended centreboarder  that Middleton described as “the smallest possible sailing boat…of a useful and pretty double-bowed Scotch model, with a good beam… strongly built of yellow pine with teak fittings.” It used a 75 sq ft lug sail cut by Lapthorn, a leading sailmaker of the time.

Water Wag launch
Launching a Water Wag through the Shankhill beach surf. The problem of getting through waves seems to have inspired the Water Wag’s narrow stern. Pic from the class association site.

The first Water Wag was built in Scotland by the firm that built the CCC one designs.  As the Water Wag class and Ewen Kennedy both speculate, this may indicate a possible Celtic link with the CCC boats and the genesis of the one design concept. Class racing started around May 1887 with a class association – perhaps the first in the entire sport – formed the same year. In an era where many classes were ruled by clubs or regional associations, the Water Wags were “democratic in their ideas” Middleton wrote. The committee was elected from “the keenest racers and most serviceable men to the club” and “social position, politics and religion are inadmissible considerations”; not the norm for Ireland and other countries at the time.

Original water wag
One of the original double-ended cat-rig Water Wags. Pic from the class’ 2011 yearbook. Among those who owned one of these early Water Wags was Erskine Childers, author of the classic sailing spy novel “The Riddle of the Sands.”


The class caught on quickly, but within a few years owners started to find a way around the rules. In 1894 two light cedar-planked Water Wags were built and showed better performance than the larch or pine boats. The club tightened the rules, but by the end of the decades new boats were costing 45 pounds each – three times the cost of the first boats – and people were moving to newer classes. By 1899 although the fleet was still strong, it was said that “in some way or other there was no life in the sailing” and as a cure the Water Wags replaced the double enders with a new design from the yard of local builder James E Doyle.  A conventional 14ft transom stern clinker sloop, the new design was quite similar to the rowing boats built by Doyle. An archetypal example of the classic early dinghy, it was “a much more powerful and able type than the existing Wag..the square stern will make her much more roomy” and it was hoped that with the addition of a spinnaker and jib “the increase in sail will give the ‘crew’ something more to do.”  The class also introduced tighter class rules to “to reduce the cost of building new boats, and to ensure greater control over construction” and brought the price down to 18 pounds.

The tale of the early Water Wag shows that even at the dawn of one designs both the perils and pluses of the concept had to be understood and controlled. Although the change to the new design helped the Water Wag to survive to the present day, it means that it is the oldest one-design class but not the oldest one-design boat.

first water wag lines
The design for the first Water Wag was an idiosyncratic double-ender, perhaps dominated by the need to get through the Shankhill beach surf. It was soon replaced by a more roomy, powerful and conventional design build to tighter class rules.


Despite the new boat, the Water Wag class kept the most important part of Middleton’s ideal – the one design concept. “This class is the germ of the one model class, and has well carried out its original objects, viz., restrictions on the advantage of a long purse; preservation of the selling value of the boat and the combination of a serviceable and racing boat” noted Kemp. The economy of the concept was proven when Middleton’s original Eva, the first Wag ever built, was sold for more than her original cost when she was 16 years old.

The fact that the CCC class, the North Haven Dinghies and the Water Wags emerged almost simultaneously indicates that the one-design concept was probably becoming obvious to a significant number of people, but the presence of the Water Wag in the strong sailing scene of Dublin and Middleton’s clear and strong promotion of the concept made the Irish class by far the most influential of the early one design classes. It may also have been an early example of another trend – while development classes create breakthroughs in design, the moderate one designs often create breakthroughs in racing concepts and in bringing sailing to new audiences.  Although the fleet sometimes dwindled to as few as four starters in the 1980s, in recent years the Water Wag’s home fleet as been achieving record numbers and boats more than a century old are still racing – a tribute to the appeal of the concept that Middleton and the other early Wags fought for.

Water Wag
The Water Wag shows the classic shape of a late Victorian-era dinghy in its wineglass transom, fine ends and long, low boom. The Wags say that the narrow stern allows the bow to life more easily to waves. Pic from the class yearbook.

Even after the Water Wag popularised the concept, many sailors thought that one designs were inherently doomed to a short life. “The average life of such little classes was two to three years” said George Elder, one of the first leaders of the International Star class, about the local one designs that sprung up in the Water Wag’s wake. “After the first flush of enthusiasm,which seldom lasted beyond the first season, the class began to break up. One skipper won most of the races, which was natural enough, and the tail enders became disgusted and sold their boats….every one-design class gradually began to dwindle after the first year.”

Like the North Haven Dinghy, the Water Wag proved that such thinking was completely wrong.  But even when the Water Wags and similar classes showed that  one design classes could survive in the long term, even the greatest designers believed that the very nature of one designs meant that they were restricted to a small geographic area. Morgan Giles, who was to become one of the first designers to move from dinghy success to big-boat design, echoed the conventional wisdom of his age when he wrote that one designs were “naturally inclined to show traces of having been designed to meet the peculiar conditions obtaining in their immediate locality (in addition, perhaps, to the personal whims of the local enthusiast who more often than not is responsible for starting such a class), and as the fundamental principles of the one-design scheme absolutely prevent any alteration, improvement, or bringing up to date of the boats, it stands to reason that one design classes must generally be numerically weak and of purely local interest.”

The same line of thought extended to the USA, where Star class pioneer George W Elder wrote that “the idea seemed to be that each club must have a distinctive one-design class of its own, a boat especially designed for its particular weather conditions and different from any other one-design class.  In other words a one-design class was considered a strictly local proposition and the private property of a given club. That was fine for the designers, but it isolated every group of small boat skippers and prevented them, as well as the clubs, from having any interests in common.”

Slut photo
Walter Scott Hayward, all round dinghy sailor, designer, yachtsman, club commodore, one-design class leader and (it has to be admitted) m*torboater, sailing his 12 foot development class dinghy Slut. She had an outstanding record in the class and may have influenced the world’s first International one design class. Pic from Roger Ryan’s ‘A history of the West Lancashire Yacht Club, 1984-1994″.

Ironically, it was classes from one particularly unusual area that broke that pattern. The International Star has claimed to have been the first one design to spread widely, and the International 14 has claimed to be the first international dinghy class. But in truth two designs from Southport, just north of Liverpool, had achieved both those goals before the Star had even formed a national body, and before the International 14 had even been born.

Southport is located about 30km north of the river where Truant had reintroduced the centerboard to England. Almost directly across the Irish Sea is Dublin where the Water Wags had made the one design concept popular, and 100km to the north-east is Peggy’s home on the Isle of Man. For such a small corner the world, this little triangle has had a significant influence on early centerboard sailing. It’s hard to see what made this region such a force, because the Irish Sea presents a harsh area for dinghy sailing. Towns like Southport and the resorts of the Wirral Peninsula to the west of Liverpool present an almost unique sailing environment.  When the four to 10 m tides run out the waters retreat a mile or more from the land, leaving acres of flat empty damp sand behind. The Choppy waves blow up easily under the influence of the fast-running currents and the blustery winds that come off the Irish Sea. But even the harshest of conditions cannot stop the English from sailing.  They moored yachts in isolated patches of deeper water like the “Bog Hole” off Southport, or built small centreboard half-decked yachts that were tough enough to handle bouncing on the sandbanks as the tide rose and fell.  In the late 1800s, the emerging domestic tourism market led several seaside towns in the area to create several “marine lakes”; small (14 to 52 acre) artificial ponds along the high-tide mark that provided a safe place for sailing dinghies and pedal boats when the tide went out or the Irish Sea became too dangerous.

Southport pier
Where’s the water gone? Southport’s pier extended for 1.3km across the sand to reach the “Bog Hole”, a patch of deep water among the sand flats where boats were moored and raced. The dinghies of Southport were kept on a platform underneath the pier. It was a harsh environment for dinghy sailing. These days the town is known for its famous 24-hour dinghy teams race, sailed on the marine lake.

Despite these handicaps, Southport created two breakthrough one designs. Although he was personally a wealthy man, the merchant and amateur designer Scott Hayward designed two small centerboard half-decked yachts that suited what West Lancashire YC historian Roger Ryan called the “prosperous but not necessarily wealthy” middle class who were moving into sailing. The smaller of the two, the 20ft Seabird Half Rater of 1898 (co-designed with Herbert Baggs on a cigarette packet under a streetlamp after midnight, according to legend) has survived and thrived until the present day, apparently because of its emphasis on economy and the rigid one-design rules.

The Seabird seems to have been the first boat to break the old rule that one designs must be “numerically weak and of purely local interest”  Fleets were soon started in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and by 1902 17 entries raced in a week-long “international” series and had a formal association. The Star, the first official International yacht class, didn’t achieve anything similar until after World War One and although expatriates later developed Water Wag fleets in Asia there was no formal organisation or inter-fleet racing.

Seabird Half Raters racing out of Wallasey YC, one of three clubs that still has a fleet of the 1898 design. The Seabird had a larger and older near-sister class that allegedly died out due to too many changes in the class rules. In contrast, the Seabird has stayed very true to its original concept and even still requires the spinnakers to be set to windward of the forestay in the 19th century style. One wonders whether the Seabird’s rigid one-design rules inspired George Cockshott when he designed the International 12. To see these little centreboard yachts race up the Mersey today is to see an echo of the 1850s, when Truant and her competitors brought the racing centreboarder to Britain on the same waters. Pic from the Wallasey YC site.

A few years before the Seabird was designed, a class of 12 footers designed by boatbuilder G.H. Wilmer as yacht dinghies had been formed into a one design racing class by the Southport Corinthian Yacht Club (the local “big boat” club). Within a few years the town’s newer “small boat” club, the West Lancashire YC, had adopted the SCYC one design and then turned it into a restricted class, as well as creating a restricted class of 10 foot singlehanders.

Folkard’s book Sailing Boats includes sketches that allow us to make a comparison between the original one design 12 footers and Scott Hayward’s Slut, which he designed to the restricted class rules. The one designs show the hallmarks of a typical yacht tender of their day – a wineglass transom and a vee-shaped hull to allow easy rowing. Slut, which was not only enormously successful (she won over 100 races) but seaworthy enough to be sailed up and down the coast to regattas, was similar in rig and dimensions but had a noticeably fuller stern and softer bilges.

West Lancashire YC 12
Above is the West Lancashire and Southport Corinthian 12 Foot one design; below is Slut, Scott Hayward’s enormously successful 12 foot WLYC restricted class boat. The one design appears to be a typical yacht tender style oar-and-sail boat of her time. She shows none of the sandbagger influence that her designer Wilmer seemed to have when he designed Zinnia, above. Slut’s fuller transom seems to show a step towards sailing performance and away from rowing efficiency. Bottom; Both Slut and the one designs apparently had the same high-aspect gunter lug rig. Plans from Folkard’s Sailing Boats.

Hoylake restricted class

Slut 12'

Despite the enthusiasm of men like Scott Hayward and its convenient communications with the city of Manchester, by the 1900s Southport sailing was in decline. As in so many other sailing centres in the Victorian era, development was the cause. Silting caused by a new shipping channel was gradually filling in the attractively-named “Bog Hole” patch of deeper water where keel yachts used to moor, and crowding and pollution prevented the club’s smaller boats from using the small marine lake on the seaside during the summer. But the sailors of Southport had plenty of experience with small boat design when in 1913 the Boat Racing Association”, a national body formed in reaction to the failure of the established Yacht Racing Association to cater for small craft, opened a competition for a “useful yacht’s centreboard dinghy” that could also be a one design racer.

The winning design was created by George Cockshott of Southport, like Scott Hayward an amateur designer, a member of both the “establishment” SCYC and the progressive WLYC and a sailor of big boats as well as small ones.  Although Cockshott had already designed the WLYC’s Star Class, a cheap and tough one-design 16 foot half decker, we know nothing about his design philosophy or history. But looking at Southport’s sailing history and the shape of the International 12, it seems as if Cockshott may have taken the lessons of the earlier Southport classes, and blended them into a shape that would be stable and forgivng enough to work as a yacht tender.  The International 12, like Slut, has fuller stern sections than the typical boat of her style and era, and it’s not hard to believe that the outstanding career of the Scott Hayward boat persuaded Cockshott to move away from the wineglass transom that was typical of the day. Compared to boats like the Water Wag or North Haven Dinghy, Cockshott’s design is further along the transition from a slim-lined rowing boat that can sail well into a flatter and more powerful sailing boat that can be rowed. This was a shape that wasn’t seen in classes like the International 14 until a decade or more later, and may have been key to allowing the 12 to maintain its popularity for over a century.


Cockshott’s experience as a big-boat sailor may perhaps have lead him to make the boat more suitable as a tender by giving it firm bilges and a flat midsection by the standards of the time, and a low-aspect lug rig that allowed for shorter spars that can stow within the hull. All this is, of course, pure speculation, but it what is not speculation is that the International 12 sprang from a town that already had a disproportionate amount of experience with dinghy design and class development.


The International 12s (officially called the “BRA A Class”) had their first class race at West Kirby, west of Liverpool. Just like Southport, at low tide the West Kirby shoreline retreats over a nautical miles, leaving a huge expanse of flat sands to dry out. The dinghies normally sail on the 52 acre artificial Marine Lake along the high water mark.  The West Kirby fleet of 12s is long gone, but when I visited at the end of 2015’s summer the fleet of Cockshott’s earlier Star class still sat on the sand at their moorings and dried out on the flat sands every tide.  The chilly and gusty wind coming off the Irish Sea and past the Welsh coast was the same as it was in Cockshott’s day, and so was the remarkable British passion for dinghy racing.  In most countries these conditions would make the area a dinghy racing wasteland, but West Kirby Sailing Club still has over 100 active dinghies and small yachts in its racing fleet and there are four other clubs within 30km/20 miles of coastline.  On this cool afternoon when I stood watching the sailing (I’d have been afloat if anyone in the club had answered their emails….) the youth training squad was putting away their Lasers while a fleet of GP14s was racing on the Marine Lake – one of over a dozen classes that race on the 1km by 250m artificial pond.

In a symbol of the rampant nationalism of the times, the 12s of the West Kirby fleet were all named after battleships of the Royal Navy. It was a tragic portent. Within a year of the first race, World War One had broken out and the namesakes of the West Kirby 12s were forming battle lines in the North Sea. The war stunted the growth of the 12 in England, but it spurred the economy of the neutral Netherlands, and by 1920 there were     of them afloat in the Low Countries. In 1919 the design was adopted by the International Yachting Racing Union (as ISAF was then known) as the first International one design class of any type, and the first International dinghy class. When Cockshott’s design was selected for the Olympics in the same year it was a symbol that dinghy sailing, for so long almost ignored by the major sailing bodies, had arrived.

Twelves racing on the confines of West Kirby Marine Lake, site of the class’ first ever race. The West Kirby fleet died out when newer types arrived in the 1950s; this event was sailed by European boats in honour of the class centenary in 1913. Pic from the Netherlands class site.

In truth, the Olympics of 1920 were a false dawn for Olympic dinghy sailing. Only two crews, sailing two-up in boats owned by the same man, competed. Because both crews were Dutch, the racing was moved from Belgium to the Netherlands mid-series, so the International 12’s Olympic debut became the only Olympic event to have ever taken place in two nations! At least the 12’s event was better than other dinghy event, in 18 footers. Only a single crew, the British, entered. They didn’t even have to sail to be awarded the win, and as a result they are absent from many official records.[1]

A 12ft6in dinghy designed by Giles, probably similar to the design he created to replace the International 12. Although slightly wider at the stern, it doesn’t look like a vast advance on Cockshott’s boat.

Even before the 1920 Olympics, some of the British had been complaining that the I-12 was outmoded, and Morgan Giles had prepared a replacement design that was said to be faster upwind, but perhaps harder to sail downwind. The strong existing fleets of Belgium and the Netherlands blocked the move, and today it seems apparent that they made the right choice. While hundreds of other classes have come along, changed with the times and vanished, the International 12 has survived, and recently it has thrived.

The Hungarian entry (right) leads Denmark, Spain and Switzerland in the 1929 Games. Pic from the IOC official report. The fleet of 20 was divided into two groups, from which a final ten was selected to race in a final series that placed a premium on winning heats instead of placing well. In other words, the modern medal race isn’t such a cool new idea as it may seem.

The 12 returned to the Games in 1928, in Belgium. This time it was a real contest, with a solid fleet of 20 countries, many of them complete with reserves. The 12s were supplied by the host country and it seems that three countries sailed doublehanded, which is still a common option among 12 Foot sailors.  Swedish canoe expert Sven Thorell won gold from    Robert of Norway and Broman of Finland.  The Italian representative, Nirdio, took the class home with him and the Italian fleet became one of the world’s strongest.  It was said that in the 1950s, Italian 12 Foot regattas sometimes drew more fans than football matches.  By then the class was sailed in almost a dozen countries.

The classic section of the Italian 12 Footer class starts. This version of the class has modern sail controls and a larger sail on a classic-style wooden hull. Pic from the Italian Classic Wood Club site.

It was probably the sailors of the “low countries” who kept the International 12 alive long after its moments of Olympic glory had faded, and through the loss of popularity and official international status. The Japanese also kept on sailing 12s, and while the Italian fleet dwindled, it never quite died out.  In the 1990s the Italian fleet became caught up in the classic boat revival, and it now counts over 100 active boats and has played a significant part in the class coming back to life in other European countries.  The Dutch fleet includes 250 racers, with fleets of 50 to 60 for the national titles and 3 to 5 new boats hand-crafted in mahogany planking each year. The sailors are a diverse bunch; a recent national champion was aged 30 years, the oldest sailor 82.

Sadly, development has split the International 12 class.  The Dutch remain committed to the original ideal of the 12; wooden hull, simple fittings, and the original    m2 sail.  The Italians have taken a different route.  To reduce price they have adopted fiberglass hulls and alloy spars, with wooden decks and thwarts to keep the classic feel.  They have also allowed modern fittings and increased the sail area to make the boat more exciting in light winds, and they stop racing if the breeze tops 16 knots. To confuse the issue further, the Italians now have a sub class just for wooden hulls, but with Italian rigs and fittings. Feelings are sadly running fairly high between the various camps, and no one seems to be able to see a way to re-unite the factions; the boat has come to mean different things in different nations. But there is still obviously a common love for the 12, and the class’ centenary event in 2013 attracted the huge fleet of 171 boats.

With a rig as big as a Finn on a short hull, the International 12 can get interesting in a moderate breeze. Pic from the Italian Classic Wood Club site.

A few days after I had stood at West Kirby Sailing Club, site of the 12’s first fleet, I hopped aboard a modern 12 owned by the genial Enrico Zaffalon, who took over the manufacture of boats from the Bonaldo moulds when the original manufacturer retired.  Like the International 12 itself, Enrico’s home club at Mestre is perched between traditional beauty and modernity; the club’s waters run between the container port and the spires of Venice across the lagoon. Centreboard sailing is not strong in Italy. Rather appropriately I had just come from racing in the Italian national titles for the 12ft long original Windsurfer, which is now reviving just as the 12 has done and for much the same reasons – with a poor economic outlook and a sailing scene that is struggling, people are moving to the biggest class they can find. Unless you want an Opti or Laser, says Enrico, the 12 the only class he can race and get a strong fleet to compete against. The simplicity and stability of Cockshott’s design also makes it a very convenient option; in the mild conditions of Venice’s lagoon Enrico can drive down to the club, rig quickly, launch and sail a 12 in street clothes and stay dry; perhaps a more important factor in fashion-conscious Italy than in other countries.

One of the fibreglass Bonaldo Twelves showing that even at over one hundred years of age, George Cockshott’s design can move. Pic from the Italian class site.

The day I sailed Enrico’s Bonaldo was perfect for the Italian version of the 12; a bright day with enough wind to get the boat to hull speed. After a few minutes, the joy of Cockshott’s little boat comes home. With that big rig the boat is responsive and interesting, but also easy to handle. You can drop the tiller and walk to the mast and she sits quietly beam-on to the breeze, like a yacht tender should.  You can put her into irons (if you try) and then she simply drops off onto the right tack whenever you want. It’s a good demonstration of the virtues of the big, old-fashioned swept rudder.  When you purposely sail her with the gunwale lapping the water she remains controllable both for heel and course, whether you are sailing upwind or rolling downwind by the lee, Laser-style.

The 12 is stable enough to be sailed by someone sitting inboard, but she can also be flicked around into roll tacks nicely (although rather more slowly than a modern boat, because of the skeg that allows it to work as a rowboat) if you’re feeling more physical. Unlike some traditional boats with narrower wineglass sterns and a steeper run aft she doesn’t drag a big sternwave or squat deeply as she picks up speed, but you can feel the drag build up as speed increases, just to remind you that this is a century-old design with its narrow stern and curved buttock lines, rather than a modern planing hull. However, it’s said that a 12, driven hard enough with modern materials and techniques, can plane in a big breeze.

With the modern rigging and fittings, such anathema to the Dutch, Enrico’s boat is an intriguing combination of classic grace and ease with the convenience of spectra and roller bearings. The dipping lug is a new experience for me. A line runs from the bottom of the lug yard back to gunwale.  As you go into a tack you whack the windward line and the bottom of the lug is pulled aft and pops around the mast, so it will lie on the “new” leeward side once the tack is completed and not interfere with the sail shape.  Of course, you can easily leave the yard on one side while you tack back and forth, with no noticeable loss of pace.

Immaculate woodwork and modern sail controls on a fibreglass hull – the face of the Bonaldo International 12.  The sail controls include a line that controls the amount of overlap between the yard and the mast, as well as the standard controls of a modern boat. The centreboard (below) is CNC milled and has a mirror finish that reflects the varnish and wood grain.


The 12 is a boat that would be a joy to sail whether roll tacking in a hot fleet or cruising across to Venice with a bottle of Chianti in the bilge. As I flick this remarkably docile but fun little boat around in the Italian sun, all I want to do is to keep on sailing and relaxing, sliding across the lagoon to Venice to pick up my wife and explore the canals of the world’s most beautiful city under oar and sail. The 12 is the sort of boat that does that to you. It’s with genuine regret that I have to turn down Enrico’s kind offer to race the boat in the nearby classic boat regatta the day we are due to fly home.

Fans of development classes often say that one-designs invariably become “obsolete” and die. The tale of the first one designs proves that nothing could be further from the truth. The oldest one-design class, the oldest one-design boat, and the oldest widespread one design are still active, many years after many contemporary restricted and rating classes have died. It seems that the great one design classes are eternal, not ephemeral.



“He had watched the excesses caused by rating rules and the damage that the depreciation and expense caused to the sport”:- Like much of the other information about the Water Wag, this comes from Middleton’s article “The Kingstown Water Wags” in Forest and Stream for May 19 1904

“A circular promoting the class and probably written by Middleton”:- From ‘Yachting in Ireland’ by Johnny Hooper, “The Dinghy Year Book 1962”, Richard Creagh-Osbourne (ed) p 87.


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


small rowin crft wyllie
Sketches of slender sail-and-oar dinghies from the sketchbook of W L Wyllie, a keen and succesful racing sailor and amateur designer and one of England’s great marine artists in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These studies show the slender lines and small rigs of the typical sail-and-oar boat. The early racing craft of this type ran under the radar so much that illustrations of them are hard to find. National Maritime Museum.

While the canoes, sandbaggers and other types were all pushing design to the extremes, a different style of small boat was quietly evolving.  The most significant mark of this breed was that it developed from the boats used both oar and sail power to carry passengers and light freight around the waterfront and out to ships and yachts.  When this breed started to develop into a racing type in the late 1800s it had a confusion of names, including gig, sailing boat, rowing and sail boat, tender, yacht’s cutter, and skiff. But perhaps it’s easiest to use a term that was reserved for some of the smaller examples – the dinghy. It’s appropriate because many of the smallest oar-and-sail boats were actually yacht’s dinghies, and also because in many ways they were the most influential of all of the ancestors of the modern dinghy.

Unlike the other breeds of centreboard racer, the early sail-and-oar racing boats did not develop in a particular time or place, or because of a specific person or rule.  Different types evolved quietly into racing classes in local ports around the world, with little evidence of communication or competition between each emerging type.  But although they came from many different places, most of them evolved a similar shape that was dictated by their ancestry and use. It’s not surprising that perhaps the most important feature of the design of the sail-and-oar boats was that they descended from craft that were regularly rowed, as well as sailed.  In many of the these craft oars were the main power source; sails were just a useful addition when the wind was right. The rowing heritage meant that the emphasis was on a hull shape that could easily be driven at moderate speed by the limited power a rower could generate. The effects of the low-drag hull shape then seem to have flowed on to the rig, crew and further development of the type.

The rowing heritage meant that the oar-and-sail boats were narrower than workboat-style craft like the sandbaggers or catboats, which were designed with the beam to carry a more sail and often a heavier load.  The longer oar-and-sail craft, 22 to 16 feet, were generally narrow on the waterline, with sections that took the shape of a rounded Vee in the centre sections, and flared on the topsides.  The shorter types that were often used as yacht tenders normally had less flare and a relatively wider waterline beam for stability and to allow them to carry their load within their restricted length.

Whatever the length, the bow and stern were normally fine-lined and narrow (or in the case of the smaller dinghies, as fine lined as possible within their restricted size and duties) and the stern normally swept up high to a small wineglass-shaped transom that lay well above the waterline. Where the stern lines or buttocks lifted to the transom, the hull developed a keel-like “deadwood” – a deep but narrow section along the centreline under the stern – to keep the boat straight while rowing and towing.

The famous Whitehall style of waterman’s shows the lines of a classic example of the type of craft used under oar power and sometimes sail power around the harbours and rivers of ports in the 19th century. The hollow lines fore and aft, the high wineglass-shape transom, the narrow beam and the deadwood aft were all details that made such craft move well under oar power and probably fast in light winds, considering their small rigs. “Speed, under oars or the simple spritsail which could be shipped or unshipped in a moment, was prized alike by the rival ferrymen, the boarding-house runners, and the thieves of the waterfront, as well as by their pursuers; and there were many close races in which no starts were timed and no money prize awarded” wrote WP Stephens in ‘American Yachting’.

The slender lines shape of the oar-and-sail types meant that their hull lacked the form stability of the beamy workboat-style craft. The shallow hull and lack of keel meant that they had nowhere to place large amounts of ballast low down like a keelboat did.  As Dixon Kemp declared, “no plan of lead or iron ballasting will make a shallow boat such as the centre-board gig stiff, in the ordinary meaning of the word.” [1] The lack of stability meant that very few of the oar-and-sail types carried the vast rigs of the contemporary ballasted yachts or the beamy craft like sandbaggers and catboats.  A sketch by Howard I Chapelle shows a 16′ Whitehall with a little spritsail of about 70ft2, and an equally smaller rudder and centreboard to match – roughly a third as much as the catboat Una, which was the same length.

To keep the weight low for easy rowing and carrying aboard larger craft and to create more room for passengers and luggage, most sail and oar boats were undecked.  The combination of limited stability and lack of decking meant that they were generally inshore boats, considered suitable only for rivers and sheltered harbours unless in the most experienced hands; to quote Kemp again, “a light centre-board gig, easy to row, and not an indifferent performer under canvas in smooth water, is not fit for open water where there might be a real sea.” [2]

Perhaps because they were not as fast as the bigger-rigged yachts and workboats, perhaps because they tended to sail in waters too confined for bigger boats, races for most of the sail-and-oar types had a low profile. Classes were small and localised.  Half a dozen boats was a strong fleet.  The fame of the individual oar-and-sail types was generally as limited as their geographical spread, and perhaps for similar reasons they seem to have not attracted the same prizemoney or professionals as the sandbagger-style workboats or large yachts. Although sail-and-oar craft like ship’s boats had been racing in regattas before the sandbaggers, catboats and yacht had existed, in racing terms they were largely a shadow on the sidelines. Not until the 1880s did they slowly start to become a bit more prominent.

The rise of the oar-and-sail boats and the racing types that developed from them seems to mirror, and perhaps partly cause, the boom from the late 1800s in amateur sailing among the middle classes and among the working class who were not professional watermen. With their small rigs, the sail-and-oar type were cheaper to own and easier to sail than the big-rigged workboat types or the complex and tippy canoes, and they seem to have suited the amateurs who were enjoying more cash and leisure than ever before. “Centreboard sailing dinghies have of late years become very popular, and it is hardly possible on a summer day to visit any of our coast towns without seeing a few of these handy, able little boats” wrote the Scottish designer D F Maclachlan. “The designing and building of these little clippers have now reached a state of perfection, and their popularity is easily seen by the number of races which are held, for it is surprising the speed that can be got from a boat twelve feet in length.”  The new passion for centreboarders ran from one end of England to the other; “small sailing boats of various sizes, from 10 to 15 or 20 feet, are numerous on and about the beach at various places on the South Coast” noted the writer Folkard in his book ‘Sailing Boats’ “and some of the boats of members of the local Sailing Clubs are of excellent type and construction” . [1]

One of the first clubs to specialise in open boats was the New Brighton Sailing Club on the Mersey, formed in 1869. This long-gone club was said to have been the first club to use the term “sailing” instead of “yacht” in its title and to use a girth (or beam) restriction. It may been a way to ensure that the club’s boats resembled the working boats of the Mersey watermen, and perhaps a reaction to the bigger and beamier sandbagger-style boats of the vanished Birkenhead Model Yacht Club. By the late 1880s the boats of the NBSC had developed into a restricted class of 18 footers, with a moderate beam of 6ft or a bit less, displacement of around 570 to 670kg, 80kg of ballast, 200 sq ft of sail in a lug sloop rig, and an 80sq ft spinnaker. They were a typical example of the bigger oar-and-sail type, similar to the “yachts cutters” (tenders to the big cruising and racing yachts and the 500 ton steamers) that were often cruised and sometimes raced at regattas. [3]

Zinnia, designed by the boatbuilder G.H. Willmer, from the pages of Dixon Kemp’s Manual. In his commentary on Dixon Kemp, the gaff rig expert John Leather noted that Zinnia’s sections were similar to the sandbaggers and catboats, and wondered whether Willmer had been influenced by them, perhaps by the catboat plans in earlier editions of Dixon Kemp. Given that Truant and the boats she inspired had sailed on the same river a couple of decades earlier, it seems likely that Willmer had direct experience of the American type.  However, the class restrictions meant that Zinnia was much narrower and had a much smaller rig than a sandbagger. The NBSC sometimes started over a dozen boats, a large fleet for the time. Zinna was highly competitive for years but was also involved in a tragic capsize that claimed the lives of several crew.

But perhaps the most influential fleets of early dinghies were on the Thames River near London. Above London the river was not suffering from the shipping congestion, industry and pollution that was driving leisure sailors away from the lower Thames and to the East Coast villages and Cowes in the late 19th century. [1]  As London and its railway network expanded along the Thames, boatmen switched from running freight to offering hire boats to the whole spectrum of society, from the nobility to the “‘Arry and Arriet” of the working classes. It was a scene beautifully captured by Jerome K Jerome in “Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog)”, the greatest comic novel of the time, which was set on a camping trip down the Thames by oar and sail.

By the late 1800s there were hundreds of private and hire boats on the Thames, and it was said that “nearly every craft carries a sail of some size of kind, for the predominant desire of most frequenters of the Thames is to take things as easy as possible. Every favoring breeze is therefore promptly utilized, and every rowboat is equipped with a sail. Such boats, however, cannot use a wind unless it be almost directly astern, and are totally unable to “tack” and so do not impeded the passage of other crafts going in the opposite direction”. [2]  [3]

The reason for the inability to “tack” upwind was the reluctance of the Thames boatbuilders of the time to fit keels or centreboards to their craft.   The typical Thames gig or skiff of the late 1800s was a low slender craft even by oar-and-sail standards, often 22’ long but only 4’ in beam, and probably even less able to carry a big rig than other oar-and-sail boats of the era.  One later photograph shows a Thames gig driving fast and hard downwind under its small ketch rig, a bow wave cresting under the foremast, but with so little stability it cannot have been a great upwind performer.

1913 gig pic
A Thames Gig on the Amstel river in Amsterdam, as pictured in Yachting World in 1913. The caption said that there were some 300 such gigs in Amsterdam, mostly imported from England and mostly used normally for sailing. It’s literally armchair sailing, but of a rather unstable nature.

It’s said that it was Alfred Burgoyne, one of the greatest of the Thames boatbuilders, who introduced the centreboard to the upper Thames around 1868.  As Ingrid Holroyd reported later, “the river enthusiasts, who till then had been supplementing sail power with oar power for any journey to windward, saw the prospect of a whole new sport opening up before them. With centreboards in small boats they could race on shallow, inland water, and could exercise the same skills as their so-called superiors on the sea.” [1] By 1871, no less than 57 one-sailed ‘gigs’ competed in the regatta of the newly-formed Thames Sailing Club. The winner had a centreboard, but such devices were barred from the main event of the autumn regatta that year, a race which was downwind only to avoid exposing the boats to the “ordeal” of going to windward.[2]

Kemp lug
Burgoyne also popularised the balance lug rig, shown in an illustration from Kemp. The sail lay on the mast on one tack which interfered with the shape, but the fact that the luff was ahead of the pivot point for the boom and yard meant that the sail was effectively self-vanging and did not twist as badly as many other rigs of the time.

The Thames sailors soon developed a more stable, powerful design with much more freeboard than the slender early skiffs and gigs. Dixon Kemp claimed that it had been found that the most convenient size for racing on the upper Thames was a 14 footer, with “as much as 5ft. 3in. beam to enable them to carry large sails”.  Kemp’s book included his own plans for some oar-and-sail boat, including on (below) where the same sections could be used at different spacings to create boats of different lengths. At 14 feet long, the boat would weigh 165kg fully rigged and would require about as much ballast.

Kemp gig
Dixon Kemp’s plan for an oar-and-sail boat. This plan shows the sections spaced to create a 12 footer, but by altering the sections it could be used to create shorter or longer boats. With its wineglass transom, prominent keelson, fine lines and a hull that tucks up dramatically at the stern, this is a standard oar-and-sail boat of the time.

Kemp gig sections

The career of the enormously successful Ruby, an 18 footer built by Burgoyne in 1876, is another classic example of the development in the era. In her initial design Ruby was described by Dixon Kemp as “in all respects….representative of the popular boat for ‘rowing and sailing’”. Although she has much higher freeboard and a more stable hull shape than the earlier style of Thames skiff described above, in some ways Ruby’s shape at her launch showed how little the oar-and-sail boat had changed since the day of Peggy almost a century before. Eighteen feet long and weighing 860kg, including 177kg of internal ballast, 150kg on the shallow iron keel and a 38kg iron centreboard, she carried a 14 sq m/150sq ft of sail in the balanced lug rig that Burgoine had popularised. Although a medium sized rig for its day, it was a fraction of the size of the rigs carried by similar-sized racing catboats and sandbagger types, and even smaller than some canoes of the era.  Ruby was to be radically modified over her long career, as we’ll see later.

Ruby 1
The Thames centreboard gig Ruby, built by the influential Alfred Burgoyne in 1884. With her firmer bilges and higher freeboard she marks a step on from the Whitehall type and the Dixon Kemp gig in the development of the pure sailing dinghy, but in her slim lines and (by the standards of a river boat of hre day) small rigs she still seems to show the heritage of the sail-and-oar types. Plans from Dixon Kemp’s Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing.


Ruby 2

Boats like Ruby played a part in a boom in sailing that saw the number of clubs in England, for example, increase from 120 to 200 between 1894 and 1904. “So popular is the pastime of boat-sailing,and so numerous the sailing-boats and small yachts, that boat-sailing clubs bid fair to outnumber the yacht clubs” noted the author Folkard. Although many of those who sailed the emerging breed of dinghies were “men of modest means” (to use the term of the era) there were also many who could afford big boats but found that there was more fun to be found on small ones. “Enrolled among the members of the boat-sailing clubs are, however, some of the keenest and most prominent yachtsmen of the day ; members of some of the principal yacht clubs in the kingdom, but who nevertheless join a boat-sailing club because of the encouragement they give to, and interest they take in, the humbler pastime, in which the competition is every whit as keen, and the pleasure and excitement nowise less, than in the matches between yachts of the larger type” he noted.  And on the other side of the Atlantic in the mid 1880s, two such men seem to have been creating one of the first examples of a concept that did not change boat design, but did change the way the world went sailboat racing.



Punch small boat
                                                                   EASTER RECREATIONS                                                         Enthusiastic skipper (to friend) “Ah my boy! this is what you wanted, In a short time you’ll feel yourself a different man.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      As sailing became a popular sport in the late 1800s , Punch magazine found a rich vein of humour in the clash between the amateur’s new zest for open-boat sailing and the sufferings of the scared and seasick friends they took out.