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 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.
vrijbuiter-30, 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 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……..


Author: cthom249

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

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

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