Pt 1.19 – From Kings to Bouncing Cats: the British development classes

Gypsy, the first National 12. Pic from the class site.

While boats like the Thistle and Firefly show us what happens when the design of the classic British racing dinghy remains frozen in time, boats like the Merlin Rocket, National 12 and National 18 show us what happens when shapes are free to change. These classes give us a unique insight to the ways dinghies have developed over three quarters of a century, because while their shapes and technology have developed, the rules they fit into have remained largely unchanged. They give us a picture of development that is not obscured by major rule changes (as in 14s) or by radical design developments (as in Moths and Skiffs).

The National 12 was launched in 1936 as a reaction to the rapid obsolescence and rising costs involved in England’s only existing national dinghy class, the International 14. The labour and expertise required to create boats like Thunder and Lightning meant that they would always be what the fans called “aristocratic”, and others called expensive, so the National 12 was introduced as “a training ground and a feeder to the already established fourteens.”[1]

In most other countries this category would have been filled by a hard-chine boat, but the British opted for a round-bilge clinker hull; clinker because it was “generally far easier to the average boatbuilder, and therefore considerably cheaper”; round bilge, because to the British racing fraternity a curvey hull stamped a craft as a “real” racing boat, rather than a hard-chined box for “messing about in boats”. The hard chine, Uffa once wrote, was “desirable for high planing speeds, as it throws the water out and makes a sharp edge for the water to leave, and is the reason why all high speed motor-boats are designed with chines. It is, however, the wrong thing for the lower speeds of sailing craft, as it increases the wetted surface and this corner, or the lee bilge, being continually pushed in and out of the water sets up a great amount of resistance. The professional and the amateur built boats can be spotted a mile off, because the first is a smooth, round craft as sweet as an apple to look at, while the other looks like a box.” The preference for round bilge racing boats remained strong in British racing for decades.

The National 12 carried a small but (by the standards of the day) tall and efficient-looking rig without a spinnaker, and cost about a third of an International 14. The class had everything going for it – but no one bought one. The problem, curiously, was Uffa. He totally dominated the I-14s, so he stayed away from the “Nationals” on purpose to allow other designers a chance. In fact, his refusal to become involved almost killed the class from birth. Ian Proctor, one of the top British designers of the ‘50s and ‘60s, later wrote that “many people felt unwilling to take the chance of building a boat to their own, or perhaps some other builder’s design, if there was any possibility of the maestro perhaps designing and building to the rules a little later on – and outclassing all those boats in existence at one fell swoop. It is an easy attitude to understand.” The class did not move ahead until Yachting World magazine and Uffa created the “Uffa-King” design (and yes, I’d wondered about that name for years and according to this link, my suspicions were right!).

Uffa-King sailplan and lines.


There is much to be learned from the tale of the Uffa-King. Although Uffa was famous for creating the planing dinghy (or so it was said) he cautioned that “this 12-footer, because she was shorter, and still carrying two people, and still carrying two people, would be so heavy, that the occasions on which she could plane would be few and far between”. [2]  In that sentence, Uffa highlighted three problems for dinghy designers – one is that crew weight is a huge influence on design. The second is that short boats sailed by more than one adult will always be comparatively heavy; even if the hull is ultra light, the designer still has to try to package enough volume to float about 130kg of crew weight into a waterline of 4m or less. The third is that length is such a critical factor in dinghies that a concept that works brilliantly at one size, such as the Avenger-style planing hull, may be much less effective in a boat just two feet shorter. In bigger boats like yachts, the effects of scale are not so dramatic, and it’s possible to scale boats up and down quite effectively.

Because Uffa believed the 12 was unlikely to plane very often he designed a “knifing, rather than a planing, type of dinghy” with very deeply Veed sections. Uffa and Yachting World magazine sold the plans for little more than the cost of printing – another symbol of the future, because Yachting World was to go on to play a major role in promoting dinghies. One hundred sets of plans were sold in the first week, and within three and a half years the National 12 was the most popular class in Britain.[3]

The Uffa-King’s speed upwind in all winds and downwind in non-planing conditions was so great that the design remained competitive for many years, as Uffa had intended when he created such a radical shape. It was also quite unstable, and so the class created a “rise of floor” restriction to “prevent vessels being narrower on the waterline” and stop even more unstable boats from being designed. It was another indication of the future – the restricted classes were determined to create rules that ensured that the boats remained suitable for a wide range of sailors, not just the experts.

Even the Uffa King’s eventual obsolescence provided a lesson. As Proctor put it “as helmsmanship in the class developed, it was soon discovered that not only could these little boats be made to plane when it blew really hard, but they would also get up and plane when there was no more than a moderate blow. Planing ability therefore became a more important point.” [4]


Above – the Uffa-Ace, the first National 18 design. The class has adopted an unusual approach to development and new ‘glass boats must be made from the Phil Morrison design below. The difference between the shapes capture seven decades of development.


Just two years after the National 12 was launched, the National 18 was created along generally similar lines as an economical “dual-purpose boat suitable for ordinary day sailing, and at the same time fast enough to interest those concerned with racing.” Once again, Yachting World promoted an Uffa design, the Uffa-Ace (above) For some reason the National 18 never took off like the smaller development classes. Many sailors stayed faithful to the local one designs of similar size and style, and the National 18 has only ever had a few fleets. The UK is therefore one of the few major sailing countries where there has never been a major national class of big multi-crewed dinghies.

The last of the national development classes was the Merlin Rocket, an amalgamation of two similar classes. Both were light 14 footers with the inevitable clinker hull and small rigs (around 10m/108ft2) that were aimed at providing high performance for older sailors, women and family crews, without the “grunt” of the I-14s or the athleticism of the N-12s.

Kate, prototype for the Merlin. The very narrow cockpit kept water out in a capsize. Although other designers and builders claimed that boats without decks were lighter, the Merlin class found that the 1/8″ ply decks “serve to stiffen up the hull which is converted into a very rigid box structure” in the words of Ian Proctor. “The complete boat, therefore, can be made lighter than could possibly be the case for an open boat, and the rules in fact permit a hull weight as low as 190lb., identical with that of the smaller “National 12″.”  He also noted that the decking also allowed freeboard to be reduced by about 2″ compared to a National 12, which must also have helped to reduce weight. Pat Blake photo from the class site.

The first Merlin was designed in 1945 by Jack Holt for a syndicate who specified a light, low-freeboard, exciting boat mainly for river sailing, with a rig small enough for female crews. Right from the start the syndicate was interested in a boat that was challenging to sail. After the first boat (Kate) was launched the syndicate asked for a boat with more Vee, less stability and a sky-scraping 7.6m (25ft) mast “to make the boat more lively, and require rather more “sitting out” in the average strength of wind. Those indefinable elements of “liveliness” and sensitivity are just as important to fans of the Merlin and National 12 today.

Kate’s lines plan show the slender and deeply Veed shape of the early Merlins. Proctor wrote that the originators of the class wanted the “rise of floor” (which in those days basically meant the angle of the Vee around the centre of the boat) to be about midway between that of the International Fourteen and the National 12, to reduce wetted surface and make the boat more sensitive.

The impetus for the Rocket came from N12 sailors from the sea and estuary clubs of north-east England. They were in search of a larger, roomier and steadier version of the 12 that still had a thoroughbred’s feel. In 1949 boatbuilders Wyche and Coppock took one of their clinker Int 14 hulls and gave it decks and a smaller, lower rig. The International 14 heritage meant that the Rocket’s hull was flat, firm bilged and stable compared to a Merlin or a National 12.

To modern sailors it is odd to see that the “river boat”, the Merlin, had a tiny cockpit and wide sidedecks, while the open-water Rocketeers preferred a more open deck layout. From our perspective it seems back to front, but the reason lay in the lack of bailers and lightweight buoyancy. As Rocket pioneer Robin Steavenson explained, in the Merlin “the fully-decked hull required by the rules limits the size of the cockpit and makes emptying a swamped boat very difficult…in smooth water this arrangement is excellent and allows a rapid recovery to the upright position, as only splash water enters the cockpit. But in a swell or amongst small breakers nothing will keep the water out if the boat is once knocked down. When the hull is full, bailing in the restricted space is a most difficult operation, and although pumps are allowed, those which are capable of competing with a bailer are usually heavy and cumbersome – and expensive.”  In areas where boats were sailed off beaches that were open to the sea, wrote Steavenson, the need to have boats that had less decking and therefore could be more easily be bailed out was even greater; “it is quite impossible to beach a waterlogged boat on any but the quietest of days without the risk of serious damage.” And so (in a logical move that seems strange to those of us who grew up with self bailers) the Rocket had less decking, to make it more seaworthy.

Lines of an early Rocket. This flatter, firm-bilged hull looks more modern than the shape of the contemporary Merlins.

Both the Merlin and the Rocket were instant successes. Their comparatively light weight and efficient design made them almost as fast as the International 14s, but they were easier to sail and were suitable to a wider range of crews. The rules of the two classes were similar enough to allow a Rocket to fit into the Merlin class, and much to the surprise of the Merlin sailors, the first hybrid proved as fast as the tippier, tall-rigged Merlin. Not all were converts; as Steavenson noted, “there were many owners in the Merlin class who tried sailing Rockets and who said that, although they appreciated their fine performance, they did not enjoy sailing them quite so much.” However, the similarity between the classes and the desire to avoid conflict between them encouraged the two classes to merge in 1951 to create the National Merlin Rocket class, with over 330 boats.

The early Merlin Rocket.

The development path

It takes a book to properly chart the complex history of a class like the Merlin or National 12, but a brief look at the way the boats have changed can show us the direction of racing dinghy hull development. True to the “restricted development” ethos, the basic rules and concept of the N12 and MR have remained essentially the same over the decades. Loopholes in the class rules are plugged to maintain a balance between progress and obsolescence. As veteran N12 champ Robin Steavenson put it, “nothing has been allowed to develop which would rapidly outdate existing boats.” Although the Merlin Rockets have adopted minor changes such as larger spinnakers and the N12 has reduced its weight, dropped the clinker skin and introduced self-draining double-bottom boats, in general terms the aim is refinement within the same concepts rather than radical change as in classes like Moths or International 14s.

These days, when a new development or restricted-class boat is a rarity, it’s hard to remember how intensive the design race was in the 20th century. In the dinghy heyday of the 1970s, MR and N12 championships would regularly attract well over 100 boats. In the Merlin Rocket class alone, over one hundred different designs were created, and the National 12 was not too far behind with over 70. The decades of intense refinement and experimentation attracted amateur and professional designers alike, and as we’ll see much later, some of them were to become among the biggest names in the dinghy design world.

The nature of UK sailing grounds are a strong influence on both classes. These classes race seriously on restricted waters like narrow rivers and flooded quarries, as well as on estuaries, bays and the open sea. Designs are chosen and tailored for their owner’s preferred conditions as well as for crew weight and sailing style. Manoeuvrability, the ability to sail all angles (including tight reaches or square runs) and handle both rough and flat water, and light air pace count at least as much as pure top speed. “The appeal of National 12’s is their ability to perform in a wide range of wind conditions and on rivers and open water” says N12 designer / sailor David Greening. “Finesse, not grunt” is how some MR sailors put it, with the air of people who feel that the skiff types are less versatile and refined.

The detailed evolution of Merlin and National hull shapes are a story for another time (and better told by people who know the classes properly!) but as usual in dinghy design, the long-term trend is a tale of Fs – a consistent move towards hulls that are flatter, finer forward, fatter aft, flared and faster. Materials technology has always been a critical driver of these changes. The early Nationals, with their 190lb/86.2kg bare hulls, 45-50lb (20-22.7kg) centreboards, copper buoyancy tanks (4-5lb/1.8-2.3kg) and floorboards to protect the delicate ribs normally weighed over 118kg/260lb.  Rule changes and wooden centreboards reduced the all-up weight by 100lb/45kg or so.  When lighter sailplans and self bailers came along, bows no longer had to be full enough to lift a heavy rig over the waves and to stop spray coming aboard. Ian Proctor was a pioneer in alloy masts that allowed more powerful and predictable sails to be set. As spars, sailcloth and fittings improved rigs became more powerful, and in turn planing became more common and more important.

The boats of the late ’50s show the way the trends were moving. As noted above, as techniques improved it was found that the National 12s could plane more and more often, and hull shapes changed to put the accent on planing performance. As Uffa noted, “the tendency therefore has been to widen the topsides, transom and the run which enables them to pick up their skirts and scuttle along before the wind. The wider topsides give them a little extra sitting out power, but must never be allowed to get down into the water where the extra beam would slow them.” A late ’50s N12 design from his board (below) shows these changes.

This National 12 plan from Uffa’s 1959 book Sailing Boats appears to be of Smuggler, one of only two Nationals he ever drew. The bow section has changed little since the Uffa King, but the stern is significantly flatter and dramatically wider. The Smuggler was said to show “radical new thinking” and have “the widest transom ever seen in this class” – a tribute to Uffa’s ability to remain current.

As Uffa’s star faded, that of Ian Proctor grew brighter. Proctor’s early Merlin-Rockets, he wrote, were an attempt to combine the way the Merlin’s river-style shape could slice upwind and in light winds, and the way the more powerful Rocket could reach in moderate air. They were comparatively fine in the bow and unusual because they lacked the “shoulders” – volume in the topsides around the mast – that was common at the time. Over the years, Proctor moved towards finer bows, wider overall beam and less bow rocker. Because his designs are narrow by modern standards, they are now considered only as “river boats”, but their low wetted surface and manoeuvrability still make them surprisingly competitive in light winds and narrow waters.

An early Proctor Merlin Rocket, from the book “British and International Racing Yacht Classes”, published in 1954. It has a flavour redolent of the Uffa Fox boats of the ’30s.

The trend to greater emphasis on planing continued with the introduction of dacron sailcloth in the ’60s. Suddenly, sailmakers could build more controllable shapes, with larger roaches. The Merlin and National 12 both developed big roaches on their mainsails. The National 12’s actual sail area started to climb from the original nominal 8.4 m2 (90ft2) towards the current area of around 11m2 (118ft2). The Merlin followed the same route. According to the Portsmouth Yardstick of the time, the National and Merlin both increase their speed by 5% when dacron came in- about twice that of other classes.

From the outside, one of the most significant boats of the time seems to be March Hare, the brilliant creation of amateur designer Mike Jackson. Technically, March Hare (which we’ll hear more of later on) is notable for being perhaps the first round-bilge conventional dinghy (as distinct from scows) to completely abandon the Vee-shaped sections that Uffa had introduced, in favour of U-shaped sections with a flat area along the keel line. Today it’s often called a “planing flat” but those who design clinker hulls use the term “flat garboards”.  The arrival of the “planing flat” and U sections marked the end of the era when the Vee-shaped hull that Avenger had introduced was a standard feature in racing dinghies. The U-shape allowed for narrower waterline beam, less wetted surface, and more planing area, and today it is a standard shape for a racing dinghy.

A sketch by Ian Proctor in a Yachting World article in November 1954 gives a clue to the way designers of the time thought about flare. Proctor wrote that a boat with concave flare “is easily capsized once it has been allowed to heel more than usual in a heavy puff, simply because the wind gets under the resistant expanse of flared topside and pushes…and the gunwale is taken closer to the water by the flare”. He noted that convex flare “is better but suffers slightly in the same way”. Observers from the early days of the wide National 12s noted that they had to be sailed very upright to keep the leeward gunwale from scooping water in heavy chop, but the greater power of the wide boats more than made up for it.

Another major shift was towards ever-increasing topsides flare. In earlier times, designers kept boats comparatively narrow. They were were concerned about reducing weight and windage, and that wider boats would scoop up water when they heeled. As late as 1966 the Proctor Mark IX, just 1.52m (5ft) wide, could still win a national Merlin Rocket title.

Perhaps because of improvements in gear like self bailers and transom flaps and more powerful rigs, in the late ’60s a new breed of designers increased flare and gunwale beam year upon year, creating more leverage for the crew and allowing them to drive the boats harder.  Designers like Martin Jones increased the gunwale beam of Nationals and Merlins by up to 76mm (3in) per year while still keeping the wetted surface to the minimum. A boat like Xpectant, generally considered the first truly wide Merlin, was 1.9 m (6ft3in), across the gunwales but only 1.1m (3ft8in) on the waterline. The leverage the crew could exert made such boats enormously powerful upwind and reaching, and they made the old narrow boat obsolete in strong winds.

Both classes banned hollow flare and eventually placed limits on overall beam, but not before the Merlin had swelled out to a massive 2.2m (7ft3in) and the National to 6’6″ – over half as wide as they were long. The righting moment increased in proportion, making the righting moment of later Merlins about 25% greater than earlier boats, and giving the crew about as much leverage as a conventional trapeze dinghy like a 470.


Baggy Trousers, a hig hly successful 1981 vintage National 12 by Rod Peebles, shows the dishy, flared shape the class developed. Unlike the Merlin, the National 12 dropped the old rules requiring hulls to be clinker planked, and Baggy was one of the first ‘smooth skinned’ boats. One of the features of the National 12 is that a wide variety of different designs, of widely different ages, can still perform well in certain conditions and the Baggy Trousers is still known as a very powerful boat and an excellent high-wind performer. In contrast, the Baggy’s predecessor, Pipedream, was known as a light-wind flyer.  Peebles believes that they were both actually good all-rounders that became known as specialist designs for reasons that were not related to the design. There’ll be more information on National 12 development later. Copyright Rob Peebles; reproduced with permission.


Today the Merlin fleet is dominated by variations on the Canterbury Tales design by Ian Holt with Jon Turner. They are supremely sophisticated boats that are so highly refined that they can out-perform many boats that should, by many theories, be faster. The modern Merlin, for example, is only one or two percent slower than the longer, trapeze-powered Fireball. It’s a tribute to the refinement of these boats that a two-person hiking boat that still has a 98 kg hull (although one loaded with 10kg or more of corrector weights) hull to be able to sail at such speeds.


Keith Callaghan was one of the most successful Merlin designers of the 1970s, an era when dozens of new boats were launched each year. The lines of his 1977 design Hazard (above) show the flat bottom sections and huge flare that remains a characteristic of the Merlin and National 12. The very heavy rocker aft was a Callaghan trademark that has been dropped in his latest design (bottom) “to take advantage of the power developed by the sophisticated modern rigs”.  With permission from Keith Callaghan; more from him about Merlin design later.


The National 12 has followed a different route. It’s one of the few development classes that still has a wide variety of different designs at the front of the fleet; a menagerie of little thoroughbreds. On the many British racecourses where tacks, tide-cheating and turns are frequent, good and unbiased observers say that the N12 can keep up with longer and generally faster boats like Tasars. In very light and tight racing it can even beat lightweight skiff-types like Cherubs. “On handicap they do best on beat and running courses, and in wind up to when trapeze boats start planing” says Greening.

Dave Greening’s Annie Apple shows the flared shape of the modern 12. The current boat have sophisticated features like an automatic “dangly” jib pole that can be flown to leeward to improve jib shape on broad reaches, and T-foil rudders to reduce nosediving. Pics from the class association site.
Dead Cat Bounce, currently the most successful design in the National 12s, was designed by Jo Richards, Olympic medallist and one of the most versatile of sailors and designers. The pic below, of a wooden version under construction by boatbuilder Simon Hipkin, shows the huge flare of the modern N12.  The Dead Cat Bounce design features a T-foil rudder which provides lift and allows the planing flat down the centreline to be much narrower than in earlier boats. The bottom pic is of a production version by Pinnell and Bax, showing the rudder angle adjustment system. Pic above from the class site; centre pic from Simon Hipkin, with permission; bottom pic from the Pinnell and Bax site.



Both classes have suggested handicaps for older boats that suggest that the MR and N12 go about 10% faster since the days of Kate, Rocketoo and Gypsy when compared to one-designs and earlier development class boats.  Not surprisingly, comparison with the Firefly seems to confirm that figure.  In their early days, the National 12s were almost the same speed as the strict one-design Firefly; now they are now rated as 9% faster than the Firefly (which has also been slightly updated) and the very latest N12s would be even quicker.  That, of course, is the way MR and N12 sailors like it; they get the security and big fleets that go with boats that hold their value, along with the technical interest of development classes.

The modern Merlin; carbon and corrector weights everywhere, a sophisticated rig that rakes and depowers with the pull of a single string, and huge flare for hiking power. For many years, the class has almost been a one-design based around variations of the Canterbury Tales design of Ian Holt and Jon Turner. Pic above from the HD Sails site, pic below from the Pinnell and Bax site.


Where the MR and N12 are unusual is that many of the older boats remain competitive in certain conditions. The more rounded sections, narrower sterns, greater rocker and smaller beam of the old boats add up to shapes with lower wetted surface and less loss of pace when tacking or heeling to gusts and lulls. On confined tidal waters, rivers and small lakes where fast tacking and low-speed characteristics count high, the old boats can be extremely competitive. Most sailors agree that some of the old boats are equal to the newest designs on inland waters; some believe that some boat decades old are actually faster in light winds on places like the River Thames.

So looking at boats like the Merlin and National 12 shows us that if rules stay largely the same, sixty or seventy years of intense development in design and technology can increase a class’ performance by about 10% – enough to transform a boat from a malleable family boat into a sensitive and demanding racing machine that can beat trapeze-powered lightweights much of the time.  On the other side, the continuing competitiveness of older designs in light winds and confined waterways shows that the classic-style hull is still hard to beat in its conditions, as well as (according to some) being easier to sail in some ways. That sounds like a win/win situation.

[1] ‘The National Twelve-Foot Class’ by Ian Proctor in “British and International Racing Yacht Classes”, H E Whitaker (ed) 1954, p 167

[2] “this 12-footer, because she was shorter, and still carrying two people”:- ‘R.Y.A. 12 Foot Dinghy’, in  “Sailing Boats”, Uffa Fox, 1959, p23. Much of the other information about the Uffa King comes from this piece.

[3] “and within three and a half years the National 12 was the most popular class in Britain”:-  The National Twelve-Foot Class’ by Ian Proctor in “British and International Racing Yacht Classes”, H E Whitaker (ed) 1954, p 166

[4] The National Twelve-Foot Class’ by Ian Proctor in “British and International Racing Yacht Classes”, H E Whitaker (ed) 1954, p 175

5 “Sailing Boats” p 27


Don’t shoot me, I’m only the blogger.



A classic scene from the second era of dinghy sailing, as the 18 Footer Tangalooma sails up the Brisbane River. 

The SailCraft story is getting to the scary part. Ancient history can be comfortable; there are no eye-witnesses to come up with inconvenient truths or dissenting opinions. When I was exploring the first phase in the history of the racing dinghy, everything was wrapped in the safety blanket of the distant past.

In the current posts, dealing with what I like to call the era of nationalism, I’m treading on more dangerous ground. For a start, as the sport of sailing grew, trends became wider and harder to follow (or perhaps easy to exaggerate); there were few occasions when a single boat, designer or class had the impact of Truant, Rob Roy Macgregor or the Half Raters. Secondly, while there’s no one around who can recall the impact of people like George Quayle, Larry Huntington or Linton Hope, there are plenty of people who have first- or second-hand experience of designers like Ian Proctor or Sandy Douglass and their contemporaries and the boats they created.  Finally, the main theme of the second era (as I can discern it) is nationalism, and that’s always a touchy subject. It becomes even more sensitive when an outsider is writing about a country, region or class, and when we’re dealing with an international multi-class history every writer must be an outsider to some extent.

The Snipe; arguably the prototype of the indigenous type of hard chine one design dinghy that was a feature of the second era of dinghy sailing in the USA.

To all those who feel that I’ve got no right to comment on the US midwestern sailing scene, or what goes on in the Solent or Bavaria, I can only say that I’ve tried as hard as I can to research what goes on across the sailing world. Nor do I believe that any one area of the world has better designs or better sailors; in fact one of the great driving forces of this whole project was the belief that (contrary to what some people claim) there is no one area that produces the best of dinghy designs.

So, as always with this project, if anyone feels I’ve got it wrong I would love to get your comments, insights or (hopefully) constructive criticism. There’s a very encouraging number of people who read this every week, and it would be wonderful to hear more information about what is being missed out, and what I’m getting wrong.

This is also a good (although rather belated) time to apologise to some people who have contacted me with messages, including fascinating information like pics of the fascinating ballasted dinghies of Plockton – sorry, my lack of computer skills seems to have caused me to lose your messages. I’ll keep trying to find them so that I can reply!

Cheers in sailing






Pt 1.18 – Classic boats through modern eyes

Many designers typecast themself around the model of their first outstanding boat, and Uffa Fox was no exception. He repeated the style that he had perfected with boats like Thunder and Lightning over the remainder of his career, and so did many other designers. From decades the 14s had few rivals for the title of most aristocratic and efficient of dinghies, and as late as the 1950s, Uffa could boast that “there has been no change in the design (of planing dinghies) from Avenger to the present day, beyond variations in her lines”. Other designers agreed; “all subsequent design has, willy-nilly, resulted from his theories of design” wrote Sandy Douglass, designer of America’s hugely popular Highlander, Flying Scot and Thistle.

By the time Uffa and Douglass wrote those words they were overstating the point. – most of the world’s popular classes were quite different to Avenger – but there’s no doubt that Uffa’s boats were a major influence on the thinking of many sailors and designers. Even today, classes inspired by those 1930s International 14 are still popular. Several of them, like the Firefly, Albacore and Thistle are strict one-designs that stay faithful to the hull shape and rig that was typified by Thunder and Lightning. So how do these deep-frozen versions of 1930s International 14 concepts compare to modern boats, and what can they tell us about dinghy design?

Firefly and Albacore – the first SMODs?

The earliest of these classic one designs are examples of an interesting contradiction. Athough one design classes are often seen as a low-tech option, their actual construction can involve more technology than the most sophisticated of development classes. To the British sailors who saw the first Fireflies rolling off the production line in their ugly war-surplus grey paint may have seemed basic and utilitarian, but in fact they were produced by the latest aeronautical engineering technology, using techniques far newer than that of the most sophisticated development boats of the day.

The Firefly, Albacore and Thistle were produced using a technology that had been developed in the 1930s, when advances in synthetic gap-filling resin glues and waterproof plywood allowed laminated ply to be “hot moulded”, or pressure-moulded into compound curves over moulds inside giant oven-like “autoclaves”.  During World War 2 the technique had been used to build equipment as humble as aircraft fuel tanks and dinghies, and as famous as the high-performance de Havilland Mosquito fighter/bomber. After the war the British company Fairey, who had been hot-moulding Mosquitoes under contract, looked for a way to use their new-found knowledge and equipment. Since Richard Fairey was a J Class and 12 Metre owner, it was not surprising that they turned their attention to “a modest experiment” by setting up a company to build sailboats. At about the same time the Royal Yachting Association started to promote a one-design 12 footer to suit the austere conditions of post-war England. After asking several designers to provide plans, they selected a variation of an earlier one design that Uffa had created for the Cambridge University sailing club. It fitted into the rules for the National 12 development class, but had a flatter, more stable hull so that it could be used by beginners.

The new technology of hot moulding seemed to offer a chance to bring a “proper” racing boat – and in the UK at the time that mean a smooth-skinned round-bilge hull rather than a clinker or hared-chine one – to the masses. “A moulded plywood one-design class, built  by quantity-production methods which were applicable to that form of construction, certainly seemed to be the best way of getting a cheap dinghy to give first-class racing” wrote dinghy designer Ian Proctor. “The idea was exciting and all sort of possibilities opened up.”

The RYA agreed that Fairey should use their hot moulding facilities to produce the 12 footer, which was given the name of Firefly after one of the company’s carrier aircraft. Charles Currey, a top-class International 14 sailor seen here sailing a Firefly ran the project for Fairey, to a concept that was decades ahead of its time. Although hot moulding still required skilled tradesmen (as shown in this fascinating newsreel showing Firefly production) it was hoped that mass production would enable the complete boat to cost just 65 pounds, about 25% of the average annual wage. The spars were alloy; a first for the UK – and all sails, spars and fittings were supplied with the boat. The original published drawings show several sailplans, including a singlehanded cat rig, but only the standard sloop seems to have been raced.

The Firefly seems to have been the prototype of what is now called the”single manufacturer one design”; a class that is strictly one design and basically equipment is supplied by the manufacturer. It was in many ways the forerunner of classes like the Laser, Sunfish, 9ers and RS designs, with the important difference that in the Firefly’s case the association, not the builder, has control over the class.

The first time I saw a Firefly I was amazed by how small and round it appeared; it looked like a giant peanut; even by 1954 standards it was narrow in the stern. In the early years they had a straight untapered alloy mast. It leaked and made the boats top-heavy so was replaced with a wooden tip.

The Firefly was selected as the singlehanded class for the 1948 Olympics simply because no other one design was available. Timber, a scarce resource during the reconstruction of war-weary Britain, was strictly rationed at the time, but exception was made for Fireflies built for potential Olympians. Many boat-hungry sailors suddenly found the urge to try to sail for England in the Games, then found other pressing engagements once their precious Firefly had been delivered to them.  It wasn’t a success as a singlehander – it was sailed in the Games with jib and main (apparently because that was the fastest mode) but as dinghy designer Ian Proctor wrote, “the Firefly hull is very buoyant and with only one man aboard sits like a bubble on the surface of the water. All the life is knocked out of them when trying to make to windward against a popple on the water, for unless they have more weight aboard they are not the best shape to withstand unkind punches on the nose.” But the Firefly justified itself by allowing a shy 19 year old from Denmark to enter his first major regatta. He retired from the first race because of his shyness and youth, but in the last race he drove hard through a gale to score a vital win. It gave the young Dane the gold, and a new name entered dinghy sailing- Paul Elvstrom.

The Firefly’s hull shape was a copy of an earlier clinker hull designed for Cambridge University’s sailing club. Uffa wrote that the lines “follow my ideas perfected in 1927 with the 1`4-footer Avenger”


Although the mass-production ideal was never met and the Firefly ended up costing about 100 pounds minus sails, the boat’s simplicity and good handling soon made it almost as popular as the older National 12. It maintained its appeal over the decades even as newer classes came out, and until the ’80s it was one of the most popular classes in the huge UK dinghy scene. As the design of choice for teams racing in England it’s been used at ISAF world championship level and in 2016, it’s still popular enough to get 60+ boats to national titles. Popular, cheap and manoeuvrable, it’s a common second boat among those who own more modern craft.

So what do people who sail modern boats think of Uffa’s 1930s classic? When I asked sailors on the Yachts and Yachting magazine forum, it turned out that even “skiffies” like 18 foot skiff sailors like Mark Tait love to sail them. “With one design classes the interest is in the competition, and as the boats get slower and more evenly matched in speed the more interesting the tactical aspects become – this is why I find them interesting to sail” he says. “The other aspect that has kept the Firefly popular is the social side to the racing – they have good parties, and you can sail the boat easily with a hangover!!”

The Firefly’s manoeuvrability makes it a favourite boat for roll tacking and on the confined waters found in many British venues.  “The effects of being a short boat with a round hull and a lot of rocker make for a boat that you can tack fast with very little input from the rudder, by putting on the correct amount of roll” notes Firefly racer Mark Tait. Pics from Wessex SC (top) and West Kirby SC (bottom).



“The same rules apply to sail these older designs fast. They are still fastest when sailed flat. Downwind the narrow round planing area makes the Firefly fairly unstable, but I would say this is due to the narrow width more than anything else. The modern National 12s which are now equally narrow are more unstable.”

“Sailing upwind, the fuller bow does tend to make the Firefly go over rather than through the majority of waves, so they bob a bit. The biggest differences you notice however when sailing them is that they plane much less readily than newer dinghies (and never upwind). Their biggest obstacle (apart from the weight issues) is the rocker – you often get the feeling of being locked in a wave. Also the stern wake is large for the size and weight, especially as they near planing conditions – you need a good 12 knots to start!”

A Firefly’s stern wave starts to build; the penalty for the rounded lines that allow it to turn so easily is inferior planing performance.

Jono Pank is another sailor who enjoys both classic classes and skiffs. A UK Firefly champion, he was also runner-up in the world titles for the skiff-type B14, a Julian Bethwaite design that was an ancestor to the Olympic 49er. “In the B14, when the winds up and if there’s chop it’ll pay to have the boom off the centreline and get the boat on the plane uphill, NOT an option in the displacement Firefly! The B14 seems to like being driven hard into its jib pretty much all the time, whereas I am nearly always “stuffing” (British for “pinching”) my Firefly!”

The Firefly hull has a definite top speed limit (some call it “Mach Firefly”), but the old round-hulled shape excels in the many races in confined waterways, where windshifts and tides make fast tacking vital. “Lighter wind sailing in both the Firefly and B14 is about maximising speed, especially in the manoeuvres” says Pank. “In the Firefly it’s about great, big, fluid roll tacks. In the B14 the same applies, but there is less about roll and more about keeping the transom out, getting the battens popped early and focusing on the acceleration away from the turn.”

“In the lighter stuff, the crew really owns and drives the tacks in the Firefly, where as in the B 14, you want your crew focusing on staying low and forward on the foredeck and ensuring the jib is set up right as the main comes on and the boat is levelled. It’s all about the helm; keep the steering to a minimum, stay forward in the boat, drive into the jib and pump! In the B14, we have found by focusing on really consistent good tacks in the light, we are able to put more in without them being expensive, thus being able to play the shifts more and getting better lanes. In the Firefly, one takes poor lanes occasionally to have an excuse for another tack, which will not cost anything at all and in fact may well speed you up! “Clear air is crucial in the B 14 and the lanes are wide and change a lot depending on pressure and chop, whereas in the FF, you can hang on in really tight lanes for a long time without risking too much boat speed.”


The Firefly’s big sister is the 15 foot Albacore (above) which was developed from the earlier Swordfish (below). The hull shape was generally similar to Uffa’s pre-war Int 14s, but designed more for stability and easy handling. It has more Vee in the stern sections and 114mm/4 1/2in more waterline beam. Dinghy designer Ian Proctor felt that with its heavy centreboard, grey paint and untapered mast the Swordfish probably suffered through looking too cheap and being too heavy. A few years later, it was given a new rig without a spinnaker, more freeboard and a lighter centreboard and re-launched as the Albacore. The Albacore remains one of the most popular dinghies in North America. Pic above from the Canadian association site.



The Thistle grew out of Uffa’s design concepts, the “hot moulding” process, and Sandy Douglass’ realisation that the post-WW2 US dinghy market needed “boats with broad appeal, and broad appeal implied family use”. The combination of race-bred design, high-tech aero manufacturing techniques and Douglass’ understanding of the market made the Thistle one of the most popular dinghies in the USA for over half a century.

Sandy Douglass had been running a small traditional boatbuilding operation specialising in sophisticated racing dinghies when he became aware of hot moulding around the time the USA entered the second world war. “Here might be the solution to our labor problems in building round-bilged boats, such as the International 14’s” he wrote many years later.”No more tiny ribs every two inches, no laboriously fitted inner and outer plankng, no seven thousand copper nails….perhaps this might even put us in a competitive position against boats such as the Snipe and Comet which sold, at a profit, for half as much as ours.”

Douglass put together a series of hot-moulded International 14s, but he realised that although it had most of the qualities he was looking for, it was too small to work as a family day sailer. A 17 footer, he decided, was big enough to carry a family and small enough to be fairly light and to fit into a typical US garage.  The hull shape that Douglass created was, he admitted, “greatly influenced” by the Fox 14s like the ones he had been building for years, but in his autobiography he took pains to explain that the Thistle was not just a scaled-up 14. Douglass had learned years before, when building a Fox I-14 scaled-down to 3.66m (12ft) for a client, that the cube/square factor means that  boats cannot simply be scaled up or down.. He found that the extra length of the Thistle allowed easier lines than the 14 which, he wrote, “has to be pretty chunky”. Douglass also gave her full bilges just above the waterline, to make the boat a good weight carrier and stiff when heeled or loaded down with the family.

Douglass gave the Thistle a big but low-aspect sailplan on a sophisticated mast similar to that of the 14s of the day. He also took an idea that some of Fox’s 14s had “borrowed” from Thomas Smith, the creator of Snake. The centerboard rests not on a pin, but a roller that runs along the top of the centrecase, allowing the board to be shifted fore and aft. It’s a nice touch that a detail from one of the earliest planing centreboarders is seen on one of the most popular dinghies, an ocean and 120 years apart.

For all the explanations Douglass gave about the reasoning behind the Thistle, superficially it looks basically as if he had just expanded a classic Fox 14s. Even the layout was the same – where most daysailers have wide decks, Douglass left the Thistle as open as a 14, to reduce weight and increase cockpit space. But no one can doubt that the Thistle is an outstanding blend of the thoroughbred British dinghy and the American daysailer. It is faster than the longer competitors like the Lightning, and able to pace with racing machines like the 505. Sixty years later, it remains a strong class and a strict one design. The latest boats have been updated in fittings and material, but they still have the same hull shape, the same stay arrangement, the same sailplan, the same weight as the first Thistle. They still have Dacron sails, no decks and no trapeze. In fact, the class has been so successful at keeping old boats competitive that Thistle Number One was the national champion in the 1990s. If the International 14s had become a one design in 1945, they’d look like the modern Thistle. And sailors love them. The Thistle nationals are one of the biggest championships in North America, behind only the Optimist, Sunfish and Lasers in terms of numbers.

Seattle Thistle fleet pic


So how do these 1930s vintage designs seem to modern sailors who have grown up with carbon rather than cotton?  Andy Dovell, designer of 18 Foot Skiffs and Americas Cup yachts, has moved to Australia but still has fond memories of the Thistles he grew up sailing; “plumb stem, hard knuckle below the waterline, extraordinarily fine at the waterline, it’s just a dynamite boat.”

“The Thistle is a great boat for many reasons” writes a world-class 505 sailor who also races Thistles. “Performance in light/moderate air, huge open cockpit, relatively stable, relatively simple, tight class rules, lasting value.

The Thistle had stayed strictly to its original design, staying completely undecked and with notoriously narrow gunwales. Thistle class pic

“The Thistle has relatively low wetted surface for its weight (515lb/234kg), with some “flat” sections aft for OK planing performance.  It has a lot of rocker by today’s dinghy standards.  It has a huge main, but an archaic rig (triple diamonds, with straight side stays, untapered deck-stepped tree-trunk mast).  It’s also not so light in the ends despite not having a deck because the laminate is heavy (solid polyester, no core), so pitch and yaw moments are relatively large.”

“The boat is balanced well enough upwind in moderate air, but control becomes an issue on reaches and windy runs. The round sections of the Thistle make it a bit more skid-ish than the 505 on a plane, but it’s not too bad.  It just seems to truck along on a plane, and it certainly doesn’t “handle” like a Miata doing a slalom through the cones.  It’s more like a Mercedes – fast enough, smooth, but if you turn it, you know you’re going to get some body roll and things don’t happen so quickly.”

“The CB is weighted (32kg/70 lbs) and it definitely provides some righting moment. I think the boat would prefer to be flat upwind, but in its current configuration it seems it must heel some to keep the power on to get through chop. You also need the heel to provide form stability. The hull offers decent form stability, but it won’t plane upwind, and sails with more heel than real high performance dinghies in the trade-off between optimum power and trim. I don’t know that the heeled sections are any better for form resistance – I would think not because the buttock lines are so rounded.  The bow sections are actually nicely flared, so it does slice through the chop pretty well on a beat.”

“So, the boat is great in 4-15 knots TWS; it’s about as fast upwind as the 505 up to about 10 knots, but after that the 505 starts to plane and it’s see ya later. Downwind is no contest, especially with the 505’s larger spinnaker. Over 15 knots, it gets to be a handful because you can’t depower the rig effectively, and you have limited righting moment.  The spinnaker is small, but the boat will plane well on a reach and a run.  After a 505, it feels heavy, but it’s hard to find a class with better people with better organization and enthusiasm.”

Sailors’ tales like this seem to confirm that while the classic Uffa-style dinghy has long been outmoded when it comes to pure speed in high-performance classes, it still brings joy to sailors who are used to newer designs. Good class management and the fact that classes like the Firefly, Albacore and Thistle achieved critical mass long ago obviously helps, but then again many other classes have come and gone in the same period. Perhaps it’s the fact that the rounded hull lines excel at moderate speeds and in the light winds and confined waters that many clubs race on each weekend. Perhaps their handling characteristics, like the ability to tack with little loss of pace and to tolerate a bit of heel without slowing down dramatically, suits sailors who are more interested in tactical racing than boathandling contests.















“as dinghy designer Ian Proctor wrote”:- ‘The National Firefly class’ by Ian Proctor in “British and International Racing Yacht Classes”, H E Whitaker BSC (ed), 1954

“”Here might be the solution to our labor problems”; Douglass p 171




There were all sorts of boats, but they all had the same concept in them.”

Pt 1.17: Thunder, Lightning and the Tali Dogang – the classic British dinghy and the trapeze


A historic moment, as the trapeze arrives makes its mark in dinghy racing and Thunder and Lightning sails away to win the Prince of Wales Cup in 1938. Scott and his co-owner/skipper John Winter swapped positions as they raced, with the forward hand calling tactics. Although Winter (along with the crew of Charles Curry’s boat in the same race) had the honour of being the first “mainstream” dinghy sailor to race with a trap, I have a feeling that this photo shows Scott on the wire. Pic from ‘The International Fourteen, 1928-1989’ with permission. As always, the bad scanning is my responsibility!


At 11 August  1938, the quintessential British racing dinghy and Asia’s great dinghy-sailing innovation came together just off Falmouth, UK. The place was the start line of the Prince of Wales Cup, then the greatest prize in International 14s and in British dinghy racing. The boat was the Uffa Fox design Thunder and Lightning, co-owned and co-skippered by John Winter and Sir Peter Scott.

Thunder and Lightning was an archetypal example of the concept that was to dominate high-performance dinghies for much of the 20th century. Both Winter and Scott were established champions in the class. Winter had been PoW champion with his boat Lightning, while Scott had won with Thunder. Both were Uffa designed and built, and the new boat’s shape was described by Uffa as “very similar to Thunder…excepting she is finer forward”. It was a classic example of slow but steady progress. The shape of successive generations of Uffa’s 14s vary by an inch or less, but that seems enough to have led to plenty of progress; in 1937 Avenger, although well sailed, finished last in the Prince of Wales Cup, almost 20 minutes behind the winner.


Thunder and Lightning was completed on the morning of her first race, launched from Uffa’s yard just before the five-minute gun, and then sailed off to win her first race while Uffa (shirtless, second from right) and his workmen got to “enjoy our beer in peace”. Photo from ‘Thoughts on Yachts and Yachting’ with permission from Uffa Fox Ltd.


A quintessentially British boat, Thunder and Lighting’s co-owner/skipper Sir Peter Scott was the son of one of the most British of heroes – Captain Scott of the Antarctic. “Do not let him grow idle” wrote the explorer about his infant son in his final letter to his wife as he faded on the ice. He didn’t need to worry; Sir Peter was not idle, but frighteningly active and talented. He was a successful wildlife artist, one of the world’s great early conservationists and a founder of the World Wildlife Fund, an Olympic sailing medallist, a naval hero, a knight of the realm, a TV star, and an America’s Cup skipper.

As the son of a national hero and stepson of a potential prime minister, Scott had a secure social status, as did his co-skipper John Winter.  Most of England’s International 14 sailors seem to have been from “the right crowd”; perhaps it was this standing that allowed them to sail such small boats without fearing for their dignity. Like the fashions for Una Boats, canoes and small Raters among the wealthy and aristocratic), it belies the claim that the “establishment” are always conservative when it comes to boat design.


Thunder and Lightning, from Uffa’s book ‘Thoughts on Yachts and Yachting’. As well as showing Uffa’s beautiful drafting, this illustration shows her extremely deep centreboard – or, as Uffa himself called it in the book “drop keel”. He noted that at 1.7m (5ft6in), Thunder and Lightning drew more than the 11m (36ft) International Six Metre yachts.  I’m not sure whether the big reel is a halyard winch or a keel winch – can anyone provide more details?


The hull of a boat like Thunder and Lightning is a marvel of painstaking boatbuilding by master craftsmen. The sometimes acid Sandy Douglass noted that “in those days Uffa enjoyed the fabulous reputation, well deserved, for turning out the finest small boats to be found”. Peter Scott described Uffa’s boats as being built “like violins”.  Twin diagonally-planked layers of 5mm (3/16in) mahogany planking were supported by an intricate basketwork of steam-bent rock elm frames a mere 6mm by 9.5mm (¼in by 3/8in), spaced just two inches apart. They were secured by some 7000 copper rivets which had to be carefully tapped through and clenched without breaking the delicate frames. Douglass, calculated that each rivet required 15 careful strikes with a hammer. That meant over 100,000 hammer blows to be delivered with precision, often by craftsmen working in pairs, with one outside the hull driving the rivet and one inside the hull riveting. The layers of planking were separated by a layer of oiled silk (old design blueprints) which stopped the water from passing between the layers.

It was, in its day, by far the lightest way (and by far the most expensive) to create a boat, and the bare hull of a boat like Thunder and Lightning weighed in at just 102kg (225lb). The immaculately varnished boats were regularly seen standing, unpadded and uncovered, on railways platforms while being delivered, for Uffa believed (rightly) that no freight handler could fail to treat such a beautiful object with utmost care; his canoes even went to the USA unpacked and undamaged.

The sophistication of the construction was matched by the fittings – bronze centerboards and winches to control them, finely-crafted hollow masts with internal halyard winches, and boom vangs (which made their way from model yachts into 14s in 1932, and then into other classes). It all lead to I-14s tripling and quadrupling in price in the class’ first five years, giving both 14s and planing dinghies the cachet of being the aristocrats of small sailboats.

But what of the hull shape?  Those bow lines underneath the waterline would not seem too out of date on a much more modern boat. They show only the barest hint of convex curve. The entry angle (measuring the “sharpness” of the bow) is surprisingly fine – at just 19 degrees (unless my measurements are out; feedback invited) it is very similar to that of 14s from the 1980s. The waterlines sweep back to a widest point 57 % aft. Over the next 40 years the wide point of the waterline seems to have crept back only about 3-6% further. The waterline beam is about 4ft – just 5 to 7 in wider than 14s of the ’80s.

Underneath the bilges, the sections show straight lines that run towards the keel, forming Uffa’s “trademark” Vee shape. The first station shows a deadrise of about 40 degrees. Under the mast, the figure is still close to 12 degrees, and at the stern it’s about nine. As late as the 1960s, International 14s from designers like Ian Proctor seem to have changed surprisingly little from Thunder and Lightning in this respect.

It’s above the waterline that Thunder & Lightning really shows her age. Fourteens of this era weighed about 173kg (380lb) rigged and sailing, 362kg (800lb) with crew aboard. They had no decks, little buoyancy, and no self bailers. The heavy rig and centerboard would have tried to shove the bows underneath head seas, yet a nosedive or even heavy spray would have led to a bilge full of water. When self-draining devices and pumps were banned on the grounds of expense, the need to reduce spray and green water coming aboard became critical. Uffa and his followers tackled the problem by designing topsides that billowed out just above the waterline, increasing the entry angle to 30 degrees about 25% of the way up from the waterline and almost 40 at the gunwale before pulling into almost vertical sections near the gunwale. In contrast, boats from the ’60s onwards tend to have straight but flared sections above the waterline.

Sandy Douglass, the Fox fan and 14 builder who used the same style of bow shape in his Thistle design, gave an interesting explanation of the reasoning behind this style of bow. “If we want our boat to be dry she must have a fine entrance to slice through the waves. A fuller entrance might give a little more speed, but the dryness of the fine bow is worth the sacrifice. Fullness higher up will provide the lift to get her over the seas and the flare to throw the spray down. The forebody, deeply veed, will take her to weather, will give her an easy motion in big seas with no slapping or pounding, and will lift her into planing….”

Despite the high priority that Uffa and his followers placed on keeping their boats dry, they didn’t use gunwales that projected outside the sheerline. As Ian Proctor explained, Uffa “objected to them on the grounds of windage.” The same concern may have been behind the use of tumblehome near the transom.

Thunder and Lightning, like her contemporaries, had more Vee in her sections than Avenger. This may have been because rule changes increased the minimum weight. Designers seem to have commonly adapted designs for increased weight by using deeper Vee sections to add the required volume, instead of using more waterline beam or firmer bilges. The other option of using U-shaped sections, which allow more volume in the same depth and beam, seems to have been ignored until boats like the National 12 March Hare introduced the concept in the ’60s, as we’ll see later. By modern standards the rudders of the day were shallow and heavily swept. As John Westell of 505 fame explained, it was felt that a deep rudder tended to roll the boat too much and cause too much heeling.


Thunder & Lightning’s rig was of a style that would remain stereotyped in 14s for decades. The class rules theoretically restricted sail area to 11.61 sq m (125 sq ft), but only 85% of the foretriangle area was measured, and none of the jib overlap. With the big overlapping genoa up, the 14s carried about 16.3sq m (175 sqft) of upwind sail in light and moderate winds. The rules kept the forestay low and restricted the spinnaker pole length, creating curious spinnakers, almost round in shape.

As jib overlap increased, it became necessary to move to narrower shroud bases so that the sails could be sheeted tight enough. The simple and light bamboo masts of earlier times were replaced by complex spars made of hollow timber, with internal halyards, three spreaders, jumper struts and a “parrot perch” – like a single spreader poking straight in front of the topmast. All up, the rig normally weighed in at about 18 to 21kg (39 to 47 lb).

For years the International 14s were allowed unrestricted headsail overlap. The huge headsail shown in this drawing was tested on Thunder and Lightning, but turned out to have such a limited wind range that it was not successful.


While the rigs were expensive, at least some of the cotton sails seem to have lasted amazingly well. The Ratsey mainsail that Scott and co-owner/skipper John Winter used to win the 1938 PoW was the same sail that had won the 1932 Cup for the legendary Stewart Morris and the 1934 Cup for Winter, and it was to go on to drive Scott, Winter and Thunder & Lightning to a second PoW victory in 1946. Has there ever been another sail that has won four major championships over a period of 14 years?

Earlier 14s had normally carried a massive 100kg (120-220lb) phosphor-bronze foil; more of a lifting keel than a centreboard. By the late ’30s they were getting lighter and Thunder & Lightning went a step further by having two centerboards; a standard foil, ballasted with 23kg (50lb) of metal, and a secret lightweight all-timber foil. “To preserve our secret” Peter Scott wrote, “we painted the light board with brass paint, and whenever we carried it, we put on a great pantomime of weight lifting.”

The lightweight centreboard was used on that day in August when Thunder and Lightning won the 1938 Prince of Wales Cup and introduced the trapeze to mainstream dinghy racing.  Like so many other innovations, the trapeze was sparked by a collision between two disparate cultures; the Canadian Int 14 racers on the one hand, and the Thames Raters on the other. “Some years before I had crewed Beecher Moore in his Thames Rater at Surbiton to which he had fitted a “bell rope” attached to the mast at the hounds and one member hung onto this and was thereby enabled to lean much further out” wrote Scott in his autobiography. “Uffa, Charles Curry, John (Winter) and I had discussed taking the invention a stage further by the use of a harness…The Canadian dinghies had also used a method of belaying the jib sheet to a cleat on a sort of breast plate strapped to the crew. Our harness would combine the two.”

The first two trapezes in “mainstream” dinghy sailing, from TJ Vaughan’s class history. All I can say is “ouch”.

The trapeze was almost untried when co-skippers Scott and John Winter left the start line in the 1938 Prince of Wales cup. “In a matter of moments John had belayed the jib on a cleat and was out the trapeze. Standing horizontally out from the bow with his feet on the gunwale, he was a startling sight even to me. To the other competitors the spectacle was irresistible…with John’s weight keeping the boat much more vertical, with much less effort than any of the others, we forged ahead…”  Under the power of the trapeze, Scott and Winter became became the first-ever team to lead around every buoy in the Prince of Wales Cup, winning by almost four minutes.

That day has gone down in history as the day the trapeze was used for the first time in a race. History is wrong. New Zealand sailing historian Robin Elliott has shown conclusively that the idea had been used a few years before in Auckland’s “M Class” 18 footers. It didn’t catch on; those who used the trapeze didn’t change their sailing techniques or boat design to make the most of the extra stability.  But not even the Kiwis can truly claim to have invented the trapeze – or, to use its proper name, the “tali dogang”. The trapeze seems to have been introduced to racing by the Malaysian sailors of the “kolek” canoes of the Singapore region.

The Koleks ranged from “three-depa” 5.5m/18 ft two-man boats, to massive 13.7m/45ft versions just 1.7m (5ft6in) wide, which raced only on state occasions. The big koleks were “manned by a large crew of twenty or more, who act as live ballast out to windward” to quote H. Warington Smyth, (holder of the wonderful title of “Commander of the Order of the White Elephant of Siam”) in 1902. “In a fresh breeze they stand on the gunwale, and, holding on to man-ropes leading from the mast, lean out all their length to windward.” Other reports imply that the trapeze lines were the only thing that kept the mast in the big koleks. The enthusiastic reports from western yachtsmen who sailed the koleks speak of amazing downwind speed, and (not surprisingly) frequent capsizes.

A small Kolek racing canoe, as depicted in Warington-Smyth. This scan from The Cheap Pages, a great site.

By the late 1920s, there were reports that indicate that the true trapeze, where the crew sits in a harness rather than just holding on by their hands, was in use among Kolek sailors. A visiting yachtie wrote of sailing a three-depa kolek where the crew “literally keeps the boat upright by an acrobatic performance that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. From the mainmast, just above the forestay, the Tali Dogang is made fast…This consists of a length of manila rope, one inch in diameter, that passes through the bridle in which the (crew) sits…The bridle is made of stout canvas doubled, two inches in width, with an eyelet at either end. Now this makes a most comfortable, if precarious seat, and with feet on the gunwale the live ballasts sways out and in as the boat heels to varying weights of the wind.”

A drawing of a big kolek from Warington Smyth’s 1906 book ‘Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia’, as scanned at The Peregrinating Penguin blog, which is the source for my information about the end of the koleks in Singapore and their survival in northern Indonesia. This drawing is faithful to the photographs and drawings contained in other works. Note the eight crew on trapezes (or, as we should probably call it, tali dogangs).

Sadly the Koleks died out in Malaysia and Singapore. Like so many other fascinating types, they were apparently killed by waterfront development. The coastal villages that housed their crews were cleared, the inhabitants moved into high rise apartments. When I asked the Singaporean maritime museum about the Koleks, they had no idea what I was talking about. But (as I found out from Peng Hui Lee’s Peregrinating Penguin blog) the type still races occasionally on the Indonesian side of the Singapore Straits, and there is now a small re-kindling of interest in the history of the type in Singapore.

Although there is not the slightest reason to think that Scott, Curry, Winter and Fox had copied the idea of the trapeze from the Kolek sailors, some of the spectators saw the connection.  T Norman Hinton, a dinghy writer who saw Thunder and Lightning “swishing along, taxi-ing over the water like a flying boat” on her way to win the Prince of Wales Cup wrote in his race report that the trapeze was “a trick popular with Malay seamen in their racing prahus and which was introduced – and promptly banned – by certain members of the Royal Singapore Yacht Club in 1922!” But the words of Hinton and Warington Smyth were forgotten, and so has Asia’s greatest dinghy-sailing innovation.

Although that single famous Prince of Wales Cup showed the potential of the trapeze, the International 14 class (and many others) banned it. The “official” view was that the trapeze was against the class heritage and would be too hard for inland sailors to use.  It was a decision that Scott regretted; the trapeze, he said, allowed lighter sailors to be competitive and was much more fun than hiking. It was, he wrote “tremendously exciting to stand out, comfortable supported by the trapeze, almost horizontal and skimming out over the waves. It is sad than a handful of people who did not have the vision to see this should have outlawed the trapeze for so long.”

As always, there is another side to the story. Prince of Wales Cup winner Ian Bruce told me that when the trapeze was finally allowed into 14s 30 years later at the urging of the Canadians and Americans, many heavier and less agile crews moved out of the class. “There was never less than 65 to 70 boats in our national championship. Then they put a trapeze on, and all of a sudden there were 45.”  Ironically there was no such drop in fleets in England, which had opposed the development.

Although the trapeze did not resurface for another two decades, the design style typified by Thunder and Lightning became accepted as the gold standard of racing dinghy across much of the world. The 14s themselves were not universally accepted; this was the era of nationalism, and the Fourteen was very much a British boat in style. Europeans felt that they too short and expensive, Australians and New Zealanders preferred local types and each country only had one small fleet each; but Uffa’s writings about the class and the prestige their expense and performance gave them seem to have lifted the profile of dinghy sailing as a whole. When Avenger won that historic PoW, it seems to have been largely ignored by mainstream sailing writers. By the time Thunder and Lightning had her name engraved on the trophy, the race was widely covered by the sailing press.  The Fourteen class has never had huge fleets but it was to be a training or proving ground for designers like Jack Holt, Ian Bruce, Sandy Douglass, John Westell, Phil Morrison and Paul Bieker; men who created many of the world’s most greatest and most popular dinghies.

The Fourteen’s class rules have changed so much that we can no longer see how the classic Uffa style would sail with modern technology, or how the class would have developed if the rules had stayed the same. Luckily, the Fourteen inspired so many classes that we can look at some of them and see how classic design looks through modern eyes.




“boom vangs, which made their way from model yachts into 14s in 1932”:- ‘The International Fourteen 1928-1989’, TJ Vaughan, p 20.

Scott He must have had a sense of humour too; it was Scott who created the scientific label of Nessiteras rhombopteryx for the Loch Ness Monster, so it could be recognized as an endangered species! In theory, the Greek meant “the wonder of Ness with the diamond shaped fin”, but it’s no surprise that it is also an anagram of “Monster hoax by Sir Peter S”.

“The sometimes acid Sandy Douglass noted”;- “Sixty Years Behind the Mast: The Fox on the Water”, Gordon K (Sandy) Douglass, p 155.

“Sandy Douglass calculated that each boat required 75,000 or more careful strikes with a hammer”;- “Sixty Years Behind the Mast: The Fox on the Water”, Gordon K (Sandy) Douglass, p 147.

“As Ian Proctor explained”:- ‘Splash’, by Ian Proctor, Yachting World, November 1954

“As John Westell of 505 fame explained”:- ‘Not just for steering’ by John Westell, July 1959….ummm, actually I can’t see what magazine I photocopied the article from. My photocopying is as bad as my scanning.

“The “official” view was that the trapeze was…”:- Vaughan p 27

“It was a decision that Scott regretted”:- Scott p 247

“Prince of Wales Cup winner Ian Bruce told me”;- Personal interview with the author, Sydney.

“Ironically there was no such drop in fleets in England”;- Vaughan, pp 45 and 68

“Europeans felt that they too short and expensive”:- Vaughan p 19. See also the letters of Francis Herreshoff, who like many Europeans preferred long boats and repeatedly complained that they were too short and therefore wet, slow and hard to sail compared to their sail area.

“each country only had one small fleet each”:- the post-war Auckland fleet produced outstanding performers like the PoW cup winner Atau Hau. The sole Australian fleet of Fox-style 14s was in Adelaide, South Australia in the ’30s. Little information is available about the Australian boats. They seem to have raced as a separate class to the Australian 14 footers, which had much bigger rigs and more crew.

Pt 1.14:”A radical departure”: the scow

“Racing Half-Raters”, from Outing magazine, August 1896. Most of the Seawanhaka Cup boats, like the Question type in the painting, were essentially unballasted and relied on crew weight for stability. Many of their sailors came from canoes and all of them would have been aware of sliding seats, so they knew all about the advantage of getting body weight out to windward. If some of them preferred to lie along the gunwale as in this painting rather than hiking like the crew of Spruce did, it may have been because sailors of the time were very concerned about the windage created by the crew.

By the time the second Seawanhaka Cup was raced in 1896, over 100 “15 Footers” were sailing in North America, with no less than 27 boats entering the selection trials and 17 aiming to become challenger. “So great a variety of features in design, construction, rig and fittings has never been brought together in the history of yachting” noted WP Stephens in Forest and Stream. The fleet was also said to be a “crude and experimental one”, because so few boats were properly tuned and prepared.

The first mark, race one, 1896 trials. From left to right, the boats are Question, Trilby, Kittie, Paprika , Vesper (on starboard), El Hierie, the Question-type Willada (running, in the background) and In It (partly out of picture). The Ethelwynn type Ideal won this race from Riverside and El Hierie. John S Johnston pic from the Library of Congress site.

Three of the entries in the US trials were Question-type designs; Question herself, Willada and Hope. R B Burchard, who was to crew the the runner-up in the US trials, called the Huntington designs “especially ugly and crude-looking” but admitted that “they have shown great speed in heavy weather.”  They got little heavy weather in the trials, and were well out of the running.

Hope, one of the Question-type Huntington designs entered for the 1896 defence trials. She was owned by the young Arthur Iselin, one of the people who prove that members of the social “establishment” were not all conservatives and were often willing to own radical, uncomfortable and downright ugly boats. One of the crew is sitting in the tiny hatch, the other sprawling in the uncomfortable position that was usual in light winds. J S Johnson pic from the Library of Congress

The newest Huntington design was Paprika, described as an attempt to combine the Herreshoff Olita design with a round-bilge version of Question. She was the fastest of the fleet in strong winds, but not as fast as others in the light. She was owned and sailed by the young Sherman Hoyt, who was to become one of the world’s great yachtsmen over the next few decades.


Paprika was another Huntington design and was selected to race in the final trials. J S Johnson/Library of Congress pic.



In It was basically a big boat sitting on top of a little boat. Her name was meant to be easy to change depending on how well she went. If she was a flier, they were going to stick a “W” in front of the name. After a couple of unsuccessful races, her crew stuck a tangled piece of line in front of the name, indicating that she was “Knot In It”.  JS Johnson/LoC pic

One of the most bizarre boats was “In It”, designed by the Crosby Company. She was said to have ‘the appearance of the under body of a small boat, fastened to the upper body of the larger model. There is no only a separate hull, but also a separate V-shaped transom or knuckle forward of the rudder and under the water-line.” This strange design reduced the measured waterline to 10ft and therefore allowed In It to carry 375 sq ft of sail under the Seawanhaka Rule, but she was a failure on the racecourse. Many years later the 12 Metre Mariner tried a similar underwater transom and was a famous flop as an America’s Cup defence candidate, proving that small boats led the way even when it comes to bad designs.

Kittie V was another radical Seawanhaka trials entry.  JS Johnson/LoC pic.

Kittie V was another boat that had “a sort of double hull, the lower to be measured and the upper to do the sailing on”. Her “lower hull” turned out to  be too small to lift the “upper hull” out of the water while the boat was measured, so she must have been measured on her “real” waterline length. That may explain the small jib in the photograph above. She was fast in light winds, but didn’t bother to start when it looked as if it would blow.

Above: Riverside, a conservative keel boat with a bulb fin, was one of the five finalists in the 1896 trials. Like the Ethelwynn types, she proved that in light winds the classic Rater type was still highly competitive against the scows.

Vesper had circular sections, so that she presented the same shape to the water at all angles of heel, and was described by Stephens as being similar to Sorceress. Sailed by Paul Butler of canoe fame she was beautifully built, with hollow spiral-veneer masts and silk sails, but poorly prepared. She was another of the finalists.

Vesper. Her mainsail had a long batten that looks like a gaff. Although her sails were silk, it was noted that they set poorly, as can be seen from the crease running vertically down from the peak of the head batten. One of the striking points about sailing in the 1800s was how many boats were rushed into trial races and championships without much preparation time, and then discarded as failure after just a few races. Perhaps the very fast pace of design development and the comparatively primitive knowledge of tuning in those days meant that people normally assumed that a lack of boatspeed was a design problem, when it was probably often a tuning issue. There must have been many good boats that failed to show their true potential because of the lack of development time.

The boat that was chosen as American defender, El Hierie, was one of those that had been inspired by Question. She was the creation of Clinton Crane, who managed to beat boats from most of the established American designers with the first design he ever created.  At the time, most of Crane’s sailing had been done on primitive canoes. His only design experience consisted of building a crude canvas-covered half-size version of the deep, narrow Hyslop 30 cutter Petrel, an experience that taught him that “small boats that are ballasted by their crews are bound to be faster than any keel boat of the same size.”

Crane, who had worked a summer job as a shipyard machinist while studying naval architecture at Harvard, saved up his wages to pay for El Hierie, which cost only $500 with sails. He called her “a round bilged scow with a vertical transom and the lines carried forward to sharp bow, the overall length being 26 feet and the waterline length 15 feet.” Her hull shape was intended “to provide a boat which could be fair in shape when heeled over to about 15 degrees, and at 15 degrees heel would have enough stability to carry 225 feet of sail.”

El Hierie cropped
El Hierie, showing her pointy but flat and saucer-like entrance. J S Johnston/Library of Congress photo


The Canadian challenger Glencairn, designed and skippered by civil engineer C.H. Duggan, was another boat that was inspired by the scows in the first Seawanhaka Cup trials. It was, wrote Duggan, “a radical depature” from earlier designs.  “Studying the designs in the inclined position in which the boats must generally sail, it became apparent that by making flat floors carried to the end of the waterlines, or a modified scow, many advantages were to be gained” he wrote years later. “When inclined the flat section became the canoe-like form with greatly reduced waterline beam, the waterline became elongated both forward and aft giving a sailing length considerably greater than the measured waterline, a symmetrical waterline plane and altogether very easy lines.  It had another advantage in shifting the inclined centre of buoyancy further to leeward, thus giving a greater righting moment to the weight of the hull and crew and permitting a larger sail plan to be carried than in the Ethelwynn type, without increasing the beam.”[3]


Glencairn looked conventional above the water, but her flat and firm-bilged sections showed that her hull shape had moved a long way towards the scow style. Pic above by John S Johnston from the Library of Congress. Plans below from Forest and Stream, September 23 1899.


Glencairn hull sections



Duggan built his own blocks, spars and sails. He was described by Crane as “not only a great sailor but a fine engineer and had proved himself a wonderful designer….. a past master of light construction, which means putting material in the places where it is needed and omitting all material from the places where it is not needed.” (15)

Despite her overall length of 24ft, it was said that “above water she appears to be as large as a one-rater” but Glencairn’s hull weighed just 320 lb and because of her extremely short waterline length of just 12ft 3in, under the simple length  and sail area rule she could carry 260ft sq of sail. Duggan noted that Glencairn and El Heerie were “practically the same form” but the American boat was less stable and, because of its longer waterline, had only 240ft 2 of sail. “Glencairn won easily, due no doubt to her additional power and sail-area” noted Duggan. “For the first time an American yacht has met defeat when defending an international trophy….” noted Day in The Rudder magazine. “A more decisive victory than that achieved by Glencairn has seldom been registered…on every point of sailing the Canadian craft…easily sailed away from El Hierie.”

The long effective waterline length and big rigs of boats like Glencairn moved performance to a new level in medium and fresh winds.  Crane said that the older style of Rater like Ethelwynn was “a sweetly formed little boat, but except in light weather hopelessly outclassed by the scows”.  The scow types, he claimed, had a maximum speed of about 14 knots, six knots faster than a more conventional boat.

The Half Rater or 15 Footer class was dumped in favour of larger boats (rating 20 feet and about 32ft overall) after the 1896 Seawanhaka Cup. It was a change that both Crane and Duggan (who both kept designing and sailing Seawanhaka Cup racers) regretted. “I am fairly sure that it would have been better for the sport of racing had it continued in the smaller boat, but many people felt that these 15 footers were too much like canoes, and that much more could be learned about design and sailing in a boat which required a larger crew” wrote the US designer. (12)

In their short life time, the American 15 Footer/Half Rater types had changed the face of sailing. They had demonstrated to American sailors “the practicability of sport in so diminutive a boat” and lead to a huge growth in small yachts. But they chose a variety of local one-designs around the same size, ignoring the radical products of designers who had “speedily murdered the (15 Foot/Half Rater) class by demonstrating that under its rules, a perishable, shingle-shaped article and not a staunch boat, was the prize winner”.

The Seawanhaka Cup 15 Footers had also taken the scow from a curiosity and turned it into a gold standard for performance. The bigger boats soon took on the same concept. Within a few years there were bizarre boats like Outlook, less than 21ft on the waterline but 52ft7in overall, with a hull just 8in deep, 1/4in spruce planking that split under her crew’s feet, and a giant steel structural truss running on top of her deck to hold her together until the end of the two regattas she sailed.

Outlook, from Wooden Boat magazine

Even the very largest of boats were inspired by scows. In 1901, BB Crowninshield launched the biggest scow of all, the America’s Cup triallist Independence. She was unsuccessful, but that didn’t stop the old sandbagger racer C. Oliver Iselin from pressuring Nat Herreshoff to make Reliance, the largest America’s Cup boat ever built, a scow.  The fact that America’s Cup syndicates were requesting boats of a type pioneered by dinghy-size centreboarders like Bouncer and El Hierie may have been symbolic of a major change in raceboat design.   For perhaps the first time, the design of the largest boats was being inspired and led by small dinghy-size centreboarders. The centreboarder had taken over as the leading force in sailboat design.

The America’s Cup defence candidate Independence; at 140ft overall and 90ft on the waterline. Although she was a keelboat with a pointed bow, by the standards of her day her flat shape and the long parallel lines of her firm bilges led to her being considered the largest scow ever built. She was unprepared, steered poorly, sailed erratically, and was broken up after only a few races.

Such excesses would never last. The short waterline of the Rater types demanded lightweight construction that was unable to withstand the strain of waves banging under the flat scow bow. On the coast, the radical scows quickly pounded themselves to pieces and proved themselves too hard to sail.  As Clinton Crane noted, many yachtsmen soon decided that the scows were unseaworthy, uncomfortable and fit only for young experts. His own Seawanhaka Cup designs proved the point – one of them only lasted six races.

In the words of historian Russell Clark, “the American small sailing yacht evolved from an extreme and dangerous racing machine – to an extreme and dangerous racing machine. From sandbagger to scow.”  W P Stephens was one of those who was horrified by the scows, saying that they were “a type of racing machine which no one with the best interests of yachting at heart can contemplate with any sentiments but disgust and disappointment…the majority are calculated to work nothing but harm to yachting….as long as such freaks are recognised and actively encouraged by the clubs, no general good to yachting can be look for from racing in the small classes.” Francis Herreshoff agreed, describing them as “the worst freaks of all”.

The descendants of the boat that Thomas Clapham had designed to make a point about the length and sail area rule proved that he was right after all.  The concept was too easy to get around, and its end marked the end of the long search for a single simple rule that could fairly rate all types of boats, from dinghies and small Raters up to America’s Cup boats.  The future lay with more sophisticated rules, targeted at specific types of craft.  Nat Herreshoff himself created the Universal Rule, which restricted the width and shape of the bow and stern, to knock the flat-bowed scow type out of competition among bigger boats. Other coastal sailors moved to slower but more practical one designs and  restricted classes.

Of course, the basic geometry of the scow concept was too good to allow the type to die. It just moved to flatter water and into smaller boats. The sailors of midwestern USA, who had already been moving towards the scow shape even before the Seawanhaka Cup arrived, brought in construction and design restrictions that ensured that their characteristic bilgeboard scow would become a fixture on the USA’s small inland lakes.


Although most of the early scow development was driven by the Seawanhaka Cup and Duggan, it was on the lakes of the USA’s midwest where the scow developed into the dominant force in centreboarder sailing. Pics from “Sailing Craft”, edited by Schoettle


The big bilgeboard scow was to be the fastest of all centreboarders for decades, but they were almost entirely restricted to the midwestern lakes. The two boats that made the scow popular around the world were launched by The Rudder magazine as the century came to an end, and they helped to set a pattern for the small-boat sailing of the future. As   recounted in the Earwegoagin blog, the first of them was the 16 foot Lark, the creation of Rudder’s design editor C.D. Mower, which raced with success in the 15 Foot class of Seawanhaka Cup fame in 1898. The plans for Lark were issued in the magazine that year, followed by a big sister, the 24 foot sloop Swallow, in 1899.

The Rudder designs were cheap, easy to build and fast, and they were a huge hit. As Francis Herreshoff was to recall many years later, “most of us who were boys during the happy nineties were much carried away with the skimming dishes…when The Rudder of 1898 brought out its “How to Build a Racer for $50.00″ we boys were very excited about the racing catboat Lark”.  Larks and Swallows were soon sailing and winning around the world, from Japan to Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island and Perth in Western Australia.

A line-up of three scows from three major designers in one Johnson photo from 1898. To the left is Minnetonka, built by Arthur Dyer from the eponymous midwestern lake. Dyer’s earlier boat Onawa was one of the very first scow types and was developed outside of the Seawanhaka Cup stream of development. Second from the right is the original Lark; further to the right is the Huntington design Lobster.


One of the most striking points about the letters from builders that flowed into The Rudder was that they couldn’t help themselves from altering the boats. It was a habit that (as earwegoagin’s excellent posts on the Lark and Swallow show) created mini-Larks, keelboat Larks, cruising Larks and even Olympic Larks. In the 1900 Olympics in Paris, Larks were apparently entered in the “0 to .5 ton” rating class. Although the details of that regatta are notoriously unclear, it’s possible that Larks that won both races and therefore became the first champion Olympic dinghies (rather than the first dinghy class).

In a way, the Lark and Swallow can be seen as symbols of three eras. They showed the way to a future when thousands of dinghies would be made by amateur  boatbuilders at home. The fact that they don’t seem to have achieved widespread organised racing, despite their popularity, typified the confusion and stagnation of dinghy racing in the early 1900s. And they marked the end of the era when dinghy development worldwide was dominated by design concepts created in the British Isles and eastern North America. 









References; under constructionor some of the


“So great a variety of features”:- “The 15ft class of 1896”,Forest and Stream,  July 11 1896

“crude and experimental one”:- Forest and Stream, July 4 1896

“She was the fastest of the fleet in strong winds, but not as fast as others in the light”:- See Forest and Stream, Sep 23 1899 p 255

“”a sort of double hull, the lower to be measured and the upper to do the sailing on”:- Forest and Stream, June 28 1896.

“especially ugly and crude-looking”:- “The Half Raters”, Outing, August 1896

[1] Outing vol 28  , May  p 35

[2] WP Stephens “Inland yachting – its growth and its future” Outing Vol 38 p 525

[3]     Sailing Craft p 468

[4] Outing August 1896 p 360

[5] Brooklyn Daily Eagly, 17 May 1896 p 15   Note also said half raters were were “well developed craiz” with hjundreds being built


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


“Clapham proposed that “the only proper measurement for racing purposes is to include all the elements of design”:- Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 April 1884, p 10

“The Bouncer system of designing may be defined as follows”:- Field and Stream Feb 2 1893 p 107.

“the typical scow has a very flat floor, a firm bilge, and sections that are generally parallel throughout”:-    ‘Bilgeboard Scows’ by Edwin M and T.M. Chance, in SailCraft, Schoettle (ed) p 497

“the appearance of the under body of a small boat, fastened to the upper body of the larger model”:- “The Half Raters, R B Burchard, Outing, August 1896, p 360.

“the longest possible boom so as to get the lowest centre of effort.”:- Traditions and Memories of American Yachting, p 150

“Many of my clients insisted on the boom-and-gaff rig”:- Traditions and Memories of American Yachting, p 151

“People like Thomas Day criticised Ethelwynn’s rig”:- Traditions and Memories of American Yachting, p 151

“By the time the second Seawanhaka Cup was raced in 1896”:- “The Half Raters” by R B Burchard, Outing magazine, August 1896

“a sweetly formed little boat, but except in light weather hopelessly outclassed by the scows”: Clinton Crane’s Yachting Memories, p 14-15

“Crane said that the scow types had a maximum speed of about 14 knots”. He was talking about boats rated at 20 feet under the Seawanhaka rule, rather than the “15 footers” like Ethelwynn, Spruce, El Hierie and Glencairn (1). This was because by the time the third Seawanhaka Challenge came around it was decided to race in boats rated 20 foot and with a fixed waterline length. Both Crane and Duggan regretted the move to the larger boats.

“a type of racing machine which no one with the best interests of yachting at heart can contemplate”:- “Single-Hand Cruising and Single-Hand Craft”, WP Stephens, Outing August 1900   148 624

“The Seawanhaka Cup demonstrated to American sailors”: ‘Fifteen-Footers from a Massachusetts Standpoint”, Outing, April 9 1904.

“Sailors soon moved to slower but more practical one designs, restricted classes, and “knockabouts”: – To give just some of many examples; in 1897 a sail area limit was introduced to the Seawanhaka Cup; 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.



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


[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 the    design Humming Bird, which looked otherwise conventional, had a transom hung rudder and a fin keel.  She was one of the top British    raters of      .  Dilemma was definitely a much more radical and innovative design.

[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,


[17] Solent classes yachting Voil 1

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

[19] Forest 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 1.15: Introducing the era of nationalism: dinghies in the first half of the 20th century

A symbol of the internationalism of centreboarder sailing in the 1800s; a Half Rater on Sydney Harbour.  Several English Raters raced against American and New Zealand boats on the harbour, often competing against the ancestors of the Skiffs. State Library of New South Wales photo.

Something odd and unexplained happened to centreboarder sailing as the 19th century came to a close. Within a period of about three years, international racing and the influence of centreboarders on sailboat design reached a new peak, and then quickly faded. The nature of dinghy design itself started to change in rather puzzling ways, and in some ways the development of boats and of the sport itself seem to have stagnated over the next few decades.

No one in the 1890s seems to have foreseen the doldrums that dinghy design was about to reach. The end of the Victorian era had seen international racing in big centreborders in areas as far flung as the Thames and Auckland. Centreboarder design had reached new heights of influence in the world of sailing. No longer did the design of small craft lag behind the big yachts, as it had often done in the early days of centreboarder sailing. From the 1890s onwards, the concepts developed in small centreboarders like the canoe yawls, the Raters and the scows took over as the driving force in sailboat design. An observer in the late 1890s would have only seen grounds for optimism. There seems to have been no hint that small boat racing was about to enter a quarter of a century of generally slow and insular development. Perhaps the pace of change itself exhausted dinghy sailors. Maybe the poor sportsmanship that was such a feature of international challenges in the 1800s turned people’s minds back to local racing; certainly some British big-boat sailors felt that the international events only harmed the more important cause of local racing.

The tale can be told in stark numbers. There were five challenges for the oldest international trophy in centreboarders, the New York Canoe Club Cup, in its first decade. After 1895, there were only two in 38 years. New Zealand and Australian were involved in two international events for centreboarders (the Intercolonial One Rater Challenge and the Anglo-Australian Shield) in just one year in the 1890s, but then stayed out of international racing for almost 40 years. Canada faded out of the scow matches against the USA. Even when the dinghy sailors of the world met in the Olympics, it was normally in a design only sailed in the host nation. Even national-level events seem to have been rare in first 20 or 30 years of the 1900s.

Whatever the reason, the lull in international and national events may have been a symbol (and perhaps a cause) of a major shift in the evolution of dinghy design. From the time that Britons in Boston had created the centreboard itself, the British Isles and north-eastern North America had produced almost all of the innovations that created the sport of dinghy sailing. Those areas had produced the catboat, the sandbagger, the sailing canoe, the Raters, the one design concept, and scows. The flow of designs outwards from Britain and America had tended to unify design across the globe. The amazingly fast communications, the small number of other sports to write about, the surprisingly common export and import trade in boats, and the passion and technical skill of writers like Thomas Day, Dixon Kemp and WP Stephens meant that sailors in South Africa or Hamburg could keep up to date with the latest designs bred by men like Linton Hope and Paul Butler. It led to international uniformity in concepts and in the general outline of design. There were direct links between Bob Fish in New York and the sandbaggers of Hamburg; between designs of the Thames and the Raters of Auckland; between the offices of Rudder magazine and the Swallows of the Adriatic.

A stunning example of the local designs produced in the second era of dinghy sailing. While the boats of the English-speaking countries may dominate our versions of history of the time, in the first half of the 20th century the Germans of the inland lakes were creating the fastest dinghies of the day. Pic from the N Class Renjolle site.

As the new century arrived, this era of internationalism faded. Centreboarder design across much of the world became isolated and parochial.  For the first half of the 20th century, each of the major sailing regions developed its own style of boat; a distinctive indigenous breed suited to their own conditions, culture, geography and economy. The British adopted local one designs and development classes with short, round-bilge planing hulls: the Germans bred long, slender designs; the US adopted big hard-chine one designs and scows; New Zealand and Australia each developed two distinct breeds, one of them the over-canvassed development type we now call “skiffs” and the other a lighter breed of turbocharged dinghy; the French seem to have had their own eclectic mix.

The Snipe led the way in creating a distinctive American style of dinghy, but along with the 12 Square Metre Sharpie (below) it was also one of two hard chine one designs that emerged in 1931 and had worldwide influence. Top: Boston Public Library image.


As each region developed its own style of design, sailors and designers seem to have become less interested in designs from other areas. There were, of course, exceptions. The major one is the international spread of two hard-chine one designs, Germany’s 12 Sq Mtre Sharpie and Rudder magazine’s Snipe, which appeared within a few months of each other and spread around the globe. But it does seem that after the late 1890s, many of the major dinghy sailing regions developed a distinct local style that would dominate the sport in that area until a new internationalism arrived in the second half of the 20th century.

The Caneton Brix was one of the classes that was inspired by the Rudder’s Snipe in a sudden flurry of interest in hard chine boats in the early ’30s. The French seem to have been big fans of medium-size hard chine dinghies, with an indefinable national aesthetic.

The next section in SailCraft is about the development of those national styles. Once again it is a tale of technical development, but also of the social, geographical, economic and factors that drove and crafted the craft we sail. Some regions get more attention than others, but that’s not an indication of their relative importance. In some cases other people (like New Zealand’s Robin Elliott and Harold Kidd) have already written such great work that there is little new ground to cover; anyone interested in dinghy history in their area should just go and buy their books!  In other regions (primarily Europe) the problem is the lack of information in English.  If there is a disproportionate amount on the history of Australian dinghy sailing, it’s not because I think that Australian design was the most advanced or best (it clearly wasn’t) but because very little has been written about the subject by sailors or by historians, and that has allowed a few myths to evolve. Australian libraries and museums have also made a lot of excellent historical information available, and that reveals a sailing scene too diverse to cover with the usual inaccurate cliches about “Sydney Skiffs”. But to start the second phase of the history of dinghy sailing, we will return to the country where it may have all begun – to England, and to two of the most famous names in the sport.


Pt 1.6: “Fox hunting”: Uffa, Avenger and the planing dinghy

A picture that captures two eras, as a pair of International 14s sweep past an older Thames Gig. With permission of the Thames Sailing Club.


Looking through the dim lens of a century or so, it seems that dinghy racing in Britain stalled in the early years of the 20th century.  The influence and popularity of the canoes and small centreboard Raters had faded.  The fleets that developed out of the sail-and-oar boats were isolated and disorganised. There were pockets of activity, but fleets generally seem to have been small and confined to small areas.

The long era of quiet seems to have ended in 1923, when the National 14 class was formed to allow the classes of 14 footers that had quietly grown in different parts of the country (mainly the Norfolk Dinghy and the West of England Conference Dinghy) to race together under a complicated set of rules that allowed for different weights, construction types and sail areas.

Although the class’ excellent history by T J Vaughan notes that the early Nationals “still showed their link with the yacht tenders from which they originated”, there had been significant development since the days of the earlier oar-and-sail boats. They had evolved away from the narrow and tucked-up “wineglass” transoms towards flatter sterns. They had flat centrelines and semi-circular sections, which reduced the wetted surface area and therefore cut down on skin friction. The circular sections also meant that the underwater shape stayed the same when they heeled to a puff, making them easy to handle. Ian Proctor, who went on to become one of England’s top designers, noted that this hull shape developed in areas of fluky winds and commented that “the U-section of boats of about this time gave advantages in gusty weather, in which it is difficult for even highly skilled helmsmen to keep a dinghy sailing level.”

As the designer of the class’ first champion, Bruce Atkey, wrote that they were “used for cruising as well as for racing, and so are made as comfortable as a fast open boat can be”. But even before Atkey’s words had been printed, the whole shape of dinghy sailing was changed by one man and one boat. The man was Uffa Fox, the boat was Avenger.

Ilex’s gunter-rigged sailplan. At this time class rigs restricted the length of the mast and yard to 15ft6in, so they could fit into a normal railway goods van. This drawing also shows the high freeboard of the early Cowes-based 14s.
Irex II, the winner of the first Prince of Wales Cup for the 14’s national championship. She shows the typical U-shaped sections and flat centreline of her day. Like the other early Cowes-based 14s, she had very high freeboard so she would take less water aboard in the Solent chop, and to allow her crew to sit behind the gunwale where they would present less windage. Plans and pic from Atkins’ article “The Fourteen-Foot National Dinghy Class” in Schoettle’s “Sailing Craft”.



Uffa may not have invented the planing dinghy with Avenger as is so often claimed, but he did make a giant leap forward in design. It was Uffa who created a dinghy that would plane regularly and on reaches as well as runs, not just when driven downwind in a gale. And Uffa not only created a design that made planing routine, but honed a new sailing technique to match.

Finally, but perhaps most important of all, Uffa told the world about this “new” concept in performance and design, and in the process he seems to have changed the way much of the world thought about dinghies. As International 14 sailor and IYRU (later World Sailing) head Sir Peter Scott was to write, in Avenger’s day “dinghies were the kind of boat you used to take you to a larger and more respectable yacht and were not in their own right regarded as yachts at all.”  Uffa and his 14s showed the whole sport that small dinghies were not just inferior versions of “real” yachts, but were more advanced and capable of higher performance than the mighty cutters and schooners. As Frank Bethwaite has pointed out, “in his books and in the media of the time he wrote about this new way of sailing….the credit (for inventing the planing dinghy) has always gone to Uffa Fox…because he wrote about and explained what he was doing”.

Uffa in his later years. With permission of Uffa Fox Ltd. Below; Uffa’s second 14 design, Radiant, was second to Irex in the 1927 Prince of Wales Cup. He called her a “V-d boat that would knife her way to windward, and run fast with no hope of planing.”


So who was Uffa Fox? The bare facts – that he was a boatbuilder, designer and sailor from the Isle of Wight, a traditional centre of British sailing – do nothing to show his character or his influence. New Zealander Geoff Smale spent an enchanted afternoon with Uffa at his boatyard after Smale won the 1958 Prince of Wales Cup, “wandering around with a straight edge”, comparing hull shapes and talking design. Although the admirable Smale sailed many boats, became an Olympian, a highly successful businessman and remained so active that he died after crashing his microlight plane at the age of 86, when I spoke to him in the 2000s he still recalled his day with Uffa as “one of the greatest days that I ever spent.”  American sailor/designer Sandy Douglass, no man to mince words when it came to criticizing people, was just as frank in his admiration for Fox. “I hesitate to write of Uffa” he wrote “for fear I could not do him justice, for Uffa was the most remarkable man I ever met…..Boat designer, racing skipper, writer, wit, raconteur, singer and friend – he was all of these and more”.

Uffa followed the great tradition of British eccentrics. He had, said Scott, “an irresistable urge to shock the straight-laced.”  This was a man who rode his horse to the dinner table, a man who turned up to the first of his several weddings with his toenails (which he would only ever cut on Tuesdays) poking through holes in his only pair of shoes. It was Uffa who decided to cure his boatyard staff from their “repressive” habits of going to the toilet in private, by building a communal toilet and conducting office meetings while sitting on the “throne”. That didn’t work. It was Uffa who lived and worked on an old floating bridge (cable ferry), and tried to escape property taxes by towing it across government boundaries with a rowing boat. That did work.

A revolution under construction; Avenger before her planks were laid. The complicated construction with dozens of tiny frames was the lightest and strongest way to build a boat in the ’20s, but it was also labourious and expensive. Pics from Sailing, Seamanship and Yacht Construction, with permission of Uffa Fox Ltd.



It was Uffa, a tradesman in a class-conscious era, who became a celebrity by becoming the firm friend and sailing tutor of the British royal family. His name could be found in the tabloids, and in a play by Joe Orton, one of the “angry young men” of British literature. It didn’t stop him from “christening” an America’s Cup challenger by pissing on the keel while the Queen was on deck, or managing to comment loudly about “bedworthy” women while at Buckingham Palace to receive the CBE.

Like so many of the early dinghy sailors, Uffa was a renaissance man. He recorded a successful album of sea shanties with Beatles’ producer George Martin. He created the airborne lifeboats that saved the lives of many shot-down Allied aircrew in World War 2. His books on sailing and design (edited by the man who inspired Peter Pan), covered boats from dinghies to the J Class and sold well.

As a sailor, Uffa had both talent and daring. He sailed across the Atlantic and raced successfully in big boats and Six Metres (then the “grand prix” class of yachting) but his main fame as a sailor lay in his small boats. He became a national champion in 14s, an international champ in Canoes, and he stunned sailors with feats such as sailing the open, undecked 14 Footer Avenger across 100 miles of open ocean to race the French, sailing home overnight and then racing the same afternoon.

An iconic photograph by Beken showing Avenger with her prize flags, as published in Sailing, Seamanship and Yacht Construction (1934), the first of Uffa’s famous books. Uffa’s books helped to spread his fame and publicise the concept of the planing dinghy. With permission of Uffa Fox Ltd.


Uffa’s unconventional mind had unconventional training. At a time when most boatbuilders learned their trade building heavy displacement boats, Uffa started his apprenticeship working on the hydroplane Maple Leaf IV, the first boat to go over 50 knots. Later, he helped to built floats for the early flying boats. It was the ideal training ground for a man who would become famous for his diktat that “weight is only useful in a steam roller”. It was an era, Uffa wrote, of rapid change – from horses to petrol engines, cars, airplanes, and a world war. “It was natural that my apprenticeship, served through all this change, taught me to take nothing for granted, nor to accept past designing and construction as unalterable. So when I started off as a young designer and builder, it was with a mind as free as air; with a restless zest to strive for “newness” in design”.

Uffa wrote that his experience with planing powerboats and his “zest for newness” inspired him to create something different – “a light hull could be driven, so that she would rise and plane along the surface of the water like a speed boat”. He also seems to have been well aware of the Oxford canoe yawls and the lightweight Raters. The new National 14 class gave Uffa an ideal arena to apply these influences to a dinghy, but like many up-and-coming professional boatbuilder/designers, he could not afford to risk the reputation on which his job depended on by creating a failure. Instead of leaping straight to his ideal conception, he had to slide slowly towards it. His first 14 design, Ariel, was a cautious step towards a planing hull. Next, to explore whether the other extreme would work better, he experimented by creating the deep Vee design Radiant which was designed to “knife” through the water as a displacement boat. On both boats, he experimented with different rig proportions and mast positions. Both were successful, but Laurent Giles and his U-shaped boats typified by Snark (designed as a WEC Dinghy in 1911 but still competitive as National 14 as late as 1928) remained on top. “The problem was difficult” wrote Uffa, “for Giles as a designer was king of the castle and in a very strong position having, in twenty years or more, developed and perfected the Snark type of lines. If I followed, it was obvious that I would always do so, and so I decided to go off on another tack.”

Uffa had increased the aspect ratio to 4:1 in Radiant. In Avenger he created a bermudan rig by fitting a collar that the topmast stepped in. The multi-spreader rig was an example of the drive to increase performance at the cost of complexity. From ‘Sailing, Seamanship and Yacht Construction’ with permission from Uffa Fox Ltd.

After success with Ariel and Radiant, Uffa finally felt ready to take his “other tack” – the long-awaited step towards a planing dinghy. Her name was Avenger, and she was a complete break with the past. When she was designed, the 14s were allowed to trade off weight for sail, and Uffa planned for Avenger to weigh 27kg (60lb) lighter than usual and carry 0.9sq m (10sq ft) less sail. The rule was altered while Avenger was being built and Uffa added an 18kg (40lb) bronze rudder as the easiest way to bring her up to weight, but her true breakthrough – her hull shape – remained the same.

It was the Avenger’s Veed hull sections, wrote Uffa, that was her “secret”. “Broadly speaking, the only difference between the Avenger and the Snark is in the sections, Snark being U sectioned and Avenger V” he wrote. “Her V sections run down to give her deep chest forward of midships and run right throughout her length…The V-d sections for the first third give her an angle of attack to the water….so as Avenger’s shaped bow was driven through the water, its shape and angle of attack caused it to lift. The two thirds of length in her long run aft ran fast and easily in the groove cut by the sharp V bow perhaps 3″ less in depth than her waterline at rest. She changed trim and went along at double the speed of any other dinghy at this time. It was this planing ability that made her invincible in winds of over 12 miles an hour, and so the first sea-going, planing sailing boat was born.”

Avenger’s race record tells its own tale – 52 wins, two 2nds and three 3rd starts out of 57 races. She planed away to win the 1928 Prince of Wales Trophy by five minutes. “Other Fourteens planed on occasions” wrote Tom Vaughan, the class historian. “Avenger would pick up her skirts and go at the slightest provocation — it became the rule rather than the exception. On the wind Avenger was just as efficient”. The sport, Uffa’s competitors joked, was no longer dinghy sailing but “Fox hunting”.

Avenger survives today, in the Isle of Wight Maritime Museum in Cowes. Part of the success of Uffa’s planing hulls depended on their incredible intricate and labour-intensive production, which made them about three to five times as expensive as some earlier boats in the class. Pic from Uffa Fox Ltd’s site.

Uffa’s proviso – the first “sea-going planing dinghy” – is often forgotten, even by him. As we’ve seen, Avenger was not the first boat to plane under sail. Uffa was not (as has been claimed) the first to apply the term to dinghy sailing – Giles himself had written of “planing” in a dinghy before Avenger was launched. But Avenger may have been the first “normal” dinghy (as distinct from a canoe, Rater or scow type) to plane regularly, on moderate-wind reaches as well as screaming runs, and she did it not in a distant backwater or a small class, but in the home of English sailing and the class that was the playground for the UK’s dinghy designers. Geoff Smale recalls that older boats like the Kiwi X Class 14 footers would plane only square running in a big breeze “through brute force, because the power was too much for them to do anything else, but the (International) 14 would plane on a close reach.” The Fox 14s showed the world what dinghies could do, and Avenger remains arguably the most important dinghy ever.

The lines of Avenger, above, compared to the earlier U-shaped Morgan Giles design of Snark, below. Although Avenger’s hull was shallower than later Fox designs, she still shows Uffa’s characteristic Vee shaped sections and rocker line. It’s interesting to note that her rocker line is not greatly different from that of Irex II, above. With permission from Uffa Fox Ltd.


Uffa always said that Vee sections were the secret of his success. But were they? As early as the 1950s, boats like the Flying Dutchman and 505 were moving away from the Vee, to a flatter shape. In fact, most modern high-performance boats (with notable exceptions like Julian Bethwaite’s designs) have “U” shaped sections – almost like the 14s before Avenger. In some ways, the U-shaped sections of the Giles designs, and the accent on reducing wetted surface area, are much closer to the modern ideal than the Fox boats.

So if we have returned to U shape sections in most modern performance boats, why was the Vee-shaped hull such a breakthrough in Avenger’s time? It seems that the answer lies in the way boats were sailed in earlier days. The sailors of the ‘20s (and decades after) were handicapped by technology. Their sails were difficult to depower, their rigs were heavy, they lacked high-tech lines and modern cleats and controls. Etiquette often demanded that they sailed in street clothes, even ties and street shoes. They hiked off narrow gunwales, their feet slung under the centerboard case or thin, uncomfortable hiking straps or wooden battens. They had no trapezes and beam was narrow, reducing leverage. Even in boats like canoes, which had more leverage, the early sliding seats were so low to the waves that they were sailed heeled, to stop the skipper from being washed off. Self bailers were unknown, so heel also helped to keep the windward gunwale high and reduced the amount of water splashing aboard. The heavy centreboards provided righting moment, but only when the boat was heeled.

These factors combined, it seems, to mean that the early dinghies were sailed in a breeze with much more heel than we use today. Dixon Kemp reckoned that a dinghy was normally sailed at 15 degrees, and heeled to 30 in the puffs. Francis Herreshoff’s contemporary diagram of righting lever arm shows a range of boats, including a canoe and a sandbagger, at 17 degrees of heel. Look at the photographs in earlier chapters, and you’ll see most boats beating or reaching in a breeze- even the champions – are sailing with much more heel than we’d accept from a top crew today.

Uffa’s letterhead shows him sailing an International Canoe (perhaps East Anglian, judging from the high forestay) at a considerable angle of heel. Most of the pics Uffa chose for his books show boats sailing at heel, although not quite as much as in this illustration. With permission of Uffa Fox Ltd.

This style of sailing was in harmony with the shape of the boats before Avenger.  The early 14s, Ian Proctor noted, came from gusty areas, and the round-bottomed shape still performed well when heeled to puffs. But, as Uffa realized, the Avenger type needed a new style of sailing. “It was essential to have a great deal of power off the wind to make Avenger plane at double her normal speed”, he wrote, so instead of reefing like earlier 14s, the helmsman had to work the mainsheet like a fisherman played a fish; “play his sheet in and out and spill the wind out of the top of the sail, so though all the while the boat was kept travelling at her maximum speed, she never, for a moment, had more pressure in her sails than she could endure.”

Another clue to the Vee shape comes in the same paragraph from Uffa. “We kept the jib in tight, as this tended to ease the weather helm when the boat heeled in a squall and put her lee bilge down deep.” This passage may confirm that what sailors of Uffa’s day called sailing “upright” was not actually sailing with zero heel – it just meant sailing at a much smaller angle of heel than had been common  before. Look at Uffa’s own logo and letterhead above; they show him sailing canoes and an I-14 with more heel than a modern champion would advertise. Even allowing for the fact that photographers may have thought heel artistically pleasing, it seems that what sailors of Uffa’s day called “upright”, was in fact sailing at a heel – “putting the lee bilge down deep”.

Why didn’t Uffa and his contemporaries sail truly upright? A dinghy’s ability to carry sail is governed largely by the distance between the centre of gravity (C.G.) and the centre of buoyancy (C.B.). When the hull is upright, the C.G. is directly above the C.B. When a typical hull is heeled, the volume in the leeward bilge moves the C.B. out to leeward. That increases the distance between the two centres, increasing stability because the weight of the boat is acting as a lever against the buoyancy.

We all know that heel generally increases drag; the increased drag on the hull alone is said to be around 5%, and heel also increases rig and foil drag. In many modern dinghies, the crew can develop so much power from trapezes, wings and racks that it’s better to reduce drag by keeping the hull upright and relying on crew weight alone for stability. But in other craft, the extra righting moment generated by heel creates more than enough sail power to offset the extra drag. That seems to have been the case in Uffa’s day, when rigs were heavy and righting moment was generated by heavy centerboards and primitive hiking straps. To generate the greatest possible stability they needed to be sailed at an angle of heel, but to plane they needed to present a flat surface to the water. Uffa’s Vee-shaped boats presented a flat surface to the water when the boat was heeled; the older U shape presented a rounded one.

Geoff Smale, whose runaway Prince of Wales Cup win shocked 14 sailors of the ‘50s, confirmed the reasoning above, and that the Vee was effective only when boats were sailed at an angle. “If you kept the lee side of the Vee just flat to the water’s surface, that gave you maximum hiking power and they really went. If they had allowed the trapeze, the Vee wouldn’t have lasted as long. Once you put the trapeze on, you didn’t need the Vee because you could hold the boat flat. It’s what power the boat has that determines the hull shape”.

So Uffa’s Vee shape, the shape which is sometimes held out to be the key to planing, was only part of the answer. It was a highly intelligent reaction to the limits of the technology of the time, not an ideal design in itself. But for the next two decades, Uffa was to perfect his basic concept in a series of boats that would come to represent the classic British racing dinghy.




“The long era of quiet seems to have ended in 1923”:- The National rules had actually been drafted by Morgan Giles around WW1 (1911 or 12 according to Maud Wyllie, about 1918 according to Vaughan) but the class had failed to take off until various sailors and the RYA got involved in 1922-23. The initial rules included many trade-offs, apparently to allow types that had evolved in very different ways to race together. Each boat could carry “two distinct Sail plans”, one for the sea and one for inland use. Sail area could also be traded off for weight under a rating formula, and clinker-built boats had a rating adjustment to allow for their extra wetted surface area. These provisions were all dropped as the class evolved from one which catered for existing boats into one which catered for ones designed specifically for racing in the class. See “The International Fourteen 1929-1989” by T J Vaughan.

“Ian Proctor, who went on to become one of England’s top designers”:- “The International Fourteen-Foot Dinghies”, Ian Proctor, “British and International Racing Yacht Classes”, E H Whitaker (ed) 1954

“As the designer of the class’ first champion, Bruce Atkey, wrote”:- ‘The Fourteen-Foot National Dinghy Class” in “Sailing Craft”, Schoettle (ed) 1928

“As International 14 sailor and IYRU (later World Sailing) head Sir Peter Scott was to write”:- “-

“As Frank Bethwaite has pointed out”:-

“Geoff Smale, one of the great International 14 champions”:- Personal telephone interview with the author

“American sailor/designer Sandy Douglass, no man to mince words”:- “Sixty Years Behind the Mast – The Fox on the Water”, Gordon ‘Sandy’ Douglass