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.
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.
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 & 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).
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 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.
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.”
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.
4 thoughts on “Pt 1.17: Thunder, Lightning and the Tali Dogang – the classic British dinghy and the trapeze”
This article on re establishing the Kolek and their racing on the Islands.
And there is a part one to the article on re establishing the KOLEK.