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 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.
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 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!”
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 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.
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 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.”