Pt 2.2: Shapes in the liquid: the hull of today’s performance dinghy

Note: this is the first part of the section dealing with hull shape. It relies on interviews with designers that were done some time ago, and it could do with some updating and further information. If there’s enough interest in SailCraft being published as a book – and I’ll be putting up a poll to gauge that shortly – sections like this will be updated and revised.


The shape a 12 footer singlehanded skiff designed by Paul Bieker for famous C Class cat sailor Fred Eaton shows many of the characteristics of the modern performance dinghy, as drafted by one of the greatest of modern dinghy designers. Pic from the Bieker site.

The ratios and the numbers are the main factors that drive performance, but when it comes to class racing and and handling, hull shape is all-important. It’s hull shape that largely determines the way a boat moves through waves, the way it survives heavy air, and the last fraction of a percent of boatspeed when the numbers are fixed by rules.


It seems that there are everlasting trends in dinghy design. Construction and gear gets lighter, and that allows bows to get narrower and the point of maximum beam to move aft. Bruce Farr has been known to say that if you lined a fleet up by going from the boat with the finest entry angle to the widest, you’d find they were in the order of fastest boat to slowest. Narrower bows are thought to reduce the bow wave and allow the hull to slice through waves. “In the three prototypes for the Vector skiff, we learned quite a bit” recalls Steve Clark. “The bows got finer and the maximum waterline beam moved aft.  I think this works for several reasons. It makes wave encounters less abrupt, so the boat isn’t slowed by chop both upwind and down. It also had the effect (in my view) of easing the transition to planing.  If one accepts that to start planing a boat has to pass its bow wave, then the shape forward has to be such that you can stick a lot of boat through the wave before you actually have to climb over it. Naturally you make it easy on yourself if you can have a long shallow wave to pass (like an IC or catamaran) but if you are stuck with a relatively heavy boat (and almost any two man boat less than 25′ long will be “heavy”)  it seems that you should keep the waterlines forward very straight and narrow.”

So why is the “sharp end” getting sharper, year by year? Designers of the past probably wanted to create the narrowest possible bow, but they were restricted by old technology. Modern hulls are lighter, especially in the ends, so they need less buoyancy to lift them over waves. Perhaps more important is the huge reduction in rig weight. Because the weight of the rig is so high, it’s got a huge amount of leverage on the bow. Every time the bow hits a wave, the rig forms a massive pendulum, five or ten metres high, that swings the bow around. If you had put a modern fine bow on old boat, the momentum of the massive rig weight swinging overhead would push simply push the nose under many waves.

The influence of modern spinnakers, especially asymmetrics, also had an influence. Although computer models don’t agree, most designers feel that asymetrics provide a powerful lifting force to control downwind nosedives. They also mean that the forward hand can stay well aft during sets, drops and gybes, instead of going forward to the mast to wrestle with the pole. Some designers estimate that this allows them to reduce waterline beam around the mast by about 12mm/ ½”. Even in some more conventional classes, technology has had an impact. The National 12s carry no spinnakers, but they’ve recently gone to self launching jib poles so the forward hand no longer has to go forward.

Steve Clark notes that the International 14’s mid-point measurement may have delayed designers from making bows fine enough. The rule “seems normal enough, to require  minimum waterline beam at the mid point of the hull, but what it in fact has done is drive the bow fairing of I-14s into a shape they would not naturally want to be. The max waterline beam wants to be further aft, and getting I-14 designers to branch away from their successful 14 designs is hard to do.” Since the I-14 has been one of the most influential of dinghies, that rule has had a historic influence on many other boats.

The standard measurement for the sharpness of a bow is the bow or entry “half angle”. It is simply the angle between one side of the bow (at the waterline) and the centerline. Looking at a range of dinghy designs show that the half angle generally becomes narrower as boats get newer and longer. An excellent paper by UK Cherub designer Kevin Ellway, worth reading for many reasons, shows that most modern UK Cherubs have half angles of a bit over 13 degrees. Sixteen Foot Skiffs and 14s like the Schumacher 3 design have half angles of around 12 degrees, while 18 Foot Skiffs used their extra length to reduce bow half angle to around 10 degrees and became upwind demons at the cost of nosediving problems at the top mark.

Some designers, like skiff designer and professional naval architect Rob Widders, measure another entry half angle. It runs between the front end of the chines and the centerline and is normally 2 to 3 degrees wider than the entry half angle, because the chine sits in the more flared section of the topsides.


In the modern era, the move to wings and narrower hulls has emphasised hull section shapes that pack the greatest volume and dynamic lift into narrower waterlines. In broad terms, most boats have turned further away from the old Vee sections that were a heritage of the Uffa Fox era and outmoded materials. The standard is now U-shaped sections in the bow, sweeping into elliptical sections further aft and then developing a flat area along the keel in the midships and stern areas.

The attraction of the U and elliptical sections is simple geometry. A circular section provides the minimum possible surface area (and therefore, the lowest wetted surface) for a given volume. Elliptical hull sections allow the volume that is necessary to support the boat to be contained in a package with less wetted surface and (in a fairly typical hull) about 2in/5omm less waterline beam.

The NS14 class was largely responsible for introducing the elliptical sectional shape to Australian development classes. This is a Tequila design from naval architect Stuart Friezer.

If we stick to U-shaped sections as we move aft from the bow, to the area where the boat get wider and flatter, they tend to distort into an ellipse in the form of a U with a flat patch along the keel line. Apart from being the lowest shape for wetted surface, the ellipse creates more dynamic lift than the old Vee shapes. Remember, any surface planing over the water generates lifting force at a right angle. With the old angled Vee sections, much of that lifting force was directed inwards, where it did nothing for performance.

With a flat planing section, all of the lift is directed vertically upwards. That extra efficiency allows a designer to create a boat that can plane earlier, or have narrower sections for the same lift. This combination of ellipse and flat forms the midsection of most modern boats, with the notable exception of the Bethwaite designs. “The flat area off the centreline gives you more dynamic lift, and the elliptical sections have lower drag at the speeds that the NSs, Moths and smaller skiffs sail at” says designer and naval architect Stuart Friezer. Merlin Rocket designer Keith Callaghan points out that the planing patch also reduces keel line rocker (and therefore form drag) for the same displacement.

The centreline planing flat and narrow waterline shape of the modern-era hull shows clearly on this Friezer NS14 design.

Sometimes the planing patch is subtle, where the flat is merely a slightly straighter section of the graceful curve of the ellipses that create the hull. Other flats are almost brutal. In some it seems almost as if a giant plane has ripped along the boat, tearing off the normal keel line and leaving in its place an area as flat as a table. Where it meets the graceful ellipses of the hull, the junction is hard enough to almost be called a chine. This is not a crude shape, but a product of years of development by professional naval architects. Many such boats are highly successful, a shock to those more comfortable with the idea that flowing lines are fast.


The modern bow is getting longer and narrower, but at the same time it’s carrying more volume. Designers are achieving this trick by turning away from the old Vee sections, which have little volume. Instead, they are carrying elliptical or U sections right forward to the stem. In part, the shift towards U sections is an inevitable result of bows getting narrower. If the fine-bow boats didn’t have flotation somewhere at the pointy end, they’d just go down like a U Boat. “If you go narrow, you’ve got to have good volume from the middle right to the nose” notes Michael Nash.

The U shape gives the bow the required volume and flotation, but it pushes the bulk down low under the water. Moving the flotation down allows the modern boats to be narrower around the level of the sailing waterline, which is generally agreed to be the critical point for wavemaking. “I think extra width has the most effect at the waterline, so everyone’s making boats as narrow as possible at that point. It doesn’t matter much that they have to put more volume under the water” says Nash. “It’s where the boat is breaking the water that’s important” agrees Thorpe.

“The Bieker boats are fuller low down in the bow, and the extra volume gives you more lift” confirms top 14 sailor and sail designer David Alexander. “They are better upwind in chop; the Bieker will go straight through waves that would stop a Wedge (one of the classic Aussie 14 designs). Downwind, the Bieker is easier to sail because the extra volume and rocker forward allows the bow to lift”.


Not all boats follow the high-volume U shape. The best shape and extent of the U and the planing flat under the bow may vary according to the basic speed of the boat. In slow and moderate speed boats powered by hiking crews or a single trapeze, the extra dynamic lift is very valuable and the lower speed of the boat means that the flat area is normally submerged, even in waves. But a faster boat planes faster and higher. If the bow is too flat and U-ed forward, the “slamming” effect as the U or flat rattles over waves may well cost the boat more speed than it will save through the wetted surface reduction and dynamic lift. Not surprisingly, too much flat area along the keel line forward seems to have the same effect as the full, low-chined bow shape on some older Southern Hemisphere designs. The skiff-type Topper Boss had very flat bow sections, which helped it plane very early but slowed it upwind it waves. “As for upwind in a chop, well she doesn’t slice through the water let’s put it like that!” recalls a runner-up in the national titles for the Boss class.

The theme carries through when one looks at the bow shapes of the fastest upwind performers; the 49er and 18. They tend towards very fine, Vee shape bows because they are long boats that travel at such speed that dynamic lift is already plentiful. Their speed increases the impact and rate at which they meet the waves, making it vital to ease the shock. Julian Bethwaite also notes that you have to look at an angle to assess a bow’s wave-handling characteristics. “The top of the wave is normally coming up when it hits the bottom of the boat, so the actual impact is at 30 or 45 degrees. You actually have to look at the boat from that angle, not look at it from the horizontal or the section.”


The area around the mast is generally the deepest part of the boat. This, say many designers, is the area that gives a boat its buoyancy, and a lot of its power. Some designers, especially skiffies, like to put a lot of extra volume in the topsides around the mast area. This far back in the boat, the extra volume doesn’t smack the waves as badly as it would if it was further forward. The extra volume in the topsides will be a long way to leeward, and the buoyancy and planing surface will providing good “leverage” to force the boat upright when the boat is heeled over a long way. Andy Patterson notes that Bethwaite boats (especially the 59er) tend to be very veed and deep under the mast, which “makes them easier to sail, less critical for pitch angle.


One of the most widespread shifts in design in the last few years is the emergence of the “slab-sided” hull. Just about every development class that where the topsides shape is not dictated by rules is moving away from flare in the topsides, especially in the bow. The move is largely designed to reduce resistance in waves. “If you only need the volume below the waterline to go sailing on, why have the rest of it?” asks Andy Dovell. “What’s the rest of it doing for you? It’s hitting waves and getting knocked around and knocking you around and slowing you down. So if you come straight off the waterplane and straight up, you can poke through waves much more efficiently than if the hull is flared out”.

The Stealth 1 International 14, designed by David Lugg, shows the slab sides of the typical modern performance dinghy. Pic from the Western Australian class site.

Designers also feel that slab sides also reduce pitching. When a flared bow is driven into a wave, the extra buoyancy up high lifts the bow abruptly. A slab-sided boat has a more gradual increase in buoyancy as it drives into a wave, so it doesn’t accelerate upwards quickly. “Slab sides minimize hull volume in the topsides, which reduces hull weight and resistance when punching upwind in a chop” agrees Bieker. “They weren’t done in 14’s until I put racks on which made the hull shape independent of the beam necessary for trapezing”.

Top sailors like former International 14 world champion Grant Geddes feel that the switch from flared gunwales to racks also helps to cure nosediving. “Waves go shooting straight through the hole between the gunwhale and the racks, where the water would have hit the underside of the flare and driven the bow down.”.  Racks can also be angled up high in the air, giving the crew more clearance from big waves that could wipe them off a lower conventional gunwale. And as Geddes points out, that has another advantage – when the crew don’t have to heel the boat to lift themselves above the waves, they can sail flatter and therefore faster.

Most designers feel that a bit of topsides flare is still safer, because it provides more buoyancy down to leeward when the boat is heeled. Some of Phil Morrison’s 14s have almost vertical topsides, but he went back to flare with the RS 800, where safety was a key word. “Prototype 1 originally had near vertical topsides, but it made capsize almost instantaneous. Flaring the topsides made the boat only marginally slower, looked nicer (in my opinion) and gave the crews a few moments in which they might be able to recover from an error.” Similarly, the 12 foot skiffs, where massive rigs make stability and the ability to sail fast while heeled into a major issue, still have very wide flare.



Pt 1.24: “It would be difficult to improve upon them”- the high performance dinghies of the European lakes




Author’s note: much of the information in this chapter came from the work of German sailing historians Michael Krieg, Manfred Jacob and Dr.Joachim Schuhmacher. I am very grateful for their assistance and would like to emphasise that I take responsibility for any errors in my understanding. 

Modern and classic H-Jolle development class dinghies race together on the AussenAlster in Hamburg, one of the ancestral homes of German dinghy sailing. This photo by Peter Kahl was taken from the webside of the Norddeutscher Regatta Verein.

The lakes of central Europe may seem like an unlikely breeding ground for high-performance dinghies. The waters are often cold, the winds often light and fluky, and in its early decades the development of the sport lagged behind that of the English-speaking countries. But by the 1930s, the sailors of Germany, Austria and Switzerland were creating dinghies that were probably the fastest and most sophisticated racing dinghies of their era, and they influenced dinghy design across the world.

Sources such as club histories and the sailing historian Dr.Joachim Schuhmacher date the genesis of organised German sailing from the mid 1850s, when centreboarders were exported from the UK to the northern city of Hamburg. Around the same time (1855) the oldest German sailing club, Segelclub Rhe near Konigsberg, was formed in after a high school student bought an old fishing boat. These tales of the genesis of the sport in Germany form a striking contrast to the early history of many other major sailing nations, where the early clubs numbered the richest and most powerful in their membership. In several central European countries, the sport of sailing was created by the middle classes.

It does not seem to have been a coincidence that Hamburg, Konigsberg and Berlin were centres of early central European sailing; they were all members of the ancient Hanseatic League of merchant towns, with significant expatriate populations and strong links with countries like the UK, where sailing was already a popular sport. The internationalism that ran so richly through the dinghy world of the 1800s was further demonstrated in 1864 when the sandbagger Laura, built in New York by the famous “Hen” Smedley, arrived in Hamburg. Under the power of her huge rig and broad beam, she changed the face of German centreboarder sailing and reigned as champion until the sandbagger Ella was built in 1877. For years, the beamy, big-rigged sandbagger type was to dominate the top end of German centreboarder racing, and the pages of books like Georg Belitz’s 1897 work “Seglers Handbuch”, digitised by the German Classic Yacht Club, present a fascinating array of German sandbagger-style boats.

Just as in the USA, the sandbaggers faded out in the 1890s, replaced by the new style of light displacement boats. The fin keel yachts of Nat Herreshoff  appear to have made a big impression. So too do Linton Hope’s light displacement Rater types; if Google Translate is correct, the famous Sorceress herself was imported in 1896, taking a string of wins in Hamburg and Berlin and introducing the high-aspect centreboard to the Continent. She was followed by locally-designed Rater-style boats and other imported designs such as Linton Hope’s Blitz VI, which looks like a slightly longer version of Maid of Kent. Judging from contemporary German books, Dixon Kemp’s famous Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing and its plans of Rater, canoes and early dinghies also seems to have been influential.

During the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, German sailing took on a different slant. Wilhelm saw sailing as a means to make his people more sea-minded, and when he moved into big boat sailing he was followed by aristocrats and industrialists who were keen to curry his favour. But the big-boat era ended with the Kaiser’s reign, and one German source speaks of a massive boom in small boat as post-war politics turned Germans from international tourism to sailing.

Getting ready for a sail on the AussenAlster in Hamburg, an early centre for German centreboarder sailing; “Buute auf der Aussenalster” by Ulrich Hubner, date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.


The the archetypal Central European style of racing boat –  a long, lean hull compared to those from the English-speaking countries – seems to have followed the style of the Raters. The emphasis was often on creating the fastest boat for the sail area, not the fastest boat for the overall length. It’s a foreign concept to many from Anglo-Saxon countries but a very logical one in many ways, and it seems to have led to a style of design that was ideally suited to the inland lakes. The length made the boats fast even when gliding through the light winds that were common inland. The size of the hulls made most of them roomy and stable enough for weekend camping trips and to sit on moorings or jetties off the crowded lake shorelines when space ashore was unavailable. Although hulls as long as 8.38m/27’6″ could have planks and decks as thin as 8mm, on the flat water of the inland lakes the long, light hulls were not subject to the wave impact that helped break up (literally) the similar Rater classes along the coastlines of other countries.

Such long hulls could not have been cheap, but (as in other regions) the expense of the boats probably served the social purpose of keeping out the “undesirable” working- and lower middle- classes out of the sport for many decades. As sailing historians like Manfred Jacob and Dr Schumacher note, in the early days of German sailing there was a significant social divide between the aristocratic and wealthy yachtsmen and the bourgeoisie who sailed the small dinghies. Even the dinghy sailors were split, between the cruisers and the racers, and between those who sailed in the windier and choppier waters of the north and those who sailed the inland lakes. The long dinghies that evolved may have been large enough to form a bridge between these disparate factions.

Francis Herreshoff, who was familiar with the German classes through his family heritage and his own design work, was one English-speaking designer who thought that the long and often slender style of dinghy of Central Europe was infinitely superior to the short, tippy style of dinghies favoured by the British. The European type was “faster for their sail area, safer, cheaper and drier” he said. Herreshoff didn’t hold his punches when he compared them to the British dinghies that were becoming popular in the US. The International 14s, he wrote, were “dangerous freaks…not as fast as they should be for their sail area and weight (because) they are too short”. The British type was “so vastly inferior” he thundered “that there is no comparison.”


J Jolle. Photo by Chris Falter through Wikimedia Commons.

The first of what would become the classic Central European style of renjolle (“racing dinghy”) was born in Germany in 1909, when the yacht sailors who dominated the national sailing federation created the J Jolle as a national training class for young sailors. Their bias towards larger craft seems to have led them to choose a massive boat for such a role, and the J Jolle is 6.1m (20ft) overall and weighs up to 350 kg (772lb).

The J Jolle is a development class with simple rules – the length limit, a restriction on the sum of the overall length and the beam (7.8m/25ft7in) and 22 m2 (237ft2) of sail. The potential of the class soon attracted serious racers who developed it from a kid’s boat into the Grand Prix class of the lakes. Sailors like Manfred Curry, still remembered by many as the man who brought science into sailing, quickly brought in refinements such as fully-battened mains, high-aspect rigs, streamlined hulls, and cam cleats. The waterline stretched, the rounded hull sections were replaced by firm-bilged Vee sections. The moderate measured sail area of 22m2 was soon increased by a big overlapping genoa and wide roach on the mainsai, which brought the actual sail area up to 28 to 30 m2 (301ft2 to 323ft2).

Uffa Fox himself, that great fan of the short British dinghy, noted that the J Jolle were “exceptionally fast in the lightest of airs, as they will ghost along without any wind at all and will plane along at a very high speed in any breeze 12 miles an hour or over…” Although comparing yardstick ratings and other indications of speed across countries and decades is a very loose “science”, some rough calculations indicate that J Jolle were probably faster than the dinghies of any other country, with the exception of the bigger E and A Scows of the US Midwest. Today the restored vintage J Jolle are rated only 5% slower than a 505 and 3% faster than a 470. Even allowing for the advantage they get from size, it’s a tribute to the standards that the Renjolle achieved 75 years ago.

If the J Jolle was the refined “grand prix” class of the central European lakes, the high-performance fringe was filled by the “free” renjolle – perhaps the fastest and most advanced dinghies of their era. The free renjolle were so fast that even today the restored classics of the 1920s are rated among the world’s fastest dinghies (skiffs and big scows apart); on the pace with the Flying Dutchman and faster than a 505.

The “free” classes earned their name from their lack of restrictions. Unlike most of the other Central European lake boats, they were strictly for racing, with no compromises for cruising or day sailing. They were restricted only in sail area, minimum waterline beam, and some restrictions on construction and flotation. The “N” class carried 10 m2 (108ft2) of measured sail area, the “M” class set 15m2 (161ft2), and the spectacular “Z” class spread 20m2 (215ft2).

The renjolle were beautiful examples of excess in motion; extreme in every way. The Z-Jolle grew from 7.4m (24ft3in) LOA to 8.6m (28ft2in) and more in length, on a slender beam of just 1.76m to 1.82m (5ft10in to 6ft). They weighed as little as 390kg  (860lb) but carried rigs in which the theoretical 20m2 rig had been stretched to 30m2 (323ft2) with the addition of genoas and roachy, fully battened mainsails. The N Class, with an actual sail area about the size of a Snipe or 420, stretched out to almost 6.5m (21ft4in) – longer than a Flying Dutchman.

The extravagant beauty of the free renjolle. The “N” class, the smallest of the free rejolle development classes, has a rig with a measured area (not including genoa) that is similar to that of a Snipe or Finn set on a hull 18″/50cm longer than that of a Flying Dutchman. Sail No. 2 is an Einheitszehner, a one-design class within the rules of the N class, also depicted in the plan below from Juan Baader’s classic yacht design text “The Sailing Yacht”. The Einheitszehehner hull was planked in Okume or Gaboon just 8mm thick, over 10 by 15mm frames set only 75mm apart. The Ns survive in very small numbers in Germany, Austria and, oddly enough, Japan. Pic from the class site.


Stretching the free renjolle did more than just give them sheer waterline length. Narrowing the overall beam also has the effect of sharpening the waterlines at the bow. The bows of many vintage renjolle have a “half angle” of just ten degrees – in the same region as a modern 18 Foot Skiff.

A series of sections of Z Class boats, published in ancient copies of Die Yacht magazine, show astonishingly little alteration over a period of decades. All have softly curved bilges, wide flare to reduce waterline beam, and narrow, deeply Veed sterns (to prevent the boats going bow-down when they heeled, wrote Curry). Some modern reports say that the Z Class “had not learned the lesson of Uffa Fox” and were too narrow in the stern to plane, but in fact Fox held them up as an example of an outstanding lake racer. “For racing and sailing inland” he wrote, the Z Class “would be difficult to improve upon”.

The renjolle carried gaff sailplans long after Bermudan rigs had taken over in other dinghies. Today it seems anachronistic to think of gaffers as being efficient, but the renjollen used slender and lightweight hollow spars, with a gaff that fell away to leeward in puffs like a bendy mast. When the breeze kicked in hard, the gaff could be reefed to create a snug rig, without the windage and weight of a naked Bermudan topmast above the mainsail. In those days before trapezes and modern gear such things mattered, and as late as the 1930s foreign observers like Uffa Fox and L. Francis Herreshoff recognized that the gaff was the best option for big rigs such as those that the Z Jolle and J Jolle carried. Decades later, aerodynamics expert Tony Marchaj said that the high-peaked gaff was closer to the theoretically ideal elliptical outline than the Bermudan rig. Even today, when modern gear, sails and trapezes have shifted the balance to Bermudan rigs, the surviving gaffers are rated only a few percent slower than their contemporaries that have been updated to high-aspect Bermudan sailplans.

A M-Jolle on Lake Starnberg; pic from Wikimedia Commons. The lines from the class site below show the fine bow sections that were common among the long, slender hulls of the free renjolle. The design below was 6.25m long; a huge hull for a boat with a measured sail area of just 15m2.



The other key to the renjolle rigs were the many full battens, which supported what Uffa Fox called an “enormous” roach. The battens were also used to force draft into the sail; at about 11%, the renjollen sails were very deep and powerful for their day and Fox noted their “heavy camber or fullness”.

As development continued, the free renjolle got longer and longer, and faster and faster in all but the lightest of winds (when the older Z Jolle and the J Jolle, which had less wetted surface because of their shorter hulls, could beat them). Some were sent to the US, and contemporary US reports speak them easily beating boats like Suicides and Stars. They must have been the fastest dinghies of their day, by a margin almost as long as their decks. It was probably not until the early 1960s that an 18 Foot Skiff became faster, and the International 14 probably only caught up to the Z Class in the ‘80s or ‘90s. The traditional belief was that the speed record was held by “Agra”, which allegedly recorded an extraordinary 27.3 knots in 1937.

Ferret, the Carl Martens Z-Klasse that Uffa Fox wrote about in his book “Racing Cruising and Design”, from where these plans come. Uffa noted that although she was 8.38m/27ft6in long, she was narrower than a British National 12! Note the deep sections, wide flare and soft bilges that were the standard shape in the class, and the very fine bow waterlines. Unlike the smaller British-style dinghies, the renjolle did not have a long flat rocker line aft; it probably doesn’t work on such long and slender hull.

ferrett-linesThe expense and maintenance of the free renjolle caught up to them when lighter, cheaper and sometimes faster boats like the Flying Dutchman came out. Many of the renjolle classes faded away, only to be revived in recent times by those who valued their beauty, history and performance. Today, there are still about two dozen active classic Z Jolle, mostly relics of the glory days of the ‘20s and ‘30s, but with a sprinkling of newer boats. Many have now been re-rigged with high aspect Bermudan rigs and sport twin trapezes. The Bermudan rigged Z Jolle are rated at a yardstick of 96. That puts them as one of the fastest “real” (ie those that are not skiff, scows or foilers) dinghies afloat – 2% slower than a Flying Dutchman, 1% slower than a 505.

A classic example of the Z Jolle fleet is Hex III, a champion of the 1920s. She was designed by the two greatest names in renjolle, Reinhard Drewitz and Manfred Curry. Like Curry’s own Z Jolle, Aero II, she features low reverse sheer and curved gunwales that were meant to smooth the aerodynamic flow over the foot of the sails.

Hex III. Pic from the class site.

Eighty years after her heyday, boatbuilder George Smits found Hex III sheltering in a boatshed on the shores of Lake Constance. The lightweight structure was carefully restored by his son Sammy, one of the world’s top designers in the 5.5 Metre class. Hex III still sports her gaff rig but even by modern standards, report the Smits and their friend Claas van der Linde, she feels like a dinghy. She accelerates very quickly and is easily capsized. “Between 2 and 4 Bf (4 to 16 knots) are the best conditions for Hex III” reports van der Linde. “A J Jolle is faster until about 1.5 Bf (two to three knots of wind) because the wetted surface is less, beyond that Hex III is faster. Her upwind performance is quite good (or better than good), downwind she is good. The Z Jolle will plane often and easily from about 4 Bf on.”

The extraordinary streamlined shape of Hex III shows the influence of Manfred Curry. Pic from the class site.

“The Flying Dutchman on the plane will be faster than Hex III, but her max speed has been estimated to be above 15 knots. Beyond an estimated 15 knots she becomes difficult to steer. Ventilation of the rudder is a problem, and while boats like the 49er become more stable at high speeds, Hex III’s round hull makes her less stable the faster she goes.”

Sammy Smits fell so much in love with Z Jolle that he built his own, to a new design by Patrick Sager. “Fastwood” is about a metre shorter than Hex III and wider both overall and at the waterline (2.1m/6.9ft overall beam and 1.75m/5ft9in waterline beam, compared to Hex III’s overall beam of 1.75m and waterline beam of about 1.25m/4ft1in). The new boat is much fuller in the hull, particularly forward, and carries too much sail to race as a Z Jolle. Instead, she races in the Formula Libera B class – the smaller version of the famous 13m monster skiffs that prowl the lakes with up to 13 crew on wings and traps.

Despite the bigger rig (inherited from an 18 foot skiff), Fastwood needs Bf4 (16 knots) and more to beat her longer, slimmer older sister. However, the newer boat is very stable and easily controllable, even in winds of Bf 5-6 (17-27 knots) when the classic Z Jolle are becoming difficult to handle. Max speeds seen on Fastwood are said to have been around 21 knots, and at that pace she remained well under control.

The beauty of Fastwood, now ZZ Top, a modern interpretation of the Z Jolle style. Many of the Central European wooden racing dinghies show the stunning craftmanship displayed by boatbuilders like Smits’ company.


The most popular of the classic lake dinghies of Central Europe isn’t a renjolle; it’s a “wanderjolle” or cruising dinghy. The pages of old German dinghy books are full of dinghy cruising; of pics of boom tents, tables hanging off centreboard cases, and dinghies moored to the shore overnight. The most popular of the “wanderjolle” classes is the H Jolle; a development class that is about as big as a Flying Dutchman (6.20m) but with class rules that mandated much more beam (a minimum of 1.70m overall and 1.50 m at the waterline) and weight (minimum 190kg) than the frei renjolle of similar length. The rig is still generous; a measured sail area of 15m2 on a 7.5m mast is dramatically increased by the roach and the massive overlap of the genoa is taken into account.

In its early years, the class followed two strands. The H Jolle sailors who braved the rougher waters of the northern seas developed solid oak boats that weighed 500 kg. The boats that sailed the light winds of the inland lakes dropped the full battens and the wooden headsail luff spars in the quest for light weight. In its heyday before WW2 there were 800 H Jolle in Germany, making it the most popular class of its era.

When I walked along the shores of Hamburg’s Aussenalster lake in 2014, it seemed that every one of the 160 hectares of the beautiful lake adjacent to the city centre included at least one classic wooden H-Jolle. The H-Jolles I saw were almost certainly actually Elb H-Jolle, a one-design class from the 1930s that fits into the H Jolle rules) and to watch them showed how well the Central European dinghies fitted their environment. The Aussenalster (or Outer Alster) presents an extraordinary scene to a sailor. Measuring just 164 hectares (405 acres), it supports at least three sailing clubs, including the Nordeutscher Regatta Verein, one of the largest in Germany, and staggering numbers of boats including a fleet of 50 International Dragon yachts. Little marinas jutting out into the lake were filled by row upon row of dinghies, almost all of them designed in the 1970s or earlier. There is little space for big clubhouses or dinghy parks on the shorelines of the Central European lakes, and the Elb H-Jolle sat in rows in tiny marinas or on docks. Some of them, perhaps club-owned hire boats, were obviously being sailed by inexperienced crews, but they found the long, stable gaffers easy to handle. There seemed to be a rich variety of ages and experienced aboard. The wealthy and sophisticated citizens of Hamburg could easily afford newer boats, but they find a deeper joy in these varnished classics.

An Elb H-Jolle on the Aussenalster. Wikimedia Commons pic.

While the Elb H-Jolle remains faithful to the original conception of the wanderjolle type, the H-Jolle class itself has kept on changing with the times in the development class spirit. Bermudan rigged and carrying a trapeze, the modern H Jolle looks to be close to a modernized Flying Dutchman, or a blown-up Merlin Rocket or MG 14. The bottom sections are flat, apparently because of the minimum waterline beam rules, and the topsides are flared. It’s also rated as the fastest conventional dinghy (skiffs and foilers apart) in Germany – 2 % quicker than the FD, 3% faster than the 505, 4% than the Bermudan-rigged Z Jolle.

The modern H Class; now built in carbon and with a noticeably flat hull, it’s rated faster than the Flying Dutchman. This beautiful pic is from the class site.


Despite their speed and beauty, the development classes of the inland lakes never spread much beyond Central Europe. Their major influence on the world beyond came when they taught the sailors of the world a new approach to sail tuning and the science of sailing.




“Early German dinghy designs came from England and from the USA”:- most of the information about early German dinghies is courtesy of Mandred Jacob; see

“If Google Translate is correct, the famous Sorceress herself was imported in 1896”; see Belitz p 240.

“and brought with them the high-aspect centreboard”:- Belitz p 207

“One German source speaks of a massive boom in small boat as post-war politics turned Germans from tourism to sailing.” The source is sports editor Gustav Gruttefien, quoted in “After the day; Germany unconquered and unrepentant” by Hayden Talbot, London, 1920

“They were almost certainly actually Elb H-Jolle; a one-design class that fits into the H Jolle rules”. The Elb H-Jolle actually started out in another development class of similar dimensions, but was later fitted into the H Class; the class history is unclear about the details.





Pt 1.51 – What we’re sailing today 2.0 – the USA

With its flat and heavy hull, low aspect rig and no spinnaker the X-Boat is no speedster but it seems to attract strong fleets on the lakes of the US midwest. The class manufacturer, Melges, built 9ers for a while but now seems to have dropped them in favour of its traditional classes.


Let’s get one thing straight – I know I’m not a US dinghy sailor, so although I’ve done a lot of research into the history of US dinghy sailing and interviewed some of the leading minds of the modern scene, I’m not an expert on the subject. However, just as with every other region, when there’s a choice between doing what research I can or ignoring one of the main regions of the sport, it seems that the former is the best option. I have interviewed the creators of some of the most popular classes in the country (as shown here and here, and in more posts to come later) but I’d love to hear some more informed feedback from those who are more familiar with US dinghy sailing.

To try to work out what is happening in dinghy sailing in the US, rather than go on hype and impressions it seems to be a good idea to try to track the popularity of various dinghy classes.  As noted earlier, the best (albeit imperfect) source of information seems to be the fleet sizes for the national (or North American) titles, as shown in the table below. For the years 2007-2012 my information is based on those compiled by “Roger Jolly”, a poster on Sailing Anarchy. Roger’s work was great but he was only interested in adult’s classes, and he only counted the “main event” – that is, the open national titles rather than the separate events that many classes run for Junior, Youth, Masters and Women. I prefer to count these “alternative” fleets, because it gets closer to measuring the true number of active boats. It’s also a pain, because it means more digging and often means going through every results sheet to make sure the same sailors aren’t being counted twice. There’s a bunch of notes at the bottom of the table to give more information about the “alternative” fleets and other details.

The “alternative” fleets have a significant impact on the US national title attendance numbers, because American sailors don’t seem to follow the pattern of having the kids sail kids boats and the adults sailing adult’s boats as much as the rest of the world. Of course there are specialised classes for juniors and youth, like the 420 and Opti – but in the USA you also get significant fleets of kids sailing adult-sized boats, like the 50 or so who do the Junior nationals in the 16 foot X-Boat, a heavy hard-chine dinghy from the lakes of the Midwest, the 40 or so who sail the 12 foot Butterfly scow in the same area, or those who sail the separate junior nationals offered by Snipes and similar classes.  There’s also a number of adults who sail little prams designed for kids, like the Sabot and El Toro, which is a rather endearing feature of US sailing that runs counter to the general preference for big boats.

So what do the numbers show? For a start, looking at the classes where we have sufficient data, the average attendance over the last three years shows a decline of almost 10% in attendance over the past three years, compared to the period 2007-2012 (see the right-hand column for the comparative percentage). Not good. In fact the state of the sport in the US may be even worse than these numbers indicate, when one takes a longer view and sees the number of classes, once strong, that are now long gone. Some of them give a sobering picture of how even the biggest classes can vanish.  The original Windsurfer – a class I still sail down here, and one of the other types I included for added interest – had around 300 starters in the ’80s but died in the ’90s, and unlike Europe (where the class is now very strong in Italy) sadly the attempt to restart it appears to have failed. The Laser II is another example of a class that was once very strong but is no longer active – perhaps an indication that the US market seems to suffer more than other regions from SMOD manufacturers or regional associations who decide to no longer support a class.

Quite a few US sailors have told me that their country is full of sailors who are too conservative and worried about appearances. If that’s true, why are quite a few of them very happy to race tiny dinghies like the Naples Sabot (above) or Interclub frostbiter (below)?



Like the World Sailing figures that were given in the last post, the US numbers show the strength and dominance of the Opti, Lasers and Club 420 compared to all other classes.  Although there’s a fair bit of doom and gloom being expressed around the internet, for these classes the picture given by the championship attendances is reasonably good taking into account issues like the economic situation and Laser’s legal problems.

The Club 420, by the way, is basically a tougher and simpler version of the International 420, with tighter one design rules. This brings up another major point about the US scene – many boats are owned by clubs rather than private owners. As people like Steve Clark (high-performance cat and canoe guru and former co-owner of the country’s biggest dinghy manufacturer) points out, this tends to encourage boats that are heavy and tough enough to handle the bashing that is often handed out by people who won’t have to fix the scars and bruises.

The second bracket of classes includes the traditional big and rather heavy hard-chine boats, like the Lightning (which includes open, junior and masters fleets that I have yet to check for double counting), X Boat, Snipe and Interlake. The strength of the Midwestern classes like the X Boat and Interlake is interesting, although any such “regional” classes are likely to have disproportionately large attendance at their nationals due to the shorter distances involved. Despite their unfashionable nature, these classes seem to be doing pretty well in terms of maintaining their fleet size. Let those who reckon they can do better prove it, before they criticise the classes that are still strong.

We have to get a long, long way down the list before we strike some high-performance dinghies, namely the 505 and 29er. The three high-performance development dinghies – the Int 14, Int Canoe and Moth – each only average 14 starters, with the Moth numbers actually dropping. Of course, no one is claiming that these numbers are a perfect illustration of the health or direction of any class, but it’s apparent that while these boats are fantastic, they are not attracting big numbers of sailors despite their age, performance and high profile.

I’ve included some sportsboats, kites, cats and windsurfers to give some idea of relative numbers. The scary thing is seeing how tiny some of the classes that have been proclaimed as the way forward really are. Hydrofoil kiting is on my own bucket list to get into, but the numbers at world level and national level demonstrate that it’s not attracting significant numbers. The high-performance windsurfer classes are all struggling, as are many of the high-performance boats. The growth of kitefoilers is less than the drop in Formula Windsurfers. For every high performance cat class like the As that is growing, there is another like the F18HT, Hobie Tiger, Hobie 20, or F20 that has dropped off or died.  Just like the Australian numbers, these figures seem to show that many pundits are aiming their criticism the wrong way – the “establishment” classes are not the problem with the sport but its saviour. The new wave and high performance development classes are fantastic (I own a couple of them) but they are showing no signs of growing popular enough to replace the older classes.

Looking from the outside, one of the main points about the US scene seems to be the love of big hard-chine one designs like the Lightning (above) which is still showing good championship attendances. In contrast the smaller “training version”, the Blue Jay (below) is now dead as a national class and only sailed in small numbers at a few clubs. The US would seem to have lost far more dinghy classes than any other major sailing nation. Pics from the class sites.


The main message from these numbers could be the vital importance of manufacturer, club and association support, and the fact that the sport’s health still depends on the classes that have been around for decades. We cannot keep on attacking these classes, as some pundits do, until we have found new types that can truly show the potential to attract the same sort of support, and that has not happened.

Perhaps a less negative end note is that looking at the USA (and  Canada, which of course has its own and very interesting scene) brings home once again the strange combination of consistency and diversity we see as we look across different regions. Obviously, most regions have the big four classes (Optimists, Lasers, Radials and 420s) and a sprinkling of Olympic classes and 29ers, but underneath them are still many of the regional classes that were born in the middle of the 20th century and reflect local culture and conditions. Even the patterns of racing and usage vary widely from country to country. It’s perhaps just another reason why when we try to shape the future of the sport, we should probably be concentrating on learning from the existing sailing scenes rather than trying to impose our own concepts of the future.


1980s 07/09 av. 10-12 av. 2014 2015 2016 14-16 av.
Optimist US Nationals 88.7 228 273 243 248.0
Sabot Jnr & Open (1) 166.7
Radial Open & Masters (2) 133 150 131 138.0
Sabot Jnr 173 120 118 133 123.7
Club 420 115 74 150 113.0
Laser Radial Open 106.7 112.7 107 127 101 111.7 102%
Laser Std Open & Masters (2) 124.0 130 90 114 111.3 90%
Lightning ALL (3) 107.0
X-Boat ALL (4) 94 73 107 92 90.7
Duckboat “worlds” (5) 78 77 77.5
Lightning Open 88 68.7 61.0 106 46 74 75.3 116%
Hobie 16 Open/Jnr/Wmn (6) 74.0
Sunfish – Open & Youth (7) 61.0 85.9 73 62 82 72.3 98%
MC Scow 69.3 70.0 81 54 67.5 97%
Butterfly (8) 77 62 136 91.7
Snipe (9) 67.0
E Scow 48 55.7 65.7 79 59.00 58 65.3 108%
Laser Standard – Open 87.0 61.7 67 55 59 60.3 81%
Sunfish Open 61.0 85.9 60 58 59 59.0 80%
Club FJ 70.7 62 59 54 58.3 83%
Laser Masters 43.0 64 35 68 55.7 129%
C Scow 59.3 55.3 42 57.00 65 54.7 95%
Thistle 92 68.7 70.3 54 50 58 54.0 78%
Hobie 16 96 53.3 44.0 46 73 43 54.0 111%
J/70 71 49 39 53.0
Lightning (10) 53 53.0
X Boat – Junior 39 57 56 50.7
Snipe 66.5 46.0 48.0 37 43 67 49.0 104%
Interlake 43 38.0 34.0 39 57 48.0 133%
Melges 24 40.7 46 46.0 113%
A Class 41.7 45 41 43 43.0 103%
Naples Sabot Snr 54 32 43.0
Bic O’pen 42 42.0
Flying Scot (11) 79 81.3 61.7 31 48 46 41.7 58%
Int. 505 43.3 27.0 38 33 49 40.0 114%
X Boat – Senior Fleet 34 49 36 39.7
Butterfly – Youth 47 28 37 37.3
Vanguard 15 50.3 39.7 29 33 50 37.3 83%
Int. 420 35 35 35.0
29er 56.3 46.0 42 25 35 34.0 66%
Force 5 57 29 38 33.5
Radial Masters 33 33.0
F18 46.7 40 28 30 32.7 70%
Flying Scot H&W (11) 31 31.0
Highlander 35 28 30 31.0
Lido 14 37.5 33.0 44 19 30 31.0 94%
Foilboard (12) 28 34 31.0
Windmill 33.5 37 25 25 29.0
Butterfly – Open 40 49.0 38.0 30 27 28 28.3 65%
Sandpiper catboat 46 10 28.0
Interclub 45.0 28.3 29 25 27.0 74%
Radial Masters 26 23 30 26.3
Buccaneer 18 29.7 30 28 17 25.0 84%
Aero 7 24 24.0
Albacore 51.0 23 22 22.5 44%
JY15 25.0 20 22 21.0
F 16 21 21.0
Jet 14 37 18 25 19 20.7
Kona Windsurfer 20 11 29 20.0
A scow 20 20 20.0
Rebel 24 21 13 19.3
CC Knockabout 18 18.0
Snipe US Jnr/wmn 11 25 18.0
Melges 17 17 23 13 17.7
Formula Kite 16 16.0
Wayfarer 18 15 10 21 15.3
Classic Moth 16 17 12 15.0
RSX 15 15.0
Y Flyer 59 14 15 14.5
Hobie 14 72 14 15 14.5
Int 14 10 18 14.0
Int Canoe 14.0
Coronado 15 81 17 11 14.0
Int Moth 23 12 6 13.7
Hydrofoil Kite (12) 13 13.0
Penguin 28.5 12 15 10 12.3
Techno 293 12 12.0
49er 9 14 11.5
Comet 35 13 9 11.0
Puddle Duck (10) 9 12 10.5
Byte CII 3 18 10.5
Hobie 16 Youth 10 10.0
Hobie 16 Women 48 10 10.0
Flying Dutchman 27 9 9.0
Nacra 17 10 7 8.5
Open Canoe ACA 8 8.0
I-20 Scow 10 5 7.5
Sunfish Youth 13 4 5 7.3
Laser 4.7 5 8 9 7.3
49erFX 8 9 5 7.3
Contender 7 7.0
Open Canoe 5m 7 7.0
Fireball 17 7 6 6.5
Int 470 6 6.0
Aero 9 6 6.0
Aero 5 4 4.0
Flying Scot Jnr&W (11) 4 4.0
Formula Windsurfing 28.7 12 7 9.5 33%
Freestyle windsurfing 6 6.0
Slalom windsurfer 37 29 33.0
Windsurfer (Original) 286 Not held Not held Not held
Windsurfer Div 1 and 2 175 Not held Not held Not held
Laser II 60 Not held Not held Not held
Laser M 47 Not held Not held Not held
Tornado 42 Not held Not held Not held
Nacra 5.2 56 Not held Not held Not held
Blue Jay 60 13.7 Not held Not held Not held 0.0
Mobjack 28 12.0 Not held Not held Not held 0.0


1- Includes both the adult and junior fleets added together, although they race separately.

2- Includes open and masters fleets. There doesn’t appear to be any significant number of people who do both championships.

3- Including the competitors in the open championship, the womens’ championship and the masters championship. Has NOT been checked to see if sailors who did more than one event are double counted.

4- Includes both open and junior fleets added together, although they race separately.

5- Not a national championship. The Duckboat is a Sneakbox, a traditional local type. This appears to be much more of an annual social regatta.

6- Including the competitors in the open championship, the womens’ championship and the youth championship. Has NOT been checked to see if sailors who did more than one event are double counted.

7- Includes both youth and open fleets. Sailors who did both events have only been counted once.

8- Includes both youth and open fleets added together, although they race separately. Does NOT include those who race in the separate singlehanded championship.

9- Includes open, Youth and other fleets – still to be checked.

10- Open fleet only.

11- This class has several championships (like the Husband and Wife title) which are listed, but my ISP has a problem with the class site so I cannot get further details.

12- I don’t know the difference between a foilboard and a foiling kiteboard. This may be related to turf wars between the two kiting bodies.

These figures use the higher of either North American or US titles. The exception is the Opti, which attracts too many people from central America and the Caribbean and therefore would not give an accurate figure of US interest. Before anyone complains, I know that North American titles include Canadian entries and Canada has its own sailing scene, but I don’t have the time to run separate numbers for Canada. Sorry.

Not every year’s data or every class can be found. I’ve still got to put in Finns and Tasars, for example.

To make it clear, no one’s claiming that numbers like this are perfect – just that they are one hell of a lot better than just going off the hype or gut feeling. If anything, I think that they make the smaller classes look comparatively more popular, relative to the bigger classes, than they really are. But given the issues involved in other measurements (for example, policies regarding membership of a class association varies so much between classes that counting members is completely unreliable) it’s the best we can get at the moment.




The Hobie 20 (said to be a copy of the Hurricane 5.9 and a “street legal Tornado”) was averaging about 60 boats in the late ’90s; now it’s down to about a quarter of that.


Pt 1.50 – What we’re sailing today, 1.0

The utterly bizarre start line at the Lake Garda Optimist regatta brings home the enormous and continuing success of the little design from Florida. This is where I first saw an Opti in real life, and the quick look I gave it confirmed to my biased eyes that it was a terrible boat. It was only years later, when I took the time to watch the way kids used them and watched my own kids start sailing, that it became obvious how much the class offers to kids and to sailing.
The RS200 has become one of the most popular boats in the world’s biggest dinghy market. RS boats comprise about 10% of the British dinghy fleet, as measured by national titles attendance. Sometimes I think we should just let them run the sport for a couple of years, since they arguably do a better job than the people in charge now.

While I find the history of the sport fascinating, much of the motivation behind SailCraft is learning the lessons of the past in order to understand the present and the future. An essential part of that is finding out what sailors have sailed and are still sailing. There’s no perfect measure (although if anyone is interested in getting involved in a large scale exercise to count the boats actually being raced in the world they can count me in) but given all the variables, the best seems to be looking at the size of the fleets that turn up to national titles. It’s far from perfect for reasons that are all too apparent, but to me nothing else comes close when it comes to tracking trends and getting a reality check.

The International classes

Before we get on to the national pictures, let’s get a picture of the worldwide popularity of the major classes by turning to the reports that each international class sends to World Sailing each year. The classes pay dues on each boat sold, so they have an incentive to keep the numbers realistic. Although they are sometimes pretty loose, they don’t fall into the realm of outright fiction, like some other claims do. Two major manufacturers have an arrangement with ISAF to keep the numbers of boats they sell confidential, so since they are shy we may as well ignore them.

Over the last five years, the major International and Recognised classes have each sold the following number of boats;

Optimist  – 15210
Laser – 8808
Sunfish – (est) 5000
RS Aero – (est) 2750 (new class – five year sales estimated on current annual sales)
RS Feva – 2300
Int 420 – 1642
RS Tera – 1283
Topper – 1134
Finn – 1000 (approximate, due to ISAF allegedly being slow to provide information)
J/70 – 980
470 – 912
Formula 18 – 739 (this figure is obtained by adding the number sold each year. The class claims 1000 new boats over this period. Oh well, we F18 sailors aren’t very good at maths).
29er – 584
49er/FX – 564
Moth – 550
Byte CII – 500
RS 100 – 410
A Class – 400
Snipe – 384
Nacra 17 – 331
J/80 – 300 approx
Viper 16 cat – 259
RS 500 – 250
Glide Free Laser foiling kits – 250 (not an ISAF class; industry claim put in for reference and based on pro-rata annual rate)
Zoom 8 – 250
Formula 16 – 235
TopKat 16 – 233
Micro 18 – 230
SL16 – 223
FJ – approx 200
Europe – 180
GP14 – 147
Int OK – 143
Mirror – 143
Dragon – 140
Enterprise – 139
Contender – 125
Tasar – 120
505 – 101
Star – 101
Splash – 100
Int Cadet – 99
Melges 20 – 96
Fireball – 93
MPS – 91
Lightning – 85
FD – 56
Vaurien – 52
Dart 18 – 50
Int 14 – 45
Flying 15 – 38
SB20 – 36 in four years
B14 – 22
Tornado – 4
Laser II – 0

The thing that is striking about this list is the utter dominance of the Opti and Laser. Given that most Sunfish are sold as beach toys (which is great) the Opti and Laser are just in a different class (sorry) to every other boat. It is bizarre that some people want to destroy the classes on which so much of the sport obviously depends – the ones that are actually doing more than any other classes to keep it alive.

It’s also interesting to see the presence of a very strong “second XI” of classes like the 420 and RSs. The first of the classes that some people claim to be the future of the sport are way down the list.

The national pictures

Back in the 1970s, the UK’s Yachts and Yachting magazine started analysing the size of the fleets that turned up to the biggest national titles. The magazine still maintains a fascinating table showing the attendance at just about every national championship regatta, which is an invaluable numerical guide to what people really sail, and also shows just how far off beam many pundits are when it comes to looking at the reality and the future of the sport. I’ll look at the Y&Y data, modified to include the many sailors who do the Masters nationals in Lasers, later.

More recently, the contributor “Roger Jolly” analysed the size of the fleets at North American and US titles for several years. The US and Australia both have the problem of large variation year-by-year in many classes due to the vast distances between championship venues, which makes it even harder to analyse trends, so Roger maintained a three-year rolling average of championship attendances. The latest of them can be found here; scroll down and you’ll see a list of the 50 most popular classes, excluding juniors. Note that like Y&Y, Roger’s figures ignore the huge fleets that do their Laser nationals as part of separate Masters championships. I’m currently preparing an updated version of Roger Jolly’s list and will put that up soon.

As far as I can find, no one has yet done a similar analysis of class popularity in other major sailing countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand.  I have been obtaining as much information on long-term national title attendance in Australia for years. The latest figures, averaging over the last three years as Roger Jolly did (and for the same reasons) are below.

Some classes (marked with an asterix) have only one set of figures, partly because they are such popular classes that they will not move up or down the rankings significantly when further information information is added; they can be polished later. Some classes seem to be shy about giving out their numbers.  The Laser and Radial numbers allow for the sailors who did the separate Masters nationals. Those who did both Open and Masters nationals have been deducted from the total, as have overseas competitors who took part in an Australian title associated with a world or interdominion (Australia v New Zealand) championship.

Australian national title attendance – three year rolling average 2014-2016

Optimist* 1 Jnr Hike 1d 219.0
Laser Radial* 1 Light/Youth Hike SMOD 183.0
Laser* 1 Open Hike SMOD 137.0
Sabot* 1 or 2 Jnr Hike 1d 104.0
Tasar 2 Open Hike SMOD 77.0
Sabre 1 Open Hike 1d 75.0
Int. Cadet* 2 Jnr Hike 1d 67.0
Flying 11 2 Jnr Hike 1d 58.7
Moth 1 Open Assist Dev 56.3
Minnow 1 Jnr Hike 1d 56.0
Laser 4.7* 1 Jnr Hike SMOD 54.0
29er 2 Youth Assist SMOD 47.7
Impulse 1 Open Hike 1d 44.5
Sharpie 3 Open Assist 1d 42.0
Spiral 1 Open/Light Hike SMOD 42.0
Int. 420 2 Youth Assist 1d 37.7
Manly Junior 2 Jnr Hike 1d 36.0
16 Foot Skiff 3 Open Assist 1d 35.3
Mirror 2 Jnr/Light Hike 1d 32.0
Heron 2 Light Hike 1d 31.5
OK 1 Open Hike 1d 31.3
NS14 2 Open Hike Dev 31.0
Int. 14 2 Open Assist Dev 29.0
MG14 2 Open Assist Dec 28.5
125 2 Youth/Light Assist 1d 27.7
Cherub 2 Youth/Light Assist Dev 27.0
Int. 505 2 Open Assist 1d 26.5
B14 2 Open Assist SMOD 25.0
12 Foot Skiff 2 Open Assist Dev 23.0
Finn 1 Open Hike 1d 20.5
Javelin 2 Open Assist Dev 20.0
18 Foot Skiff 3 Open Assist 1d 19.0
Musto Skiff 1 Open Assist SMOD 16.0
Contender 1 Open Assist 1d 14.0
13 Foot Skiff 2 Youth Assist 1d 13.0
Pacer* 2 Open Hike 1d 14.0
RS 100* 1 Open Hike SMOD 13.0
Fireball 2 Open Assist 1d 12.0
Flying Dutchman 2 Open Assist 1d 12.0
RS Aero* 1 Open Hike SMOD 12.0
Int. 470 2 Open Assist 1d 11.7
49er 2 Open Assist SMOD 11.0
Skate 2 Open Assist 1d 11.0
49erFX 2 Open Assist SMOD 9.3
Vee Ess 3 Open Assist 1d 9.0
National E 2 Open Assist 1d 9.0
Formula 15 2 Open Assist SMOD 8.0
RS200* 2 Open Hike SMOD 8.0

Notes: “Assist” refers to classes that have some form of “hiking assistance” such as wings, trapeze, plank or a combination. The second column from the left refers to crew numbers, the third refers to rough age/weight categories. A few classes, such as the Bic O’pen which is going very well, have been left out because I can’t find the information.

I may declare my own interests here. Counting all of the classes I have kit for (ie boards, boats, and the cat) three of them sit right at the top of the list. Three sit solidly in the middle, one is one of the smallest active classes, and three of them can no longer get enough entries to organise a championships. I think that mean I can be called fairly unbiased!


So what can we learn from these numbers? Well, the hiking boats and singlehanders are dominant in the sport. There appears to have been a move away from crewed trapeze classes, although I’ll be doing a comparison over time later to get more perspective. Another area that is suffering is the small “family” boats, like the Mirror and Heron and long-lost classes in the same bracket, which produced huge fleets at the peak of the dinghy boom.

There has been no big shift to skiffs or high-performance boats. Despite all the hype, Australia is not a nation of skiff sailors – in fact it is probably further away from being so than it was 30 or 70 years ago. Wonderful as they are, the skiff classes are a minority interest, even among the big and fast boats – the Sharpie is clearly on top as a national large high-performance dinghy.

In a similar vein, the occasional commentator who infers that Australia’s recent international successes are due to Aussie kids growing up on skiffs with asymmetric spinnakers have got it wrong. Most (although not all) of the junior classes are similar to their northern-hemisphere counterparts, and none of the popular ones have an asymmetric kite.

As in the USA, the major classes are old ones. Some see this as a bad thing. To me it just indicates that people may have just been more realistic when they created classes in earlier decades. The success of the Opti (which is basically a fairly new class in Australia) and 29er indicate that new classes can succeed, but as in the USA it is difficult to build a big new class in such a vast and empty country. Not even RS hasn’t managed to really build up the numbers. The class that is growing fastest is probably the Moth (New South Wales and the south coast of the UK seem to be the two places where the vast majority of growth is centred in the class, with very strong championship fleets) but other development classes have not done well. Classes like the Sabot, Sabre, Minnow, Impulse and Sharpie also show quite clearly that a class can succeed without the backing of International status, a big (by Australian standards) manufacturer or the big clubs.

Analysis of the catamaran numbers, incidentally, shows that they are not increasing strongly, despite the complete load of rubbish that plenty of people were spouting when the America’s Cup switched over.  There is a lot of churn inside the cats, with a move towards the bigger singlehanders.

So what’s the main lesson? Sadly, the four sets of numbers referred to above show that many of the comments about where the sport is going are based on hype and ignorance. Contrary to some of the hype spouted by those talking about “where the sport is going”, there is no big move towards faster boats or newer classes in general.  The main lesson is that there has been a shift towards medium to medium/slow boats in some countries, and that the kids seem to be loving the sport in their early years. They do drop off in big numbers later in their teens, but as major surveys of other sports show, that’s the case with organised sport in general. The arrival of the 29er doesn’t seem to have killed the 420 or lead to more kids staying in the sport, nor are they staying in classes like the Laser after they leave their teens.

Over the next few days, I’ll look at other comparisons across time frames and across countries. While none of this data is definitive, it seems to show is that the successful sectors of the sport are the ones that are taking a path that is very different from that forecast by the media, World Sailing and other members of the chattering classes who enjoy instructing other people how they should spend their time and money.

















Pt 2:1 – The Numbers Game


Note: this is the first chapter of the second part of SailCraft. Here we start to look at the current state of design, rather than the history that lead us here. You may notice that this was written several years ago, and it’s getting a bit dated as the references to Moths may reveal – they were still in the early days of foiling. I’m not a dinghy designer, but since no one else was writing much about dinghy design it seemed that someone might as well step in and ask the experts about it. This section hasn’t been footnoted – all the information comes from my own discussions and correspondence with designers unless otherwise indicated. If there’s enough interest to put SailCraft out in e-book or hard copy form, I may start another round of interviews with the guys who know what they are talking about.

The magic numbers – like length, displacement, beam, and righting moment – and the ratios between them are real drivers of performance.

We tend to spend a lot of time (in my case, too much time) thinking about hull shapes and the way that they affect boats. When you get down to it, shape can determine how easy a boat is to sail, and it does make an obvious difference in the last “X” percent of performance. But many designers say that what really counts is not the lines, but the numbers. The most beautifully crafted Merlin Rocket will rarely beat even a badly shaped I-14 around the course. And in many classes, there’s an incredibly small performance difference between radically different shapes. In National 12s there’s a world of difference between the shape of a “Final Chapter” and an “Annie Apple”, yet on the racecourse they are similar in pace. The same applies in the 12’ Skiffs. “The Nash, Woof, and Nuplex hulls are totally different shapes” agrees 12’ Skiff champion Alex Vallings “but the performance difference is very small. They all have their moments.” So what are the numbers that count, and how do they relate to each other?

Length – the vital statistic

The longest dinghy? The Z-Jolle of Germany and Austria is up to 8.5m (28ft) long, but unballasted, capsizable and a dinghy by any measure. Pic from the class site.

In dinghies and skiffs, just as in yachts, more length equals more speed, upwind and around the course. It’s been recognized for a long time. Length, wrote Olympic gold medalist and 18 footer champion Peter Mander back in the ‘50s, is “not quite everything. Say ninety-nine percent”.

It’s obvious that waterline length is important at the top end of displacement speeds. But is it still important in the age of high performance skiffs that plane most of the way around the course? “Very; especially upwind and in waves – maybe not much when being blown down wind like a leaf behind a large asymmetric” says Phil Morrison. “Wavemaking still comes into it even for faster classes”.

Even Julian Bethwaite, a fan of a “less is more” approach, reckons that when it comes to length, more is more. “We’ve done out a whole bunch of research where we’ve worked out what is the ideal length for a two man boat, and it’s around 17’6”(5.3m). The ideal length for a three man boat is around 21’ (6.4m). And as time and technology progresses, that length will get longer not shorter. Things get lighter and stiffer, and as you’re able to build things at a lighter weight without greater mass, then the ideal length will get longer not shorter.”

Compare the International Europe and the Laser Radial. The Europe was designed as an international racing class, the Radial as a weekend funboat. The Europe has more hiking power, a narrower waterline, and is two-thirds the weight of the Radial. The Europe sets 8m2 of film sail on a carbon wing mast, while the Radial has just 5.7m2 of Dacron hanging off a mast made from drainpipes. The Europe has more sophisticated foils and gear, and costs about twice as much as a Radial. Every advantage lies with the Europe – except length. And the result? The Radial is normally considered faster in most conditions and all-round – mainly because of that extra one metre (3’) of length.

Length gives designers freedom; longer boats don’t have to be compromised by like waves, nosediving and the buoyancy to support the crew. It allows them to have a sleeker, lower-drag shape. The great length of an 18 Foot Skiff allows designers to create fine wave piercing bows that make them incredibly efficient – yet even 18 sailors would like a bit more length. Length allows boats to move faster before they enter the forced mode. The lesson is pretty clear, according to designers. For speed, go for the longest boat you can.

Is there a downside for adding length? All else being equal, designers say, a longer boat is never slower. It has an advantage all the time except in fast downwind sailing, and even then it’s at no disadvantage compared to a shorter boat.  But while long boats may normally be faster, they are not necessarily more fun. Lots of sailors reckon short boats are more exciting. “The 18s are very fast, but it feels kinda like a big catamaran, like a locomotive, slow to accelerate (relatively) and on tracks as well” says US I-14 sailor Pete Mohler. “The 14s are astonishingly quick, you get the feeling that they will jump out from under you.”

As any sailor from the 12 foot development classes will tell you, short boats can be more fun. Pic from the Australian Cherub class site.

Form  Stability

A dinghy or skiff has two sorts of stability. One (form stability, sometimes known as inherent stability) is the basic stability that it shares with just about everything that floats. Naval architects can define it with terms like metacentric height and centre of buoyancy, but for dinghies it’s largely a matter of length and the effective waterline beam. The most stable shape of all (given equal displacement and beam) is normally a flat-bottomed scow (although they become less stable at high angles). Widely flared topsides can also contribute to form stability by creating more buoyancy out wide when the boat heels and they hit the water.

Form stability is a nice thing to have, especially for less expert sailors. It makes boats easy to sail, it allows for relaxing between races, and it keeps you upright and dry when a gybe or hoist goes wrong. But in a dinghy or skiff, form stability has almost nothing to do with the ability to carry sail. That vital factor comes from the crew’s righting moment.

Righting moment – the power number

Chesty Bond during the unlimited era in the 1980s, when the 18 Foot Skiffs measured as wide as 9m/30ft from wingtip to wingtip. Pic from

Righting moment is the definition of a boat’s ability to withstand heeling forces – in our case, the ability to stay upright under the press of sail. Ever since the 1880s, when America’s canoe sailors stopped laying back in their cockpits and started to hike over the side, it’s been clear that the leverage of the crew’s weight is the most important factor in a dinghy’s righting moment – the measure of its ability to carry sail. In fact, the crew’s leverage is one of the most important factors in a small boat’s entire performance.

As Julian Bethwaite says “at the end of the day, your power is limited by the amount of weight you put on the wire, and how far you displace it from the centerline, and it’s a very simple sum. You just can’t exceed it.” Americas Cup designer Andy Dovell agrees, “all this hull shape stuff is all fun and subtle, but the first and foremost thing in dinghies is where the crew is, relative to the centreline. Hiking beam – the widest point where a guy’s feet can stand, relative to the centreline – is absolutely the defining feature of a dinghy.”

The high performance sailing dinghy or skiff is almost the only craft that does not rely on form stability or weight for stability. “There’s no point in going wide in a dinghy hull, because they will be sailed flat. So you get no gain from form stability and centre of gravity when you heel, like you do in a yacht” notes Dovell. “The actual contribution of hull form stability or centre of gravity stability to the overall stability is very, very low. The only thing weight does in a dinghy is make it safer in an uncontrolled situation.”

The fact that hull stability is almost irrelevant makes it easy to calculate a dinghy’s righting moment. “The calculation is quite simple – the righting moment is the crew’s mass times the distance from the centerline, period. That’s how much sail force a dinghy can handle” says Dovell.

Even before it got onto foils, the Moth was cited by many of the designers I spoke to as one of the most influential boats in the world. Those who sailed the “seahugger” Moths broke new ground by sailing boats with hulls just one foot wide from wings over seven feet across, and no one did it better than Mark Thorpe, who not only designed and built the Hungry Tiger but also won multiple world titles on it. Pic from his boatbuilding business’ site, Thorpe Boats.

Some simple calculations show how important beam is in a dinghy or skiff. For our purposes, righting moment is calculated using the crew’s mass (varied according to normal crew weight in the class), taken at 915mm/3’ from their feet in trapeze and plank boats or 305mm/1’ from the gunwale in most hiking boats.

In an early narrow (1.76m/ 4’9”) International 14 like “Thunder & Lightning”, two 75kg/165lb crew hiking from the gunwale had a lever arm of    /3’5” and generated 1200 ft/lb of righting moment. When John Winter leapt onto the trapeze, he increased that to about 1500lb, allowing the rig to generate 25% more power (and according to some rules of thumb, the speed increase would be half that figure). If the same two crew were to hike from a modern boat of similar length but 510mm/20” wider like an RS 400, they’d generate the same righting moment without a trapeze, by using the extra beam. Add twin trapezes (like an International 14) and the righting moment jumps up to 1800 ft/lb. Add wings like those of a 49er, and the boat can generate twice the power of the early hikers.

Something else that’s quite striking is just how powerful a dinghy can be. We often tend to dinghies as light and tippy, but in fact, a dinghy (scaled up) generates much more power than a yacht. An International 14 scaled up to 6.5m/21’ generates about 20% more stability, proportionately, than a 6.5m(22 ft) Mini Transat yacht which has both water ballast and a canting keel.

The skinny on beam

The ultimate high-performance dinghy and skiff would have the widest possible overall beam, and the narrowest possible waterline beam. The reasoning is obvious – a wide overall beam allows for more righting moment, and a narrow waterline beam creates a low drag hull.

In older boats, overall beam and waterline beam were linked. Some classes, like 505s and Merlin Rockets, had wide hull flare above the waterline, but there were limits because of wave impact on the wider topsides and water scooping over the lee gunwale. The Northern hemisphere’s move to skiff-type boats broke the connection between overall and waterline beam, and classes like the International 14 have modified their rules to allow narrower hulls. At the same time in the South Pacific, the swing away from the flat planing hulls has also put the emphasis onto a narrower, slimmer hull.

Learning from Moths

The International Moth may have been the most influential class in the trend to minimise waterline beam. Long before it went to foils, many of the top skiff designers looked to it as the shape of the future. Over the last decade, the Moths have dropped their waterline beam from about 48cm/19in to 30cm/12in. The change has transformed the tiny 11 footer from a boat that could pace a Laser, to a boat that can beat a top-class Flying Dutchman. No class has followed the Moth route but they have gone part-way. “The Moth lead the push towards narrower hulls, and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they worked” says Michael Nash, who helped lead Australian dinghies and skiff down the narrow path. The “seahugging” pre-foil Moth lived in a special zone where wavemaking resistance becomes almost negligible, an area open only to boats that are about 10 times as long as they are wide. But even in the more conventional boats, the advantages of narrow beam are obvious; less form drag, less wavemaking drag, less wave drag, and less wetted surface.

So what are the limits to narrow waterline beam? The obvious problem is how to keep the whole deal upright. The skinniest dinghies ever were Moths around 200mm wide, but they were just too unstable to handle. They also ran headlong into a basic problem of geometry. The narrower a boat is, the deeper it will float, and eventually so much of the hull sides are immersed that the wetted surface becomes excessive. But good sailors can handle boats with just a touch more beam. The “standard” narrow Moths are demanding, but they are also universally accepted to be easier to sail than their beamier predecessors because they track so much better. Assymetric Canoes prove that even a singlehander can balance a 1m wide boat well enough to handle three sails including a 22.5 m2 spinnaker.

Crewed boats face the problem that they have to support more weight as well as more sail. Murray Burns and Dovell explored the narrow theme in an Australian 16 foot skiff, before that class went one design. “We went just a little too close to the edge with the 16 we did for Trevor Barnabas” explains Andy Dovell. “We did a joint decision to keep the thing round bilged, and it was a narrow, narrow boat. Probably the difficulty in handling the boat was the narrowness and the fact that it was round bilged. But, he would be so far in front he’d capsize, get up and still be winning the boat race.”

Alex Vallings is an expert designer and sailor, but even the experts get it wrong sometimes. Pic from the 12 Foot Skiff class site.

Alex Vallings, a national champion in both 12 Foot Skiffs and R Class, has the narrowest boat in the 12s. His “Nuplex” has a waterline beam of 77 cm/2.5ft. When powered up and moving fast, “Nuplex” is an excellent performer. But 12 Foot Skiff crews have to stay well aft to stop their boats from nosediving, so the narrow boat tends to drag its stern. At low speeds – when tacking or in light airs or waves – Nuplex can “bog down” while the beamier boats keep moving at a more consistent pace, and she is forced to sail higher angles downwind to keep the speed up. After his first season in the boat, Vallings chopped into the topsides and widened it. The weak spots improved, but he plans to widen it again. Vallings believes that 12s could cut their waterline beam down dramatically if they were allowed hydrofoil rudders to lift the stern, but the need to have enough form stability to support the big rigs dictates a minimum waterline beam of about 500 mm. That would still leave the skiff much wider than that “magic” ratio of 10 to 1.

Few people have better credentials on this issue than Emmett (“The Professor”) Lazich. Lazich was a world Moth champ designer/skipper before he moved to 49ers, where he become a world-class competitor and coach to the 2000 Gold Medallists. His modified GP18 18 Foot Skiffs may have been the fastest non-foiling dinghy ever. Yet Emmett believes that the super-slim shape is not suitable for crewed skiffs. He feels that the seahugging Moth (like catamarans) had a top speed of around 18 knots. That’s super fast for an 11 footer with just 8m of sail, but it’s well down on the top speed of 12 Foot Skiffs. The problem, Lazich believes, is not the Moth’s lack of power, but the fact that it is too narrow to plane efficiently. So Lazich believes that the super-slim Moth route is a great one for boats with small rigs, but not for overpowered types that are capable of higher ultimate speeds.

Handling Skinny Boats

So are narrow boats really harder to handle? They obviously have less innate form stability than beamier shapes, but lighter modern rigs have helped to compensate. The 12 Foot Skiffs, for example, have dropped their waterline beam by a couple of feet over the last couple of decades, but in the same time the weight of their 9m long masts have dropped to just 7kg (rigged). “When a modern 12 heels, you can save it because of the carbon mast” notes 12 Footer designer Jim Walsh.

Technology apart, it seems that top-class crews may find narrow boats easier to sail because they are easily driven and tend to handle well at high speeds. Good crews have the skill to keep the boat up at low speeds when tacking, gybing or doing spinnaker work. On the other hand, the less expert crews (who often have trouble at low speeds around the “corners”) may struggle with narrow boats. The reduction in low-speed stability means that there is less room for error in low-speed moves like tacks and gybes. Some say that the move to narrower boats has opened up the gap between the experts (who can sail the boats upright and on the designed lines) and the average sailors (who let the boats heel and drag their wings or fall onto the beamier sections above the waterline). The underlying issue is of course that the issues with handling a narrow boat may drive sailors out of a class – or out of the sport.

A slender Patterson Cherub. Pic from the Bloodaxe Boats site.

One of the gurus of the narrow boats is Andy Paterson, a designer/builder from England’s Isle of Wight. He created the first successful narrow skiff Moth and the most successful narrow Cherub. “My narrow Cherub design does feel Moth-like in its lack of inertia. It is very unstable, and will fall over in no wind with or without crew. There is a little initial stability, but any slight heel will increase it. Once sailing at any speed it is OK, and very responsive and light to steer.”

“The hardest bit of the narrow boat is when displacement sailing in stronger winds, ie when tacking, or big changes in direction or going slowly when getting the kite up or down in planing conditions. They (the narrow Cherubs) are much harder than the old boats, but not as hard to learn as a Moth. It’s possible for a competent sailor to sail a Cherub (slowly perhaps), but not many can sail a Moth for more than a minute or so for the first time without capsizing.”

Fellow UK Cherub designer David Roe notes that “the narrower boats are easier to sail when planing. They are less stable laterally in displacement conditions, but that was never much of an issue – people sail Moths after all. The down side of making boats narrower is that the amount of water moved during pitching (added mass) goes down, so pitching in displacement sailing does increase. It is noticeable that as the boats have become narrower that nosediving/pitchpoling has definitely become less of a problem… provided the crew stays back!”

Pt 1.20: The local classes

Traditional local clinker one designs at a traditional local regatta; Brightlingsea One Designs duel at Pyefleet Week on the East Coast of England.  Several of the local one design classes in the British Isles are three-handers, which are otherwise unusual in dinghy sailing in the region. Like many classic classes, the BOD class is in a rebuilding phase, with up to 25 starters at regattas. Tim Bees shot from the class site.

Despite the high profile of the 14, Merlin Rocket and N12 national classes, for the first half of the century the world of most British dinghy sailors centred around a local class; a type restricted to one port or region. Boats like the International 12 and Snipe and Star had demonstrated that one designs could spread across countries and continents, but many one-design sailors still believed that the ideal craft was a boat raced only at their home bay or beach. For many sailors it’s still the case, and the local classes remain one of the charms of dinghy sailing in the British Isles. Their enduring popularity must provide some insights into the past and future of dinghy sailing.

The Shannon One Design shows that even a local classic designed in the 1920s can get up and fly. Although they were designed by Giles like many other local classes, the Shannon is has the unusual features of a cat rig and very slender lines. The class is strong and growing, with up to 50 or more boats on the starting line. Pic from the class site.
The Estuary One Design evolved from two earlier and similar boats, the Essex One Design and Thames Estuary One Design. In the late ’30s, some of the Essex One Design and Thames Estuary One Design owners banded together to form the National 18 Footer restricted class. Oddly enough, although the earlier International 14 had effectively swallowed up the 14 foot development classes from which it evolved, the National 18 never developed to the same extent. Is it perhaps that an 18 footer was just too big to comfortably trail around England? Feedback invited!

The local classes normally dated back to those days when many clubs felt that its local waters were so unusual that they required a special boat, and (it was said) every designer felt that he had to satisfy that desire to earn their fee. Some were built with hard chines. A couple of popular classes were round-bowed yacht tender types called “scows” or “prams”, although most sailors today would not use such terms. But the  majority of British one designs follow the same general style. They were (and still are) anything from 12 to 18 feet long, sloop rigged, with heavy displacement-style round-bilge hulls that are stable enough for safe family sailing in rough conditions. They are heavy and strong enough to live on moorings in exposed locations during the sailing season, and almost invariably designed for cheap and tough clinker construction by the local boatbuilders who were found in every seaside town.

The local classes were often all but ignored by the sailing press, but the hard numbers demonstrate their strong influence on dinghy racing in the British Isles during the middle of the century.  Flicking through the list of club-racing prize winners in the Yachting Annual for 1938/39, we see that some 40 International 14s and 44 National 12s picked up prizes, compared to over 180 local one design dinghies and about 35 local development class dinghies that earned a “prize flag”. Although working out the actual number of boats of each type that was actively racing is a project for the future, it’s clear that some of the local classes were of significant size; there were 31 boats of the Dart One Design (which seems to be a vanished predecessor of a later Giles design of similar name) that picked up a place during the season. in 1950s, the Coot class claimed 150 boats. There were 70 Mermaids built in Ireland; over 130 registered Island One Class (a one design version of the early Cowes International 14s); 70 Essex One Designs, and 50 Falcon One Designs. As late as 1961, long after the trend to the National and International classes had gained momentum, there were over 60 local one-design dinghy classes and a few local development classes on the Portsmouth Yardstick handicap list.

The British seem to sail dinghies in places that people from other countries avoid, and many of their boats are designed for such conditions; here’s the Axe One Designs racing in a tiny harbour  of Axmouth (above) and lounging on shore on a river cruise. Like many of the local one designs, the Axe is now having a resurgence. Pics from the class site.


Novelist Nicholas Monsarrat, famous for his novel “The Cruel Sea”, captured the spirit of one local class in his book “My Brother Denys” describing his family’s summer holidays racing Myth one designs at Trearddur Bay in North Wales in the ’20s and ’30s. The Myths appear to be an archetypal local one design; designed by the great Morgan Giles (who seems to be by far the most prolific creator of local classes), the 14ft clinker gunter sloops are tough and stable enough to sit on moorings in the tiny coves of the bay and to handle the waters of the Irish Sea that Monsarrat, a veteran of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, said “can show some of the filthiest weather imaginable”. It is an environment far too harsh for most dinghies, but not unusual for the local classes of the British Isles.

The tiny harbour of Porth Diana at Treardurr Bay on the isle of Anglesea, North Wales, apparently in the early days before mooring space became so tight that parts of the cove were blasted to create more room. It looks like the boats with sails set may be (left to right) a Myth, a Seabird Half Rater, another Myth, one unknown craft and an Insect, which was basically an inaccurate version of an International 12s. Monsarrat wrote that in 1925 there were only half a dozen boats in Porth Diana, including his family’s Myth which may well be one of those pictured.

In the late ’30s the Yachting Annual was to describe the holiday town of Trearddur Bay as a “one design hotspot”, but when Monsarrat arrived in the ’20s the sailing scene was still developing. “It is difficult not to feel a deplorable nostalgia about those days. The early sailing races, especially, had some element of simplicity and comradeship about them which made them blissfully enjoyable” he wrote, referring to his early years of sailing the family’s first Myth. “The grass slopes and the rocks were always crowded; this was a community occasion which everyone attended throughout the season….that very first year I enjoyed it more than anything I had ever done before. There were only four of us in the class in those days…In later years, when the class grew to thirteen boats, and such refinements as paid hands and black-leaded keels were introduced, racing became a serious, cut-throat business and proportionately less fun…”

“The sailing club, now well into its stride, grew rapidly. For one month every year, August, it became the point of Treardurr Bay, and claimed our whole attention: the related activities which grew up around it – the races to Holyhead or to Rhoscolyn, the sailing picnics, the swimming and rowing regatta, the committee meetings, the dances and parties – bound us all together in an lively routine, of which racing was the exciting climax. We had two races a week, on Fridays and Saturdays, and a novice race on Wednesdays; as the number of boats grew, and new stars left the nursery and peeped over our horizon, competition increasing to a sturdy and unrelenting pitch.”

A tiny harbour and a local one design fleet form a timeless picture; Trearrdur Bay Myths at the start.

I came across Monsarrat’s piece with its vivid descripion of race starts and local rivalries when I was about 17, living in a time and place that allowed a kid like me to start the year windsurfing against Robby Naish, move on to sail J/24s with some of the guys who were to sail Australia II to win the America’s Cup, and close the year by sailing the Sydney-Hobart and spending NYE on the world’s latest ultralight maxi alongside its skipper, Sir Peter Blake. Strangely, against such a backdrop the tale of the Trearddur Bay Myths seemed both impossibly snug and wonderfully exotic. Monsarrat’s passages conjured up a sense of belonging, of stability, and of achievable goals; of a form of sailing that was at once both parochial and meaningful. It may have been less glamourous, but it was at least as valid a part of this glorious sport.

The sense of stability that Monsarrat’s tales evoked was, of course, an illusion. Monsarrat’s family was falling apart, and so was the world. His first crew and his brother Denys were both soon to die in WW2. But the Treardurr Bay Myths, like many other local British classes, have not just survived, but thrived. Today there are almost 30 active Myths still racing, in a class revival that many other local classes have echoed (although judging from the collisions with moored boats in this Youtube clip the Myths are no longer a “hot” class).

The Sea View One Design, the world’s biggest local class. Every boat has an individual colour pattern on its sails. Pics above and below from the class site.

The most popular of the local one designs is the Sea View One Design from the Isle of Wight on the Solent. The first boat was commissioned by a group that included the UK’s representative in the International 12s at the 1928 Olympics, and the design bears a strong resemblance to a sloop-rigged version of the Cockshott boat. The class is explicitly and proudly a “Corinthian local village/yacht club one design”, but new boats are still being built in spruce, oak and mahogany in traditional fashion. With a huge fleet of about 190 boats laying to the moorings off the little village during the sailing season and over 100 boats actively racing, the class is proud to call itself the world’s largest local one design class.


Like many other local classes, the Sea View is reporting growth in an era when many classes with wider ambitions are shrinking.  Ironically, modern technology may perhaps be a key – in these days of epoxy and modern paints, maintaining these boats is not the headache it was in earlier decades. And it’s not just traditionalists and club sailors who are racing these boats. Olympic medallists and veterans of high-performance classes have bought into their ranks as well.

If we are trying to predict where dinghy sailing is going and how we can help the sport to revive, we must surely look at the objective data about the types that are experiencing growth. The local British Isles classes will not cause a revival in the sport and the model may not translate to other countries, but they must surely show that the future is not just about carbon fibre.

Although most of the local classes are one designs, some local development dinghies still survive. The Salcombe Yawl (above) attracts very strong fleets to its home port. The Plockton Local Boat of the Scottish Highlands (below) is unique; not only do some of these 15 footers still race at over a century of age, but they still reply on shallow keels, restricted to a maximum of 6in depth, instead of centreboards. Pic from the Plockton Boat Club site. I’d never heard of these beautiful veterans, perhaps the last of the old style centreboard-less racing dinghies left in western sailing, until a reader emailed me. I’ve stupidly lost their email and details and would love to hear from them again.