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 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.
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.
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.”
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 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.