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.






Author: cthom249

A former sailing journalist and magazine editor, I was lucky enough to grow up in Sydney, one of the world's sailing hotspots and to win national and state championships in classes like J/24s, Windsurfer One Designs, offshore racers, Laser Radial open, Windsurfer OD Masters, Raceboard Masters and Laser Radial Masters, to get into the placings in a few other classes, and do a few Sydney to Hobarts.

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

  1. I have recently discovered your blog. It is a great reading! Thank you very much!
    To add some East European exotic to your historical collectiion, I would like to mention P (Cyrillic, sounds as “R”, means “rechnoi” i.e. river) – class 1930-ies centerboarders for river racing. They were relatively large (up to 8.5-9 m. length and 45 sq.m. sail area) slender boats, with gunter or Bermudian rig. However, these magnificent boats did not survive the fall of Stalinism, and rise of Olympism in USSR 😉
    You can get some idea how R-class looked like from following links:
    It is an article about prominent soviet naval architect Rostislav Alexeev, designer of hydrofoils and SES. Before WWII he was racing and designing sailboats.
    It is chronology of sailing in Nizhny Novgorod/Gorkiy. Regretfully, pictures are of rather bad quality.

    Best regards,


    1. Thank you so much for that, Nail – it’s really interesting information. Alexeev’s boats look beautiful, and very much like the ‘classic’ European lake boats. It would be great to hear more from you about the later Eastern European boats.


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