The early 1930s saw the creation of some influential German one designs; classes that have not only influenced dinghy design but also thrive today. The class that had the most widespread influence was the 12 sq m Sharpie. It was one of three designs entered by brothers Karl and Hans Kroger brothers and their friend and boatbuilding partner Walter Braur in 1931 as an entry into a design competition for a new German youth class. Like many German classes, the Sharpie was designed as a cruiser-racer, stable enough to be slept aboard and also to be moored, as there was often little space to pull a boat ashore on the crowded shoreline of some German lakes. It was built like a house, with simple and robust sawn framing and 14mm thick planking, and it weighed as much as one too, with the bare hull coming in at 230kg (508lb) and an all-up sailing weight of around 300kg (650lb) complete with 27.5kg/60lb steel centreboard.
The cheap and tough construction and the compromises inherent in the Sharpie’s specified role could have created a flop, yet the Krogers and Braur team managed to give the Sharpie a beautifully efficient hull. Some sharpie types had raced successfully in the free renjollen classes, but many other contemporary sharpies were shaped more like large Snipes, with more rocker and more Vee. The 12 Sq Metre Sharpie had a flatter hull with less rocker and vee, a fine, slab-sided bow, and the BMAX well aft. Like many sharpies, the Kroger/Braur design had a flat area running along the keel – a development that round-bilged boats only picked up decades later. The centerboard was an “old fashioned” low-aspect shape, but it was set well aft. The stern was proportionately wider than many other renjollen types and the hull was narrower than many comparable sharpie types.
Like any renjolle-style boat, one of the 12 sq metre’s “secrets” is simply lots of length a slender shape. It’s one of the longest dinghies of all (5.9m/19’6″) yet it has a maximum beam of just 1.43m/4.7ft. Its long, slim shape and vertical topsides mean that its bow was finer than most contemporary boats, and ever finer than later performance boats like the 505. Yet (unlike some other sharpie-shaped renjolle of the time) the waterlines at the bow are fairly straight, rarely taking on the hollow lines that are generally considered to be slow.
The Sharpie’s strengths were not confined to its shape. Perhaps because the Krogers and Braur were engineers and practical boatbuilders, the Sharpie was also cheap for its size and performance and easy to build. The first British boats cost just 45 pounds; less than half as much as a contemporary International 14 and similar to the 35 pounds maximum of a National 12 without sails. Peter Mander and Jack Cropp, the New Zealanders who won the Sharpie’s only Olympic contest, built their boat “Jest” from planks they helped cut themselves from the timbers of an old church. Graham Mander, who helped to build Jest and almost won the trials in his own Sharpie, recalls that the Sharpie’s plans were excellent and that it was a beautiful boat to build. “The Sharpie plans supplied to us from overseas were the most carefully detailed I’ve ever seen, and the method of construction was extremely good” wrote the late Peter Mander in his wonderful autobiography. “We found the Sharpies great boats to build.”
With its small rig, considerable heft and no spinnaker the 12 Sq Metre Sharpie was never going to rival the full-on renjollen types for pure speed, but it was highly competitive on a knot-per-dollar or knot-per-square foot basis. It planed well downwind in strong winds. By the standards of the 1950s, wrote Peter Mander “we found the Sharpies fast and lively…great craft to sail.” Racing in England in the ‘40s indicated that the big but cheap Sharpie was as fast as the small but expensive International 14.
The Sharpie carried a gunter rig with a nominal area of 12 sq m boosted to an actual area of 16 m2 by the big overlap on the genoa. There was (and still is) no spinnaker, but the big headsail and long pole keep the boat moving downwind. Bermudan rigs were also allowed initially, but they not only caused the boats to capsize at their moorings but were also slower. In the ‘50s, the hot Dutch fleet realized that they could get more speed by dropping the gaff back about 30 degrees and lowering the boom. The extra area was said to increase performance, but today one wonders whether it wasn’t the more vertical leach that helped. It’s intriguing to see that the class moved away from the high-peaked gunter sail which looked almost like a Bermudan rig, back to a gaff style.
In an astonishingly short space of time the design had outgrown both Germany and the youth category and become the world’s most widespread performance dinghy, with big fleets in Germany, Holland, and Portugal and as far afield as South America and Australia. In 1934, for example, there were 8 or 9 nations racing Sharpies at Kiel.
The Sharpie’s influence spread all the way across the world. As early as 1934, the first Sharpie was built in South Australia. At the time, South Australian dinghy sailing revolved around the 14 Foot Dinghies; over-canvassed craft of the type we know call skiffs. Although the 14s carried over twice the sail area and about twice the crew, the first Sharpie in the country quickly proved itself by winning its first race by four minutes against some of the best 14s. Modified to carry long battens, a spinnaker and a third crewman, the Sharpie quickly became the most widespread dinghy class in the southern states, where the conditions were often too rough for the skiff types that had dominated Australian dinghy sailing.
The Sharpie’s greatest glory came long after it had fallen behind the leading edge in design. For many years, Olympic hosts had a say in selecting Olympic classes, and when it was decided to introduce a two-man centreboard class for the first time in the 1956 Olympics, the Australians opted for the Sharpie. Not only did they have hundreds of the local version racing, but despite its age the 12 Sq Metre was the most widespread of the bigger two-man boats. The Dutch, who had dominated the class for years, boycotted the event in protest at the Russian invasion of Hungary, and in their absence the gold medal went to Mander and Cropp – sailing a home-made boat with home-made sails that came from a country that had only about five Sharpies and no Olympic sailing history at all. It was a pivotal moment in the history of sailing in New Zealand, a country that was about to produce a cohort of sailors and designers that would dominate world sailing.
The Melbourne Games was the Sharpie’s only time in the spotlight. By the time the next Olympics came around it had been replaced by the Flying Dutchman, another boat inspired by the Renjolle ideal. Today, Sharpies still race in Holland, Germany, England, Brazil and Portugal. Numbers are small – 50 active Dutch boats, and 12 to 30 in the other centres. Its varnished mahogany construction is frozen in time, but the growing interest in classic classes is seeing numbers climb once more.
The other major two-person one design of the era was the Pirat. Inspired by the Snipe, it is very similar, but said to be easier to build. Cheap and stable, it put sailors on the water throughout Central Europe and Scandinavia and is still a popular class.
A third one design of significance, the singlehanded O Jolle, was designed for the Munich Olympic of 1936 after an intensive series of trials against several other designs. It was the first of the great international trials to select a new Olympic class, a process that was to launch or create great boats such as the Finn, Flying Dutchman, the 505, the Tornado, and the 49er, as well as less successful ones like the Tempest.
The criteria were demanding. The boat had to be strong and stable enough for Kiel, yet lively for the lakes. It had to be fast, yet handle a wide range of sailor weights. In the European way, it also had to combine top-level racing with camping and cruising ability. It was a tall order, yet amateur designer Helmut Stauch met it with a design that beat the best that the great Drewitz, perhaps the best renjollen designer, could create.
The O-Jolle shows Renjolle influence in its size and weight. It’s a big boat for a singlehander, 5m/16ft long, weighing 220kg/490lb, and carrying 11.5m2/124 sq ft of sail. It had wide flare for its day, giving enough leverage to control the big rig. The sections have firm bilges and flat floors. The bow lines are fine for such an old boat, and the boat’s age is revealed mainly in the narrow stern and the short, moderately rockered run aft. Apart from the stayed rig and the big cockpit (a cruising feature), the O-Jolle looks superficially quite similar to a Finn.
The O-Jolle proved as fast (or faster) in light airs than the Finn, but its size and weight (bronze medallist Peter Scott, used to the shorter English types, described it as “a very blunt instrument”) and a dash of post-war anti-German sentiment stopped it from being selected for later Olympics. But it has remains an active class in parts of Europe and was a test-bed for a major leap in design when, in 1955 Ruth Lindemann, daughter of the man who invented Airex foam, built a run of Airex O-Jolle – probably the first dinghies ever made in the foam sandwich construction that now dominates boatbuilding.
The O Jolle performs best in light airs and flat water and is less effective in breeze when the big rig becomes overpowered and the boat planes later than a Laser or Finn despite the sail size. Although it is decades older than the Laser it’s similar in speed. Like so many of the great old classes, the O-Jolle is showing no sign of fading out. In fact, it’s in a long term revival. It’s one of the most popular of all classes in Germany, claiming 600 active boats. The Dutch fleet has 100 active sailors and about 15 new boats per year. Smaller fleets sail in Italy, Austria and Switzerland.
“Graham Mander, who helped to build Jest and almost won the trials in his own Sharpie”;- Personal conversation with the author. See also ‘Give a man a boat’ by Peter Mander and Brian O’Neil; Mander’s autobiography and my favourite dinghy sailing book.
“Bermudan rigs were also allowed initially, but not only proved to cause boats to capsize at their moorings but were also slower”: – ‘Uffa’s sharp: a shape too fast’ by Nicola Bell, Classic Boat magazine, April 1999.
 Uffa Fox’s Second Book, p 93
“the first Sharpie in the country quickly proved itself”:- The Advertiser (Adelaide) 29 October 1934
2 thoughts on “Pt 1.28 – The German one designs”
Some of the history of the Australian 12 sq m sharpies is being discussed right now. Including how many Oz sharpies measured and how many raced in the olympics as well as construction variations.