Our own private flotilla this year had some reinforcements this year after a couple of minor incidents (a sinking and writing-off, to be honest) that led my wife and I to update our cat and get another yacht. I was pondering the collection the other day, while I was trying to explain to myself why we had three dinghies, two yachts, a cat, a RIB, a kayak and 22 windsurfers (or maybe I was wondering where I would fit the next one we get) when I realised we’ve now got a complete collection of the marques that powered popular sailing through the 1970s and 1980s – a time when the sport was probably stronger than it ever was before, and perhaps stronger than it will ever be again.
Our little collection includes the Windsurfer One Design, the board that launched the entire sport. Next up in size is the Laser, followed by the Hobie. Our Hobie is actually a Tiger Formula 18, but let it represent the famous Hobie 14 and 16 that launched the plastic surfcat (until we get a 14). Biggest of the pack is a J/36, Rod Johnstone’s third design and standing in for its older, smaller and more popular sister, the J/24 – the boat that became the first truly international “offshore” one design. Between them, the Windsurfer, Hobie 14 and 16, Laser and J/24 put over half a million craft on the water, and the classes that copied them added many more. We’ll never know how many millions of people got into sailing through these mega classes and their competitors, but we do know that the sport needs more classes like them today.
It’s interesting to consider the boats and the marques they represent and try to work out why they appealed to people so strongly. Are they just a random collection of craft that appealed in different ways, or is there a common thread that runs between them?
None of these “mega classes” are perfect designs. Each of them has significant balance or helm issues. Two of them (the Windsurfer and Laser) are easy to throw around and tack, but the Hobies are notoriously slow to turn. There’s no pattern there, apart from a reminder that a light helm doesn’t sell boats. Some of them love heavy air, one tends to fall over and sink. No pattern there either.
None of these “mega classes” were slow boats, but perhaps the only one that is significantly faster than its rivals is the Hobie 16, which had the sail area of a 20 footer. There’s no common ground in the level of design innovation among them; the Windsurfer brought a whole new sport into being and the Hobies were a radical reinvention of the catamaran, but the Laser was arguably simply a thoroughly modern shape in its day, and the J/24 may have lagged behind competitors like the Moore 24. I don’t think any of them were particularly cheap for very long. A couple of them got external funding as start-ups (which turned out to be a very mixed blessing) and at least one was a garage operation in the early days. As soon as they became established, each met competitors backed by bigger companies like Bic Pens, Chrysler and Catalina, so they didn’t succeed because of financial clout. So if we discount all those factors, what common ground can be found between made the mega classes succeed?
One point that all these great designs have in common is toughness. Sure, they have flaws, but all of them used state of the art foam sandwich construction and clever detail design that meant they could take the knocks when racin’ became rubbin’.
Another obvious thread is that in each case, the creators pushed the one-design class racing message, and it wasn’t just a paragraph in a corporate business plan; in every case the creator themselves were out there on the beaches, sailing the races, spreading the word. And those who made the mega classes didn’t just talk – they heard. The way they heeded their customers shone through when I interviewed Rod Johnstone and the three men behind the Laser, and it comes through in the stories of Hobie Alter and the early days of the Windsurfer. Today, many people are telling the sailors of the world what they should be doing. The people who created the great classes listened.
One of the most obvious features these designs share is that they are about as simple as they could be, and the class rules kept them that way. But it was only when we picked up our new toy that I started to realise that there’s another and more subtle common thread in the details of the design of each of the mega classes. Each of them is not just a simple craft – it’s one that looks simple. A Banshee or Tasman Tiger may be as simple to operate as a Laser, but it doesn’t look like it. The mega classes remind you of their simplicity at every glance.
Compare the low curved deck and straight unadorned sheer of the J/24 to the complex topsides and rubbing strake of the Moore 24, or the cabintop of the Capri 25. The simple deck of the J/24 sent a loud and clear message that simplicity was an vital part of the class. As Rod Johnstone noted, he was cautious when he first exposed the boat to top notch sailors, but they appreciated the minimalist design. “We didn’t know how these guys would react to a boat with no adjustable jib leads, a fixed headstay length and very few other things to fiddle around with. But when the week was over, everyone told us, ‘don’t mess around with the boat, you’ve got a great thing going here.”
While major competitors like Beneteau tried to break new ground with complex deck designed created by professional design studios like Pininfarina and Starck, Johnstone and his J/Boat team have maintained the same “less is more” aesthetic style all the way to the present day and inside and above decks. I’m sure I can recall an early ad showing a J/24 with its sails down in front of a rocky shoreline, as in the pics of later Js above. Nothing could have emphasised the simplicity more.
Hobie Alter followed a similar functional appearance with his surfcats. The only details that may break the stark functionality of the Hobie are the pylons that support the beams, but even they are a functional way to reduce the hull size and weight while maintaining freeboard. Compared to most of their contemporaries the rig and fittings are starkly simple. And the Hobie hulls themselves, of course, are utterly minimalist in size and in appearance. There’s the lack of centreboard and perhaps most importantly, the way the sheerline and rocker line echo each other as they run through the minimalist hull and to the tiny transom.
Of course, nothing that ever sailed has been simpler than the original Windsurfer. The board itself, modelled off a Matt Kevlin “tanker” dual malibu surfboard, is a combination of utter simplicity and subtle curves. With a simple daggerboard, no rudder and no sheet, vang, traveller or adjustable outhaul or downhaul, the Windsurfer was and is the sailcraft stripped bare. Even a shortboard looks more cluttered with its footstraps and full battens.
The original Windsurfer was doomed in a way because the concept was too much of a brilliant leap. No one could anticipate the direction how far windsurfing could go and where the sport would head, in both positive and negative ways. Schweitzer and Drake aimed to create a craft that went like a Sunfish but was easier to move around and more fun. They couldn’t realise where windsurfing could go, and how sailors would push the original board way beyond its design parameters and show up the problems with mast placement and foil and rig design. These days “windSUPS” – stand up paddleboards with sailing rigs – and the Kona One Design are bringing a revival of the sort of sailing we used to do when windsurfing was young, and they are proving just how well the Windsurfer One Design, the ’80s modification of the original, compares with the latest designs aimed at the same “light wind beach toy” market as the Windsurfer.
The Laser is another example of visual minimalism. Where competitive boats like the Banshee and Force 5 went for the utility of larger cockpits, the Laser stayed with a simple trench footwell. In reality the Laser may not have been all that much easier to rig or sail than its competitors, but the stark design gives you a subconscious reminder of its simplicity at every glance. Like the Hobie 16, it’s got a low clew and from a distance, there appears to be one elegant line from mast tip to stern, without the visual clutter you get with the normal clew height. It’s a boat that you can sketch with half a dozen lines. Every time you look at it you are reminded that it takes only a few minutes to rig and launch. The cluttered look of some other boats reminds you at every glance that just rigging up is an expedition in itself.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that arguably the most significant marque to hit the dinghy world since the Laser is the Bethwaite boats – a breed that also sits in our driveway in the form of the Tasar. Julian and Frank Bethwaite were both strongly influenced by the industrial design skills of Ian Bruce. The 29er and 49er are, of course, by nature more complex, but details like the solid wings and vangs ensure that they look as simple as possible.
Oh, and of course there is one other thing that the mega classes have in common – they come from North America. North American sailors are often abused for being conservative, particularly by other North American sailors, but when they do break out they create many of greatest breakthroughs in sailing history. Exactly why that happens is something else to muse about.