Musing: Less is more boats – visual simplicity and the mega classes.

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.

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There has never been a racing class as simple as the original Windsurfer or the ’80s modification that is known as the Windsurfer One Design (below).  Well over 100,000 were sold. Although the Windsurfer’s mega-class status has long gone, it had 84 starters at the 2017 40th anniversary Australian nationals, and over the last decade the Italian section has gone from 10 occasional sailors to about 100 racers. The ’80s redesign cured the original’s balance problem and compared to the modern “windSUPs” (or modern racing longboards when allowances are made for weight and rig size) it’s a fast and extremely nimble board. And yes, I am biased and I do know it.

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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?

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The Laser seems to be the only boat that was designed to fit the Sunfish market that had the same austere appearance as the original. It may not be a coincidence that it was the only one that really caught on and succeeded against the marketing power of AMF.  While the Sunfish is popular in the western hemisphere it’s never really caught on elsewhere. In global terms, it’s not really a mega class.

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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.

 

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When you look at early reports and tests of the J/24, you see time and time again there’s a reference to the boat’s simplicity in both form and function. Simplistic, almost stark, appearance remains a feature of the J line, and it’s interesting to see that from their early designs like 1980’s J/36 (below) and all the way to the current J/111 (bottom) the company seems to often head its brochure pics with shots that are so simple they show a moored boat sans wake, sails or crew.  The shots run counter to most ideals of advertising and are so simple it seems they haven’t even changed the location or composition in 30 years, but the theme runs so strongly through J/Boats highly intelligent marketing that it must be intentional. And it gives me some excuse to include a photo of a J/36, now that we’ve got one. Damn that’s a nice boat.

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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.

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The odd little Aqua Cat was the top selling multi in the USA until the Hobie 14 came alone. With its centreboards and the awkward looking rig, forebeam and traveller beam and mast supports, the “plumber’s nightmare” was a far cry from the visual simplicity of the Hobie.

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Volvo Youth Sailing ISAF World Championship 2006
From an aesthetic angle, the Hobie 16 has always struck me as a collection of simple and swooping lines. There’s the curve of the keel and the complementary curve of the rocker; the sweep of the mainsail roach; and the simple and powerful lines formed by the forestay and its alignment with the heavily raked mast. Even the way the clew drops down to deck level seems to emphasis the single continual arc of the leach from masthead to stern, as it does in the Laser.

 

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.

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The Tasar, the first of the minimalist Bethwaite boats, was heavily influenced by the industrial design skills of Ian Bruce.  Skiffs are complicated boats by definition, but Julian Bethwaite, who readily admits he learned much from Bruce, somehow managed to make the 49er into a sleek and simple craft. Pics from the class sites.

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

1 thought on “Musing: Less is more boats – visual simplicity and the mega classes.”

  1. The boating industry in the Commonwealth countries was created by the advent of plywood dinghies.

    Mirrors, Herons, Manly Juniors, Sabots, the original build in a couple of weekends Optimist.

    A bit more performance we had Cherubs, Fireballs, Merlin Rockets, Hornets, NS14s, Enterprises, Moths, Arrows (a bit later the evergreen Mosquito). Quickcats!

    We had sailing clubs in every bay of Sydney Harbour and Six or seven on Pittwater.

    I was introduced to sailing at Sand Point on Pittwater, coming out of our short term rental house (we were waiting for our family home to be finished) to see 40 fireballs, over 10 A and Australis Cats, 15 B2 Class cats.

    Quite an eye opener.

    Now what do we have? A few clubs, a few classes, participation rates dropping.

    Look at the windsurfers as an example. The heyday was the beginning … Wallys everwhere, the beginnings of homemade slalom and wavejumper boards, huge numbers of boards on Botany Bay, Port Hacking, Pittwater … just frigging everywhere.

    So what happened? The past time was “sold” on the basis of performance. So people had to have a couple of short boards, a long board and five rigs.

    The world cup started to have a 15knot minimum wind limit so that meant the money invested in development was irrelevant to normal people. Windsurfing became a 15 knot plus windspeed past time.

    1/ We are still leeching off the boom created by self build boats in the 1960s.
    2/ The powers that be thing sailing has to be EXCITING … that’s not why the sport/past time became popular but the actual speeds of almost existing classes haven’t really changed much but getting up to new car prices.
    3/ The chasing of a few percentage points of performance by making boats significantly more expensive at each step hasn’t paid off

    Personally I am involved in building and sailing wooden home built boats. We meet up for regattas and events and it is all well away from the sailing organisations. It is booming.

    We are serious about taking our lessons from racing. Good foils, good rig setups, nice sails, enough on water adjustment to keep things moving along.

    But at a tiny fraction of the cost of a 505’s shroud adjustment system.

    And of course … Asia is going a similar middle income revolution to post war Australia.

    And we can built 10 boats for the price of importing one Laser with spares – which will race with 10 to 20 people aboard, have a top speed (so far) of 18 knots and good feel in light winds with three aboard for training.

    Technology is about understanding something fundamental … and it can be applied to wooden sticks or carbon equally. Materials are irrelevant except price.

    There definitely needs to be a senior level with no holds barred and the most expensive stuff.

    But applying it to beginner and middle of the road boats has been a terrible mistake that has destroyed our sport by making it elitist again.

    Like

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