Another apology; the only boats I’ve ever sailed in the USA are a Farr 52 and the 12 Metre Weatherly. I’ve had no experience at all with US dinghy sailing. But with any history that ranges widely through time and space, there are many times when you just have to research, interview and hope you get it right. Any feedback and corrections will be gratefully received.
The Snipe, first of the great American one design dinghies, emerged in 1931. It was the fourth year of the Great Depression. A quarter of the US workforce was unemployed. It may have seemed like the worst possible time to introduce something as frivolous as a sailing dinghy. But the Snipe not only became the world’s most popular dinghy, but also set the pattern for the later boats that created the great 1950s boom in dinghy sailing.
The Snipe was designed by Rudder magazine editor William F Crosby for a new development class in Florida that could be “towed about the state from regatta to regatta”. The proposed class had few rules – a limit of 100 sq ft of sail and 16′ overall length – but rather than go for a racing machine, Crosby designed the Snipe with economy and ease of construction as the keywords. “The idea throughout was to have a boat that could be built for the minimum amount of money” he wrote later.
By keeping the length down to 15ft 6in Crosby ensured that the Snipe could be made from standard 16ft planks. Given that Crosby felt that “most amateurs have a deadly fear of steam bending wood” hard chine construction was another obvious choice because it did away with steam-bent timbers and spiled planks.
Even by the standards of the 1930s, the Snipe has a lot of rocker and Vee, which was something of a Crosby trademark. “The vee-bottom boat with a well-rockered chine, steep forward sections under the chine, and the transom or stern well up out of the water to prevent drag, will give an ideal form of sailing hull” he wrote in later years. “The steep forward sections will give a good entering wedge and the well-rockered chine will make these sections possible, at the same time permitting passing water to flow aft with the least possible resistance. The stern as mentioned will permit this water to leave the hull without pulling a large stern wave and, if properly designed, such a hull will be far faster…than any round bottomed type.”
Crosby was aware that a hull with lots of rocker and vee “if driven at speed will suck down at the stern causing a great deal of resistance and lost power.” He probably felt that given the Snipe’s weight and role, it was worth trading off planing performance for seaworthiness, light wind speed and upwind performance. Versatility was a key, for the Snipe had to be “capable of sailing in almost any waters from protected inland lakes to the open ocean. ” It may also be significant that the Snipe’s hull looks generally similar to that of existing Florida dinghies, like the Cricket development class or the St Petersburg One Design.
Crosby may have been influenced by the design of big yachts. He felt that a heavy centreboard was “desirable on nearly all types” because of the stability it created, and when he created the similar but larger National One Design he proudly told Thistle designer Gordon Douglass that she was just like a baby International Six Metre. Some say that the modern Snipe still has the feel of a small yacht.
There was a hint of yacht-type construction in the Snipe, too. At the time, the normal way to plug the seams between planks in a lightweight dinghy hull was to fit “seam battens”, consisting of a strip of timber running along the inside of each seam. Crosby took the simpler option of leaving the seam battens off and simply running caulking between the seams, as in a yacht – but that meant he had to provide thick 19mm (3/4in) planking to hold the cotton caulking. The hull weighed a hefty 204kg (450lb) until the ‘70s, and today it still measures in at 159kg (351lb). The Snipe’s extra weight did not concern Crosby, who felt that boats could often be too light. “Weight either in the hull or in the shape of ballast will permit the boat to keep headway in a chop and in light airs she will be able to hold her way much longer between vagrant puffs” he claimed.
The Snipe’s distinctive high boom came about partly for safety and partly because Crosby intended the main to be carried high in light winds (to reach the stronger winds above the water) and lower down in the breeze. It was soon found that the higher position was better all-round. Crosby trialled a taller rig in his own boat before returning to the standard sailplan, but he ruled out spinnakers for reasons of economy.
The Snipe was launched in Rudder magazine of July 1931. The Rudder’s designs had often been popular across the world and the article confidently predicted that “it is expected that a great many “Snipes” will be built during the summer and winter”, but not even Crosby could believe the way the readership took the humble little Snipe to heart. This was not a high-performance design like the famous Rudder Lark and Swallow of earlier times, or a cruiser like the old Sea Bird, but every copy of that month’s magazine sold out, and the office was besieged with requests for reprints.
The grinding misery of the Depression may actually have helped the Snipe class grow so quickly. Work was so rare that it had become something prized, even when it was not paid. “Both the unemployed and the under-employed needed to fill the hours that had once been devoted to work” notes social historian Steven M Gelber “ and those who had full-time jobs may not have had more leisure but they frequently had less money, so they too needed new ways to occupy non-work hours that were less expensive than commercial entertainment.”
To the victims of the Depression, a hobby like building and sailing a Snipe was an antidote to a wounded work ethic. To the wider society, a productive hobby was something to be encouraged, lest idle hands seek escape in distractions like gangster movies, bars and marathon dancing competitions. Magazines and social commentators praised and prized hobbies as a productive and moral way to pass time. Even the rich were caught up in the home handyman craze, and the popular press featured tales of the home workshops of company presidents. To sailors and dreamers of the world, the Snipe presented an affordable way to spend time constructively and to achieve the dream of getting afloat.
Snipe Number 1, Adelaide, was built in three weeks “under the dense shade of live oaks near our work shop” by 14 year old Jimmie Brown, his father and friends. She was launched on August 2, just a few weeks after the plans were published. “She sure handles sweet and is the prettiest ever” said Jimmie in a letter to The Rudder of October. “I find the Snipe is a real boat with all the qualities of a Star for a boy my age”.
With feedback from his readers, Crosby developed the design over the next few months. He reduced the cockpit size, to make “it possible to use the boats in very bad water which would fill an ordinary open cockpit boat of this size”. But there was one thing that he insisted on, time and time again – once the final design was developed there would be no more alterations. The earlier Rudder designs like the Swallow and Lark had spread across the globe. Letter after letter was published in the magazine with enthusiastic tales of their performance, their building – and the alterations the owners had made to them. Those who built earlier Larks, Swallows and other Rudder designs seemed unable to resist the temptation to modify them, and they never formed widespread one design classes.
Crosby was obviously determined that the Snipe should not fall into the same trap, and throughout the development process he was “constantly adding measurement guidelines as his friends found loopholes in the design.” Perhaps because the Star class had provided the model, the old pre-war concept that each region or club needed its own design, or its own version of a design, was gone. New technology like the boat trailers that the Snipe was designed for had opened up the possibility of easy inter-club racing. Crosby demanded that every racing Snipe, from Western Long Island Sound to Western Australia, should conform strictly to the class rules. “Your proud new Snipe for which you paid a goodly sum of money would not be worth ten cents if it were not kept in style by restrictions and if you don’t like ’em and have plenty of money, enter a restricted class instead of a one-design” he told class members who were keen on tweaking his design. “After all, sail boat racing is a game of skill and is not like power boat racing where most regattas are won in the machine shop weeks before the race.”
Within three years of its launch there were 800 Snipes afloat, and the Snipe was on its way to becoming the world’s most popular dinghy. By March 1933, the class had spread internationally with a fleet in Dover, and just four years later, it claimed the title of world’s most popular racing class. Following the lead of the International Star, Crosby led the organisation of an efficient class, including a ranking based on local fleet racing so that “it is possible for boats in Oshkosh to compete with the boats in England without actually coming into competition or seeing the other fellow.”
“Low cost plus speed and sport have made these little fifteen foot six knockabouts known all over the world” Crosby wrote proudly in 1934. “Good appearance has also helped but the most important reasons of all is because these little craft are built to strict one-design restrictions and owners who have tried to bring in expensive refinements and make other changes, which would antiquate many of the older boats, have been voted down.” It was a far cry from the thinking just 25 years before, when it was accepted that each one design fleet was restricted to its own locale.
By 1947, the year when a new breed of homebuilt dinghies arrived, the Snipe was holding world championships in Europe and had become a sophisticated racing boat. Snipes were racing in North and South America, in England, in loosely-organised pockets in Australia, and in Asia. In Germany it had inspired the similar Pirat, which was on its way to becoming the most popular youth class in northern Europe.
The Snipe has never been a particularly fast or a light boat, even by the standards of earlier decades. The weight and heavy stern rocker reduce its speed, but makes it docile to handle and contribute to the close racing and “feel” that makes Snipe sailors love their boat. It is, they say, the tactical dinghy per excellence, with superb balance and handling. “I often describe the boat as an ultra light keelboat, which describes the feel” says a British Sniper. “The boats are impressive in very light conditions, and yet in 20 knots of wind nearly the whole fleet is still concentrating on tactics rather than speed and survival.”
The Snipe, wrote world champion and Olympian Gary Hoyt, was “one of the most misunderstood boats, often held in quite low esteem by yachtsmen who consider it to be old-fashioned and low in performance….the quickest cure for the critics and the cynics alike would be to put them in a modern Snipe in a competitive fleet. The cynics would find the Snipe a very responsive boat, and the critics would probably find themselves badly in the tank.”
When I was growing up as a kid in Sydney, with Moths mouldering in the yard, Frank Bethwaite sailing his experimental proas out front and strong fleets of development-class skiffs and dinghies dotting the harbour, most of the little I knew of Snipes came from the pages of a 1950s library book titled Scientific Sailboat Racing, by world champion Ted Wells. In the Antipodes the Snipe was then seen as an American oddity, and legends like gold medallist Peter Mander, who admitted that Well’s book gave a valuable insight into tuning, publicly called Crosby’s design “dull”. What sort of person, I used to wonder with the arrogance of youth, could have enjoyed sailing the heavy boat revealed in those black and white photos of low-speed tactical sailing in Wells’ book? Could anyone who was interested in technology and design have enjoyed a Snipe?
The answer, it turned out, was a very loud yes. Wells was not just the first Snipe World Champion, but also one of the greatest aircraft designers of his day. He had built his own plane as a teenager, before becoming the very first student at the prestigious Princeton University to qualify as an aeronautical engineer. While still at university he bought an old biplane and became a professional “barnstormer” before winning the Transcontinental National Air Race and becoming a test pilot and chief engineer.
In 1932, just as the Snipe was spreading its wings, Wells led the design of the iconic Beech Staggerwing; a technologically advanced private plane that was fast enough to win air races and luxurious enough to attract business flyers. Despite the fact that he was an intuitive designer rather than a master of structural analysis, Wells followed up with the design of the enormously successful and advanced twin-engined Beech 18 and oversight of the famous Vee-tail Bonanza, which have each held the record for the longest continuous production run in aviation history. Other high-tech Snipe sailors included top-class boatbuilder Carl Eichenlaub and yacht designer German Frers Snr, whose son became one of the great designers of the IOR era, who introduced the class to Argentina. That arrogant question of my youth got a clear answer – yes, people who were interested in design and technology could relish the cut and thrust and meticulous nature of Snipe sailing.
Wells, who had started sailing in a small (35 member) club at little lake in Kansas that sometimes dried up in droughts, told Sports Illustrated that the appeal of the Snipe was the competition created by its big fleets; “you get so much interfleet competition in the Snipe class that it gives us a much higher proportion of very good skippers than any other class can claim”. The competition attracted Wells so much that he retired from Beechcraft under pressure in 1953 after he was called to a management meeting from a Snipe regatta. His sin, allegedly, was that he had become more interested in sailing Snipes than in designing leading edge aircraft.
The Snipe seems to have set the pattern for the boats that later created the great international boom in several ways. For one, it had promotion from the media. Secondly, it caught on with wider pressures and trends in society. Thirdly, it did not pretend to be a scorching high-speed machine but it was fast enough, safe and it sailed well. Fourthly, it was easy to build. Fifth, it was able to attract a wide range of sailors. As Crosby noted in 1934, “the Snipe class is particularly interesting because it is not confined to any one area or sailed by any one type of skipper….you will see these little boats being raced by youngsters from twelve to seventy years of age…many clubs have already adopted the class for teaching junior sailors…”. But the Snipe sailors were diverse not just in age, but also in location. “Outside of junior activities, though, the most interesting development of all lies in the fact that through Snipes, yacht racing has been brought to many localities where such sport has never before been enjoyed” wrote Crosby. The old model, where US one designs were limited to one club or region had been exploded. Here was something novel in dinghy sailing – a truly worldwide class.
The Snipe was soon followed by a stream of slightly bigger boats in the same general style of heavy hard-chine one-design. A couple of years later, the 16’ Comet (designed by a Star world champ for a mother who was looking for a boat for her sons, and originally called the Star Junior) and the 18’ Interlake (designed by Star draftsman Francis Sweisguth) arrived. Both followed the Star style of hard chine arc-bottomed hull and big rig, which was fitting since the Star was the first class to show US sailors the true potential of the one design concept. In 1938, the Lightning hit the scene. Like the Snipe, all were simple hard chine boats with sawn frames, all were cheap and easy to build, and most were run by associations that tried to spread the class far and wide. The Interlake and Lightning remain strong classes today. For many years, boats of this style formed the backbone of dinghy racing in the USA.
As American sailor George Moffatt wrote for a British audience in 1961, these typical US one designs were a product of “weather, water and economics (which) all tend to emphasize a larger, heavier and less manoeuvrable boat than finds acceptance in England.” The light airs common through most of the North American summer encourage big rigs, and perhaps means that planing performance is less of a consideration. The water tends to be cold; even in California the ocean is chilled by currents flowing down from the Arctic. Andy Dovell, a former New Englander turned Australian yacht and skiff design, recalls how geography affected the dinghy sailors of his homeland. “Even when when you’re racing in the summertime, the water’s cold, so they tend to sail boats that don’t tip in quite so easily.” As L. Francis Herreshoff noted, the short, tippy British style of dinghy would turn off US sailors as soon as “their ardour has been somewhat cooled by a swamping or capsizing a 14 in cold water.”
North America has huge expanses of semi-protected waterways, which encouraged big, dry and stable boats that were designed more for family day sailing than racing. “In New England where there’s lots of interesting geography to explore, performance of the boat isn’t so important. Every day you can explore a different harbor and have a new experience with any type of boat” explains Bob Johnstone, who marketed dinghies like the Laser and Sunfish before he became a partner of the hugely successful “J/Boat” yacht company. But in some of the most densely populated and influential areas, most sailors live in cities located some distance away from their sailing grounds. Even the keenest racers cannot always practice on weekday afternoons like sailors in other areas can. “When I look back, I remember that the helmsmen were all pretty skilled, but they were all guys who had jobs in the city” Dovell remembers. “They hadn’t grown up on the water every afternoon, they had only ever sailed on weekends their whole life. You can’t have a bunch of workaday guys who race just on the weekends, sailing a (tippy high-performance) skiff in cold water.”
Many of the one designs also had to be stable enough to live on moorings, because a shortage of waterfront public space means that getting access to the waterfront is difficult in many parts of the USA. “Access to the water has a lot to do with boat type” notes Ben Fuller, former curator of the famous Mystic Seaport maritime museum. “Most of the New England clubs developed in a mooring environment, and many still do not have space for dinghy parks. What happens to boats when they are not being used is in many ways more important than the boats in use.”
In the middle of the 19th century the USA was the wealthiest society on earth, and sailors tended to be rich even by US standards. The sport still felt the echoes of the 19th century clashes that killed classes like the sandbaggers and Delaware Hikers and pushed the working class out of the sport. In the US, even dinghy sailing was the preserve of the successful middle class and the wealthy, and American sailors had the money to buy big dinghies, the money to own big garages to build and store them, and the big cars to tow them.
Another historical hangover meant that sliding seats and trapezes were frowned upon despite the big rigs that many US one designs carried. “There were long-set bad reactions to shifting ballast boats like sandbaggers and hikers” explains Ben Fuller. So North American boats compensated for their big rigs by having extra form stability, heavy construction, and carrying more crew. Popular dinghies like Thistles and Lightnings carry three crew, and even cat-rigged boats like the little Frostbite classes or the 20’ M Scow and 12’ Butterfly scow often carry two sailors.
Once these factors helped the big, heavy hard-chine one-design style catch on in the US northeast, the heartland of North American sailing, it spread throughout the continent. Legendary “establishment” sailors like “Corny” Shields told their readers that planing boats were only for expert racing fanatics, and they listened. “The influence of the northeast yachting establishment was huge” says Fuller. “These boats set the scene for much of North American sailing”.
Probably the final factor that established the classic American classes was a national passion for one design sailing. The excesses of the development classes, from Sandbaggers to Frostbiters, may have pushed sailors towards strict rules. Some say that the American work ethic suits one design classes; victory comes from perfecting technique and equipment, whereas in development or high-performance classes it can come through left-field design ideas or “seat of the pants” boathandling.
As sailors like Dennis Conner and George Moffatt said, the steady moderate winds and strong one design fleets led American sailors to put an emphasis on the finer details of tuning and technology that saw them dominate Olympic sailing for decades. “In the department of techniques and technical innovation we Americans have always felt that we have had something of an edge” wrote Moffatt. “On our long, open and usually tideless courses boat speed is vital…. true, we have not had excellent small boat designers like Fox or Proctor, but we have had many superb builders such as Robert Lippincott, John Nichols, Skip Etchells and others who have been willing to try endless refinements of shape and gear.”
The lure of this highly developed one design racing has kept many of the older classes – the ones which could establish the first major fleets – on top in popularity ever since. The appeal of one design principle also ensures that there have been few moves to harm the equality of the fleets by updating the designs. It creates highly competitive racing that often lead to advances in the nuances of rig, gear, sails, and technique. The downside is that there has been little room for development in basic design. Only in the US would a 70 year old, 127kg (280lb) 16 footer still be advertised as “modern” and “light weight” in the 21st century. But these boats remain popular because they suit their designed purpose admirably, and they provide great racing in durable boats that last for many decades.
“The vee-bottom boat with a well-rockered chine”:- this and many other quotes from Crosby about the Snipe design is from his book “Amateur Boatbuilding”, Rudder Publishing Company C 1941
“”capable of sailing in almost any waters from protected inland lakes to the open ocean.”:- Crosby in ‘Snipes’ in “Sail Boating” Gerald White. NY 1954.
“The idea throughout was to have a boat that could be built for the minimum amount of money”:- “Sail Boating”
 “A job you can’t lose: work and hobbies in the great depression” Steven M Gelber, Joiurnal of Social History, June 1 1991
“Crosby knew that the boat would have to handle all conditions, from light-wind inland lakes to the windy Gulf coast.” Snipe News Winter 2011
“Crosby later wrote that this “foolish little working jib was not entirely satisfactory”:- the Jib Sheet Feb 1946. In the same article he noted that the only other change made in the class for many years was allowing a centreboard instead of a daggerboard at the request of early adopters Minnefords and Indian Harbour YC.
“constantly adding measurement guidelines as his friends found loopholes in the design”. Snipe News Winter 2011
“”Low cost plus speed and sport have made these little fifteen foot six knockabouts known all over the world”. ‘800 boats in three years’ Rudder June 1934.
“makes it possible to use the boats in very bad water”; ‘800 boats in three years’ Rudder June 1934.
“Your proud new Snipe:’ The Jib Sheet
“”one of the most misunderstood boats, often held in quite low esteem by yachtsmen who consider it to be old-fashioned and low in performance” Go for the Gold, Gary Hoyt, 1971
“”You get so much interfleet compettion in teh Snipe class ” Sports Illustrated
“”weather, water and economics (which) all tend to emphasize a larger, heavier and less manoeuvrable boat than finds acceptance in England.” ‘The American Scene’ by George Moffatt in The Dinghy Year Book 1961, Richard Creagh-Osbourne (ed)
Information from Bob Johnson, Andy Dovell and Ben Fuller from personal correspondence and interviews.