The late 1800s and early 1900s seem to be a period of turbulent growth in American centreboarder sailing. The sandbagger era was over. The canoes and the Raters had been almost killed by their excesses. The industrialisation of the Delaware had killed the tuckups. In their place came a shift to the one design concept, but a version that was quite different to the one we hold today.
The rise of the one designs in the USA was, as WP Stephens noted, “a protest against the extremes of modern racing” under simplistic rating systems and restricted class rules that had created expensive and fragile racing machines that quickly became obsolete. It was an issue that ran from the elite Seawanhaka Cup racers all the way down to local club level. As early as 1887, Forest and Stream had recognised the difficulty; “there are thousands of miles of water throughout the United States and Canada which are suitable for sailing and racing in small boats with as much benefit and as keen sport to the sailor as is found in yachts of the largest class. Already these streams and rivers float an immense pleasure fleet of canoes, sailing skiffs, catboats and similar crafts”. The problem lay in organising fair racing between such a variety of boats. “At first the fleet includes a lot of odd boats of all models and builds, perhaps a few rowboats with sprit sails, a duckboat or two, a sneakbox, and a few canoes, the dimensions varying from 12 to 16ft., with beam from 2 ½ to 5ft…..It is an extremely difficult matter for a rule which will afford fair racing to the mixed fleet of boats, canoes and sneakboxes that are usually found in first forming a club, and yet it is necessary that all be given a fair chance.” The technology of the time allowed for no such rule. The racing machines always won. One designs seemed to be the answer.
As Stephens wrote, the move to one designs arose “with no concerted action on the part of clubs and associations”. It also occurred in an era when the concept that “one-design boats….are confined to special local waters” was almost universal. “The idea seemed to be that each club must have a distinctive one-design class of its own, a boat especially designed for its particular weather conditions and different from any other one-design class” explained George W. Elder, who bought into a local 22′ Long Island Sound one design in 1914. “In other words a one-design class was considered a strictly local proposition and the private property of a given club. That was fine for the designers, but it isolated every group of small boat skippers and prevented them, as well as the clubs, from having any interests in common.”
The logistical issues of getting small boats from club to club in those days before trailers and hoists were part of the problem, but so was the mindset. As late as the early 1920s, Elder claimed, “the hundreds of little one-design classes, each restricted to one club, were keeping yachtsmen apart.” One design sailors, he wrote, “just could not visualize any small one-design being successfully developed on a widespread scale. Their yachting horizon was limited. They knew that yachts were being raced in some other places, but it was too far away to amount to much. It is difficult to understand such a frame of mind today, but conditions were very different them.”
The parochial viewpoint that Elder lamented and the lack of cooperation between clubs and associations meant that the idea of joining forces to create national classes was foreign to most sailors. Even when two clubs did adopt the same design, often they had so little interest in building a wider class that they would call it by a different name. Many sailors probably believed that no one design class could survive long enough to spread from coast to coast as the Universal Rule rating yachts had done, for the horizon of early one designs seemed to be limited in time as well as in space. Sailors, sailing journalists (who were normally vocally against one designs, claiming they stopped the development of the sport) and designers commonly expected that interest in such small local classes would fade away within two to three seasons; as late as 1902, WP Stephens found it notable that the Newport 30s had survived for seven years.
This mindset meant that just when small boat sailing was growing, it became largely restricted to small and isolated pockets of local one designs that sprang up in a confusing array of widely different classes, with no national classes or overall structure. There were classes derived from Raters, and fishing dories, from little duck-hunting “sneakboxes”, from scows, sharpies, skiffs and skipjacks, from rowing dinghies, prams and working catboats. Dozens of types appeared and faded, leaving no influence on the wider world of dinghy design. Small boat sailing had become a disorganised and localised sport without a high-profile type such as the canoes or sandbaggers. Just when centreboarders had taken over the lead in design development, they retreated into local racing and the shadow of the big yachts.
Many of the small US local classes were specifically designed for young sailors. In Elder’s words, “these were the days of the large yacht, when racing was a rich man’s game….. small boats were considered playthings for boys”. Once young sailors had learned the ropes, they were to move into a “real” boat – one that carried lead and was 25 ft long or more. There was no almost US equivalent to the contemporary expensive high-performance adult centreboarders that were sailed in places like England and Australia; perhaps there was no place for them in the colder waters, lighter winds and more affluent society of the USA’s sailing heartlands.
Given the credibility boost that the Seawanhaka Cup gave to small boat racing, it was not surprising that some clubs adopted Raters or similar types, such as the modified versions of Question that were sailed at Yale Corinthian YC. Some of them were designed by the top designers of the day, like Herreshoff, Clinton Crane, but they seem to have been comparatively expensive boats and few of them seem to have survived long or spread far. One of the most popular types, and perhaps the last survivor, was the Herreshoff 15 footers. Over one hundred were built for three clubs, but in the typical style of the day instead of sharing a single design that could allow interclub racing, each club had its own variation on the basic design. As George Elder wrote, clubs “wanted a special class of their own…unless the designer made some changes, he would hardly feel entitled to his fee.”
The expensive Rater-style one designs were an exception. Most one design fleets were modelled off the bewildering variety of cheap local working and hunting craft that had been bred by the diversity of America’s waterways. One of the first and most popular such types was the dory. In the 1890s, dory racing became popular around Massachusetts, with the usual sequence of events; “each season there would be new boats built of a newer design and perhaps larger in some ways, and would consequently be faster, which would mean that the owners of the old craft must sell at a great sacrifice and get a new one. After a while it got too expensive and the interest died out”.
The result was the formation of the one design Swampscott Club dory class in 1898. The ubiquitous and versatile Charles Mower designed the boat, which retained the dory style “because it could be built and maintained for much less than any other type”. The Swampscott sailors were an evangelical lot who promoted their class to other clubs and formed the Massachusetts Racing Dory Association in 1903. It may well have been the first class association of the modern style in the sport. Previously classes had been run by more general bodies like the American Canoe Association, regional sailing associations or a powerful club.
Within a few years there were fleets of Swampscott Dories and the related Massachusetts Racing Dory restricted class as far north as Nova Scotia, west to the Great Lakes, as far south to the Panama Canal Zone, and apparently as far east as Holland. A 1907 challenge between the Nova Scotia and Massachusetts fleets may have been the first international event for an indigenous American dinghy type, and fittingly the US team dominated. In 1908, Massachusetts sailor George Gardiner Fry (a man who could afford a big boat but preferred a small one) won an international event in Holland, although I can find no details about the event at all.
Despite the promising start, dory racing seems to have quickly faded so completely that few traces remain. Perhaps the problem was that in the typical chaotic style of the era, many clubs adopted similar but not identical one-design or restricted classes. Perhaps the Swampscott Dory’s low initial stability was another problem; most boats it inspired, like the Indian One Design and the Gravesend Knockabout, had firmer bilges and wider sterns. Sadly, not only is the class long dead but even the Swampscott Dory Club itself, once so keen and innovative, is now a social club with no interest in sailing or the boat they created.
Further south in Massachusetts around the same time, the 14ft Cotuit Skiff was developed as the “Mosquito” class for an unusual club reserved for unmarried people under 25. The Cotuit Skiff was derived from from local hard chine clamming and oyster skiffs, and remarkably it has survived to the present day almost unchanged – even tiller extensions are still banned. At one time few more than half a dozen Cotuit Skiffs were left active, but the classic boat resurgence has seen fleets climb to 30 and sometimes more. As with so many other classes of its day, the Cotuit Skiff remained a local class only.
In the same area and around the same time, the brilliant America’s Cup designer, aircraft creator and poet Starling Burgess created the Brutal Beast, named after his Great Dane dog. Another hard chine 14 ft catboat with a wide (6ft2in) beam, by the 1930s it was so popular around Marblehead that it had to be sailed in several divisions. Like many classes, the boats built for many fleets differed slightly, which would have done little to help the class grow widespread momentum. The Brutal Beast died out in the ’60s, apparently killed by construction costs and probably the move to more widespread classes.
Several other classes followed the same general (and logical) style of hard-chine catboat. There were designs like the Cricket, St Petersburg One Design, Flattie and Shelter Island Sharpie mentioned earlier. The 14ft Sea Mew, a design from The Rudder, was sailed on the Gulf, Pacific and Atlantic coasts and on the Great Lakes. Some can still be found in California, but widespread class racing never seems to have become organised.
The most popular of all the hard chine cat-rigged classes was the Snowbird, designed in 1921 by boatbuilder Willis J Reid and quickly adopted by several clubs around Boston. The Snowbird also became popular around southern California, and when Los Angeles was chosen as the host for the 1932 Olympics it was the obvious choice for the singlehander in an era when local cities traditionally chose a local boat.
In the typical style of the era, the Snowbird’s loose rules meant that in California many of the earlier boats and those built for hire fleets soon became uncompetitive, but in the ’50s and ’60s the annual “Flight of the Snowbirds” race around Newport Harbour attracted over 150 boats, making it allegedly the world’s biggest one-class sailing event. The Snowbird’s weight and construction cost killed the Californian class in the late 1960s, although there’s one mention of them sailing at Quincy YC in Massachusetts, one of the original clubs, as late as 1982. But despite a “national” association, its brief Olympic glory, its popularity in Southern California and its toehold in the east, like so many other designs of its era the Snowbird remained essentially a local class.
Many other catboats followed the more traditional round-bottomed form. One of the smaller and longest-lasting ones is the Beetle Cat, designed in 1921 as a junior boat and still not only racing today, but still being built in traditional timber planked construction.
Oddly enough, few of the local US classes followed the style of the classic round-bilge sailing dinghy or oar-and-sail boats. Small groups of 12 and 14 footers could be found along the southern shore of the Great Lakes and the New York Canoe Club adopted a one design dinghy, but until Frostbite sailing evolved there seems to have been few US equivalents of the International 12 or the British classes that were to form the genesis of the International 14. Sailors of the USA stuck firmly to a preference for types developed as working and hunting boats.
One of the oldest and most popular types that was developed from hunting boats was was the Sneakbox, which evolved on the lagoon-like waters of Barnegat Bay in New Jersey south of New York. The Sneakbox is one of those rare traditional types that can be traced back to being the creation of one individual, boatbuilder and enthusiastic wildfowler Captain Hazelton Seaman. About 1836, he developed the low-sided spoon-bowed boat he called a “devil’s coffin”, but which others called the Sneakbox. The typical hunting sneakbox was only about 12 ft long, so it could easily be paddled, poled or sailed and lifted over patches of land and marsh. They were almost completely decked over, with a crowned deck. The low profile allowed the sneakbox to slip up to unsuspecting wildfowl, while the wide decks allowed them to handle the windy waters of Barnegat Bay. Equipped with a cockpit cover and an offset centreboard to keep the cockpit clear, the hardy hunters could sleep aboard a 12 ft Sneak Box for days.
The unique structural design dispensed with the normal keel timber; instead it relied for longitudinal strength on the planking itself. The keel-less structure and rounded bow sections allowed builders to simply run the planks up to the gunwales at the bow, rather than taking on the complex job of fitting them to a conventional stem. Many Sneakboxes were built with frames that followed different parts of a master curve to further simplify construction and cut costs.
As the renowned historian Howard Chapelle noted, “the sneak box, being practically a small racing scow in model, is a very fast boat under sail when properly modelled, rigged, and fitted” and racing and cruising sailors started adopting and adapting the Sneak Box late in the 19th century. To the apparent disgust of observers like Chapelle they abandoned the offset centreboard and moved it to the conventional centreline position, which required the boat to be extended to about 15ft to maintain sufficient cockpit space.
In 1875, Nathaniel Bishop sailed a sneakbox from Pittsburgh to the Gulf of Mexico and made the type famous with his book “Four Months in a Sneak Box”. By the 1890s, sneakbox racing had developed in 16 to 18 footers which soon developed into 20 foot sandbaggers. The 20 foot sandbagger Sneak Boxes sound like beasts of boats, carrying up to eight crew and 35 30lb sandbags and hard both on the crew who had to throw the bags from side to side, and on the helmsmen, who often required a second man to handle the weather helm. In 1914, the versatile designer Charles D Mower, of Lark and Swallow fame, created a lighter 20ft “sneakbox” that was basically an inland racing scow. The Mower type was a sneakbox in name only (as Chapelle noted, the yachtsmen had basically ‘improved’ the sneak box out of existence) and it was itself made obsolete in the 1920s by true inland scows from the Midwest. Barnegat Bay remains the eastern-most stronghold of the inland Scow classes.
But after the 20 foot sneakboxes died out, the smaller versions kept on sailing on Barnegat Bay and far further afield. Boatbuilder J H Perrine, whose grandfather had built one of the very first sneak boxes, built almost 3,000 sneak boxes from 1900 to 1958. From 1918, strong fleets of Perrine-built 15 Foot Sneak Boxes developed around Barnegat Bay and in pockets along the US east coast and even into other countries. Strong club fleets and a regatta circuit developed in Barnegat Bay, with most of the racing restricted to sailors under 17 and only boats built by Perrine and one other builder were allowed. Weighing in at 400lb, they cost only $225 and performed well for their time, although an old yardstick seems to indicate that they were barely faster than a Mirror and slower than a Sunfish. The 15 ft Sneak Box was claimed to be perhaps the most widespread one design in the world, with some 3,000 boats spread across the world, but although the Barnegat Bay fleet formed probably the biggest centre of junior racing in the USA the 15 ft Sneak Box never seemed to become organised as a widespread class. An even smaller version, the 12 ft Duck Boat, was designed in 1951 and became an established junior class around Barnegat Bay.
The performance of the smaller Sneak Boxes seems to be the subject of dispute; some early fans praised their seaworthiness while others called them tender, hard to steer in a breeze, and prone to nosediving. Others steer a middle course and say that while they do not handle when when pressed hard and unforgiving of bad handling, they are safe when sailed conservatively and well.
Despite their spread, their popularity and the strong class scene around Barnegat Bay, the Sneakbox had oddly little effect on the general course of dinghy design. Even in its home waters, it almost died out decades ago. As historian Eric Stark noted, it took much longer to build than a chine boat, took more time to maintain, could only carry a small crew, and it was hard to make in fiberglass. Not surprisingly, the arrival of Optis, Sunfish and Lasers carved a swathe through the ranks of the Sneak Boxes. Today, results show only a half a dozen 15 Footers apparently racing regularly. But the Sneakbox is part of the history of Barnegat Bay, an area that has its own sailing culture and history, and once a year local sailors dragged out their old 12 Ft Duck Boat sneak boxes together for an event they call the “Duck Boat worlds”. For years, the Duck Boat Worlds has been sponsored by philanthropist Phil Kellogg (a classic boat fanatic, who helped revive the bigger local catboats and paid for the replica Sandbaggers Bull and Bear) who provides a donation to charity for each Duck Boat that came to the line. Today the Duck Boat Worlds sees a fleet of 70 or more restored 12 ft Sneakboxes (and even one or two new ones) crossing the line every summer.
But the traditional sneakbox was more than boat for summer racing; it was a boat for winter work, and the ‘box or one of its descendants may have developed that heritage to be the fastest sailing dinghy in history. One of the sneak boxes’s tricks was that it became an amphibious boat in the winter. When the shallow waters of Barnegat Bay started to ice over, the rounded hull and sloping bow of the sneak box allowed it to be dragged onto the ice and even sail over it, steered by dragging a pole. Sneak box sailors claimed to hit speeds of up to 40mph as they careered across the ice.
While the racing sneak boxes of Barnegat Bay were evolving into boats for “soft water” only, further north in the Great South Bay of Long Island off New York a descendant of was evolving the other way. The Great South Bay freezes, but because it’s sea ice it is often rough, unstable and full of “air holes” or patches of unfrozen liquid water. Back in the 1800s, hunters and lifesavers found themselves blocked by the Bay in winter; a normal boat could not cross the ice unless it was dragged on a sled, while a normal iceboat could not handle the rough ice or the water gaps in between.
The answer was the South Bay Scooter, a development of the sneak box. Like the sneak box, the Scooter could be rowed, poled or sailed over both the water and the ice, but it soon developed lower freeboard and a shape aimed more at ice sailing. Instead of the sneak box’s standard cat rig, the Scooter developed a sloop sailplan with a long bowsprit, to allow the boat to be steered on ice by easing the jib in and out. Inevitably, they also started racing during the winter.
“Roughly, the scooter is a Barnegat “sneak box”, mounted on runners” said one 1909 guide to building a Scooter. “This craft will sail in the water as well as on ice, consequently the sailor does not fear soft ice or air-holes, but sails merrily along taking ice or water, whichever happens to be in his course….when crossing an air-hole less than forty or fifty feet…the speed of the scooter, with a good wind, is sufficient to carry her across and out on the ice again in jig time…This ability to pop in and out of the water constitutes a novel sensation and makes scootering a very fascinating sport”.
“No scooter sailor would call the day complete unless he had dashed into and out of a dozen or more air holes” wrote a Scooter sailor in Rudder. “The water, cleaved as if by a shot hurled from a cannon, is thrown into the air a distance of twenty feet, completely shrouding the schooter from view until, with speed little diminished, it glides smoothly and triumphantly out upon the ice at the other side of the opening” said one account.
As they developed the Scooters became optimised more for ice sailing, and by the early 1900s they were capable of averaging 27 knots around a course. By the 1940s they had developed roachy full-battened pocket luff rigs, but the hull had wasted away to little more than a board-like platform for the rig and runners.
Today, the Scooters reach 50 knots or more on the ice – way faster than any sailing dinghy, but they can no longer sail on “soft” water. Well, actually, they can – but only for short distances. Scooter sailors still delight in finding waterholes in the ice and planing across them. The problem is that, like a waterski or a sinker sailboard, the modern Scooter is so low on buoyancy that it sinks when it drops off the plane. If they don’t get to the ice on the other side of the hole soon enough, the Scooter and Scooter-ers will end up in icy water. Scooter sailors, obviously a strange breed, think the occasional swim in icy water is all part of a good day’s sailing. And who’s going to argue with members of a class that can claim to have been the fastest-sailing dinghy ever??
round-bowed little lug riggers”:- The Rudder . At the time they had just been changed to gunters of 96 sq ft. See also Yachting feb 1914
“There were 18 foot Prams in Portland Oregon”:- Rudder May 1911 and
“WP Stephens, never a fan of the scow type”:- ‘One Design Classes in Yachting’, WP Stephens, Outing 1902 p 481
“The influence of the Seawanhaka Cup”:- ‘Fifteen-Footers from a Massachussets Standpoint”, Forest and Stream, April 9 1904
“”The idea seemed to be that each club must have a distinctive one-design class of its own’:- Forty Years Among the Stars”, George W Elder p 36
” “wanted a special class of their own…unless the designer made some changes, he would hardly feel entitled to his fee.” Elder p 44
“”the hundreds of little one-design classes, each restricted to one club, were keeping yachtsmen apart.” George W Elder and Ernest Ratsey, ‘The International Star Class’ in Sailing Craft, Schottle (ed) 1928
“”these were the days of the large yacht, when racing was a rich man’s game….. small boats were considered playthings for boys”. Elder and Ratsey, ibid. Numerous biographies of US yachtsmen of the day show them being bought yachts of 30 ft or longer when still in their teens or early 20s.
““each season there would be new boats built of a newer design and perhaps larger in some ways:”- Forest and Stream Jan 21 1905
“The Swampscott sailors were an evangelical lot”:- ‘The Massachusetts Racing Dory Association” by J Samuel Hodge, Fore’n’Aft, April 1907
“A 1907 challenge between the Nova Scotia and Massachusetts fleet”:- Fore’n’Aft October 1907. Part of the US domination was because they hiked until “there was nothing in the boat but their feet” which is just one more piece of evidence contradicting Antipodean sailors who claim that they created the art of keeping a dinghy afloat by hiking.
“They included the Cohasset YC one design class, modelled off WP Stephens’ Scarecrow”:- Forest and Stream, Oct 10 1895.
“The typical hunting sneakbox was only about 12 ft long”:- American Small Sailing Craft; their design, development and construction, Howard I Chapelle, 1951, p 214.
“as Chappelle noted, the yachtsmen had basically ‘improved’ the sneak box out of existence”:- American Small Sailing Craft p 211. This was probably a reference more to the 20 footers than to smaller Sneak Boxes, which still bore a strong resemblance to the originals.
“built almost 3,000 sneak boxes from 1900 to 1958”:- Eric Stark, Wooden Boat magazine issue 47.
“As historian Eric Stark noted”:- Eric Stark, Wooden Boat magazine issue 47.
“”In winter when used for gunning,” Sailing Craft TBA
” “No scooter sailor would call the day complete unless he had dashed into and out of a dozen or more air holes” The Rudder. Vol 17 1906 p253
“The water, cleaved as if by a shot hurled from a cannon, is thrown into the air a distance of twenty feet, completely shrouding the schooter from view until, with speed little diminished, it gliges smoothly and triumphantly out upon the ice at the other side of the opening”. Sci Am
3 thoughts on “Pt 1.31 – “Of all models and builds”: US one designs 1895-1925”
Really appreciate this informative post. Came here for the Snowbird, but learned so much about other interesting classes. Do you have more information or contacts on the East Coast Snowbird fleets? I’d love to see more period photos and find other survivors, but it’s hard finding very much information on this class.
We own fully-restored hull #344 (titled as built by McClure Boatbuilding in 1952). It somehow ended up near Delaware Bay and has been sailed around Chesapeake since at least 2011 or so, but originated in the Newport Beach, CA area. If I’m not mistaken, it can be seen rounding marker #3 in a still and video from the 1954(?) Flight of the Snowbirds race. The purchase included a neat, undated postcard photo of that race, one that I haven’t seen on UC Irvine Library’s online archives of photos taken by Hugh R. McMillan.
Hi Emil, and thanks for your note. I’ll chase up some other information about the Snowbird and send it to you over the next week or two. The lack of available information on the Snowbird is odd considering how popular it once was. Cheers!