Boom Boats

CENTRE NAUTIQUE - Centre permanent de Classes de Mer Moulin Mer2
It must be some time in the late 1960s, and the training fleet at Moulin-Mer near Brest in France is making sail in changing times. Most of the boats are Vauriens, but a few very, very early 420s can also be seen. From the French Vaurien class site.

Most of the classes that top the popularity ratings of the 21st century were born in the dinghy boomtime. They may not be fast, they may not be trendy – but even today about three quarter of the boats that top the lists of sales and national championship attendance are “boom boats”, designed in the quarter century after 1945. Designs like the Optimist, Laser, and 420 are the most popular widespread racing classes in the world, and boats like the Sunfish and Topper are still among the most popular boats in their home regions.

Europe start
The Europe class has survived opposition from the Laser, Olympic selection and Olympic de-selection, and still attracts hot competition and strong fleets. Pic by Alfred Farre from the class site.

The best of the boomtime classes obviously benefited from becoming established in critical mass in an era when sailing was bigger than ever before or since. But history shows us that critical mass is not enough to guarantee that a class will thrive, or even survive. Some of the “boom boats” that once topped the popularity lists are now a shadow of what they were. In the mid 1960s, the American Penguin class was about the sixth most popular boat in the world. About 7,000 Penguins were built, but today the class is restricted to a few clubs. The Australian Vee Jay claimed similar numbers, and now the class is now down to about half a dozen boats at one club. Holt’s Heron once had over 1200 boats actively racing in the UK; although the class remains strong in Australia, a recent UK national championships attracted only a dozen boats. The Blue Jay, about the second most popular class in America for years, is now raced only in small numbers at a few clubs. The International Moth, once the fifth most popular class in the USA and one of the most popular in NZ, vanished entirely from those countries and has only recently returned in tiny numbers. More recently, the fate of the Laser II shows that even classes from late in the dinghy boom can almost vanish from the seas.

Above: The sail numbers don’t lie – the Penguin was once rated as one of the world’s most popular boats, with about 7,000 boats. A simple hard-chined cat rigged 11 1/2 footer, it’s now confined to a few fleets on the east coast of the USA. Pic from the class site.                                                                                                             Below: The Blue Jay, sometimes called the “baby Lightning” because it shared its general shape and designers with the “real” Lightning, was once about the third most popular class in the USA and the official junior class for much of the north-east. Now that it has long been superseded as an official inter-club junior class, only a few dozen remain active. The replacement classes are not booming either. Class site pic.


The casualty rate amongst classes that were once among the most popular nationally or across the globe shows that mere numerical strength is not enough to save a class. The boats that survive may not be the most elegant, or the fastest, or the easiest to sail – but they must have something that marks them out from the dozens of designs that never caught on in the first place, and those that boomed and died. Each of these classes surely has some special quality.

Class chart PNG
The world as we knew it; estimated class numbers for 1962-63, as taken from old British Dinghy Yearbooks. The italicised sections are my estimates from other sources. The Sunfish and Sailfish should have been topped of the list, but it appears that they were not considered, probably because class racing was only just emerging; surprisingly the first North Americans were only held in 1963. Other interesting points are the high number of Vauriens; the dominance of hard chine boats at the top of the list; and the emergence of the 420, still years away from becoming an International junior class, but the first all-fibreglass class to become truly popular. I’m still tracing numbers for the Pirat class, which seems to have had around 2200 boats at the time.
EDIT – According to “The Sailboat Classes of North America”, in 1962 there were 25,000 Sailfish and Sunfish; 2,000 Turnabouts (now the National Ten); from 2,500 to 5,000 of the 8ft kit-built Sea Shell prams; 1200 Y-Flyer scows; 1800 Thistles; 1000 Rhodes Bantams, 1900 Rebels, 2300 Nippers, 2800 Naples Sabots, 11 Lido 14s, 1100 Geary 18s, 1050 Flying Juniors, 1500 El Toros, 3600 Comets, and 3500 Blue Jays. It appears that the author may have referred to total boats built, whereas the figures for classes like the Blue Jay and Comet in the chart refer to active boats.


Many of the boats of the boom time are out of the ordinary. For every “typical” boat from the mainstream of design, like the 470 or 420, there’s a couple of unusual designs like the Fireball or Vaurien. Some “boom boats” could even be called dead-ends, in terms of design.  The 4m (13ft4in) Vaurien is still hanging on in Europe, but no other boat has copied its bottom shape. The multi chine sections of the Enterprise are now rarely seen on new boats. Today’s beginner boats rarely carry the gunter, sprit and lateen rigs of the Mirror, Optimist and Sunfish. The snub bow of the Optimist and Mirror are not seen even in the smallest of new designs. The Fireball remains one of the most popular International class trapeze dinghies, yet multi-chine scows are almost unknown elsewhere.

The Vee Jay (top) was once the most popular class in Australia, and one of the most popular in the world. Despite the extraordinary reaching speeds its flat hull could reach under the power of the twin hiking planks, it is all but dead as a class. In contrast its contemporary, the Australian Sharpie (formerly the Lightweight Sharpie) remains one of the most popular big dinghies in the country. Both classes faced competition from newer rivals and from those with support from international and national governing bodies, but one class shrugged off the challenges and another collapsed. Although the Jay remains a great boat on a high-speed reach, some say that its flaw was a narrow wind range and lack of comfort when carrying the extra weight of larger modern sailors. Weight-carrying ability has been a problem for other classes as the typical sailor grows heavier. Class site pics.


The fact that these unusual boats remain so popular could indicate that the average sailor isn’t a conservative, as sometimes claimed. Or perhaps it’s the unusual nature of these designs that helps keep them strong. Their distinctive style frees them from unfavourable comparison against newer boats; no manufacturer in the 2000s is going to bring out something to go head-to-head with a modern version of a 1950s oddity. Maybe some boats seem “strange” because their form follows function, not fashion.

It’s possible that many of the boomer boats still thrive because while they are definitely racing boats, because of their age they are more “user friendly” than newer racers in many ways. In the era of the dinghy boom, a boat that could be both a bleeding-edge performer and a boat for the average club racer. Or maybe the average sailor, yesterday and today, just finds that these boats just hit the sweet spot in the balance of performance, practicality and price. It seems that, for the average good racer at least, many of the boats of the dinghy boom still work as well as they ever have. Over the next few posts we’ll look briefly at some of the most popular boats of the dinghy boom and try to work out what keeps them alive – or perhaps what may kill them off.


Holt and Moore: designing the boom


Beecher Moore (left) and Jack Holt in the 1940s. Is that the original Merlin they are pouring over? By Grant Landon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons
If there were any two men who can be singled out as the fathers of the dinghy boom, it would be Jack Holt and Beecher Moore. One probably designed more major dinghy classes than anyone before or since. The other promoted them and helped change dinghy sailing into a mass participation sport.

Holt and Moore came from very different backgrounds. Holt was a Londoner from a working class background. In that time and place, such things could matter; sailing was still a sport for the “upper classes” and at least once Holt was asked to leave a dinghy club because he was a tradesman.  Moore’s father was a successful and innovative expatriate American businessman. Where Holt had got his first boat after winning a cabinetmaking scholarship, Moore had been given his for finishing his private school. Where Holt completed his apprenticeship, Moore studied in Harvard. While Holt was living tough as the innocent victim of a motorbike accident, Moore was sailing in the America’s Cup and racing his Thames A Rater.

While Moore had the means to become one of the dinghy sailing establishment, he looked beyond the closed world of affluent sailors and classes that proudly spoke of their “aristocratic” spirit. He wanted to bring the sport to a wider audience; those who could not afford a boat one of the traditional classes. He found a kindred spirit in Holt, and together they promoted a new form of sailing. Holt designed the classes that would get the British sailing, and Moore would drum up publicity and handle class organizations.

Although Holt is best remembered for his family boats, he first made his name in the traditional National 12s and 14s, and by creating the first Merlin. The Merlin lead to a long collaboration with Yachting World magazine, in those days more concerned with the dinghy sailor than the maxi-yacht owner, which bred classes like the Cadet, GP14 and Heron. Although his hull shape changed later, the early boats set a Holt stamp. All were small boats by overseas standards, because they had to fit the small British garages, tow behind small British cars or go on their roofracks, and often sail on confined waterways. All of them, even his 30ft YW Diamond keelboat, were designed for amateur construction. As historian Professor Tony Dingle says in his excellent paper on the era, Holt’s boats were not just simple to build – they also looked simple, especially to a generation that was full of experienced home handymen. As Holt told Dingle, “I designed boats that would look as though a man could do it. If he could make a box he could build one of my boats.”

Beecher Moore’s publicity skills and his passion for putting people afloat also seem to have played a huge part in the success of the Yachting World/Holt line. From old articles about Holt, one gets the impression that he may have been a quiet man. Without Moore’s promotion the Holt classes may never had taken off.

Moore appears to have been adept at using his insider’s knowledge of the British dinghy scene and also at drawing in the mass media. Despite the fact that he and Holt had both come from development or restricted classes, Beecher believed that one designs were the future of the sport; he wrote that they were “far more rewarding both aesthetically and materially” for a designer because he was not fettered by existing rules, and more profitable and practical for a boatbuilder.

Moore was frank about the “establishment’s” opposition to the new breed of amateur built boats, and he was not above  criticising the development or restricted class boats that had been the mainstay of British dinghy racing before WW2. “Never has so much effort been made with so little result as it has been in the three restricted classes of Great Britain” he wrote trenchantly, pointing out that even after three decades “each year there are barely 250 boats built to restricted class rules as against nearly 6,000 one design class boats…. While there is no doubt that restricted classes serve a useful purpose in widening the sailing horizon….this is the day of the one design, and I  do not think that any other restricted class will be started.”

This photo popped up more than once in Australian Seacraft magazine in the ’60s, sometimes with a caption like “yes, a Heron can plane!”. The boat is national champion Wop, owned by the magazine editor Paul Hopkins, an advocate for “family sailing” at a time when many of his friends were sailing Skiffs, Moths and trapeze dinghies. This scan from the Australian Heron association site.

Even one of Holt’s most conservative designs broke new ground. In 1951 he created the little 3.4m/11ft Yachting World Cartopper, now called the Heron. As its name suggests, it was designed to be light enough to be carried on the top of a family car to save the cost of a trailer, although its hull weight of 64kg/140lb indicates that roofs and sailors must have been stronger in those days. But what is more significant is that fact that, as Professor Dingle  points out, the Heron was also intended to be raced by women. As Iris Holt told Dingle, “I think that Jack might have had a lot of aggro from me, because for years and years I stayed at home and looked after my kids (while) it was always Jack going sailing…he must have felt…a family should get together….we have lots of yachting widows…it doesn’t make for a happy marriage.”

The Heron was Jack’s first design for men and women to sail together, and “family sailing” became a hallmark of the Holt boats. The concept and the Heron had a particularly big impact in Australia. As Holt explained to Dingle, until the Heron arrived sailing in Australia was “like a rugby crew…big skiffs and very few women, if any sailed”.  When the first Australian Heron hit a Sydney beach “some Australian women decided to put their foot down, ‘I’m coming sailing too’ and that’s how the Heron started (in Australia).” With support from Australian Seacraft magazine, the concept of family sailing finally took off in Australia, and the Heron became one of the most popular boats in the country.

Quest (or Conquest?), Holt’s hard chine International Canoe. Pic from Ed Bremner, Yachting and Yachting and/or Pinquest. Copyright owner please contact me if you want this removed.

Even as the Cadet, Heron and GP14 started to blossom, Holt seems to have been moving forward in design. In 1950 he had crafted the International Canoe Quest, which had a frameless ply hull where the stringers and deck formed a box girder to take the sailing loads. The chine reduced wetted surface area by forcing water to “release” at the stern, instead of “wrapping” around curved sections as it had with earlier Canoes. Quest’s success woke that most ancient of classes to the potential of chines, and almost all subsequent boats had a chine aft. A couple of years later, Holt reinforced his high-performance credentials by producing the Yachting World Hornet, an outstanding creation that combined the canoe’s sliding seat and high performance with economy and appeal to female sailors. In 1956 Holt designed the Solo, a small singlehanded dinghy with a multi chine hull. In 2017, she remains one of the most popular classes in the UK.

In total, the Yachting World, Holt and Moore connection put over 35,000 boats on the water, introducing tens of thousands of people to the sport. But when Holt became associated with two national newspapers, even these extraordinary numbers were eclipsed. When the “News Chronicle” realized how dinghy sailing was catching on, they got Holt to design a boat they could sell to their readers as a home-build project. The result was the Enterprise, launched in 1956. She was slightly shorter than the GP14, but she took Holt’s experience with Quest’s frameless plywood hull one step further. The “Ent” had a multi-chined hull, which combined many of the advantages of round bilges (including lower wetted surface and a better range of stability) with the ease of construction of hard chines. She also came in 30% lighter than the GP14, and despite not having a spinnaker she was slightly faster. Like most of the great successes of the dinghy boom it was essentially a cruiser/racer; the hull was buoyant enough to carry several people, and there was also an optional smaller cruising rig, but the Enterprise became one of England’s hottest racing classes for years.

GP14 sheer.png
The GP14 (top) and the Enterprise (below). Not surprisingly, they seem to have quite similar shapes, although the later Enterprise has more flare.

Ent plan

Ent sheer.jpg
Below: the Enterprise (right) and GP14 sections compared. The trend towards wider flare was becoming strong when the Ent was designed.

Ent sections

GP14 sections

In the typical style of the day, the Enterprise was launched with a publicity stunt in which two boats, both with mixed crews, crossed the English Channel by night. It caught on in the epicenter of tboom, and in the early ‘60s 2,000 were launched each year. As early as 1963 the class reached 10,000 boats, and there were so many “Ents” building that Holt and Beecher had to start up a fittings company because gear was unavailable. The result was Holt-Allan, one of the world’s biggest gear manufacturers. Today, the International Enterprise sail numbers are over 20,000, with over 1100 active boats in the UK.

Even that success was overshadowed in 1963 when the rival “Daily Mirror” paper sponsored the little 10’10” “Mirror”, which Holt created in association with Barry Bucknell, perhaps the first famous “do it yourself” expert. Bucknell was already a TV star with his home handyman show when one of his sons complained that he needed his own boat, because he never got to sail the family’s older Yachting World design.

Bucknell was already an experienced home boatbuilder (he had introduced the transomless design to the Hornet class) so he decided to build a new boat for his son, using the simple “stitch and glue” construction which had recently been re-invented by kayak builder Ken Littledyke. As Andrew Jackson, an academic at England’s University College for the Creative Arts notes, Bucknell used cardboard models to develop the initial design; “a pragmatic and inventive approach, typical of the trial and error approach of DIY design.”

Mirror kit
“No dad, that bit goes on the other end”. Pic from the Daily Mirror of a father and son tackling a Mirror Dinghy kit.

“The first prototype was later seen by Paul Boyle, a writer from the Daily Mirror” wrote Jackson. “At the time, the newspaper’s publicity department was looking for new ideas to promote the paper, and it was thought that boats bearing the name ‘Daily Mirror’ might usefully keep the title before the general public. In order to ensure that the product did not let down the reputation of the paper by drowning its readers, Jack Holt was drafted in to help Bucknell develop the design further.”

Holt replaced Bucknell’s flat-bottomed hull with a pram-bowed single-chine design. Beecher Moore recommended a gunter rig (better for transport and “messing about in boats”) and the boat was fitted for cruising with stowage, seats that were below the top of the gunwale so that people felt they were sitting in the boat rather than on it, rowlocks and room for an outboard. Bell Woodworking created a pre-cut kit, and Holt Allen mass-produced sail, spars and fittings kits. The rapid development in do-it-yourself design and techniques was demonstrated by the fact that the Mirror was just over half the weight of the earlier Cadet and cost just two-thirds as much.

Mirror 2
Mirror pic from the Daily Mirror’s article celebrating 50 years of the class

As Jackson notes, one of the drivers of the Mirror’s success was the involvement of the Daily Mirror’s professional marketing team. “It was a mass circulation newspaper with a left-of-centre editorial policy, and a predominantly working class readership. They used their knowledge of the media to ensure that the Mirror dinghy would be seen as a quite different proposition to the normal sailing boat. The boat effectively provided the working man with an introduction to a previously elite sport.”

The Mirror was launched “with a double-page spread entitled “Presenting the Mirror Boat — a revolutionary idea that makes sailing cheap for everybody”. It emphasized the access to freedom and fresh air, and the progressive approach to the design of the kits by “Barry Bucknell, the famous TV handyman”. ‘Imagine a boat of your own!” proclaimed the Daily Mirror. “A passport to freedom … you don’t need a licence. You don’t need a number plate. You are free…..You can race her. You can take the whole family cruising in her. And you can carry her from one place to another on the roof of a Mini!”

In the early ’70s the Mirror was so popular that in some areas sailors from other classes complained about the “red wall” of Mirrors taking over the waterways. Those days are sadly gone but the class is still fairly strong, especially in the UK.

Despite the emphasis on economy and simplicity, there was nothing humble about the  original Mirror brochure, which was a curious but effective mixture of realism and hyperbole.  “Down through the ages the British have been a seafaring people” it thundered. “Sailing is in our blood – the very fibre of our character…..Until recently, however, only the wealthy have been able to get the health and happiness that a good boat brings.”

The Daily Mirror’s marketing team a realistic picture of Mr and Mrs Average and their Mirror chugging up small rivers or drifting around under mainsail only, but turned it into a grand adventure. After a day messing about in boats, the brochure told potential Mirror owners, when “you’ve been bronzed by the sun and are feeling fresher than you’ve ever felt on land, you’ll have your own tall tales to tell the lubbers who stayed ashore.” In a way, it seems like the way that modern four wheel drives and SUVs are sold; a picture of a family outing that manages to combine domestic safety with realistic adventures. And, like modern SUVs, the Mirror became enormously popular.

It was, perhaps, a sign of the times that when the Finn Olympian Richard Creagh-Osborne tested the boat, he treated it respectfully. “The performance frankly surprised me….for a boat just under 11 ft long she was fast….a sporty little boat”. No wonder the sport was growing, when an Olympian from the sailing industry was prepared to applaud a cheap little boat designed for new sailors.

The Mirror went right off the scales of popularity in its early years, with about 2,000 boats being launched per annum. Sail numbers have now reached 70,000. There are probably more home-built Mirrors than any other class of boat. Although it’s an international class that has bred sailors like 470  and Laser gold medalists, the Mirror remains most popular as a fun boat, or even as a cruiser. Some have sailed up the east coast of Australia, while A.J. Mackinnon wandered 4,900 km from Wales to the Black Sea. Despite its tiny size, it’s the second most popular boat among the hardy souls of the UK’s Dinghy Cruising Club.

As Jackson notes, like many other great classes, the Mirror’s success was a combination of many factors. “It marks a confluence of a variety of historical factors: changing social and cultural conditions, developments in manufacturing technology, the importance of newspaper and magazine publishing — and even television celebrity” he wrote.

In many ways, the Mirror marks the peak of the dinghy boomtime. It used innovative design techniques that made it both lighter and easier to build than earlier boats. It was heavily promoted by the mass media. But perhaps the most important factor was that it was produced in an era when sailing as a whole still cared about the common person.


Footnotes (under construction)

Professor Tony Dinghy, ‘I’d rather be sailing, the post-war boom in dinghy sailing, The Great Circle21(2) 121-128, 1999

“Never has so much effort been made with so little result as it has been in the three restricted classes of Great Britain”: ‘The barriers are down; restricted classes have served their purpose’ by Beecher Moore, Yachting World, May 1963

Enterprise information from sources including ‘The Enterprise’ (author unknown) Yachts and Yachting May 1979 and ‘The Jack Holt designed ‘Enterprise'”, Yachts and Yachting March 16 1956

“Labour as Leisure — The Mirror Dinghy and DIY Sailors”, Andrew Jackson, Journal of Design History Vol. 19 No. 1, Oxford University Press on behalf of The Design History Society.



Pat 1.36: Boomtime

The GP14 was one of the first of the Jack Holt designs that were to play a major role in the dinghy boom in the Commonwealth nations and Europe. Pic of an early national titles from the class site.

In the late 1940s, six men sat down on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and tried to create a new style of sailing. They were not trying to create masterpieces of efficiency, like Curry’s Renjollen or Fox’s 14s. What they were looking for was something perhaps more difficult – a way to put new sailors afloat.

The three men from the UK – boatbuilder Jack Holt, business consultant Beecher Moore, and Yachting World magazine editor E.F. Haylock – were searching for a cheaper, safer training boat for children. As Jack Holt said many years later, Haylock was “mad, absolutely mad on sailing…he had a been in his bonnet that he wanted sailing to unit the world like Baden Powell wanted scouting to unite the world…that’s why he thought children should all join together racing each other in little boats.”  In Haylock’s own words,  “Yachting World had a mission – to get people afloat, especially those with slender means.”

Across the Atlantic in Florida, a small-town boatbuilder called Clark Mills was following a commission from a community association that wanted something to keep kids busy and out of trouble. And further north in the USA, iceboaters and small-time boatbuilders Courtlandt Heyniger and Alexander Bryan were simply looking for a product to keep themselves busy during the summer.

Jack Holt sailing Cadet Number one. Uffa Fox called it “the greatest little class in the world…the greatest benefactor to the sport of sailing of any boat designed or developed anywhere.” From the class site.

The six men all took a newly-perfected material called waterproof plywood. Ply had been around for eons, but earlier versions were made with vegetable or blood-based glues allowed that allowed it to fall apart when soaked. In the 1930s, superior glues created the first really waterproof ply, which was further developed throughout the war years when plywood was used for even the most modern hardware such as radar covers, PT boats and the Mosquito fighter/bomber.

The boats the six men built were boxy and odd-looking to conventional eyes. One of them was a skinny and flat board-like hull, with a lateen sail and no cockpit. The other two were square- bowed prams. But they were all fairly light for their day, they could be easily built from scratch or kits, they all sailed well (if not particularly quickly) and they heralded a revolution.

The first to hit the water, in 1947, was the boat from Holt, Moore and Haylock. They called it the Yachting World Cadet. Just a few months later, the little Mills boat splashed afloat and was given the name of the club that sponsored it – the Optimist. The flat “boardboat” was the Sailfish, ancestor of the Sunfish. By 1949 the Sailfish was the subject of a photo story in “Life” magazine, then one of the most powerful mediums in the US. It took sailing into the living room of middle America, and then the Sailfish and Sunfish took US dinghy sailing from the yacht club to the local beach.

State arcjoives of Florida sarasota optimists 1951
Early Optimist Prams in Clearwater Florida in the 1950s. Although the Opti (or Oppy…. the contraction varies from country to country) was one of the earliest of the designs of the dinghy boom, it didn’t really take hold until the 1960s. The Optimist Pram was the predecessor for the International Optimist Dinghy. The Pram had slightly different rules and remained a separate class in Florida until it died in the 1980s.

To sailors bred on yachts and boats like International 14s, the Cadet, Optimist and Sunfish looked more like the crates “real” boats came in, and they weren’t afraid to say it. Uffa Fox, once an iconoclast, said that the amateur-built chine boat could be “spotted a mile off, because (it) looks like a box” [1] but to tens of thousands who had never before been able to afford to get afloat, they were a passport to a new sport. Within a few years sailing, once the game of an affluent minority, became a mass participation pastime. Dinghies hit the water in numbers never seen before – or, unfortunately, since. It was the time of the dinghy boom.  “At the time sailing was the new sport – John F. Kennedy sailed in his free time.  The numbers that are mind boggling – Sunfish sold nearly 400,000 boats, and every family in America seemed to have one” notes Peter Johnstone, a member of the J/Boat family and former head of the USA’s Sunfish and Laser builder.

JFK and Jackie rig a Sailfish. From Pinterest.

So what caused the boomtime? In part, of course, it was just a symptom of a world recovering from war with a widespread economic boom and growing leisure time. “Gone were the days when the income of a relatively large percentage of households covered little more than the basic necessities of life: food, clothing and accommodation” wrote economist Greg Whitwell. “There emerged instead a new situation in which a clear and expanding majority of households enjoyed a disposable income (increasingly) above that needed to provide for the essentials of everyday existence.”

The average person not only had more money, but more time in which to spend it; “The working classes gained access to what had been denied them before the war: not simply more money and more job security but more time” noted historian Richard White. Leisure and sport participation in general reached new heights, and new levels of social acceptability.

The war itself had a significant effect. There was pent up demand for new boats, not only to replace those lost or damaged in the war, but to replace the ones that had not been built because priorities were on other things. And many servicemen had spent years dreaming. Sailing magazines of the war years featured wistful articles on future dreamboats, written by men who had been dragged far from their home and hobbies. When they returned, many of them came with deferred pay packets, and a determination to get back afloat as soon as post-war austerity and materials rationing would let them.  Even the landscape they returned to was changing; it’s said that in the UK and Europe the demand for sand and aggregate for post-war reconstruction created more quarries, which later become the artificial lakes that were home for many of the new clubs.

It’s sometimes said that sailing’s rise was simply caused by the general increase in leisure, but some other sports and activities suffered. Touring cycling fell away sharply after the war as people started exploring by car instead of bicycle, and pro cycling faded as the new television stations found events like football matches easier to cover. In England, spectator crowds at cricket and local football matches declined. The growth in sailing was not inevitable.

Ranelagh Merlins
Small river, big fleet; a typical view of the boomtime as 71 Merlin Rockets try to fit on the narrow Thames. Pic courtesy Ranelagh SC.

Although there were fewer sports to compete against, sailing still had to battle for the consumer’s dollar with the huge demand for cars, televisions and household goods as well as against other growing activities like surfing, Little League Baseball, stock car racing, tourism and family camping. Even compared to other growth sports, sailing did well; for example between 1950 and 1960 membership in the British Canoe Union quadrupled, but membership in the Royal Yachting Association grew 11-fold. Dinghy sailing itself grew even faster than yachting.

Sailors looking back often idealise the boomtime as an era in which there was less competition from high-tech activities, but this was a golden era of backyard motorsport, a time when powerboat racing was strong, when there was widespread fascination with aviation and space flight, and an emerging obsession with television. Computers are not the first “high tech” rival that sailing has faced.

Dinghy sailing’s boom seems to have been more than a reflection of general good times. It appears to have been triggered by new technology, in the hands of people who were determined to use it to make the sport more popular and who knew the right recipe. They looked beyond just making boats faster to excite experienced hands; instead they wanted to attract new sailors. They realised that, as Beecher Moore pointed out, a successful “boomtime” class had to fill specific criteria. It had to be cheap and easily available; it had to fill a need, it had to be easy to build and sail well, it had to turn a profit for kit manufacturers and boatbuilders; and it needed a good class organisation. [2]

Colin Mudie cartoon
In 1963, the future for dinghy sailing looked so bright that yacht designer Colin Mudie whimsically looked forward to a day when triple-level rivers would be needed to fit all the boats. Mudie is best known for kicking off the sport of small offshore yacht racing when he sailed across the Atlantic with Patrick Ellam in the tiny 19 footer Sopranino. Of late, he has put his efforts into replica craft for people like Tim Severin and sail training craft that range from the    famous Royalist to the tiny brigs of the Little Brig Sailing Trust. From Yachting World of May 1963, copyright Colin Mudie, with permission.

Moore’s list could have described some earlier boats like the National 12, but the boats that kickstarted the boom took every aspect further. Many of them were small, to keep costs and building time down and to make them practical. As Holt said in 1965, a boat’s size “pretty well controls the price, weight, speed and whether it will be popular for home builders.” [3]

As well as the use of plywood, the new breed also used innovative touches to make them easy to build. Joining the sheets or planks at the stem was one of the most difficult crafts in building a wooden boat, so the Optimist and Cadet were given pram bows.

They sailed well (although they were slower than the best of the older classes) and they could be easily handled by older, younger or less experienced sailors. They had big buoyancy tanks and decks, to make them safer for less experienced sailors and for clubs facing growing pains. They were not merely safer in reality, but safer in appearance; when Holt showed the first set of GP14 plans to Haylock he was instructed to give her more freeboard. “She has not only to be seaworthy and safe, she has got to look seaworthy and safe” said the editor. It was a concept that people like Holt and Moore took to their hearts so much that they emphasise the safety of their later boats with publicity stunts like sailing them across the English Channel.

The arrival of the new boats coincided with a regeneration in amateur woodwork. Post-war egalitarianism resulted in higher wages and reduced working hours, which increased the labour cost of professionally-built boats (much to the horror of people like Francis Herreshoff, who was offended that mere shipwrights started to be able to afford luxuries like cars) but gave other workers the cash to buy materials, including new types of glue and power tools, and the time to use them. Even older boats like the traditional US one designs benefited from new power tools and new forms of plywood – it was easier to lay up a few wide sheets than many narrow conventional planks.

In many parts of the world, an increase in home ownership meant that more people had a place to build their dreamship. The wartime shift of women into jobs that were once held by men could also be seen as a reason for men to re-assert their traditional role by grabbing their tools and escaping into the garage.

Design academic Andrew Jackson noted the way these factors came together to help create the dinghy boom. “By the last half of the twentieth century, home ownership had grown enormously in Britain. A huge interest in home improvement and home craft activity had developed. By the mid 1950s, magazines had joined ‘how to do it’ books and television programmes as a regular and changing source of guidance and inspiration. Manufacturers and retailers responded by developing and marketing new building products aimed specifically at the amateur market — they were easy to use, and importantly, they were easy to buy. Power tools began to be designed with the home workshop in mind.”

“The emergence of do-it-yourself as a significant leisure-time activity raises questions about the nature of leisure time itself” Jackson wrote. “The amount of leisure time was gradually increasing. Paid holidays became commonplace, and the working week shortened, often giving men weekends free of work for the first time. DIY allowed men to stay at home without feeling emasculated.”

Even the combination of changing times and new concepts wouldn’t have been enough to spark the dinghy boom without publicity. As John Holt (son of Jack) said at the peak of the boom, “even if you have a good boat and you don’t have the backing behind it, it just quietly fades away”.  Some of the publicity came by luck – the Life magazine article that turned the Sailfish from a success to a phenomena was sparked when a friend of the builders gave someone who turned out to be a Life staffer a sail.  Some of it came from inside the sport, particularly England’s Yachting World magazine which started a string of other classes designed by Holt.  And as the publicity-conscious Beecher Moore wrote, once the sport started growing the mass media “spotted the new public that was being brought into sailing, as sailing was made available to the man in the streets by this new movement” and helped sailing snowball by sponsoring their own classes like the Mirror and Enterprise.

I can relate to this poster; when I was a kid I spent a lot of time wistfully looking at dinghies and dreaming of the day I could get one. The Vaurien was the class that took a generation of French people out of their crates and onto the water.

And so home boatbuilding became a popular pastime. Keen sailors of the ‘50s and ‘60s would often choose a house design based on its merits for as an amateur boatyard. Peter Mander, New Zealand’s first sailing gold medalist, had his first living room designed so a Sharpie could be made inside it. The first of 36,000 Vauriens – the boat that put France afloat – had to be carried out sideways from the house in which it was built. A pair of brothers whose mother would not allow boatbuilding in the home had to secretly build a highly successful series of 5.2m (17ft) long Comets in the attic. When the boats were finished, they were slipped out of the upper windows while Mom was in church. She must either have been extremely deaf, or much more tolerant than they thought.

Many of the handymen-turned-sailors who came flooding into the sport were from outside the sailing establishment. In England, the new wave came from lower middle-class or even working-class backgrounds. They were, in the cliche of the time, “the man in the street” – or as Beecher Moore pointed out, the whole family. They were not the upper middle class sailors of old; “the type of person that is sailing now doesn’t have the resources that yachting people had originally…. (they didn’t come from) the sort of yacht club where we used to go where you weren’t allowed to walk on the grass” said John Holt, Jack’s son. [4]

The new hard-chine plywood boats started to break down the barriers of snobbery. “In those early post-war years there was still a divide in the sailing world: with the yacht club for the gentry and the sailing club for the workers” wrote Beecher Moore. “But youngsters, in Holt’s cheap and simple Cadet, did not know this and when Cadets from yacht club and sailing club were out on the same bit of water the class privilege was ignored. It was the first breakthrough in solving the class problem on the water.”

The Sunfish has the same effect in the USA. “I think there’s something friendly about the appearance of these boats” Bryan told Sports Illustrated many years later. “Something unpretentious. Nobody is ever jealous of a Sunfish, and I think that probably works to make other people’s products not look snobbish”. As a Sunfish marketer said at the time, “sailing has always been considered a rich man’s sport, but the Sunfish removes that stigma”.

A gaggle of Jack Holt designs forms at Aylesbury Sailing Club, one of the many clubs that were formed on tiny English waterways during the dinghy boom. A couple of years ago they started 32 boats on a 16 acre lake. Pic from the club site.

These dinghy boomers bought their boats mainly with family cruising in mind, but many soon started racing.  In the UK, 455 sailing clubs were formed between 1950 and 1959, almost doubling the number in the country.[5]  As Beecher Moore recorded, the bias of the “establishment” initially kept the new blood and their small cheap chine boats out of the established sailing centres, [6] so the new breed of sailor formed new clubs on reservoirs and gravel pits in places like the Midlands of England, and created a more egalitarian and accessible image that attracted even more newcomers. “The Brits sail places American wouldn’t consider” notes outsider Steve Clark. “Old quarries, wide spots in rivers, reservoirs on the top of hills, excavated peat bogs, disused bathing pavilions and so forth. It seems if there is a dinghy club next to every damp sponge. The sailing can’t be great, but the sport and camaraderie are probably pretty good, and friendships are what make people come back”.

Bristol Avon SC
“A dinghy club next to every damp sponge”. Small clubs on tiny waterways are one of the foundations of British sailing, and many emerged in the dinghy boom. In this pic of the Bristol Avon Sailing Club, the tiny river on which the club sails can be seen in the right background. It’s the same width as the club’s boat storage area.

Sailing became so popular that some clubs closed their membership lists and authorities spoke of rationing access to confined European waterways. Even at the level of national championships, the cheap ply boats dominated the numbers. It was the foundation of a boom that lasted until the mid ‘70s, and it created most of the classes that form the backbone of today’s fleets.

Not all of the “boom boats” were new hard-chine designs. Some of the older classes, like Vee Jays, National 12s and Merlin Rockets, picked up new sailors and grew enormously. Other new boats, like the Albacore, Thistle and Firefly, were “hot moulded” by a newly-developed process that used the moulds and heavy machinery developed for aircraft like the famous Mosquito to create round-bilged boats from thin ply strips laid on the diagonal. Despite the early hopes they proved to be little cheaper than conventionally-built boats, but they were easier to maintain.

The war had also spurred the development of a new-fangled material called fiberglass.  As early as 1937 Ray Greene, a brilliant qualified engineer and boatbuilder, had done a mechanical engineering thesis on plastics in boatbuilding. He had experimented with materials like muslin, brown paper and melamine and urea formaldehyde and had also done some work on rocket tubes for a company called Owens-Corning Fibreglass, When Owens-Corning  first began weaving class fibres for commercial use, they sold half of the first run to Greene, and in 1942 he moulded the first fiberglass and polyester boat, a small dinghy.

The Rebel, the first fibreglass dinghy class. Small fleets survive today.

In 1947 Greene and high school drawing instructor Alvin Youngquist created the Rebel, the first fibreglass dinghy class. In those days, before design and techniques developed, fiberglass was either flexy (some of the first racing boats were compared to giant air mattresses) or heavy.  The Rebel fell in the heavy camp, with a hull up to ¼” thick and no less than 318kg (700lb) in weight. The early polyester resin could only be set at high temperatures, so once the glass and resin were placed in the deck mould it had to be placed in a home-made oven for 300F for two hours.[8]

The Rebel’s heft probably didn’t worry Greene; as Daniel Spurr wrote in his outstanding history of fiberglass boatbuilding “Heart of Glass”, Greene felt that “One person in ten can get a racing boat, and the others are families and children.  I wanted a boat that the wife could crew in and not have the husband mad at her at the end of the day.” [7] Greene’s recipe worked, and more than 5000 Rebels were launched.

In the same year that the Rebel hit the water, Carl Beetle launched the Beetle Swan, a 12’6” catboat. Beetle came from an ancient boatbuilding family, who had been building boats in the US since 1791 and had been already building the Beetle Catboat for years. Ironically, it was the money that Beetle made selling the design rights to the ancient Beetle Catboat that funded his development of the Beetle Swan in a joint venture with the vast General Electric company, which sunk $600,000 into the process. The hull mould and the deck mould were each laid up in copper moulds which were covered in chrome, because copper inhibits the resin cure.  The deck and hull moulds were then joined and placed in an oven for several hours and a rubber bag inside the moulds and inflated with steam to hold the layup and resin against the moulds. The Beetle Swan was therefore cured as a one-piece hull and deck far faster than a normal catboat could be build, although as gelcoat had not arrived the hulls still had to be painted.

Beetle failed to sell a single boat at the New York Boat Show in 1947, although a few sales were made when he cut the fiberglass seats, coaming and deck out and replaced them with wood for the Boston Boat Show. Beetle claimed that fiberglass boats were almost maintenance free and promoted the strength and durability of fiberglass boats by freezing them, dropping them from helicopters and firing a .38 pistol at a hull.  No one bought it, and by 1952 he had sold the company and died prematurely. [9]

Until designers learned to use cores and curves for stiffness, fiberglass was best suited to heavier boats like the traditional American style. These early fiberglass boats cost more than the plywood craft (about as much as older planked timber designs) but that was no problem in the affluent USA. The big bonus was that they needed much less maintenance; Carl Beetle calculated that the maintenance of a timber boat in the first season was 25% of the purchase price[10].

Boats like the Snipe and Lightning switched to ‘glass, and found themselves perfectly positioned to pick up the Sunfish generation as they moved to bigger boats. Bob Johnstone, a Sunfish champ before becoming vice president in charge the class in the middle of the boom, saw the shift. “For the most part, sailing in the US is family recreation based and most of the major metropolitan areas are located on cold water” notes Johnstone. “So, success of small boats was limited to off-the-beach boats like the Sunfish on hot water lakes in summer and southern beaches. That was okay, the investment wasn’t huge so the boat could be stored 10 months of the year.”

“As one became committed to sailing, wanting to bring along spouses, kids, and friends and sail over a longer period of the year or willing to invest more of the family’s treasure in a larger boat or more serious boat, it had to be one that could be sailed in street clothes – not wetsuits and bathing suits. You could get the pounding shakes sailing a Sunfish on Long Island Sound in the summer after two hours. And who wants to wear wetsuits all day long? The board boats were regarded as toys, not real boats. That’s why the Lightning became the family boat, even the cruiser of the 1950s.”

As they moved up from their “toys”, US sailors bought into the big one designs in droves. Nineteen sixty four saw 300 Lightnings and 900 Snipes adding to the existing fleets. As in other countries, even boats that weren’t designed for racing became hot classes due to sheer popularity; “The original one designs like Snipe and Sunfish achieved huge critical mass, and the racing fleets are solely a percentage of that critical mass” notes Peter Johnstone.

A graph of class growth in the UK from Yachting World in May 1968. When the sport was flourishing, the slower “family sailing” boats made up the vast majority of new launchings. The other dramatic contrast to today is the small number of singlehanders. In the past I’ve extended such graphs to earlier years and seen no indication that the arrival of the new breed of high performance boats like the 505 and FD played a part in stimulating the growth of dinghy sailing.

It seems to be significant that the most popular racing classes were the slower one designs. Some say that the dinghy boom was caused by the arrival of fast trapeze-powered boats like the Flying Dutchman and 505 in the mid 1950s, but the evidence doesn’t point that way. The most popular boats in the early years of the dinghy boom – the Sunfish, Lightning, Snipe, GP14, Opti, Cadet, Vaurien and others – were major successes years before the FD and 505 even hit the water. A graphing showing the growth of the most popular classes shows no evidence of a leap in popularity after the trapeze boats arrived.

The performance and international racing classes boats did sell in numbers that seem amazing today. The year 1964, for example, saw the launch of a 1400 OKs, 1000 Finns, 700 FDs and 500 Moths. But despite their numbers, the high-performance boats were just a minority interest. For every FD launched in England, there were over 20 Enterprises and about 100 Mirrors. For every new 505 that arrived in the USA, about 80 Lightnings and 120 Snipes hit the water – and some say the dinghy boom in the USA didn’t really start until the late ‘60s, when the trapeze boat was old news. Some writers of the time implied that the performance boats were created by the dinghy boom rather than the creators of it, for not until boats like the Cadet, Lightning and Enterprise had turned tens of thousands of people into dinghy sailors were there enough with the skill and enthusiasm to make high performance boats popular.


When sailing was big news it was because of popular boats, not because of fast ones. Scan from Spinsheet magazine.

The high performance boats weren’t even needed to raise the profile of the sport, because during the dinghy boom, dinghy sailing didn’t need to chase the media – the media chased dinghy sailing. Top-rating TV “do it yourself” shows with audiences of millions featured home boatbuilding. Car makers and other advertisers used the dinghy as a symbol of the good life. Whether it was Volkswagen or the Daily Mirror paper, the expert marketers from the mass media were interested in the the family boats, not the spectacular racers. It was the boat for the ordinary person, not the expert, that attracted the media, and it was the boat for the ordinary person that created the dinghy boom.



“”mad, absolutely mad on sailing…”    8



“Yachting World had a mission”;- ’50 years on the water’, Peter Sandbach (ed), the GP14 class history

“”Gone were the days when the income of a relatively large percentage of households covered little more than the basic necessities of life”:  Greg Whitwell, Making the Market:
The Rise of Consumer Society (Fitzroy, Vic.: McPhee Gribble, 1989) quoted in

“The working classes gained access to what had been denied them before the war”:- “On Holidays; A history of getting away in Australia”, Richard White, Pluto Press, 2005

“In England, cricket and local football crowds declined.” As did cinema and theatre attendance, while dancing increased. Information from University of Warwick PhD thesis “Working-Class leisure in English towns 1945 to 1960, with special reference fo Coventry and Bolton” by Hideo Ichihashi

“between 1950 and 1960 membership in the British Canoe Union quadrupled”: Ichihashi (ibid)

“”spotted the new public that was being brought into sailing”: ‘The Silent Revolution: from boat yard to back yard’, Beecher Moore, Yachting World, May 1960

“”I think there’s something friendly about the appearance of these boats”:- ‘Here she is, the true love boat”, William Oscar Johnson, Sports illustrated, Sep 20 1982

[1] Sailing Boats p 43

[2] ‘From Boat Yard to Back Yard”, Yachting World May 1960 p 239

[3] Yachting World, Nov 1965 p 486

“”She has not only to be seaworthy and safe, she has got to look seaworthy and safe”:- ’50 years on the water’, Peter Sandbach (ed), the GP14 class history

[4] Yachting World May 1966 p 213

[5] Beecher Moore in Yachting World May 1960 p 238

“”In those early post-war years there was still a divide in the sailing world”; Moore in Holt’s obituary, The Independent, 16 November 1995.

[6] Ibid

[7] Heart of Glass    p 53

[8] Heart of Glass p 23

[9] Heart of Glass      p 54-56.

[10] Heart of Glass p 52





In Unnocuppied France during the war, the vichy government had established control over sporting bodies. “YThere is an old prejudiece against sport in this coutnry that goes back to the intellectual man who was pale, a poor phsycial specimen, a rimbaud, a verlaine, a proust. Sports were for te man who was not clever” Werner Herzog