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



Author: cthom249

A former sailing journalist and magazine editor, I was lucky enough to grow up in Sydney, one of the world's sailing hotspots and to win national and state championships in classes like J/24s, Windsurfer One Designs, offshore racers, Laser Radial open, Windsurfer OD Masters, Raceboard Masters and Laser Radial Masters, to get into the placings in a few other classes, and do a few Sydney to Hobarts.

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