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.”
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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!”
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.