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.


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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