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.
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.
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.
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 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.