While the arrival of new technology played a major role in the postwar growth in dinghy sailing, many older classes such as the Snipe and Lightning kept on growing. Despite the arrival of the new boats, in the early ’60s the Snipe was still the second most popular class in the world, with 14,475 boats. The Lightning (8,700 boats) sat in fifth spot in the popularity rankings. So what kept these older boats popular, in an era when dozens of lighter, simpler and faster classes were emerging?
Part of the success of the older classes was simply that they already had critical mass and a high level of public awareness, but I started reading archives copies of the Snipe class magazine from the late ’40s and early ’50s to find out what else was involved. Coming from an era when dinghy sailors face dwindling fleets and endemic pessimism, going through the Snipe Bulletin’s back numbers was a rather strange and poignant experience. Month after month, the Bulletin spoke of new fleets being formed and new boats being launched by the dozen. There was the same flavour of unconscious optimism that we windsurfers felt in the early to mid 1980s; an assumption that the sport would always keep on growing and that the future would always be bigger better than the present.
It took a while to realise the three important underlying messages that were coming from the words written so long ago by men like Crosby and Wells. The first message was that even in those bountiful years the class’ continuing success wasn’t just the product of its maturity and critical mass meeting the sociological factors that were creating the dinghy boom. Even though the Snipe entered the boomtime as the world’s strongest class, it still relied on the selfless passion of volunteers who were determined to inspire new people to take up the sport and who were prepared to start new fleets, lend the class money to finance technological developments, loan their boats for regattas and do all the other jobs on which the whole sport depends.
Secondly, the class benefited from leaders who were not only champion sailors, but also keen to maintain the class’ low-budget one-design ethos as they steered it through the changes that came with new technology like fibreglass, dacron and alloy. Time and time again one sees that they put the priority on maintaining the competitiveness of old boats. They handled the challenges so well that the new technology made the Snipe more popular and the boats more even, rather than dividing the class into new boats and old ones.
Thirdly, even at the peak of the boom, even the world’s strongest class remained a cottage industry. Most manufacturers appear to be small operations, and so was the class itself. In the early 1950s the International Snipe association earned about about $3000 per year (about $30,000 in today’s values) and still barely broke even. Much of that income came from generous members, such as the ones who had lent the class $1500 to buy the Snipe’s plans and rights from Rudder magazine, or Well’s gift of royalties from his popular book. In 1951 Crosby, who was still involved in the class, earned just $939 in royalties. In an era in which the richest professional group (self-employed professionals such as doctors) earned $7400 and the median male income was about $3000, Crosby’s royalties would be nice to have but hardly enough to make one rich.
The challenges of emerging technology and class growth seem to dominate the Snipe’s history through the early years of the boomtime. In the early ’50s, the Snipe Bulletin reported that the class had an unusual problem – despite the increasing cost of labour and materials, demand for race-worthy new boats was so high that builders could not build the planked mahogany hulls quickly enough, and costs were rising dramatically.
In a complaint that finds many echoes today, it was also noted that many people lacked the skill or work ethic to maintain their planked wooden boats. “A great many people do not have the time, the place or the skill to do this work themselves, and it is becoming terrifically expensive to hire this work done” lamented the class Bulletin as early as April 1953.
One solution was allowing plywood hulls, which were permitted from the early ’50s. Around the same time, the class took a more innovative step. Worried that “the development of a fibreglas hull for the Snipe was the only way to keep the Snipe class from gradually dying out as a result of the increased popularity of fibreglas boats” the association started exploring moulded boats as early as 1953: just six years after the first fibreglass racing sailboat, Ray Greene’s Rebel, had hit the water. Considering the strength of the class and the novelty of the technology, it was an impressively far-sighted move. It may also have been significant that the class management turned to the members for feedback and found it almost unanimously in favour.
Although the class recognised that Crosby’s shape wasn’t ideal for ‘glass – “the flat sections of a Snipe hull require the use of much thicker fibreglas material than the curved sections of a hull designed specifically for fibreglas” – they took tight control of specifications and moulds and seemed to ensured that the early plastic boats were just as fast as the best timber hulls, but no faster.
The next challenge was synthetic sailcloth, which really hit the scene in the mid ’50s. Sailors knew that cotton sails had major problems. They had to be carefully and gently “stretched in” for hours when new, they could take on permanent stretch if they became wet and the adjustments were not eased, they suffered from mildew, and were so stretchy that top class racers needed specialist sails for light and heavy winds. On the plus side, cotton sails were a well-developed product and if they were well cared for, they could last for ages – Snipe world champ Ted Wells reckoned they had a racing lifespan of 10 to 15 years, which will make those who own many modern sails weep with envy.
When sailmakers and top sailors like class president Ted Wells and sailmakers got experience with dacron, they quickly found a significant bonus. The first Dacron sails were no faster than cotton, but the synthetic material’s lower stretch meant that one set could handle the whole wind range, instead of two or three sets as with cotton.
Further experience highlighted other benefits. “Paradoxically, Dacron has made sailmaking both easier and harder” wrote sailmaker Wally Ross in the magazine of the Lightning class, which was facing the same issues. Sailmaking in cotton could be easier, because the stretchiness and shrinkage often hid a maker’s errors. Dacron’s stability gave no such latitude, wrote Ross; “small errors on cutting do show up and remain in the sail, making Dacron very sensitive to small changes in design”.
Dacron’s reduced stretch didn’t just allow (and require) sailmakers to create better shapes. The synthetic material’s stability also allowed fast sails to be replicated effectively for the first time. “The biggest handicap with cotton was that it required a “breaking in” process which was not at all consistent, and made it impossible to either duplicate a sail, or have it set exactly as designed” wrote Ross. With Dacron “once the correct shape is attained, the finer tolerances and more detailed designs allow the highest degree of duplication.”
Although the advantages of Dacron sails were soon obvious, they were also about 10% more expensive, and threatened to make existing sails obsolete. True to form, the Snipe class showed concern for its members’ pockets and phased in synthetic sails over a few years, first permitting them at club level, then at minor championships and only then at the worlds.
One interesting and apparently surprising result of the new technology was that competition got closer. Many boats were still kept afloat. Fibreglass hulls, fibreglass sheathing and plywood helped stop the moored boats from leaking and soaking up water, allowing them to compete with their dry-sailed sisters. Alloy spars were less affected by natural material variation and humidity than wooden masts. Dacron’s low and consistent stretch allowed sailmakers to reproduce known winning shapes and therefore make fast sails available to more people. Although the Snipe did not use the emerging technologies to increase speed, the racing got better and owning a boat got cheaper.
One issue that established classes like the Snipe and Lighting could not really address was their weight. By the 1950s, the Snipe was already recognised as a heavy boat, but time and time again the class put the priority on maintaining its one design rules to ensure that the thousands of older boats stayed competitive. The results show that it clearly worked. Snipe Number One was still racing well in 1955, and as late as 1954 Snipe Number 23 was still well up at the national titles.
In truth, the Snipe never really had a choice. As Frank Bethwaite has pointed out, if the Snipe went on a crash diet its heavily rockered, heavily Veed hull would lose too much waterline length, and it would still have too much curve to plane easily.
The weight may actually have helped make the early fibreglass boats compete with the wooden ones. The class’ tight controls on its sail numbering shows that it was still genuinely growing strongly, and the reports from the fleets show that the vast majority were still strong and full of old boats that would have been killed off by a major weight reduction. Designer and founder Bill Crosby was still actively beating the one design drum by pointing to classes like the Wee Scot, which had hundreds of active boats before it was radically “updated” and then collapsed. As some Snipe sailors said, the class would simply have to accept its weight handicap and concentrate on its strengths. By keeping up with technology but maintaining the competitiveness of old boats, the Snipe maintained its position as one of the world’s most popular boats.
The Snipe’s archives gave me an important lesson. Subconsciously, we may think that it was easier to run a class in those days of growth, optimism and emerging technology. The truth is that even then, the health of the sport relied completely on the time and enthusiasm of volunteers who kept their eye on ensuring affordable sailing for club level sailors.
“”Paradoxically, Dacron has made sailmaking both easier and harder”. ‘Hard Sails’ by Wally Ross, Lighting class yearbook, 1957