The language divide means that the French Vaurien is little known in the English-speaking world, but it was one of the most popular boats in early days of the dinghy boom. Its genesis was linked to the dark days of WW2, when Paul and Helene Viannay became heroes of the French Resistance. After peace arrived, the Viannays searched for a way to maintain the spirit of adventure and fraternite that they had found among the Resistance, and to heal the psychic scars of the war. On the beautiful but rugged Glenans archipelago they founded a very basic holiday camp that evolved into a sailing school. The emphasis was, and still is, on teamwork and adventure; this is not a slick resort style operation driven by profit, but a charity intended to breed cooperation in a challenging sailing environment. Glenans is now the largest sail training organisation in Europe, training more than 14,000 people per year, and it’s credited with playing a major part in democratising and popularising sailing in France.
In the winter of 1951-52, Philippe Viannay sponsored the construction of the first Vaurien. It was designed by Jean-Jacques Herbulot, a two-time Star Olympian and a co-designer of the 9m2 Sharpie, and named after a stray dog he had adopted. “Vaurien” translates as “scamp” or “rascal”, and the name fitted the unpretentious little boat well. Like so many boats of the early dinghy boom era, the Vaurien was a cheap plywood all-rounder. “The whole conception of the class was of extreme simplicity and one that would sell at the absolute minimum price” it was said. “And yet the boat had to be tough, a good performer under a sloop rig, suitable for complete beginners and sailing schools, capable of taking an outboard motor and also providing first-class one-design racing.”
Although the Vaurien’s “mission statement” was similar to that of boats like the GP14, Enterprise or Snipe, the French class was very different in two significant ways. One was the unique hull shape. The bottom was flat all the way from the bow to a point about 1.7m (5ft5in) from the transom. From that point to the transom there was a Vee-shaped “dart” in the bottom panel, which allowed the stern to take on a gentle Vee shape to reduce transom drag and the normal tendency of a flat-bottom hull to change balance dramatically depending on heel. The hull was sheeted in 6mm plywood and was light by 1950’s standards at 209lb, allowing a small jib and mainsail of just 87 sq ft to drive the boat along at a satisfactory pace. The rudder and centreboard had efficient high-aspect outlines but were produced from plywood to reduce cost.
After successful trials at Glenans the sailing school ordered a batch of 100 – a huge number for that era. This emphasis on professional batch production, rather than home-built one-offs, marked the Vaurien’s second departure from the other major hard-chine classes of the era. Because the accuracy of the shape of the “dart” had such an effect on the shape and performance of the hull, only licensed professional builders who sold the boats at a stipulated maximum price were allowed to build Vauriens. Fittings, equipment and even the paint was covered by strict one design rules, and only sails could come only from licensed sailmakers.
The rules forced builders to adopt batch production if they were to make a profit, but the result was an extremely cheap boat. The early Vauriens cost only as much as two standard bicycles, and as late as 1964 a Vaurien was less than half the cost of a Firefly or 420 and the same price as the much smaller Mirror.
The Vaurien put France afloat. Post-war laws required large businesses to run leisure and sporting clubs, which encouraged working and middle class people to look for a sporting outlet. Many of them found it in sailing on the huge sand pits, created by the post-war reconstruction and building boom, that were used to form artificial lakes around places like Paris and Rouen. The Vaurien became the backbone of many new clubs on these lakes. “It is quite remarkable how some clubs have developed on account of the Vaurien” wrote Britain’s Dinghy Year Book in 1964. “The Vaurien has brought into the sport of yachting an enormous number of people who would otherwise probably never have been afloat at all.” As early as 1956-57 there were 875 Vauriens launched within a year, and by 1964 there were 14,000 Vauriens, making it the Snipe’s rival for the title of the third most popular dinghy in the world.
Among those who honed their skills in the Vaurien was Eric Tabarly. His win in the 1964 singlehanded transatlantic race was seen as a French victory in an Anglo-Saxon ocean. It earned Tabarly the Legion D’honneur medal and made singlehanded professional ocean racing into a French passion. English-speaking observers today often believe that the popularity of the sport in France is based on the high profile of pro sailing. French sailors tell me the opposite – that pro sailing relies on the fact that organisations like Glenans and the Vaurien association had already made sailing a popular, egalitarian sport.
The Vaurien is yet another class that was driven by a desire to use sailing as a tool to improve the wider society by attracting new sailors into the sport. The same motivation created such successful classes as the International Cadet, the Mirror, the Optimist and the US branch of the Moth. Given their success, it’s easy to think that boats designed with a clean sheet for such powerful motives may tend to be more successful than those created with the narrow aims of being faster.
The Vaurien started to decline in the 1960s. The hull’s flat sections made it unsuitable for early single-skin ‘glass construction and the accent moved to newer boats like the 420. But although the class is long past its glory days, there are still fleets of Vauriens racing in several countries. The Vaurien may not inspire today’s designers with its shape, but any boat that can sell 36,000 hulls and launch the careers of many of the world’s top pro sailors deserves respect.