1.44 Southern Lights – the new breed of Antipodean lightweights

A few years before the 505 and FD arrived in Europe, the sailors of New Zealand and Australia started to evolve a new type of boat. They were light- often as light as new designs from the 2000s. They were flat in hull sections and rocker and wide sterned, designed more for planing performance than for displacement speed. They were powered by trapezes (or sometimes a sliding seat or plank) but the rigs were only moderate in size. They were the opposite of the heavy, over-canvassed conventional skiffs, and they were lighter and flatter than boats like the 505 and FD. While the skiffs get most of the credit, in many ways the lightweight performance dinghies were the true forerunners of the modern stream of high-speed boats.

Three 12 footers – New Zealand’s Cherub and R Class and Australia’s Gwen 12 – showed the shape of things to come. On their sterns came a new breed of skiff which applied the same “light is fast” philosophy. But just as important was the fact that many of the older one-design classes – in fact, almost every one that would survive – were willing to undergo radical changes to re-make themselves in this new southern style.

The three lightweight 12 footers were all born outside the mainstream development classes. The Gwen was a one-off with a family sailing emphasis.  The R Class and Cherub both evolved from gaggles of miscellaneous dinghies that had been collected into classes for local club racing. The R Class was born in the southern city of Canterbury. The Cherub was created from the “Pennant” class in the sailing capital of Auckland. Because the R and Pennant classes were formed to unite disparate bunches of one-off designs, the class rules were loose. For many sailors that seems to have been a bonus, for the creators of the traditional classes like the Zeddies and Idle Along had never foreseen that their designs would be the battleground for national racing, and left a heritage of loose and obscure class rules and plans that caused many bitter battles; the legendary Graham Mander was once told that his boat was banned, for reasons that would only be discussed AFTER the national championship had been sailed.

Against such a background, the simple and open rules of the Pennant and R Classes were a relief. They were basically limited only in length and sail area. There were few restrictions on hull shape or sail design, and none on weight. The moderate sailplans ensured that experiments would be cheap, and put the emphasis on innovation rather than just on increasing stability and sail area. It was the recipe for a revolution.

The R Class

R Class
An early 1960s “R Class”. With lightweight hulls (55kg/120lb in the mid ’50s), efficient high-aspect rig with full battens and rotating mast, big spinnaker on a long pole, trapeze and self-bailing cockpit, the R was perhaps the most advanced dinghy of its day. The illustration, from champion sailor Bret de Their, comes from “Give a Man a Boat”, the wonderful biography of NZ dinghy legend Peter Mander and perhaps my favourite sailing book. With permission of Bret de Their.

The R Class doesn’t just come from a small nation in a remote part of the world – it comes from a provincial part of the less-populated island of that small nation. Yet for years, the Rs have been design leaders. At some times, they have possibly been the most advanced dinghies in the entire world, and they remain the world’s only fully-foiling doublehanded dinghy class.

The Rs were the oldest of the 12ft classes. The class had its origins in the 1920s and became recognized in 1937, just a decade after the International 14s and the same year that saw the arrival of the UK’s National 12. For years, they were confined to their home city of Canterbury. It wasn’t until the early ‘50s that they started to really take off.

The hulls rules mandated an overall length of 3.89m (12ft9in), and banned hard chines (perhaps to separate the Rs from a similar but cheaper chine class for youths). Because the Rs hailed from the windy, cold South Island the working sail area was fairly compact at just 10.2sq m (110sq ft) – but in typical southern style it packed a 9.3sq m (100sq ft) spinnaker on a long pole. But what the R Class rules didn’t cover was more important – there were no restrictions on minimum weight, minimum freeboard, fittings, beam, rise of floor, rig design, or mast height.

R Class lines
The lines of early R Class don’t look vastly different from northern hemisphere boats of their day, although I have not compared them in detail to a National 12 of the time, for example. But in their light weight and advanced rigs the R Class led the way.

When the sailing-mad bush mechanics and home handymen of New Zealand got a set of rules like that, they were certain to develop something special. The shapes of the early champs, like George Andrews’ Vivid of 1942 and Graham Mander’s Frantic of 1951 (known for her firm bilges, “easy” fore and aft lines and narrow waterlines) seem comparatively conservative; much like baby I-14s of the times. But in every other way, they were leaders. Look at the dates and the innovations. Before the time the FD even hit the water, the R Class had already evolved in a trapeze-carrying flyer setting high aspect rigs and big-roach mainsails from rotating masts on hulls that were less than 68kg (150lb). Today, the hulls are down to 36kg (79lb). By the end of the 1960s, there were about 400 Rs racing and the class was experimenting with twin trapezes, which were common by 1971. The R crews were twin-trapping from tubular wings by 1974, years before the 18 Foot Skiffs grew similar wings and two decades before boats like the Laser 5000 and 49er took the technique to the mass market.







The Cherub

Cherub lines
Lines of an early Spencer Cherub, from Juan Baader’s “The Sailing Yacht”

While the R Class was spreading from its southern base, the northern island of New Zealand was developing its own lightweight 12 footers. Auckland’s “Pennant” class was originally another loose collection of boats that would not fit any other class, united under restrictions of 9.29sq m (100sq ft) of sail and 12ft (3.66m) overall length. Again, the free rules allowed room for ingenuity. The Pennant class is long gone, but it had three claims to fame. The first was the creation of the Cherub, one of the boats that would later export the South Pacific style to the northern hemisphere.

Cherub design John Spencer was an Australian by birth, but a Kiwi by choice and spirit. When he designed the first Cherub to the Pennant class rules in 1951 he was inspired by the efficient Merlin Rocket, but he added a distinctive style. By crafting the boat in hard chine plywood just 5mm (3/16in) thick, he saved weight as well as money. The construction was light even by contemporary Auckland standards (the lightweight Rs had yet to arrive there) but Spencer realized that plywood’s torsional qualities strengthened the entire hull. “Cherub” weighed in at 110kg (242lb) rigged, lighter than the 420 which came along a decade later.

Jennifer Julian.png
Russ Bowler’s Jennifer Julian, one of the ultimate examples of the early “deep vee” hull Cherubs. Pic from the Farr Yacht Design site.

Spencer also understood that because the hard chine shape had more volume and buoyancy than round bilges (for the same deadrise, topside flare and beam) he could cut the rocker and therefore flatten the run aft. From knuckle to transom, the early Spencer Cherubs have about 130mm (5in) of rocker, compared to the 30.5cm (12in) of a contemporary National 12.

Spencer moved the maximum beam (a chunky 1.52m/5ft) aft to 60% aft. Realizing that boats with a distinctive chine forward were often slow in waves, he gave the bottom sheet a hard twist so that it almost lined up with the topsides sheet forward. The chine almost disappeared near the bow, creating a fine and deep Vee shape. The entry angle for these early Spencer Cherubs is about 15 degrees; five degrees less than a National 12 of the day.

On this efficient hull, Spencer fitted very high-aspect foils and a tall rig, with a 6.1m (20ft) mast. He felt it was not necessary to use the whole 9.29m (100sq ft) of sail allowed, and settled for just 8.7sq m (93.5sq ft). The spinnaker was set on a pole that stretched 2.74m (9ft) in typical South Pacific style.

The shape that Spencer created was an outstanding performer. Around that boat, Spencer created a set of development class rules that allowed the Cherub to evolve to keep its place as one of the fastest small dinghies afloat.  The R and the Cherub lead a wave of boats that changed New Zealand sailing. Despite fierce opposition from clubs and the old classes, their high performance, ease of building and easy on-shore handling swept away the old IA, Zeddie and X classes that had been dominant for so long. In their place came a string of lighter, faster, plywood classes.

And what about the man who created the class? He dropped out of architecture school and became a boatbuilder and designer in Auckland, where his shed became a magnet for aspiring designers of the time. He developed his concept of lightweight plywood hard chine designs, designing a string of yachts as well as the 14ft Javelin for those who were too big for the Cherub, and the 10ft Flying Ant as a smaller version.

The Pennant class kept going for a few years after the Cherub had erupted from it, spawning the Kiwi branch of the 12 Foot Skiff class along the way. Then, in the Pennant’s fading days, the class’ biggest regatta was won by a little singlehander, just 3.2m (10ft6in) long, called Resolution. It was the first design from its builder/skipper, a country boy from north of Auckland. A while later, that teenager went to Spencer’s boatshed for advice on the way to become a professional designer. Spencer slid out from underneath the hull of his latest project, the 62 foot Infidel, covered in timber shavings and told the young man “if you want to be a yacht designer, you’d better learn how to build them”. The 15 year old followed his advice, abandoned a promising scholastic career, and took up boatbuilding and design. His name was Bruce Farr.

Rumour (or fantasy) says that another kid who hung around Spencer’s shed got his father, an airline pilot, to take his Flying Ant across the Tasman in the cargo bay of an airliner he was flying when they moved to Australia. That’s how some say the class got started there. The kid, Mark Bethwaite, became an amateur designer and a world champ in Solings and J/24s. The father, Frank Bethwaite, used the Javelin as the basis for the NS14 development class and designed the Tasar and Laser II before becoming the leading exponent of the southern style with his articles and books. 

When the Cherub class spread to Australia and the UK, it decided to hold its first “world” title in 1970. It was won by a boat built from foam sandwich, then a radical new technique. Its name was Jennifer Julian, courtesy of a sponsor – another radical new idea. Its owner, designer, skipper and builder was Russell Bowler – for many years Bruce Farr’s partner in the world’s top yacht design firm. Farr and Associates’ marketing arm was for many years run by Geoff Stagg – yet another Cherub sailor, who started his move to the top of worldwide ocean racing by building a Spencer 45 as a teenager.

As if Mark and Julian Bethwaite, Bowler, Farr, Holland, and Stagg weren’t enough big names, the Cherub kept on breeding world class designers. The winning crew in the ’74 worlds was Andrew Buckland, the man who created the modern asymmetric spinnaker a decade later. The ’76 worlds went to Nicky Bethwaite, steering one of her dad’s designs. The forward hand was her brother Julian – designer of the Olympic 49er and the International 29er. Another top Cherub racer of the era was Grant Simmer, design director of winning America’s Cup teams. Soon afterward, a teenage designer/builder/skipper emerged from the Cherub to became Frank Bethwaite’s great design rival. His name was Iain Murray, designer/skipper of world champ 18 foot skiffs, America’s Cup boats, and ocean racers.

Even in the UK, where the class attracted publicity out of proportion to its small size, the Cherub had an impact on design. Expatriate Kiwi and ex-Cherub sailor John Shelley caused a stir in the International 14s with an “extended Cherub” that became the first successful hard-chine boat in the class, then went on to design outstanding Moths. Andy Paterson, one of the greatest modern innovators in hydrofoilers and the Moth class, started his design career in Cherubs in the early ‘70s and was still UK champ, decades later. Bethwaites, Bowler, Buckland, Farr, Holland, Murray, Shelley, Paterson, and others – can any class claim to have played a major role in creating so many great designers?

The Cherub has sadly died in New Zealand, but it remains popular in Australia and has developed into a very difference but very innovative class in the UK. “They are one of the best fun boats to sail downhill that there is” says triple 49er and 505 world champ Chris Nicholson. Even Julian Bethwaite, whose 29er is a direct rival to the Cherub, will bear no criticism of Spencer’s creation.

Ironically, to most sailors today Spencer is known not for his dinghy designs, but for his yachts. Infidel was sold to California, where she was renamed Ragtime and became legendary for her Transpac Race wins and a model for the ultra-light maxi “sleds” of the ’70s and ’80s.  Ragtime’s success led to later export orders for Spencer. Delivering one of them allowed another budding designer, Ron Holland, to break into the international ocean racing scene and become one of the world’s top racing yacht designers.

Spencer’s most famous boat is probably Ragtime, nee Infidel, a pioneer ultra light displacement maxi. In the early ’70s she caused a sensation by beating the much bigger maxis like the legendary Windward Passasge in the tradewind runs of the Transpac race. Ragtime remains such an icon of Californian sailing that she’s still featuring in advertisements at around half a century of age.

But while Spencer loved innovations, the wild-bearded, hard-drinking free thinker always cared more about getting the average sailor and family afloat in a fun boat than he did about the “grand prix” scene in which former Cherub sailors played such a part. He readily admitted that despite the hype, many of his lightweight yachts were actually no faster than the more powerful conventional types; to him speed was less important than just getting afloat under sail. He is still surrounded by hard chine plywood today – he was buried, by his instructions, in a plywood box.

The Gwen 12

Dad and Gwen
My father skippering his state champion Gwen 12 Radiant, one of the lightweight dinghies that proved faster than the 12 Foot Skiffs of their day.

Australia, a land where most native woods are hard but heavy and where the beautiful and light local cedar was soon hacked down, lacked the light timber that was needed for lightweight planked boats. Apart from some light but flimsy canvas-covered dinghies, lightweight boats were rare until marine ply arrived.

The first of the new breed of plywood racing dinghies was the creation of Charlie Cunningham, from the southern city of Melbourne. Charlie had his first sail was when he was five, aboard a six foot long land yacht driven by a bedsheet. It capsized on its first sail, just before it carried Cunningham off a high cliff. The near miss didn’t turn Cunningham off sailing; when the family moved to New Zealand, Charlie became a boatbuilder and learned about the joys of high-performance sailing when the family bought an old Rater-type Patiki.

Gwen early lines plan
An early drawing of the Gwen 12, showing the outline of the high chine line curving up to the foredeck. The boat later adopted a bowsprit and larger jib.

In the late 1930s, Charlie Cunningham was running a pay-library service from his bicycle around Melbourne when he became aware of improvements in the then-new material of marine ply. “The old 3-ply was rubbish and would fall to pieces if it contacted salt water” he told the Black Rock Yacht Club historian years later. “About 1939, I met a chap who was in the plywood business and he said – ‘you know you can build boats out of plywood now…it won’t fall to pieces”.

Charlie Cunningham bought some of the new ply, made a flat-bottomed 12 footer, and “started to fiddle about with it…I eventually found that it was possible to to make a very good hull form by twisting the ply up into what appeared to be a compound curve.” Cunningham’s design was quite different from the standard hard-chine hull shape. The twist in the bottom panel lifted the chine high, so that it ended up meeting the gunwale at the foredeck instead of meeting the stem as in the standard design. The chine was later claimed to create “the round bows of a conventional boat, with the simplicity of plywood”.

Cunningham visited the stronghold of the Sandridge Sharpies, a local planked design, to see if he could build a plywood version. “They were up against it” he told the BRYC; “they leaked like sieves. Thin planking, battened edges – not watertight. When I said I wanted to build one of out plywood, I was told they would not have plywood boats in the club.”.

Determined to have a better boat, Cunningham went home and created a slightly bigger design. In 1943 (or 1946- accounts differ), he launched Gwenda, prototype of the Gwen 12.  The centrepoint of Gwenda’s design, recalls his son Lindsay, was to be “as light and fast as possible” but she also had to be a capable family boat with enough volume and buoyancy in the bow to handle the vast windy, choppy expanse of Cunningham’s home waters of Port Phillip Bay. Lindsay believes that his father “adopted the rising chine because it produced a good hull shape, which was light and strong because of the curvature in the flat 3/16” (5mm) thick waterproof ply” recalls Lindsay.

Gwenda hit the water in 1943, with a spinnaker and small jib, but it was so different to most existing boats that it took several years to catch on in numbers. It grew a larger jib, a bowsprit and a spinnaker in 1955. The trapeze, says Lindsay Cunningham, was added when class racing started in the early 1950s, although other sources put the date later in the decade. From that moment, the Gwen had almost all of the ingredients of the typical modern performance dinghy – a trapeze, a light (63.5kg/140lb) hull, chined sections, extensive built-in buoyancy, and a long spinnaker pole. 

The Gwen wasn’t the most effective performer upwind, because of that full bow – Gwen sailors recall that they butted over waves with a “firehose” spray. But its downwind performance sparked tales about the 12 footer reaching past 16 Foot Skiffs with twice the sail area. “Downhill it was delightful, and shy reaching it was a big flat plank with the beam giving plenty of leverage” recalls former Gwen and Sharpie champ Rick Shortridge. “It would slide along the top of the water pretty well.”

Yardstick and “one of a kind” race results show that even when the Gwen was over 25 years, it could still beat the 420 easily and push the Cherub hard. But for its length and speed the Gwen had become quite a costly boat to build, and it died out in the early ‘80s.


Charlie Cunningham went on to design the Yvonne (below) arguably the world’s first modern catamaran class and still in action today. The Cunninghams went on to design many more multis, including Little America’s Cup winners and Yellow Pages Endeavour, once holder of the world speed sailing record. Victor Harbour Times pic.

Ironically, a popular 12 footer  in Australia today, the 125, is similar to the Gwen. It shares the Gwen’s upswept chine, its square aft sections, its trapeze and centerboard and is of similar speed and seaworthiness thanks to a small rig. But the 125 is lighter (just 50kg/220lb) and (most importantly) cheaper and easier to build.

Charlie Cunningham and his son Lindsay went on to worldwide fame as designers, but in a different field of sailing. A few years after creating the Gwen, Charlie got interested in catamarans and built the Yvonne, which pre-dated the more famous British Shearwater and was arguably the world’s first “beach cat” class. The Cunninghams continued to be leading forces in multihull design for decades, winning the Little America’s Cup with C Class cats like Quest III and Victoria 150 before Linsday took the world sailing speed record with Yellow Pages Endeavour. While the Gwen has not survived, the Cunninghams’ influence will not be forgotten.


The Cherub, R Class and Gwen may have been using trapezes as standard practice before they were popular  in the northern hemisphere. Sailors down-under had long experimented with trapezes. New Zealand yachting historian Robin Elliott has confirmed that as early as 1935 there were largely unsuccessful experiments with three trapeze hands on M Class 18 footers. Australia’s Seacraft magazine in the 1940s showed the forward hand of champion skiffie Kevin Minter sailing two-up on a 12 Foot Skiff, using a halyard as a trapeze line. It was soon banned – as Minter explained to me, in those days there were more crew than there were boats for them to sail. If trapezes had been allowed, every skiff would have thrown one or two crewmen onto the beach, and people didn’t treat their sailing mates like that in those days. As early as 1950, some sailors in the Vee Jay class were reported to have used trapezes in a championship, but for unknown reasons the class stuck to its traditional canoe-style hiking planks.

The ever-innovative Mander gang, like many other adventurous kids, were also experimenting with trapezes. “A mate and I tried it out on a “Zeddie” in 1943, using a halyard” recalls Graham Mander today. “Because the mast was so far forward, he tottered up and around the forestay and ended up 10 feet to leeward. I couldn’t work out how to get to him so I just had to release the halyard.” Peter Mander’s biography recalls the same incident.

Jack Cropp, who engineered many of the Mander boats and sailed with Peter to win the ’56 gold medal in the Sharpies, fitted a trapeze on his “Zeddie” and found that it developed so much power that he had to fit diamond stays on the gaff. When Peter Mander, Jack Cropp and their gang moved into 18 Foot Skiffs in 1952, they found that the Auckland fleet were still developing trapezes, but often only one per boat. Mander and co. developed the idea, using two or three trapeze hands among their crew (four or five crew all up depending on the wind strength in 1952, six in Auckland in ’54 when they had put extra panels in the sails) when they won two 18 Foot Skiff “worlds” aboard their lightweight “Intrigue”. Skiff veterans like former world champ Len Heffernan and Ben Lexcen regard this as the turning point. “There was a tremendous difference with the trapezes” recalls Len Heffernan. “Mander cleaned them all up”. On the first day of the 1954/55 season the Sydney 18 Footer Minniwatta used two trapezes and blasted to victory. Despite the Queenslanders briefly outlawing the device, the Skiffs soon adopted them wholesale.

Minniwatta trapeze
The trapeze arrives in Sydney’s 18 Footer fleet as Minniwatta drives to victory on the opening day of the 1954/55 season. The arrows in this pic, from The West Australian of 23 September 1954, indicate the trapeze harnesses worn by the “monkey men”. Sometimes we scoff at the slow adoption of the trapeze, but the cotton harnesses (called “corsets” in one account) must have been painful to wear before wetsuits, modern lines and booties, and the problem of capsizing to windward under the heavy rigs of the day could not be ignored.