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.


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.


Holt and Moore: designing the boom


Beecher Moore (left) and Jack Holt in the 1940s. Is that the original Merlin they are pouring over? By Grant Landon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons
If there were any two men who can be singled out as the fathers of the dinghy boom, it would be Jack Holt and Beecher Moore. One probably designed more major dinghy classes than anyone before or since. The other promoted them and helped change dinghy sailing into a mass participation sport.

Holt and Moore came from very different backgrounds. Holt was a Londoner from a working class background. In that time and place, such things could matter; sailing was still a sport for the “upper classes” and at least once Holt was asked to leave a dinghy club because he was a tradesman.  Moore’s father was a successful and innovative expatriate American businessman. Where Holt had got his first boat after winning a cabinetmaking scholarship, Moore had been given his for finishing his private school. Where Holt completed his apprenticeship, Moore studied in Harvard. While Holt was living tough as the innocent victim of a motorbike accident, Moore was sailing in the America’s Cup and racing his Thames A Rater.

While Moore had the means to become one of the dinghy sailing establishment, he looked beyond the closed world of affluent sailors and classes that proudly spoke of their “aristocratic” spirit. He wanted to bring the sport to a wider audience; those who could not afford a boat one of the traditional classes. He found a kindred spirit in Holt, and together they promoted a new form of sailing. Holt designed the classes that would get the British sailing, and Moore would drum up publicity and handle class organizations.

Although Holt is best remembered for his family boats, he first made his name in the traditional National 12s and 14s, and by creating the first Merlin. The Merlin lead to a long collaboration with Yachting World magazine, in those days more concerned with the dinghy sailor than the maxi-yacht owner, which bred classes like the Cadet, GP14 and Heron. Although his hull shape changed later, the early boats set a Holt stamp. All were small boats by overseas standards, because they had to fit the small British garages, tow behind small British cars or go on their roofracks, and often sail on confined waterways. All of them, even his 30ft YW Diamond keelboat, were designed for amateur construction. As historian Professor Tony Dingle says in his excellent paper on the era, Holt’s boats were not just simple to build – they also looked simple, especially to a generation that was full of experienced home handymen. As Holt told Dingle, “I designed boats that would look as though a man could do it. If he could make a box he could build one of my boats.”

Beecher Moore’s publicity skills and his passion for putting people afloat also seem to have played a huge part in the success of the Yachting World/Holt line. From old articles about Holt, one gets the impression that he may have been a quiet man. Without Moore’s promotion the Holt classes may never had taken off.

Moore appears to have been adept at using his insider’s knowledge of the British dinghy scene and also at drawing in the mass media. Despite the fact that he and Holt had both come from development or restricted classes, Beecher believed that one designs were the future of the sport; he wrote that they were “far more rewarding both aesthetically and materially” for a designer because he was not fettered by existing rules, and more profitable and practical for a boatbuilder.

Moore was frank about the “establishment’s” opposition to the new breed of amateur built boats, and he was not above  criticising the development or restricted class boats that had been the mainstay of British dinghy racing before WW2. “Never has so much effort been made with so little result as it has been in the three restricted classes of Great Britain” he wrote trenchantly, pointing out that even after three decades “each year there are barely 250 boats built to restricted class rules as against nearly 6,000 one design class boats…. While there is no doubt that restricted classes serve a useful purpose in widening the sailing horizon….this is the day of the one design, and I  do not think that any other restricted class will be started.”

This photo popped up more than once in Australian Seacraft magazine in the ’60s, sometimes with a caption like “yes, a Heron can plane!”. The boat is national champion Wop, owned by the magazine editor Paul Hopkins, an advocate for “family sailing” at a time when many of his friends were sailing Skiffs, Moths and trapeze dinghies. This scan from the Australian Heron association site.

Even one of Holt’s most conservative designs broke new ground. In 1951 he created the little 3.4m/11ft Yachting World Cartopper, now called the Heron. As its name suggests, it was designed to be light enough to be carried on the top of a family car to save the cost of a trailer, although its hull weight of 64kg/140lb indicates that roofs and sailors must have been stronger in those days. But what is more significant is that fact that, as Professor Dingle  points out, the Heron was also intended to be raced by women. As Iris Holt told Dingle, “I think that Jack might have had a lot of aggro from me, because for years and years I stayed at home and looked after my kids (while) it was always Jack going sailing…he must have felt…a family should get together….we have lots of yachting widows…it doesn’t make for a happy marriage.”

The Heron was Jack’s first design for men and women to sail together, and “family sailing” became a hallmark of the Holt boats. The concept and the Heron had a particularly big impact in Australia. As Holt explained to Dingle, until the Heron arrived sailing in Australia was “like a rugby crew…big skiffs and very few women, if any sailed”.  When the first Australian Heron hit a Sydney beach “some Australian women decided to put their foot down, ‘I’m coming sailing too’ and that’s how the Heron started (in Australia).” With support from Australian Seacraft magazine, the concept of family sailing finally took off in Australia, and the Heron became one of the most popular boats in the country.

Quest (or Conquest?), Holt’s hard chine International Canoe. Pic from Ed Bremner, Yachting and Yachting and/or Pinquest. Copyright owner please contact me if you want this removed.

Even as the Cadet, Heron and GP14 started to blossom, Holt seems to have been moving forward in design. In 1950 he had crafted the International Canoe Quest, which had a frameless ply hull where the stringers and deck formed a box girder to take the sailing loads. The chine reduced wetted surface area by forcing water to “release” at the stern, instead of “wrapping” around curved sections as it had with earlier Canoes. Quest’s success woke that most ancient of classes to the potential of chines, and almost all subsequent boats had a chine aft. A couple of years later, Holt reinforced his high-performance credentials by producing the Yachting World Hornet, an outstanding creation that combined the canoe’s sliding seat and high performance with economy and appeal to female sailors. In 1956 Holt designed the Solo, a small singlehanded dinghy with a multi chine hull. In 2017, she remains one of the most popular classes in the UK.

In total, the Yachting World, Holt and Moore connection put over 35,000 boats on the water, introducing tens of thousands of people to the sport. But when Holt became associated with two national newspapers, even these extraordinary numbers were eclipsed. When the “News Chronicle” realized how dinghy sailing was catching on, they got Holt to design a boat they could sell to their readers as a home-build project. The result was the Enterprise, launched in 1956. She was slightly shorter than the GP14, but she took Holt’s experience with Quest’s frameless plywood hull one step further. The “Ent” had a multi-chined hull, which combined many of the advantages of round bilges (including lower wetted surface and a better range of stability) with the ease of construction of hard chines. She also came in 30% lighter than the GP14, and despite not having a spinnaker she was slightly faster. Like most of the great successes of the dinghy boom it was essentially a cruiser/racer; the hull was buoyant enough to carry several people, and there was also an optional smaller cruising rig, but the Enterprise became one of England’s hottest racing classes for years.

GP14 sheer.png
The GP14 (top) and the Enterprise (below). Not surprisingly, they seem to have quite similar shapes, although the later Enterprise has more flare.

Ent plan

Ent sheer.jpg
Below: the Enterprise (right) and GP14 sections compared. The trend towards wider flare was becoming strong when the Ent was designed.

Ent sections

GP14 sections

In the typical style of the day, the Enterprise was launched with a publicity stunt in which two boats, both with mixed crews, crossed the English Channel by night. It caught on in the epicenter of tboom, and in the early ‘60s 2,000 were launched each year. As early as 1963 the class reached 10,000 boats, and there were so many “Ents” building that Holt and Beecher had to start up a fittings company because gear was unavailable. The result was Holt-Allan, one of the world’s biggest gear manufacturers. Today, the International Enterprise sail numbers are over 20,000, with over 1100 active boats in the UK.

Even that success was overshadowed in 1963 when the rival “Daily Mirror” paper sponsored the little 10’10” “Mirror”, which Holt created in association with Barry Bucknell, perhaps the first famous “do it yourself” expert. Bucknell was already a TV star with his home handyman show when one of his sons complained that he needed his own boat, because he never got to sail the family’s older Yachting World design.

Bucknell was already an experienced home boatbuilder (he had introduced the transomless design to the Hornet class) so he decided to build a new boat for his son, using the simple “stitch and glue” construction which had recently been re-invented by kayak builder Ken Littledyke. As Andrew Jackson, an academic at England’s University College for the Creative Arts notes, Bucknell used cardboard models to develop the initial design; “a pragmatic and inventive approach, typical of the trial and error approach of DIY design.”

Mirror kit
“No dad, that bit goes on the other end”. Pic from the Daily Mirror of a father and son tackling a Mirror Dinghy kit.

“The first prototype was later seen by Paul Boyle, a writer from the Daily Mirror” wrote Jackson. “At the time, the newspaper’s publicity department was looking for new ideas to promote the paper, and it was thought that boats bearing the name ‘Daily Mirror’ might usefully keep the title before the general public. In order to ensure that the product did not let down the reputation of the paper by drowning its readers, Jack Holt was drafted in to help Bucknell develop the design further.”

Holt replaced Bucknell’s flat-bottomed hull with a pram-bowed single-chine design. Beecher Moore recommended a gunter rig (better for transport and “messing about in boats”) and the boat was fitted for cruising with stowage, seats that were below the top of the gunwale so that people felt they were sitting in the boat rather than on it, rowlocks and room for an outboard. Bell Woodworking created a pre-cut kit, and Holt Allen mass-produced sail, spars and fittings kits. The rapid development in do-it-yourself design and techniques was demonstrated by the fact that the Mirror was just over half the weight of the earlier Cadet and cost just two-thirds as much.

Mirror 2
Mirror pic from the Daily Mirror’s article celebrating 50 years of the class

As Jackson notes, one of the drivers of the Mirror’s success was the involvement of the Daily Mirror’s professional marketing team. “It was a mass circulation newspaper with a left-of-centre editorial policy, and a predominantly working class readership. They used their knowledge of the media to ensure that the Mirror dinghy would be seen as a quite different proposition to the normal sailing boat. The boat effectively provided the working man with an introduction to a previously elite sport.”

The Mirror was launched “with a double-page spread entitled “Presenting the Mirror Boat — a revolutionary idea that makes sailing cheap for everybody”. It emphasized the access to freedom and fresh air, and the progressive approach to the design of the kits by “Barry Bucknell, the famous TV handyman”. ‘Imagine a boat of your own!” proclaimed the Daily Mirror. “A passport to freedom … you don’t need a licence. You don’t need a number plate. You are free…..You can race her. You can take the whole family cruising in her. And you can carry her from one place to another on the roof of a Mini!”

In the early ’70s the Mirror was so popular that in some areas sailors from other classes complained about the “red wall” of Mirrors taking over the waterways. Those days are sadly gone but the class is still fairly strong, especially in the UK.

Despite the emphasis on economy and simplicity, there was nothing humble about the  original Mirror brochure, which was a curious but effective mixture of realism and hyperbole.  “Down through the ages the British have been a seafaring people” it thundered. “Sailing is in our blood – the very fibre of our character…..Until recently, however, only the wealthy have been able to get the health and happiness that a good boat brings.”

The Daily Mirror’s marketing team a realistic picture of Mr and Mrs Average and their Mirror chugging up small rivers or drifting around under mainsail only, but turned it into a grand adventure. After a day messing about in boats, the brochure told potential Mirror owners, when “you’ve been bronzed by the sun and are feeling fresher than you’ve ever felt on land, you’ll have your own tall tales to tell the lubbers who stayed ashore.” In a way, it seems like the way that modern four wheel drives and SUVs are sold; a picture of a family outing that manages to combine domestic safety with realistic adventures. And, like modern SUVs, the Mirror became enormously popular.

It was, perhaps, a sign of the times that when the Finn Olympian Richard Creagh-Osborne tested the boat, he treated it respectfully. “The performance frankly surprised me….for a boat just under 11 ft long she was fast….a sporty little boat”. No wonder the sport was growing, when an Olympian from the sailing industry was prepared to applaud a cheap little boat designed for new sailors.

The Mirror went right off the scales of popularity in its early years, with about 2,000 boats being launched per annum. Sail numbers have now reached 70,000. There are probably more home-built Mirrors than any other class of boat. Although it’s an international class that has bred sailors like 470  and Laser gold medalists, the Mirror remains most popular as a fun boat, or even as a cruiser. Some have sailed up the east coast of Australia, while A.J. Mackinnon wandered 4,900 km from Wales to the Black Sea. Despite its tiny size, it’s the second most popular boat among the hardy souls of the UK’s Dinghy Cruising Club.

As Jackson notes, like many other great classes, the Mirror’s success was a combination of many factors. “It marks a confluence of a variety of historical factors: changing social and cultural conditions, developments in manufacturing technology, the importance of newspaper and magazine publishing — and even television celebrity” he wrote.

In many ways, the Mirror marks the peak of the dinghy boomtime. It used innovative design techniques that made it both lighter and easier to build than earlier boats. It was heavily promoted by the mass media. But perhaps the most important factor was that it was produced in an era when sailing as a whole still cared about the common person.


Footnotes (under construction)

Professor Tony Dinghy, ‘I’d rather be sailing, the post-war boom in dinghy sailing, The Great Circle21(2) 121-128, 1999

“Never has so much effort been made with so little result as it has been in the three restricted classes of Great Britain”: ‘The barriers are down; restricted classes have served their purpose’ by Beecher Moore, Yachting World, May 1963

Enterprise information from sources including ‘The Enterprise’ (author unknown) Yachts and Yachting May 1979 and ‘The Jack Holt designed ‘Enterprise'”, Yachts and Yachting March 16 1956

“Labour as Leisure — The Mirror Dinghy and DIY Sailors”, Andrew Jackson, Journal of Design History Vol. 19 No. 1, Oxford University Press on behalf of The Design History Society.



Pat 1.36: Boomtime

The GP14 was one of the first of the Jack Holt designs that were to play a major role in the dinghy boom in the Commonwealth nations and Europe. Pic of an early national titles from the class site.

In the late 1940s, six men sat down on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and tried to create a new style of sailing. They were not trying to create masterpieces of efficiency, like Curry’s Renjollen or Fox’s 14s. What they were looking for was something perhaps more difficult – a way to put new sailors afloat.

The three men from the UK – boatbuilder Jack Holt, business consultant Beecher Moore, and Yachting World magazine editor E.F. Haylock – were searching for a cheaper, safer training boat for children. As Jack Holt said many years later, Haylock was “mad, absolutely mad on sailing…he had a been in his bonnet that he wanted sailing to unit the world like Baden Powell wanted scouting to unite the world…that’s why he thought children should all join together racing each other in little boats.”  In Haylock’s own words,  “Yachting World had a mission – to get people afloat, especially those with slender means.”

Across the Atlantic in Florida, a small-town boatbuilder called Clark Mills was following a commission from a community association that wanted something to keep kids busy and out of trouble. And further north in the USA, iceboaters and small-time boatbuilders Courtlandt Heyniger and Alexander Bryan were simply looking for a product to keep themselves busy during the summer.

Jack Holt sailing Cadet Number one. Uffa Fox called it “the greatest little class in the world…the greatest benefactor to the sport of sailing of any boat designed or developed anywhere.” From the class site.

The six men all took a newly-perfected material called waterproof plywood. Ply had been around for eons, but earlier versions were made with vegetable or blood-based glues allowed that allowed it to fall apart when soaked. In the 1930s, superior glues created the first really waterproof ply, which was further developed throughout the war years when plywood was used for even the most modern hardware such as radar covers, PT boats and the Mosquito fighter/bomber.

The boats the six men built were boxy and odd-looking to conventional eyes. One of them was a skinny and flat board-like hull, with a lateen sail and no cockpit. The other two were square- bowed prams. But they were all fairly light for their day, they could be easily built from scratch or kits, they all sailed well (if not particularly quickly) and they heralded a revolution.

The first to hit the water, in 1947, was the boat from Holt, Moore and Haylock. They called it the Yachting World Cadet. Just a few months later, the little Mills boat splashed afloat and was given the name of the club that sponsored it – the Optimist. The flat “boardboat” was the Sailfish, ancestor of the Sunfish. By 1949 the Sailfish was the subject of a photo story in “Life” magazine, then one of the most powerful mediums in the US. It took sailing into the living room of middle America, and then the Sailfish and Sunfish took US dinghy sailing from the yacht club to the local beach.

State arcjoives of Florida sarasota optimists 1951
Early Optimist Prams in Clearwater Florida in the 1950s. Although the Opti (or Oppy…. the contraction varies from country to country) was one of the earliest of the designs of the dinghy boom, it didn’t really take hold until the 1960s. The Optimist Pram was the predecessor for the International Optimist Dinghy. The Pram had slightly different rules and remained a separate class in Florida until it died in the 1980s.

To sailors bred on yachts and boats like International 14s, the Cadet, Optimist and Sunfish looked more like the crates “real” boats came in, and they weren’t afraid to say it. Uffa Fox, once an iconoclast, said that the amateur-built chine boat could be “spotted a mile off, because (it) looks like a box” [1] but to tens of thousands who had never before been able to afford to get afloat, they were a passport to a new sport. Within a few years sailing, once the game of an affluent minority, became a mass participation pastime. Dinghies hit the water in numbers never seen before – or, unfortunately, since. It was the time of the dinghy boom.  “At the time sailing was the new sport – John F. Kennedy sailed in his free time.  The numbers that are mind boggling – Sunfish sold nearly 400,000 boats, and every family in America seemed to have one” notes Peter Johnstone, a member of the J/Boat family and former head of the USA’s Sunfish and Laser builder.

JFK and Jackie rig a Sailfish. From Pinterest.

So what caused the boomtime? In part, of course, it was just a symptom of a world recovering from war with a widespread economic boom and growing leisure time. “Gone were the days when the income of a relatively large percentage of households covered little more than the basic necessities of life: food, clothing and accommodation” wrote economist Greg Whitwell. “There emerged instead a new situation in which a clear and expanding majority of households enjoyed a disposable income (increasingly) above that needed to provide for the essentials of everyday existence.”

The average person not only had more money, but more time in which to spend it; “The working classes gained access to what had been denied them before the war: not simply more money and more job security but more time” noted historian Richard White. Leisure and sport participation in general reached new heights, and new levels of social acceptability.

The war itself had a significant effect. There was pent up demand for new boats, not only to replace those lost or damaged in the war, but to replace the ones that had not been built because priorities were on other things. And many servicemen had spent years dreaming. Sailing magazines of the war years featured wistful articles on future dreamboats, written by men who had been dragged far from their home and hobbies. When they returned, many of them came with deferred pay packets, and a determination to get back afloat as soon as post-war austerity and materials rationing would let them.  Even the landscape they returned to was changing; it’s said that in the UK and Europe the demand for sand and aggregate for post-war reconstruction created more quarries, which later become the artificial lakes that were home for many of the new clubs.

It’s sometimes said that sailing’s rise was simply caused by the general increase in leisure, but some other sports and activities suffered. Touring cycling fell away sharply after the war as people started exploring by car instead of bicycle, and pro cycling faded as the new television stations found events like football matches easier to cover. In England, spectator crowds at cricket and local football matches declined. The growth in sailing was not inevitable.

Ranelagh Merlins
Small river, big fleet; a typical view of the boomtime as 71 Merlin Rockets try to fit on the narrow Thames. Pic courtesy Ranelagh SC.

Although there were fewer sports to compete against, sailing still had to battle for the consumer’s dollar with the huge demand for cars, televisions and household goods as well as against other growing activities like surfing, Little League Baseball, stock car racing, tourism and family camping. Even compared to other growth sports, sailing did well; for example between 1950 and 1960 membership in the British Canoe Union quadrupled, but membership in the Royal Yachting Association grew 11-fold. Dinghy sailing itself grew even faster than yachting.

Sailors looking back often idealise the boomtime as an era in which there was less competition from high-tech activities, but this was a golden era of backyard motorsport, a time when powerboat racing was strong, when there was widespread fascination with aviation and space flight, and an emerging obsession with television. Computers are not the first “high tech” rival that sailing has faced.

Dinghy sailing’s boom seems to have been more than a reflection of general good times. It appears to have been triggered by new technology, in the hands of people who were determined to use it to make the sport more popular and who knew the right recipe. They looked beyond just making boats faster to excite experienced hands; instead they wanted to attract new sailors. They realised that, as Beecher Moore pointed out, a successful “boomtime” class had to fill specific criteria. It had to be cheap and easily available; it had to fill a need, it had to be easy to build and sail well, it had to turn a profit for kit manufacturers and boatbuilders; and it needed a good class organisation. [2]

Colin Mudie cartoon
In 1963, the future for dinghy sailing looked so bright that yacht designer Colin Mudie whimsically looked forward to a day when triple-level rivers would be needed to fit all the boats. Mudie is best known for kicking off the sport of small offshore yacht racing when he sailed across the Atlantic with Patrick Ellam in the tiny 19 footer Sopranino. Of late, he has put his efforts into replica craft for people like Tim Severin and sail training craft that range from the    famous Royalist to the tiny brigs of the Little Brig Sailing Trust. From Yachting World of May 1963, copyright Colin Mudie, with permission.

Moore’s list could have described some earlier boats like the National 12, but the boats that kickstarted the boom took every aspect further. Many of them were small, to keep costs and building time down and to make them practical. As Holt said in 1965, a boat’s size “pretty well controls the price, weight, speed and whether it will be popular for home builders.” [3]

As well as the use of plywood, the new breed also used innovative touches to make them easy to build. Joining the sheets or planks at the stem was one of the most difficult crafts in building a wooden boat, so the Optimist and Cadet were given pram bows.

They sailed well (although they were slower than the best of the older classes) and they could be easily handled by older, younger or less experienced sailors. They had big buoyancy tanks and decks, to make them safer for less experienced sailors and for clubs facing growing pains. They were not merely safer in reality, but safer in appearance; when Holt showed the first set of GP14 plans to Haylock he was instructed to give her more freeboard. “She has not only to be seaworthy and safe, she has got to look seaworthy and safe” said the editor. It was a concept that people like Holt and Moore took to their hearts so much that they emphasise the safety of their later boats with publicity stunts like sailing them across the English Channel.

The arrival of the new boats coincided with a regeneration in amateur woodwork. Post-war egalitarianism resulted in higher wages and reduced working hours, which increased the labour cost of professionally-built boats (much to the horror of people like Francis Herreshoff, who was offended that mere shipwrights started to be able to afford luxuries like cars) but gave other workers the cash to buy materials, including new types of glue and power tools, and the time to use them. Even older boats like the traditional US one designs benefited from new power tools and new forms of plywood – it was easier to lay up a few wide sheets than many narrow conventional planks.

In many parts of the world, an increase in home ownership meant that more people had a place to build their dreamship. The wartime shift of women into jobs that were once held by men could also be seen as a reason for men to re-assert their traditional role by grabbing their tools and escaping into the garage.

Design academic Andrew Jackson noted the way these factors came together to help create the dinghy boom. “By the last half of the twentieth century, home ownership had grown enormously in Britain. A huge interest in home improvement and home craft activity had developed. By the mid 1950s, magazines had joined ‘how to do it’ books and television programmes as a regular and changing source of guidance and inspiration. Manufacturers and retailers responded by developing and marketing new building products aimed specifically at the amateur market — they were easy to use, and importantly, they were easy to buy. Power tools began to be designed with the home workshop in mind.”

“The emergence of do-it-yourself as a significant leisure-time activity raises questions about the nature of leisure time itself” Jackson wrote. “The amount of leisure time was gradually increasing. Paid holidays became commonplace, and the working week shortened, often giving men weekends free of work for the first time. DIY allowed men to stay at home without feeling emasculated.”

Even the combination of changing times and new concepts wouldn’t have been enough to spark the dinghy boom without publicity. As John Holt (son of Jack) said at the peak of the boom, “even if you have a good boat and you don’t have the backing behind it, it just quietly fades away”.  Some of the publicity came by luck – the Life magazine article that turned the Sailfish from a success to a phenomena was sparked when a friend of the builders gave someone who turned out to be a Life staffer a sail.  Some of it came from inside the sport, particularly England’s Yachting World magazine which started a string of other classes designed by Holt.  And as the publicity-conscious Beecher Moore wrote, once the sport started growing the mass media “spotted the new public that was being brought into sailing, as sailing was made available to the man in the streets by this new movement” and helped sailing snowball by sponsoring their own classes like the Mirror and Enterprise.

I can relate to this poster; when I was a kid I spent a lot of time wistfully looking at dinghies and dreaming of the day I could get one. The Vaurien was the class that took a generation of French people out of their crates and onto the water.

And so home boatbuilding became a popular pastime. Keen sailors of the ‘50s and ‘60s would often choose a house design based on its merits for as an amateur boatyard. Peter Mander, New Zealand’s first sailing gold medalist, had his first living room designed so a Sharpie could be made inside it. The first of 36,000 Vauriens – the boat that put France afloat – had to be carried out sideways from the house in which it was built. A pair of brothers whose mother would not allow boatbuilding in the home had to secretly build a highly successful series of 5.2m (17ft) long Comets in the attic. When the boats were finished, they were slipped out of the upper windows while Mom was in church. She must either have been extremely deaf, or much more tolerant than they thought.

Many of the handymen-turned-sailors who came flooding into the sport were from outside the sailing establishment. In England, the new wave came from lower middle-class or even working-class backgrounds. They were, in the cliche of the time, “the man in the street” – or as Beecher Moore pointed out, the whole family. They were not the upper middle class sailors of old; “the type of person that is sailing now doesn’t have the resources that yachting people had originally…. (they didn’t come from) the sort of yacht club where we used to go where you weren’t allowed to walk on the grass” said John Holt, Jack’s son. [4]

The new hard-chine plywood boats started to break down the barriers of snobbery. “In those early post-war years there was still a divide in the sailing world: with the yacht club for the gentry and the sailing club for the workers” wrote Beecher Moore. “But youngsters, in Holt’s cheap and simple Cadet, did not know this and when Cadets from yacht club and sailing club were out on the same bit of water the class privilege was ignored. It was the first breakthrough in solving the class problem on the water.”

The Sunfish has the same effect in the USA. “I think there’s something friendly about the appearance of these boats” Bryan told Sports Illustrated many years later. “Something unpretentious. Nobody is ever jealous of a Sunfish, and I think that probably works to make other people’s products not look snobbish”. As a Sunfish marketer said at the time, “sailing has always been considered a rich man’s sport, but the Sunfish removes that stigma”.

A gaggle of Jack Holt designs forms at Aylesbury Sailing Club, one of the many clubs that were formed on tiny English waterways during the dinghy boom. A couple of years ago they started 32 boats on a 16 acre lake. Pic from the club site.

These dinghy boomers bought their boats mainly with family cruising in mind, but many soon started racing.  In the UK, 455 sailing clubs were formed between 1950 and 1959, almost doubling the number in the country.[5]  As Beecher Moore recorded, the bias of the “establishment” initially kept the new blood and their small cheap chine boats out of the established sailing centres, [6] so the new breed of sailor formed new clubs on reservoirs and gravel pits in places like the Midlands of England, and created a more egalitarian and accessible image that attracted even more newcomers. “The Brits sail places American wouldn’t consider” notes outsider Steve Clark. “Old quarries, wide spots in rivers, reservoirs on the top of hills, excavated peat bogs, disused bathing pavilions and so forth. It seems if there is a dinghy club next to every damp sponge. The sailing can’t be great, but the sport and camaraderie are probably pretty good, and friendships are what make people come back”.

Bristol Avon SC
“A dinghy club next to every damp sponge”. Small clubs on tiny waterways are one of the foundations of British sailing, and many emerged in the dinghy boom. In this pic of the Bristol Avon Sailing Club, the tiny river on which the club sails can be seen in the right background. It’s the same width as the club’s boat storage area.

Sailing became so popular that some clubs closed their membership lists and authorities spoke of rationing access to confined European waterways. Even at the level of national championships, the cheap ply boats dominated the numbers. It was the foundation of a boom that lasted until the mid ‘70s, and it created most of the classes that form the backbone of today’s fleets.

Not all of the “boom boats” were new hard-chine designs. Some of the older classes, like Vee Jays, National 12s and Merlin Rockets, picked up new sailors and grew enormously. Other new boats, like the Albacore, Thistle and Firefly, were “hot moulded” by a newly-developed process that used the moulds and heavy machinery developed for aircraft like the famous Mosquito to create round-bilged boats from thin ply strips laid on the diagonal. Despite the early hopes they proved to be little cheaper than conventionally-built boats, but they were easier to maintain.

The war had also spurred the development of a new-fangled material called fiberglass.  As early as 1937 Ray Greene, a brilliant qualified engineer and boatbuilder, had done a mechanical engineering thesis on plastics in boatbuilding. He had experimented with materials like muslin, brown paper and melamine and urea formaldehyde and had also done some work on rocket tubes for a company called Owens-Corning Fibreglass, When Owens-Corning  first began weaving class fibres for commercial use, they sold half of the first run to Greene, and in 1942 he moulded the first fiberglass and polyester boat, a small dinghy.

The Rebel, the first fibreglass dinghy class. Small fleets survive today.

In 1947 Greene and high school drawing instructor Alvin Youngquist created the Rebel, the first fibreglass dinghy class. In those days, before design and techniques developed, fiberglass was either flexy (some of the first racing boats were compared to giant air mattresses) or heavy.  The Rebel fell in the heavy camp, with a hull up to ¼” thick and no less than 318kg (700lb) in weight. The early polyester resin could only be set at high temperatures, so once the glass and resin were placed in the deck mould it had to be placed in a home-made oven for 300F for two hours.[8]

The Rebel’s heft probably didn’t worry Greene; as Daniel Spurr wrote in his outstanding history of fiberglass boatbuilding “Heart of Glass”, Greene felt that “One person in ten can get a racing boat, and the others are families and children.  I wanted a boat that the wife could crew in and not have the husband mad at her at the end of the day.” [7] Greene’s recipe worked, and more than 5000 Rebels were launched.

In the same year that the Rebel hit the water, Carl Beetle launched the Beetle Swan, a 12’6” catboat. Beetle came from an ancient boatbuilding family, who had been building boats in the US since 1791 and had been already building the Beetle Catboat for years. Ironically, it was the money that Beetle made selling the design rights to the ancient Beetle Catboat that funded his development of the Beetle Swan in a joint venture with the vast General Electric company, which sunk $600,000 into the process. The hull mould and the deck mould were each laid up in copper moulds which were covered in chrome, because copper inhibits the resin cure.  The deck and hull moulds were then joined and placed in an oven for several hours and a rubber bag inside the moulds and inflated with steam to hold the layup and resin against the moulds. The Beetle Swan was therefore cured as a one-piece hull and deck far faster than a normal catboat could be build, although as gelcoat had not arrived the hulls still had to be painted.

Beetle failed to sell a single boat at the New York Boat Show in 1947, although a few sales were made when he cut the fiberglass seats, coaming and deck out and replaced them with wood for the Boston Boat Show. Beetle claimed that fiberglass boats were almost maintenance free and promoted the strength and durability of fiberglass boats by freezing them, dropping them from helicopters and firing a .38 pistol at a hull.  No one bought it, and by 1952 he had sold the company and died prematurely. [9]

Until designers learned to use cores and curves for stiffness, fiberglass was best suited to heavier boats like the traditional American style. These early fiberglass boats cost more than the plywood craft (about as much as older planked timber designs) but that was no problem in the affluent USA. The big bonus was that they needed much less maintenance; Carl Beetle calculated that the maintenance of a timber boat in the first season was 25% of the purchase price[10].

Boats like the Snipe and Lightning switched to ‘glass, and found themselves perfectly positioned to pick up the Sunfish generation as they moved to bigger boats. Bob Johnstone, a Sunfish champ before becoming vice president in charge the class in the middle of the boom, saw the shift. “For the most part, sailing in the US is family recreation based and most of the major metropolitan areas are located on cold water” notes Johnstone. “So, success of small boats was limited to off-the-beach boats like the Sunfish on hot water lakes in summer and southern beaches. That was okay, the investment wasn’t huge so the boat could be stored 10 months of the year.”

“As one became committed to sailing, wanting to bring along spouses, kids, and friends and sail over a longer period of the year or willing to invest more of the family’s treasure in a larger boat or more serious boat, it had to be one that could be sailed in street clothes – not wetsuits and bathing suits. You could get the pounding shakes sailing a Sunfish on Long Island Sound in the summer after two hours. And who wants to wear wetsuits all day long? The board boats were regarded as toys, not real boats. That’s why the Lightning became the family boat, even the cruiser of the 1950s.”

As they moved up from their “toys”, US sailors bought into the big one designs in droves. Nineteen sixty four saw 300 Lightnings and 900 Snipes adding to the existing fleets. As in other countries, even boats that weren’t designed for racing became hot classes due to sheer popularity; “The original one designs like Snipe and Sunfish achieved huge critical mass, and the racing fleets are solely a percentage of that critical mass” notes Peter Johnstone.

A graph of class growth in the UK from Yachting World in May 1968. When the sport was flourishing, the slower “family sailing” boats made up the vast majority of new launchings. The other dramatic contrast to today is the small number of singlehanders. In the past I’ve extended such graphs to earlier years and seen no indication that the arrival of the new breed of high performance boats like the 505 and FD played a part in stimulating the growth of dinghy sailing.

It seems to be significant that the most popular racing classes were the slower one designs. Some say that the dinghy boom was caused by the arrival of fast trapeze-powered boats like the Flying Dutchman and 505 in the mid 1950s, but the evidence doesn’t point that way. The most popular boats in the early years of the dinghy boom – the Sunfish, Lightning, Snipe, GP14, Opti, Cadet, Vaurien and others – were major successes years before the FD and 505 even hit the water. A graphing showing the growth of the most popular classes shows no evidence of a leap in popularity after the trapeze boats arrived.

The performance and international racing classes boats did sell in numbers that seem amazing today. The year 1964, for example, saw the launch of a 1400 OKs, 1000 Finns, 700 FDs and 500 Moths. But despite their numbers, the high-performance boats were just a minority interest. For every FD launched in England, there were over 20 Enterprises and about 100 Mirrors. For every new 505 that arrived in the USA, about 80 Lightnings and 120 Snipes hit the water – and some say the dinghy boom in the USA didn’t really start until the late ‘60s, when the trapeze boat was old news. Some writers of the time implied that the performance boats were created by the dinghy boom rather than the creators of it, for not until boats like the Cadet, Lightning and Enterprise had turned tens of thousands of people into dinghy sailors were there enough with the skill and enthusiasm to make high performance boats popular.


When sailing was big news it was because of popular boats, not because of fast ones. Scan from Spinsheet magazine.

The high performance boats weren’t even needed to raise the profile of the sport, because during the dinghy boom, dinghy sailing didn’t need to chase the media – the media chased dinghy sailing. Top-rating TV “do it yourself” shows with audiences of millions featured home boatbuilding. Car makers and other advertisers used the dinghy as a symbol of the good life. Whether it was Volkswagen or the Daily Mirror paper, the expert marketers from the mass media were interested in the the family boats, not the spectacular racers. It was the boat for the ordinary person, not the expert, that attracted the media, and it was the boat for the ordinary person that created the dinghy boom.



“”mad, absolutely mad on sailing…”    8



“Yachting World had a mission”;- ’50 years on the water’, Peter Sandbach (ed), the GP14 class history

“”Gone were the days when the income of a relatively large percentage of households covered little more than the basic necessities of life”:  Greg Whitwell, Making the Market:
The Rise of Consumer Society (Fitzroy, Vic.: McPhee Gribble, 1989) quoted in

“The working classes gained access to what had been denied them before the war”:- “On Holidays; A history of getting away in Australia”, Richard White, Pluto Press, 2005

“In England, cricket and local football crowds declined.” As did cinema and theatre attendance, while dancing increased. Information from University of Warwick PhD thesis “Working-Class leisure in English towns 1945 to 1960, with special reference fo Coventry and Bolton” by Hideo Ichihashi

“between 1950 and 1960 membership in the British Canoe Union quadrupled”: Ichihashi (ibid)

“”spotted the new public that was being brought into sailing”: ‘The Silent Revolution: from boat yard to back yard’, Beecher Moore, Yachting World, May 1960

“”I think there’s something friendly about the appearance of these boats”:- ‘Here she is, the true love boat”, William Oscar Johnson, Sports illustrated, Sep 20 1982

[1] Sailing Boats p 43

[2] ‘From Boat Yard to Back Yard”, Yachting World May 1960 p 239

[3] Yachting World, Nov 1965 p 486

“”She has not only to be seaworthy and safe, she has got to look seaworthy and safe”:- ’50 years on the water’, Peter Sandbach (ed), the GP14 class history

[4] Yachting World May 1966 p 213

[5] Beecher Moore in Yachting World May 1960 p 238

“”In those early post-war years there was still a divide in the sailing world”; Moore in Holt’s obituary, The Independent, 16 November 1995.

[6] Ibid

[7] Heart of Glass    p 53

[8] Heart of Glass p 23

[9] Heart of Glass      p 54-56.

[10] Heart of Glass p 52





In Unnocuppied France during the war, the vichy government had established control over sporting bodies. “YThere is an old prejudiece against sport in this coutnry that goes back to the intellectual man who was pale, a poor phsycial specimen, a rimbaud, a verlaine, a proust. Sports were for te man who was not clever” Werner Herzog


The era of nationalism explained…sort of.

Almost half a century of internationalism, when innovations spread quickly around the world, was followed by half a century when most nations developed an indigenous style of boat and only the Snipe (above) and Sharpie (below) seem to have had major international impacts. Pic from Olympic Sails. EDIT – Okey, there’s no Sharpie pic, so you’ll just to have imagine a nice Sharpie one. Why isn’t there a real photo? Because like some other classes, the Sharpies seem to try to make it hard to download pics. Okay, copyright is to be respected but if a class is trying to get publicity surely they should have some pics available for publishing on blogs? End of rant.


To take a break from writing the last in the series of pieces about the growth of distinctive national styles of dinghy in the period from about 1900 to 1950, I chanced to buy Professor David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old; Technology and Global History since 1900.  It’s a fascinating book, and to my surprise I realised that it has a lot of relevance to the story of dinghy development.

One of Edgerton’s basic thrusts is (to quote Edward Tenner, author of “Why Things Bite Back; another of my favourite books on technology) is to issue “a call for a new way of thinking about technological change, not as a sequence of revolutionary discoveries, but as a complex and often paradoxical interaction between old and new: ‘technology in use’ as opposed to an ‘innovation-centred’ history.” As Edgerton points out, we often get caught up in overstating the rise of the latest innovations, leading us to ignore the fact that what is more important is the more popular older technology. Edgerton’s point fits in well with SailCraft’s pieces on what we are sailing today, which underline that for all the fuss and hype, the


overwhelming majority of sailors still sail medium-speed boats, just as they always have and just as they may always do.

“The Shock of the Old” also points out that history and hype concentrate too much on the invention of technological devices, rather than when (and if) they became widely used through society.  It’s a very valid point that also applies to dinghy development. While it’s interesting, in a nerdy way, to find out that the “flatties” of Lake Connewarre were probably pioneering the planing hull in 1880, it’s more important to note that the planing dinghy as we know it may have been inspired by Thames sailing canoes and largely developed and promoted for popular consumption by Uffa Fox.

But for me one of the most interesting things about The Shock of the Old was that it may explain the end of the first era of internationalism in design and the long inter-war period when national styles evolved. It turns out that this was not just restricted to sailing, but across technological development and trade as a whole. As Edgerton explains, there have been significant periods when international exchanges of technological innovations have slumped, often around the same time that international trade in general has slowed.

Migration, financial integration and trade openness, 1880-1996 (indexed to 1900 = 100) – Cambridge Economic History Vol 2, as used by Ortiz-Osinpa and Roser in n


After reading Edgerton I started poking about the internet looking at patterns of international trade – something I had not considered when I identified the mysterious slump in internationalism in dinghy sailing that started in the 1890s and ended about 1950. I soon came across charts of international trade and migration in an article by economists Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser, which shows a strong correlation between the level of international trade and the patterns of internationalism in dinghy development. They show a fall in internationalism in the 1890s and early 1890s, followed by an even stronger slump through the inter-war period.

It’s still too early to see how well and widely internationalism in dinghy development parallels international trade. It wasn’t that international communication between sailors ceased. People from the US and Australia were still quite aware of Uffa Fox’s designs in the 1930s, for example; they just didn’t make many of them. There were also two classes that spread widely in this period, the 12 Square Metre Sharpie and the Snipe. Both were cheap chine one designs, ideally suited to the Depression era. The information about international design flowed freely, and two specific designs were adopted across the globe; it’s just that the wider trends of dinghy design turned inwards in almost every major sailing nation for decades on end during the same era.

While it’s a bit hard to see a causal connection, given the complexity of the factors that underlie the development and popularity of a sport, the strong correlation between international trade and internationalism in design seems too interesting to ignore, and I’ll explore the area more in the future.

Edgerton’s book, like works in the field of Social Construction of Technology, shows once again how our assessment of the state and future of our sport has to concentrate on many more areas than the simplistic chase for newer ways to go faster. The pity of it is that sailing, a sport which is often said to require more intellect than any other, seems to shun research and deep thinking of its past, present and future. But that’s a disturbing topic for another time.

Pt 1.35: Growing the silver fern; NZ dinghy sailing to 1950


14 Footers race along Wellington’s waterfront. To the left is one of the one-design X Class; in the centre what seems to be one of the little known but influential local 14 foot restricted class hard chine boats, sometimes known as “flatties” or “scows” despite their conventional bow. To the right is a boat sailed by one of the Wagstaff family. Hal Wagstaff, in typical NZ style, grew up to became a successful yacht designer. From the New Zealand Maritime Museum

New Zealand is perhaps the only country that has a book that really covers a nation’s dinghy sailing history.  “Southern Breeze; a history of yachting in New Zealand” was written by Robin Elliott and Harold Kidd, who probably rate as the world’s best sailing historians. I’ve relied a fair bit on Southern Breeze for this post, as well as the work of Gavin Pascoe of and Alan Houghton of Waitemata Woodies.

If it seems like I’ve given NZ’s early dinghy history little attention, it’s not because I don’t believe it’s worthy of note – it’s just that going into further detail would end up just echoing or leaning on the work of people like Elliott and Kidd. For more information on NZ sailing, go buy their books!


Size for size, sailor for sailor, probably no country has had the same impact on our sport as New Zealand.  At the dawn of organised New Zealand small boat sailing in the 1880s, the colony – for such it was at the time – had a population of only 500,000 people and a depressed economy. Even as late as the 1930s, the population was just 1.5 million – roughly as many as Detroit, Hamburg and half that of Greater Manchester. But despite this scarce populace, scattered across two islands, New Zealand was already growing the roots of a sailing culture that was to lead the world in the 21st century.

The pioneering spirit, small population and isolation meant that the typical New Zealander had to become a thrifty do-it-yourselfer; the sort of person who would design and build their own boat rather than call in a professional. The country was also fiercely egalitarian and socially progressive; it was the first nation in the world to give women the vote (although for some reason there does not seem to have been a strong tradition of sailing women) and one of the first to provide an aged pension.

New Zealanders imported some sailing canoes from England and built their own versions, but after a brief period of popularity they seem to have been replaced by dinghies. Perhaps New Zealand’s cruising grounds were too rought for canoes? Photo – “Rob Roy canoes in Pelorus Sound” by Arthur Thomas Bothamley. Goodman, S C (Mr), fl 1975 :Photograph albums and loose prints. Ref: 1/2-062578-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Sailors seem to have recognised that the sport could not thrive in such a climate if it appealed only to the wealthy. Perhaps even the way they applied the term “yacht” to 7 footers as well as 60 footers showed the egalitarian attitude. “Not for us the attitude; ‘If you consider the cost you can’t afford to be a yachtsman” wrote Peter Mander, NZ sailing’s first Olympic gold medallist and a man who, like many middle-class professionals, built his own boats. An attitude like that seems to have led to features like an emphasis on boats that the typical person could afford to build and race, regional support for the top sailors, and the widespread use of golf-style arbitrary handicapping to ensure that even the less competent sailors and those with older boats or those not built to the edges of the loose class rules felt that they still had a chance to win.

Despite the home-builder emphasis, New Zealand was the home of some outstanding professional boatbuilder/designers who optimised the superbly durable and light local timbers and exported boats across the globe. Led by the Logan and Bailey families, they proved that they could out-design the products of men like Fife and Watson. Later generations of professional New Zealand designers like Bruce Farr, Russell Bowler and Laurie Davidson, almost all from the local development dinghy classes, were to go on to reshape yacht design at the end of the 20th century.

As in other countries, New Zealand classes were divided along geographical lines. In the north of the country around Auckland were warmer, well protected waters, world-class cruising grounds and moderate winds that encouraged cruiser/racers and development classes with big rigs. Down south, in places like the famously windy capital city of Wellington and the cities of the South Island, dinghies often faced higher winds and colder and more restricted waters that favoured boats with more conservative dimensions. It often lead to a split between the classes sailed in Auckland and those sailed in the other regions and cities.

As Kidd and Elliott explain, the first major type of centreboarder to race in New Zealand was the “open boats”, which their peak during the early to mid 1880s. They were at their strongest in Auckland, where for some time during the decade they were divided into three classes by overall length; up to 13ft, up to 16ft, and up to 20ft. They normally seem to have been fairly conservative boats with low-aspect rigs and the graceful wineglass stern of a typical oar-and-sail boat.

Open Boat to cut
Open Boats, cropped from a montage in New Zealand Graphic 4 July 1903. The caption refers to them as “a once popular style”, indicating that they had faded out of popularity. This shot shows their low-aspect lug rigs and slim lines. A portion of NZG-19030704-28-1 from the Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

There are few photographs of the open boats. Southern Breezes includes a couple of shots, but we can also get a feel for their design by looking at the famously successful 25 footer Pet, created by Charles Bailey Snr in 1877. Boats like Pet were not beamy over-rigged craft like the sandbaggers or the Sydney open boats; Pet for example was a moderate 7ft5in wide. Her lines, which can be seen at the Wellington Classic Yacht blog, show a deeply Veed hull with a high wineglass stern. She had 1500 cwt of sliding ballast, and a “ram bow”, designed to get around the system of measuring boats by their length on deck. Pet was later modified by being half-decked and fitted with a yacht-style counter stern, and it is in this form that she can be seen in the photograph below.

Like their great boatbuilding rivals the Logans and many other New Zealanders, Charles Bailey Snr was of Scottish extraction. To me, in details like her shifting ballast, general proportions and lines and the drag to the keel (ie the way it deepens aft) Pet may show hints of a connection with the long-keel open racing boats that had been developed in Scotland since the mid 1800s.

Pet pic
Pet after her conversion from a transom-sterned open centreboarder into a yacht. From “Progress”, Vol VI, Issue 6, 1 April 1911 through Papers Past


The American catboat/sandbagger type had a strong influence on New Zealand’s dinghies, as it did in every major sailing country. The odd thing is that in New Zealand, the type arrived many years after it changed the face of boats in Canada, France, Germany, Australia and (to a lesser extent) Britain. It wasn’t that the New Zealanders were anti-American; they happily adopted the US leeboard scow schooner as the inspiration for their own trading scows which formed the backbone of the coastal trading fleet. But for reasons unknown they don’t seem to have been influenced by catboats until 1897, when two American cargo ships were caught in a severe gale off the NZ coast. Both captains called it the worst storm they had ever experienced; “nothing but white seething foam as far as could be seen” they told the newspapers when they staggered in for repairs.  The barque Sea King was kept afloat only by her steam-powered pumps when she made it to New Zealand, where she was repaired by shipwrights whose skills earned high praise from her master, Captain Pearce.

Pearce (or Pierce; accounts of the day differ) seems to have made a hobby of boatbuilding on board. The previous year, he had built the lug-rigged 24 ft Half Rater Alki, described as “clinker built throughout of white cedar, and rather dishy in appearance” while sailing Sea King from Puget Sound to Sydney.

When Sea King finally left Auckland after her 1897 repairs, Pearce left behind another boat that he had made aboard the barque. Many years later, Robin Elliott somehow tracked down two photos and some details of the little boat, which had been named after her mothership.  “Little more than 14 feet long, she was low-wooded, flat in the floors, very beamy for her length, and half-decked with a cat rig” he wrote.  To the sailors of Auckland, used to conventional yachts and the narrower and deeper Open Sailing Boats, this seems to have been something of a revelation; “nothing like her existed on the Waitemata at the time” says Elliott.

Elliott believes that the little catboat Sea King inspired William Logan, scion of a famous boatbuilding family, when he created the class that became known as the “Restricted Patikis”. The Restricted Patikis (the name means flat-fish or flounder in Maori) were a beamy 18ft 6in short-ended clinker centreboarder that fitted the Half Rater category under the L x SA rule (hence the alternative title of Restricted Half Rater) but with dimensional limits that would ensure they stayed as a big dinghy type rather than developing long ends and slender lines like the normal Half Rater. Arguments over the class rules killed the class by 1904 – a common problem for many years in New Zealand, where there were rival clubs, regatta organisers and sailors who rarely agreed on rules and their interpretation – but as Elliott says, they had become the first properly organised class in the country and had led the way in promoting the concept of the flat-bottomed, wide-transom centreboarder.

An early Restricted Patiki as shown in Auckland Weekly News, 13 Aug 1898. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18980813-4-4

After the Restricted Patikis died out, the name was taken over by a different breed of Raters. These had the long overhangs and slender lines of the typical Rater, and around the turn of the century the rival firms of Bailey and Logan had developed were boats as radical as anything to be seen on the Thames or Long Island. The early highlight was the 1898 Intercolonial Championship for One Raters where Bailey’s Laurel took the prize but Logan’s unlucky Mercia proved herself the fastest boat. Both boats were quickly sold to Sydney, where they regularly raced with success against the 22 Foot Open Boats. One of the fleet, incidentally, was the clinker-built Maka Maile, of an unknown US design – given that clinker Raters of American design were rare and that we know that Pearce had already built a Rater in Australasia, perhaps he was the designer?

Like all the major sailing countries, New Zealand went through a Rater craze in the 1890s. Miru was a Half Rater designed by the Scottish master Willie Fife. Although Miru looks like a conservative boat by Half Rater standards, the Rater class proved to be too weak to survive in the howling winds of Wellington, which sits on the southern tip of the North Island.Yacht Miru. Ref: 1/2-046786-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington,


As Kidd and Elliott note, Mercia effectively became the prototype for a flat, light-displacement unballasted breed of Rater or scow style centreboarder that Logan exported as far afield as South Africa. For some years the unrestricted Patikis proved themselves too fast for Auckland’s Waitemata harbour; they were ruled out of most yacht races to stop them from making the cruiser/racers and deep-keelers obsolete. These days it’s common to condemn the sailors and clubs that excluded the unrestricted Patikis, but they were essentially a very big and fast dinghy in an era when Auckland’s racing scene centred around passage races to the beautiful cruising anchorages of the Hauraki Gulf was a mainstay of Auckland yacht racing. Given the attractions of Gulf sailing there was probably no way that the typical Aucklander would swap their cruiser/racers for a big stripped-out day racer, and racing the unrestricted Patikis against dual-purpose cruiser/racers was probably about as fair as racing a windsurfer against catamarans or skiffs against sportsboats. If the unrestricted Patikis had been allowed to race against the Mullet Boats and keelers and win everything, many of the stunning classic yachts that Kiwis now cherish may never have been built.

Some of the unrestricted Patikis moved to the shallow waters of Auckland’s other harbour, the Manakau, where they were no deep keelers or cruiser/racers to complain. Their other refuge was the lagoon at the city of Napier, where they found the perfect combination of flat water and strong sea breezes. Here the tales of the Unrestricted Patikis became not just legendary, but (as with the 18 Footers and Z Jolle of the time) sometimes frankly unbelievable. The last of them were 27 footers that could be lifted by two men and, men swore, sailed at 40mph.

' Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19191127-45-1 Patikis in Napier
The unrestricted Patikis on the lagoon at Napier. Note the width of the stern sections. Auckland Weekly News, 27 Nov 1919. ‘ Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19191127-45-1 ‘

The era of the unrestricted Patikis effectively ended in 1931, when an earthquake levelled the city and lifted the bed of the shallow lagoon two metres or more over an area of about 40km2. Like so many other boats inspired by Raters, the lightweight structure of the unrestricted Patikis could not survive the pounding their flat bows received when they were forced to sail on the ocean; as Kidd and Elliot say, “one by one the great boats fell apart.”

The “mullet boat” Celox roars down the harbour. The mullet boat is a beamy, firm bilged and big-rigged half decked centreboarder normally about 22-24ft long, with a barn-door rudder. As the name suggests, the mullet boats had developed from the local fishing craft, and the leisure and working craft often raced together and switched roles. As Kidd notes, “small inshore fishing boats all around the world tend to have broad similarities because of their function”, and the mullet boat was not too different from craft like the American catboat or sandbagger, or Australia’s Couta Boat. However, the mullet boats seems to have undergone a separate line of development. The mullet boats (which carry around a tonne of ballast) are of course no dinghy, but up until WW2 they were a mainstay of Auckland racing and many accounts imply that they helped keep centreboarders built to class restrictions, rather than keel yachts built to rating rules, in the forefront of NZ sailing. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
Mullet Boat lines.


After the Patikis faded, the open centreboarder lived on in classes like the Auckland 16 footers; undecked boats initially limited to a maximum beam of 6ft, four crew and 180ft2 of working sail, although as often happened in Auckland some clubs and regatta associations applied different rules. Within a few years, some 16s were carrying ballast (and winning) and others set up to 300 sq ft of sail. Shortly before WW1, the type died out; a victim, Elliott and Kidd believe, of rising costs.

Christchurch with Swallows
Sailing in Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island, is divided between the open waters of Lyttelton Harbour and the very narrow and shallow estuary, where this photo was taken. The estuary is the site for many of the events in my favourite sailing book, Peter Mander’s autobiography Give a Man a Boat. This pic shows some of the local scows that were raced before WW1 in classes of 30 footers (aka “skimmers”) and simple 14/15ft “Punts” for boys and amateurs to build and sail. At least one of the ubiquitous Rudder Swallows also raced. Robin Elliott and Harold Kidd say that the Christchurch skimmers influenced Jack Brooke, one of New Zealand’s top designers. George Andrews, a champion in many classes and a prolific amateur boatbuilder, was another major influence on NZ’s dinghy scene in the first half of the 19th century. Credit: “Moncks Bay, Christchurch, featuring clubrooms of Christchurch Sailing and Power Boat Club. The Press (Newspaper) :Negatives. Ref: 1/2-040908-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/29943878″


The two main cities of Auckland and Wellington each had their separate restricted classes of 14 Footers and 10 Footers in the early 1900s. The Auckland 14 footers pictured in Southern Breezes look like the same style of conservative yacht-tender type as the British boats that were to become International 14s, but the class died when professional boatbuilders dominated the trophy lists. Meanwhile, in the Wellington men like the Highet brothers were developing a separate breed of hard chine (“square bilge” in NZ language of the day) 14 footers. According to Elliott and Kidd, many of the Wellington boats were heavy influenced by the chine designs in the American Rudder magazine, especially the 14ft Sea Mew. Exactly why the Sea Mew had such an influence is unclear, but given the later development of NZ design the key factor may have been its exceptional beam of  6ft 8in.


The Rudder hard chine designs may also have been the last important and distinct overseas influence in New Zealand dinghy design for some time. As with so many other countries, from WW1 to the 1950s New Zealand design developed its own distinctive style. Even when the Kiwis took on the Australians during this period, they did so by racing two distinct national classes against each other, rather than by merging one class into another or adopting a foreign class.

When Wellington sailor/builder George Honour moved to Auckland in 1918 he introduced the type of hard-chine boat that Wellingtonians had been developing to a city where hard chine boats had previously been rare. Enthusiastic reports that spoke of Honour designs “as light as a feather” planing at great speed seem to have been exaggerated, but they were fast, quick and cheap to build, and an inspiration to young sailors short of a pound. Honour’s boats were the basis for the 14 foot long “Y” class and the 18 foot long “V” class – one of the ancestors of the 18 Foot Skiff. For a brief period in the 1930s, as many as 35 Y Class could start in a single race in Auckland.


The V-Class 18 Footer Surprise, designed by Arch Logan. ‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-5587’ 

Damn, Surprise looks like a nice boat! I know little about her and it’s apparent that in some conditions her flat hull and severely-angled chines could be problematic, but she looks like an economical, versatile and very fast boat with a very wide and flat stern for her era. Based on the performance of other top V Class boats of her era she would have been able to keep up with the 18 Foot Skiffs of Sydney much of the time, but while they were just expensive flat-water racing machines Surprise could also take part in races to the islands of the Hauraki Gulf, the world-class cruising area outside Auckland.

This division of similar development-class boats into different classes according to the shape of their bilge became a Kiwi characteristic; authorities like Kidd and Elliott and veteran New Zealand dinghy champ Graham Mander believe that it was considered that the hard-chine development classes should be left for juniors and amateur builders. Ironically, the loose rules often allowed the hard chine boats to carry bigger rigs and often they  were faster than the “aristocratic” round-bilge boats of similar length.

After WW1, New Zealand developed a veritable alphabet of development or restricted class dinghies, often combining a hard core of racing machines with fast cruising dinghies or half deckers. Rules were simple; normally just a length limit and a restriction on sail area. The V Class for example was (at least initially) had only two rules; a maximum length of 18ft and a crew of between three and five, which effectively limited the area for some time until a limit of 400 sq ft was imposed. The T class and Y Classes were both 14 footers restricted to 250 sq ft of sail; one round bilge, the other hard chine. Canterbury sailors were developing what became the R Class; 12ft 9in long and with 110 sq ft of sail.

The scow-like 14 foot T Class Sassy in 1947 shows the variety of boats that raced in the restricted classes. ‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1360-Album-251-17-11’


In many ways it seems to have been an ideal formula. The fact that weight, beam and other details were normally unrestricted meant that designers could experiment, and the hard chine hulls in some boats made such experiments comparatively cheap. The classes that shared a common length seem to have been able to race together fairly successfully, despite their other differences, which may have reduced the problem of keeping a fleet of critical mass together. What simple restrictions they did have were enough to stop designers chasing ever-diminishing returns by going to the extremes of length or sail area like the Suicides, frei Renjollen or Sydney’s 18 Footers.

M7 Marlin
The “Emmy” Marlin in a classic M-Class pose. The “Emmys” are an 18ft long restricted class, modelled off the old Restricted Patikis. Like many Auckland boats, the Emmys were often used for weekend cruising around the beautiful Hauraki Gulf outside the harbour. Marlin was designed by Laurie Davidson, who started his designing career in the class and went on to become one of the world’s greatest yacht designers in the late 20th century, known for offshore world champions like Waverider and his share in NZ’f first America’s Cup winner. All of the New Zealanders who played such a big part in yacht design in that era, including Bruce Farr, Russell Bowler and Ron Holland, came from dinghies.


The Wellington 10 and 14 footers, the Christchurch skimmers, punts and Rs and Auckland’s alphabet soup of Ts, Ss, Ys, Ms, and Vs all had one thing in common – they were basically restricted to one region. The class that was to finally break the pattern of short-lived or localised classes was born in 1918. W A Wilkinson, who had been trying to years to kickstart a one design dinghy class, had Glad Bailey draw up a clinker 14 footer as a junior boat. From the outside, the “X Class”, as it became known, looks pretty much like a typical but stubby version of the clinker one-designs that could be found along the coast of many countries from Britain to Italy, but it quickly proved to be the fastest 14 foot dinghy of its time in Auckland.

Iron Duke, owned by Sir John Jellicoe and named after the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet, was the boat that launched the X Class into prominence. Jellicoe was an active dinghy racer as well as the national head of state.      Photographer uknown : Yacht Iron Duke sailing in Wellington Harbour. Ref: PAColl-8624. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

One of the first of the Xs was then bought and raced by Sir John Jellicoe, the Governor General (national head of state) and commander of Britain’s Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland. In Australia and in New Zealand, vice-regal sponsorship was a significant seal of social approval for a sailing contest. With performance and social status on their side and a national championship trophy (the Sanders Cup) dedicated to a national hero, the “boat for boys” suddenly became New Zealand’s blue-ribbon national dinghy class. “Nothing else came close to it in importance, nationally” write Elliott and Kidd in Southern Breezes. “Such was its stature that, for almost 40 years, newspapers around the country devoted as much space to the Sanders Cup in the summer as they did to rugby’s Ranfurly Shield during winter….the sport had never had such a high profile nationally.”

T and X
The X Class national titles were the blue ribbon event for NZ dinghy racing for much of the mid 20th century and were sailed across the country. Above are Xs and T-class restricted 14s in Auckland. As late as 1940 there are accounts of the more restricted X Class beating the Ts and Ys when the two fleets started together. Below is the Southland entry struggling in the howling breezes common to Wellington.
X Class in Wellington

Credit top: New Zealand Herald Vol LXXI, Issue 21776, 16 Apr 1934, from Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand; Credit above: “Southland X-class yacht Murihiku, Evans Bay, Wellington, [ca 1921]Reference Number: PAColl-5927-19Southland X-class yacht Murihiku, Evans Bay, Wellington, circa 1921. Photographer unidentified;  National Library of New Zealand Evening Post Collection.


Measurement disputes were de rigeur in the early days NZ dinghy racing, and the Xs were no exception. After some controversy, the original loose rules were tightened into a true one design; then loosened into a development class; then when fibreglass arrived in the 1950s, the class became a one design once more. With three or four men in a 14 footer carrying a moderate-size rig, the X Class was soon seen in Auckland as a rather outdated boat (although quite capable of beating the less-restricted 14s at times) but in the smaller cities and regions it represented the chance take on the sailors of NZ’s largest city in a fair match – and to often beat them. In the words of Peter Mander, who proved that he could win in the most high-profile of Auckland’s classes as well as the “national” types, “the Xs were never particularly numerous, but in a life full of incident and adventure they did attract the best.”

Lines of the early X Class. To my eyes it appears beamier, much fuller in the ends and significantly flatter than most comparable overseas boats – no surprise since it had to support the weight of four men and often sailed in breezy conditions – but still with significant rocker right aft. While some sources claim that the X Class was ahead of its time compared to dinghies from other countries, the many photos I’ve seen show no evidence that they were doing anything apart from planing on a square run in strong winds, which dinghies from other countries could also do at that time. NZ dinghy sailing legend Geoff Smale told me that the NZ boats were much more limited in their ability to plane than Uffa Fox’s International 14s, which could plane in much lighter conditions and when reaching as well as running.

The Sanders Cup was open only to a single boat representing each province. It may seem strange to modern minds, but given NZ’s small population, small number of wealthy individuals and undeveloped transport, it was a logical step that was followed by all of the national classes until well after WW2. “The early centreboard boats were intended largely for sailing on home waters and when they came ashore most of them would travel little further than the permanent slip near the end of a mechanical winch wire” wrote Peter Mander. “The boats were not intended principally for contests which would involve travel, time off work, freight, money. When contests began only one boat from a whole fleet would represent a province, many of whose yachtsmen would contribute to a common pool to meet the expenses of the lucky representative crew.”

The X Class became the leader of a quartet of national classes that were to dominate much of NZ dinghy sailing until the 1960s. While the X Class wasn’t dramatically different from the sort of boats you could see in many other countries, the three smaller national one designs showed the evolution of a distinctive style.

Idle Along from M7 Marlin page
A few updated Idle Alongs still race, and seem to still go downwind fast in a breeze. That boom is longer than the hull. This pic from the page of the M Class Marlin, photographer unknown.

The first step down from the X was the Idle Along, a boat in which beam and stability were pushed to the limits for good reasons. The Idle Along’s home was the capital city of Wellington, squeezed between mountain ranges and Cook Strait which separates NZ’s two islands. Wellington is said to be the world’s windiest city – it has an average annual windspeed of 14.4 knots and up to 233 days of gale force winds in a year. When amateur designer/builder Alf Harvey created the Idle Along as a fast general-purpose boat, he ensured it had the stability to handle Wellington’s howling winds by packing three crew, a low-aspect rig, flat hard-chine sections, and the enormous beam of 6ft on an overall length of just 12ft 8in. It’s widely claimed that Harvey modelled the foils and rocker profile from a dolphin he caught, measured and released, which may explain the boat’s length and the steep rocker right forward.

Spencer idle along profile
The Idle Along’s huge beam and unusual rocker made it a distinctive boat, but the wide stern was already a characteristic NZ trademark. This version of the plans is by John Spencer and show the later plywood version. As with the other NZ national designs, the plans and rules for the earlier version were not very detailed, which caused massive disputes when competition heated up and builders started to explore the boundaries of design. Before plywood was introduced, Idle Alongs weighed 400lb or more; the days of lightweight Kiwi designs were still to come.

Spencer idle along sections and plan

Harvey also ensured that the Idle Along had fore and aft buoyancy compartments, making it a safe, practical day cruiser. The Idle Along was cheap, versatile, tough, stable and fast by the standards of the day and by 1939 it had become the most popular boat in the country outside of Auckland, which remained loyal to its local development classes.

Robson, Edward Thomas, 1875-1953. Robson, Edward Thomas, 1875-1953 : Photograph of Idle-Along dinghies, Worser Bay, Wellington. Ref: PAColl-9008. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. a caption
The cheap, safe and versatile Idle Along design was picked up in Australia, where it was sailed in Williamtown in Melbourne (above) and in Hobart as the Kiwi class. It may have been the first racing class that was not made in the UK or USA to be adopted by another major sailing country.


Zeddie and IA from Give a Man.png
The Kiwi sailors of the era could not only build and sail championship boats – they could even illustrate their rival’s books. This drawing of the Zeddie and Idle Along was done for Peter Mander’s autobiography “Give a Man a Boat” by the multi-talented Bret de Thier, an Olympic sailor, academic, architect and designer. Give a Man a Boat remains my all-time favourite book on sailing. Reproduced with permission of Bret de Thier.


The national youth or intermediate class was the 12ft long Takapuna, also known as the Z Class or Zeddie after its sail insignia, which was born in 1920. Like the Idle Along, the Zeddie was a characteristically Antipodean boat. It was cat rigged, but it carried the characteristic Australasian “flattie” spinnaker on a long pole. A typical Zeddie of the 1950s weighed about 300lb; the lightweight era had yet to hit New Zealand. Like many Australasian boats of its era, with its flat hull and low-aspect rig the Takapuna compromised on light wind and upwind performance in the name of high speeds downwind. As former Z Class champion Peter Mander wrote “the lively little craft reached extraordinary speeds with a beam wind. Each season would bring its crop of authentic tales of how they had passed boats of up to eighteen feet when the wind was fresh and the boats were on a broad lead (ie broad reach) in the hands of skippers who knew what they were doing”.


Zeddie upwind
The Zeddie. Cropped version of this pic.

The national junior boat was the 7ft Tauranga P Class, which was to go on to take a stranglehold on New Zealand junior sailing. The stubby little boat was developed from 1920 by Harry Highet, one of those who had developed the hard-chine 14 Footer of Wellington. Highet was a non swimmer, and not surprisingly he gave the little boat extensive decking and buoyancy tanks. In an era when many boats would barely float after they capsized Highet’s design had obvious attractions, although it took until about 1945 before it made big inroads into the Zeddie’s dominance in Auckland.

With its long boom and conventional stem (instead of the pram bow of most small trainers) the P Class is a challenging boat and notorious for nosediving. “This great little boat is a big reason that New Zealand has produced so many good sailors” wrote Russell Coutts. “They are much more demanding boats to sail than the Optimist or Sabot and they are one of the most difficult boats to sail downwind in strong winds because they frequently nose-dive…’s such  a complicated boat in terms of balance, sail shapes and tuning that there’s no doubt that if you can master it you can sail almost any boat.”

P Class sketch
This sketch of the P Class appeared in the Auckland Star newspaper for 21 September 1935.  The emphasis on watertight compartments is interesting; such extensive buoyancy were not common at the time.
P Class on old car
Who needs roofracks when you have running boards and a P Class? Pic from the Tauranga Yacht and Powerboat Club site.
P Class kid havin fun.jpg
After 90 years, the P Class can still get over 35 competitors to national championships. The little boat has produced an amazing list of legendary sailors, including Graham Mander, Russell Bowler, David Barnes, Peter Blake, Chris Dickson, and gold medallists Russell Coutts (Finn), Jo Aleh (470), Polly Powrie (470), Barbara and Bruce Kendall (Lechner windsurfers), Blair Tuke (49er), Peter Burling (49er) and Rex Sellars (Tornado). Pic from the Tauranga Yacht and Powerboat Club site.


Silver Ferns
Not every NZ boat was a hard chine one design or a development class. The round-bilged clinker one design Silver Fern (the name refers to the floral symbol worn by national sporting teams) was a late ’30s junior class designed by the master boatbuilder/designer Arch Logan. They brought a number of prominent Auckland sailors into the sport (including Laurie Davidson) and gained a foothold in other areas but never caught on nationally, apparently due to being more expensive than the hard chine one designs.
The Wakatere class of Auckland in the early 1930s (above) only lived for a couple of years. It was intended to be a light, cheap boat to replace a class of Canadian canoes with leeboards and rigs. Designer Jack Brooke was inspired by the Punts of Christchurch, and to my eyes his flat-rockered design appears well ahead of its time; sort of like a proto-baby-Fireball. Unfortunately, given the materials of the era it was too weak for the rougher Auckland conditions, which underlines that there was a good reason that boats used to be heavier than modern ones. Brooke replaced it with the very different Frostbite (below) inspired by the American dinghies of the same name. While the light, modern-looking Wakatere died quickly, in the 1950s and ’60s the slower but versatile Frostbite was a major class and one fleet still remains, 80 years on. Pics from Wakatere Boat Club’s site.


While the X, Z, IA and P were becoming accepted as national classes, two of Auckland’s indigenous development classes were attracting some “international” (or at least interdominion, to use the old term) attention.  In 1938, New Zealand sent a team of “V” Class 18s and an “M” with an enlarged rig to the first “world” title for 18 Footers in Sydney. They were fast and high upwind, but could not compete against the vast rigs of the Australian boats downwind.

The following year, the contest was held in Auckland. In a shock result, the M Class Manu – a cruiser/racer that sailed over 20 miles across the open Hauraki Gulf each weekend to race – won the first race in heavy air. In the last two races Manu sailed consistently while the best of the V Class and the Sydney boats capsized or were disqualified, and the “Emmy” became the only boat with a cabin to win the 18 Foot Skiff “world championship” trophy. Sadly, her owners never got the trophy – the Australian defending champion refused to hand over it over for years, even when he lost an appeal and was chucked out of his own club. The story ends happily, for Manu has been found in dilapidated condition and restoration awaits.

Perhaps a more symbolic event occurred when two of Auckland’s 14 footers went to race in the 1938 Australian 14 Footer championships. The round-bilge clinker hull T Class Vamp won the contest, defeating the “unbeatable” Triad. The other NZ boat, the snub-nosed hard-chine V Class Impudence shocked observers with her planing speed but was erratic, winning one race in the regatta by ten minutes but trailing the fleet home in other events. Writers like Frank Bethwaite have claimed that this was a victory for the light and efficient Kiwi boats against the over-crewed Australian displacement boats. Such commentators seem to have missed that the days of the giant Australian 14s were long over. The Australian boats in Hobart were all just 5ft wide, dramatically smaller than Vamp, which was 6ft 4in wide. The Kiwi boat had trimmed her upwind sail area slightly (from 240 to 220 sq ft) to match the Australian rules of the day. Judging from the slim evidence of the few available photos and reports it appears that the Kiwis usually carried three to four crew while the Aussies carried four to five.

The victory of Vamp, and the outstanding performance of Impudence downwind in planing winds, may be a symbol of the development of the New Zealand stream of dinghy design. For years, Australians had also been trying to develop lighter boats, but they had done it by reducing beam as well as sail area.  The New Zealanders had developed lighter boats, but they had also increased their beam so that they could carry lighter crews but still produce enough hiking power. At least in the conditions in Hobart (where the water is flatter than on the 14s strongholds of Melbourne and Adelaide) the Kiwis had found the faster option, and the future was to prove them right.





“New Zealand seems to be the only English-speaking country that has a national history of the sport of dinghy sailing”:- The only Australian national sailing history concentrates on big yachts and 18 Footers and manages to deal with major dinghy classes like Sharpies, Lasers and 14s in a sentence or two.

achts I Have Known.PROGRESS, VOLUME VI, ISSUE 6, 1 APRIL 1911 – Pastime’s sliding ballast ejected through her topsides

“By the 1890s, the open boats had largely faded out”:- They seem to have survived longer outside of Auckland. The Daily Star newspaper from Otago, in the south of NZ, shows pics of a champion 20 foot open boat as late as 1908, although its clinker construction, fuller stern and gaff rig make it appear quite different to the Auckland boats as detailed by Elliott and Kidd.

“Wellington is said to be the world’s windiest city”:- TBA One official meteorological report says that Castlepoint, about 100km away, gets 50 knot gusts about every third day!

“clinker built throughout of white cedar, and rather dishy in appearance”:-  Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 15 Dec 1896.

“Little more than 14 feet long, she was low-wooded, flat in the floors, very beamy for her length, and half-decked with a cat rig” Emmy p 20

“For a brief period in the 1930s, as many as 35 Y Class could start in a single race in Auckland”:- NEW ZEALAND HERALD, VOLUME LXV, ISSUE 20056, 20 SEPTEMBER 1928

The V Class for example was (at least initially) had only two rules”;-  NEW ZEALAND HERALD, VOLUME LXXV, ISSUE 23156, 30 SEPTEMBER 1938

“the Xs were never particularly numerous”: Mander and O’Neill, p 23.

“Exactly why the Sea Mew had such an influence is unclear”

It appears that two Rudder 14 footers may have been confused. It’s sometimes said that the Sea Wren inspired the Wellington hard chine boats, but the Sea Wren was a Schock-designed round-bilged catboat, with very little in common with the Wellington boats. the Sea Mew was a hard-chine boat available in cat and sloop form, which appears to be very similar to the Wellington boats.

Sea Wren sailplan.png


Sea Wren lines.png



Above – the Sea Wren plans from The Rudder, December 1907, p 887. Below, the Sea Mew plans from The Rudder, November 1916, p 512. The round bilged Sea Wren is very different from the Wellington boats that can be seen in photos like these, whereas the hard chine Sea Mew is quite similar to the Wellington boats. Some NZ papers also refer to a “Sea Mew” class in Christchurch, and Mander also refers to them.
Sea Mew Rudder 1916 sailplan.pngSea Mew lines






The P is also problematic because it is so hard to handle that, as Coutts went on to say, “in some ways the difficulty of the boat…drives some kids away”. Peter Mander called it “basically unsound in design”; ‘Give a Man a Boat’ p 262.


I’m still tracking down information on the 14 Footer nationals, which were part of a larger regatta. It appears that Vamp had an unbeatable lead on points after two races and was 4th in the last heat, which was won by Triad. counted those heats, but the 14s did the later races associated with the regatta. Vamp scored two firsts and a fifth in the last heat of the regatta. Impudence was 8th in heat 2 and last in heat 3, but ended the associated regatta with an easy win in which she planed as fast as the 21 Footers that were also having their national titles. Triad scored 2,2,1.

It’s quite possible that Vamp, having already won, was taking it easy in the last heat. It’s also possible that Triad was more consistent. However, the future trend of design was to indicate that the beamier “kiwi style” was the way to go.

See for example The Advertiser (Adelaide) 18 and 25 Feb 1938; Advocate (Burnie) 19 Feb 1938;


Yachting in Port Nicholson.PROGRESS, VOLUME VI, ISSUE 6, 1 APRIL 1911



As late as 1940 there are accounts of the more restricted X Class beating the big-rigged Ts when the two fleets started together.”;- See for instance


Pt 1.33- Moths, gangsters and Samuel Pepy’s bathtub- development classes in America

Barron, Charles. Labor Day sailboat regatta - Sarasota, Florida. 1961 Sunfish sailfish suicide Moth
Florida became a stronghold for the US development classes after WW2. In this pic of the 1961 Sarasota Regatta a fleet of Suicide or Development Class boats, with their distinctive wishbone booms, can be seen at the rear, while Moths are waiting in the right foreground. The boat with the mainsail down this side of Suicide 4 could well be a Cricket, the third development class in Florida at the time. The trimaran to the right looks interesting.


Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1929. The prohibition is in full swing everywhere across the USA – apart from Atlantic City of “Boardwalk Empire” fame. “Boss” Nucky Johnson runs the town, and he has effectively legalised alcohol to keep the tourists rolling into the big hotels and tourist attractions. Along the waterfront sit the bootleggers’ speedboats, powered by triple V12 engines that will allow them to dodge Coast Guard cutters and naval destroyers when they run out to the floating booze warehouses that sit outside national waters on the “rum line”.

Two groups of men met in Atlantic City that year to discuss the effects of prohibition. One was a wealthy group who stayed at a prestigious hotel  and partied in full view of the press. The other group included boatbuilders and seamen from a “gangster-ridden neighborhood…..a teeming cesspool of rumrunners, gangsters and gunslingers.”

The group who were strutting the boardwalk in the glare of publicity included “Scarface” Capone, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and many of America’s other leading mobsters. They were planning the future of organised crime in the USA. The group who talked in a rundown neighbourhood was lead by Captain Joel Van Sant. They were planning the class that became the Moth.

Al Capone and friends
Just a bunch of respectable businessmen having a nice time in Atlantic City in 1929; Meyer Lansky, Al Capone and friends.

The inside tale of the creation of America’s Moth comes from boat designer and former Moth sailor David R Martin, who was born at the same time and place as the Moth and started sailing them as a boy. “There were about a half-dozen boat-building shops within walking distance” he told Yachting Magazine and confirmed to me by email. “Captain Joel Van Zant got the boat owners and captains together in 1929 and told them, ‘This neighborhood is full of rumrunners, gunfighting gangsters and debauchery. When these kids grow up, they’re liable to become rumrunners if we don’t stop it.” Van Sant showed the group a little boat he was in the process of building, and proposed that they start a class of similar boats to keep the local kids active and out of trouble.

Joel Van Sant III was a natural man to lead the class. A member of a family that had been boatbuilders for generations, he was a qualified ship’s master, the former trials captain for the Elizabeth City Shipyard in North Carolina, and the paid captain of the big steam yacht Siesta. Together with boatbuilder Ernie Sanders, he’d created the little boat he called Jumping Juniper while Siesta was in refit at the Elizabeth City Shipyard, to give himself something to carry aboard Siesta for pleasure sails. Perhaps the need to store the boat on Siesta, along with Van Sant’s slender frame and the fact that he was a damn good sailor who didn’t need a stable boat, was the reason why Jumping Juniper was just 11 feet long.

Dave Martin says that in order to encourage the neighbourhood kids to use their creativity, the Atlantic City group decided to create a development class instead the one designs that dominated US dinghy sailing. It fitted the local culture, for Atlantic City was a small island of development classes in a world of one designs. Perhaps it was the way the shallow and narrow waterways (“thorofares” in Atlantic City speak) wound through the city, providing plenty of waterfront space for boatbuilding. Perhaps it was the miles of sheltered waters, for development classes tend to thrive on calmer seas. Whatever the reason, around the turn of the century two 15ft long local development classes had formed; the Mosquito Class designed around the round bilge skiffs (probably a variation of the famous oar-and-sail Jersey Skiffs) and the hard chine Crickets, apparently developed from skipjacks. “Our neighborhood was extremely interested in advancing the art of boat design” recalls Martin. “For instance Cricket Boat sailor Adolph Apel was at the leading edge of powerboat design.” To men like these the development class was a familiar concept, and they had the skill and the tools to explore the possibilities. They found an old building to build boats in and called it Evening Star Yacht Club, because they raced in the afternoons after their working day was done. As Martin recalls, the entire neighbourhood would come down to the waterfront on those afternoons, to sail their Moths or cheer on their friends and family.

The 15ft Mosquito Boat was one of the two development classes that could be found around Atlantic City before the Moth arrived. It’s hard to find much information about them, although these pics seem to indicate a shift from spritsail to the leg of mutton rig also seen on their sister class, the hard-chine Cricket Boats. “Mosquito boat” was a common general term for small craft, but these particular Mosquito Boats were a specific class. Pic above from Forest and Stream.

Mosquito fleet

In the harsh times of the Depression, the cheap little Moth made waves with astonishing speed. Van Sant took Jumping Juniper when he went down to Florida for the fall, and the class took off there when he sailed to victory in a regatta. He went back to North Carolina, and fleets spread there. Soon there were Moth fleets from Long Island all the way south, although for some reason the class never seems to have spread further west in the USA. The first class championship was as early as 1930, and by 1937 there were Moths in ten states.  Somehow the tiny little boats soon ended up with a $2,500 first place trophy and $1500 of other prizes for the “world” championship, although competition from outside the USA seems to have been non existent until after WW2.

In its early days, the “world” open championship shared the limelight with events for juniors, teams racing and women; a symbol of its appeal as a versatile craft rather than a specialised racing machine for experts.  It’s hard to realise how big the Moth was in the USA in its heyday as a club racer for people of all skill levels.   In 1946, MotorBoating magazine claimed that the Moths had 1500 boats afloat, making it the sixth most popular class in the country.  The Moth class pioneers had certainly succeeded in their mission to get kids hooked on boats. As Martin recalls, many of the early Atlantic City Moth teenagers became leaders in boat design, although they made their names under power rather than sail. Russell Post founded the famous Egg Harbour Boat Company; Jack Leek ran President Sea Skiffs and Ocean Yachts. The Russo brothers worked at Pacemaker, while Martin himself spent many years designing powerboats for major companies. In later years, the Moth was to help launch designers like Skip Etchells (of Etchells 22 yacht fame). It was a tradition that was to extend to France, England, New Zealand and Australia in later years.

Digic Comm Moths
Largely through Joel Van Sant’s  travels, the Moth spread quickly to Florida (above) and through North Carolina (pics from Digital Commons and North Carolina Today, 1937). They were often sailed two-up in their early years. For a goldmine of information on early Moths and current US Classic Moths try the Mid Atlantic Musings blog.

Moth pic North Carolina Today 1937

The early Moth’s Vee-bottomed semi-scow hull looks unusual to modern eyes, but for a bunch of people who sailed boats like Crickets and Sneak Boxes it was a logical design for the local wind and water. “I think the shape of the earliest Moth Boats reflects local conditions (air light with a goodly chop) which one encounters in the rivers and small bays in the Mid-Atlantic region during the summer months” writes George Albaugh, secretary of the Classic Moth Boat Association and author of the fascinating Mid Atlantic Musings blog of Classic Moth information and photos. “Additionally, I think Van Sant wanted a design which amateur builders could home build and thus a chined hull with a gentle vee bottom and a transom bow and stern was what he and Sanders came up with for the initial Moth.”

As Albaugh notes, the early Moths had a “heavy, gentle vee bottom, transom bow and stern, pivoting centerboard (rather than a “jab” or dagger board–which was one of the first important innovations and occurred in the mid-1930s).  Early boats also feature flat decks for easy construction.  As time went on decks developed crowns which artificially allowed boom heights and sail heights to creep up leading to a rule which limited the length of the mast above “true deck” to 16′ 6″ and also limited boom height to 12″ above deck.”

Martin Moth sail
A 1930s Moth designed by David Martin. Born at about the same time and place as the Moth, he went on to become a leading powerboat designer. Copyright David R Martin, by permission. Check out Dave’s memoirs of a life in boat design at Amazon.

“Over time it became apparent that lighter boats were faster than heavy ones, and that reduction of wetted surface by (a) increasing keel rocker and (b) introducing round bilge shapes and (c) the introduction of sharp(er) stems to cut through the chop in the aforementioned light air conditions, were all performance enhancers.  By the end of the first decade, the boats were quite a bit different than the original Van Sant Jumping Juniper design and tending to look like Dorr Willey’s design.  The second world war interrupted further development and the boats that were built immediately after the war were for the most part very similar to the ones built in the late 1930s.”

Martin Moth hull lines
The Martin Moth shows the normal Vee shaped sections, with the same angle of deadrise all the way from bow to stern. Although Martin notes that “while the deeper vee boats with more tuck up like the Southern Cross were fastest in light air, the flatter boats with less tuck up were fastest in heavy air” almost all of the early US Moths had heavy rocker. Given the light winds common on their home waters, they would have spent most of their time at displacement speed so optimising for such conditions made sense. Copyright David R Martin, reproduced with permission.

Although most of the early Moths were scows, Dave Martin remembers that “there were pointed Bow boats modelled after the Cricket boats”, which also indicates how the Moth sat in a culture of development classes.

Despite the development aspect, for many sailors the main appeal of this cheap, lightweight little boat was as a training class. Although it was a playground for wild ideas in design and construction many developments that threatened the basic concept that Van Sant had set were prohibited.  Although the class allowed featherweight 20kg (45lb) hulls with fabric decks and 1.6mm (1/16in) bottoms, they banned catamarans and sliding seats that allowed sailors to reduce the hull beam to as narrow as 3ft.

Ventnor Moth
The Ventnor boat company, run by Adolph Apel who had basically created the modern three-pointer hydroplane, built hundreds of scow Moths from the 1930s.

Even overseas the Moth class quickly had an influence. In Australia, Van Sant’s design inspired a similar but slightly older Australian class to adopt the Moth label. An early boat exported to England left many sailors unimpressed, but showed others that “a boat with unorthodox fore sections and a shorter waterline could be driven harder than the average dinghy”. That lesson was an influence in the Brent One Design of 1932, which was soon renamed the British Moth and which remains a strong class. By 1936, the Moth class had quietly started in France, and the class was laying the foundations to become one of the most significant dinghies of all.

Van Sant Jubilee
No, it’s not a Moth. Yes, it is a Joel Van Sant design. In 1944 he created the 40 ft “sailing houseboat” Jubilee, which he registered as a freighter and sailed up and down the Intracoastal Waterway. Van Sant seems to have spent much of his time travelling up and down the Atlantic Coast, which apparently had a significant impact on the development of the Moth class. From Rudder magazine

While Moths were hitting the water by the dozens, a tiny group of sailors was racing another development class that was twice as long, but just as open in its rules. The “Suicides”, or Development Class was created in the late 1920s on Long Island by a group including William Atkin (better known for his seaworthy cruising yachts). With some of the loosest rules ever seen (initially, it seems they had simply a limit of 11.6m2 (125ft2) of sail, a minimum beam of 3ft 6in, some construction restrictions, and a 23kg (50lb) centerboard) the Suicides became a playground for designers of the quality of Nathaniel and L. Francis Herreshoff. “The class was of tremendous educational value, and, as I see it, demonstrated that with an actual sail area of 125 square feet  a 20 to 23 foot over all by 5 ft. 6 in. beam hull can be made to travel very fast” wrote Atkins. He also claimed that they were also quite cheap, at least at first, sometimes costing less than $125.

Speculation was an early Suicide design by Bill Atkin, creator of the class. At only 18ft long, she was probably not very competitive for long but she shows how quickly the class developed its trademark slender shape and fine stern lines. From


L. Francis Herreshoff thought the long, skinny European-style Suicides were much better boats than the short British dinghies that were catching the eye around the same time. “The International 14 Footers are so vastly inferior to the (Suicide class) Development Boats that there is no comparison. The latter are faster for their sail area, safer, cheaper and drier.”  As early as 1930, Francis’ “Dragon Fly” featured a cat-ketch rig with full battens and aerodynamic pocket luffs like a modern sailboard sail. There were Suicides with hard-chine scow hulls and twin rudders, there were Suicides with graceful yacht-like hulls, there were even International 14s in the fleet. It’s no surprise that in those early days, Yachting Magazine recorded that the different designs were “miles apart in power and effectiveness in varying conditions of air”.

Herreshoff suicide.png
Francis Herreshoff designed three boats that showed the freedom of design in the Suicide or Development class. One had a conventional sloop rig; one a pocket luff cat rig; the third a cat ketch rig with pocket luffs. Hereshoff wrote in (The Common Sense of Yacht Design) that the cat rig was fastest in light winds and smooth water; the yawl the fastest in a breeze, especially upwind; and the sloop the fastest in medium airs and chop. Plan from The Common Sense of Yacht Design.

The Long Island fleet seems to have died around WW2, for reasons unknown to me. Their home club is now an example of that US phenomenon, a yacht club that seems to put more emphasis on swimming pools and dress code than sailing. Perhaps the problem was, at Atkins put it later, the Suicides “were good fair weather racing boats; but not useful sailing boats.”

But down in Florida something was afoot. Whether it was the warmer waters, a higher proportion of sailors who lived closer to the water or something else, the southern state became the last haven for Suicides and the old Cricket development class, as well as a Moth stronghold.  The Suicides arrives in Florida in the early 1930s, where boats with names like Harikiri and Arsenic raced against Nat Herreshoff’s Biscayne Bay 14s and Stars. Designers like Larry Huntingdon and Wirth Munroe (son of sharpie guru “Commodore” Munroe) became involved, as did aircraft innovator C Townsend Ludington. Ludington’s “L Over D”, a reference to aerodynamic’s lift over drag ratio, had a rotating mast, a pocket luff and a fixed “gaff” that formed a curved head to the mainsail. Inspired by Manfred Curry’s gybing centreboard, Ludington fitted his Harikiri with two asymmetric centreboards sitting side by side in the same box, so that when the leeward one was pulled up the remaining board presented an asymmetric airfoil section. Although the Suicides tended to have narrow sterns, in the 1930s Ludington reported that Munroe’s Suicide “Poison Ivy” had “shown a definite tendency to plane”.

Johnson, Francis P. Suicide class sailboats in Labor Day boat races. 1954. Black & white photoprint, 4 x 5 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <;, accessed 19 August 2017
Suicide Sarasota 1951 Florida State Library
The Florida Suicides adopted wishbone booms because conventional booms were counted in their sail area. Perhaps such a concept was easier to conceive in a time and place where sprit-boomed Crickets were also popular.

The later Suicides adopted a radically slim-lined and low-wooded shape, similar to the German Renjollen lake racers of the same era; in fact, some used the same designs. But although those who designed and sailed the Suicides remember them fondly (and those memories and designs will be covered later) the class seems to have quickly become unique to Florida. Almost alone among major sailing regions, North America became a sailing culture without a big, high performance development class dinghy class of significant strength.

14s from yachting
Rochester YC of upstate NY, which sails on Lake Ontario, was the centrepoint of early US International 14 activity. Initially the US fleets concentrated on one design versions of Uffa’s designs; RIP at first and then the slightly later Alarm. From Yachting magazine, March 1936

Soon after the Moth and Suicide classes arose and the archetypal US hard chine one-designs developed, North America’s older development classes were rocked to their core when Uffa Fox’s planing hull sloops crossed the Atlantic and savaged the best of the cat-rigged displacement hull 14s and canoes.

The first meeting between the British and North American 14 footers came about after British and American dinghy sailors met during the 1930 America’s Cup, and took place in September 1933 at that most historic of small boat clubs, the Seawanhaka Corinthian. The British bought across not just a three-boat team, but another three British boats for a US team to sail in a three-cornered match against a Canadian team using their cat-rigged LSSA 14s.

The first sight of the British planing International 14s was a shock to the North American 14-ers. Accustomed to their own slender, hollow-lined craft, so tippy that they had to be held upright once the mast was stepped, they were amazed that to see that the heavy centerboard and fuller waterlines of the British boats allowed them to sit at moorings like yachts. Familiar with their simple, heavy masts, they were stunned by the slender British masts and the maze of their triple-spreader rigging. The bows on the British boats were so full in comparison to the hollow-cheeked North American boats that Yachting Magazine said the Fox designs looked like “bathtubs from about the period of Samuel Pepys”. Uffa Fox looked at the hollow lines of the North American bows and retorted “you’ve got twelve feet of boat and two feet of bow. We’ve got fourteen feet of boat”.

14s in america 2
US 1 is R.I.P., sent over by the legendary Stewart Morris as a model to kick off the USA’s International 14 fleet. US 2 is the first American copy. The US fleet had a hard time getting these extraordinarily complex boats built to the correct standard. From Yachting magazine, March 1936

The British boats may have looked like blunt instruments, but they were fast. They won both the 1933 event and a similar one in Canada the following season. Charles Bourke, Canada’s top designer of the time, wrote many years later that in the international series the Canadians lead to the first mark but rolled down the run at hull speed while the British boats set spinnakers and “simply flew away from our cat-rigged boats in a cloud of spray!” Bruce Kirby, the International 14 designer and champion who later became famous as the designer of the Laser, sailed with Bourke years later and notes that the North American boats “could hold or beat an International 14 upwind, even in quite heavy air, but they were not as fast off the wind.” The Canadian boats, wrote Sir Peter Scott from the British team, were “not made for planing and in the event were no match for ours.”

Uffa’s designs became the new model for the North American 14 Footers and a wide influence on North American high performance sailing. As well as their speed, the greater stability of the Fox designs gave them a handling edge over the slender local boats; “The old boats we used to sail were unseaworthy and required an acrobat to keep them from capsizing. Due to this trouble we could not interest many people in sailing them” commented one local 14er. The Fox-style 14s spread in small pockets from coast to coast and through the Great Lakes, finally making the 14s a true International class and providing a playground for many of the great names of North American dinghy design.

Valiant pic.png
Above: Roger de Quincey, Uffa’s team mate in the International Canoe Challenge, in Valiant. From “Sailing, Seamanship and Yacht Construction” by Uffa Fox, with permission of Uffa Fox Ltd. Below: Leo Friede, one of the US defenders, in Mermaid, from Schoettle’s “Sailing Craft”.

Mermaid pic


Uffa himself came from England that same summer to challenge for North America’s sailing canoe trophies. Like his 14s, Uffa’s planing hull canoes were broad, flat, and powerful in comparison to the slender North American displacement designs. He set himself a high hurdle by designing a boat that could compete under both the UK and US rules. Sliding seats were still banned in the UK, so British canoes relied on stable hulls and heavy centreboards for stability. The US rules required two masts to ensure that their canoes had the traditional ketch rig, so Uffa fitted a solid wooden forestay that qualified as a foremast. The result was a boat that combined the powerful British hull and centreboard with a sloop rig and American sliding seat.

Valiant sailplan.png
Uffa’s most ingenious example of rule beating; using a “mast” as a forestay to create a sloop instead of a ketch as required by American canoe rules. These must be the only masthead rig centreboarders to win a significant race. From ‘Sailing, Seamanship and Yacht Construction’ with permission from Uffa Fox Ltd.
East Anglian
Above: The broad, powerful lines of Uffa’s East Anglian and Valiant, as seen in his book ‘Sailing, Seamanship and Yacht Construction’. By permission of Uffa Fox Ltd (but of course the bad scanning is all my responsibility, as usual)
Below: Despite being over 16 years old, Mermaid was one of the top US canoes of 1933. Her narrow ends and deep Vee sections show lines designed to slice, not to plane. From Schoettle’s ‘Sailing Craft’.


Sandy Douglas, a champion North American canoe sailor and the designer of the hugely popular Highlander, Flying Scot and Thistle dinghies, remembered the contrasting shapes decades later. “Where our boats were slender and dainty, with fine sharp ends, the English canoes appeared squat, giving the impression of brute power” he wrote in “Sixty Years Behind The Mast”. “Where our canoes had softly rounded bilges for a minimum of wetted surface but little stability, theirs were almost flat in the bottom with very hard bilges. Our power to carry sail was provided entirely by our live ballast out on the sliding seat. Fully rigged, our canoes had so little stability they would not even stand upright, but had to be balanced at all times. Their canoes, developed for heavy weather sailing without the advantage of sliding seats, had their own stability through greater beam with a flat floor and hard bilges, plus a heavy and deep centerboard. Uffa had gone as far as possible to use the maximum beam permitted under our rules, forty-three inches, by carrying the full beam very nearly the length of the hull, to where the gunwales, as they came together at the stern, made an angle of more than ninety degrees.”

To the Americans, it seemed as if it was 1886 all over again, and that the British canoes were overweight beasts which would be beaten just like Baden-Powell and Walter Stewart had been fifty years earlier. They were very wrong. In anything more than seven knots of wind, the powerful British planing style of canoe was unbeatable. The British took both the American championships and the International Canoe Trophy, the world’s oldest international small-boat trophy, home for the first time, and the best features of the two styles were blended into the International 10 square Metre Sailing Canoe – a class which remains arguably (in its latest form with spinnaker) the world’s fastest non-foiling singlehanded dinghy.

Runt and Squall rigs.png
Uffa didn’t win everything. Around the same time as the Suicides and Moths were emerging, big-boat sailors around Long Island started racing yacht tenders in the winter months and “frostbiting” became a craze. It says a lot about the US sailing establishment’s priorities that big-boat legends in tenders earned more media attention than the fast and elegant Suicides or the enormously popular Moth, but at least it promoted small boat racing.
The first frostbite regattas were sailed in “an odd assortment of dinks and other boats”, and the measurements of those boats were used as the basis for a couple of development classes. In 1935 there was a British/US challenge in Frostbites. Uffa produced Runt and Squall, each with three rigs of varying height for different conditions. They were beaten by the US team with Nick Potter designs using wing masts and wishbone booms (pic and details to come). The class seems to have combined the low performance that was inevitable in a short two-person boat with the high expense of complicated rigs and round bilge hulls. Not surprisingly as Arthur Knapp noted, they “proved expensive and after several years most people turned to the one-design classes in the interest of economy and fairer racing”. Plans from “Uffa Fox’s Second Book” with permission.

Runt and Squall

And so shortly after the hard-chine one designs arrived to fill US sailing’s mass market, two significant indigenous development classes were created, and Uffa Fox’s designs became an inspiration and model for the minority of American sailors who preferred high performance dinghies. They were often only too ready to join the British in dismissing the indigenous US one designs.  “The great majority of small boat sailors in American have probably never sailed anything remotely resembling a Hornet, Merlin-Rocket, 505 or other real racing boat” wrote American I-14 champ George Moffatt in a typical outburst in 1963.

But for all their influence and fascination, the development classes remained a minority in North America. Only the Moth achieved significant popularity, and it was largely confined to the region from New Jersey to Florida. Even decades later when international trapeze classes like Fireballs, FDs, and 505s arrived, they were unable to achieve the same sort of numbers in the USA that they did in other areas. The numbers and the club-based fleets in North American centerboard sailing, then and today, lie in the big old home-grown one designs.




“gangster-ridden neighborhood…..” David R Martin

There were about a half-dozen boat-building shops within walking distance” Yachting Magazine, 

“To encourage the neighbourhood kids to use their creativity”:- Martin (ibid)

“”Our neighborhood was extremely interested in advancing the art of boat design”:- Martin email to author.

“The first class championship was as early as 1930, and by 1937 there were Moths in ten states. BDW 15 Aug 1937

“Somehow the tiny little boats soon ended up with a $2,500 first place trophy”. BDW 31 Mar 1936

As late as 1937, Van Sant ran second in the “worlds”.”:- Chicago Tribune March 28 1937

“When he went to winter in Florida in 1931”:- Avalon Yacht Club yearbook 1955 through Hathi Trust.

“for a bunch of people who sailed boats like Crickets and Sneak Boxes”:- Martin confirmed that the group who created the Moth included Sneak Box sailors in an email to the author

“I think the shape of the earliest Moth Boats reflects local conditions”:- Email to author

“a boat with unorthodox fore sections and a shorter waterline could be driven harder than the average dinghy”:- ‘The British Moth class’ by John Bluff in “British and INt Racing Yacht Classes” by HE Whitaker (ed).

“In the early 1930s the Suicides spread to Florida, where boats with names like Harikiri and Arsenic raced against Biscayne Bay 14s and Stars.”:- Information from Ludington in “Small Yacht and Boats” by William Atkin and from the Francis Herreshoff letters digitised by Mystic Seaport Museum.

Although it’s almost universally acknowledged that the 1933 and 1934 series established the Int 14 in North America, the author of the classic International 14 blogspot has tracked down a small fleet of earlier boats in the US; see

Pt 1.29: Continental Drifting: European dinghies to 1945

Here’s another of those annoying apologies; if it seems disrespectful to squeeze several nations into one post while I gave English-speaking nations several posts each, there’s several reasons. For one, the dinghy scene in these countries was comparatively small. Secondly, I’m a typically monolingual Aussie so I can’t do the same sort of original research in other languages as I can in English. Finally, some of these areas have already been covered in depth by those with local knowledge. The origin and impact of boats like Sweden’s Finn and the Flying Dutchman are covered in detail in later sections.


Apart from Germany, Europe seems to have played a surprisingly small role in dinghy development until the second half of the 20th century. In many countries, economic conditions and geography seemed to play a part in keeping dinghy sailing a niche sport, and one where even proud people like the French admitted that the Anglo-Saxons held the lead in design developments and in racing.


French sandbagger
The “Clipper d’Argenteuil” Lison, from Dixon Kemp

France seems to have followed the same trajectory as other nations that got into centreboarder sailing early on. As with so many other regions, the sandbagger concept imported from the USA played a major role in establishing the concept of a beamy centreboarder. The 8m long imported sandbagger type Margot was dominating racing around that French yachting’s birthplace at Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine in the 1850s.  The 1867 Paris Exhibition regatta, a high point in early French sailing and the symbol of a shift to sailing on the River Seine near Paris, was won by the imported catboat “New York”.

Catboat New York.png
The catboat New York. From the book ‘Le yacht; histoire de la navigation maritime de plaisance”; Paschal Grousset, 1890, via Hathi Trust.

As early as 1858 the French developed their own name for the American style boats – “Clippers”. Around that time the term was applied widely to any particularly fast boat in the English-speaking world, but a sporting dictionary demonstrates that in France, the term specifically meant a beamy centreboarder, often cat rigged. They also seem to have developed a fondness for the sharpie type they had imported from America; perhaps the French taste for functional designs meant that they did were less biased against the sharpie’s appearance than the contemporary Anglo Saxons. The exploits and books of “Rob Roy” Macgregor also lead to the promotion of canoeing by no less than Emperor Napoleon III, although no evidence of significant and influential sailing canoe racing comes to hand.

Many Parisians became passionate about sailing and boating on the Seine around 1870. Even by their own accounts, some French sailors of the time admitted that they were overshadowed by the British and American racers; one official report says that their sailing was not quite to the same standard and was “ignored by foreigners, because the French have reputation of being confined to intellectual speculation, where they are superior, and to have a very marked disdain for the physical exercises in general and for the yachting in particular.”

Intellect met sailing at Argenteuil on the outskirts of Paris, where the Seine widened to some 200 metres and the Cercle de la Voile de Paris made its home. Here, sailors developed the sandbagger- style boats they called the “Clippers d’Argenteuil” (sometimes “Clipper Parisien”) alongside the group of painters who were developing Impressionism. It was there that the greats of the movement – Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissaro, Degas and others – stayed, planned the first Impressionist exhibition, painted the racing boats, and sailed. One of their number, Gustav Caillebotte, was not only a painter of renown but also a champion sailor, vice president of the Cercle, and a designer of such talent that he gave up painting to create yachts.

French sandbagger moored
Whether shown by the sailing manual “Le Yacht” (above) or by the impressionist painters like Caillebotte (below), there are many 19th century depictions of the Seine near the Cercle     clubhouse at Argenteuil that show a scene dominated by catboats and Clippers d’Argenteuil, with a sprinkling of craft that look like the small “plank on edge” types. Caillebotte was himself a yacht designer and successful racer, with a taste for innovation. In 1889 he successfully proposed a yacht class in which only sail area was rated, and then got around his own rule by using a lug rig and an unsuccessful attempt at a bermudan sail plan.


Above: Sailboats at Argenteuil, Renior, 1874. Below;  Sailboats at Argenteuil, Claude Monet, 1874


Perhaps no other sailboats in history have been viewed as often as those moored along the banks of the Seine at Argenteuil. Individual boats were featured time and time again. In 1874, both Renoir and Monet painted the same boat, at the same dock, on what looks to be the same day with the same two figures. It looks like a fairly standard sort of sandbagger-style boat, carrying a small jib for a pleasure cruise. One critic points out that the bowsprit in Monet’s version angles up “so that it appears more forceful, active and engaged”. Dixon Kemp tells us that the bobstay on these boats was adjustable. I can’t help wondering whether the crew eased the tackle after Renoir painted the bowsprit, allowing it to angle up for Monet’s depiction. How odd to think that 140 years later, critics would be discussing the intricacies of a great master’s composition, when the effect could really have been caused by someone adjusting their forestay tension before a quick sail.

The boat that Monet and Renoir painted together could almost have come from New York itself, but by the 1880s the sailors of the Seine were evolving the Clippers d’Argenteiul into a breed that was in some ways even more radical than the sandbaggers from which they developed. While the US boats carried low-aspect gaff mains to the end of their days, many of the Clippers d’Argenteuil moved to high-aspect sliding gunter rigs (known as houri rigs by the French, and adopted from their Mediterranean coast) which was a logical development for a narrow river. Dixon Kemp’s Manual shows us that as early as 1884, the sailors of Argenteuil had developed what appears to be the first track for mainsail slides, replacing the older system of hoops or lacing that ran around the mast. The Clippers had two systems; one where a channel was cut into the rear side of the mast and fitted with brass plates on its lips, and the other where a T-shape section was fitted to the spar. This system was seems to have been the first example of a luff slide and groove device, anticipating the one developed by WP Stephens and CJ Stevens for their Rater types in the next decade.

Instead of simple gaff jaws, the Seine boats had universal joints at the bottom of their yards. While downwind sails were rare in New York, the Paris boats sometimes carried huge silk spinnakers or even square sails. Although many depictions show the Seine boats with the standard sandbagger transom, champion Clippers like Lison carried a counter stern and under-hung rudder and were narrower than the sandbaggers. The Clippers seem to have been as radical and sophisticated as any class of their time; fully the equal of their famous cousins from New York or Sydney.

Clipper from Kemp
Rigging details of the Clippers d’Argenteuil from Dixon Kemp. The mast tracks can be seen on the left. The jib sheeting system (shown top left) allowed the sail to be sheeted inside the shrouds, which was uncommon at the time.

Argenteuil was not just a place for artists and rich racers; it was also a place where the urban middle and working classes could go sailing. The radical Clippers were not the only boat to be found racing on the Seine. There were small catboats and a type of oar-and-sail boat called the Ocean, which was often raced singlehanded but, in the usual fate of oar-and-sail boats, has almost been lost to history. Sailboats could be hired at an affordable rate (about the same as a labourer could earn in the same time, from my quick calculations) next to the Cercle, just a short train ride from Paris. Crowds of “scruffy pleasure seekers (students, workers, artists, etc)” and “amateur yachtsmen of indifferent morals who favoured similar female companions” could drift along the Seine, feeding ducks, drinking or watching Caillebotte inspecting his latest creation being built in one of the boatyards along the river or going downstream to the Ise de Chatou, the “Isle of the Impressionists”, where he was to feature in the foreground of Renior’s famous work “The Luncheon of the Boating Party”. The short story writer Guy de Maupassant may have been passing in his little 10 foot oar-and-sail dinghy. Although it gradually became more crowded and polluted, the Seine west of Paris must have been a magical place for those who loved both sailing and “intellectual speculation.”

It’s typical of Impressionists that even when one of them is a designer and champion sailor, to get some details, we have to turn to a marine artist to get a detailed depiction of Clippers racing. This work from the short-lived and little-known Gustav Bruell shows Clippers rounding a mark in from of the Cercle in 1883.

Just as in many other areas, in the late 1800s the era of the beamy sandbagger types faded away, to be followed by the short reign of Rater-type boats. In France they used the Godinet rule, which was more sophisticated than the Anglo-Saxon systems but used the old term of “tonnage” to determine ratings. The Cercle de la Voile de Paris gave a trophy for “One Ton” class boats, Rater types about 8-9m long, which became one of the most famous of all yachting trophies over the next nine decades.

Seine race start Oct 22 1904.png
The Rater period, as depicted in Forest and Stream for Oct 22 1904. By this time, pollution, bridges and industrialisation had caused the sailors of Paris to move downstream to Meulan where this photo was apparently taken. Note the hollow transom sections of the boat in the middle; was this a Dominion style tunnel hull and perhaps the “catamaran” that raced in the 1900 Olympics?

Sidi-Fekkar, a lightweight unballasted centreboarder, was a winner of the famous One Ton Cup, donated by the Cercle de la Voile de Paris, and a competitor in the 1900 Olympics.

In 1900, the Seine was the site for the first Olympic Games where sailing events were actually held. There still seems to be confusion about what actually happened; as the president of the International Association of Olympic Historians said, “in common with other sports at the 1900 Games the yachting results are varied, incomplete and contradictory”. Judging from available information, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that the smallest class was dominated by locally-modified versions of the Rudder’s Lark scow. It appears that most of the mixed bag of other entrants were Rater-style centreboarders. Some, like the champion  “One Tonner” Sidi-Fekkar, were unballasted; she was kept upright by a crew of “men of a certain weight and skilled in gymnastic exercises” who were “literally outside (the boat) and restrained by means of stirrups on the feet.” She capsized at the start, leaving a British Linton Hope design to take the class honours.  Incidentally, it’s claimed that a cat was in the event and Forest and Stream for Oct 22 1904 shows a boat that could be a Dominion-style “tunnel hull”.

Monotypes de Chatou, from These replicas were built by Sequana, an organisation that restores and replicates historic craft of the Seine.

Although the Godinet rating system was more sophisticated than its British and US equivalents, it still created fragile boats that suffered rapid obsolescence and caused a move to cheaper one designs like the Lark and the Monotype de Nogent-Joinville around the turn of the century. But numbers remained small, and the most popular class, the Monotype de Chatou (a Lark modified by Francois Texier, a former Clipper builder) only numbered about 100 boats. Even that small fleet included a famous fashion designer, a leading poet, a pioneer of the Fauvist art movement, JJ Herbulot (later to become a leading dinghy designer), legendary aviation pioneer Santos Dumont, and Georges-Paul Thierry, later to become a leading advocate for home boatbuilding. If any group proves that creative people can love one designs, it’s the sailors of the Chatou.

Monotypes de Chatou.
Chatous moored outside the Maison Fournaise, the restaurant and boat hire business that was the subject of The Luncheon of the Boating Party, one of the most famous Impressionist works. From

The rougher waters of the coastal regions also saw the development of some solid-looking conventional little round-bilge one designs, like the Monotype of Arcachon, a little yacht-tender style boat in the style of the International 12. Several other clubs along the rough and windy Atlantic coast seem to have favoured stubby little keelboats instead of dinghies; probably a reflection of the limited seaworthiness of most dinghies of the era. The French Atlantic coast was to produce two of the world’s great dinghies, but not until the second half of the century.

Monotype d’Arcachon.

The Olympics returned to the Seine in 1924, when the “dinghy’ event was almost as mysterious as that of 1900. The event was sailed in the Monotype National designed by Gaston Grenier – or was it? Some call the boat the Meulan; others say that it was a modified version of the Belgian Scheldejollen, a slightly earlier boat of very similar style and dimensions. And what dimensions they were; they weighed in at 450kg (990lb) and carried 20.17 sqm (218 sq ft) of sail on a length of just 5m (16ft5in). The Monotype also carried a spinnaker, and the extra performance and challenge of the bigger rig was, according to the official Olympics report, the reason it was chosen over the International 12. Just to add to the confusion, some sources indicate that there were not enough Nationals for the number of entrants, so some competitors competed in Scheldejollen.

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Monotype National

Although most reports say implicitly or explicitly that the class was for singlehanders, some photos and the official report shows that ten of the 17 Monotypes were sailed two up – at least sometimes. The official report speaks of the Monotypes as being sailed “by a single amateur” but also says that the 17 nations entered 26 athletes. The best explanation may be that the crews were pros, and may have been used only in windier races.

Even in those days, people were worried enough about spectators for the official report to list the number of paying spectators who watched the Monotypes drifting on the Seine. On the first day, there was precisely one paying spectator and 376 officials, press and sailors. The organisers had anticipated the “modern” system of making the later races more important in the points, and on the last day, the crowd of paying spectators leaped up to…….18.  They watched Leon Huybrechts of Belgium (and his crew, hidden away in the results as “R. De Hemptinne”) win. It may have been significant that Huybrechts, who according to the official report was well practised in the Monotype, was also the man who had commissioned the design of the Scheldjolle.

Scan 277
Scheldejollen, from


It was the 1930s when French dinghy sailing seems to start to take on something like a modern form. Nineteen thirty two was a significant year; former Chatou sailor Jacques Lebrun won the singlehanded class in Snowbird at the LA Olympics, and the first great French class arrived in the shape of the Caneton, another boat of the Seine. French sailing historian Louis Pillon tells us that in those days the sailors of Paris would head down river to the Le Havre regatta each year under tow or sail, stopping on the way to race the local one designs of each club. One small club held a design competition for a new one design, and the winner was the product of Russian expatriate Victor Brix. The Caneton (“Duckling” in English; it was named after a specialty at the restaurant where it was adopted) was much like a slightly lighter Snipe with the bow pulled out. Given the enormous reach of The Rudder and the success of the magazine’s earlier Lark in France and around the world, the similarity is probably anything but accidental.

The Caneton, or Caneton Brix as it later became known. Images from the class site.


As Pillon says, the Caneton was just a local one design from a small club until one man (Robert Jeuffrain) built 20 or them and formed a new club where the boats had to be stored on road trailers instead of in the water. The enthusiastic Jeuffrain and his trailer-borne Canetons created what Pillon calls a “cultural revolution”, travelling from place to place by road to promote the class and sport, instead of staying at one club or region. The Caneton class spurred the creation of new clubs and by 1939 there were over 160 boats afloat, with 40 entrants from eight clubs at the national titles.

While men like Jeuffrain were growing dinghy sailing at the grass roots level, officialdom was also getting involved. Many Europeans saw sport as a means to address what they saw as “degeneration” in society and a threat to national welfare. In France, the country that had suffered so much in WW1 and where, as famous mountain climber and sports minister Maurice Herzog was later to say “there is an old prejudice against sports in this country; a prejudice that goes back to the intellectual man who was pale,  a poor physical specimen, a Rimbaud, a Verlaine, a Proust” such concerns led the national government to become heavily involved in organising sport, including becoming the first government to sponsor Olympic athletes.

The Moth arrived from America in 1936, but its growth was apparently slow at first and its major impact came some time after WW1. Pic from


It was defeat at the 1936 Olympics that created the next major French class. After the French had finished out of the medals in the O-Jolle singlehander, it was decided that the old Chatou was no longer up to the job of producing Olympians. As Pillon and other sources note, a group including champion sailors Lebrun, JJ Herbulot and expatriate Swiss naval architect Pierre Staempfli developed the 5m/16.4ft Sharpie de 9m2 as a new Olympic training boat. Some say that it showed Staemplis’ interest and experience with renjollen and Manfred Curry’s theories in its long, slender lines and roachy, fully battened mainsail. With its reverse sheer (to save weight), considerable weight (185kg), pinched bow and flat bottom, the Sharpie was neither particularly fast or attractive, but it was very cheap and simple to build.

The Sharpie 9 m2. Pic from the class site.



During the war years, the government of unoccupied Vichy France took firm control over sports associations. When the national sailing association declared the Sharpie as an official class, building materials were made available and by 1945 there were 600 afloat. The Caneton benefited from the same status, and by the war’s end the class had over 400 boats and 27 fleets.

With boats like the Sharpie 9m2 and Caneton Brix, we may be starting to see the evolution of a French style of dinghy designs. They were influenced by a high level of government funding of the sport and therefore of control by the national sailing association. They seem to have been egalitarian designs, aimed at a mass audience rather than just the rich or experts. Apart from a preference for hard chines, their outstanding characteristic may have been their lack of any outstanding characteristic. In dimensions they seem to sit square in the middle between other major northern sailing country; smaller than those of the USA and Germany, larger than those of England and Canada. It was an approach that was to influence design across the world when the great dinghy boom arrived.


Centreboarder racing in Italy seemed to start comparatively late; it does not seem to start in around the mid 1800s with sandbaggers, catboats and canoes like so many other regions.

It’s interesting to see how much variation there is in the racing of working boats around the world, and their historical relationship to the development of dinghy sailing. Venice gave the word the word “regata” and the “Sanpierota” of Venice’s lagoon region is now the most popular racing class in the area, but I can find no information about races under sail back in the days when the Sanpierota were used as working craft. The Sanpierota is used under oars and engine as well as sail and has no centreboard; lateral resistance comes from the chines and the rudder, but they seem to get upwind surprisingly well. The poor fisherman used to dye their sails to protect them and extend their life; in the 1800s Australian Mark Foy, the driving force behind the 18 Foot Skiff class, saw them and was so impressed that from then on he made sail emblems mandatory in the races he supported. This pic, incidentally, comes from the class site for the Chiemseeplatte, an interesting German hard-chine boat developed from fishing craft but now used for racing. I’ll use any excuse to put a pic of Venice up.

The sport of sailing in Italy as we know it today seems to have started in large yachts, before spreading down into small Rater types and then into the first dinghies. The Ligurian Coast near Genoa was an early centre, and here the first restricted classes were formed among the owners of boats that did not fit into the international rules or the one design yacht classes. The first significant dinghy class was the Serie Ligure Lega Navale Italiana the loose restricted class formed in 1911 by a short-lived national body. Apart from its large sail area (about 15 sq m, apparently in both sloop and cat rigs), it looks to be a typical example of the contemporary boats developed from oar-and-sail types. It lasted into the 1930s.


By the 1920s, the sailors of the Ligurian coast had created some potent-looking boats in three development classes; 4, 4.5 and 5.5 metres. On the other side of the country, the sailors of the northern Adriatic were also creating bigger, lighter and faster boats. In 1925 a 6 m long three-person dinghy they had created was merged with the Ligurian boats (exactly how is unclear) to form the Classe Nationale A 6 Metri, the first national dinghy class.


The A Class was used in 1935 for the European 3- man dinghy titles. These were inter-war contests in which representatives from each country sailed a regatta using boats of whatever three-man dinghy happened to be popular in the host country. The Italians won on their home ground. Perhaps it was a symbolic in several ways; for an era in which there were so few International classes that sailors had to swap boats to get to race other nations; for early Italian passion for development classes; and for the rise of Italian dinghy sailing despite a slightly slow start.


Despite the popularity of the development classes, there were significant fleets of one designs. Although we’re used to lake sailors pushing the boundaries of design, in 1923 the sailors of Lakes Como and Maggiore settled on a conservative one design of 3.6m with just 9m of sail. When Italian sailors saw and sailed the vaguely similar International 12 at the 1928 Olympics, they brought the class home. Although it was already an ageing design, the International attracted a quality fleet and became (and still is) a great success. The Snipe followed in 1934. Both classes remain active in Italy today, decades after almost all the local classes have sadly faded away.

Classe 1923 of the Lakes


The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, that land of wind and water where yachting as we know it began, there seems to have been few surprisingly few major developments in dinghy sailing until the second half of the century. English speakers wrote of the difficult conditions that sailors faced in the Netherlands; the strong winds blowing from the North Sea, the chop of the shallow open waters, and the narrowness of the rivers. Given the technology of the era, it’s not surprising that the Dutch seem to have preferred to add a keel to boats that others would have probably had centreboards. As blogger Tweezerman notes, they even took the ubiquitous Lark from the pages of The Rudder and, inspired by the Star, made it into a tiny keel scow.

O Jolle Holland 3
The Dutch seem to have been the only major sailing nation that favoured international designs before 1945. This lovely study of an O Jolle and the photo of International 12s (12 Voetsjollen in Dutch) below come from

Dutch 12 Voetsjollen.png




Although the Dutch yachtsmen were keen on their traditional craft, the scanty information that can be dredged up indicates that early dinghy sailors seem to have preferred imported designs, and none more so than the International 12, which remains a significant class. The International 12 was later joined by Germany’s 12 Square Metre Sharpie and O-Jolle, and all three of them still survive as significant classes at national level in the Netherlands.

Lark and Vrijbuiters 1932
The year is 1932, and a Lark sails in front of a gaggle of Vrijbuiters. I think the yachts behind are the attractive Regonboog (Rainbows) which still survive as a strong class. From

The one designs were also joined by the exotic Vrijbuiter, a long-lost class that was very reminiscent (and perhaps related) to the German “frei Renjollen” and existed from 1918 to WW2. The Dutch love for classes like the Sharpie, O Jolle and Vrijbuiter was to play a major part in launching one of the iconic and influential boats of the great post WW2 dinghy boom.

A 1928 vintage Vrijbuiter- pic from the class site.  Below- the boatuilder Kolibri built this streamlined Vrijbuiter for his own use in 1942. She must have been one of hte last ever made.




Dinghy sailing seems to have been slow to develop in the Scandinavian countries. A significant local class doesn’t seem to have emerged until 1936, when naval architect Erling L. Kristofersen created the Oslojolle as a junior class. The project started as a Scandinavian praam type, with the characteristic wide overhanging forward sections, but during development it was given a much and more conventional bow. The clinker/lapstrake Oslojolle was a cheap boat to build, costing about as much as month’s boat hire, and within the first year 100 hit the water. The original lug rig was later supplemented by a bermudian sloop sailplan, but their high aspect ratio remained as quintessentially Scandinavian as the spoon-bow clinker hull, with its echoes of Viking longboats. The Oslojolle was one of the few European boats of its day to expand widely; about 1000 boats were built, it was adopted as the official training and racing boat for the Royal Norwegian YC, and fleets were raced in Denmark and the USA for some time. 



The heartland of small centreboarder sailing in Scandinavia was Sweden, where the sailing canoe, rather than the dinghy, ruled. These were not the slender sliding-seat racing machines of the USA, but more along the lines of the Smith Brothers’ creations from England. Like most people, the Swedes caught the canoe sailing virus from MacGregor, but they took it even further. During the tough times of the early part of the century and through the Depression years, the Swedes found that the cruiser/racer canoe was the ideal cheap boat for exploring the Baltic’s inlets and islands – and much further astream. In 1894 Gustaf Estlander (later one of the great names in Square Metre yacht design) sailed from Stockhold to Helsinki; Herman Lantz paddled from Sweden to the Caspian Sea before the outbreak of WW1 robbed him of his goal of canoeing to India.

Swedish B Canoes.jpg
A B and a C Class sailing canoe in 1944. These two classes were both 5.2m long and with 10m of sail area, but the Bs were up to 1.1m wide and the Cs 1.3m or more. Although these sailors are sitting down, in stronger winds they hiked like dinghy sailors and some canoe classes later developed hinged hikng seats that extended from the gunwale. From the excellent

In the early 1900s the Swedes added length and beam to their boats to make them more stable for cruising.  The C Class canoe created in the early 1930s brought beam out to a dinghy-size 1.4m; the D Class almost 20ft long, while the E Class was 1.5m wide. One (perhaps two) of the Swedish classes were given International status by the world canoeing body (which did and still does rule the sailing canoes), but few if any sailors from other countries got involved, and the cruising canoes remained largely a Swedish passion.

Swedish B Canoes 2.jpg
The big C Canoes in 1930.
Thorell canoe
One of the E Class cruising canoes from the board of Sven Thorell, a full 1.7m beam. Digital image here

Naval architect and canoe expert Jurgen Sass notes that even when canoes are as big as the Swedish ones, their design follows different principles to dinghies. That was probably why when the Swedish canoe designers drew dinghies, they normally looked quite unlike their canoes. Compare the “A Class” dinghy designs of canoeing legend Sven Thorell’s designs to his canoes. The canoes have fine, deep bows with the widest point of the hull well aft; the 5m long dinghies have the conventional full, flared bows of their era, with the widest point of the hull amidships. A few years later one of Thorell’s rivals was to combine dinghy and thinking into a boat that was to become one of the greatest of all dinghies, but as with many other European countries, Sweden’s impact on the world dinghy scene was going to have to wait until after 1945, when a new global era of dinghy sailing would arrive.

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1943 Thorell A Class dinghy., Oscar Norberg photo/Sjohistoriska museet via

Thorell dinghy.png





Information on early French centreboarders from the report to the 1905 ‘Congrès international de sport et d’education physique’.

“a sporting dictionary demonstrates that in France”:- Annuaire du sport en France, guide complet du sportsman. Eugène Chapus (ed)

Information about Argenteuil from

Caneton information from





Norsk Maritimt Museum




Swedish canoe information from various soufces oincluding personal correspondence with people whose names and emails i have now lost; Th   Sorell article in   ; Jurgen Sass’ “Kanotseglingens första århundrade” retried 4/9/2017

Henn Avasulu     4/9/17


oslojolle info from

Catboat New York.png