1.44 Southern Lights – the new breed of Antipodean lightweights

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

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

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

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

The R Class

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

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

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

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

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

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







The Cherub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gwen 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


1.43 The 5-Oh

Coronet, the boat that led to one of the world’s great dinghy classes. Coronet carried a large rig, with 16.3sq m (175sq ft) of working sail and a big 18.6sq m (200sq ft) spinnaker.and was often forced to carry an I-14 mainsail and the smaller of her two jibs. There’s often been discussion in the 505s about whether moving the forestay aft (to allow for a spinnaker chute) harms the jib’s efficiency, so it’s interesting to see that Coronet’s larger jib was set from the stem and her smaller jib was originally set 61cm (2ft) back from the bow.

Despite the Flying Dutchman’s selection as the new International two-man dinghy, there were lingering doubts about whether its long, flat shape could handle offshore waves. The IYRU labelled it as an inshore class, and the next year they ran another set of trials at La Baule in France to select a new two-man class for open water sailing.

Once again, the trials attracted a healthy fleet of prototypes and existing classes. Four Canetons and some Caneton developments represented the French. Two FDs represented the Dutch. The British came along with the conventional and overcanvassed but fast 17ft Marianne (designed by Claude Nethercott of Canoe fame), the Osprey, Hornet, the International 14s Thunderbolt and Fleetwing, and Uffa Fox himself on the Jollyboat. An Italian National 18 Footer, carrying two men instead of the normal three and smaller sails, came along as a yardstick. The two FDs in the event ran second and third, proved their seaworthiness, and the “inshore” restriction was removed from the class. But while the FD cemented its international place, the sensation of the contest was a boat called Coronet – the forerunner of the class that remains one of the world’s greatest dinghies.

Coronet was designed by John Westell, a yachting journalist and International 14 designer. Westell was one of those who had input into the FD design, and he sailed the boat while reporting on the first set of trials for Yachts and Yachting magazine. But like many UK sailors, he was a fan of shorter boats and believed that the FD was too stable, long and flat to give the real dinghy “feel”. When the second trials were announced, he decided to create a boat that could appeal to both European fans of long boats, and British fans of small dinghies.

Westell kept the overall length of his new design down to 5.5m (18ft), the shortest length that he felt the Europeans would accept. Instead of trying to create the longest practical waterline, as most designers would do, Westell drew overhangs on the bow and stern to keep the waterline down to 4.7m (15ft 6in) so that “in drifting conditions, the wetted area would be low and permit good speed without an enormous spread of sail.”[1]

Westell’s design was not just lighter, shorter and potentially cheaper than the FD. She was also a different concept. While the FD melded contemporary European and British ideas, the Coronet looked to the future; “convention had been spurned in pursuit of speed and nothing had been allowed to stand in its way” noted Yachting World magazine.  Where the FD was designed for cruisers as well as experts, the Coronet was aimed directly at the ever-increasing ranks of expert sailors spawned by the dinghy boom; “the gap between the top notch crew and the good-but-not-quite-the-best crew is apt to be very marked indeed in this boat” he noted at the time.

Westell also kept the future and the dinghy boom in mind when he drew the 505’s deck layout. He realized that the growth in dinghy sailing meant that rescue facilities were becoming inadequate. At a time when some “senior” classes purposely penalized capsizes by restricting buoyancy, he gave the new design unusually large tanks and transom flaps so she could be righted quickly easily.  While the FD initially used the Tornado sailplan, Westell drew a big and advanced rig with a long spinnaker pole, a complex rotating mast and deep section boom.

Westell’s design also took a leap into the future with its distinctive flared gunwales. Flares were making news in dinghy design around this time. Designers like Uffa Fox and Proctor had always objected to wide gunwales on the grounds of windage and drag. Then in 1948, Canadian I-14 sailor Paul MacLaughlin borrowed the old Uffa Fox 14 “Joyful” for the Prince of Wales Cup and “found that her bow wave threatened to swamp her when it was blowing hard”. MacLaughlin got around the problem by fitting “a pair of what looked like cherub’s wings sprouting from either bow, just below the gunwale; they were about 6 in. wide at the stem and tapered off to about 1’, 2ft from the bow. They were made of plywood and appeared rather flimsy”.

MacLaughlin’s “spray deflectors” were a classic piece of improvisation, and when he performed well people started thinking. Ian Proctor “grudgingly” put wide gunwale strips on 14s after 1952 (he was, he admitted later, wrong to be so reluctant) and in 1953, the innovative Austin Farrar launched the International 14 “Thunderbolt”. She reversed the long trend towards narrow beam by featuring widely-flared gunwales that made her 43cm (17in) wider than her near-sisters. In theory, the flare would keep the boat drier and make hiking easier and more effective. In practice, it didn’t quite work out that way. The leeward flare scooped green water over the leeward rail and into the open cockpit, the windward flare caused windage, and the extra stability tore gear apart. Although Thunderbolt now seems to be an ancestor of all the winged and flared hulls we see in so many classes, in her day she attracted as much criticism as praise.

Thunderbolt, the International 14 that inspired the 505’s flare.

I interviewed Farrar before shortly before he died in 2004, aged 91. Sadly, his memory for his many innovations had faded. He could not recall whether Westell was inspired by Thunderbolt or whether he was just working along parallel lines, but (given the timing and the publicity Thunderbolt attracted), it seemed probable that the 505’s flare was partly inspired by Thunderbolt. (NOTE – since this was written, historian/journalist David Henshall has confirmed that Westell was inspired by Thunderbolt’s flare and given permission to adopt it). But wherever the idea for Coronet’s flare came from, Westell was quite explicit about the reasoning behind the feature; “the deck was built out horizontally beyond the topsides to give an extreme beam of a little more than 6 ft, this giving the crew a long righting lever on a slim hull” he wrote.  The power of the flare allowed Westell to keep the Coronet’s waterline beam down a slender 4ft without destroying her ability to carry sail.

Coronet’s flare was flat-bottomed and angular, lacking the graceful curves of Westell’s later designs.  Some of the first published plans show the reason – under each gunwale was a “hiking seat” which would pivot out to give extra leverage when needed, or swivel back 90 degrees and sit under the flared section when not in use. By the time the trials arrived, the hiking seats had been discarded in favour of the trapeze but the thin flares, reminiscent of the 49er’s solid wings, remained.

A sketch of the Coronet’s sections. From the small-scale fuzzy plans available it appears to have slightly more Veed sections than the 505, but the main difference lies in the flat-bottomed wing-like flare sections. The plans also indicate that the earlier concept included a hiking seat that rotated out from under the flares.

Westell took another step into the future when he drew the Coronet’s lower hull sections. The turn of the bilge was hard by the standards of the day. Then, as the sections reached the waterline and flowed inboard, they gradually straightened out. From BMAX aft, there was a hint of a flat section along the keel line, instead of the distinct Vee that contemporary designs showed along the keel.  The Coronet’s hull did not have the distinctive flat of many modern designs – just a region where the gentle curves of the hull sections arced towards the horizontal (with a minimum deadrise of about 4 degrees), and the keel line almost faded away – but the semi-elliptical sections that Westell drew reduced wetted surface and increased planing lift. It’s a shape that is seen on most modern performance boats, but when Coronet was designed it was almost unknown.  Every earlier dinghy that I can find (apart from scows and sharpies) had a distinct vee section along the keel line; probably a legacy of the limitations of wooden construction, or maybe just an example of designers following an unconscious tradition. There had been a gradual movement towards flatter keel sections in some classes like Int 14s, but even the best 14 of the day (Farrar’s “Windsprite” design, the basis for “Thunderbolt”) still had a deadrise of about 15 degrees. Even the FD, which generally has flatter sections than Coronet, carried more Vee along the keel line than Westell’s design.

Free of the length and mid-beam restrictions of the Int 14 rules, Westell was able to give the Coronet a longer, finer bow with a half angle of around 15 degrees, compared to the 20 degrees of Int 14s of the time. The widest point also moved back lightly, to about 65% aft, in another step towards modern shapes.

It’s been said that Westell gave the Coronet the same stern shape that he’d developed in the 14s. In plan, the stern shows few surprises; just a long run into a transom about three-quarters as wide as the maximum beam. It was a conservative exit by more modern standards, and not too dissimilar to that of a boat like Windsprite, but Coronet’s extra length allowed the buttock lines to be drawn out to a gentler, faster slope. But there was nothing traditional about the rest of the Coronet’s rocker.  Where other boats of her time, like Int 14s and the FD, had deep bows and long flat sterns, Westell’s design had a shallower bow and more curve in the buttocks. This was no accident; “when planing started the rockered keel caused a long length of bow to lift, so once again reducing wetted area and skin friction” Westell wrote.

The trials at La Baule proved that Coronet’s performance was as advanced as her design.  She was almost as fast as the two FDs upwind, and ran away from them on the square runs. The three boats dominated the trials and raced closely together.  Although history sometimes records the trials as a crushing victory for Coronet, the facts disagree. By Westell’s own reckoning, allowing for issues like retirements, Coronet was a mere 69 seconds faster than the best of the FDs in nine hours of racing. “Had speed been the sole consideration” he wrote, “the (selection) Committee would probably not have felt that Coronet’s margin over the Flying Dutchman was great enough to justify recommending another new class.”

Coronet’s obvious quality attracted the members of France’s “Caneton” development class. Seven Canetons and Caneton developments had turned up for the trials. Some had done well, but none of them were in the same class as the FD and Coronet. Like Westell himself, the Caneton sailors came from development backgrounds but were looking to the one design concept as a cure to obsolescence and rising costs, so they asked Westell to modify the Coronet into a one design that would fit within the Caneton class dimensions. Westell was only too happy; “They felt, and I entirely agreed, that 16 ft 6 in (5.05m) was quite long enough for a two-person dinghy” he wrote. “The performance could be at least as good, if not better, than that of a longer boat, while the price must be lower and the general convenience both in and out of the water would be far better”. And so was born the International 505, a boat that many still regard as one of the ultimate racing dinghies.

As many designers have found out to their cost, scaling a design down can turn a brilliant boat into a mediocre one, but the fact that Coronet had been designed with a short waterline length made Westell’s job a comparatively easy one.  “Without altering the underwater body of Coronet, I snubbed the bow back 6 in. and lopped 12 in. from the after overhang” he noted.  He cut the weight down to match the shorter hull by “flaring the topsides out in a curve instead of building the deck out horizontally”, replacing the Coronet’s right-angled flare with the elegant curves that are a trademark of the 505. The 505 shape may not be quite as efficient as the Coronet’s angular shape, because waves can strike the flared-out sections up high, adding drag and cutting speed. Ian Proctor was probably right when he wrote that the 505’s curved flare was less effective in reducing drag and spray than the Coronet’s straighter sections, but the curves made the 505 easier and lighter to build in the technology of the day. Modern designers, freed from structural problems by superior technology, have been able to return to the Coronet style of slab-sided hulls and angular flare or wings. But the Five-Oh’s midsections still inspire modern designers. “If the mid section looks like anything it is a 505 taken to another level” is the way boatbuilder Steve Clark describes the Vanguard Vector, a production skiff type of the ‘90s.

Coronet had used her smaller sails for most of the trials, so it must have been an easy decision to discard the wingmast and reduce the sail area when Westell created the 505. “The lower displacement allowed sail area to be reduced to 150 sq. ft. without any loss of performance” he was to write.  In another look to the future, Westell retained the big spinnaker which set from a pole that was (for the time) extremely long at 2.5m (8ft3in). The 505 was perhaps the first boat that really showed the northern hemisphere the potentia of big spinnakers and long poles. As Westell himself wrote, the long pole held the spinnaker more securely in strong winds, and as early as 1955 he wrote that tacking downwind, at up to 20 degrees from dead downwind, was the norm in 505s (there is proof, incidentally, that it was popular in ocean racers as early as the ’30s). Initially, the 505’s sailplan was quite open in design and even allowed rotating masts if they were included in the measured area, but in a tribute to the success of Westell’s design almost everyone followed his plan and the class moved to a one design rig.

The 505 proved to be one of the few boats that could be reduced in size without being reduced in quality. “In fact, when they later raced together, Coronet was handsomely beaten by the Five-O-Five” wrote Westell…..”She relies for her speed in all wind conditions neither on excessive length nor excessive sail area but on a careful proportioning of everything”. The new class enjoyed the initial boost of adoption by the strong Caneton class (under the name Caneton Rapide) but it very quickly earned International status and outgrew its parent in both reputation and popularity. Paul Elvstrom never left any doubt that he thought the 505 was one of the best boats afloat, and even today top sailors feel the same.  As former world class president Ali Meller notes, “whoever developed the class rules had the wisdom to allow any material to be used in construction, and to allow some development in foils, rigs and control systems. The result was a magical boat that was far ahead of its time in 1954 but continued to develop without obsolescing existing boats.”

“It has everything” says Chris Nicholson, multiple world champ in 505s and 49ers.  “You require a fairly big crew, so that caters for big people, and the small people can steer the boats. It’s a fairly demanding class, it powers up easily enough in light air, and one thing that helps it out so much is all the controls on the rig and centerboard to help it go up and down through the range. At risk of sounding biased, I think it’s one of the best boats I’ve ever sailed on”.




[1] Seacraft, October 1957, p 52

Una reborn


A taste of history and, I think, some Stone’s beer as the reproduction of Una sails at the Small Reach Regatta. Pic supplied by Garry Sherman

Way back at the start of the Sailcraft story, I looked at the tale of Bob Fish’s little catboat Una. Along with her contemporaries, the big schooner America and the sandbagger-type Truant, she caused a sensation in British sailing in the 1850s. Una introduced the beamy catboat type to British waters, where they briefly became a must-have item among the trendy aristocracy as well as many middle-class sailors. Una became so famous that for decades after, “Una” was the standard British term for a mainsail-only rig. She is also the earliest small racing boat for which we have detailed information.

A few years ago, Massachusetts sailor Garry Sherman became fascinated by Una. He steeped himself in her history, built a model, and then started to build a full-size replica from the lines in Dixon Kemp’s “Manual”. Along with an appreciative audience on the Wooden Boat magazine forum, I watched Garry’s beautiful work, which extended to making the patterns for the cast fittings.

Looking at the photos on Garry’s build thread I was struck by the size of the timbers. She was designed in the era of heavy sawn timbers; before boatbuilders honed the art of steaming lighter frames. Looking at her heavy structure, the slack bilges, fine and deep forefoot and the bare foot of freeboard makes one understand why Unas were seen at their best in light winds and flat water.

Amongst the information found by Gary Sherman is this model of Una, presented to the Royal St George Yacht Club by the original owner, the Earl of Mount Charles, in 1853.

In June Garry launched Una, complete with her 1852 sail number. He reported that she floated dead on her lines – an impressive feat considering the lack of information about the details of her construction. On 4 July 2018, the new Una became what must be the only design of the great Bob Fish to sail into the 21st century. A minor structural issue with her mast caused some problems in her inaugural event, the Small Reach Regatta, but overall Garry appears to be understandably delighted with his creation.

The new Una shows off her fine bow and stern lines. Gary Sherman pics


Garry has now celebrated the Una project with a self-published Blurb book. I’m sure he’ll keep in touch as Una stretches her legs and gives us an insight into the state of the art at the dawn of small boat racing.




What we’re sailing today Pt 3 – Germany


One of the most striking things about the German dinghy scene (or should that be Jolle scene?) is the strength of the classic doublehanders – the sort of round-bilge boats with a symmetrical spinnaker and one trapeze that are best known in the form of the 420, 470, 505 and Flying Dutchman. The Korsar, created as a sort of smaller FD in the late ’50s, is still a strong class. Pics from the Segelclub Ville site (above) and https://bootsport.sprenger.de/ (below)


To try to kick this blog back into action, I went back to an old hobby and started counting national championship attendance, to try to track what’s really happening in our sport. This time I’m looking at Germany, one of the powerhouses of the dinghy sailing world. It’s not easy to navigate the German sailing scene, which like every major sailing nation has a unique culture and organisation, but with the aid of Google Translate and a bit of luck it seems that we can get a reasonable picture of what Germans sailors are racing.

As sailing historian Dougal Henshall has also noted, Germany is a land where classic dinghies dominate. If we look at 2017 national titles attendances, the most popular class is the inevitable Opti, with the Europe the third most popular and followed by the Laser Radial, Laser Standard, Laser 4.7 and Contender. The Finn is the 8th most popular class in terms of 2017 national titles attendance, followed by the OK and the Finn’s predecessor, the O-Jolle. Together, these older singlehanders make up 36% of national title entries.

Where Germany really stands out is the love of classic doublehanded dinghies with symmetrical spinnakers and one trapeze. The most popular trapeze boat (and second in the rankings overall) is the ubiquitous 420, but there are strong fleets of Flying Dutchmen as well as local classes inspired by the FD (such as the Korsar and Ixylon), the 470 and the 505. The love for trapeze doublehanders goes all the way down to the 10ft Teeny, probably the world’s smallest trapeze class. Such boats make up 27% of national title entries.

The 5.1m long Ixylon is another classic trap-and-spinnaker doublehander. Like many European boats it was designed for cruising and use in sailing schools as well as racing. The Ixylon is the only class created in the former communist DDR to survive; that fact, together with its lack of pretension, has caused it to be called “the Trabant of the water”. Pic from the class builder’s site.

As in so many other areas, there are few new designs that have achieved significant sales success. The Laser 4.7 (5th most popular class), the little 1983-vintage singlehander Seggerling (11th on the list) and the 29er (16th) are the newest designs (or re-designs) that have achieved significant popularity.  The skiffs and foilers (29er, 49ers, Int 14, Musto Skiff and Moth) make up just under 10% of the national title fleet.

CLASS Crew Type Spinnaker National championship National ranking Notes (see end of page)
Optimist 1 Hiking No 204 703 1
420 2 1 trapeze Sym 131 218
Europe 1 Hiking No 129 135 2
Laser Radial 1 Hiking No 81 249
Laser 1 Hiking No 72 147 3
Laser 4.7 1 Hiking No 64 107
Contender 1 Trapeze No 62 102
Finn 1 Hiking No 60 141
OK 1 Hiking No 57 105
O Jolle 1 Hiking No 54 120
Seggerling 1 Hiking No 53
FD 2 1 trapeze Sym 53 89 4
Korsar 2 1 trapeze Sym 52 89
Ixylon 2 1 trapeze Sym 49 64
29er 2 1 trapeze Assy 41 98
470 2 1 trapeze Sym 40 90 5
Conger 2 Hiking 38 122
505 2 1 trapeze Sym 35 82
Teeny 2 (junior) Hiking Sym 34 83
Pirat 2 Hiking Sym 59 123 6
Moth 1 Foiler No 26 33
H Jolle 2 1 trapeze Sym 22
Vaurien 2 Hiking Sym 21 7
Flying Junior 2 1 trapeze Sym 20 38
49er 2 2 trapeze, wings Assy 15
Taifun 1 Wings No 13 8
12 Sq M Sharpie 2 Hiking No 13 9
Jeton 2 1 trapeze Sym 8 10
Javelin 2 1 trapeze Sym 8 11
J-Jolle 3 Hiking Sym 8 12
49er FX 2 2 trapeze, wings Assy 8
Laser 2 2 1 trapeze Sym 6 13
Musto Skiff 1 1 trapeze, wings Assy 5
Z-Jolle 3 1 trapeze Sym 10
Cadet 2 Hiking Sym 43 79
Int 14 2 Trapeze, wings Assy 16 36 14
Elbe H-Jolle 2 Hiking Sym 15

Schwertzugvogel     2         Hiking              Nil             23                   42

VB Jolle                      2         Hiking              Nil                                     9

The German passion for single-wire symmetrical doublehanders extends all the way to the little Teeny, designed in 1986. At just 3.15m/10.3ft, it seems to be the world’s smallest trapeze class and is slightly more popular than its older rival, the International Cadet. Pic from www3.tsv-schilksee.d
A typical scene at the Alster, a small lake in inner Hamburg. As in many European areas, there is little open ground for dinghy sailors. Here, many dinghies are stored at tiny marinas along the lakefront. This sort of facility encourages sailors to use more stable boats that can easily be stored and rigged on docks. Wiki Commons pic.


In part, this stability is apparently because the german national sailing authority, the   Deutscher Segler Verband (DSV) exerts strong control over the class structure; for example small classes are not allowed to have a national championship. On the other hand, the same tight controls appear to favour the Olympic-stream 9ers, yet they have not overtaken the comparable conventional boats in terms of popularity. The Seggerling home-built singlehander has also apparently managed to achieve popularity without recognition from the DSV or a large commercial builder.

Perhaps the major reason for the strength of the traditional classes is simply that they suit Germany’s conditions so well, both afloat and ashore. Expatriate Australian sailor Andrew Landenberger, an Olympic Tornado silver medallist and Moth world champion, found the downside of newer designs when he tried to introduce the Australian NS14 dinghy to Germany. Andrew’s home club, like many in Germany, had such tight restrictions on dinghy storage space that boats had to be wheeled into the water and tied to the jetty to allow space for others to rig up. The traditional European classes would sit happily on the end of the painter while their sails were hoisted and before and after racing. The fast but tippy Australian boat was too unstable to be moored to the dock, which made it impractical for club racing.

The Schwertzugvogel is one of several northern European designs that is also available in a keel version. Like many other European classes (including the O-Jolle, Finn, and FD it was also designed for camping use and can sleep two people. Pic from the Segel-Club Ville site.

So what can we learn from German dinghy sailing? One is that yet again, we see that there are significant differences between the major sailing nations. No other country has quite Germany’s passion for the classic doublehanded dinghy. On the other hand, as with so many other countries – perhaps all – the most popular segment is the classic hiking singlehanders, and the adoption of new skiff and foiler designs has been very limited.  And perhaps the most important lesson is an old one; local conditions both ashore and afloat will play a major role in a class’ popularity, and not even high performance or heavy promotion can make a type popular if it is is not suited to the local wind, water, culture and facilities.


NOTES TO TABLE – almost all German classes run a Ranking List according to national sailing authority prescriptions. These take into account various regattas during the season. I’m not sure whether the fact that the national title fleets are normally half as big as the ranking list reflects a qualification process, or a coincidence. I use the number of officially-ranked boats; some classes also give information about boats that competed in some ranking events but did not qualify for official rankings for various reasons such as not doing enough events. Some very small classes (Int Canoe, Aquila) have not yet been included but seem to get only a dozen or so boats to championships and in official rankings. 
1- A and B divisions only counted in rankings
2- May include some double counting of Masters and Opens.
3- As above.
4- Over 130 crews compete in ranking events.
5- Combined Swiss/German nationals with Swiss boats excluded.
6- Separate Youth and Master championships. Biggest regatta had 66 boats.
7- Championship fleet total refers to biggest event, not the nationals.
8- Biggest regatta – may not have had enough active boats to run an official nationals. The Taifun is a sailing canoe and it seems that 3 International Canoes also raced a separate series. Details later.
9- German Open – most entries were from the Netherlands.
10- As 13 per note 8
11- As per note 8
12- As per note 8
13- As per note 8
14- Not all ranked boats qualified for official rankings.






Fishy tales

The Sunfish  and its ancestor the Sailfish put more Americans afloat than any other sailboats, and they changed the face of the sport. The Sunfish was created – designed makes it sound too serious – by iceboaters Alex Bryan and Cortlandt Heyniger, would-be iceboat manufacturers who were looking for another product to keep their little woodworking business afloat. Using the plans for a surfing paddleboard that a prospective customer had left behind, they created a unique boat with low freeboard and a low aspect lateen rig from an Old Town canoe.

Bryan and Heyniger’s creation  – first known as the Sailboard, then the Sailfish – was just 36in wide and so basic that it didn’t even have a cockpit, but it was light, simple to rig, fun to sail and cheap. The boat was sold in small numbers as a fully-equipped boat, in kit form or just as a plan. Sales were steady but unspectacular until a staff member of “Life” magazine, then one of the most popular mediums in the USA, chanced to have a ride on one in 1949. She got Life to fun a photo spread on the “World’s Wettest, Sportiest Boat“, the phone in Bryan and Heyniger’s factory rang off the hook, and the Sailfish took off as a beach toy. It was soon followed by a larger version, the Super Sailfish.

From http://www.worldofsunfish.com/


The Sunfish itself was born in the early 1950s, some time after Aileen Shields (daughter of big-boat champ Corny and a national women’s champ) had married Bryan and had got fed up with trying to sail a Sailfish while pregnant.  The company’s first employee, Carl Meinelt, drew out the shape of a beamier Sailfish in the sawdust on the factory floor, and added a cockpit so Aileen Shields Bryan could sit more comfortably. That doodle in the dust was all that was needed to launch 50,000 Sunfish, and many thousands of imitations. By      10,000 Super Sailfish, 5,000 Sailfish and 5,000 Sunfish had been built and the class was growing at 2,500 a year.

Bryant Sunfish.png
Aileen Shields Bryant on one of the boats she inspired. From “Cornelius Shields on Sailing.”

The Sunfish and Sailfish took North American sailing away from the staid yacht clubs and onto the beaches.  They transformed America’s image of sailboats from yachts to beach toys, and created a model for sailing as a mass-participation sport. As Ben Fuller points out, the fiberglass Sunfish’s simple two-piece construction also set the model for later boats like the Laser.

Almost as if to underline its status as a beach toy, the Sunfish didn’t become a racing class until the late 1960s, long after other “boardboats” it had inspired were racing as classes in places as far afield as England and Australia. It seems to have been the first class where the manufacturer supplied big fleets of identical boats for the world titles, setting the model that was to be followed by classes like the Hobie, Laser and Windsurfer.

The Sunfish still hasn’t spread too far afield. “The Sunfish class is not as strong or as competitive as the Laser in North America, but it is more popular in the Caribbean, Central and South America” notes former manufacturer Steve Clark. “The group is quite a bit different, but winning the Sunfish worlds is a serious accomplishment”.


The British Piccolo (top) and Australian Sailfish (below) were just two of the many Sunfish/Sailfish  imitations. Despite its name the Australian Sailfish was quite different from the original. Pic above from “The Dinghy Year Book 1962”, pic below from the Wooden Boat Association of Australia site.


The Sunfish must also have been an inspiration for the even cheaper styrofoam Snark, which sold through department stores. Well over 400,000 Snarks were built, although the construction method apparently meant that many had short lives. They’re slow and tippy, but a poll on one of the world’s most popular sailing websites (Sailing Anarchy) showed that the Snark gave many keen sailors their entry into the sport. The Sunfish was also a yardstick for Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer when they decided to make the Windsurfer in 1969 as a simpler “boardboat” with a greater sensation of speed.

The Sunfish story has an echo in the tale of other popular American boats like the Hobie and the Westsail 32 cruising yacht, which became huge successes after exposure in Life and Time magazines respectively. It chimes in with something I learned when talking to those behind the success of classes like the J/24 and Laser, and reading about the Windsurfer’s early struggle. The enormous size and diversity of the US and its market require a unique approach. The Holt/Moore formula won’t work as well as it did in smaller countries such as the UK and Australia, nor will the European style of creating official national classes. To achieve massive success in the US market seems to require a very nimble approach; one that listens closely to what the customers want, and will be able to react quickly to any stroke of luck that comes along.

The Sunfish still out-sells even the Laser in the USA. “The Sunfish has a bigger recreational market than the Laser, that explains why they sell better” explained Clark, who reckons that it came out on top on objective criteria every time they tested it against modern “beach boats”. Perhaps the boat’s niche is protected by its age; few designers nowadays would be brave enough to create a boat with a lateen rig and yet the low centre of effort and downwind power of such a rig make it a good match for the low, slender hull. The Sunfish is a tale of a lucky marketing break meeting a builder who had a good and innovative product, and who was willing to make it even better.


The Rascal and the Resistance – the Vaurien


The language divide means that the French Vaurien is little known in the English-speaking world, but it was one of the most popular boats in early days of the dinghy boom. Its genesis was linked to the dark days of WW2, when Paul and Helene Viannay became heroes of the French Resistance. After peace arrived, the Viannays searched for a way to maintain the spirit of adventure and fraternite that they had found among the Resistance, and to heal the psychic scars of the war. On the beautiful but rugged Glenans archipelago they founded a very basic holiday camp that evolved into a sailing school. The emphasis was, and still is, on teamwork and adventure; this is not a slick resort style operation driven by profit, but a charity intended to breed cooperation in a challenging sailing environment. Glenans is now the largest sail training organisation in Europe, training more than 14,000 people per year, and it’s credited with playing a major part in democratising and popularising sailing in France.

In the winter of 1951-52, Philippe Viannay sponsored the construction of the first Vaurien. It was designed by Jean-Jacques Herbulot, a two-time Star Olympian and a co-designer of the 9m2 Sharpie, and named after a stray dog he had adopted. “Vaurien” translates as “scamp” or “rascal”, and the name fitted the unpretentious little boat well.  Like so many boats of the early dinghy boom era, the Vaurien was a cheap plywood all-rounder.  “The whole conception of the class was of extreme simplicity and one that would sell at the absolute minimum price” it was said. “And yet the boat had to be tough, a good performer under a sloop rig, suitable for complete beginners and sailing schools, capable of taking an outboard motor and also providing first-class one-design racing.”

420 and Vaurien postcard
Vauriens and a very early 420 at a French sailing school. The 420 largely took over the Vaurien’s role as a two-person trainer.


Although the Vaurien’s “mission statement” was similar to that of boats like the GP14, Enterprise or Snipe,  the French class was very different in two significant ways. One was the unique hull shape. The bottom was flat all the way from the bow to a point about 1.7m (5ft5in) from the transom. From that point to the transom there was a Vee-shaped “dart” in the bottom panel, which allowed the stern to take on a gentle Vee shape to reduce transom drag and the normal tendency of a flat-bottom hull to change balance dramatically depending on heel. The hull was sheeted in 6mm plywood and was light by 1950’s standards at 209lb, allowing a small jib and mainsail of just 87 sq ft to drive the boat along at a satisfactory pace. The rudder and centreboard had efficient high-aspect outlines but were produced from plywood to reduce cost.

After successful trials at Glenans the sailing school ordered a batch of 100 – a huge number for that era. This emphasis on professional batch production, rather than home-built one-offs, marked the Vaurien’s second departure from the other major hard-chine classes of the era. Because the accuracy of the shape of the “dart” had such an effect on the shape and performance of the hull, only licensed professional builders who sold the boats at a stipulated maximum price were allowed to build Vauriens. Fittings, equipment and even the paint was covered by strict one design rules, and only sails could come only from licensed sailmakers.

The Vaurien now has an updated rig. It was this cheap little dinghy and others like it that made sailing a popular sport in France, not the famous professional ocean racing circuit, but it has suffered through competition against newer boats.

The rules forced builders to adopt batch production if they were to make a profit, but the result was an extremely cheap boat. The early Vauriens cost only as much as two standard bicycles, and as late as 1964 a Vaurien was less than half the cost of a Firefly or 420 and the same price as the much smaller Mirror.

The Vaurien put France afloat. Post-war laws required large businesses to run leisure and sporting clubs, which encouraged working and middle class people to look for a sporting outlet. Many of them found it in sailing on the huge sand pits, created by the post-war reconstruction and building boom, that were used to form artificial lakes around places like Paris and Rouen. The Vaurien became the backbone of many new clubs on these lakes. “It is quite remarkable how some clubs have developed on account of the Vaurien” wrote Britain’s Dinghy Year Book in 1964. “The Vaurien has brought into the sport of yachting an enormous number of people who would otherwise probably never have been afloat at all.”  As early as 1956-57 there were 875 Vauriens launched within a year, and by 1964 there were 14,000 Vauriens, making it the Snipe’s rival for the title of the third most popular dinghy in the world.

Two former Vaurien sailors, Philippe Poupon (front, on Fleury Michon VIII) and Eric Tabarly (rear, on Cote d’Or) charging out into the Atlantic on 75ft tris at the start of the 1986 Route de Rhum. Poupon won. Scan from http://www.histoiredeshalfs.com.


Among those who honed their skills in the Vaurien was Eric Tabarly. His win in the 1964 singlehanded transatlantic race was seen as a French victory in an Anglo-Saxon ocean. It  earned Tabarly the Legion D’honneur medal and made singlehanded professional ocean racing into a French passion. English-speaking observers today often believe that the popularity of the sport in France is based on the high profile of pro sailing. French sailors tell me the opposite – that pro sailing relies on the fact that organisations like Glenans and the Vaurien association had already made sailing a popular, egalitarian sport.

The Vaurien is yet another class that was driven by a desire to use sailing as a tool to improve the wider society by attracting new sailors into the sport. The same motivation created such successful classes as the International Cadet, the Mirror, the Optimist and the US branch of the Moth. Given their success, it’s easy to think that boats designed with a clean sheet for such powerful motives may tend to be more successful than those created with the narrow aims of being faster.

The Vaurien started to decline in the 1960s. The hull’s flat sections made it unsuitable for early single-skin ‘glass construction and the accent moved to newer boats like the 420. But although the class is long past its glory days, there are still fleets of Vauriens racing in several countries. The Vaurien may not inspire today’s designers with its shape, but any boat that can sell 36,000 hulls and launch the careers of many of the world’s top pro sailors deserves respect.

Pt 1.42: Moral panics, juvenile delinquents, and the Optimist.

Like the US breed of Moth, the world’s most popular dinghy was inspired by a father who was concerned that idle youth would become caught up in “the rising tide of juvenile delinquency”. In the 1940s, US media such as Life Magazine identified a strange new creature – the “teen-ager”. Changes in education and the economy and the freedom given by cars led commentators to speak of an entirely new species, perched between child and adult.

Articles in Life and Popular Science through the early 1940s are said to have sparked the new concept of the “teenager”.

The newly-identified life form was the target of yet another of the recurring moral panics about Kids These Days. This time the fear was not about alcohol or acid, but about comic books. The new genres of crime and horror comics were ruining teenaged minds, said the experts; if you left it to Beaver he’d turn into a psychopath.

Before TV and computers came along, it was comic books that were going to lead kids to ruin. Here in December 1948, the teenagers of Binghampton in New York set comic books alight to protect and purify their peers. From cbdf.org.

In 1947 Major Clifford McKay of Clearwater in Florida gave a talk to a local service club, the Optimists, about protecting teenagers from “the rising tide of juvenile delinquency”. As Clifford A McKay Jnr wrote in Southwinds magazine many years later, his father looked at the enormous success of the “soapbox derby” and the joy his son had sailing with the local Snipe fleet. Major McKay proposed that the Optimist club should sponsor a class of cheap little sailboats, each subsidised by a local merchant in the same way as the soapbox derby carts.


Building and racing “soapbox” gravity racers was a popular way to keep kids on the streets in the 1940s. Bridgeport Library pic.

McKay asked local boatbuilder Clark Mills to build a simple boat that would cost less than $50. As Clifford A McKay Jnr wrote, Mills created gave the boat a pram bow to keep it short enough to be carved from an 8ft sheet of ply, and a spritsail rig which was more forgiving for amateur sailmakers. He built the boat in a day and a half and had it ready for the Optimist club to adopt at its next meeting.

The Optimist is so pervasive these days that we struggle to stand back and assess the design with clarity.  It’s interesting to see that when it was spreading worldwide at the height of the dinghy boom, it was recognised as the most stable and easily-handled of craft. The British Dinghy Year Book noted that it was “so stable that it is exceedingly difficult for a child to capsize” and “as near foolproof for a child’s first dinghy as it is possible to get”. The stability is obvious, but it’s also noticeable that the centreboard is set further aft than some other prams, which suffer badly from getting caught in irons.

I have to admit that when I first saw an Optimist while I was at a high-performance windsurfer world championship at Lake Garda in Italy, I was appalled. The speed of the boat seemed to be a cruel punishment given the skill with which they were being sailed. It was not until years later, when I saw them being used by beginners in Australia and my own kids started sailing, that I realised how well Mills’ design worked. While my kids and I had seemed to spend hours stuck in irons with the boom whacking our heads or capsized, the Opti kids were just having fun. The beginners found that an Opti was easy to sail, the club found that they were easy to afford, and the future champions found lots of competition in a simple boat. Our club (Dobroyd in Sydney) had Opti sailors who were at the front end of the national fleet, but none of them were the spoiled brats of the stereotype; they loved their little boats and the ease at which they could launch them and through them around for a high wind training session.

State arcjoives of Florida sarasota optimists 1951
Optimist Prams racing in Florida in 1951. The number of early photographs of Optis seems to indicate the wide interest in the tiny boat and some good PR work. State Archives of Florida.

As Clifford McKay Junior wrote many years later, “the dreams and expectations for the Optimist Pram were always large, as large as the boat was small.” Even when only one boat had hit the water, his father was planning a national championship. Fifteen sponsors signed up to the programme in the first week and by November 16th, 1947, a fleet of eight “Optimist Prams” was racing in the warm, calm waters of Clearwater Bay. The fleet grew quickly. Even a disastrous clubhouse fire that destroyed most of the fleet’s boats became a promotional opportunity to launch the class further afield. Within seven years, there were a thousand Optimist Prams racing in Florida alone.

In 1958 Axel Damgaard, a Danish ship captain, saw the Optimist Pram while on a trip to Florida. With Mills’ permission he took the plans to Europe, modified the class rules to allow a more sophisticated sail and fittings, and the Optimist Dinghy was born. In the 1980s, the growing popularity of the International Optimist Dinghy finally killed off the original Optimist Pram class in its home waters.

The Optimist had plenty of competition for the junior sailing sector in its early days. This is one of the few remaining fleets of the National 10/Turnabout, once a very popular junior trainer. With its great beam, a weight of 255lb/116kg and a US Portsmouth Yardstick rating that’s almost identical to an Optimist it would have to be one of the most stable and slowest of all dinghies.

So why did the Optimist catch on so well? It was not the first tiny training pram. Just before the war, The Rudder magazine had published the plans of the Sabot dinghy, which had been modified into the Naples Sabot and the El Toro in California and also adopted in Australia, where it was fitted with a bigger rig. Debate still rages about the merit of the Sabot (which is still popular in California and Australia) and Optimist, although it seems fair to say that the Mills design is slower but easier to handle. The Sabot and its variations was not the Optimist’s only competition – in 1951 it was claimed that over 20,000 examples of the 8ft Sea Shell pram were afloat, and there was at least some class activity. There were also many other junior dinghies, like the little Dutch Pirat (with a flat floor like that of an Optimist, but a conventional bow and a lug rig), the Turnabout and of course the International Cadet.

Sea Shell
Around the time the Optimist was launched it faced competition from classes like the Sea Shell, an 8ft pram that was enormously popular as a rowing and outboard dinghy but took a long while to form a class association. The class is long gone – more evidence, perhaps, that there’s a lot more to maintaining a class than just getting critical mass. Source “The Sailboat Classes of North America”


Perhaps the Optimist succeeded because the class did not splinter into small groups that concentrated only on local sailing, like the various classes derived from the Sabot had; perhaps its success can be seen as the ultimate demonstration that ease of handling and safety attract more sailors than speed.

But like the other classes that sparked off the dinghy boom, in the end the main ingredient of the Optimist was the vision, generosity, and (sorry to say) optimism of those who created the class. Like the other major classes of the time, the Optimist was created to cater to the society in which it lived, rather than as a narrow technical exercise in boat design. From the start, the class was driven by the optimism of volunteers like Major Mackay and his backers. As Clifford McKay Junior wrote, the creation of the Optimist class “was a labor of love. Dad conceived a plan so all kids could sail and promoted the Pram around the state….Clark Mills designed it, built many of the first hulls, and donated the copyright to the Clearwater Optimist Club. The Clearwater Optimist Club with Ernie Green’s tireless leadership spent countless hours with the program, supervising races, working with the boys and girls, and transporting them to regattas….No one received royalties or any remuneration. Dad’s plan worked. It provided inexpensive boats sponsored by merchants for every boy to spend hours and hours on the water, with no time to think about getting into trouble. The goal of these men was that boys and girls could have fun sailing, and grow up to be good citizens . . . and that alone was their reward.”

Although the Sabot pram was popular before the Optimist was created, it splintered into several independent classes. This is the Holdfast Trainer, a South Australian version with more buoyancy,  a jib and a two-kid crew. The class is no longer operating. Pic from The Islander newspaper by Richard Symens.


Most of the information in this post came from the article by Clifford A Mackay Jnr in Southwinds magazine, November 2012.  

Sea Shell information from “The Sailboat Classes of North America” and MotorBoating magazine. In December 1951 the latter claimed that over 20,000 had been built, while Sailboat Classes speaks of    2,500 to 5,000. Since the Sea Shell was sold in kit form as a rowing and outboard dinghy with an optional rigging kit it seems likely that the smaller number referred to the number of kits sold with rigs. The Sea Shell had a class association and seems


Pt 1.41 – Technology, volunteers and the boomtime

While the arrival of new technology played a major role in the postwar growth in dinghy sailing, many older classes such as the Snipe and Lightning kept on growing. Despite the arrival of the new boats, in the early ’60s the Snipe was still the second most popular class in the world, with 14,475 boats. The Lightning (8,700 boats) sat in fifth spot in the popularity rankings. So what kept these older boats popular, in an era when dozens of lighter, simpler and faster classes were emerging?

Part of the success of the older classes was simply that they already had critical mass and a high level of public awareness, but I started reading archives copies of the Snipe class magazine from the late ’40s and early ’50s to find out what else was involved. Coming from an era when dinghy sailors face dwindling fleets and endemic pessimism, going through the Snipe Bulletin’s back numbers was a rather strange and poignant experience. Month after month, the Bulletin spoke of new fleets being formed and new boats being launched by the dozen. There was the same flavour of unconscious optimism that we windsurfers felt in the early to mid 1980s; an assumption that the sport would always keep on growing and that the future would always be bigger better than the present.

It took a while to realise the three important underlying messages that were coming from the words written so long ago by men like Crosby and Wells. The first message was that even in those bountiful years the class’ continuing success wasn’t just the product of its maturity and critical mass meeting the sociological factors that were creating the dinghy boom. Even though the Snipe entered the boomtime as the world’s strongest class, it still relied on the selfless passion of volunteers who were determined to inspire new people to take up the sport and who were prepared to start new fleets, lend the class money to finance technological developments, loan their boats for regattas and do all the other jobs on which the whole sport depends.

Secondly, the class benefited from leaders who were not only champion sailors, but also keen to maintain the class’ low-budget one-design ethos as they steered it through the changes that came with new technology like fibreglass, dacron and alloy. Time and time again one sees that they put the priority on maintaining the competitiveness of old boats. They handled the challenges so well that the new technology made the Snipe more popular and the boats more even, rather than dividing the class into new boats and old ones.

Thirdly, even at the peak of the boom, even the world’s strongest class remained a cottage industry.  Most manufacturers appear to be small operations, and so was the class itself. In the early 1950s the International Snipe association earned about about $3000 per year (about $30,000 in today’s values) and still barely broke even. Much of that income came from generous members, such as the ones who had lent the class $1500 to buy the Snipe’s plans and rights from Rudder magazine, or Well’s gift of royalties from his popular book. In 1951 Crosby, who was still involved in the class, earned just $939 in royalties. In an era in which the richest professional group (self-employed professionals such as doctors) earned $7400 and the median male income was about $3000, Crosby’s royalties would be nice to have but hardly enough to make one rich.

Thanks largely to the good management of volunteers and their skilful handling of new technologies, the Snipe continued its international spread throughout the boomtime. 


The challenges of emerging technology and class growth seem to dominate the Snipe’s history through the early years of the boomtime. In the early ’50s, the Snipe Bulletin reported that the class had an unusual problem – despite the increasing cost of labour and materials, demand for race-worthy new boats was so high that builders could not build the planked mahogany hulls quickly enough, and costs were rising dramatically.

In a complaint that finds many echoes today, it was also noted that many people lacked the skill or work ethic to maintain their planked wooden boats.  “A great many people do not have the time, the place or the skill to do this work themselves, and it is becoming terrifically expensive to hire this work done” lamented the class Bulletin as early as April 1953.

One solution was allowing plywood hulls, which were permitted from the early ’50s. Around the same time, the class took a more innovative step.  Worried that “the development of a fibreglas hull for the Snipe was the only way to keep the Snipe class from gradually dying out as a result of the increased popularity of fibreglas boats” the association started exploring moulded boats as early as 1953: just six years after the first fibreglass racing sailboat, Ray Greene’s Rebel, had hit the water. Considering the strength of the class and the novelty of the technology, it was an impressively far-sighted move. It may also have been significant that the class management turned to the members for feedback and found it almost unanimously in favour.


Snipe hiking
The Brazilian team on their way to Pan American Games victory in 1959. The problem of transporting boats in this era meant that many series used loaner boats. In this series, Conrad and his crew (name TBA) were sailing the boat owned by former world champ Ted Wells but in the last race they proved the strength of the one design ethods by borrowing one of the worst-placed boats and leading until some gear failed. Wells noted that the Brazilians, just 17 years old, trained every day of the year and were so fit that they removed his own hiking straps to allow them to hike with their knees on the gunwale when required. Not too many sailors today can hike like this.


Although the class recognised that Crosby’s shape wasn’t ideal for ‘glass – “the flat sections of a Snipe hull require the use of much thicker fibreglas material than the curved sections of a hull designed specifically for fibreglas” – they took tight control of specifications and moulds and seemed to ensured that the early plastic boats were just as fast as the best timber hulls, but no faster.

The next challenge was synthetic sailcloth, which really hit the scene in the mid ’50s. Sailors knew that cotton sails had major problems. They had to be carefully and gently “stretched in” for hours when new, they could take on permanent stretch if they became wet and the adjustments were not eased, they suffered from mildew, and were so stretchy that top class racers needed specialist sails for light and heavy winds. On the plus side, cotton sails were a well-developed product and if they were well cared for, they could last for ages – Snipe world champ Ted Wells reckoned they had a racing lifespan of 10 to 15 years, which will make those who own many modern sails weep with envy.


Fibreglass Snipe.png
Much to the disgust of fibreglass pioneer Greene, who built the original plug, the Snipe class did not restrict fibreglass builders as long as they followed the tight and extensive specifications.


When sailmakers and top sailors like class president Ted Wells and sailmakers got experience with dacron, they quickly found a significant bonus. The first Dacron sails were no faster than cotton, but the synthetic material’s lower stretch meant that one set could handle the whole wind range, instead of two or three sets as with cotton.

Further experience highlighted other benefits.  “Paradoxically, Dacron has made sailmaking both easier and harder” wrote sailmaker Wally Ross in the magazine of the Lightning class, which was facing the same issues. Sailmaking in cotton could be easier, because the stretchiness and shrinkage often hid a maker’s errors. Dacron’s stability gave no such latitude, wrote Ross; “small errors on cutting do show up and remain in the sail, making Dacron very sensitive to small changes in design”.

Dacron’s reduced stretch didn’t just allow (and require) sailmakers to create better shapes. The synthetic material’s stability also allowed fast sails to be replicated effectively for the first time. “The biggest handicap with cotton was that it required a “breaking in” process which was not at all consistent, and made it impossible to either duplicate a sail, or have it set exactly as designed” wrote Ross. With Dacron “once the correct shape is attained, the finer tolerances and more detailed designs allow the highest degree of duplication.”

Although the advantages of Dacron sails were soon obvious, they were also about 10% more expensive, and threatened to make existing sails obsolete. True to form, the Snipe class showed concern for its members’ pockets and phased in synthetic sails over a few years, first permitting them at club level, then at minor championships and only then at the worlds.

One interesting and apparently surprising result of the new technology was that competition got closer.  Many boats were still kept afloat. Fibreglass hulls, fibreglass sheathing and plywood helped stop the moored boats from leaking and soaking up water, allowing them to compete with their dry-sailed sisters. Alloy spars were less affected by natural material variation and humidity than wooden masts. Dacron’s low and consistent stretch allowed sailmakers to reproduce known winning shapes and therefore make fast sails available to more people. Although the Snipe did not use the emerging technologies to increase speed, the racing got better and owning a boat got cheaper.

Snipe ceremony
Snipe titles were big news. This pic from the Snipe Bulletin shows the blessing of the fleet at a championship in South America. Wells’ account of such regattas show that even by the 1950s, many boats were poorly tuned and there was a huge variation in the standard of fittings. The advent of modern technology made boats more similar and the racing tighter.


One issue that established classes like the Snipe and Lighting could not really address was their weight. By the 1950s, the Snipe was already recognised as a heavy boat, but time and time again the class put the priority on maintaining its one design rules to ensure that the thousands of older boats stayed competitive. The results show that it clearly worked. Snipe Number One was still racing well in 1955, and as late as 1954 Snipe Number 23 was still well up at the national titles.

In truth, the Snipe never really had a choice. As Frank Bethwaite has pointed out, if the Snipe went on a crash diet its heavily rockered, heavily Veed hull would lose too much waterline length, and it would still have too much curve to plane easily.

The weight may actually have helped make the early fibreglass boats compete with the wooden ones. The class’ tight controls on its sail numbering shows that it was still genuinely growing strongly, and the reports from the fleets show that the vast majority were still strong and full of old boats that would have been killed off by a major weight reduction.  Designer and founder Bill Crosby was still actively beating the one design drum by pointing to classes like the Wee Scot, which had hundreds of active boats before it was radically “updated” and then collapsed. As some Snipe sailors said, the class would simply have to accept its weight handicap and concentrate on its strengths. By keeping up with technology but maintaining the competitiveness of old boats, the Snipe maintained its position as one of the world’s most popular boats.

The Snipe’s archives gave me an important lesson. Subconsciously, we may think that it was easier to run a class in those days of growth, optimism and emerging technology. The truth is that even then, the health of the sport relied completely on the time and enthusiasm of volunteers who kept their eye on ensuring affordable sailing for club level sailors.



“”Paradoxically, Dacron has made sailmaking both easier and harder”. ‘Hard Sails’ by Wally Ross, Lighting class yearbook, 1957

Minor studies by great masters

Christmas this year is the season of moving, not of giving. With a house, lots of boats and boards to move 11 hours north, Sailcraft is taking a bit of a hibernation. But to keep the blog ticking along, I’m going to post some plans and pics of some lesser-known boats from great designers that I have scanned while storing and stacking magazines.

The Gwen 20

Australian designers Charlie and Lindsay Cunningham were among the most innovative and diverse of small-boat creators. Their first great work, the Gwen 12, was designed during WW2 and arguably set the pattern for post-war Australasian design. A lightweight (for its day) hard-chine planing hull topped by a big rig and powered by a trapeze (it appears to have been the first one design to adopt the trap), it shocked the skiff world by proving faster than the 12 Foot Skiffs. The Gwen became a popular class for decades but has now vanished.

The Cunninghams followed the 12 with the Gwen 20 – a much bigger version of the same style. Only one or two were built, because in the early 1950s the Cunninghams moved to catamarans. Their Yvonne design of 1952 became arguably the first modern catamaran class, beating the Shearwater which normally gets the credit. The smaller singlehanded Quickcat came along soon after and was enormously popular for years before vanishing completely. The appeal of the cats killed off the Gwen 20 and this plan is the only illustration I can find of it.

Gwen 20

In later years, the Cunninghams became famous for their Quest line of C Class cats, which won the Little America’s Cup, and then breaking the world sailing speed record with the wingsailed proa Yellow Pages Endeavour.

The Monarch

The Monarch was an 18ft/5.5m two-person version of the Contender, also created by Ben Lexcen. The Contender is another design that I’m going to cover in detail, along with some of its competitors in the great singlehanded dinghy trials of the 1960s.

Like the Gwen 20, the Monarch vanished basically without a trace. All I can find of it is the boat test that supplied these pictures, and a mention in a yardstick listing. I’ve often thought that a Contender could be an interesting boat for those who want to be able to sail either one up or two-up, and perhaps the Monarch could be worth a closer look to see how Benny would have looked at the problem.



Monarch hull

Bruce Farr Moth and 18 Footer

Before he became a yacht design legend, Bruce Farr was already a big name in New Zealand and Australia for his champion Moths, 18 Footers and 12 Foot Skiffs. As they say, more to come later.

Farr Moth
Above – Early Farr Moth with radial traveller and what looks like an extremely uncomfortable gunwale. Below – Miss UEB was an early version of the Farr designs that dominated the 18s in the early to mid ’70s.

Miss UEB.png

Jack Holt’s Cavalier

The Cavalier was designed for the trials that eventually chose the Contender as a new International singlehanded class. Although she went well she was just 14 ft long, was too small to be fully competitive. She only took part in the first round.

The trials were a fascinating chapter in late ’60s design. I have lines of several of the competitors and will cover the three series soon.


Next up….. a few designs that were anything but great.

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.
EDIT – According to “The Sailboat Classes of North America”, in 1962 there were 25,000 Sailfish and Sunfish; 2,000 Turnabouts (now the National Ten); from 2,500 to 5,000 of the 8ft kit-built Sea Shell prams; 1200 Y-Flyer scows; 1800 Thistles; 1000 Rhodes Bantams, 1900 Rebels, 2300 Nippers, 2800 Naples Sabots, 11 Lido 14s, 1100 Geary 18s, 1050 Flying Juniors, 1500 El Toros, 3600 Comets, and 3500 Blue Jays. It appears that the author may have referred to total boats built, whereas the figures for classes like the Blue Jay and Comet in the chart refer to active boats.


Many of the boats of the boom time are out of the ordinary. For every “typical” boat from the mainstream of design, like the 470 or 420, there’s a couple of unusual designs like the Fireball or Vaurien. Some “boom boats” could even be called dead-ends, in terms of design.  The 4m (13ft4in) Vaurien is still hanging on in Europe, but no other boat has copied its bottom shape. The multi chine sections of the Enterprise are now rarely seen on new boats. Today’s beginner boats rarely carry the gunter, sprit and lateen rigs of the Mirror, Optimist and Sunfish. The snub bow of the Optimist and Mirror are not seen even in the smallest of new designs. The Fireball remains one of the most popular International class trapeze dinghies, yet multi-chine scows are almost unknown elsewhere.

The 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.