A former sailing journalist and magazine editor, I was lucky enough to grow up in Sydney, one of the world's sailing hotspots and to win national and state championships in classes like J/24s, Windsurfer One Designs, offshore racers, Laser Radial open, Windsurfer OD Masters, Raceboard Masters and Laser Radial Masters, to get into the placings in a few other classes, and do a few Sydney to Hobarts.
To take a break from writing the last in the series of pieces about the growth of distinctive national styles of dinghy in the period from about 1900 to 1950, I chanced to buy Professor David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old; Technology and Global History since 1900. It’s a fascinating book, and to my surprise I realised that it has a lot of relevance to the story of dinghy development.
One of Edgerton’s basic thrusts is (to quote Edward Tenner, author of “Why Things Bite Back; another of my favourite books on technology) is to issue “a call for a new way of thinking about technological change, not as a sequence of revolutionary discoveries, but as a complex and often paradoxical interaction between old and new: ‘technology in use’ as opposed to an ‘innovation-centred’ history.” As Edgerton points out, we often get caught up in overstating the rise of the latest innovations, leading us to ignore the fact that what is more important is the more popular older technology. Edgerton’s point fits in well with SailCraft’s pieces on what we are sailing today, which underline that for all the fuss and hype, the
overwhelming majority of sailors still sail medium-speed boats, just as they always have and just as they may always do.
But for me one of the most interesting things about The Shock of the Old was that it may explain the end of the first era of internationalism in design and the long inter-war period when national styles evolved. It turns out that this was not just restricted to sailing, but across technological development and trade as a whole. As Edgerton explains, there have been significant periods when international exchanges of technological innovations have slumped, often around the same time that international trade in general has slowed.
After reading Edgerton I started poking about the internet looking at patterns of international trade – something I had not considered when I identified the mysterious slump in internationalism in dinghy sailing that started in the 1890s and ended about 1950. I soon came across charts of international trade and migration in an article by economists Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser, which shows a strong correlation between the level of international trade and the patterns of internationalism in dinghy development. They show a fall in internationalism in the 1890s and early 1890s, followed by an even stronger slump through the inter-war period.
It’s still too early to see how well and widely internationalism in dinghy development parallels international trade. It wasn’t that international communication between sailors ceased. People from the US and Australia were still quite aware of Uffa Fox’s designs in the 1930s, for example; they just didn’t make many of them. There were also two classes that spread widely in this period, the 12 Square Metre Sharpie and the Snipe. Both were cheap chine one designs, ideally suited to the Depression era. The information about international design flowed freely, and two specific designs were adopted across the globe; it’s just that the wider trends of dinghy design turned inwards in almost every major sailing nation for decades on end during the same era.
While it’s a bit hard to see a causal connection, given the complexity of the factors that underlie the development and popularity of a sport, the strong correlation between international trade and internationalism in design seems too interesting to ignore, and I’ll explore the area more in the future.
Edgerton’s book, like works in the field of Social Construction of Technology, shows once again how our assessment of the state and future of our sport has to concentrate on many more areas than the simplistic chase for newer ways to go faster. The pity of it is that sailing, a sport which is often said to require more intellect than any other, seems to shun research and deep thinking of its past, present and future. But that’s a disturbing topic for another time.
New Zealand is perhaps the only country that has a book that really covers a nation’s dinghy sailing history. “Southern Breeze; a history of yachting in New Zealand” was written by Robin Elliott and Harold Kidd, who probably rate as the world’s best sailing historians.I’ve relied a fair bit on Southern Breeze for this post, as well as the work of Gavin Pascoe of wgtnclassicyacht.blogspot.com and Alan Houghton of Waitemata Woodies.
Size for size, sailor for sailor, probably no country has had the same impact on our sport as New Zealand. At the dawn of organised New Zealand small boat sailing in the 1880s, the colony – for such it was at the time – had a population of only 500,000 people and a depressed economy. Even as late as the 1930s, the population was just 1.5 million – roughly as many as Detroit, Hamburg and half that of Greater Manchester. But despite this scarce populace, scattered across two islands, New Zealand was already growing the roots of a sailing culture that was to lead the world in the 21st century.
The pioneering spirit, small population and isolation meant that the typical New Zealander had to become a thrifty do-it-yourselfer; the sort of person who would design and build their own boat rather than call in a professional. The country was also fiercely egalitarian and socially progressive; it was the first nation in the world to give women the vote (although for some reason there does not seem to have been a strong tradition of sailing women) and one of the first to provide an aged pension.
Sailors seem to have recognised that the sport could not thrive in such a climate if it appealed only to the wealthy. Perhaps even the way they applied the term “yacht” to 7 footers as well as 60 footers showed the egalitarian attitude. “Not for us the attitude; ‘If you consider the cost you can’t afford to be a yachtsman” wrote Peter Mander, NZ sailing’s first Olympic gold medallist and a man who, like many middle-class professionals, built his own boats. An attitude like that seems to have led to features like an emphasis on boats that the typical person could afford to build and race, regional support for the top sailors, and the widespread use of golf-style arbitrary handicapping to ensure that even the less competent sailors and those with older boats or those not built to the edges of the loose class rules felt that they still had a chance to win.
Despite the home-builder emphasis, New Zealand was the home of some outstanding professional boatbuilder/designers who optimised the superbly durable and light local timbers and exported boats across the globe. Led by the Logan and Bailey families, they proved that they could out-design the products of men like Fife and Watson. Later generations of professional New Zealand designers like Bruce Farr, Russell Bowler and Laurie Davidson, almost all from the local development dinghy classes, were to go on to reshape yacht design at the end of the 20th century.
As in other countries, New Zealand classes were divided along geographical lines. In the north of the country around Auckland were warmer, well protected waters, world-class cruising grounds and moderate winds that encouraged cruiser/racers and development classes with big rigs. Down south, in places like the famously windy capital city of Wellington and the cities of the South Island, dinghies often faced higher winds and colder and more restricted waters that favoured boats with more conservative dimensions. It often lead to a split between the classes sailed in Auckland and those sailed in the other regions and cities.
As Kidd and Elliott explain, the first major type of centreboarder to race in New Zealand was the “open boats”, which their peak during the early to mid 1880s. They were at their strongest in Auckland, where for some time during the decade they were divided into three classes by overall length; up to 13ft, up to 16ft, and up to 20ft. They normally seem to have been fairly conservative boats with low-aspect rigs and the graceful wineglass stern of a typical oar-and-sail boat.
There are few photographs of the open boats. Southern Breezes includes a couple of shots, but we can also get a feel for their design by looking at the famously successful 25 footer Pet, created by Charles Bailey Snr in 1877. Boats like Pet were not beamy over-rigged craft like the sandbaggers or the Sydney open boats; Pet for example was a moderate 7ft5in wide. Her lines, which can be seen at the Wellington Classic Yacht blog, show a deeply Veed hull with a high wineglass stern. She had 1500 cwt of sliding ballast, and a “ram bow”, designed to get around the system of measuring boats by their length on deck. Pet was later modified by being half-decked and fitted with a yacht-style counter stern, and it is in this form that she can be seen in the photograph below.
Like their great boatbuilding rivals the Logans and many other New Zealanders, Charles Bailey Snr was of Scottish extraction. To me, in details like her shifting ballast, general proportions and lines and the drag to the keel (ie the way it deepens aft) Pet may show hints of a connection with the long-keel open racing boats that had been developed in Scotland since the mid 1800s.
The American catboat/sandbagger type had a strong influence on New Zealand’s dinghies, as it did in every major sailing country. The odd thing is that in New Zealand, the type arrived many years after it changed the face of boats in Canada, France, Germany, Australia and (to a lesser extent) Britain. It wasn’t that the New Zealanders were anti-American; they happily adopted the US leeboard scow schooner as the inspiration for their own trading scows which formed the backbone of the coastal trading fleet. But for reasons unknown they don’t seem to have been influenced by catboats until 1897, when two American cargo ships were caught in a severe gale off the NZ coast. Both captains called it the worst storm they had ever experienced; “nothing but white seething foam as far as could be seen” they told the newspapers when they staggered in for repairs. The barque Sea King was kept afloat only by her steam-powered pumps when she made it to New Zealand, where she was repaired by shipwrights whose skills earned high praise from her master, Captain Pearce.
Pearce (or Pierce; accounts of the day differ) seems to have made a hobby of boatbuilding on board. The previous year, he had built the lug-rigged 24 ft Half Rater Alki, described as “clinker built throughout of white cedar, and rather dishy in appearance” while sailing Sea King from Puget Sound to Sydney. When Sea King finally left Auckland, Pearce left behind another boat he had made aboard the barque. Many years later, Robin Elliott somehow tracked down two photos and some details of the little boat, which had been named after her mothership. “Little more than 14 feet long, she was low-wooded, flat in the floors, very beamy for her length, and half-decked with a cat rig” he wrote. To the sailors of Auckland, used to conventional yachts and the narrower and deeper Open Sailing Boats, this seems to have been something of a revelation; “nothing like her existed on the Waitemata at the time” says Elliott.
Elliott believes that the little catboat inspired William Logan, scion of a famous boatbuilding family, when he created the class that became known as the “Restricted Patikis”. The Restricted Patikis (the name means flat-fish or flounder in Maori) were a beamy 18ft 6in short-ended clinker centreboarder that fitted the Half Rater category under the L x SA rule (hence the alternative title of Restricted Half Rater) but with dimensional limits that would ensure they stayed as a big dinghy type rather than developing long ends and slender lines like the normal Half Rater. Arguments over the class rules killed the class by 1904 – a common problem for many years in New Zealand, where there were rival clubs, regatta organisers and sailors who rarely agreed on rules and their interpretation – but as Elliott says, they had become the first properly organised class in the country and had led the way in promoting the concept of the flat-bottomed, wide-transom centreboarder.
After the Restricted Patikis died out, the name was taken over by a different breed of Raters. These had the long overhangs and slender lines of the typical Rater, and around the turn of the century the rival firms of Bailey and Logan had developed were boats as radical as anything to be seen on the Thames or Long Island. The early highlight was the 1898 Intercolonial Championship for One Raters where Bailey’s Laurel took the prize but Logan’s unlucky Mercia proved herself the fastest boat. Both boats were quickly sold to Sydney, where they regularly raced with success against the 22 Foot Open Boats. One of the fleet, incidentally, was the clinker-built Maka Maile, of an unknown US design – given that clinker Raters of American design were rare and that we know that Pearce had already built a Rater in Australasia, perhaps he was the designer?
As Kidd and Elliott note, Mercia effectively became the prototype for a flat, light-displacement unballasted breed of Rater or scow style centreboarder that Logan exported as far afield as South Africa. For some years the unrestricted Patikis proved themselves too fast for Auckland’s Waitemata harbour; they were ruled out of most yacht races to stop them from making the cruiser/racers and deep-keelers obsolete. These days it’s common to condemn the sailors and clubs that excluded the unrestricted Patikis, but they were essentially a very big and fast dinghy. Racing them against the dual-purpose keelers and mullet boats was probably about as fair as racing a windsurfer against catamarans, and given the outstanding cruising waters on their doorstop there was no way the average Aucklander would buy a yacht they could not sleep aboard. If the unrestricted Patikis had been allowed to win everything, many of the stunning classic kauri racing keelers that Kiwis now cherish may never have been built.
Some of the unrestricted Patikis moved to the shallow waters of Auckland’s other harbour, the Manakau, where they were no deep keelers or cruiser/racers to complain. Their other refuge was the lagoon at the city of Napier, where they found the perfect combination of flat water and strong sea breezes. Here the tales of the Unrestricted Patikis became not just legendary, but (as with the 18 Footers and Z Jolle of the time) sometimes frankly unbelievable. The last of them were 27 footers that could be lifted by two men and, men swore, sailed at 40mph.
The era of the unrestricted Patikis effectively ended in 1931, when an earthquake levelled the city and lifted the bed of the shallow lagoon two metres or more over an area of about 40km2. Like so many other boats inspired by Raters, the lightweight structure of the unrestricted Patikis could not survive the pounding their flat bows received when they were forced to sail on the ocean; as Kidd and Elliot say, “one by one the great boats fell apart.”
After the Patikis faded, the open centreboarder lived on in classes like the Auckland 16 footers; undecked boats initially limited to a maximum beam of 6ft, four crew and 180ft2 of working sail, although as often happened in Auckland some clubs and regatta associations applied different rules. Within a few years, some 16s were carrying ballast (and winning) and others set up to 300 sq ft of sail. Shortly before WW1, the type died out; a victim, Elliott and Kidd believe, of rising costs.
The two main cities of Auckland and Wellington each had their separate restricted classes of 14 Footers and 10 Footers in the early 1900s. The Auckland 14 footers pictured in Southern Breezes look like the same style of conservative yacht-tender type as the British boats that were to become International 14s, but the class died when professional boatbuilders dominated the trophy lists. Meanwhile, in the Wellington men like the Highet brothers were developing a separate breed of hard chine (“square bilge” in NZ language of the day) 14 footers. According to Elliott and Kidd, many of the Wellington boats were heavy influenced by the chine designs in the American Rudder magazine, especially the 14ft Sea Mew. Exactly why the Sea Mew had such an influence is unclear, but given the later development of NZ design the key factor may have been its exceptional beam of 6ft 8in.
The Rudder hard chine designs may also have been the last important and distinct overseas influence in New Zealand dinghy design for some time. As with so many other countries, from WW1 to the 1950s New Zealand design developed its own distinctive style. Even when the Kiwis took on the Australians during this period, they did so by racing two distinct national classes against each other, rather than by merging one class into another or adopting a foreign class.
When Wellington sailor/builder George Honour moved to Auckland in 1918 he introduced the type of hard-chine boat that Wellingtonians had been developing to a city where hard chine boats had previously been rare. Enthusiastic reports that spoke of Honour designs “as light as a feather” planing at great speed seem to have been exaggerated, but they were fast, quick and cheap to build, and an inspiration to young sailors short of a pound. Honour’s boats were the basis for the 14 foot long “Y” class and the 18 foot long “V” class – one of the ancestors of the 18 Foot Skiff. For a brief period in the 1930s, as many as 35 Y Class could start in a single race in Auckland.
This division of similar development-class boats into different classes according to the shape of their bilge became a Kiwi characteristic; authorities like Kidd and Elliott and veteran New Zealand dinghy champ Graham Mander believe that it was considered that the hard-chine development classes should be left for juniors and amateur builders. Ironically, the loose rules often allowed the hard chine boats to carry bigger rigs and often they were faster than the “aristocratic” round-bilge boats of similar length.
After WW1, New Zealand developed a veritable alphabet of development or restricted class dinghies, often combining a hard core of racing machines with fast cruising dinghies or half deckers. Rules were simple; normally just a length limit and a restriction on sail area. The V Class for example was (at least initially) had only two rules; a maximum length of 18ft and a crew of between three and five, which effectively limited the area for some time until a limit of 400 sq ft was imposed. The T class and Y Classes were both 14 footers restricted to 250 sq ft of sail; one round bilge, the other hard chine. Canterbury sailors were developing what became the R Class; 12ft 9in long and with 110 sq ft of sail.
In many ways it seems to have been an ideal formula. The fact that weight, beam and other details were normally unrestricted meant that designers could experiment, and the hard chine hulls in some boats made such experiments comparatively cheap. The classes that shared a common length seem to have been able to race together fairly successfully, despite their other differences, which may have reduced the problem of keeping a fleet of critical mass together. What simple restrictions they did have were enough to stop designers chasing ever-diminishing returns by going to the extremes of length or sail area like the Suicides, frei Renjollen or Sydney’s 18 Footers.
The Wellington 10 and 14 footers, the Christchurch skimmers, punts and Rs and Auckland’s alphabet soup of Ts, Ss, Ys, Ms, and Vs all had one thing in common – they were basically restricted to one region. The class that was to finally break the pattern of short-lived or localised classes was born in 1918. W A Wilkinson, who had been trying to years to kickstart a one design dinghy class, had Glad Bailey draw up a clinker 14 footer as a junior boat. From the outside, the “X Class”, as it became known, looks pretty much like a typical but stubby version of the clinker one-designs that could be found along the coast of many countries from Britain to Italy, but it quickly proved to be the fastest 14 foot dinghy of its time in Auckland.
One of the first of the Xs was then bought and raced by Sir John Jellicoe, the Governor General (national head of state) and commander of Britain’s Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland. In Australia and in New Zealand, vice-regal sponsorship was a significant seal of social approval for a sailing contest. With performance and social status on their side and a national championship trophy (the Sanders Cup) dedicated to a national hero, the “boat for boys” suddenly became New Zealand’s blue-ribbon national dinghy class. “Nothing else came close to it in importance, nationally” write Elliott and Kidd in Southern Breezes. “Such was its stature that, for almost 40 years, newspapers around the country devoted as much space to the Sanders Cup in the summer as they did to rugby’s Ranfurly Shield during winter….the sport had never had such a high profile nationally.”
Measurement disputes were de rigeur in the early days NZ dinghy racing, and the Xs were no exception. After some controversy, the original loose rules were tightened into a true one design; then loosened into a development class; then when fibreglass arrived in the 1950s, the class became a one design once more. With three or four men in a 14 footer carrying a moderate-size rig, the X Class was soon seen in Auckland as a rather outdated boat (although quite capable of beating the less-restricted 14s at times) but in the smaller cities and regions it represented the chance take on the sailors of NZ’s largest city in a fair match – and to often beat them. In the words of Peter Mander, who proved that he could win in the most high-profile of Auckland’s classes as well as the “national” types, “the Xs were never particularly numerous, but in a life full of incident and adventure they did attract the best.”
The Sanders Cup was open only to a single boat representing each province. It may seem strange to modern minds, but given NZ’s small population, small number of wealthy individuals and undeveloped transport, it was a logical step that was followed by all of the national classes until well after WW2. “The early centreboard boats were intended largely for sailing on home waters and when they came ashore most of them would travel little further than the permanent slip near the end of a mechanical winch wire” wrote Peter Mander. “The boats were not intended principally for contests which would involve travel, time off work, freight, money. When contests began only one boat from a whole fleet would represent a province, many of whose yachtsmen would contribute to a common pool to meet the expenses of the lucky representative crew.”
The X Class became the leader of a quartet of national classes that were to dominate much of NZ dinghy sailing until the 1960s. While the X Class wasn’t dramatically different from the sort of boats you could see in many other countries, the three smaller national one designs showed the evolution of a distinctive style.
The first step down from the X was the Idle Along, a boat in which beam and stability were pushed to the limits for good reasons. The Idle Along’s home was the capital city of Wellington, squeezed between mountain ranges and Cook Strait which separates NZ’s two islands. Wellington is said to be the world’s windiest city – it has an average annual windspeed of 14.4 knots and up to 233 days of gale force winds in a year. When amateur designer/builder Alf Harvey created the Idle Along as a fast general-purpose boat, he ensured it had the stability to handle Wellington’s howling winds by packing three crew, a low-aspect rig, flat hard-chine sections, and the enormous beam of 6ft on an overall length of just 12ft 8in. It’s widely claimed that Harvey modelled the foils and rocker profile from a dolphin he caught, measured and released, which may explain the boat’s length and the steep rocker right forward.
Harvey also ensured that the Idle Along had fore and aft buoyancy compartments, making it a safe, practical day cruiser. The Idle Along was cheap, versatile, tough, stable and fast by the standards of the day and by 1939 it had become the most popular boat in the country outside of Auckland, which remained loyal to its local development classes.
The national youth or intermediate class was the 12ft long Takapuna, also known as the Z Class or Zeddie after its sail insignia, which was born in 1920. Like the Idle Along, the Zeddie was a characteristically Antipodean boat. It was cat rigged, but it carried the characteristic Australasian “flattie” spinnaker on a long pole. A typical Zeddie of the 1950s weighed about 300lb; the lightweight era had yet to hit New Zealand. Like many Australasian boats of its era, with its flat hull and low-aspect rig the Takapuna compromised on light wind and upwind performance in the name of high speeds downwind. As former Z Class champion Peter Mander wrote “the lively little craft reached extraordinary speeds with a beam wind. Each season would bring its crop of authentic tales of how they had passed boats of up to eighteen feet when the wind was fresh and the boats were on a broad lead (ie broad reach) in the hands of skippers who knew what they were doing”.
The national junior boat was the 7ft Tauranga P Class, which was to go on to take a stranglehold on New Zealand junior sailing. The stubby little boat was developed from 1920 by Harry Highet, one of those who had developed the hard-chine 14 Footer of Wellington. Highet was a non swimmer, and not surprisingly he gave the little boat extensive decking and buoyancy tanks. In an era when many boats would barely float after they capsized Highet’s design had obvious attractions, although it took until about 1945 before it made big inroads into the Zeddie’s dominance in Auckland.
With its long boom and conventional stem (instead of the pram bow of most small trainers) the P Class is a challenging boat and notorious for nosediving. “This great little boat is a big reason that New Zealand has produced so many good sailors” wrote Russell Coutts. “They are much more demanding boats to sail than the Optimist or Sabot and they are one of the most difficult boats to sail downwind in strong winds because they frequently nose-dive…..it’s such a complicated boat in terms of balance, sail shapes and tuning that there’s no doubt that if you can master it you can sail almost any boat.”
While the X, Z, IA and P were becoming accepted as national classes, two of Auckland’s indigenous development classes were attracting some “international” (or at least interdominion, to use the old term) attention. In 1938, New Zealand sent a team of “V” Class 18s and an “M” with an enlarged rig to the first “world” title for 18 Footers in Sydney. They were fast and high upwind, but could not compete against the vast rigs of the Australian boats downwind.
The following year, the contest was held in Auckland. In a shock result, the M Class Manu – a cruiser/racer that sailed over 20 miles across the open Hauraki Gulf each weekend to race – won the first race in heavy air. In the last two races Manu sailed consistently while the best of the V Class and the Sydney boats capsized or were disqualified, and the “Emmy” became the only boat with a cabin to win the 18 Foot Skiff “world championship” trophy. Sadly, her owners never got the trophy – the Australian defending champion refused to hand over it over for years, even when he lost an appeal and was chucked out of his own club. The story ends happily, for Manu has been found in dilapidated condition and restoration awaits.
Perhaps a more symbolic event occurred when two of Auckland’s 14 footers went to race in the 1938 Australian 14 Footer championships. The round-bilge clinker hull T Class Vamp won the contest, defeating the “unbeatable” Triad. The other NZ boat, the snub-nosed hard-chine V Class Impudence shocked observers with her planing speed but was erratic, winning one race in the regatta by ten minutes but trailing the fleet home in other events. Writers like Frank Bethwaite have claimed that this was a victory for the light and efficient Kiwi boats against the over-crewed Australian displacement boats. Such commentators seem to have missed that the days of the giant Australian 14s were long over. The Australian boats in Hobart were all just 5ft wide, dramatically smaller than Vamp, which was 6ft 4in wide. The Kiwi boat had trimmed her upwind sail area slightly (from 240 to 220 sq ft) to match the Australian rules of the day. Judging from the slim evidence of the few available photos and reports it appears that the Kiwis usually carried three to four crew while the Aussies carried four to five.
The victory of Vamp, and the outstanding performance of Impudence downwind in planing winds, may be a symbol of the development of the New Zealand stream of dinghy design. For years, Australians had also been trying to develop lighter boats, but they had done it by reducing beam as well as sail area. The New Zealanders had developed lighter boats, but they had also increased their beam so that they could carry lighter crews but still produce enough hiking power. At least in the conditions in Hobart (where the water is flatter than on the 14s strongholds of Melbourne and Adelaide) the Kiwis had found the faster option, and the future was to prove them right.
“New Zealand seems to be the only English-speaking country that has a national history of the sport of dinghy sailing”:- The only Australian national sailing history concentrates on big yachts and 18 Footers and manages to deal with major dinghy classes like Sharpies, Lasers and 14s in a sentence or two.
achts I Have Known.PROGRESS, VOLUME VI, ISSUE 6, 1 APRIL 1911 – Pastime’s sliding ballast ejected through her topsides
“Wellington is said to be the world’s windiest city”:- TBA One official meteorological report says that Castlepoint, about 100km away, gets 50 knot gusts about every third day!
“clinker built throughout of white cedar, and rather dishy in appearance”:- Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 15 Dec 1896.
“Little more than 14 feet long, she was low-wooded, flat in the floors, very beamy for her length, and half-decked with a cat rig” Emmy p 20
“For a brief period in the 1930s, as many as 35 Y Class could start in a single race in Auckland”:- NEW ZEALAND HERALD, VOLUME LXV, ISSUE 20056, 20 SEPTEMBER 1928
The V Class for example was (at least initially) had only two rules”;- NEW ZEALAND HERALD, VOLUME LXXV, ISSUE 23156, 30 SEPTEMBER 1938
“the Xs were never particularly numerous”: Mander and O’Neill, p 23.
The P is also problematic because it is so hard to handle that, as Coutts went on to say, “in some ways the difficulty of the boat…drives some kids away”. Peter Mander called it “basically unsound in design”; ‘Give a Man a Boat’ p 262.
I’m still tracking down information on the 14 Footer nationals, which were part of a larger regatta. It appears that Vamp had an unbeatable lead on points after two races and was 4th in the last heat, which was won by Triad. counted those heats, but the 14s did the later races associated with the regatta. Vamp scored two firsts and a fifth in the last heat of the regatta. Impudence was 8th in heat 2 and last in heat 3, but ended the associated regatta with an easy win in which she planed as fast as the 21 Footers that were also having their national titles. Triad scored 2,2,1.
It’s quite possible that Vamp, having already won, was taking it easy in the last heat. It’s also possible that Triad was more consistent. However, the future trend of design was to indicate that the beamier “kiwi style” was the way to go.
See for example The Advertiser (Adelaide) 18 and 25 Feb 1938; Advocate (Burnie) 19 Feb 1938;
Yachting in Port Nicholson.PROGRESS, VOLUME VI, ISSUE 6, 1 APRIL 1911
As late as 1940 there are accounts of the more restricted X Class beating the big-rigged Ts when the two fleets started together.”;- See for instance
Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1929. The prohibition is in full swing everywhere across the USA – apart from Atlantic City of “Boardwalk Empire” fame. “Boss” Nucky Johnson runs the town, and he has effectively legalised alcohol to keep the tourists rolling into the big hotels and tourist attractions. Along the waterfront sit the bootleggers’ speedboats, powered by triple V12 engines that will allow them to dodge Coast Guard cutters and naval destroyers when they run out to the floating booze warehouses that sit outside national waters on the “rum line”.
Two groups of men met in Atlantic City that year to discuss the effects of prohibition. One was a wealthy group who stayed at a prestigious hotel and partied in full view of the press. The other group included boatbuilders and seamen from a “gangster-ridden neighborhood…..a teeming cesspool of rumrunners, gangsters and gunslingers.”
The group who were strutting the boardwalk in the glare of publicity included “Scarface” Capone, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and many of America’s other leading mobsters. They were planning the future of organised crime in the USA. The group who talked in a rundown neighbourhood was lead by Captain Joel Van Sant. They were planning the class that became the Moth.
The inside tale of the creation of America’s Moth comes from boat designer and former Moth sailor David R Martin, who was born at the same time and place as the Moth and started sailing them as a boy. “There were about a half-dozen boat-building shops within walking distance” he told Yachting Magazine and confirmed to me by email. “Captain Joel Van Zant got the boat owners and captains together in 1929 and told them, ‘This neighborhood is full of rumrunners, gunfighting gangsters and debauchery. When these kids grow up, they’re liable to become rumrunners if we don’t stop it.” Van Sant showed the group a little boat he was in the process of building, and proposed that they start a class of similar boats to keep the local kids active and out of trouble.
Joel Van Sant III was a natural man to lead the class. A member of a family that had been boatbuilders for generations, he was a qualified ship’s master, the former trials captain for the Elizabeth City Shipyard in North Carolina, and the paid captain of the big steam yacht Siesta. Together with boatbuilder Ernie Sanders, he’d created the little boat he called Jumping Juniper while Siesta was in refit at the Elizabeth City Shipyard, to give himself something to carry aboard Siesta for pleasure sails. Perhaps the need to store the boat on Siesta, along with Van Sant’s slender frame and the fact that he was a damn good sailor who didn’t need a stable boat, was the reason why Jumping Juniper was just 11 feet long.
Dave Martin says that in order to encourage the neighbourhood kids to use their creativity, the Atlantic City group decided to create a development class instead the one designs that dominated US dinghy sailing. It fitted the local culture, for Atlantic City was a small island of development classes in a world of one designs. Perhaps it was the way the shallow and narrow waterways (“thorofares” in Atlantic City speak) wound through the city, providing plenty of waterfront space for boatbuilding. Perhaps it was the miles of sheltered waters, for development classes tend to thrive on calmer seas. Whatever the reason, around the turn of the century two 15ft long local development classes had formed; the Mosquito Class designed around the round bilge skiffs (probably a variation of the famous oar-and-sail Jersey Skiffs) and the hard chine Crickets, apparently developed from skipjacks. “Our neighborhood was extremely interested in advancing the art of boat design” recalls Martin. “For instance Cricket Boat sailor Adolph Apel was at the leading edge of powerboat design.” To men like these the development class was a familiar concept, and they had the skill and the tools to explore the possibilities. They found an old building to build boats in and called it Evening Star Yacht Club, because they raced in the afternoons after their working day was done. As Martin recalls, the entire neighbourhood would come down to the waterfront on those afternoons, to sail their Moths or cheer on their friends and family.
In the harsh times of the Depression, the cheap little Moth made waves with astonishing speed. Van Sant took Jumping Juniper when he went down to Florida for the fall, and the class took off there when he sailed to victory in a regatta. He went back to North Carolina, and fleets spread there. Soon there were Moth fleets from Long Island all the way south, although for some reason the class never seems to have spread further west in the USA. The first class championship was as early as 1930, and by 1937 there were Moths in ten states. Somehow the tiny little boats soon ended up with a $2,500 first place trophy and $1500 of other prizes for the “world” championship, although competition from outside the USA seems to have been non existent until after WW2.
In its early days, the “world” open championship shared the limelight with events for juniors, teams racing and women; a symbol of its appeal as a versatile craft rather than a specialised racing machine for experts. It’s hard to realise how big the Moth was in the USA in its heyday as a club racer for people of all skill levels. In 1946, MotorBoating magazine claimed that the Moths had 1500 boats afloat, making it the sixth most popular class in the country. The Moth class pioneers had certainly succeeded in their mission to get kids hooked on boats. As Martin recalls, many of the early Atlantic City Moth teenagers became leaders in boat design, although they made their names under power rather than sail. Russell Post founded the famous Egg Harbour Boat Company; Jack Leek ran President Sea Skiffs and Ocean Yachts. The Russo brothers worked at Pacemaker, while Martin himself spent many years designing powerboats for major companies. In later years, the Moth was to help launch designers like Skip Etchells (of Etchells 22 yacht fame). It was a tradition that was to extend to France, England, New Zealand and Australia in later years.
The early Moth’s Vee-bottomed semi-scow hull looks unusual to modern eyes, but for a bunch of people who sailed boats like Crickets and Sneak Boxes it was a logical design for the local wind and water. “I think the shape of the earliest Moth Boats reflects local conditions (air light with a goodly chop) which one encounters in the rivers and small bays in the Mid-Atlantic region during the summer months” writes George Albaugh, secretary of the Classic Moth Boat Association and author of the fascinating Mid Atlantic Musings blog of Classic Moth information and photos. “Additionally, I think Van Sant wanted a design which amateur builders could home build and thus a chined hull with a gentle vee bottom and a transom bow and stern was what he and Sanders came up with for the initial Moth.”
As Albaugh notes, the early Moths had a “heavy, gentle vee bottom, transom bow and stern, pivoting centerboard (rather than a “jab” or dagger board–which was one of the first important innovations and occurred in the mid-1930s). Early boats also feature flat decks for easy construction. As time went on decks developed crowns which artificially allowed boom heights and sail heights to creep up leading to a rule which limited the length of the mast above “true deck” to 16′ 6″ and also limited boom height to 12″ above deck.”
“Over time it became apparent that lighter boats were faster than heavy ones, and that reduction of wetted surface by (a) increasing keel rocker and (b) introducing round bilge shapes and (c) the introduction of sharp(er) stems to cut through the chop in the aforementioned light air conditions, were all performance enhancers. By the end of the first decade, the boats were quite a bit different than the original Van Sant Jumping Juniper design and tending to look like Dorr Willey’s design. The second world war interrupted further development and the boats that were built immediately after the war were for the most part very similar to the ones built in the late 1930s.”
Although most of the early Moths were scows, Dave Martin remembers that “there were pointed Bow boats modelled after the Cricket boats”, which also indicates how the Moth sat in a culture of development classes.
Despite the development aspect, for many sailors the main appeal of this cheap, lightweight little boat was as a training class. Although it was a playground for wild ideas in design and construction many developments that threatened the basic concept that Van Sant had set were prohibited. Although the class allowed featherweight 20kg (45lb) hulls with fabric decks and 1.6mm (1/16in) bottoms, they banned catamarans and sliding seats that allowed sailors to reduce the hull beam to as narrow as 3ft.
Even overseas the Moth class quickly had an influence. In Australia, Van Sant’s design inspired a similar but slightly older Australian class to adopt the Moth label. An early boat exported to England left many sailors unimpressed, but showed others that “a boat with unorthodox fore sections and a shorter waterline could be driven harder than the average dinghy”. That lesson was an influence in the Brent One Design of 1932, which was soon renamed the British Moth and which remains a strong class. By 1936, the Moth class had quietly started in France, and the class was laying the foundations to become one of the most significant dinghies of all.
While Moths were hitting the water by the dozens, a tiny group of sailors was racing another development class that was twice as long, but just as open in its rules. The “Suicides”, or Development Class was created in the late 1920s on Long Island by a group including William Atkin (better known for his seaworthy cruising yachts). With some of the loosest rules ever seen (initially, it seems they had simply a limit of 11.6m2 (125ft2) of sail, a minimum beam of 3ft 6in, some construction restrictions, and a 23kg (50lb) centerboard) the Suicides became a playground for designers of the quality of Nathaniel and L. Francis Herreshoff. “The class was of tremendous educational value, and, as I see it, demonstrated that with an actual sail area of 125 square feet a 20 to 23 foot over all by 5 ft. 6 in. beam hull can be made to travel very fast” wrote Atkins. He also claimed that they were also quite cheap, at least at first, sometimes costing less than $125.
L. Francis Herreshoff thought the long, skinny European-style Suicides were much better boats than the short British dinghies that were catching the eye around the same time. “The International 14 Footers are so vastly inferior to the (Suicide class) Development Boats that there is no comparison. The latter are faster for their sail area, safer, cheaper and drier.” As early as 1930, Francis’ “Dragon Fly” featured a cat-ketch rig with full battens and aerodynamic pocket luffs like a modern sailboard sail. There were Suicides with hard-chine scow hulls and twin rudders, there were Suicides with graceful yacht-like hulls, there were even International 14s in the fleet. It’s no surprise that in those early days, Yachting Magazine recorded that the different designs were “miles apart in power and effectiveness in varying conditions of air”.
The Long Island fleet seems to have died around WW2, for reasons unknown to me. Their home club is now an example of that US phenomenon, a yacht club that seems to put more emphasis on swimming pools and dress code than sailing. Perhaps the problem was, at Atkins put it later, the Suicides “were good fair weather racing boats; but not useful sailing boats.”
But down in Florida something was afoot. Whether it was the warmer waters, a higher proportion of sailors who lived closer to the water or something else, the southern state became the last haven for Suicides and the old Cricket development class, as well as a Moth stronghold. The Suicides arrives in Florida in the early 1930s, where boats with names like Harikiri and Arsenic raced against Nat Herreshoff’s Biscayne Bay 14s and Stars. Designers like Larry Huntingdon and Wirth Munroe (son of sharpie guru “Commodore” Munroe) became involved, as did aircraft innovator C Townsend Ludington. Ludington’s “L Over D”, a reference to aerodynamic’s lift over drag ratio, had a rotating mast, a pocket luff and a fixed “gaff” that formed a curved head to the mainsail. Inspired by Manfred Curry’s gybing centreboard, Ludington fitted his Harikiri with two asymmetric centreboards sitting side by side in the same box, so that when the leeward one was pulled up the remaining board presented an asymmetric airfoil section. Although the Suicides tended to have narrow sterns, in the 1930s Ludington reported that Munroe’s Suicide “Poison Ivy” had “shown a definite tendency to plane”.
The later Suicides adopted a radically slim-lined and low-wooded shape, similar to the German Renjollen lake racers of the same era; in fact, some used the same designs. But although those who designed and sailed the Suicides remember them fondly (and those memories and designs will be covered later) the class seems to have quickly become unique to Florida. Almost alone among major sailing regions, North America became a sailing culture without a big, high performance development class dinghy class of significant strength.
Soon after the Moth and Suicide classes arose and the archetypal US hard chine one-designs developed, North America’s older development classes were rocked to their core when Uffa Fox’s planing hull sloops crossed the Atlantic and savaged the best of the cat-rigged displacement hull 14s and canoes.
The first meeting between the British and North American 14 footers came about after British and American dinghy sailors met during the 1930 America’s Cup, and took place in September 1933 at that most historic of small boat clubs, the Seawanhaka Corinthian. The British bought across not just a three-boat team, but another three British boats for a US team to sail in a three-cornered match against a Canadian team using their cat-rigged LSSA 14s.
The first sight of the British planing International 14s was a shock to the North American 14-ers. Accustomed to their own slender, hollow-lined craft, so tippy that they had to be held upright once the mast was stepped, they were amazed that to see that the heavy centerboard and fuller waterlines of the British boats allowed them to sit at moorings like yachts. Familiar with their simple, heavy masts, they were stunned by the slender British masts and the maze of their triple-spreader rigging. The bows on the British boats were so full in comparison to the hollow-cheeked North American boats that Yachting Magazine said the Fox designs looked like “bathtubs from about the period of Samuel Pepys”. Uffa Fox looked at the hollow lines of the North American bows and retorted “you’ve got twelve feet of boat and two feet of bow. We’ve got fourteen feet of boat”.
The British boats may have looked like blunt instruments, but they were fast. They won both the 1933 event and a similar one in Canada the following season. Charles Bourke, Canada’s top designer of the time, wrote many years later that in the international series the Canadians lead to the first mark but rolled down the run at hull speed while the British boats set spinnakers and “simply flew away from our cat-rigged boats in a cloud of spray!” Bruce Kirby, the International 14 designer and champion who later became famous as the designer of the Laser, sailed with Bourke years later and notes that the North American boats “could hold or beat an International 14 upwind, even in quite heavy air, but they were not as fast off the wind.” The Canadian boats, wrote Sir Peter Scott from the British team, were “not made for planing and in the event were no match for ours.”
Uffa’s designs became the new model for the North American 14 Footers and a wide influence on North American high performance sailing. As well as their speed, the greater stability of the Fox designs gave them a handling edge over the slender local boats; “The old boats we used to sail were unseaworthy and required an acrobat to keep them from capsizing. Due to this trouble we could not interest many people in sailing them” commented one local 14er. The Fox-style 14s spread in small pockets from coast to coast and through the Great Lakes, finally making the 14s a true International class and providing a playground for many of the great names of North American dinghy design.
Uffa himself came from England that same summer to challenge for North America’s sailing canoe trophies. Like his 14s, Uffa’s planing hull canoes were broad, flat, and powerful in comparison to the slender North American displacement designs. He set himself a high hurdle by designing a boat that could compete under both the UK and US rules. Sliding seats were still banned in the UK, so British canoes relied on stable hulls and heavy centreboards for stability. The US rules required two masts to ensure that their canoes had the traditional ketch rig, so Uffa fitted a solid wooden forestay that qualified as a foremast. The result was a boat that combined the powerful British hull and centreboard with a sloop rig and American sliding seat.
Sandy Douglas, a champion North American canoe sailor and the designer of the hugely popular Highlander, Flying Scot and Thistle dinghies, remembered the contrasting shapes decades later. “Where our boats were slender and dainty, with fine sharp ends, the English canoes appeared squat, giving the impression of brute power” he wrote in “Sixty Years Behind The Mast”. “Where our canoes had softly rounded bilges for a minimum of wetted surface but little stability, theirs were almost flat in the bottom with very hard bilges. Our power to carry sail was provided entirely by our live ballast out on the sliding seat. Fully rigged, our canoes had so little stability they would not even stand upright, but had to be balanced at all times. Their canoes, developed for heavy weather sailing without the advantage of sliding seats, had their own stability through greater beam with a flat floor and hard bilges, plus a heavy and deep centerboard. Uffa had gone as far as possible to use the maximum beam permitted under our rules, forty-three inches, by carrying the full beam very nearly the length of the hull, to where the gunwales, as they came together at the stern, made an angle of more than ninety degrees.”
To the Americans, it seemed as if it was 1886 all over again, and that the British canoes were overweight beasts which would be beaten just like Baden-Powell and Walter Stewart had been fifty years earlier. They were very wrong. In anything more than seven knots of wind, the powerful British planing style of canoe was unbeatable. The British took both the American championships and the International Canoe Trophy, the world’s oldest international small-boat trophy, home for the first time, and the best features of the two styles were blended into the International 10 square Metre Sailing Canoe – a class which remains arguably (in its latest form with spinnaker) the world’s fastest non-foiling singlehanded dinghy.
And so shortly after the hard-chine one designs arrived to fill US sailing’s mass market, two significant indigenous development classes were created, and Uffa Fox’s designs became an inspiration and model for the minority of American sailors who preferred high performance dinghies. They were often only too ready to join the British in dismissing the indigenous US one designs. “The great majority of small boat sailors in American have probably never sailed anything remotely resembling a Hornet, Merlin-Rocket, 505 or other real racing boat” wrote American I-14 champ George Moffatt in a typical outburst in 1963.
But for all their influence and fascination, the development classes remained a minority in North America. Only the Moth achieved significant popularity, and it was largely confined to the region from New Jersey to Florida. Even decades later when international trapeze classes like Fireballs, FDs, and 505s arrived, they were unable to achieve the same sort of numbers in the USA that they did in other areas. The numbers and the club-based fleets in North American centerboard sailing, then and today, lie in the big old home-grown one designs.
“gangster-ridden neighborhood…..” David R Martin
“There were about a half-dozen boat-building shops within walking distance” Yachting Magazine,
“To encourage the neighbourhood kids to use their creativity”:- Martin (ibid)
“”Our neighborhood was extremely interested in advancing the art of boat design”:- Martin email to author.
“The first class championship was as early as 1930, and by 1937 there were Moths in ten states. BDW 15 Aug 1937
“Somehow the tiny little boats soon ended up with a $2,500 first place trophy”. BDW 31 Mar 1936
As late as 1937, Van Sant ran second in the “worlds”.”:- Chicago Tribune March 28 1937
“When he went to winter in Florida in 1931”:- Avalon Yacht Club yearbook 1955 through Hathi Trust.
“for a bunch of people who sailed boats like Crickets and Sneak Boxes”:- Martin confirmed that the group who created the Moth included Sneak Box sailors in an email to the author
“I think the shape of the earliest Moth Boats reflects local conditions”:- Email to author
“a boat with unorthodox fore sections and a shorter waterline could be driven harder than the average dinghy”:- ‘The British Moth class’ by John Bluff in “British and INt Racing Yacht Classes” by HE Whitaker (ed).
“In the early 1930s the Suicides spread to Florida, where boats with names like Harikiri and Arsenic raced against Biscayne Bay 14s and Stars.”:- Information from Ludington in “Small Yacht and Boats” by William Atkin and from the Francis Herreshoff letters digitised by Mystic Seaport Museum.
Although it’s almost universally acknowledged that the 1933 and 1934 series established the Int 14 in North America, the author of the classic International 14 blogspot has tracked down a small fleet of earlier boats in the US; see http://cbifda.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/
Here’s another of those annoying apologies; if it seems disrespectful to squeeze several nations into one post while I gave English-speaking nations several posts each, there’s several reasons. For one, the dinghy scene in these countries was comparatively small. Secondly, I’m a typically monolingual Aussie so I can’t do the same sort of original research in other languages as I can in English. Finally, some of these areas have already been covered in depth by those with local knowledge. The origin and impact of boats like Sweden’s Finn and the Flying Dutchman are covered in detail in later sections.
Apart from Germany, Europe seems to have played a surprisingly small role in dinghy development until the second half of the 20th century. In many countries, economic conditions and geography seemed to play a part in keeping dinghy sailing a niche sport, and one where even proud people like the French admitted that the Anglo-Saxons held the lead in design developments and in racing.
France seems to have followed the same trajectory as other nations that got into centreboarder sailing early on. As with so many other regions, the sandbagger concept imported from the USA played a major role in establishing the concept of a beamy centreboarder. The 8m long imported sandbagger type Margot was dominating racing around that French yachting’s birthplace at Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine in the 1850s. The 1867 Paris Exhibition regatta, a high point in early French sailing and the symbol of a shift to sailing on the River Seine near Paris, was won by the imported catboat “New York”.
As early as 1858 the French developed their own name for the American style boats – “Clippers”. Around that time the term was applied widely to any particularly fast boat in the English-speaking world, but a sporting dictionary demonstrates that in France, the term specifically meant a beamy centreboarder, often cat rigged. They also seem to have developed a fondness for the sharpie type they had imported from America; perhaps the French taste for functional designs meant that they did were less biased against the sharpie’s appearance than the contemporary Anglo Saxons. The exploits and books of “Rob Roy” Macgregor also lead to the promotion of canoeing by no less than Emperor Napoleon III, although no evidence of significant and influential sailing canoe racing comes to hand.
Many Parisians became passionate about sailing and boating on the Seine around 1870. Even by their own accounts, some French sailors of the time admitted that they were overshadowed by the British and American racers; one official report says that their sailing was not quite to the same standard and was “ignored by foreigners, because the French have reputation of being confined to intellectual speculation, where they are superior, and to have a very marked disdain for the physical exercises in general and for the yachting in particular.”
Intellect met sailing at Argenteuil on the outskirts of Paris, where the Seine widened to some 200 metres and the Cercle de la Voile de Paris made its home. Here, sailors developed the sandbagger- style boats they called the “Clippers d’Argenteuil” (sometimes “Clipper Parisien”) alongside the group of painters who were developing Impressionism. It was there that the greats of the movement – Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissaro, Degas and others – stayed, planned the first Impressionist exhibition, painted the racing boats, and sailed. One of their number, Gustav Caillebotte, was not only a painter of renown but also a champion sailor, vice president of the Cercle, and a designer of such talent that he gave up painting to create yachts.
Perhaps no other sailboats in history have been viewed as often as those moored along the banks of the Seine at Argenteuil. Individual boats were featured time and time again. In 1874, both Renoir and Monet painted the same boat, at the same dock, on what looks to be the same day with the same two figures. It looks like a fairly standard sort of sandbagger-style boat, carrying a small jib for a pleasure cruise. One critic points out that the bowsprit in Monet’s version angles up “so that it appears more forceful, active and engaged”. Dixon Kemp tells us that the bobstay on these boats was adjustable. I can’t help wondering whether the crew eased the tackle after Renoir painted the bowsprit, allowing it to angle up for Monet’s depiction. How odd to think that 140 years later, critics would be discussing the intricacies of a great master’s composition, when the effect could really have been caused by someone adjusting their forestay tension before a quick sail.
The boat that Monet and Renoir painted together could almost have come from New York itself, but by the 1880s the sailors of the Seine were evolving the Clippers d’Argenteiul into a breed that was in some ways even more radical than the sandbaggers from which they developed. While the US boats carried low-aspect gaff mains to the end of their days, many of the Clippers d’Argenteuil moved to high-aspect sliding gunter rigs (known as houri rigs by the French, and adopted from their Mediterranean coast) which was a logical development for a narrow river. Dixon Kemp’s Manual shows us that as early as 1884, the sailors of Argenteuil had developed what appears to be the first track for mainsail slides, replacing the older system of hoops or lacing that ran around the mast. The Clippers had two systems; one where a channel was cut into the rear side of the mast and fitted with brass plates on its lips, and the other where a T-shape section was fitted to the spar. This system was seems to have been the first example of a luff slide and groove device, anticipating the one developed by WP Stephens and CJ Stevens for their Rater types in the next decade.
Instead of simple gaff jaws, the Seine boats had universal joints at the bottom of their yards. While downwind sails were rare in New York, the Paris boats sometimes carried huge silk spinnakers or even square sails. Although many depictions show the Seine boats with the standard sandbagger transom, champion Clippers like Lison carried a counter stern and under-hung rudder and were narrower than the sandbaggers. The Clippers seem to have been as radical and sophisticated as any class of their time; fully the equal of their famous cousins from New York or Sydney.
Argenteuil was not just a place for artists and rich racers; it was also a place where the urban middle and working classes could go sailing. The radical Clippers were not the only boat to be found racing on the Seine. There were small catboats and a type of oar-and-sail boat called the Ocean, which was often raced singlehanded but, in the usual fate of oar-and-sail boats, has almost been lost to history. Sailboats could be hired at an affordable rate (about the same as a labourer could earn in the same time, from my quick calculations) next to the Cercle, just a short train ride from Paris. Crowds of “scruffy pleasure seekers (students, workers, artists, etc)” and “amateur yachtsmen of indifferent morals who favoured similar female companions” could drift along the Seine, feeding ducks, drinking or watching Caillebotte inspecting his latest creation being built in one of the boatyards along the river or going downstream to the Ise de Chatou, the “Isle of the Impressionists”, where he was to feature in the foreground of Renior’s famous work “The Luncheon of the Boating Party”. The short story writer Guy de Maupassant may have been passing in his little 10 foot oar-and-sail dinghy. Although it gradually became more crowded and polluted, the Seine west of Paris must have been a magical place for those who loved both sailing and “intellectual speculation.”
Just as in many other areas, in the late 1800s the era of the beamy sandbagger types faded away, to be followed by the short reign of Rater-type boats. In France they used the Godinet rule, which was more sophisticated than the Anglo-Saxon systems but used the old term of “tonnage” to determine ratings. The Cercle de la Voile de Paris gave a trophy for “One Ton” class boats, Rater types about 8-9m long, which became one of the most famous of all yachting trophies over the next nine decades.
In 1900, the Seine was the site for the first Olympic Games where sailing events were actually held. There still seems to be confusion about what actually happened; as the president of the International Association of Olympic Historians said, “in common with other sports at the 1900 Games the yachting results are varied, incomplete and contradictory”.Judging from available information, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that the smallest class was dominated by locally-modified versions of the Rudder’s Lark scow. It appears that most of the mixed bag of other entrants were Rater-style centreboarders. Some, like the champion “One Tonner” Sidi-Fekkar, were unballasted; she was kept upright by a crew of “men of a certain weight and skilled in gymnastic exercises” who were “literally outside (the boat) and restrained by means of stirrups on the feet.” She capsized at the start, leaving a British Linton Hope design to take the class honours. Incidentally, it’s claimed that a cat was in the event and Forest and Stream for Oct 22 1904 shows a boat that could be a Dominion-style “tunnel hull”.
Although the Godinet rating system was more sophisticated than its British and US equivalents, it still created fragile boats that suffered rapid obsolescence and caused a move to cheaper one designs like the Lark and the Monotype de Nogent-Joinville around the turn of the century. But numbers remained small, and the most popular class, the Monotype de Chatou (a Lark modified by Francois Texier, a former Clipper builder) only numbered about 100 boats. Even that small fleet included a famous fashion designer, a leading poet, a pioneer of the Fauvist art movement, JJ Herbulot (later to become a leading dinghy designer), legendary aviation pioneer Santos Dumont, and Georges-Paul Thierry, later to become a leading advocate for home boatbuilding. If any group proves that creative people can love one designs, it’s the sailors of the Chatou.
The rougher waters of the coastal regions also saw the development of some solid-looking conventional little round-bilge one designs, like the Monotype of Arcachon, a little yacht-tender style boat in the style of the International 12. Several other clubs along the rough and windy Atlantic coast seem to have favoured stubby little keelboats instead of dinghies; probably a reflection of the limited seaworthiness of most dinghies of the era. The French Atlantic coast was to produce two of the world’s great dinghies, but not until the second half of the century.
The Olympics returned to the Seine in 1924, when the “dinghy’ event was almost as mysterious as that of 1900. The event was sailed in the Monotype National designed by Gaston Grenier – or was it? Some call the boat the Meulan; others say that it was a modified version of the Belgian Scheldejollen, a slightly earlier boat of very similar style and dimensions. And what dimensions they were; they weighed in at 450kg (990lb) and carried 20.17 sqm (218 sq ft) of sail on a length of just 5m (16ft5in). The Monotype also carried a spinnaker, and the extra performance and challenge of the bigger rig was, according to the official Olympics report, the reason it was chosen over the International 12. Just to add to the confusion, some sources indicate that there were not enough Nationals for the number of entrants, so some competitors competed in Scheldejollen.
Although most reports say implicitly or explicitly that the class was for singlehanders, some photos and the official report shows that ten of the 17 Monotypes were sailed two up – at least sometimes. The official report speaks of the Monotypes as being sailed “by a single amateur” but also says that the 17 nations entered 26 athletes. The best explanation may be that the crews were pros, and may have been used only in windier races.
Even in those days, people were worried enough about spectators for the official report to list the number of paying spectators who watched the Monotypes drifting on the Seine. On the first day, there was precisely one paying spectator and 376 officials, press and sailors. The organisers had anticipated the “modern” system of making the later races more important in the points, and on the last day, the crowd of paying spectators leaped up to…….18. They watched Leon Huybrechts of Belgium (and his crew, hidden away in the results as “R. De Hemptinne”) win. It may have been significant that Huybrechts, who according to the official report was well practised in the Monotype, was also the man who had commissioned the design of the Scheldjolle.
It was the 1930s when French dinghy sailing seems to start to take on something like a modern form. Nineteen thirty two was a significant year; former Chatou sailor Jacques Lebrun won the singlehanded class in Snowbird at the LA Olympics, and the first great French class arrived in the shape of the Caneton, another boat of the Seine. French sailing historian Louis Pillon tells us that in those days the sailors of Paris would head down river to the Le Havre regatta each year under tow or sail, stopping on the way to race the local one designs of each club. One small club held a design competition for a new one design, and the winner was the product of Russian expatriate Victor Brix. The Caneton (“Duckling” in English; it was named after a specialty at the restaurant where it was adopted) was much like a slightly lighter Snipe with the bow pulled out. Given the enormous reach of The Rudder and the success of the magazine’s earlier Lark in France and around the world, the similarity is probably anything but accidental.
As Pillon says, the Caneton was just a local one design from a small club until one man (Robert Jeuffrain) built 20 or them and formed a new club where the boats had to be stored on road trailers instead of in the water. The enthusiastic Jeuffrain and his trailer-borne Canetons created what Pillon calls a “cultural revolution”, travelling from place to place by road to promote the class and sport, instead of staying at one club or region. The Caneton class spurred the creation of new clubs and by 1939 there were over 160 boats afloat, with 40 entrants from eight clubs at the national titles.
While men like Jeuffrain were growing dinghy sailing at the grass roots level, officialdom was also getting involved. Many Europeans saw sport as a means to address what they saw as “degeneration” in society and a threat to national welfare. In France, the country that had suffered so much in WW1 and where, as famous mountain climber and sports minister Maurice Herzog was later to say “there is an old prejudice against sports in this country; a prejudice that goes back to the intellectual man who was pale, a poor physical specimen, a Rimbaud, a Verlaine, a Proust” such concerns led the national government to become heavily involved in organising sport, including becoming the first government to sponsor Olympic athletes.
It was defeat at the 1936 Olympics that created the next major French class. After the French had finished out of the medals in the O-Jolle singlehander, it was decided that the old Chatou was no longer up to the job of producing Olympians. As Pillon and other sources note, a group including champion sailors Lebrun, JJ Herbulot and expatriate Swiss naval architect Pierre Staempfli developed the 5m/16.4ft Sharpie de 9m2 as a new Olympic training boat. Some say that it showed Staemplis’ interest and experience with renjollen and Manfred Curry’s theories in its long, slender lines and roachy, fully battened mainsail. With its reverse sheer (to save weight), considerable weight (185kg), pinched bow and flat bottom, the Sharpie was neither particularly fast or attractive, but it was very cheap and simple to build.
During the war years, the government of unoccupied Vichy France took firm control over sports associations. When the national sailing association declared the Sharpie as an official class, building materials were made available and by 1945 there were 600 afloat. The Caneton benefited from the same status, and by the war’s end the class had over 400 boats and 27 fleets.
With boats like the Sharpie 9m2 and Caneton Brix, we may be starting to see the evolution of a French style of dinghy designs. They were influenced by a high level of government funding of the sport and therefore of control by the national sailing association. They seem to have been egalitarian designs, aimed at a mass audience rather than just the rich or experts. Apart from a preference for hard chines, their outstanding characteristic may have been their lack of any outstanding characteristic. In dimensions they seem to sit square in the middle between other major northern sailing country; smaller than those of the USA and Germany, larger than those of England and Canada. It was an approach that was to influence design across the world when the great dinghy boom arrived.
Centreboarder racing in Italy seemed to start comparatively late; it does not seem to start in around the mid 1800s with sandbaggers, catboats and canoes like so many other regions.
The sport of sailing in Italy as we know it today seems to have started in large yachts, before spreading down into small Rater types and then into the first dinghies. The Ligurian Coast near Genoa was an early centre, and here the first restricted classes were formed among the owners of boats that did not fit into the international rules or the one design yacht classes. The first significant dinghy class was the Serie Ligure Lega Navale Italiana the loose restricted class formed in 1911 by a short-lived national body. Apart from its large sail area (about 15 sq m, apparently in both sloop and cat rigs), it looks to be a typical example of the contemporary boats developed from oar-and-sail types. It lasted into the 1930s.
By the 1920s, the sailors of the Ligurian coast had created some potent-looking boats in three development classes; 4, 4.5 and 5.5 metres. On the other side of the country, the sailors of the northern Adriatic were also creating bigger, lighter and faster boats. In 1925 a 6 m long three-person dinghy they had created was merged with the Ligurian boats (exactly how is unclear) to form the Classe Nationale A 6 Metri, the first national dinghy class.
The A Class was used in 1935 for the European 3- man dinghy titles. These were inter-war contests in which representatives from each country sailed a regatta using boats of whatever three-man dinghy happened to be popular in the host country. The Italians won on their home ground. Perhaps it was a symbolic in several ways; for an era in which there were so few International classes that sailors had to swap boats to get to race other nations; for early Italian passion for development classes; and for the rise of Italian dinghy sailing despite a slightly slow start.
Despite the popularity of the development classes, there were significant fleets of one designs. Although we’re used to lake sailors pushing the boundaries of design, in 1923 the sailors of Lakes Como and Maggiore settled on a conservative one design of 3.6m with just 9m of sail. When Italian sailors saw and sailed the vaguely similar International 12 at the 1928 Olympics, they brought the class home. Although it was already an ageing design, the International attracted a quality fleet and became (and still is) a great success. The Snipe followed in 1934. Both classes remain active in Italy today, decades after almost all the local classes have sadly faded away.
In the Netherlands, that land of wind and water where yachting as we know it began, there seems to have been few surprisingly few major developments in dinghy sailing until the second half of the century. English speakers wrote of the difficult conditions that sailors faced in the Netherlands; the strong winds blowing from the North Sea, the chop of the shallow open waters, and the narrowness of the rivers. Given the technology of the era, it’s not surprising that the Dutch seem to have preferred to add a keel to boats that others would have probably had centreboards. As blogger Tweezerman notes, they even took the ubiquitous Lark from the pages of The Rudder and, inspired by the Star, made it into a tiny keel scow.
Although the Dutch yachtsmen were keen on their traditional craft, the scanty information that can be dredged up indicates that early dinghy sailors seem to have preferred imported designs, and none more so than the International 12, which remains a significant class. The International 12 was later joined by Germany’s 12 Square Metre Sharpie and O-Jolle, and all three of them still survive as significant classes at national level in the Netherlands.
The one designs were also joined by the exotic Vrijbuiter, a long-lost class that was very reminiscent (and perhaps related) to the German “frei Renjollen” and existed from 1918 to WW2. The Dutch love for classes like the Sharpie, O Jolle and Vrijbuiter was to play a major part in launching one of the iconic and influential boats of the great post WW2 dinghy boom.
Dinghy sailing seems to have been slow to develop in the Scandinavian countries. A significant local class doesn’t seem to have emerged until 1936, when naval architect Erling L. Kristofersen created the Oslojolle as a junior class. The project started as a Scandinavian praam type, with the characteristic wide overhanging forward sections, but during development it was given a much and more conventional bow. The clinker/lapstrake Oslojolle was a cheap boat to build, costing about as much as month’s boat hire, and within the first year 100 hit the water. The original lug rig was later supplemented by a bermudian sloop sailplan, but their high aspect ratio remained as quintessentially Scandinavian as the spoon-bow clinker hull, with its echoes of Viking longboats. The Oslojolle was one of the few European boats of its day to expand widely; about 1000 boats were built, it was adopted as the official training and racing boat for the Royal Norwegian YC, and fleets were raced in Denmark and the USA for some time.
The heartland of small centreboarder sailing in Scandinavia was Sweden, where the sailing canoe, rather than the dinghy, ruled. These were not the slender sliding-seat racing machines of the USA, but more along the lines of the Smith Brothers’ creations from England. Like most people, the Swedes caught the canoe sailing virus from MacGregor, but they took it even further. During the tough times of the early part of the century and through the Depression years, the Swedes found that the cruiser/racer canoe was the ideal cheap boat for exploring the Baltic’s inlets and islands – and much further astream. In 1894 Gustaf Estlander (later one of the great names in Square Metre yacht design) sailed from Stockhold to Helsinki; Herman Lantz paddled from Sweden to the Caspian Sea before the outbreak of WW1 robbed him of his goal of canoeing to India.
In the early 1900s the Swedes added length and beam to their boats to make them more stable for cruising. The C Class canoe created in the early 1930s brought beam out to a dinghy-size 1.4m; the D Class almost 20ft long, while the E Class was 1.5m wide. One (perhaps two) of the Swedish classes were given International status by the world canoeing body (which did and still does rule the sailing canoes), but few if any sailors from other countries got involved, and the cruising canoes remained largely a Swedish passion.
Naval architect and canoe expert Jurgen Sass notes that even when canoes are as big as the Swedish ones, their design follows different principles to dinghies. That was probably why when the Swedish canoe designers drew dinghies, they normally looked quite unlike their canoes. Compare the “A Class” dinghy designs of canoeing legend Sven Thorell’s designs to his canoes. The canoes have fine, deep bows with the widest point of the hull well aft; the 5m long dinghies have the conventional full, flared bows of their era, with the widest point of the hull amidships. A few years later one of Thorell’s rivals was to combine dinghy and thinking into a boat that was to become one of the greatest of all dinghies, but as with many other European countries, Sweden’s impact on the world dinghy scene was going to have to wait until after 1945, when a new global era of dinghy sailing would arrive.
Information on early French centreboarders from the report to the 1905 ‘Congrès international de sport et d’education physique’.
“a sporting dictionary demonstrates that in France”:- Annuaire du sport en France, guide complet du sportsman. Eugène Chapus (ed)
Swedish canoe information from various soufces oincluding personal correspondence with people whose names and emails i have now lost; Th Sorell article in ; Jurgen Sass’ “Kanotseglingens första århundrade” retried 4/9/2017 http://www.sassdesign.net/Kanotseglingshistoria.pdf
While the USA was developing a bewildering menagerie of small-boat types, just to the north the Canadians around Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence River were developing one of the world’s most organised and homogeneous dinghy racing scenes. But for many years, the Canadians of the time didn’t refer to their racing boats as dinghies – to them, almost any small centreboarder that wasn’t a canoe was a “skiff”. “The term itself has at times been subject to pretty hard use, being made to cover almost any sort of small craft from the shapely St Lawrence skiff to the most extreme form of scow and pumpkin-seed” noted Forest and Stream April 28 1900.
The earliest of the “skiffs” to become a significant class was bred out of the graceful and fast double-ended skiffs that were used for transport, fishing and tourism around the Thousand Islands in the St Lawrence River downstream of the Great Lakes. The late 1800s were a boom time for the Thousand Islands region, with up to 20 trains a day disgorging tourists to fish and cruise in the fleets of Skiffs that ran out of the grand hotels lining the lakeside.
The Skiffs had only started sailing around the 1870s, when they adopted the Atwood folding centreboard. They used no rudder; instead they were steered by sail trim and fore-and-aft movement. One assumes that the lack of rudder was related to the fact that the Skiff were was rowed with one end forward when carrying a passenger, and turned around when the rower was alone.
The veteran canoe sailor C Bowyer Vaux claimed the racing version of the St Lawrence Skiff was born when a bunch of Canoe and Skiff sailors from the Canadian town of Brockville attended the 1884 American Canoe Association meet in the Thousand Islands. There they found some two hundred canoe sailors bursting with new concepts. The Skiff sailors also tried their hand at a race, which they lost partly due to the lack of a rudder. “They took back with them many new ideas about boats, rigs, races and sails, which were digested during the Winter and were put to the practical test the following season” recalled Vaux. “Then began the series of skiff-races on scientific principles, which have gone on developing each year since, quite as fast as the canoe-racing and racers have progressed, and on practically the same lines.”
Vaux’s account ties in with an 1886 article about a species known as the “Brockville Skiff”. Brockville seems to have been a centre of French Canadian craftsmen specialising in complex but light boats, many of them built in 3/8in cedar planks fastened by copper nails just one inch apart into light frames just 4in apart. In the summer of 1885 the Brockville Canoe Club started a class for sailing skiffs, which quickly developed the type. The hull of a 19ft x 41in Brockville Skiff could weigh as little as 70 to 100lb, and unlike the typical “working” St Lawrence Skiff they carried a rudder.
Although some of the sailors from Clayton on the US side of the lake indignantly claimed that the Brockville boats, with their rudders and racing machine style, were not true St Lawrence Skiffs at all, within a short time even the Clayton sailors seem to have adopted rudders and big rigs for racing. “The racing skiff of 1891 is exactly like a canoe-is, in fact, a big canoe” wrote an observer. “Twenty-two feet long and four in beam, it is sharp at both ends, has metal rudder and plate centerboard, pointed, flare coaming, and it is all decked over except the cockpit, which is large enough to accommodate six men, with no room to spare. The form of the hull, disposition of sail-area and shape of sails, and the method of sailing are all borrowed directly from the canoemen. Skiff-racing is canoe-sailing on a large scale.”
The rules of the St Lawrence Skiff class were simple; it had to be sharp at each end, and the length in feet multiplied by the beam had to be less than 88. That was it – no limits on rig, sail area, crew size or hull depth. Within a few years, the sail area of a racing Skiff had leaped up from 150 sq ft or less to 350 to 400 sq ft, set in a cat ketch rig with fully battened “batwing” sails, and the Skiff was said to be “the fastest sailing craft afloat for its displacement—possibly the canoe excepted.”
The Brockville or St Lawrence Skiffs must surely have been the model (or a parallel development) for the Skiffs that started racing around Toronto around the same time. “The popular small boat of the 1880’s was a double-ended skiff, completely open or with a very large cockpit, and in both model and rig decidedly “unwholesome” judged by modern standards” says one account of the early Toronto Skiffs. “Skiffs no longer than 16 feet over all, and 4 feet beam, would be rigged as schooners, with flying topsails and a tremendous sail area generally; or as sloops, with eight foot bowsprits and 17-foot spinnaker booms, and mainbooms to match. There is this to be said for these racing extremes – they bred a generation of alert, active and courageous sailors, and while sailing them was as much a matter of acrobatics as seamanship, the seamanship it demanded was of high order.”
An 1887 champion of the Toronto 16 Ft Skiff class, Clio, is illustrated in WP Stephens’ “Canoe and Boat Building for Amateurs”. Clio carried 239 sq ft of sail upwind, a fairly big rig for a boat 3ft 8in wide and lacking the stability of a transom stern, and a spinnaker pole that is about the same length as the boat. Like the St Lawrence Skiffs, they were so slim and carried so much sail that they could not stay upright at a dock or mooring. Here is a boat that is as radical as anything the sailors of the Delaware River, Sydney Harbour or Brisbane had produced at the time.
What was just as radical, in a different way, was the body that began to organise the class. From 1893, the Lake Sailing Skiff Association arose. The Canadian small boat sailors probably felt the influence of the American Canoe Association on one side, and Canada’s own Lake Yacht Racing Association (which claims to be the world’s first regional yachting association) on the other. Here was what appears to be the small boat world’s second class (or multi-class) association, following on the heels of the American Canoe Association. The LSSA’s members were clubs, rather than individuals as with the ACA and modern class associations, but the Association probably played a major role in creating a coordinated small boat sailing scene in central Canada.
At a time when small boat sailing in places like the UK and USA was in a state of uncoordinated turbulence, the LSSA ensured that Canada was in a state of coordinated turbulence. Never before or since has almost the entire dinghy scene of a major sailing country changed as dramatically and as quickly. In the mid 1890s the entire species of double-ended open Skiffs like Clio seems to have dropped out of sight when the LSSA adopted Rater-style boats. The double-ended open Skiffs and their sisterships from Brockville and the St Lawrence seem to have vanished from history almost without trace, and no reasons are given for their passing. The Thousand Islands area went powerboat-mad early in the new century with a strong racing scene, and many powered Skiffs were built. Perhaps the excitement of sailing the tricky double-ended Skiffs faded while the hassles remained.
The open Skiffs were replaced by a very breed of centreboarders that retained the “skiff” label but seem to have raced under a modified “length and sail area” rating system and therefore had the long overhangs, light displacement and medium-size rig of a classic Rater. The most popular of them were the “16 footers”, which were 16ft on the waterline but had long overhangs to bring their overall length to around 25ft. Despite their yacht-like looks, like many other types of Rater, they were unballasted centreboarders. About a hundred were sailing around Toronto by 1900.
Not surprisingly, the writers of Forest and Stream described Dodo, one of the best of the Rater-style Skiffs, as “very different from the popular conception of a “skiff”….. a curious combination of the leading features of the canoe, the small-rater, and the modern scow, having the elliptical waterlines of the latter, with canoe sections and canoe fittings, and at the same time showing the outline of the conventional sailing boat above the water.” With a waterline of just 12ft on an overall length of 22ft, a healthy 330 sq ft of sail and efficient-looking foils, this must have been a swift little boat. The way she took cues from a number of different design streams could have been symbolic of the entire Canadian centreboarder culture of the day.
By the time Dodo came out, the Rater-type Skiffs were fading away. By 1904 the class, so strong but a few years earlier, was all but dead; apparently they were killed by the poor rough water performance of their long, flat ends. The LSSA abandoned the type. To some extent they were replaced by an even less-skiffy “skiff”, of similar dimensions but carrying 600lb of ballast, but few were made. The small boat bodies and sailors of Ontario had turned their attention to a very different type of boat.
In 1896 prominent Toronto yachtsman and skiff organiser J Wilton Morse decided to get a new dinghy for his yacht. “I wanted a little boat for sailing where I spend the summer, among the islands of Georgian Bay” he recalled years later. “She had to be big enough to carry two people and a camping outfit, and to sail whenever we wanted to sail; and she had to be small enough to hang on a yacht’s davits, to row easily, to tow well, to be portaged where necessary….and, moreover, she had to be a boat that one man could haul out and put away in the boathouse.”
To my eyes, the little boat that Morse designed shows many lessons of a yachtsman’s experience. There’s heavy rocker and a little overhang at the bow, so it can get up close to the shoreline and you can step ashore with dry feet. There’s lots of rocker in the stern to stop it surfing into the transom of the mothership – a major problem with these heavy boats that could cause a lot of damage to a wooden yacht. There are flat sections for stability, decent sail area with a high-peaked lug to keep performance (relatively) high but spars low and the sail easy to hoist or lower, and cheap and light clinker or lapstrake construction.
To my eyes, Morse’s design is no racer, but an eminently sensible yacht’s dinghy for the era. To Toronto sailors, used to skinny open Skiffs and canoes, she seemed to be a joke; the first boatbuilder he approached “laughed in his face and refused to build such a tub”. Her beam “seemed monstrous in those days, when our only sailboats were lean sharp-ended skiffs in which you had to hike to windward all the time and part your hair in the middle to keep right side up.”
The laughter stopped when Morse’s 12 footer went sailing; “at last a craft had been found that men could have a lot of fun sailing and that women and children could manage” said a 1909 writer. Other sources say that Morse had the idea of a junior class in mind when he designed the little tender; both ideas could be true. Soon “practically all the existing yacht and sailing skiff clubs started to hold races for the dinghies and some new Dinghy Clubs were started.” A class was quickly formed, with rules that kept the 12 Footers “sane and serviceable, and practical single-handers” and “effectually prevented it from becoming any such monstrosity as the sailing dinghy of Bermuda or Australasia”. But within a year or two the 12 Footer was “found to be rather slow for sport” and Morse designed a 14 foot version.
The 14 Foot class that developed had sensible rules; beam of 5ft 6 in to 5ft; minimum depth 16in; area of largest vertical cross section, 875 sq in maximum and 140 sq ft of sail. Like their fellow sailors south on the midwest’s inland lakes, the Canadians set sensible scantling or construction rules, including clinker construction, a thickness of 3/8” for planking and frames of a minimum 1 x ¾ in spaced at 12 inches. Although the boats were always cat rigged, the LSSA required a two-person crew. The lug rig of the first 12 was soon replaced with a high-peaked gaff rig that was almost like a bermudan sailplan in outline.
Morse’s 14 Footer set Canadian dinghy sailing on a firm footing. “Being a more wholesome and faster boat than the 12-footer (it) quickly supplanted the 12-footer”. The early 14 Footers were described as “quite tubby, with very full bilges carried well forward and aft, and full deck line forward” and it was noted that “they had plenty of power and stability for such tiny craft.” They were cheap, at $125 fully rigged, and prizemoney from clubs meant that a young skipper could win the price back in a season.
Inevitably, designs changed when the racing scene got hotter. Norman R Gooderham dominated the 1904 season with a boat with more deadrise and slacker bilges. “In the desire for speed the bilges have been slacked off, the flat bottom has given way to one with considerable dead rise, and the lines forward and aft have been fined down so that in some of the later boats we find considerable hollow in the forward waterlines. In this development for speed, stability has been considerably sacrificed, but the up-to-date dinghy is a better school ship for your sails, and in the hands of a skilful skipper and crew, will carry its full sail in a breeze of about 15 knots.” With their fine bow and rockered stern these were, from all accounts, a boat that was designed to excel in light winds rather than a planing design.
By 1905 the LSSA 14s seem to have developed a general shape they would stick to for almost a quarter of a century, Toronto had become “the dinghy centre of the continent”, with over 170 14 Footers racing, and the class had extended across the lake to the USA and east to Halifax in Nova Scotia. It was the US fleet that introduced the next major advance in design when they brought in the bermudan rig in 1921 and took the Douglas Cup, the US/Canada challenge trophy, for the first time.
The Canadians also developed much smaller fleets of other types along similar lines; a 16 Footer for those who needed a more “lakeworthy” boat and a short-lived 18 Footer. The little 12 Footer kept on racing at least into the 1920s, when there was an international event with the clubs on the US side of the Lake and at least one boat had an unusually efficient-looking bermudan rig.
Where the double ended Skiffs and the Rater-type Skiffs had bloomed so briefly, the LSSA Dinghies became a fixture. Perhaps it was because they were more seaworthy than the double-enders or the Raters; perhaps it was the strong influence of the many expatriates from Britain and Ireland, where clinker dinghies were so popular. Whatever the reason, from about 1900 until the late 1920s, Lake Ontario’s fleet of LSSA 14 Footers was possibly the strongest local dinghy fleet in the world. A list in Schoettle’s book Sailing Craft shows that in the late 1920s there were 25 boats in Montreal, 26 in minor centres, and over 150 in Toronto, where the fleet was normally divided into three grades. The LSSA 14 was also the basis for the famous Ackroyd dinghies, which were turned out by the hundred in both racing and “cottage” versions. Today up to 18 Ackroyd LSSA 14s can be found racing on Ontario’s Stony Lake, normally sailing one-up. In an interesting illustration of the progress of design in one hundred years, they are rated faster than a 420 up to Force 3 winds, but almost 2% slower overall.
The dinghies of Toronto are perhaps unique in the sailing world, in terms of the way they combined so many of the major development streams and in such a short period. In the history of the Lake Skiffs we see almost all of the strands of the dinghy encapsulated. Through the original double-ended Skiffs we see influence from both the oar-and-sail working types and the canoes. Boats like Dodo brought in ideas from Raters and Scows. The yacht tender influence then came to the fore with the 12 Footer. No other type seems to have directly absorbed so many different influences, and within such a short time.
“These 14s are said to be examples of the famous production line of Ackroyd Dinghies”:- Classic Int 14 blogspot, which provided much background information. Further info TBA
“The Skiff sailors also tried their hand at a race, which they lost partly due to the lack of a rudder.”:- The American Canoeist, April 1886.
“Some of the sailors from Clayton on the US side of the lake”:- The Rudder July 1890
“He called these early sailing Skiffs “very indifferent sailors”:- Outing Dec 1891.
“They took back with them many new ideas about boats, rigs, races and sails”:- Outing July Vol 20.
“Brockville seems to have been a centre of French Canadian craftsmen”:- ‘The Brockville (St Lawrence) Racing Skiff” in American Canoeist, May 1886
NOTE: for more information on the St Lawrence Skiffs see Wooden Boat Jan/Feb 2002, which details the sailing and construction of two replicas.
Information on the Rater-style 16s from a variety of sources including the Slee articles from the Queen City Yacht Club site (further details TBA) and Forest and Stream April 28 1900. And yes, it’s technically incorrect to call them “Raters” but just referring them by their rating or waterline length is confusing….. sorry, W.P.
“The History of the Lake Yacht Racing Association 1884-1962” indicates that the minimum size for a racing “yacht” in the association was 16ft LWL. It appears that the LSSA 16ft class was essentially a Seawanhaka Rule 15 Foot rater (the same as the Seawanhaka Cup boats) with a minimum waterline set so that it could qualify as a yacht under LYRA rules.
“I wanted a little boat for sailing where I spend the summer, among the islands of Georgian Bay”:- ‘The Sailing Dinghy of Lake Ontario’ by M A Dawson, Rudder 1909.
“laughed in his face and refused to build such a tub”: – Dawson
“at last a craft had been found that men could have a lot of fun sailing and that women and children could manage” Dawson, Rudder, 1909.
“Other sources say that Morse had the idea of a junior class in mind all the time”:- TBF Benson in ‘Sailing Craft’ Schoettle (ed)
“practically all the existing yacht and sailing skiff clubs started to hold races for the dinghies and some new Dinghy Clubs were started.” Schoettle
“quite tubby, with very full bilges carried well forward and aft, and full deck line forward.” Schoettle
“”sane and serviceable, and practical single-handers” and “effectually prevented it from becoming any such monstrosity as the sailing dinghy of Bermuda or Australasia”:- Dawson, Rudder
“they had plenty of power and stability for such tiny craft.” Rod and Gun June 1905
“Norman R Gooderham dominated the 1904 season with a boat with more deadrise and slacker bilges”:- Rod and Gun June 1905.
“In the desire for speed the bilges have been slacked off”:- Schoettle
“By 1905, Toronto had become “the dinghy centre of the continent”:- Rod & Gun July 1905
“The little 12 Footer kept on racing at least into the 1920s”:- New York Times, August 24 1920
The late 1800s and early 1900s seem to be a period of turbulent growth in American centreboarder sailing. The sandbagger era was over. The canoes and the Raters had been almost killed by their excesses. The industrialisation of the Delaware had killed the tuckups. In their place came a shift to the one design concept, but a version that was quite different to the one we hold today.
The rise of the one designs in the USA was, as WP Stephens noted, “a protest against the extremes of modern racing” under simplistic rating systems and restricted class rules that had created expensive and fragile racing machines that quickly became obsolete. It was an issue that ran from the elite Seawanhaka Cup racers all the way down to local club level. As early as 1887, Forest and Stream had recognised the difficulty; “there are thousands of miles of water throughout the United States and Canada which are suitable for sailing and racing in small boats with as much benefit and as keen sport to the sailor as is found in yachts of the largest class. Already these streams and rivers float an immense pleasure fleet of canoes, sailing skiffs, catboats and similar crafts”. The problem lay in organising fair racing between such a variety of boats. “At first the fleet includes a lot of odd boats of all models and builds, perhaps a few rowboats with sprit sails, a duckboat or two, a sneakbox, and a few canoes, the dimensions varying from 12 to 16ft., with beam from 2 ½ to 5ft…..It is an extremely difficult matter for a rule which will afford fair racing to the mixed fleet of boats, canoes and sneakboxes that are usually found in first forming a club, and yet it is necessary that all be given a fair chance.” The technology of the time allowed for no such rule. The racing machines always won. One designs seemed to be the answer.
As Stephens wrote, the move to one designs arose “with no concerted action on the part of clubs and associations”. It also occurred in an era when the concept that “one-design boats….are confined to special local waters” was almost universal. “The idea seemed to be that each club must have a distinctive one-design class of its own, a boat especially designed for its particular weather conditions and different from any other one-design class” explained George W. Elder, who bought into a local 22′ Long Island Sound one design in 1914. “In other words a one-design class was considered a strictly local proposition and the private property of a given club. That was fine for the designers, but it isolated every group of small boat skippers and prevented them, as well as the clubs, from having any interests in common.”
The logistical issues of getting small boats from club to club in those days before trailers and hoists were part of the problem, but so was the mindset. As late as the early 1920s, Elder claimed, “the hundreds of little one-design classes, each restricted to one club, were keeping yachtsmen apart.” One design sailors, he wrote, “just could not visualize any small one-design being successfully developed on a widespread scale. Their yachting horizon was limited. They knew that yachts were being raced in some other places, but it was too far away to amount to much. It is difficult to understand such a frame of mind today, but conditions were very different them.”
The parochial viewpoint that Elder lamented and the lack of cooperation between clubs and associations meant that the idea of joining forces to create national classes was foreign to most sailors. Even when two clubs did adopt the same design, often they had so little interest in building a wider class that they would call it by a different name. Many sailors probably believed that no one design class could survive long enough to spread from coast to coast as the Universal Rule rating yachts had done, for the horizon of early one designs seemed to be limited in time as well as in space. Sailors, sailing journalists (who were normally vocally against one designs, claiming they stopped the development of the sport) and designers commonly expected that interest in such small local classes would fade away within two to three seasons; as late as 1902, WP Stephens found it notable that the Newport 30s had survived for seven years.
This mindset meant that just when small boat sailing was growing, it became largely restricted to small and isolated pockets of local one designs that sprang up in a confusing array of widely different classes, with no national classes or overall structure. There were classes derived from Raters, and fishing dories, from little duck-hunting “sneakboxes”, from scows, sharpies, skiffs and skipjacks, from rowing dinghies, prams and working catboats. Dozens of types appeared and faded, leaving no influence on the wider world of dinghy design. Small boat sailing had become a disorganised and localised sport without a high-profile type such as the canoes or sandbaggers. Just when centreboarders had taken over the lead in design development, they retreated into local racing and the shadow of the big yachts.
Many of the small US local classes were specifically designed for young sailors. In Elder’s words, “these were the days of the large yacht, when racing was a rich man’s game….. small boats were considered playthings for boys”. Once young sailors had learned the ropes, they were to move into a “real” boat – one that carried lead and was 25 ft long or more. There was no almost US equivalent to the contemporary expensive high-performance adult centreboarders that were sailed in places like England and Australia; perhaps there was no place for them in the colder waters, lighter winds and more affluent society of the USA’s sailing heartlands.
Given the credibility boost that the Seawanhaka Cup gave to small boat racing, it was not surprising that some clubs adopted Raters or similar types, such as the modified versions of Question that were sailed at Yale Corinthian YC. Some of them were designed by the top designers of the day, like Herreshoff, Clinton Crane, but they seem to have been comparatively expensive boats and few of them seem to have survived long or spread far. One of the most popular types, and perhaps the last survivor, was the Herreshoff 15 footers. Over one hundred were built for three clubs, but in the typical style of the day instead of sharing a single design that could allow interclub racing, each club had its own variation on the basic design. As George Elder wrote, clubs “wanted a special class of their own…unless the designer made some changes, he would hardly feel entitled to his fee.”
The expensive Rater-style one designs were an exception. Most one design fleets were modelled off the bewildering variety of cheap local working and hunting craft that had been bred by the diversity of America’s waterways. One of the first and most popular such types was the dory. In the 1890s, dory racing became popular around Massachusetts, with the usual sequence of events; “each season there would be new boats built of a newer design and perhaps larger in some ways, and would consequently be faster, which would mean that the owners of the old craft must sell at a great sacrifice and get a new one. After a while it got too expensive and the interest died out”.
The result was the formation of the one design Swampscott Club dory class in 1898. The ubiquitous and versatile Charles Mower designed the boat, which retained the dory style “because it could be built and maintained for much less than any other type”. The Swampscott sailors were an evangelical lot who promoted their class to other clubs and formed the Massachusetts Racing Dory Association in 1903. It may well have been the first class association of the modern style in the sport. Previously classes had been run by more general bodies like the American Canoe Association, regional sailing associations or a powerful club.
Within a few years there were fleets of Swampscott Dories and the related Massachusetts Racing Dory restricted class as far north as Nova Scotia, west to the Great Lakes, as far south to the Panama Canal Zone, and apparently as far east as Holland. A 1907 challenge between the Nova Scotia and Massachusetts fleets may have been the first international event for an indigenous American dinghy type, and fittingly the US team dominated. In 1908, Massachusetts sailor George Gardiner Fry (a man who could afford a big boat but preferred a small one) won an international event in Holland, although I can find no details about the event at all.
Despite the promising start, dory racing seems to have quickly faded so completely that few traces remain. Perhaps the problem was that in the typical chaotic style of the era, many clubs adopted similar but not identical one-design or restricted classes. Perhaps the Swampscott Dory’s low initial stability was another problem; most boats it inspired, like the Indian One Design and the Gravesend Knockabout, had firmer bilges and wider sterns. Sadly, not only is the class long dead but even the Swampscott Dory Club itself, once so keen and innovative, is now a social club with no interest in sailing or the boat they created.
Further south in Massachusetts around the same time, the 14ft Cotuit Skiff was developed as the “Mosquito” class for an unusual club reserved for unmarried people under 25. The Cotuit Skiff was derived from from local hard chine clamming and oyster skiffs, and remarkably it has survived to the present day almost unchanged – even tiller extensions are still banned. At one time few more than half a dozen Cotuit Skiffs were left active, but the classic boat resurgence has seen fleets climb to 30 and sometimes more. As with so many other classes of its day, the Cotuit Skiff remained a local class only.
In the same area and around the same time, the brilliant America’s Cup designer, aircraft creator and poet Starling Burgess created the Brutal Beast, named after his Great Dane dog. Another hard chine 14 ft catboat with a wide (6ft2in) beam, by the 1930s it was so popular around Marblehead that it had to be sailed in several divisions. Like many classes, the boats built for many fleets differed slightly, which would have done little to help the class grow widespread momentum. The Brutal Beast died out in the ’60s, apparently killed by construction costs and probably the move to more widespread classes.
Several other classes followed the same general (and logical) style of hard-chine catboat. There were designs like the Cricket, St Petersburg One Design, Flattie and Shelter Island Sharpie mentioned earlier. The 14ft Sea Mew, a design from The Rudder, was sailed on the Gulf, Pacific and Atlantic coasts and on the Great Lakes. Some can still be found in California, but widespread class racing never seems to have become organised.
The most popular of all the hard chine cat-rigged classes was the Snowbird, designed in 1921 by boatbuilder Willis J Reid and quickly adopted by several clubs around Boston. The Snowbird also became popular around southern California, and when Los Angeles was chosen as the host for the 1932 Olympics it was the obvious choice for the singlehander in an era when local cities traditionally chose a local boat.
In the typical style of the era, the Snowbird’s loose rules meant that in California many of the earlier boats and those built for hire fleets soon became uncompetitive, but in the ’50s and ’60s the annual “Flight of the Snowbirds” race around Newport Harbour attracted over 150 boats, making it allegedly the world’s biggest one-class sailing event. The Snowbird’s weight and construction cost killed the Californian class in the late 1960s, although there’s one mention of them sailing at Quincy YC in Massachusetts, one of the original clubs, as late as 1982. But despite a “national” association, its brief Olympic glory, its popularity in Southern California and its toehold in the east, like so many other designs of its era the Snowbird remained essentially a local class.
Many other catboats followed the more traditional round-bottomed form. One of the smaller and longest-lasting ones is the Beetle Cat, designed in 1921 as a junior boat and still not only racing today, but still being built in traditional timber planked construction.
Oddly enough, few of the local US classes followed the style of the classic round-bilge sailing dinghy or oar-and-sail boats. Small groups of 12 and 14 footers could be found along the southern shore of the Great Lakes and the New York Canoe Club adopted a one design dinghy, but until Frostbite sailing evolved there seems to have been few US equivalents of the International 12 or the British classes that were to form the genesis of the International 14. Sailors of the USA stuck firmly to a preference for types developed as working and hunting boats.
One of the oldest and most popular types that was developed from hunting boats was was the Sneakbox, which evolved on the lagoon-like waters of Barnegat Bay in New Jersey south of New York. The Sneakbox is one of those rare traditional types that can be traced back to being the creation of one individual, boatbuilder and enthusiastic wildfowler Captain Hazelton Seaman. About 1836, he developed the low-sided spoon-bowed boat he called a “devil’s coffin”, but which others called the Sneakbox. The typical hunting sneakbox was only about 12 ft long, so it could easily be paddled, poled or sailed and lifted over patches of land and marsh. They were almost completely decked over, with a crowned deck. The low profile allowed the sneakbox to slip up to unsuspecting wildfowl, while the wide decks allowed them to handle the windy waters of Barnegat Bay. Equipped with a cockpit cover and an offset centreboard to keep the cockpit clear, the hardy hunters could sleep aboard a 12 ft Sneak Box for days.
The unique structural design dispensed with the normal keel timber; instead it relied for longitudinal strength on the planking itself. The keel-less structure and rounded bow sections allowed builders to simply run the planks up to the gunwales at the bow, rather than taking on the complex job of fitting them to a conventional stem. Many Sneakboxes were built with frames that followed different parts of a master curve to further simplify construction and cut costs.
As the renowned historian Howard Chapelle noted, “the sneak box, being practically a small racing scow in model, is a very fast boat under sail when properly modelled, rigged, and fitted” and racing and cruising sailors started adopting and adapting the Sneak Box late in the 19th century. To the apparent disgust of observers like Chapelle they abandoned the offset centreboard and moved it to the conventional centreline position, which required the boat to be extended to about 15ft to maintain sufficient cockpit space.
In 1875, Nathaniel Bishop sailed a sneakbox from Pittsburgh to the Gulf of Mexico and made the type famous with his book “Four Months in a Sneak Box”. By the 1890s, sneakbox racing had developed in 16 to 18 footers which soon developed into 20 foot sandbaggers. The 20 foot sandbagger Sneak Boxes sound like beasts of boats, carrying up to eight crew and 35 30lb sandbags and hard both on the crew who had to throw the bags from side to side, and on the helmsmen, who often required a second man to handle the weather helm. In 1914, the versatile designer Charles D Mower, of Lark and Swallow fame, created a lighter 20ft “sneakbox” that was basically an inland racing scow. The Mower type was a sneakbox in name only (as Chapelle noted, the yachtsmen had basically ‘improved’ the sneak box out of existence) and it was itself made obsolete in the 1920s by true inland scows from the Midwest. Barnegat Bay remains the eastern-most stronghold of the inland Scow classes.
But after the 20 foot sneakboxes died out, the smaller versions kept on sailing on Barnegat Bay and far further afield. Boatbuilder J H Perrine, whose grandfather had built one of the very first sneak boxes, built almost 3,000 sneak boxes from 1900 to 1958. From 1918, strong fleets of Perrine-built 15 Foot Sneak Boxes developed around Barnegat Bay and in pockets along the US east coast and even into other countries. Strong club fleets and a regatta circuit developed in Barnegat Bay, with most of the racing restricted to sailors under 17 and only boats built by Perrine and one other builder were allowed. Weighing in at 400lb, they cost only $225 and performed well for their time, although an old yardstick seems to indicate that they were barely faster than a Mirror and slower than a Sunfish. The 15 ft Sneak Box was claimed to be perhaps the most widespread one design in the world, with some 3,000 boats spread across the world, but although the Barnegat Bay fleet formed probably the biggest centre of junior racing in the USA the 15 ft Sneak Box never seemed to become organised as a widespread class. An even smaller version, the 12 ft Duck Boat, was designed in 1951 and became an established junior class around Barnegat Bay.
The performance of the smaller Sneak Boxes seems to be the subject of dispute; some early fans praised their seaworthiness while others called them tender, hard to steer in a breeze, and prone to nosediving. Others steer a middle course and say that while they do not handle when when pressed hard and unforgiving of bad handling, they are safe when sailed conservatively and well.
Despite their spread, their popularity and the strong class scene around Barnegat Bay, the Sneakbox had oddly little effect on the general course of dinghy design. Even in its home waters, it almost died out decades ago. As historian Eric Stark noted, it took much longer to build than a chine boat, took more time to maintain, could only carry a small crew, and it was hard to make in fiberglass. Not surprisingly, the arrival of Optis, Sunfish and Lasers carved a swathe through the ranks of the Sneak Boxes. Today, results show only a half a dozen 15 Footers apparently racing regularly. But the Sneakbox is part of the history of Barnegat Bay, an area that has its own sailing culture and history, and once a year local sailors dragged out their old 12 Ft Duck Boat sneak boxes together for an event they call the “Duck Boat worlds”. For years, the Duck Boat Worlds has been sponsored by philanthropist Phil Kellogg (a classic boat fanatic, who helped revive the bigger local catboats and paid for the replica Sandbaggers Bull and Bear) who provides a donation to charity for each Duck Boat that came to the line. Today the Duck Boat Worlds sees a fleet of 70 or more restored 12 ft Sneakboxes (and even one or two new ones) crossing the line every summer.
But the traditional sneakbox was more than boat for summer racing; it was a boat for winter work, and the ‘box or one of its descendants may have developed that heritage to be the fastest sailing dinghy in history. One of the sneak boxes’s tricks was that it became an amphibious boat in the winter. When the shallow waters of Barnegat Bay started to ice over, the rounded hull and sloping bow of the sneak box allowed it to be dragged onto the ice and even sail over it, steered by dragging a pole. Sneak box sailors claimed to hit speeds of up to 40mph as they careered across the ice.
While the racing sneak boxes of Barnegat Bay were evolving into boats for “soft water” only, further north in the Great South Bay of Long Island off New York a descendant of was evolving the other way. The Great South Bay freezes, but because it’s sea ice it is often rough, unstable and full of “air holes” or patches of unfrozen liquid water. Back in the 1800s, hunters and lifesavers found themselves blocked by the Bay in winter; a normal boat could not cross the ice unless it was dragged on a sled, while a normal iceboat could not handle the rough ice or the water gaps in between.
The answer was the South Bay Scooter, a development of the sneak box. Like the sneak box, the Scooter could be rowed, poled or sailed over both the water and the ice, but it soon developed lower freeboard and a shape aimed more at ice sailing. Instead of the sneak box’s standard cat rig, the Scooter developed a sloop sailplan with a long bowsprit, to allow the boat to be steered on ice by easing the jib in and out. Inevitably, they also started racing during the winter.
“Roughly, the scooter is a Barnegat “sneak box”, mounted on runners” said one 1909 guide to building a Scooter. “This craft will sail in the water as well as on ice, consequently the sailor does not fear soft ice or air-holes, but sails merrily along taking ice or water, whichever happens to be in his course….when crossing an air-hole less than forty or fifty feet…the speed of the scooter, with a good wind, is sufficient to carry her across and out on the ice again in jig time…This ability to pop in and out of the water constitutes a novel sensation and makes scootering a very fascinating sport”.
“No scooter sailor would call the day complete unless he had dashed into and out of a dozen or more air holes” wrote a Scooter sailor in Rudder. “The water, cleaved as if by a shot hurled from a cannon, is thrown into the air a distance of twenty feet, completely shrouding the schooter from view until, with speed little diminished, it glides smoothly and triumphantly out upon the ice at the other side of the opening” said one account.
As they developed the Scooters became optimised more for ice sailing, and by the early 1900s they were capable of averaging 27 knots around a course. By the 1940s they had developed roachy full-battened pocket luff rigs, but the hull had wasted away to little more than a board-like platform for the rig and runners.
Today, the Scooters reach 50 knots or more on the ice – way faster than any sailing dinghy, but they can no longer sail on “soft” water. Well, actually, they can – but only for short distances. Scooter sailors still delight in finding waterholes in the ice and planing across them. The problem is that, like a waterski or a sinker sailboard, the modern Scooter is so low on buoyancy that it sinks when it drops off the plane. If they don’t get to the ice on the other side of the hole soon enough, the Scooter and Scooter-ers will end up in icy water. Scooter sailors, obviously a strange breed, think the occasional swim in icy water is all part of a good day’s sailing. And who’s going to argue with members of a class that can claim to have been the fastest-sailing dinghy ever??
round-bowed little lug riggers”:- The Rudder . At the time they had just been changed to gunters of 96 sq ft. See also Yachting feb 1914
“There were 18 foot Prams in Portland Oregon”:- Rudder May 1911 and
“WP Stephens, never a fan of the scow type”:- ‘One Design Classes in Yachting’, WP Stephens, Outing 1902 p 481
“The influence of the Seawanhaka Cup”:- ‘Fifteen-Footers from a Massachussets Standpoint”, Forest and Stream, April 9 1904
“”The idea seemed to be that each club must have a distinctive one-design class of its own’:- Forty Years Among the Stars”, George W Elder p 36
” “wanted a special class of their own…unless the designer made some changes, he would hardly feel entitled to his fee.” Elder p 44
“”the hundreds of little one-design classes, each restricted to one club, were keeping yachtsmen apart.” George W Elder and Ernest Ratsey, ‘The International Star Class’ in Sailing Craft, Schottle (ed) 1928
“”these were the days of the large yacht, when racing was a rich man’s game….. small boats were considered playthings for boys”. Elder and Ratsey, ibid. Numerous biographies of US yachtsmen of the day show them being bought yachts of 30 ft or longer when still in their teens or early 20s.
““each season there would be new boats built of a newer design and perhaps larger in some ways:”- Forest and Stream Jan 21 1905
“The Swampscott sailors were an evangelical lot”:- ‘The Massachusetts Racing Dory Association” by J Samuel Hodge, Fore’n’Aft, April 1907
“A 1907 challenge between the Nova Scotia and Massachusetts fleet”:- Fore’n’Aft October 1907. Part of the US domination was because they hiked until “there was nothing in the boat but their feet” which is just one more piece of evidence contradicting Antipodean sailors who claim that they created the art of keeping a dinghy afloat by hiking.
“They included the Cohasset YC one design class, modelled off WP Stephens’ Scarecrow”:- Forest and Stream, Oct 10 1895.
“The typical hunting sneakbox was only about 12 ft long”:- American Small Sailing Craft; their design, development and construction, Howard I Chapelle, 1951, p 214.
“as Chappelle noted, the yachtsmen had basically ‘improved’ the sneak box out of existence”:- American Small Sailing Craft p 211. This was probably a reference more to the 20 footers than to smaller Sneak Boxes, which still bore a strong resemblance to the originals.
“built almost 3,000 sneak boxes from 1900 to 1958”:- Eric Stark, Wooden Boat magazine issue 47.
“As historian Eric Stark noted”:- Eric Stark, Wooden Boat magazine issue 47.
“”In winter when used for gunning,” Sailing Craft TBA
” “No scooter sailor would call the day complete unless he had dashed into and out of a dozen or more air holes” The Rudder. Vol 17 1906 p253
“The water, cleaved as if by a shot hurled from a cannon, is thrown into the air a distance of twenty feet, completely shrouding the schooter from view until, with speed little diminished, it gliges smoothly and triumphantly out upon the ice at the other side of the opening”. Sci Am
Another apology; the only boats I’ve ever sailed in the USA are a Farr 52 and the 12 Metre Weatherly. I’ve had no experience at all with US dinghy sailing. But with any history that ranges widely through time and space, there are many times when you just have to research, interview and hope you get it right. Any feedback and corrections will be gratefully received.
The Snipe, first of the great American one design dinghies, emerged in 1931. It was the fourth year of the Great Depression. A quarter of the US workforce was unemployed. It may have seemed like the worst possible time to introduce something as frivolous as a sailing dinghy. But the Snipe not only became the world’s most popular dinghy, but also set the pattern for the later boats that created the great 1950s boom in dinghy sailing.
The Snipe was designed by Rudder magazine editor William F Crosby for a new development class in Florida that could be “towed about the state from regatta to regatta”. The proposed class had few rules – a limit of 100 sq ft of sail and 16′ overall length – but rather than go for a racing machine, Crosby designed the Snipe with economy and ease of construction as the keywords. “The idea throughout was to have a boat that could be built for the minimum amount of money” he wrote later.
By keeping the length down to 15ft 6in Crosby ensured that the Snipe could be made from standard 16ft planks. Given that Crosby felt that “most amateurs have a deadly fear of steam bending wood” hard chine construction was another obvious choice because it did away with steam-bent timbers and spiled planks.
Even by the standards of the 1930s, the Snipe has a lot of rocker and Vee, which was something of a Crosby trademark. “The vee-bottom boat with a well-rockered chine, steep forward sections under the chine, and the transom or stern well up out of the water to prevent drag, will give an ideal form of sailing hull” he wrote in later years. “The steep forward sections will give a good entering wedge and the well-rockered chine will make these sections possible, at the same time permitting passing water to flow aft with the least possible resistance. The stern as mentioned will permit this water to leave the hull without pulling a large stern wave and, if properly designed, such a hull will be far faster…than any round bottomed type.”
Crosby was aware that a hull with lots of rocker and vee “if driven at speed will suck down at the stern causing a great deal of resistance and lost power.” He probably felt that given the Snipe’s weight and role, it was worth trading off planing performance for seaworthiness, light wind speed and upwind performance. Versatility was a key, for the Snipe had to be “capable of sailing in almost any waters from protected inland lakes to the open ocean. ” It may also be significant that the Snipe’s hull looks generally similar to that of existing Florida dinghies, like the Cricket development class or the St Petersburg One Design.
Crosby may have been influenced by the design of big yachts. He felt that a heavy centreboard was “desirable on nearly all types” because of the stability it created, and when he created the similar but larger National One Design he proudly told Thistle designer Gordon Douglass that she was just like a baby International Six Metre. Some say that the modern Snipe still has the feel of a small yacht.
There was a hint of yacht-type construction in the Snipe, too. At the time, the normal way to plug the seams between planks in a lightweight dinghy hull was to fit “seam battens”, consisting of a strip of timber running along the inside of each seam. Crosby took the simpler option of leaving the seam battens off and simply running caulking between the seams, as in a yacht – but that meant he had to provide thick 19mm (3/4in) planking to hold the cotton caulking. The hull weighed a hefty 204kg (450lb) until the ‘70s, and today it still measures in at 159kg (351lb). The Snipe’s extra weight did not concern Crosby, who felt that boats could often be too light. “Weight either in the hull or in the shape of ballast will permit the boat to keep headway in a chop and in light airs she will be able to hold her way much longer between vagrant puffs” he claimed.
The Snipe’s distinctive high boom came about partly for safety and partly because Crosby intended the main to be carried high in light winds (to reach the stronger winds above the water) and lower down in the breeze. It was soon found that the higher position was better all-round. Crosby trialled a taller rig in his own boat before returning to the standard sailplan, but he ruled out spinnakers for reasons of economy.
The Snipe was launched in Rudder magazine of July 1931. The Rudder’s designs had often been popular across the world and the article confidently predicted that “it is expected that a great many “Snipes” will be built during the summer and winter”, but not even Crosby could believe the way the readership took the humble little Snipe to heart. This was not a high-performance design like the famous Rudder Lark and Swallow of earlier times, or a cruiser like the old Sea Bird, but every copy of that month’s magazine sold out, and the office was besieged with requests for reprints.
The grinding misery of the Depression may actually have helped the Snipe class grow so quickly. Work was so rare that it had become something prized, even when it was not paid. “Both the unemployed and the under-employed needed to fill the hours that had once been devoted to work” notes social historian Steven M Gelber “ and those who had full-time jobs may not have had more leisure but they frequently had less money, so they too needed new ways to occupy non-work hours that were less expensive than commercial entertainment.”
To the victims of the Depression, a hobby like building and sailing a Snipe was an antidote to a wounded work ethic. To the wider society, a productive hobby was something to be encouraged, lest idle hands seek escape in distractions like gangster movies, bars and marathon dancing competitions. Magazines and social commentators praised and prized hobbies as a productive and moral way to pass time. Even the rich were caught up in the home handyman craze, and the popular press featured tales of the home workshops of company presidents. To sailors and dreamers of the world, the Snipe presented an affordable way to spend time constructively and to achieve the dream of getting afloat.
Snipe Number 1, Adelaide, was built in three weeks “under the dense shade of live oaks near our work shop” by 14 year old Jimmie Brown, his father and friends. She was launched on August 2, just a few weeks after the plans were published. “She sure handles sweet and is the prettiest ever” said Jimmie in a letter to The Rudder of October. “I find the Snipe is a real boat with all the qualities of a Star for a boy my age”.
With feedback from his readers, Crosby developed the design over the next few months. He reduced the cockpit size, to make “it possible to use the boats in very bad water which would fill an ordinary open cockpit boat of this size”. But there was one thing that he insisted on, time and time again – once the final design was developed there would be no more alterations. The earlier Rudder designs like the Swallow and Lark had spread across the globe. Letter after letter was published in the magazine with enthusiastic tales of their performance, their building – and the alterations the owners had made to them. Those who built earlier Larks, Swallows and other Rudder designs seemed unable to resist the temptation to modify them, and they never formed widespread one design classes.
Crosby was obviously determined that the Snipe should not fall into the same trap, and throughout the development process he was “constantly adding measurement guidelines as his friends found loopholes in the design.” Perhaps because the Star class had provided the model, the old pre-war concept that each region or club needed its own design, or its own version of a design, was gone. New technology like the boat trailers that the Snipe was designed for had opened up the possibility of easy inter-club racing. Crosby demanded that every racing Snipe, from Western Long Island Sound to Western Australia, should conform strictly to the class rules. “Your proud new Snipe for which you paid a goodly sum of money would not be worth ten cents if it were not kept in style by restrictions and if you don’t like ’em and have plenty of money, enter a restricted class instead of a one-design” he told class members who were keen on tweaking his design. “After all, sail boat racing is a game of skill and is not like power boat racing where most regattas are won in the machine shop weeks before the race.”
Within three years of its launch there were 800 Snipes afloat, and the Snipe was on its way to becoming the world’s most popular dinghy. By March 1933, the class had spread internationally with a fleet in Dover, and just four years later, it claimed the title of world’s most popular racing class. Following the lead of the International Star, Crosby led the organisation of an efficient class, including a ranking based on local fleet racing so that “it is possible for boats in Oshkosh to compete with the boats in England without actually coming into competition or seeing the other fellow.”
“Low cost plus speed and sport have made these little fifteen foot six knockabouts known all over the world” Crosby wrote proudly in 1934. “Good appearance has also helped but the most important reasons of all is because these little craft are built to strict one-design restrictions and owners who have tried to bring in expensive refinements and make other changes, which would antiquate many of the older boats, have been voted down.” It was a far cry from the thinking just 25 years before, when it was accepted that each one design fleet was restricted to its own locale.
By 1947, the year when a new breed of homebuilt dinghies arrived, the Snipe was holding world championships in Europe and had become a sophisticated racing boat. Snipes were racing in North and South America, in England, in loosely-organised pockets in Australia, and in Asia. In Germany it had inspired the similar Pirat, which was on its way to becoming the most popular youth class in northern Europe.
The Snipe has never been a particularly fast or a light boat, even by the standards of earlier decades. The weight and heavy stern rocker reduce its speed, but makes it docile to handle and contribute to the close racing and “feel” that makes Snipe sailors love their boat. It is, they say, the tactical dinghy per excellence, with superb balance and handling. “I often describe the boat as an ultra light keelboat, which describes the feel” says a British Sniper. “The boats are impressive in very light conditions, and yet in 20 knots of wind nearly the whole fleet is still concentrating on tactics rather than speed and survival.”
The Snipe, wrote world champion and Olympian Gary Hoyt, was “one of the most misunderstood boats, often held in quite low esteem by yachtsmen who consider it to be old-fashioned and low in performance….the quickest cure for the critics and the cynics alike would be to put them in a modern Snipe in a competitive fleet. The cynics would find the Snipe a very responsive boat, and the critics would probably find themselves badly in the tank.”
When I was growing up as a kid in Sydney, with Moths mouldering in the yard, Frank Bethwaite sailing his experimental proas out front and strong fleets of development-class skiffs and dinghies dotting the harbour, most of the little I knew of Snipes came from the pages of a 1950s library book titled Scientific Sailboat Racing, by world champion Ted Wells. In the Antipodes the Snipe was then seen as an American oddity, and legends like gold medallist Peter Mander, who admitted that Well’s book gave a valuable insight into tuning, publicly called Crosby’s design “dull”. What sort of person, I used to wonder with the arrogance of youth, could have enjoyed sailing the heavy boat revealed in those black and white photos of low-speed tactical sailing in Wells’ book? Could anyone who was interested in technology and design have enjoyed a Snipe?
The answer, it turned out, was a very loud yes. Wells was not just the first Snipe World Champion, but also one of the greatest aircraft designers of his day. He had built his own plane as a teenager, before becoming the very first student at the prestigious Princeton University to qualify as an aeronautical engineer. While still at university he bought an old biplane and became a professional “barnstormer” before winning the Transcontinental National Air Race and becoming a test pilot and chief engineer.
In 1932, just as the Snipe was spreading its wings, Wells led the design of the iconic Beech Staggerwing; a technologically advanced private plane that was fast enough to win air races and luxurious enough to attract business flyers. Despite the fact that he was an intuitive designer rather than a master of structural analysis, Wells followed up with the design of the enormously successful and advanced twin-engined Beech 18 and oversight of the famous Vee-tail Bonanza, which have each held the record for the longest continuous production run in aviation history. Other high-tech Snipe sailors included top-class boatbuilder Carl Eichenlaub and yacht designer German Frers Snr, whose son became one of the great designers of the IOR era, who introduced the class to Argentina. That arrogant question of my youth got a clear answer – yes, people who were interested in design and technology could relish the cut and thrust and meticulous nature of Snipe sailing.
Wells, who had started sailing in a small (35 member) club at little lake in Kansas that sometimes dried up in droughts, told Sports Illustrated that the appeal of the Snipe was the competition created by its big fleets; “you get so much interfleet competition in the Snipe class that it gives us a much higher proportion of very good skippers than any other class can claim”. The competition attracted Wells so much that he retired from Beechcraft under pressure in 1953 after he was called to a management meeting from a Snipe regatta. His sin, allegedly, was that he had become more interested in sailing Snipes than in designing leading edge aircraft.
The Snipe seems to have set the pattern for the boats that later created the great international boom in several ways. For one, it had promotion from the media. Secondly, it caught on with wider pressures and trends in society. Thirdly, it did not pretend to be a scorching high-speed machine but it was fast enough, safe and it sailed well. Fourthly, it was easy to build. Fifth, it was able to attract a wide range of sailors. As Crosby noted in 1934, “the Snipe class is particularly interesting because it is not confined to any one area or sailed by any one type of skipper….you will see these little boats being raced by youngsters from twelve to seventy years of age…many clubs have already adopted the class for teaching junior sailors…”. But the Snipe sailors were diverse not just in age, but also in location. “Outside of junior activities, though, the most interesting development of all lies in the fact that through Snipes, yacht racing has been brought to many localities where such sport has never before been enjoyed” wrote Crosby. The old model, where US one designs were limited to one club or region had been exploded. Here was something novel in dinghy sailing – a truly worldwide class.
The Snipe was soon followed by a stream of slightly bigger boats in the same general style of heavy hard-chine one-design. A couple of years later, the 16’ Comet (designed by a Star world champ for a mother who was looking for a boat for her sons, and originally called the Star Junior) and the 18’ Interlake (designed by Star draftsman Francis Sweisguth) arrived. Both followed the Star style of hard chine arc-bottomed hull and big rig, which was fitting since the Star was the first class to show US sailors the true potential of the one design concept. In 1938, the Lightning hit the scene. Like the Snipe, all were simple hard chine boats with sawn frames, all were cheap and easy to build, and most were run by associations that tried to spread the class far and wide. The Interlake and Lightning remain strong classes today. For many years, boats of this style formed the backbone of dinghy racing in the USA.
As American sailor George Moffatt wrote for a British audience in 1961, these typical US one designs were a product of “weather, water and economics (which) all tend to emphasize a larger, heavier and less manoeuvrable boat than finds acceptance in England.” The light airs common through most of the North American summer encourage big rigs, and perhaps means that planing performance is less of a consideration. The water tends to be cold; even in California the ocean is chilled by currents flowing down from the Arctic. Andy Dovell, a former New Englander turned Australian yacht and skiff design, recalls how geography affected the dinghy sailors of his homeland. “Even when when you’re racing in the summertime, the water’s cold, so they tend to sail boats that don’t tip in quite so easily.” As L. Francis Herreshoff noted, the short, tippy British style of dinghy would turn off US sailors as soon as “their ardour has been somewhat cooled by a swamping or capsizing a 14 in cold water.”
North America has huge expanses of semi-protected waterways, which encouraged big, dry and stable boats that were designed more for family day sailing than racing. “In New England where there’s lots of interesting geography to explore, performance of the boat isn’t so important. Every day you can explore a different harbor and have a new experience with any type of boat” explains Bob Johnstone, who marketed dinghies like the Laser and Sunfish before he became a partner of the hugely successful “J/Boat” yacht company. But in some of the most densely populated and influential areas, most sailors live in cities located some distance away from their sailing grounds. Even the keenest racers cannot always practice on weekday afternoons like sailors in other areas can. “When I look back, I remember that the helmsmen were all pretty skilled, but they were all guys who had jobs in the city” Dovell remembers. “They hadn’t grown up on the water every afternoon, they had only ever sailed on weekends their whole life. You can’t have a bunch of workaday guys who race just on the weekends, sailing a (tippy high-performance) skiff in cold water.”
Many of the one designs also had to be stable enough to live on moorings, because a shortage of waterfront public space means that getting access to the waterfront is difficult in many parts of the USA. “Access to the water has a lot to do with boat type” notes Ben Fuller, former curator of the famous Mystic Seaport maritime museum. “Most of the New England clubs developed in a mooring environment, and many still do not have space for dinghy parks. What happens to boats when they are not being used is in many ways more important than the boats in use.”
In the middle of the 19th century the USA was the wealthiest society on earth, and sailors tended to be rich even by US standards. The sport still felt the echoes of the 19th century clashes that killed classes like the sandbaggers and Delaware Hikers and pushed the working class out of the sport. In the US, even dinghy sailing was the preserve of the successful middle class and the wealthy, and American sailors had the money to buy big dinghies, the money to own big garages to build and store them, and the big cars to tow them.
Another historical hangover meant that sliding seats and trapezes were frowned upon despite the big rigs that many US one designs carried. “There were long-set bad reactions to shifting ballast boats like sandbaggers and hikers” explains Ben Fuller. So North American boats compensated for their big rigs by having extra form stability, heavy construction, and carrying more crew. Popular dinghies like Thistles and Lightnings carry three crew, and even cat-rigged boats like the little Frostbite classes or the 20’ M Scow and 12’ Butterfly scow often carry two sailors.
Once these factors helped the big, heavy hard-chine one-design style catch on in the US northeast, the heartland of North American sailing, it spread throughout the continent. Legendary “establishment” sailors like “Corny” Shields told their readers that planing boats were only for expert racing fanatics, and they listened. “The influence of the northeast yachting establishment was huge” says Fuller. “These boats set the scene for much of North American sailing”.
Probably the final factor that established the classic American classes was a national passion for one design sailing. The excesses of the development classes, from Sandbaggers to Frostbiters, may have pushed sailors towards strict rules. Some say that the American work ethic suits one design classes; victory comes from perfecting technique and equipment, whereas in development or high-performance classes it can come through left-field design ideas or “seat of the pants” boathandling.
As sailors like Dennis Conner and George Moffatt said, the steady moderate winds and strong one design fleets led American sailors to put an emphasis on the finer details of tuning and technology that saw them dominate Olympic sailing for decades. “In the department of techniques and technical innovation we Americans have always felt that we have had something of an edge” wrote Moffatt. “On our long, open and usually tideless courses boat speed is vital…. true, we have not had excellent small boat designers like Fox or Proctor, but we have had many superb builders such as Robert Lippincott, John Nichols, Skip Etchells and others who have been willing to try endless refinements of shape and gear.”
The lure of this highly developed one design racing has kept many of the older classes – the ones which could establish the first major fleets – on top in popularity ever since. The appeal of one design principle also ensures that there have been few moves to harm the equality of the fleets by updating the designs. It creates highly competitive racing that often lead to advances in the nuances of rig, gear, sails, and technique. The downside is that there has been little room for development in basic design. Only in the US would a 70 year old, 127kg (280lb) 16 footer still be advertised as “modern” and “light weight” in the 21st century. But these boats remain popular because they suit their designed purpose admirably, and they provide great racing in durable boats that last for many decades.
“The vee-bottom boat with a well-rockered chine”:- this and many other quotes from Crosby about the Snipe design is from his book “Amateur Boatbuilding”, Rudder Publishing Company C 1941
“”capable of sailing in almost any waters from protected inland lakes to the open ocean.”:- Crosby in ‘Snipes’ in “Sail Boating” Gerald White. NY 1954.
“The idea throughout was to have a boat that could be built for the minimum amount of money”:- “Sail Boating”
 “A job you can’t lose: work and hobbies in the great depression” Steven M Gelber, Joiurnal of Social History, June 1 1991
“Crosby knew that the boat would have to handle all conditions, from light-wind inland lakes to the windy Gulf coast.” Snipe News Winter 2011
“Crosby later wrote that this “foolish little working jib was not entirely satisfactory”:- the Jib Sheet Feb 1946. In the same article he noted that the only other change made in the class for many years was allowing a centreboard instead of a daggerboard at the request of early adopters Minnefords and Indian Harbour YC.
“constantly adding measurement guidelines as his friends found loopholes in the design”. Snipe News Winter 2011
“”Low cost plus speed and sport have made these little fifteen foot six knockabouts known all over the world”. ‘800 boats in three years’ Rudder June 1934.
“makes it possible to use the boats in very bad water”; ‘800 boats in three years’ Rudder June 1934.
“Your proud new Snipe:’ The Jib Sheet
“”one of the most misunderstood boats, often held in quite low esteem by yachtsmen who consider it to be old-fashioned and low in performance” Go for the Gold, Gary Hoyt, 1971
“”You get so much interfleet compettion in teh Snipe class ” Sports Illustrated
“”weather, water and economics (which) all tend to emphasize a larger, heavier and less manoeuvrable boat than finds acceptance in England.” ‘The American Scene’ by George Moffatt in The Dinghy Year Book 1961, Richard Creagh-Osbourne (ed)
Information from Bob Johnson, Andy Dovell and Ben Fuller from personal correspondence and interviews.