Pt 1.32: “The dinghy centre of the continent”; Canada’s small boats

Ackroyd skiff 2
The classic Canadian historic dinghy is the Lake Sailing Skiff Association 14 Foot Dinghy. Over recent years a strong fleet of restored LSSA 14 Footers has grown up on Stony Lake in Ontario. These 14s are said to be examples of the famous production line of Ackroyd Dinghies, which were sold in their hundreds in both racing and “cottage” versions. Looking through the gallery of these excellent Nat Glas pics at the Stony Lake YC website, you can tell from the stance and glance of many of the sailors that they really know what they are doing, and it’s no surprise to find that the little club includes Olympic sailors and coaches. Go here for a larger version of the pic below to get a good idea of the details of the Ackroyd 14.

Ackroyd Dinghy 1.png

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.

St Lawrence working skiff from canoes and canoeing by C Bowyer Vaux
An earlier version of the St Lawrence Skiff, from Vaux’s Canoes and Canoeing. He called these early sailing Skiffs “very indifferent sailors”.

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.

Brockville skiff
Genesta, one of the top Brockville Skiffs in 1885. From ‘The Brockville (St Lawrence) Racing Skiff” in May 1886 American Canoeist

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.”


Yankee canoe Rudder March 1890
Yankee of 1891 was one of the products of the intense rivalry between the New York town of Clayton and the Canadians from Brockville.  This is her small rig of “just” 350 sq ft. The light air rig had 450 sq ft of sail. Yankee was 22ft overall, had a beam of 4ft, and the bare hull weighed just 150 lb. Less than a year earlier one Clayton correspondent implied that the Brockville boats were not St Lawrence Skiffs because they were mere racing machines with rudders, but it appears from Yankee that the New York sailors had decided to follow the Canadians’ lead. From The Rudder March 1891, digitised by Mystic Seaport Museum.

Yankee canoe lines

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.”

OUting July 1892 St LAwrence Skiff
You’ll be surprised to know that this is a sketch of the start at the Clayton Regatta in 1890. It’s from Outing of July 1892. Up to 20 Skiffs were starting in races at the time. Now, dear reader, you have as much info as I do. Cheers!

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.

Skiff Clio.png
Clio, from the ever-informative Forest and Stream. Dec 1 1887 issue.
double endeds skiff
This photograph from  Library and Archives Canada is from Carleton Place, between Brockville and Ottawa, around 1890. It appears to show a large LSSA Skiff of similar style to Clio – any information would be appreciated.


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.

Kootenay Lake rater
The centreboarder scene outside the Ontario region appears to have been smaller and less organised. Above; a Rater-style boat on Kootenay Lake in British Columbia around the turn of the century. Below: a mixed fleet in a regatta on Kelowna Lake, BC in 1909. Given what appears to be the tiny population around these lakes at the time, racing seems to have been surprisingly popular with a significant number of Rater-style boats, but photos show that understandably the fleets were mixed and unlike the strong and organised dinghy scene around Ontario.  The fleet below seems to include Rater-style boat, canoes, dinghies that could perhaps be LSSA 12 Footers, and what appears to be a Rudder Swallow scow. Anyone got any more information about these Library and Archives Canada pics?

Kelowna reegatta 1909

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.

Dodo photo
Dodo. Above the water she looked pretty much like the sort of Raters that could be seen racing around the world. Under the water she shows a very hard-bilged scow-like hull, and a Linton Hope style “dagger” board.


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.

Morse dinghy lines
Morse’s 12 Foot dinghy design, as shown in Outing vol 40 1902. In the article, WP Stephens recommended it as a model for one design classes. The waterline was 10ft6in; beam 4ft 7 1/2 in; displacement 800lb; sail area 85 sq ft. Yes, I will get around to giving measurements in logical form one day.

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.

Douglas 14 Footer
An early James Douglas designed 14 footer, champion of 1905. From Rod and Gun in Canada, August 1905

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.

Lakes 14 in froint of royal Canadian YC 1916
A 14 glides past the Royal Canadian YC in 1916. Ontario’s yacht clubs seem to have been more supportive of dinghy sailing than many others at the time, and the city’s various clubs appear to have cooperated well. Can anyone give more information on the boat? Library and Archives Canada.
rodandguncanada1905_0235 Gooderham pic
Norman Gooderham. This pic gives some interesting details on what is probably a 14 Footer. Note the early tiller extension, which seems to have a swivel and not a universal joint. Gooderham was an outstanding sailor and even when young he was skippering top class big boats with success. Rod and Gun July 1905


Sailplan Mower LSSA 14
A LSSA 14 designed by Charles D Mower for The Rudder magazine in 1909. The accompanying article by Dawson says that by this time deadwoods (or skegs) had been added to most 14s to solve the catboat’s problem with directional stability downwind. Although Mower was a very successful designer who could draw up boats as varied as the Lark, Swampscott Dory, top A Scows and big Universal Rule racing yachts, this 14 seems to be fairly old-fashioned by LSSA standards although Mower did offer an alternative bermudan rig very similar to the high peaked gunter rig pictured.


Mower LSSA 14.png



regatta probably Toronto
Hamilton regatta 1927.  Some of the 16 Foot LSSA Skiffs that were popular around Hamilton had rounded stems like the ones in the photograph, others had vertical stems like the 14s. Normally the longer and finer waterlines of the vertical-stem boats would make them faster, and it would be interesting to see why the round-stem boats were popular for so long. The full size version is here .  


Canadian 14 Footer.png
A 14 Footer from ‘Sailing Craft’ in 1928. The high-peaked gaff rig and Vee shaped sections had been standard in 14s for some time by this stage. The curved rocker lines aft show that this was basically a displacement shape.

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.

Lake skiff 16
Rudder in 1922 featured this Ian L McKensie design for a LSSA 16. The 16 Footers carried 187 sq ft of sail on a bermudan rig with a tall 27′ mast, had 7ft beam, a 100lb centreboard, and 3/8″ planking. Below: some of the LSSA 16s carried sloop rigs. From Dawson, Rudder 1909.

LSSA 16 foot skiff sloop

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



Pt 1.15: Introducing the era of nationalism: dinghies in the first half of the 20th century

A symbol of the internationalism of centreboarder sailing in the 1800s; a Half Rater on Sydney Harbour.  Several English Raters raced against American and New Zealand boats on the harbour, often competing against the ancestors of the Skiffs. State Library of New South Wales photo.

Something odd and unexplained happened to centreboarder sailing as the 19th century came to a close. Within a period of about three years, international racing and the influence of centreboarders on sailboat design reached a new peak, and then quickly faded. The nature of dinghy design itself started to change in rather puzzling ways, and in some ways the development of boats and of the sport itself seem to have stagnated over the next few decades.

No one in the 1890s seems to have foreseen the doldrums that dinghy design was about to reach. The end of the Victorian era had seen international racing in big centreborders in areas as far flung as the Thames and Auckland. Centreboarder design had reached new heights of influence in the world of sailing. No longer did the design of small craft lag behind the big yachts, as it had often done in the early days of centreboarder sailing. From the 1890s onwards, the concepts developed in small centreboarders like the canoe yawls, the Raters and the scows took over as the driving force in sailboat design. An observer in the late 1890s would have only seen grounds for optimism. There seems to have been no hint that small boat racing was about to enter a quarter of a century of generally slow and insular development. Perhaps the pace of change itself exhausted dinghy sailors. Maybe the poor sportsmanship that was such a feature of international challenges in the 1800s turned people’s minds back to local racing; certainly some British big-boat sailors felt that the international events only harmed the more important cause of local racing.

The tale can be told in stark numbers. There were five challenges for the oldest international trophy in centreboarders, the New York Canoe Club Cup, in its first decade. After 1895, there were only two in 38 years. New Zealand and Australian were involved in two international events for centreboarders (the Intercolonial One Rater Challenge and the Anglo-Australian Shield) in just one year in the 1890s, but then stayed out of international racing for almost 40 years. Canada faded out of the scow matches against the USA. Even when the dinghy sailors of the world met in the Olympics, it was normally in a design only sailed in the host nation. Even national-level events seem to have been rare in first 20 or 30 years of the 1900s.

Whatever the reason, the lull in international and national events may have been a symbol (and perhaps a cause) of a major shift in the evolution of dinghy design. From the time that Britons in Boston had created the centreboard itself, the British Isles and north-eastern North America had produced almost all of the innovations that created the sport of dinghy sailing. Those areas had produced the catboat, the sandbagger, the sailing canoe, the Raters, the one design concept, and scows. The flow of designs outwards from Britain and America had tended to unify design across the globe. The amazingly fast communications, the small number of other sports to write about, the surprisingly common export and import trade in boats, and the passion and technical skill of writers like Thomas Day, Dixon Kemp and WP Stephens meant that sailors in South Africa or Hamburg could keep up to date with the latest designs bred by men like Linton Hope and Paul Butler. It led to international uniformity in concepts and in the general outline of design. There were direct links between Bob Fish in New York and the sandbaggers of Hamburg; between designs of the Thames and the Raters of Auckland; between the offices of Rudder magazine and the Swallows of the Adriatic.

A stunning example of the local designs produced in the second era of dinghy sailing. While the boats of the English-speaking countries may dominate our versions of history of the time, in the first half of the 20th century the Germans of the inland lakes were creating the fastest dinghies of the day. Pic from the N Class Renjolle site.

As the new century arrived, this era of internationalism faded. Centreboarder design across much of the world became isolated and parochial.  For the first half of the 20th century, each of the major sailing regions developed its own style of boat; a distinctive indigenous breed suited to their own conditions, culture, geography and economy. The British adopted local one designs and development classes with short, round-bilge planing hulls: the Germans bred long, slender designs; the US adopted big hard-chine one designs and scows; New Zealand and Australia each developed two distinct breeds, one of them the over-canvassed development type we now call “skiffs” and the other a lighter breed of turbocharged dinghy; the French seem to have had their own eclectic mix.

The Snipe led the way in creating a distinctive American style of dinghy, but along with the 12 Square Metre Sharpie (below) it was also one of two hard chine one designs that emerged in 1931 and had worldwide influence. Top: Boston Public Library image.


As each region developed its own style of design, sailors and designers seem to have become less interested in designs from other areas. There were, of course, exceptions. The major one is the international spread of two hard-chine one designs, Germany’s 12 Sq Mtre Sharpie and Rudder magazine’s Snipe, which appeared within a few months of each other and spread around the globe. But it does seem that after the late 1890s, many of the major dinghy sailing regions developed a distinct local style that would dominate the sport in that area until a new internationalism arrived in the second half of the 20th century.

The Caneton Brix was one of the classes that was inspired by the Rudder’s Snipe in a sudden flurry of interest in hard chine boats in the early ’30s. The French seem to have been big fans of medium-size hard chine dinghies, with an indefinable national aesthetic.

The next section in SailCraft is about the development of those national styles. Once again it is a tale of technical development, but also of the social, geographical, economic and factors that drove and crafted the craft we sail. Some regions get more attention than others, but that’s not an indication of their relative importance. In some cases other people (like New Zealand’s Robin Elliott and Harold Kidd) have already written such great work that there is little new ground to cover; anyone interested in dinghy history in their area should just go and buy their books!  In other regions (primarily Europe) the problem is the lack of information in English.  If there is a disproportionate amount on the history of Australian dinghy sailing, it’s not because I think that Australian design was the most advanced or best (it clearly wasn’t) but because very little has been written about the subject by sailors or by historians, and that has allowed a few myths to evolve. Australian libraries and museums have also made a lot of excellent historical information available, and that reveals a sailing scene too diverse to cover with the usual inaccurate cliches about “Sydney Skiffs”. But to start the second phase of the history of dinghy sailing, we will return to the country where it may have all begun – to England, and to two of the most famous names in the sport.


1.11 “Racers in every sense of the word”: the Raters



The beauty and efficiency of the Rater – the Charles Sibbick design Diamond from 1897.

The next ancestor of the modern racing dinghy, the Rater, was created by a new style of sailor and a new style of rules. The catboat, sandbagger, sharpie and canoe were created in the same way as earlier craft; they had evolved out of workboats or the inventions of enthusiastic amateurs. But the Rater was influenced by four new factors – rating rules, professionally trained designers, a move to smaller boats, and women skippers – and it created a new style of boat, and may have proven to the world that the future of performance lay in efficiency rather than brute force.

The Rater was basically the first type where restrictions on sail area dominated design, and drove it towards light, efficient hulls. Until the Raters arrived, there had been two basic ways to classify and rate sailing boats – overall length and by hull volume. The simple length measurement was normally used in small boats, like the sandbaggers and catboats. Larger yachts were rated according to existing rules that were used to assess the size of merchant ships for harbour dues, light fees and other taxes.

Like most simple rules, the tonnage measurement had simple flaws. For a start, the use of a tonnage measurement for rating implicitly assumed that a bulkier boat was a faster one, irrespective of whether the bulk came in the form of excessive beam (which reduces speed) or extra length (which increases speed).  Secondly, since commercial craft had to be able to measured while they were afloat in port and with a hold full of cargo, the various tonnage rules often used measurements that designers could easily avoid. In Britain, for example, the problem of measuring the depth of a commercial boat full of cargo meant that the various tonnage rules assumed that a boat’s depth was linked to its beam.

The British tonnage laws were one of the biggest, and most harmful, forces that drove British yacht design for half a century. Designers realised that because volume created by beam was taxed but draft was not, if they created a narrow boat it would rate lower than a beamy one. They could then give the narrow boat enough stability by increasing the draft to lower the ballast. “Slowly at first, but steadily, yachts became longer, narrower, and deeper; the crack yacht of one year being displaced the next by something with more length, less beam, and more ballast” wrote George Watson, one of the greatest of all designers. Beam was taxed so heavily that over just 13 years, boats in the “5 ton” class increased their length by one third and their sail area by two thirds, merely by reducing beam. This was the era of the British cutters that were so long, thin and deep that they were called the “planks on edge”.

The raters took design from unrestricted clouds of sail (above) to unfettered efficiency. The Sydney 22 Footers, which had been able to beat all the other small yachts, met their match in craft like the One Rater Laurel (below) which had just a fraction of the 22’s sail area, cost and crew. Top pic, unknown photographer, Tyrell Collection Powerhouse Museum; bottom pic from Robin Elliott’s history section on the Royal Akarana Yacht Club site.


The American clubs changed their tonnage rules to get away from the beam problem, but they shared another problem with the Brits. Perhaps because the tonnage rules were a hangover from taxation laws, and the taxman was only concerned about cargo capacity, neither American or British rules rated sail area. Sailors recognised early on that the type of rig was a vital factor in racing, and as early as the 1840s, schooners were given a huge advantage under the rating rules so that they could compete with single-masted rigs. But as far as the rating rules were concerned, sail area was irrelevant, and sailors could hang watersails, topsails, staysails and anything else they wanted onto spars that were as long as they could keep up.

Rule makers faced practical problems with measuring sail area; it was a tricky issue in those days when boats could set and drop topmasts, jackyards, square sails and a variety of jib than it is with modern rigs. And to many sailors, it wasn’t just that sail area couldn’t be measured; it was also that it shouldn’t be measured. To them, a boat that could carry more sail was a better boat. “If the builder of a yacht improves her form of hull while keeping the general dimensions in length, breadth, depth, and weight of ballast the same so that she is able to carry more sail, he is at once taxed for his ingenuity in having accomplished this improvement” complained one sailor when sail area was finally measured. “It is the object of a builder to develop as much boat for length as is consistent with a good model” wrote another, ignoring the fact that such boats were expensive and unseaworthy. Even the great naval architect Scott Russell felt that measuring sail area stopped the designer from being “left free to make the best ship that could be built”. The fact that the old rules that did not restrict sail area led to vast, inefficient and costly rigs on top of hull distorted to carry more sail at the expense of efficiency seems to have escaped many sailors and designers.

raters again by wyllie
Raters racing; a sketch by W L Wyllie, from the UK’s National Maritime Museum. This probably shows the East Coast (UK) fleet that was dominated by Linton Hope designs. Linton Hope was an expert in lightweight structures and went on to become a significant figure in early seaplane design, which tragically lead to his early death as a result of a crash.

It was the designer and journalist Dixon Kemp who, in 1880, proposed a new type of rating rule, one which measured sail area and length alone. It seems that Kemp and other trained designers were driven partly by disgust at the direction of development under the old rules, partly by a more scientific and sophisticated understanding of the physics of sailing, and partly by the recognition that, in Kemp’s terms, “increase of sail-spread meant extra cost for the sails themselves, and extra cost for the means of carrying them”.  Kemp’s rule was as simple as could be – simply measure the waterline length, multiply it by the sail area, and add a divisor so that the final result was a simple figure that sailors could understand and relate to older rules.

In 1882, Kemp’s rule was adopted as an optional system by the RYA, although clubs held firmly to the flawed tonnage rules. In the same year the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club of New York adopted a modified version of the rule, and was later followed by other US clubs. The US versions of the Length and Sail Area concept allowed much bigger sailplans than Dixon Kemp’s original version, and measured both overall and waterline length. The adoption of the “Seawanhaka Rule” and its variations helped to kill off the dangerous rigs in small boats, and led to a breed of rather conservative big, beamy and heavily canvassed cruiser/racers that W P Stephens called “the high point of designing in America” but others like designer B.B. Crownshield called over-rigged “brutes”.

It was only when a committee lead by former Mersey centreboarder and canoe sailor Sir William Forwood abolished the British tonnage rule and adopted the Dixon Kemp rule in 1886 that the full potential of the concept was unleashed to create the fastest and most radical development in small boat design in history.[1]  The Dixon Kemp rule applied across the board, from 14 foot dinghies to the 130ft cutters of the “Big Class”, but the small yachts, large centreboarders and canoes drove the developments.

Even before the new rules arrived, the UK sailing scene was moving to small boats.  The problems with the old tonnage rule had almost killed off the big racing cutters. The building and racing of the giant cruiser/racer schooners had also almost stopped when cruisers moved to the new steam yachts. The increasing wealth and leisure time of the middle and upper-middle classes allowed many new sailing clubs to form, but few of them could afford to offer the rich cash prizes that were needed to entice the big boats to race.  Instead, owners and clubs turned to smaller yachts (although “small” in those days could mean something similar to a 30 Square Metre) which could be sailed by amateurs.

To put the small Raters in perspective and to see their development from mini yacht to big dinghy, we have to look at the boats they replaced. Once again, the first developments started in small yachts rather than in dinghies – but it was almost for the last time. By the time the story of the Rater was over, dinghies were to take over as the driving force in the development of the entire sport of sailing.

Mascotte; LOA 8.64m/28.3ft, beam 1.45m/4ft7, draft 1.73m/  5ft7, displacement 7 tons

Mascotte is an example of the style of extreme “plank on edge” cutter that the British were turning away from. The famous dinghy designer Uffa Fox sailed a replica and noted that although it could reach a surprisingly high speed, it was only when it was heeling over so far that half the deck was buried and the narrow interior was unusable.

Itchen boat rig flipped
Above, a typical sail plan of one of the racing Itchen Ferries. Below, the lines of the Itchen Ferry Centipede. The external ballast keel was added to the Ferries under the pressure of racing. Both plans from Dixon Kemp’s “A Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing”.


Even the classes that were not rated under the Tonnage Rules often became victims of their own excess. Among them was the Itchen Ferry, a traditional fishing boats of the Solent. Many of the top designers rated these stubby, heavy but shapely boats highly, and many of the best professional big-boat skippers hailed from the type’s home village of Itchen. When the pros raced their own Itchen Ferries at the end of the season after the big yachts had been laid up, the competition was furious. The classes were restricted only by overall length, with the inevitable result that under the pressure of racing sail area grew and keels became deeper. The plans above show Centipede, designed by the famous Dan Hatch for the 21 foot class. She weighed in at a solid 3.5 tons with a hefty 8ft of beam, and carried a healthy 630 sq ft of sail upwind.

Itchen boat Frolic cropped

Minima 2
Minima, one of the distorted yachts built to race in the 21 Foot waterline length class that grew from the Itchen Ferry racing. Arthur Payne was known as the great master of the “Solent Length Classes” and this experience in classes that were limited by length rather than by the tonnage rules seems to have given him an appreciation of the advantages that could be gained by extra beam.

The Itchen Ferries became one of the ancestors of the “Solent Length Class” racing yachts, which were restricted by waterline length only. Minima was designed Arthur Payne, the “master of the length classes”, to fit the same class as Centipede and shows what happens when you design a class restricted only by waterline length.  “There being no limit to sail in the length classes, it was not a difficult matter to outbuild the crack boat of the year every winter. Each succeeding boat had longer overhang, greater beam, draught, and displacement than her predecessor, and consequently won, being a larger boat and carrying more sail” noted Dixon Kemp. “The result was a rather expensive type of boat, with excessive overhang, and enormous sail spread”.  The “21 footers” ended up with deep hulls about 33′ overall and carrying over 1300 sq ft of sail.

Not surprisingly, when Payne started to design to the “length and sail area rule” he quickly reduced rig size and started to create a lighter, more efficient boat than the powerful Length Class boats – but he kept the wide beam that had worked so well in the Itchen Ferries and the Length Classes. Payne’s Lady Nan was built in 1888 and dominated the 2.5 Rater class. Although about 2ft longer on the waterline than Minima, she carried less than half the sail area. It was an early indication of a design trend that was to see sail sail area drop from 70 to 20 sq ft per foot over length during the Rater era.

Lady Nan

Lady Nan shows Payne moving from the long keel of the Itchen Ferry type, towards a fin keel. Her beam of 8ft3in on a 23 ft waterline was vast compared to contemporary yachts designed by the British designers who had become used to the “plank on edge” cutters. Lady Nan weighed in at 4.1 tons and had 654sq ft of sail. Development moved so fast that by her second season, she had gone from a dominant force to an also ran.

Humming Bird April 1890 hull only
Humming Bird

Humming Bird, a 2.5 Rater designed by Payne for the Hughes family in 1889, was a “wonderful performer to windward” and dominated the class in its Solent stronghold. When I look at Humming Bird the first thing I notice is that she represents a further stage in the development of the fin keel (perhaps influenced by the fin keel that Hughes’ father had fitted on the old family boat the previous season) but from the perspective of rival designer George Watson, who was used to designing heavy and skinny “plank on edge” cutters, the important thing about Humming Bird was that she showed “what could be done with large beam and moderate displacement.” The short ends may have been a reflection to the fact that overhangs were “considered a crafty method of cheating the rule” (as Rater skipper Barbara Hughes noted) and in its first year the class allowed no more than one foot of stern overhang – perhaps a rather logical reaction to the excessive overhangs in the Solent Length Classes.

Ninie of 1891
Niny, designed by Arthur E Payne in 1891, was a near sister to 1891’s top Half Rater, Kittiwake. Niny was only 18.7ft long overall with a waterline


The “Solent lug” rig was all but universal on the small Raters in the Solent in Niny’ day. Many of the smaller Raters also had a roller-furling headsail, like Niny.

The Half Rater class, smallest of the “Raters”, was formed in 1891 by a group from the famed Bembridge Sailing Club on the Isle of Wight. Payne’s Kittiwake, a sister to Niny, was the first champion. Their hull shape showed distinct development from boats like Lady Nan and Humming Bird; the keel has become more of a distinct fin, the skeg aft has been cut away to reduce wetted surface, and a spade rudder has been fitted. These Half Raters were described as “capital little boats—miniature yachts, in fact….wonderful sea-boats,” and weighed in at 550-600kg with about 75% of that in ballast.

There was a huge variation in design among the Half Raters. One or two big dinghies also raced, but with little success; since the Half Raters were often restricted to two crew, it was hard for the dinghies to compete since they relied on crew weight for ballast.  Some of the Smith brothers’ Oxford Canoe Yawls also competed, with considerable success; perhaps their smaller rigs and very light and slender hulls didn’t need as much righting moment as the dinghy types.

Coquette continued the swift development towards a lighter boat with longer overhangs and a shorter keel.

Coquette, another Half Rater from 1891, was one of the early designs from Charles Nicholson, a man who was to become one of the greats of English design. Coquette shows early steps towards one of the features that was to become a hallmark of the Rater – the overhangs bow and stern. One of the 1891 crop of Halves, Willie Fife’s Jeanie, had a stern overhang of 4.6 feet, or about a third of her waterline length – a shape, literally, of things to come.

Wee Win from Badminton
The Herreshoff Half Rater Wee Win.  At 7.24m/23ft9in overall, she was only 4.72m.15ft6in on the waterline and displaced 900kg/1984lb.

The “One Rater” Wenonah caused a sensation in the Scottish One Rater classes in 1892, and a few weeks later Wee Win did the same to the Solent Half Raters.  Nat Herreshoff had only recently returned to yacht design after many years working in steamships when he had created the famous Gloriana in 1891. She is normally credited with launching the concept of fuller waterlines forward that took a major step towards fuller ends that created extra sailing length at speed or when heeled, but boats like Coquette indicate that other designers were working in the same area.

Many people claim that Dilemma, a bigger Herreshoff similar to Wee Win and launched on October 9 1891, was the first fin-and-bulb-keel boat, but both fins and bulbs had been used earlier in England and the USA. It’s also been said that Wee Win caused a change in rules to penalise fin keelers, but the contemporary sources indicate that she was merely one of many boats that caused the change, years later. The Herreshoff boats were brilliant boats in design, construction and performance, but it seems that rather than radical breakthroughs, they were simply part of a clear, steady and rapid line of development that other designers were also taking as the world moved from boats like Lady Nan to boats like Sorcerer (below).

When the L x SA rules led to the first boats with long overhanging “spoon” or “Viking” bows first appeared, sailors who were used to vertical stems or clipper bows were appalled at its ugliness.”The first design for the 90-ton ‘Vanduara’ was drawn with a clipper or out-reaching stem; but I had not the heart to disfigure the boat (as I then considered I should be doing) by building her in this fashion”wrote George Watson, one of the great designers of the day. “The rising generation of yachtsmen, however, is entirely reconciled to the clipper bow on a cutter-rigged yacht, and may eventually (though this seems improbable) look with complacency on such cutwaters as ‘Dora’s’ or ‘Britannia’s.'” Today,the spoon bow as seen in boats like Britannia, the J Class, Dragons and Metre boats is seen as the epitome of classic beauty.

Riverside cropped
To be hip in the 1890s, you needed a small Rater in the davits of your schooner or steam yacht. This R B Burchard pic of the Rater “Riverside” is from Outing magazine, August 1896.

Fast and aristocratic little yachts like Wee Win and Niny gave small boats a new social status and attracted many sailors from big boats.  By 1892 Dixon Kemp noted that owning a 200 ton yacht was unfashionable in a world where the trend was towards owning a small racing machine and a steam yacht.[13]  As one paper noted, the One Raters and Half Rater were “scarcely dignified (but) many well-known yachtsmen are found sailing them.”[14]  Of course, many of those who moved into the small Raters managed to maintain their conspicuous consumption by having a palatial tender; Barbara Hughes noted that “a fifty ton steamer, or perhaps one a little smaller, is essential” as well as “a little house in Cowes” that could be rented for a season for as much as a small Rater cost to build. Buying a Rater and racing it in style and comfort for one season cost far more than the typical Briton would earn in their entire lifetime.


Maharanee lines

maharanee section
Maharanee, a One Rater designed by Payne in 1893. Comparison between Maharanee and Minima, Lady Nan and Humming Bird (above) shows the amazing speed of development in just five years. Boat design has never changed so quickly.


Payne’s 1893 creation Maharanee to Humming Bird or Niny shows the extraordinary pace of development. At 8.99m/29ft6in overall, Maharanee displaced just 1.07 tons, or about two-thirds of a modern inshore racer like a Melges 32. She scored 29 wins in 34 starts. By this time, the One Raters and Half Raters were becoming the hottest classes, partly because many bigger Raters had become  were so light they had no accommodation space, and therefore owners thought that if they only had a day sailer they may as well have a small one.

The tiny and shallow rudders of these fin-keel Raters made them many of them hard to steer. “Steering has been steadily becoming more difficult hitherto,” wrote Barbara Hughes, one of the top skippers “but now I fancy there will be a return to the fixed rudders we began with, which are much easier to handle than the balanced ones of later years.” While Hughes may have been influenced by her upbringing in more conventional boats, it seems more likely that the rudder materials and the understanding of hydrodynamics in her time just weren’t good enough to create a boat that steered well with a spade rudder under the forces of the stretchy and flexible rigs of the day. Designers as brilliant as Herreshoff later returned to hanging their rudders off the back of the keel. Even the contemporary iron-clad warships, the highest technology of their day and with the advantage of extensive tank testing and design analysis by brilliant minds such as the hydrodynamicist Froude, were almost impossible to steer with their balanced spade rudders, whereas the slightly older ironclads with rudders attached to their keels handled comparatively well.

Unorna sailplan

Unorna lines
Unorna, One Rater, 1894. These plans come from Uffa Fox’s wonderful 1938 book “Thoughts on Yachts and Yachting” with permission from Uffa Fox Ltd. Uffa has spelled the name two different ways in these two drawings; all typos in this blog are put there on purpose in honour of Uffa’s mistake.

Unorna was a Charles Sibbick design One Rater of 1894. With her deep high-aspect bulb keel and fine bows, Unorna marks another clear step forward in design. At 8.32m/27ft6in overall and 5.94m/19ft6in on the waterline, she displaced just 1,219kg/1.2 tons and carried 28.6m/308 sq ft of sail in her gaff rig.

Decades later, Uffa Fox used to admire the model of Unorna and other Sibbick Raters hanging in her former owner’s house. “The one-raters were racers in every sense of the world” he wrote in the 1930s, when the Raters had been replaced by Metre Boats. “They were light, lively and exciting craft to sail, as they were capable of such high speeds, and as well as this they were quite cheap to build…the small racer of the ‘nineties was far faster than her present-day counterpart.” They inspired him to design the 6m/20’ LOA Flying Fifteen, one of the world’s first planing keelboats and now one of the world’s most popular racing yachts. Just like the Raters, the early Flying 15s were known for their heavy weather helm, which is another example of the surprising amount of difficulty designers encountered with spade rudders.

The Flying 15’s lines show both clear Rater inspiration and the very different rocker line that Uffa Fox claimed to be one of the reasons for the success of his boats. The Flying 15 remains one of the world’s most popular keelboats.


The One Rater Sorceress represents the truly dinghy-style Rater. She was designed, built and sailed in 1894 by the brilliant but temperamental Linton Hope, one of the many canoe sailors who moved into Raters, and proved all but unbeatable on the lower Thames.  She was 28 feet overall and 8 feet in beam, but her canoe hull drew just 0.55” and displaced a featherweight 667kg/1470lb.  Her only ballast was a deep, narrow centre-board, “a form which has been found marvellously effective in sailing canoes” which weighed 90lb. [5] It was designed to “twist the boat to windward”, although the exact mechanism remains unclear.[6]  What seems clearer is that the Hope foil was the first high-aspect centreboard, and a model for other designers.[7]  Known as the “Linton Hope Dagger”, it seems to have been the origin of the term “daggerboard”. It was actually a pivoting centreboard, rather than a vertically-dropping daggerboard in the sense we use the term now, and the name came from the dagger-shaped outline.

sorceress sail plan

sorceress hull

Sorceress had only about 0.5m/17in of maximum freeboard on a waterline of almost 19 feet and set 319 ft of sail. To the surprise of many, she performed better in strong winds than in the light; her designer reported that she could carry full sail when the 130’ racing cutters Britannia and Valkyrie were reefed.[8].

With boats like Sorceress, Hope claimed to have pioneered a new form of construction. He used lighter but much more closely-space frames (just 51mm/2in apart instead of the usual 152mm/6in) and light mahogany lattice girders (mainly 6mm/1/4in by 19mm/3/4in), including one running the complete length of the boat. It allowed him to leave off the usual riband that ran behind each seam in conventional Rater construction and to reduce the planking thickness from the earlier 6mm/1/14in or more down to 4.7mm/3/16in. Hope claimed that his construction saved at least 15% of weight, as well as creating a stronger hull. His Half Rater Kismet, made in 1895 or 1896, was 25ft/7.62m long but her complete hull and bamboo-sparred rig weighed just 136kg/300lb – barely more than a 505 for a boat 50% longer. With her 68kg/150lb centreboard and crew, she displaced just 356kg/740lb to 363kg/800lb. It’s been said that Kismet had internal bracing of piano wires, but an article by Hope indicates that although he considered the idea, he was worried that one may snap suddenly where the lightweight wooden frames would just give without breaking. Kismet won 40 of her first 45 races and lasted in good condition for several years.

With their narrow cockpits, light weight and wide sidedecks, Raters like Sorceress helped to erode the old fear of capsizing. Their wide decks allowed many of them to recover and sail away. “Having a watertight bulkhead at each end of the cockpit, she is quite unsinkable, and shows about half her normal freeboard when the cockpit is full and the crew on board, so that she is not so dangerous in the event of a capsize as she is supposed to be, and so far has shown no signs of doing anything of the sort” wrote Linton Hope about Sorceress.[10]  “Half a dozen capsizes in a race used to be nothing unusual”[11] when the Raters sailed on the confines of the Thames, and even on the Solent Hope’s Raters could easily be re-righted.  In the Raters “to a youth who can swim, a capsize means nothing more than a ducking” noted WP Stephens.


Rater capsized
A shot in Folkard’s book “Sailing Boats” shows the downside of racing in the extreme Raters. Note the narrow centreboard, with no ballast bulb. Many Raters were self righting, and some could capsize and just be righted and sailed away, dinghy style, but in a world without rescue boats a capsize normally meant, at the least, inconveniencing other boaters and often stopped the race for other competitors, who were bound to come to assistance.

Capsizes were still discouraged, for very good reasons.  In  a world with no rescue boats, when one boat capsized others often had to abandon their own race to check on their safety.[12]  Wet cotton sails and tangle-prone ropes were dangerous to sailors clad in heavy wet street clothes or oilskins. Even if the boat popped upright quickly, the cotton sails would shrink and lose shape, and cleated and knotted lines would also shrink and become hard to undue. To many sailors, capsizing remained a sin against seamanship, but the Raters seem to have continued the trend to making capsize into a racing incident rather than a calamity.

The “length by sail area” rule covered an enormous size range. At the top end there were boats like Satanita (rating 162 and 40m/131ft LOA, too long for the America’s Cup) and the Royal yacht Britannia (above, rating 151 and 122ft LOA) and at the bottom end there were sailing canoes and 14 foot dinghies that rated 0.3 or 0.5 like the Theo Smith design Menemopete below. However, the smaller yachts like the 2 1/2 and then the One and Half Raters drove the design development and led the way for their larger sisters. George Watson, designer of Britannia, thought that her spoon bow would always be thought ugly, but within a few years her shape became known as “the Britannia ideal” and it was regarded for decades as the perfect all-round hull.


Boats like Sorceress achieved a level of efficiency that only the sailing canoes had reached, and demonstrated that long, light boats with moderate sail area were faster than heavy over-canvassed boats. She was simply a big dinghy, and she and her ilk took the Rater concept too far for many people. The rapid obsolescence had driven many owners out of the classes, and the fragility and instability of the extreme Raters scared other sailors and the rulemakers. In 1896 the British created the Linear Rating rule to encourage heavier and less radical boats, and then instituted a minimum displacement. The Linear Raters looked more like Wee Win than Sorceress, and many of the earlier Raters fitted into the new classes.

The Raters quickly spread across the world. They seem to have quickly moved to Germany, where they were known as “Rennflunder” (“racing flounder”, a reference to the flat fish if I’m correct), to France where a similar local rule was to give rise to the famous One Ton Cup, and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It was the Raters that seem to have been the ancestor of the long, low and slender boats that race on many of the world’s inland lakes today.

The Thames Rater Vagabond, one of the most famous of the fleet and still able to beat just about any dinghy afloat in the right conditions as she approaches her 110th birthday. Pic from the Thames Sailing Club site.

There is still one stronghold of the original Raters. The Thames, where Linton Hope had won so many races, still has a strong class of “A Raters”, originally rated between the One and Half Raters. The A Raters make even Sorceress look conservative. They are long, low and graceful, with long overhangs stretching their hull out to 8.2m/27 ft.  They are unballasted, weigh as little as 340kg (750lb) for hull, foils, and fittings, and can definitely capsize (and come back up dry, thanks to their wide decks).

The oldest surviving A Rater was built in 1898, and many of her sisters are a century old, but whether rebuilt or reproduced in modern materials, the A Raters are no museum pieces. They are sailed hard, and carry the highest and narrowest rigs in dinghy racing. At 13.7m (45ft), they have an aspect ratio around 6:1, both for aerodynamic efficiency and to reach the wind above the riverside trees. Even without their trapezes and spinnakers (which the Raters do not use on the narrow river) these are fast boats – they are rated mid-way between the 49er and the International 14. In light airs on inland waterways they are outstanding performers and their sky-scraping rigs can push them to “first and fastest” in the massive 300 boat pursuit events that are a feature of British racing; but more importantly, they provide a rare glimpse of Victorian-era performance afloat.

The new Thames A Rater Adventurer winning the Queen’s Cup, the major prize for the class. Tamesis Club pic. Designer James Stewart notes that despite their enormously tall masts, the A Raters are one of the rare classes that doesn’t reduce rig weight to the maximum, because a little bit of momentum in the rig helps with roll tacking and slowing the reaction time to gusts. James is one of the people who provided information to the SailCraft project years ago, which I stupidly lost in a computer crash.

But perhaps the most significant social effect of the Raters was that they brought a new type of skipper to the forefront, and vice-versa. It wasn’t just that the Raters brought female sailors to the top of the sport in England – it was that the female sailors were among the leaders in the design of the Raters. The dawn of the female small-boat racer didn’t just change boat design, but may also have played a role in changing the image of women in sports as a whole.







In 1878, the British YRA started measuring boats on the LWl rather than from the stem to the sternpost.

[34]  In 1880 Kemp had suggested L x SA rule which was adopted in 1886.[35]   1896 Linear Rating adopted with girth


There is no doubt that some changes in design have been met


1888 SBA formed

“If the builder of a yacht improves her form of hull (while keeping the general dimensions in length, breadth, depth, and weight of ballast the same 0 so that she is able to carry more sail, he is at once taxed for his ingenuity in having accomplished this improvement.” [Letter to the editor, Outing 1884 p 145

“”It is the object of a builder to develop as much boat for length as is consistent with a good model”:- Letter to the editor in Spirit of the Times sporting paper, May 13 1871

“We know that the sail area rule taxes the form of he yacht, whether combined with length or not, or, in other words, handicaps the yacht of the best lines over another of the same type which can cry  the most sail in consequence of her form” moaned another. Letter to editor Outing 1884 p 224

“”increase of sail-spread meant extra cost for the sails themselves, and extra cost for the means of carrying them”.  Dixon Kemp in the discussions following his paper ‘Fifty Years of Yacht Building’, Transactions of the Royal Institute of Naval Architects v 28 1887.

“the high point of designing in America.”  – Traditions and Memories p 123

“There being no limit to sail in the length classes”; Small yacht racing in the solent, Thalassa, Yachting vol 1, Badminton library

[34]  In 1880 Kemp had suggested L x SA rule which was adopted in 1886.[35]   1896 Linear Rating adopted with girth

“Even the great naval architect Scott Russell felt that measuring sail area stopped the designer from being “left free to make the best ship that could be built”. These remarks were made in response to the talk from Dixon Kemp referred to above.

[1] Yachting Vol 1, Badminton Library    .

[2] Some of these boats were quite conventional long keel designs.  They were rated under the

[3] It has often been claimed that Dilemma was the first successful fin keeler, but as shown above earlier Raters like Humming Bird were fin keelers.  The Raters were not the first, and plans and fin-keeled boats had stretched back as early as 1870.  In 1882, the sandbagger Daisy was fitted with a ballast keel, as depicted in both WP Stephens’ “Traditions and Memories” and an article in July 1892 Outing by  A J Kenealy, which included details of other early fin keelers and this illustration of Daisy;

Fin keeled sandbagger Daisy





“Many people claim that Dilemma, a bigger Herreshoff similar to Wee Win and launched on October 9 1891”:- This date was mentioned by Stephens in his presentation “Yacht Measurement; Origin and Development”,

“One season in a Rater would therefore cost far more than the typical Briton would earn in their entire lifetime.”- Rater costs from Hughes’ article in The Sportswoman’s Library, average earnings information from “Real Incomes in the English-speaking world, 1879-1913” by Robert C. Allen in G. Grantham and M. MacKinnon, eds., Labour Market Evolution, London Routledge, 1994.

[4] In a classic example of the subjective nature of design, when   Watson’s first “spoon bow

[5] Australian Town and Country Journal, 22 December 1894 p 38

[6] NY Times Sept 10 1895

[7] As /one example, Field and Stream for Nov 2 1895 called the “Hope knife model…the best form of centreboard for a small boat now known.”  WP Stephens’ articles about the 1895 Seawanhaka Cup had referred to the Hope centreboard as a “daggerboard”, apparnetly because of its dagger-like outline rather than because it dropped like a modern daggerboard.

[8] Australian Town and Country Journal, 22 December 1894 p 38

[9] So Some of these boats were quite conventional long keel designs.  They were rated under the me of these boats were quite conventional long keel designs.  They were rated under the rule

[10] Australian Town and Countyry Joiurnal, 22 Decembver 1894 p 38

[11] “Queens of the Thames” Ingrid Holford, Yachting World

[12] See for example a report of the Trent Valley Sailing Club in the
Nottinghamshire Guardian (London, England), Saturday, August 12, 1893; pg. 3.

[13] As quoed in Southampton Herald , June 25, 1892, Issue 4804, p.8.  Kemp was talking about 5 Raters which were about 40’ overall, but they were stripped-out lightweight dayboats like their smaller Rater sisters.

[14] The Saturday Review, Aug 1 1891 p 134

[15] “Ladies at the Helm”,     Outing vol 16,


[17] Solent classes yachting Voil 1

[18] The actress Fanny Davenport had a racing catboat in 1896; Rudder 1908 p 90

[19] Firest and Stream, Aug 17 1895 p 150

[20] E.L. Snell, Detroit Free Press, “Fair Skippers” reprinted in The Press, Lyttelton NZ, Vol 4 Jan 1896 p 9

[21] It may be a symbol of the close relationships between canoes and small Raters, and the confused definition of “canoe yawl” that some of the press reported Spruce IV as ”a new canoe yawl”; for example, The Sunday Times (London, England) , May 19, 1895, Issue 3763, p.6.

[22] Brand was quoted by the NY Times of  Sept 10 1895 as saying that Spruce was 24’ overall, with a waterline length of 15’7”, 5’7” beam. 5’6” draft with the steel board down, and 210 ft2 of sail set on a gunter rig with bamboo spars.  The Times reported that like other British Half Raters, she carried a roller-furling genoa which was rolled to headsail size for sailing upwind.  It appears that spinnakers were not used in Half Raters at the time.  Although most accounts say she carried 100lb of ballast on the fin, others say there was either a 50lb or no bulb.

[23] Forest and Stream, Nov 30 1895.  This is just one of many similar comments that demonstrate that the various claims that sailors from the northern hemisphere did not hike are incorrect.

[24] While the “length x sail area” rules followed the same general concept, they used different formulae.  The British        ; the Seawanhaka Rule was             ; and the NYYC rule      . The 1895 and 1896 Seawanhaka Cups were sailed in “15 foot class’ boats under the Seawanhaka Rule measurements, which were the same size as British Half Raters. In    this was changed to the “20 foot class”.

[25] NY Times Sept 21 1895.

[26] Traditions and Memories in American yachting, MotorBoating oct 1941 p 58

[27] Spruce, for example, won Race 2 by only 23 seconds after the lead had changed many times; Rockland County Journal, 28 September 1895 


[28] The Indianapois Journal, 27 Sept 1895 p 5 reported that Ethelwynn withdrew from Race 3 when nine minutes astern, her owner (who was crewing) insisting that the 15 mph breeze was “not halfrater weather, the wind being too strong.”[28]   The skipper withdrew from the series in protest, but in the moderate conditions of the last race Ethelywnn was an easy winner.  Like other designers since, Stephens felt that his boat was much faster but not always sailed at her best.

[29] Southampton Herald , September 4, 1895,

[30] As confirmed by letters in the Francis Herreshoff collection in the Mystic Seaport Museum.

[31] Iselin actually asked Herreshoff to design Reliance as a scow, but Herreshoff refused to go that far.  The term “scow” was used very loosely at the time and had not gained the fairly specific meaning it has in American sailing and the dinghy world today. Even as early as 1844 and as late as the early 1900s it seemed that “scow” was often used as little more than an term, often used as an insult, for any boat that was flatter and faster than others.

[32] To give just some of many examples; in       the Seawanhaka Cup was sailed under a sail-area limit; in 1901 the Massachusetts Bay Yacht Racing Association restricted the ratio of the sail area and ballast to beam; in 1905 a class for Cape Cod cats with overhang, beam and cabin headroom restrictions was created around Boston; and

[33] Stevens in MotorBoating Jan 1941 p 200

[34] The first Seawanhaka was reported in Indiana (Greencastle Banner and Times, 27 September 1895)


[35] Stevens MBoating Jan 1941 p 288

Introduction and contents

The SailCraft blog was really born years ago, when I realised that no one had tried to tell the story of the racing dinghy and the forces that shaped it.   It’s a complex tale; a web of interaction between factors such as emerging technologies, differences in geography and economies, the physics of wind and water, real estate and liquor laws, the width of an Austin A40 sedan and an English seaside laneway, and changing gender roles. It’s a tale that has spawned many myths, often ones about conservatives stifling development, but where the reality has few such villains and many heroes.*

This is an ideal time to tell this story. The arrival of on-line archives allows us to find information that has been hidden away in ancient newspapers and rare mouldering books. It’s a time when even the shyest dinghy designer can be coaxed into giving priceless nuggets of information over email. Many of the world’s top dinghy creators, including Paul Bieker, Frank and Julian Bethwaite, Ian Bruce, Rob Brown, Steve Clark, Stu Friezer, Mike Jackson, Bruce Kirby, Andrew McDougal, Phil Morrison, Andy Paterson and many more, have been happy to be interviewed for this project.

The same changes in technology have also delayed SailCraft by years. I’ve been waiting for digital publishing to develop to the stage where it can provide images of boat designs and photographs well enough to show intricate details like the hull lines of a Bieker 14, or the workmanship of an Uffa Fox classic. Such technology still isn’t here, and sadly my ability to write well still hasn’t returned, so I have turned to this blog to pass on the information that so many people have helped me to gather.  Many thanks to them and the many other people who have given their time and knowledge in the past, and my apologies for the long delay.

SailCraft comes in three parts. Part 1 is a history of the development of the racing dinghy (and the bigger boats that influenced them) from the 18th century to the present day. Part 2 is an examination of the design principles and philosophies that dinghy designers follow. Part 3 is an examination of individual classes and types and their design and development.

This blog is concentrating on Part 1 at first, starting from the 1700s, when the first racing centreboarders arrived. Part 1 is generally being posted in chronological order, but some out-of-sequence posts will be put up at times. Some sections from Parts 2 and 3 will also be posted out of order at times.

There are still many gaps in the story of the racing dinghy and its design. I would love to hear from anyone who wants to provide any information, comment or corrections.

Chris Thompson

*(and a few heroines, but, sadly, not too many.)


Part 1 – history

1.1  – “The sliding keels that took advantage”: the dawn of the racing centreboarder

1.2 –  “Truly as fast as the wind”: catboats and skimming dishes (minor update 30/9/2016) see also Una Reborn

1.3 –  “A little too marvelous to be real” – the story of the Una boats

1.4 –  The sandbaggers

1.5- The mysterious history of the sharpie (updated 24/8/16)

1.6 –  The raincoat boat bed and the shoe-shine missionary – the story of the sailing canoes, the first high performance centreboarders

1.7 –  “Skidding over the water” – enter the planing hull

1.8 – “We have written too many obituaries of its victims” – the end of the sandbagger

1.9 – “These little clippers” – from rowing boat to racing dinghy

1.10 – “All built and rigged the same” – the invention of the one design class

1.11 – “Racers in every sense of the word” – the Raters

1.12 – “In every respect a sport suited to our sex” – the women who changed small-boat sailing

1.13- The Seawanhaka Cup 

1.14 – “A radical departure” – the scows

1.15 – Introducing the era of nationalism: dinghy sailing in the early 20th century

The era of nationalism explained – sort of

1.16 – “Fox hunting”; Uffa, Avenger and the planing dinghy

1.17 – Thunder, Lightning and the Tali Dogang: the classic  racing dinghy and the trapeze.

1.18 – Classic boats through modern eyes.

1.19 – From Kings to bouncing cats – the British development classes

1.20 – the British local classes

1.21- “A great rage for the type” – the first Australian centreboarders

1.22- Painted boats, varnished ships and yellow dogs – the ancestor of the skiffs part 1

1.23 – The skiffs and dinghies of the east coast

1.24 – Fourteens dominant: the early history of southern and Western australian dinghies.

1.26 – Hard chines and one designs.

1.25 – The myths and legends of the 18 Footers

1.26 – “it would be difficult to improve upon them”- the high performance dinghies of the European lakes

1.27 – The sailing scientists of the Renjollen

1.28 – The German one designs

1.29 – Continental drifting – European dinghies to 1945

1.30 – Tuckups and Hikers – the vanished world of the Delaware dinghies

1.31 – “”Of all models and builds”: US one designs 1890-1920

1.32 – “The dinghy centre of the continent”: Canada’s small boats

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

1.34 – the classic US one designs

1.35 – Growing the silver fern: NZ dinghy sailing to 1950

1.36 – A new world of dinghy sailing- the worldwide dinghy explosion (in preparation)

1.37 – Boomtime

1.38 – Boom Boats.

Boom boats Pt 2- The Rascal and the Resistance – the Vaurien puts France afloat

Boom boats Pt 3- Fishy tales.

Boom boats Pt 4 – Moral panics, juvenile delinquints, and the Optimist.

1.39 – Holt and Moore – designing the boom

1.40 “A diabolically ingenious machine” – the Finn

1.41 – Technology, volunteers and the boomtime.

1.42 “This was considered revolutionary” – the Flying Dutchman and the trapeze

1.43 – The 5-Oh

Una reborn

1.44 – Southern Lights – the new breed of Antipodean lightweights

Minor works of great masters – forgotten boats by great designers.


1.XX – “Now is the time to experiment” – the Contender and the new wave of singlehanders (under construction)

“We just wanted a nice little boat”; the story of the Laser

Laser lines – the shape that launched 200,000 ships


From fizzers to Forty Niner – the production skiff types emerge

 1.50 – What we’re sailing today, 1.0

1.51 – What we’re sailing today, 2.0 – the USA

1.52 – What we’re sailing today, 3.0 – Germany

Part 2 – Design

2.1 – The numbers game

2.2 – Shapes in the liquid: the hull of today’s performance dinghy

Other posts

The real story of Amaryllis and the first racing catamarans

Minor studies by great masters – overlooked designs by great designers.

SailCraft Pt 1.3: “A little too marvelous to be real” – the story of the Una Boat

Even before the initial flush of British enthusiasm for the “Yankee centreboarder” died away, it was renewed by a smaller Bob Fish design.  In 1852 the expatriate Scotsman William Butler Duncan, a leading member of the New York YC, bought a little catboat from Fish and sent it to England as a present for his friend Lord Mountcharles. [1]   Una, as she was known, became a toy of the rich and famous, and gave her name to the entire catboat breed and the cat rig in England.


Una’s sailplan, as it appears in Dixon Kemp’s famous “Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing”. In typical cat-rig fashion, the mast was stepped right forward to avoid creating too much weather helm.  Because the foredeck is too narrow to allow an adequate staying base, the archetypcal cat rig has no shrouds, which in turn dictates a strong and heavy mast and mast step. The traditional catboat was therefore heavy in the bows and had a reputation for pitching badly in a seaway.  The arrangement of the blocks above the gaff allowed the sail to be hoisted on a single halyard, instead of the conventional system that used a throat halyard fore end of the gaff and a separate peak halyard for the outboard end. Una’s  rig, said Kemp, was “simple in the extreme, and even the famed balance lug cannot beat it in this respect.”

Una was measured for a lines plan and offsets some time after she arrived in England. It was a symbol of the times, for ‘scientific’ designers using lines plans were starting to take over from the old-timers who designed their boats with carved models. It also means that Una is the earliest small catboat for which we have accurate information.

At a bit over 680kg/1500lb (assuming that her design waterline allowed for two crew) Una is no lightweight by today’s standards.  With her 6’6″/1.98m  foot beam, the little Fish boat was narrow compared to the typical modern Cape Cod style cat, but to eyes used to the narrow English boats her “chief peculiarity” was her “great beam in proportion to length.”  She had the typical slack bilges of a catboat of the era;”all deadrise and no bilge” was how some put it. She had hollow waterlines forward and an extremely deeply veed bow that broadened and flared out quickly into semi-circular sections.



Truant’s lines, as they appear in Dixon Kemp.  The reverse stem was probably a rating dodge; as Francis Herreshoff wrote in “The Golden Age of Yachting”, the early New York catboats “were initially measured or rated by length on deck, but later, because some had adopted a ram bow, the mean of the length on deck and the length of waterline was adopted.”

To men who were had grown up with the deep and narrow English cutter and were still reeling from the shock of the schooner America, this little “skimming dish” was a sensation. The little catboat attracted widespread interest during a summer of sailing on the Serpentine, the small ornamental lake in London’s Hyde Park, where Mountcharles was serving in the Queen’s Life Guards regiment.[2]  When another officer in the Life Guards challenged Mountcharles to a match race against his sloop, Butler Duncan took Una’s helm and won by over two laps in front of a crowd including the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne.

The next summer Mountcharles’ little boat was taken to Cowes, which was taking over from the increasingly crowded and polluted Thames as the centre of English yachting. There she caused such a sensation that her name became a British term for the catboat and for the mainsail-only rig. “The Una, like the Truant, outsailed all the British boats that competed with her, and thus a sort of second revolution in racing boats was brought about” raved contemporary sailing writer Henry Folkard.[3] “The Cowes people regarded the Una as a little too marvellous to be real” wrote the journalist, author and designer Dixon Kemp.  “To see the Una dodging about on a wind and off a wind, round the stern of this craft, across the bows of that one, and generally weaving about between boats where there did not look to be room enough for an eel to wriggle, astonished the Cowes people, who had never seen anything more handy under canvas than a waterman’s skiff with three sails, or an Itchen boat with two, or more unhandy than a boat with one sail – the dipping lug; but the Una with her one sail showed such speed, and was so handy, that in less than a year there was a whole fleet of Unas at Cowes, and about the Solent.”[4]

It’s been said that Cowes was a conservative place where social status was ruled by the size of one’s yacht. If it was ever true (and Una’s tale indicates it probably was not) the little American boat broke the rules.   “Una boats” became the plaything of both the rich and powerful, such as the Prince of Wales, and the middle class. [5]  By 1853, the Royal Yacht Squadron, undisputed social leader of the English yachting scene, scheduled a special race in its annual regatta for boats under 17 feet “in order to afford the spectators the opportunity of witnessing a display between the little Una’s, American clippers, or sliding keel boats with the English sail boats of Southampton and neighbouring ports.” [6] In 1855, Una won first prize in a race for “American boats” in the Royal Yacht Squadron Regatta.[7] She won a similar event, in different hands, in the Cowes Town Regatta the following year ahead of a boat owned by yachting royalty, Barry Ratsey of the famous boat building and sailmaking family.  The race “created great excitement, as the American style of boat seems to be a favourite among young Cowsers”. [8]

True royalty gave the catboat the ultimate stamp of approval in 1881 when the Prince of Wales ordered his own “Una” from Cowes boatbuilder Caleb Corks, “well known for his skill in building these boats, which are great favourites with many yachtsmen”. [9]


Lord and Lady Beresford take the Princess of Wales for a spin in a Una Boat around the royal yacht at Cowes.

The fashion for Una boats may have been fading by then, as even the Prince apparently found it organise a class race. [11] But by August that year, the Prince was racing in a special catboat class in front of Queen Victoria herself, against boats owned by the Earl of Gosport, his occasional friend Lord Beresford (second in charge of the Royal Navy), and the tiny 12’ Pixie. [12]  Even the fashion pages gushed about the Princess of Wales appearance in a Una boat at Cowes, describing her outfit down to the last buttom. The original Una herself was last heard of on the estate of Lord de Ros; from start to finish she had been a darling of the rich and famous.  Meanwhile, men with smaller wallets raced catboats across much of Britain.

The Una fever in England faded in the late 1800s.  The diagnosis was similar to that of centreboard sloop; catboats were not well suited to British conditions.  To quote a later catboat fan from the USA, “the one-sail plan is the best for weatherly qualities, and for handiness – if there be no sea, and if it is all turning to windward.  In a sea, however, the heavy mast, stepped so far forward, makes the boats plunge dangerously, and the boats themselves are so shallow that they are not very well adapted for smashing through a head sea.  Then, off a wind they are extremely wild, and show a very great tendency to broach to.”[15] The catboat was probably eclipsed by the classic British dinghy, which was already starting to evolve in places like the Thames.  As Folkard noted, the “Una style of boat, with its one sail, once so popular among the boating fraternity at Cowes and elsewhere, is now a type of the past. It is, in fact, almost entirely supplanted by a less shallow form of boat and a handier kind of rig”.[16] 

But the Una Boat story may shed an interesting light on the culture of sailing in England, one of the core areas for dinghy design and development.  Some commentators have claimed that the Una was an upstart and a social outcast.  They could not be more wrong.  The fact that aristocrats like Mountcharles (soon to become the Marquis of Coyningham), Sea Lords, the Royal Yacht Squadron and the man who would be king were happy to be seen involved in small, unusual boats proved that social status in England was not strictly linked to the size of your boat.  Perhaps Britain’s class structure was so secure that a person’s social status could not be damaged even by something as apparently eccentric as sailing a tiny boat.  The tale of Una may have been a forerunner of the fact that British sailors of later eras were happy to sail boats that were significantly smaller than those of the other major sailing nations, and which pointed the way to the modern sailing dinghy.

While the Una craze was waxing and waning in England, the catboat style was being pushed to new extremes in its homeland.  For the story of the sandbaggers, the next part of the SailCraft story, go here.


[1] The information about Una’s provenance comes from an interview with Duncan; “Men who have made yachting, William Butler Duncan”  The Rudder, Jan 1906,   p 6.  Some other sources say that Mountcharles saw Una at Fish’s yard while visiting New York; the two accounts are not mutually inconconsistent.

Like so many others associated with the story of the Unas, W Butler Duncan was a pillar of the establishment. He was later a Rear Commodore of the New York YC and played a leading role in America’s Cup defence syndicates.

[2] Hunts Yachting Magazine Vol 2 1853 p 152 notes that it was regretted that Una was not seen sailing during a London Model Yacht Club race on the Serpentine. Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, March 6 1853 noted that Mountcharles presented the Prince of Wales YC with a model of Una that “elicited universal admiration”.

Una’s dimensions, as given by Kemp in his Manual, were 16’ LOA, 6’6” beam, weight (with crew) 13 cwt, sail area    .

[3] Sailing Boats p 94.

[4] Dixon Kemp, p 322.  Kemp states that the normal Cowes Una Boats were similar to the original, but had slightly flatter sections and more freeboard.

[5] The Standard, June 15 1875 p 3

[6] Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, August 20, 1854.  The event did not occur as “they were all afraid to show against the Teazer, of Southampton, which had been expressly entered for the purpose of contending with them.”

[7] Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, August 18, 1855

[8] Hampshire Telegraph and Salisbury Guardian, August 16, 1856.  A few months before, however, it was said that the very deep 20 foot Itchen Ferries beat the Cowes centreboarders; Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle , November 25, 1855, p.5

[9] Isle of Wight Observer, July 23 1881, p 6.  The Prince’s boat, like most of those she raced against, was about 25’ long.

[10] The County Gentleman: Sporting Gazette and Agricultural Journal, August 6 1881

[11] The County Gentleman: Sporting Gazette and Agricultural Journal, August 6 1881

[12] Morning Post, August 15, 1881 p 6.  The Evening News of the same day noted that the exported Herreshoff catboat Gleam, which had movable ballast and a large crew for live ballast, was “sailing in company, and beating the racers easily.”

[14] The Times (London, England), Monday, Aug 14, 1882; pg. 8

[15] Edwin B. Schoettle, American Catboats p 94, in Sailing Craft.

[16] Sailing Boats p 19

Pt 1.1 -“The sliding keels that took advantage”; the dawn of the racing centreboarder

A model of Peggy of Castletown – the victor in the first known race involving open centreboard boats.

Like all good sea stories, the history of the racing dinghy starts with smugglers, a fortune, a struggle for the hand of a maiden, cannons, islands, and a mutiny. The man who brought them all together was John Christian of the Isle of Man and England’s Lake District – the man who organised what seems to have been the first race for small centreboard boats.

John Christian was a political and social reformer, an agricultural innovator, and it was said, father to half the children in his town. As you’d expect from a powerful and passionate man in that part of the world, John Christian was also a sailor. In 1780, he had the 25’6″/7.77m long Margaret built in nearby port of Whitehaven. With her open cockpit, long, shallow keel and small lug rig, Margaret looks generally similar to other small boats of her era; heavily built, canoe sterned and rather slow.

Two years after he launched Margaret, John Christian married his cousin and ward, Isabelle Curwen.  The marriage didn’t just give John Christian Curwen (as he became known) a new name and an apparently happy marriage; it also gave him Isabelle’s inheritance. John Christian Curwen spent some of that fortune in the best possible way – by buying a waterfront estate on England’s famously beautiful Lake Windermere (including the famous Belle Isle, named after his bride) and establishing the first Windermere regatta.[2]

And what of Curwen’s cousin Fletcher, the man who may have been his rival for Isabelle’s affections? It’s said that he went away to sea to ease his broken heart, and on April 28 1789, the unhappy Fletcher Christian sparked one of history’s greatest small-boat voyages when he led the mutiny against his commander, Captain William Bligh of the HMS Bounty, and set him adrift in the ship’s launch – a boat that, save for her transom stern, looks to be similar in style to Margaret.

George Quayle (left) and John Christian Curwen (right); two brilliant men and rivals in the world’s first known race with open centreboarders.

John Christian Curwen never achieved Fletcher’s fame, but he settled down to a distinguished life of radical politics, social and agricultural reform, field sports and sailing. In 1796, he entered into a challenge with his relative George Quayle, a merchant, inventor, ship-owner, banker, and politician from Douglas on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. Seven years earlier, Quayle had launched the 26’5″/7.77m long open schooner Peggy.  Peggy was used for transportation and as a workboat for Quayle’s business (with perhaps some smuggling on the side) but Quayle’s letters show that she was also a pleasure boat and a joy to him.


One of the Castletown One Designs sails down the tiny Castletown Harbour, past Quayle’s ‘Bridge House’ – the large grey building in the centre. The white sign on the right-hand end of the house marks the boatshed where Peggy was kept. Photo from Isle of Man Film

As the noted Irish yachting journalist W M Nixon noted in an excellent article in Wooden Boat magazine, Quayle’s Peggy seems to be a much more advanced design than Curwen’s craft.[3]  A rakish-looking boat with fine lines by the standards of the time, she carried a powerful schooner rig.  She was constructed with clinker or lapstrake planking, which is normally lighter than the normal carvel hull used by boats like Margaret.

Peggy is, of course, much bigger than a modern dinghy, but so were many of the boats that played a part in the early development of the dinghy. These days most developments trickle up from dinghies to big boats, but in the early days of dinghy sailing, when rigs and boats were heavy and stuck in the rut of displacement speeds, small dinghies were all but ignored. At the dawn of centreboarder sailing, developments trickled down from bigger boats.

“Peggy is, of course, much bigger than a modern dinghy, but so were many of the boats that played a part in the early development of the dinghy….at the dawn of centreboarder sailing, developments trickled down from bigger boats.”

Quayle kept on tinkering with Peggy long after her launch. By 1796 he had fitted her with two or three examples of the new invention that was to become the signature of the dinghy – the “sliding keel” or, as we know it, the centreboard.[1]

Like so much other technology, the “sliding keel” had been developed by the military. Captain Schank of the Royal Navy had come up with the idea in 1774, when he was in charge of building the fleet of small warships that won the Battle of Lake Champlain during the War of Independence. Schank’s “sliding keel” was merely one component of a theory of hull design that formed a striking contrast to the concepts behind the normal deep-hulled sailing vessel of the day. Schank and his patron Lord Percy realised that if vessels “were built much flatter, so as to go on the surface and not draw much water, they would sail faster, and might still be enabled to carry as much sail, and keep up to the wind, by having their keels descend a greater depth; and that the flat side of the keel, when presented to the water would make them able to spread more canvas, and hold the wind better, than in a construction whereby they present only the circular surface to the water”. The theme of “surface sailing”, instead of cutting through the water, was to become a hallmark of the centeboarder in the next century, and to be endlessly re-interpreted as boats became lighter and lighter.

Although Schank gave Percy the credit for the “surface sailing” concept, it was Schank who conceived of a keel “that was made movable, and to be screwed upwards into a trunk, or well formed within the vessel” so that the shallow-hulled deep-keeled craft he and Percy envisaged could still enter shallow waters. The experimental boat that Schank built for Percy in Boston in 1774 was the first known “centreboarder.”

One centreboard schank boat
Above: the first “centreboarder”, Schank’s “sliding keel” boat of 1775. The long single “keel” was replaced by three keels in the next experimental craft (below), which allowed the boat’s helm to be balanced for different points of sail. Peggy was fitted with a similar arrangement some time after her construction. Drawings from Dixon Kemp’s Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing.

Three centreboard schank boat cropped

The Royal Navy, although understandably distracted by wars with the USA and France, launched three experimental ships by 1796, and later followed her up with several classes of “sliding keel” brigs. The Navy’s enthusiasm for sliding keels seems to have faded when experience with vessels like the brig HMS Lady Nelson proved that 18th century technology was not up to the task of making a large centreboard that would not break, and that a ship with a broken “sliding keel” was even slower upwind than a normal square rigger. It was a classic demonstration of the fact that innovation in design is inextricably linked with material technology.

Like most craft of her time, Peggy had a full bow and narrow stern – the so-called “cod’s head and mackeral’s tail” shape. Boatbuilders of the time placed great emphasis on having fine lines at the stern to reduce drag. The full and very buoyant bows were used to allow the heavy boats of the day to lift their bows over the steep and choppy waves around England. As warship designer and historian DK Brown notes, craft of the day also had poor longitudinal structural stiffness, so heavy weights (like anchors in the bow) had to be supported by flotation directly underneath, to stop the hull from bending. Compared to many other boats of her day, though, Peggy’s lines seem narrow by the standards of her day. Although her bows are bluff at gunwale level, they are quite fine down at water level. Note the tiny cannon that Peggy carried to ward of privateers (and perhaps other smugglers). That’s one way to ensure you get buoy room!

Quayle had no such problems with his little schooner, which had centreboards of iron plate. After receiving the challenge from Curwen, Quayle mounted the tiny swivel cannons that a gentleman’s toy needed to survive in an Irish Sea where French privateers were still active, and headed across the Irish Sea with two other Manx boats.  They sailed up the River Crake and were placed on carriages for the five mile overland trip to Windermere.

With her centreboards and her big rig, Peggy swept the opposition off the lake.  “The Long Bolsprit & Sliding Keels has already produced strong Symptoms of Seizure among the Devotees of Fresh Water sailing” he wrote proudly home.  One of the other Manx boats, he noted, was “the Second Best in the Lake. Modesty prevents my saying who bears the Bill.” [5]  Peggy kept on racing and winning on Windermere until September had set in. Even on the stormy trip home, Peggy’s iron sliding keels allowed her to beat home through a gale higher and faster than other Manx boats. “It can only be imputed to the sliding keels that took advantage” wrote Quayle.

There had, of course, been other small-boat races before the clash on Windermere, and the boats of Quayle and Curwen were not what we would call a dinghy today.  But the Windermere race of  1796  remains significant – not only is it the earliest small-boat event that we have significant information about, but it may have been the first race for an open centreboard craft.

de Loutherbourg, Philip James, 1740-1812; Belle Isle, Windermere, in a Calm
A small schooner sails past Belle Isle in the late 1700s. The boat pictured in “Belle isle Windermere in a calm” by Philip James de Loutherbourg could almost have been Peggy, but this picture was painted in 1786, ten years too early.  The painting was bought by John Christian Curwen, who seems to been a patron of the arts as well as having all the other marks of a Renaissance man. Photo from the Lakeland Arts Trust.

Curwen kept on running regattas on Windermere after Quayle and Peggy left; the poet Robert Southey’s complaint about the food he arranged one year is probably the earliest known whinge about regatta catering. One of Curwen’s neighbours, the famous journalist and professor John Wilson, became a fanatical sailor and owner of a fleet of racing boats, run by an old sailor called Billy. Like Curwen’s biography and Quayle’s letters, Wilson’s writing under the name of Christopher North gives us another glimpse of men whose daily concerns were archaic, but whose love for the sport sounds modern; “seldom rose we…till, about twelve o’clock, we heard the south breeze come pushing up from the sea” he wrote. “Then Billy used to tap at our door, with his tarry paw, and whisper, ‘Master, Peggs is ready. I have brailed up the foresail; her jigger sits as straight as the Knave of Clubs, and we have ballasted with sand-bags. We’se beat the Liverpoolean to-day, Master,’ Then I rose.” He also writes of the pain of being out-pointed “in our old schooner, one day when the Victory, on the same tack, shot by us to windward like a salmon.”

He won the regatta of 1813 with a boat that had the first iron keel on the lake; earlier boats commonly used stones for ballast.[6]Quayle, too, kept on sailing and developing Peggy.  After the rough trip back to the Isle of Man (when one of the other Manx skippers was reduced to bailing with his wig box) he raised her topsides.[7]  Like dinghy sailors of today, he seems to have fretted when work kept him from sailing; on 26 June 1803 he wrote to his brother “ ‘I have had no Time to get the Boat down yet but have been kept as busy a [Trap Wive] in the B [ank]’.  Millions of dinghy sailors have echoed his complaint since that day.  He kept up his interest in centreboards, meeting and corresponding with Schank and rejoicing when the inventor praised his understanding of the concept.[9]

The ever-inventive Quayle kept Peggy in a custom-made boathouse, full of his inventions, in the tiny harbour of Douglas. He seems to have been forever tinkering with the boathouse; as his brother wrote to him in 1791, “I hope you left room enough for the little one to lay comfortable”.  Towards the end of his life, Quayle entombed Peggy inside her custom-made boatshed in the tiny harbour of Douglas. Over time, the boathouse was walled up and the tiny dock outside was filled in. There the “little one” was to “lay comfortable” for decades. In 1820, Curwen got sick of losing races to his new neighbour, and he left Margaret to rot.

But that was not the end of the story for Peggy and Margaret.  In 1935, the walls around Peggy’s little berth were torn down to reveal that Peggy and her gear still stood there, complete down to drinking cups made of coconuts and in astonishingly good condition. Even the bills for her construction remain in the Manx National Archives, complete down to details such as the cost of “halliards”, tar brushes and the weekly pay sheets, topped by “Thomas Kelly” and a boy.


Peggy, damp but snug inside the boathouse where the stayed for over two centuries.

Remarkably, Peggy was not the sole survivor of the Winderemere regatta of 1796.  In 1952, G.H. Pattison of the Windermere Steamboat Museum found the boat that is believed to be Margaret being used as a chicken shed in the town of Southport. And so, amazingly, the two leading ladies of the very first recorded centreboarder regatta can still be seen today.

WSM-Margaret-HeaderThe hull that is believed to be John Christian Curwen’s Margaret, built in nearby Whitehaven in 1780. Photograph from


Peggy’s construction looks lighter and more efficient than that of Curwen’s Margaret and other boats of her day. The red painted timber around the gunwales appear to be the extra planks that were fitted to raise her freeboard after the rough return from racing on Windermere. Pic from the Peggy of Castletown blogspot.

Margaret is little more than a bare shell [10] but Peggy is almost complete; still bearing her 18th century paint and fittings. Today, Peggy is in the middle of a painstaking long-term restoration project.  After six years of planning and preparation, in 2015 she was gently lifted out of the boatshed in which she spent two centuries and taken to a preservation facility. The slow story of Peggy’s meticulous restoration can be seen at

peggy2bremoval2bjan2b2015-013-1080pxAfter over 200 years, Peggy is inched out of her boatshed. Pic from the Peggy of Castletown blogspot.

But the race on Windermere seems to have been a false dawn as far as open centreboarders went. The racing sailors of the era stayed with faithful to long fixed keels and fully decked yachts. One or two centreboarders raced with the Thames’ Cumberland fleet in this period, but they were fully-decked yachts, complete with full decks and cabins – nothing like a dinghy.[11]  The open centreboard racing boat seems to have been buried for half a century with Peggy. When it was revived, it was an ocean away.

The men who kickstarted centreboarder racing around 1850 probably never heard of Peggy. But even after she had been entombed in her boathouse for four decades, the little schooner’s influence may have played a part in taking the centreboarder all the way to the other side of the world. And that’s another story, for another post.




[1] Much of this information on Peggy is from the site of the Castletown municipal site; see


[2] “The Worthies of Cumberland” Vol 1, Henry Lonsdale MD, 1867, p 66.

[3] “Meetings with Mature Ladies”:- Wooden Boat May/June 1986, p 17.

[4]  A letter written by Quayle from London in August 1795 (MS 02414 C in the Manx National Archives) indicates that there was at least one other boat with three sliding keels under construction in the area. One of these may have been the centreboard yachts owned by the Commodore of the Cumberland Fleet, the first modern sailing club.

“Berkshire island is fair”:- The Recreations of Christopher North, p 99.

 [6] The Worthies of Cumberland” Vol 1, Henry Lonsdale MD, 1867.

[7] Details from Nixon, p 20, and the Friends of the Manx National Heritage website.

[9] Manx National Archives, reference MS 02415 C. Further references to meetings with Schank are in MS 02421 C.

“It can only be imputed to the sliding keels that took advantage”:- Manx National Archives, reference MS 00940/5 C. In this passage Quayle referred to the sliding keels’ assisting Peggy against a tide, which is rather confusing.

“I hope left room enough for the little one to lay comfortable”:- Manx National Archives, reference MS 00940/3 C.

[10] Details of Margaret were taken from WM Nixon’s article “Meetings with Mature Ladies”, Wooden Boat, May/June 1986, p 21.

[11] These seem to have included the fourth boat christened Cumberland and owned by the Commodore of the Cumberland Fleet, the first sailboat racing club. So far I have been unable to track down a date for her launch, but it appears that she was launched after Peggy’s race on Windermere.