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 1.40: “A diabolically ingenious machine”: the Finn


Ainslie Finn
One of the greatest dinghy sailors on one of the greatest dinghies; Ainslie at the Finn World Cup 2011. Pic by Robert Deaves/International Finn Association

In 1949, on the crux of the dinghy boom, an amateur created a boat that would would raise the standard and profile of dinghy sailing and become the greatest of all Olympic dinghy classes. It was the Olympic Finn, and although in some ways – its construction, its weight and its method of creating stability (good old-fashioned gut-busting hiking) – it was similar to pre-war boats, in other ways the Finn was the precursor of the dinghy boom that would make sailing into a popular sport.

The Finn story started when five men sat down to create the criteria for a design competition for the Finnish Yachting Association. They were looking primarily for a boat for inter-Scandinavian competition, and only secondarily for a singlehander for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Like most European boats of the day, the new singlehander had to be suitable for cruising as well as racing.

In a move symbolic of a new internationalism in the sport, the Finns had handed over the selection of “their” class to the Swedes, the accepted leaders of Scandinavian dinghy sailing.  The boat that the Swedes chose as winner of the design competition was a boat called Spicle, designed by professional naval architect Harry Karlsson and similar to the classic British dinghy style. Spicle was a flawed concept as a singlehander, a winner only on paper, but by looking at her we can see what made the Finn so special.

Splicle sail plan
Spicle – a flawed design chosen as the winner of the design competition. She was heavily redesigned before the second set of trials, with the rake of the stem reduced, the camber on the deck reduced, a conventional rudder fitted, and the mast moved forward to reduce weather helm.

Spicle hull


While Spicle was being touted as the new Olympic class, Sweden’s Rickard Sarby had been developing a design from a much older heritage. Sarby had finished fourth in the singlehanded Firefly in the previous Olympics, but he had come from the canoe classes that dominated Swedish centerboard sailing. The Swedish canoes, which still survive in smaller numbers, are substantial cruiser-racers up to 6m long and 1.75m in beam. They look more like expanded versions of 1890s canoes than the slender ICs. But they were highly developed and fast, and Sarby had already shaken them up when he introduced a lighter, flatter-sterned planing hull. He was so concerned with saving weight that he actually reduced overall length, something which is anathema to most designers. Sarby’s home-built designs were so successful that boats like his 1949 E Class canoe “Schock” were still racing at national level into the 21st century, and his reputation was so strong that he was one of those chosen to create the specifications for the new singlehander.


Spicle photo
Spicle (seen here each side of the Finn) before she was modified and renamed Pricken. Note the tiller, which was mounted forward of the stern and must have been connected by rods or lines. It apparently “resulted in a pronounced absence of ‘feel'” and was one of the changes requested by the selection committee after the first trials.


Despite his success in canoe design, Sarby was still a barber – a common working man, at a time when dinghy sailing in Sweden was a rich man’s game. There is a legend among some Finn and canoe sailors that he did not know how to draw plans and could not afford to have someone draw them for him, so he did his designing with a saw. “The story was that one day Richard went down to his shop and cut off the pointy stern of one of his C-canoes and also removed the mizzen mast” says one of Sweden’s top Canoe sailors “I have seen many C-canoes and the older ones bear close resemblance to the Finn. Cutting off the stern on one of those boats would essentially give you a Finn hull.”


05c kanot
A C Class Swedish sailing canoe, looking very much like a Finn. An E Class is similar. Note the fold-out hiking seats. Pic from Westerviks Segelsallskap.


The truth according to Sarby is a bit more prosaic. The Finn does look like uncannily like a cut-down C Class Canoe, but Sarby’s account indicates that that the boat was designed with full-size plans (in “the usual canoe manner”) before the prototype was built by Sarby and his brothers while the designer was recovering from losing two digits to an electric cutter.

Fred Miller Jr, a hot sailor in the Finn’s early days, heard a third story which manages to combine the previous two into a plausible tale. “Sarby had some definite ideas, but then (as today) Sarby has been incapable of making a drawing any builder, other than himself, could understand and build to” he wrote. “So, the story goes, Sarby set to building a duplicate hull of his fastest (before or since) boat of the open-design class E sailing canoe. After doing so, making a few minor alterations here and there, he sawed off the last four feet and nailed on a transom…..He went sailing, coming right back in to telephone a naval architect to come up and make a drawing as quickly as possible”.

Finn lines 2
The lines of the early show that the designed waterline ended short of the transom, an example of Sarby’s interest in reducing wetted surface. Class development later shifted the weight aft so the waterline extended 6in/15cm further back. The widest point of the Finn was very far back for a boat of its age.

Plans that have recently come to light at the superb Norwegian/Swedish project prove that Sarby could in fact draft a plan, although not to the standards or level of detail of his professionally qualified rivals and perhaps not well enough to give a builder enough information to achieve Sarby’s concept. But however she was created, the Finn would never have become an Olympic fixture if it had just stayed an idea on paper. It failed in the design competition (she looked too small, the judges told Sarby) and Sarby was only invited to the trials when the FYA learned he had already built a prototype.  In the light-air trials, the Finn proved competitive with the bigger Spicle, but the old O-Jolle was as fast or faster as both of them. The jury asked for the Spicle to be re-designed, and invited competitors to return for a second set of trials.

Sarby had no intention of participating in the second trials, but the sailors of the middle of the century had an unstoppable urge to build boats. A sailing magazine published the Finn plans, and people were so attracted by the boat and its simple building method that 25 were built over the winter of 1949-50. The popularity of the Finn encouraged Sarby to enter the second trials, and in stronger winds the Finn dominated, scoring five wins and a second. The Finn was declared the new Olympic class, and Sarby himself went on to take the bronze medal at the Helsinki Games. Here, in a nutshell, we can find a pattern of the dinghy boom. If not for those 25 keen home builders, the Finn would not have been selected. All of the best-laid plans of international associations and professional designers were beaten by the popularity of a simple boat that amateurs could build at home.

So why did the hairdresser’s boat beat the professional design? The hull of Spicle (renamed Pricken after being redesigned for the second trials) looks like a standard racing dinghy of 1949 – “not unlike a somewhat elongated Merlin” was one verdict. Her rig is similar to the Finns and the foils are higher in aspect and look more modern.

Spicle sections
Spicle’s sections (above) show a bow with Vee-shaped sections down below, but wide flare and lots of volume above the water. Her nosediving tendencies were probably caused by the lack of volume and planing lift due to the Vee sections, while the very full sections above the waterline would have made her slow through waves. Even a low-quality copy of Finn lines (below) indicate that Sarby’s design has comparatively more flotation down low and less volume in the topsides, allowing it to carve through waves better.

Finn sections

But Spicle was slow in chop and nosedived. The fatal flaw, perhaps, was the shape of her bow sections. Like many boats of her day, she was very fine and Veed down underneath the waterline, and very wide and flared further up. It is often a lethal combination – too little flotation down low to prevent nosediving, but too much topsides bulk to cut through the waves.

Spicle’s bow shape may not have been a problem in a crewed boat, but upwind grunt is a perennial problem for the hiking singlehander. Although they’ve got most of the wetted surface and weight of a comparable crewed boat, they’ve got about half of the righting moment. Life is even tougher in waves. Planing over the waves upwind is not an option for a hiking boat without wings or trap. Somehow, the singlehander has to punch through the swell and chop.

One of the Finn’s secrets was its long slim, canoe-style bow, which was much narrower than other boats of the time. The widest point of the waterline is well aft. There’s little flare above the waterline for a boat of its age, and the deepest point of the keel line is right forward – further forward, in fact, than any other major class. The Finn’s deep, fine slab-sided bow carves through chop and swell, while its sheer weight gives it the momentum to punch through. As Frank Bethwaite has noted, it performs much better in light airs and waves than any boat of its dimensions deserves to do. The Finn’s bow showed sailors the way to the finer entry of the future.

The plans at the site show that when he designed the Finn bow, Sarby was following a style he had been using in his canoes. He had also designed a 3.6m long Finn-style in 1944 that had the same sort of fine, deep bow.

There’s no real deep and meaningful reason to put this pic here; it’s just one of those shots that makes you wish you were out there in the frame, as long as you’d just come off a nice period of intensive boathandling practice! Pic by Jonathan Hoare from the Finn class site, with permission.

For some reason, the Finn missed out on one of the Swedish canoes’ other great assets – the twin pivoting seats that flip out over each gunwale for hiking leverage, like floppy little wings. Ironically, as early as 1967, the class president contemplated fitting hiking seats, pivoting out from each gunwale, to stay competitive with the new breed of trapeze and sliding seat singlehanders. Perhaps it was because of the lack of hiking power that Sarby gave the boat its low-aspect centerboard; it’s not the best shape to prevent leeway, but it is forgiving and has a lower less heeling tendency than a deep foil.

Considering that Sarby introduced the flat “planing stern” to Swedish canoes, the Finn’s stern seems strangely archaic – more like ancient Avenger shape, or a yacht’s. The sterns of the O-Jolle and Spicle look more modern. Sarby had already shown that he wasn’t concerned about getting maximum length. He wrote years later that his main concern was reducing wetted surface, and the Finn’s narrow stern is probably the result. To reduce wetted surface, he designed the boat to sail bow-down, with the transom well above the water and a waterline shape very reminiscent of the Swedish canoes. The Finn didn’t take up its current fore-and-aft trim until construction developments allowed weight savings in the centerboard case and bow.

Finn by de Thier
A sketch of an early Finn by Brett de Thier, New Zealand Finn class Olympic representative, architect and designer. Notice the fascinating mainsheet winch. The boom runs through a slot in the mast. Instead of controlling the bend via a vang, sailors used wedges jammed between the boom and the slot. This drawing comes from “Give a Man a Boat” the wonderful autobiography of NZ gold medallist Peter Mander, courtesy of Brett de Thier.

By modern standards the Finn’s stern helps to make it notoriously hard to handle downwind in a breeze, but Sarby believed that she handled better than the other triallists on the square runs. What terrors they must have been!

The Finn’s unstayed rig was new to most sailors, who did not realize that the Swedish canoe sailors had already been taking the first steps towards the self-adjusting unstayed rig.  In light airs and downwind, when the mainsheet was slack, the mast stayed upright, forcing draft into the sail. As the breeze picked up, the mainsheet was wound in, flattening the cloth. Once the Finn sailors got to grip with the concept, they realized that they could tune masts and sails to match their leverage. They had to- few singlehanded boats without hiking aids have to handle such a big sail. The well equipped Finn sailor spent hours with plane and glue, carving timber off the mast to make it softer or adding slivers to make it stiffer. It was, it seems, the first real example of a rig tuned to the individual’s weight. It was the Finn’s combination of basic simplicity and technical complication that lead Peter Mander, fourth in the 1956 Olympics, to christen it “a diabolically ingenious machine.”

In the early Olympics, though, the Finn was a strict one design as supplied by the organizers and no alterations were allowed. At the time, it was said to be the best way to test a sailor’s skill – although ironically today the powerful Olympic Finn lobby says that its looser one design rules make it a better test of a sailors skill than the strict OD Laser.

Sarby in a Finn.png
The man and the boat; Rickard Sarby in a Finn. Pic by Gustav Grahm via Sjohistorika museet pic and

Attrbution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)Attrbution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)

Perhaps, though, the Finn’s greatest influence came not in bow shapes and rigs, but in sailing techniques and standards. At first it was not only the sole Olympic dinghy, but also the fastest and most widespread of singlehanded dinghies. Its dual status attracted a brilliant clan of sailors who set new marks in training, sailing technique and development.  They did not have the financial assistance to sail full time like modern Olympians (while Elvstrom sailed eight hours a day before every major event, it was only for the preceding week) but their dedication was the same – Elvstrom and his training partners sailed every Saturday and Sunday through the winter unless there was too much ice, and that was in the days before wetsuits. Others strove to catch up, and the list of Finn sailors include many – Bruce Kirby, Ian Bruce, Peter Mander, Hans Fogh, JJ Herbulot – who were to leave major marks in dinghy design.

The man who put dinghy sailors on top; Finn legend Paul Elvstrom at the 1956 Olympics. Pic Bruce Howard/National Library of Australia

The Finn also changed the status of dinghy sailors.  Keelboat sailors, especially those in the Star class, had always claimed to be the most skilful of all racers. As Finn Olympian Garry Hoyt noted “the Star class skippers for a long time let it be known, officially and unofficially, that they were the world’s best class with the world’s best sailors. They were sustained in this modest claim largely by the questionable evidence of their own applause…the 5.5’s also picked up this bit, and somehow were able to translate ‘spending power’ to read ‘sailing skill”. Then Finn legend Elvstrom moved from Finns into 5.5s and Stars. First, he won the 5.5 worlds with an old boat. “I heard later that some Star-boat skippers immediately said “There you see what sort of class the 5.5 metre is when a dinghy sailor just can go out and clean them all up. You wait till he gets to the Star class” was the way 5.5 champion George O’Day said it.  And what happened when he did? The “dinghy sailor” cleaned up one of the hottest Star fleets ever seen.

“It was with a great sense of vindication that the small-boat sailors of the world saw Paul Elvstrom smite the philistines from their pedestals” Hoyt wrote with relish. “And-oh sweet revenge- he did it to them by frequently employing dinghy tactics like sailing by the lee, and other little peasant pursuits that the aristocrats had missed…”.  As a Finn champ, Richard Creagh-Osbourne may have been slightly biased when he said that the Finn was “the design which must have done more to influence boat performance and competition in all racing classes than any other in the history of yachting” – but he may also have been correct.