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Staying in Contention

by David Henshall 14 Oct 2016 14:55 BST 14 October 2016
With over 180 boats competing at the Contender World Championships when they were held at Gravedona, the class showed that it still has a world wide appeal. But what is the secret of this, the most attractive of the single handers? © Sarah Desjonqueres

With Rio now done and dusted, all eyes will be turning towards the end of the year, when World Sailing will have to decide how best to meet the IOC expectations in terms of gender equality and attraction to 'youth'. One solution that has already been highlighted is the almost unthinkable option to 'Bin the Finn', the boat that since 1952 many have seen as representing the best in Olympic competition. Despite now reaching a pensionable age, the Finn will undoubtedly fight a fierce rear-guard action, for the class has been challenged before and to date has seen off all the challengers to its crown.

The situation that spawned the birth of the Finn was the 1948 Olympic regatta, held at Torquay. For the previous Games, in 1936, the Germans had used the heavyweight O-Jolle as the Olympic single-hander, but with Germany not even invited to the next Games, another boat was needed. After some interesting (and not all above board) dealings, the Fairey Firefly was chosen, though there were many who would criticize the choice of a two-person boat as being suitable for being raced single-handed in top class competition. One of the Firefly helms at Torquay was the Swedish sailor Rickard Sarby, who could so easily have medalled. After the regatta had finished and with Helsinki scheduled to host the 1952 Games, a design competition was held for a new, purpose built single hander. Eventually the Finn was selected and since then, the class has not missed a games, the longest serving class in the history of Olympic Regattas. In Helsinki, Melbourne (1956) and Naples (1960) the class became synonymous with just one name; Paul Elvstrom. However, the domination enjoyed by Elvstrom would bring about a major rethink in the corridors of power at the IYRU (now World Sailing). For an organisation that had something of a reputation of being inflexible, slow to react and yacht centric, the IYRU now showed some remarkable foresight by putting in place a set of trials for a new boat that could replace the Finn, at the same time being of greater appeal to the up and coming generation of 'new' sailors.

Chiefly, the IYRU wanted a performance boat that would be lighter than the Finn and would place a greater emphasis on agility, rather than the brute force that was needed to sail these first generation single handers. They were also prepared to go a great deal further, by allowing the use of 'devices to extend the crew weight outboard of the gunwale' without putting any limit to how creative designers could be in doing this. There was though one stipulation; no trapezes! One of the IYRU members was quoted as saying that to sail a boat single handed from the trapeze was foolhardy; to try and race it would be questionable seamanship.

With the Trials set for the late summer of 1965 at Weymouth, the event had a strong UK flavour, with a host of English boats being joined by some interesting craft from Europe.

The Finn was invited as a benchmark, as was the International Canoe, but both these boats were told in advance that they would not be considered even if they were to win the event. One strong entry would be that of designer David Thomas, who was working at the time for Yachting World, a publication that was closely involved with the Trials. Aware that many of the other UK entries had already aligned themselves with the best of the local sailmakers, Thomas broke ranks and went instead to the Danish loft of Paul Elvstrom. Imagine Thomas's surprise when, on getting to Weymouth, he found that the boat next door was that of none other than Paul Elvstrom. Back in Denmark Paul had been developing a boat that was radical in so many ways that it is difficult to know where to start. The all GRP hull and deck employed a number of developments that would soon find their way into the mainstream of dinghy building, as would his moulded foils, including a one-piece rudder and tiller. The mast had so much rigging, all of it adjustable, that you needed to be Paul Elvstrom to understand it, and you needed his commitment to sailing to be able to tack with the deck-sweeping boom.

What really marked the boat out (as well as giving it its name, Trapez) was that the Elvstrom boat was rigged with a trapeze. Despite the rule banning the use of the trapeze, no one was going to tell the four-times Gold Medallist that he couldn't sail, so the Trapez would join the other boats racing out in Weymouth Bay. Although the Trapez was demonstrably the quickest boat (apart from the International Canoe) it didn't dominate in the way a dinghy sailed by the maestro was expected to. Best of the rest was the sliding seat equipped Unit from David Thomas, but instead of being declared the new international single hander, the IYRU called for a second set of Trials to be held in La Baule.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a maverick dinghy sailor and innovator called Bob Miller had been experimenting with his own radical singlehander. Nick-named 'Miller's Missile' the boat had a hard chine, flat under water sections, a fully battened main and – a trapeze. The only trouble was that, to quote the designer, "it sucked"!

In need of inspiration, Miller, who was sailing in FDs at the time, simply took the FD hull shape and reduced it down to 16ft. A deal with a company making sailcloth saw the boat branded as the Contender and sent to Europe for the second run of Trials. Here it would be welcomed, as the IYRU, impressed at the ease with which Elvstrom had managed the Trapez, had lifted the ban on boats using the trapeze. Some of the better funded entries would sail with two boats, one with sliding seat, the other with trapeze, but La Baule was destined to be something of a washout, as the wind never really allowed any of the boats to show their true potential. Even so, the IYRU observers had seen that the shapely Contender possessed a marked degree of 'star quality'.

A third and final set of Trials were convened in Medemblik and this time the weather played its part, with brisk winds that showed just how quickly 'performance single handing' had developed. There were a number of boats that went well upwind, amongst them the Jeton and Unit, but offwind the well-sailed Contender was in a different class. This allowed the IYRU to declare that they had their new singlehander, which, backed by a talent-rich 'launch committee' would be heavily promoted around the world. Despite the Contender being a near instant success, when it came to the Olympics it was another story as the supporters of the Finn fought a successful rear-guard action, ensuring that their boat remained on duty at the subsequent Olympic regattas.

Free of the constraints of Olympic duty, the Contender flourished and soon more than met the requirements for full International status. From its home in Australia, to the US, Canada and across Europe, the Contender was helped by the easy availability of GRP hulls and self-build kits (the hull was made with a double chine, then a sacrificial cedar strip was bonded to the hull between the chines. This would then be shaped to give the hull the curved turn to the bilge).

However, the early growth in the class wasn't all straight forward. One early purchaser threatened to take legal action against the class, saying that the boat was impossible to sail, let alone race. The individual was then shown the indomitable Mike Hartley, who really did sail 'single-handed', as he only had one fully functional hand. Mike didn't just sail the boat, he went out in the worst of weathers, calling down abuse on Race Committees that dared to not run a race due to the conditions. However, the early Contender wasn't a particularly well sorted boat as willowy masts without spreaders and poorly cut sails, when added to the fairly basic fittings of the day, made the boat tricky to sail in wind and wave. Even so, off wind in breeze the Contender showed great pace; with the exception of the Canoe, from the early 1970s the Contender would enjoy two decades as THE performance single hander.

Then, in the UK, the up and coming builders Rondar Boats took on the Contender and started the production of good quality, all GRP boats. At the first World Championships, held at Hayling Island, a standard Rondar boat, sailed by Rondar's Dick Jobbins, showed just how quickly both the boat and the techniques for sailing it were developing. This development would then get a turbo boost, as like so many racing dinghies of that era, the Contender would benefit from the close relationship between Bruce Banks Sails and the nearby Proctor Masts. Sail making innovator Paul Nevard came up with a radically new cut of sail, whilst Dave Pitman added spreaders, diamonds and then lowers to the rig. When Pitman moved to Rondar, the package was complete, with David enjoying an unparalleled period of domination; he remains the only man to win three World Championships in succession.

With Dave Pitman, and the young Geoff Whitfield, then Kiwis Tony Smith, Pete Newlands and Richard Gladwell, the Contender really came of age as an International dinghy fully capable of providing top class competition across a wide range of weather conditions.

Despite the better rigs and fittings, the Contender from the early to mid-1970s was still a daunting prospect for many prospective helms, with those that could manage the boat sometimes acting both afloat and ashore like the proverbial wild men of Borneo! Yet at the same time the class was laying the foundations of an ethos that can best be described as, "once a Contender sailor, always a Contender sailor". During the late 1970s, the Contender would undergo a second revolution, as Tony Smith offered a new alternative in terms of both GRP hulls and more importantly, an improved 'take' on the Contender rig. If there had been one issue that made life difficult for the Contender helm it had been the most basic of problems of staying in contact with the boat.

The Rondar GRP hulls had employed a non-slip pattern in the deck moulding, but when reaching downwind in wind and waves, helms could find that they were sliding along the gunwales towards the shrouds at an alarming rate (with a capsize shortly to follow!). On the varnished decks of a Smith composite boat the problem was even worse, until the arrival of the wonder material 'pro-grip' that would make such a huge difference to the trapezing techniques used in the boat. Little wonder that today, from the shrouds to the transom, many Contenders are fully sheathed in pro-grip.

By now the first generation Contender sailors were getting a tad long in the tooth for the demands of modern Contendering (though many would stay sailing the boat into 'old' age) but their place would be taken by a new breed of sailors who would continue the path of gentle but persistent innovation. At Weston Sailing Club, on the shore of Southampton Water, Steve Daniel would take a long, hard look at the rules before home building his own boat to what he saw as the optimum hull shape. Two World Championship wins later and the class would be accepting the 'Walkabout' hull shape as the de facto standard.

At this point, as an accomplished and mature, fully international racing dinghy, there was nothing to really challenge the Contender for the niche it had created as 'the' performance single hander. The Class had already weathered the early threat posed by the windsurfing revolution, when a new boat appeared over the horizon that seemed to answer every possible criticism of the Contender. The RS600 used more modern build techniques and was a lot lighter (lardiness being an oft-made complaint about the Contender), had a modern carbon rig, fully battened main and racks, a combination that shouted out the "wow" factor.

Suddenly, compared to the superb 600, the Contender looked its age; frumpy, overweight and with a dated rig. For a while it looked as if the new boat would consign the Contender to the old fashioned margins of the sport, only for the original early 1960s raison d'etre of the boat to come to its aid.

With the new millennium looming and the skiff 'revolution' in full swing, the issue of the Finn remaining as the Olympic single hander would once again spark off another great debate. There was plenty of evidence that sailing as a sport was going through another period of great change with the 49ers already scheduled to replace the Flying Dutchman as the Olympic High Performance dinghy. ISAF called for a new set of Trials, this time to be held at the French sailing venue on the Quiberon peninsular, with the intention of 'looking at' the latest breed of performance single handers. This time the boat that would most enjoy the attention of the spectators, creating that "I want" factor was the prototype of the boat that would become the Musto Performance Skiff. Yet, compared to the other entrants that would include the Vortex, Laser EPS, Vis and RS600 (with and without an asymmetric) it would be the Contender, still with its alloy spars, that would come second overall.

At this moment in time it really did seem that the trapeze single hander, complete with asymmetric spinnaker, could be touted as the boat of the future. Ever responsive to an opportunity in the market, RS launched their answer to the MPS, the RS700, whilst rather leaving the 'super-6' to slide off into a sadly obscure fuuture. Helms that had already migrated from the Contender to the 600 now moved on to the 700, leaving the 600 caught between the MPS/700 and a resurgent Contender.

Having seen the writing on the wall at Quiberon, 21st century rigs, first with carbon booms, then carbon masts, would provide yet another boost to a boat that was fast sailing into middle age. The critics would still point to the excess weight carried in the boat and the low boom that made getting across to the new high side problematic (one successful helm was quoted as saying that if the contact with the boom as you tacked didn't hurt you weren't trying hard enough) yet no one could argue that the Contender, having seen off the 600, now enjoyed a very comfortable position as the performance trapeze but non-spinnaker equipped single hander. World Championships were highly competitive and well supported, with no one country appearing to dominate the class.

Italy's Andrea Bonezzi, who in total had won an amazing eight world titles was an ever present force in the fleet, but his reign was frequently interrupted by Brits, Germans, Australians and Danes all enjoying the pinnacle of success.

As well as the success at many events for Andrea, the name 'Bonezzi' had become synonymous with beautifully built cold moulded hulls, that with an all varnish finish, showed the sweeping hull lines of the Contender off to their best advantage. Indeed, there are many who rate the Contender along with the 505 as being that perfect fusion of 'form and function'. Even today, a Contender in full flight on a reach is one of the great sailing experiences as well as being a real head-turner, a boat that certainly grabs the attention. However, the success, both in terms of success on the race course and the beauty stakes of the all wood Bonezzi boats started to cast a cloud over the class. When every other class seemed to be going epoxy FRP, here was the Contender, still coming out in wood! There was a real danger that younger people, considering joining the class, would be put off by the perception that the boat was expensive and elitist, with a Bonezzi being a pre-requisite for reasonable success.

Once again though the Contender showed that amazing ability to respond to a situation, with top quality new boats in epoxy starting to replace the woodies at the front of the fleet. New tooling has been developed in both Italy and Australian, whilst in the UK there is exciting news for those wanting a new boat. Major builders Hartley Boats have taken on the old Wavelength/Chris Somner moulds and have started work examining the tooling.

When they took 3D images of the hulls they found them to be remarkably fair and symmetrical; as a development of the original 'Walkabout' shape the Wavelength hull form is a known winner. At some point Hartley's have committed to the production of a new set of tooling for the deck and cockpit, which will help give the UK produced boats a well-deserved make over.

At this point the story of the boat that is the International Contender has been brought right up to date, but it would be wrong to overlook the equally amazing tale of the people who make the boat so special. The last time the UK enjoyed a home grown World Champion went as far back as 1998, when Stuart Jones (he of the quick Contender sailing in the Sail Juice series) took the Championship at Cagliari. Since then the top places have swung back and forwards between the Australians, Italians, Germans and Danes until 2015 when heavy weather expert Simon Mussell finally restored British pride with a win at Medemblik. Simon's victory is all the sweeter as he hails from outside the yachting industry, and is just one of a number of very quick helms who are based at Highcliffe SC. Just around the coast at Weston there is another strong fleet, with the south coast boats being balanced out by other strong fleets in the Midlands and North.

With a healthy domestic scene offering good Contender sailing both at local club level and with a country-wide Open Meeting programme, it was hoped that Simon's success would be repeated this summer when the Europeans came to the UK. The event started with two days of light airs, before the breeze and waves kicked in. Simon Mussell was in his element as he took the last 5 races (he was able to discard his light airs 54th) to win the European Championships by a single point from the consistent Dane Jesper Nielsen.

This second top class success is also a victory for the more normal sized people. As top dinghy designer Phil Morrison once stated, the lighter you make hull weights, the greater the impact of crew weight. The Contender may well be a tad overweight when compared to other boats of a comparable size, but it happily accepts a wide range of crew weights from 75kgs to over 90kgs. When asked what made the boat special, Simon Mussell felt that the Contender, in company with a number of the other older and so called 'established' classes, was enjoying something of a renaissance. Some of this is down to the continued fragmentation of the class structure; classes such as the Contender are reaping the benefit of being able to foster a long term loyalty in the people who sail the boat. Still, like so many other established classes in the UK, there has to be some concern over the demographics of the UK fleet, but it cannot be denied that when a great-grand master can still be a front runner, that the boat successfully manages to retain its wide spread appeal.

Looking ahead to the future, it is hard to see the boat itself changing very much. The generous allowances for materials during the build process has resulted in the hulls, like their helms, enjoying remarkable longevity. Good second hand boats can be bought with confidence and with new builds filtering down through, the class is clearly in a strong place both in the UK and worldwide. Some may join the clamour for a weight reduction, but with such an available stock of quality boats available, it is hard to make the case for anything that would split the class. Certainly the Contender falls into that genre of established international classes that are thriving away from the UK centric fragmentation of the class structure. With future World Championships to be held in Denmark and then Australia, the UK fleet will have to work very hard if they are going to continue to enjoy success on the world stage.

But this is nothing new for the Contender. Collectively, the fleet has had to work hard, sail hard, then play hard ashore, a behaviour that is in itself part of the attraction. And somewhere in that party scene will be some older sailors who have been with the class a great many years (and some genuinely old sailors: at the recent Highcliffe Europeans there were four helms who had competed in the Hayling Island Europeans that were held in 1976!). They will have seen the changes that have taken place not just in their boats, but in the sport itself. For when the Contender first tasted competition, in the years of the swinging sixties, it was radical, exciting and way outside the mainstream of dinghy sailing.

And now, 55 years on from those first discussions that ended up providing the platform for the Contender, the talk is once again of replacing the Finn. Thankfully, the Contender is no longer in the running as the replacement, nor, one fears, will the athletic, demanding yet exciting Musto Skiff get the chance for Olympic glory. Given the constant clamour that "foiling has to be the future" the boat that could have been tailor-made as a replacement for the Finn, the exotic Devoti D-One may also get overlooked in favour of something has might or might not match the indefinable demands of 'youth'.

Luckily, the Contender can view these proceedings from a distance, knowing that the class is strong and looking ahead to 2018, when it can celebrate 50 years of international status. There may well be new Olympic boats, faster boats, boats with more sails, more of everything, but they have yet to show the long term resilience of the boat that broke down the old perceptions about what can and cannot be done in a single hander. Long live the Contender!