Interview with Dave Hall: Sailing's Mr Nice Guy
by Mark Jardine on 17 Jan
17 January 2017
Dave Hall, June Baker and Alice Masterman win the K6 National Championships at Royal Lymington © Heather Chipperfield
We spoke to Dave Hall about his sailing, his on-off relationship with the Fireball, his life in the marine industry including his role introducing the 29er to Europe, and his times at Hyde Sails.
Mark Jardine: Dave, how did you first get into sailing?
Dave Hall: My parents sailed back in the late 60's with my sister and I when we were children. Mum and Dad were looking for something to do as a family and at that time sailing was growing at a rate, it just exploded in that period. We went down to the sailing club, went sailing and that was it - I was hooked. I was rubbish at football but found I was quite good at sailing.
Mark: Which club and classes were you sailing at that time?
Dave: We sailed at Shearwater Sailing Club, which is on a little lake in the Longleat Estate near Warminster. Living in Bath it was the nearest club back then. They bought a boat called a Carrycraft - I don't suppose any exist anymore. Then I had a British Moth which was ideal for sailing on the lake, which I just club sailed. After a while my sister and I started sailing together in a Mirror and we began going to Open Meetings - that's where we really got our first taste for racing and it just went from there really.
Mark: If I remember rightly, Shearwater is surrounded by tall trees. Did that provide with you good knowledge of how to use the shifts and the gusts?
Dave: I can remember to this day, the day I learned about wind shifts. I was tacking upwind following another boat, and I watched them tack every time the wind changed and he sailed away from me. It was like a bolt of lightning, "Oh yes, I see!", so certainly it did that. Also, because most of the time there was no wind, I became very good at roll tacking.
Mark: So that was a bit of eureka moment as to how to use the shifts? And this was at Shearwater?
Dave: Yes, at Shearwater - that just changed the whole way that I sailed. That and reading a book by Eric Twiname which talked about wind bends. That is probably the other memory that I can distinctly remember.
Mark: You then got into the Mirror circuit. Was this competing in the Nationals or just open meetings in the local area?
Dave: It was just open meetings, which were huge. At that time there were very few classes so if you went to a local event like the Western Area Championship or similar you would be sailing against a hundred boats. Locally, and even down the West Country, there were loads of open meetings to go to. It was very competitive and we did start to do quite well - we were relying on our parents to take us to these events. It's not like nowadays where the parents have RIBs and everything, my Mum and Dad were never going trail us further than 20 or 30 miles.
Mark: But if you had a local circuit on the doorstep and you could put the Mirror on the roof, you could still get to events that had large turnouts?
Dave: Absolutely, and that's what we did and own little world became important. Just like people know their National Champions nowadays, we all knew our Western Area Champion and you would follow them - they would be your idol and you would be trying to beat them.
Mark: Do you think the dilution of the classes that has happened more recently is part of the reason the open meeting circuit isn't as strong as it used to be back in your day?
Dave: Partly. I think there's two reasons; one is the sheer cost and people's time. I think the number of classes has probably done a lot of damage to clubs because if think you go to any sailing club now and you look out there are sixty boats on the water, it is hard trying to find two that are the same - we're all handicap racing which is no good at all.
It would be great to get clubs and get fleets back together again. What we need is a big hole somewhere in some continent to bury a load of boats that we don't want anymore. But I'm sure that wouldn't go down too well with those class stalwarts that lovingly keep classes going!
Mark: When did you first get involved in the sailing industry?
Dave: That was 1978. I left school at 17, I started working in supermarkets, in the retail trade on a management training scheme to manage supermarkets. I did that for three years, but very quickly realized that if I wanted to carrying on sailing it wasn't going to be a good career move. It was bad enough working Saturdays but I could see Sundays coming as well. So, one lunchtime when I was in the newsagent, flicking through the back of Yachts & Yachting, there was an advert there. I'd had a particularly bad day and there was an advert for London Dinghy Centre, which is now LDC / RS Sailing, who wanted a shop assistant in London. I thought, "I'm going to ring up!" So I just rung them straight away. They said, "Come up for an interview", so I went up to London and they offered me the job. I found a bedsit next to the shop in Hither Green and that was it, I was in it, I was in the trade.
Mark: Did that allow you to carry on sailing, rather than the retail job in the supermarket that was restricting your sailing?
Dave: They were certainly more sympathetic. It was necessary to sail so that you had the knowledge and credibility to talk to the customers. You also needed to go sailing to meet people. Sailing and the sailing industry is still a face-to-face affair. People like to buy things from people they know and people who have the knowledge and skill. It's still difficult in the retail trade because the shop had to be open Saturdays, so we did have to take turns on the weekends off.
Mark: So you couldn't have every weekend for sailing, but it was better than the previous role?
Dave: That's right. I didn't want every weekend off to sail at the time because my home was in Bath and I was living in London. My girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, was still living in Bath so I would go home on some weekends or my days off, I would go back or she would come up to see me. I didn't want to go sailing every single weekend.
Mark: After LDC you had your first stint at Hyde Sails. How did you first get involved with Hyde Sails?
Dave: I had been at LDC for 10 years and at that time I was running the Datchet shop. It was out of season and I was thinking, "I can't be doing the same thing again next season". We had to get everything ready, and we had a windsurfing school as well, I really didn't want to be doing this again!
I had a call from Richard Simmonds who was working for Laser at the time. He just rung up out of the blue and said, "I was having dinner with Edward Hyde and your name was mentioned. You might want to give him a call." So I phoned Edward up, and he said, "Come and see me." I went and had a chat with Edward, at the time I was sailing a Fireball and doing reasonably well and I was one of those people who people tell me is a nice person, just on the circuit being helpful and it seemed to go down well. So that was it, he offered me a job, and that's really when my sailing took off. I did have more time because the weekends were free, also I was talking with people at the loft all the time about the sails and about the skill of sailing. A lot of knowledgeable people were there which meant my whole game basically rose.
Mark: Coming on to the different classes that you sailed, the Fireball is definitely a class that is close to your heart and you've come back to time and time again. What is it about the boat that you particularly like?
Dave: When I first started sailing them I'd stepped out of a Mirror or 420 and you get into a Fireball and think, "Wow, this thing takes off, what have I got here!" At the time it was the most exciting boat at a sensible cost, coupled with the fact that you could sail in big fleets with international competition and it's great fun to sail. In a lot of the new boats, lots of your time isn't spent concentrating on the racing as you're just trying to get around the course. So it was just a great boat to sail.
We got better and better in the Fireball but we developed a reputation for coming second and it became a bit of a joke, that "Oh you've come Dave Hall today" or "You finished Dave Hall in this championship!" whenever you finished as runner-up.
In 1993 we came third in the Nationals, second at the Europeans, and the Worlds we should have won, but on the last day I completely messed it up - it was light winds and it just blew my mind. I remember coming in and thinking "I think we've done this... we need to do something else".
Mark: And that's when you decided to take a break from the class?
Dave: At that time a number of new exciting boats were coming out; the 5-tonner (Laser 5000), the RS boats, the ISO, a whole load of exciting things. It was amazing - a breath of fresh air and I started sailing the 5000 and it was just so much fun.
Hyde Sails make the Laser sails so we were involved in the promotion of the 5000 and it was a very exciting time. We had no idea what we were doing, but it was so much fun to have to do all this learning. Eventually we started to race it properly and got into the same trap again of racing and trying to get better at it.
We then managed to talk to Edward into buying an 18ft Skiff and again had a few fun years doing that.
Mark: This leads us on to Hyde sails. Throughout the years Hyde have made far more sails then probably people realize, white-labeling in other classes and other boats that might have Hyde Sails on but under a different label. Is this still a part of the business?
Dave: It's a massive part of the business. Our own branded sails account for a lot and keep our profile high and we have a lot of customers that buy sails from us because they know we can deliver. We have a huge number of trade customers and sail maker customers - you would be very surprised to know the number of sails and sail makers that we make sails for, some names that would definitely surprise you.
Mark: I presume they come to you because they know they're going to get a consistently good product?
Dave: They know what they are going to get. It's not quite 'press the button and it lands on the doorstep' but it's not far from that. With the facility we have out in the Philippines, which is completely owned and staffed by Hyde Sails employees, we can produce and deliver sails at an incredibly competitive price.
Mark: After your first stint at Hyde Sails you then moved onto Ovington Boats around the time that the 29er came out. Can you tell me about your role in getting the 29er established in the UK and Europe?
Dave: Yes, I ended up talking to Dave Ovington because I knew he had the 29er, I was trying to get the sail order for the 29er. I knew he had the 29er there and I knew he didn't know what to do with it. I rang him up and said, "I'll sell it for you." He said, "Alright, let me think about it." We had a chat and eventually he said, "Come on board and sell it."
From 1998 to 2009 I trailed it around Europe to every sailing club, lake and sea venue that you can think of. We built the class up - it was a fantastic time, a lot of hard work and a lot of political opposition from the establishment not wanting it. But all the kids wanted it, the parents wanted to see their kids sailing it.
We picked up a lot of Topper sailors originally as they didn't want to go the traditional other routes - they wanted something colourful and they really took to it. In Europe it was the Germans who really quickly got into it around Kiel and was quite a coup because the Kieler Yacht Club decided, against the DSV, that they were going support the 29er. They went out on their own and it just grew and grew with all these kids out in these 29ers.
We started off with a little National Championships with about 15 boats, then had the first World Championship at Lake Garda in 2000 with about 60 boats and that was it! Once we got into the Youth Worlds the class became so strong. I'm just so proud to have been a part of that, and to have started it. Thinking about the number of miles in the van and the work - it was all worth it as it's just such a fantastic boat.
Mark: It could be said that the 29er revolutionized youth sailing in the UK, and brought up the sailors who are now capable of sailing the Moths, the 49ers. Do you feel that you played a major part in getting the boats ready and the infrastructure ready for people to sail those boats?
Dave: Yes certainly, and I'm sure it has kept a lot of people in sailing. When you actually look at the youth classes now, you still have the same number of 420s but the 29er has got 80 boats turning up and they're all having an absolute ball. I remember Dylan Fletcher as a young 15 year old writing that 2012 was going to be his Olympics. He was an Olympic cycle out, but all those people have come through the 29er. There are so many people that are now sailing the high performance boats and also I have noticed the friendships that have been built because people were having so much fun. We've got 29er sailors who have married each other! People who I met back in the beginning of the 29er class are now husbands and wives.
Mark: You really did start a legacy there! After this you decided to get back to the Fireball after quite an extended break from the class?
Dave: Through nearly all my competitive sailing I have sailed with Paul Constable, in fact we must be the longest sailing partnership in history. We'd done the B14, 29er, 49er the 18ft Skiffs and some Melges 24 sailing, and in 2008 I stepped back in to a Fireball. I'd last sailed one in 1993 and I thought, "This is quite comfortable actually... I like this!" Funnily enough I bought the boat that beat us in 1989 when we were second in the Worlds. This boat was called Crocodile JD, an Australian boat - it came up for sale so I just bought it!
We went to the Inlands and came third, I found as you get a little bit older you find that you're more careful going around marks and other things. Sailing a 49er or an 18, we weren't racing it anymore, it was just getting around the course. Getting back in to a Fireball we were suddenly racing again. It was still fun; the boat is exciting, especially in the breeze, but you could sail it and you could race it. You could actually have your head out of the boat, and race other people, rather than just thinking, "Am I going to get around that gybe mark?" So we got back into it and for some reason I started building them too - I got a license and started building them myself.
Mark: After you had a spell with Rondar you went back to Hyde Sails. I presume with your Fireball sailing you were now making a lot of Hyde Sails for the fleet?
Dave: Yes, it was all hands to the pump. I'd started working at Hyde in February and we had the World Championship in the UK at Pwllheli in August. We dug out our designs from when I was there back in the '90s, had a quick look at them, and thought things had actually moved on a lot since then. We literally had to start from scratch, and we got up to speed just in time for the Nationals and the Worlds. We hit the go button with some sails and after several sets later we did quite well in the Nationals. I didn't do well at the Worlds and I think in hindsight that two weeks sailing in Pwllheli with force 6 winds was too much. What we should have done is enter the Pre-Worlds and do a couple of races and then do the Worlds because you can't sustain two weeks of sailing at peak performance. The good thing was we made some sails for James Peters and Finn Sterritt and they finished second overall in the Worlds, winning the last 3 races by miles once they'd learnt how to sail Fireballs, so that was good.
Mark: So you clearly designed a fast set of sails pretty quickly. Hyde Sails is now fully active again in the one-design classes with yourself, Richard (Lovering) and Nigel (Grogan). Are you finding the Hyde name is really getting back known and utilized through these one-design classes?
Dave: Absolutely - you would be hard pressed to not see something about Hyde Sails in all the classes we've got a presence and sail which are the Flying 15, the Fireball, the 505, Squib, Dragon and XOD. Then we've got other people in the Merlin Rockets and Solos and many, many more. We've definitely got the profile there now and it's a matter of turning that into people having the confidence to say, "Yes, Hyde Sails are back" and coming to talk to us and buy sails.
Mark: Your second stint with Hyde Sails has been under the new owner, Nigel Grogan, and he's a very active sailor himself, as the reigning Squib National Champion and winning White Group at Cowes Week as well. Do you find it useful having an owner who is so active in the sailing scene himself?
Dave: Definitely. Nigel is a human dynamo and doesn't stop. Jack, his son, is also sailing. The whole team is out there, Luke, Wooderz, Richard - the only way to sell sails is being absolutely involved in the sport - out there racing, talking to people and being part of the scenery.
Mark: This brings me back to my first question when you first got involved in the sailing industry: do you still get the time on the water, the time in the job, and time for your personal life. Do you manage to get that balance?
Dave: I've been very lucky, probably the luckiest man alive I think. I've been able to actually go sailing, work in an environment that I love, I've got a lovely wife and two great grown-up kids. I think I've been very fortunate as I've seen a lot of people come into the industry and have stopped sailing because it spoils it for them. But I've always managed to keep the sailing part fun and the selling part separate. When I get on the water I have to be a bit careful, but generally everybody is a competitor and are fair game. But on the shore you have to be nice. It does get a bit awkward in protests sometimes!
Mark: One other boat you sailed in 2016 was the K6, where you won the National Championship in Lymington? Could you tell me a bit about that?
Dave: Again it's a lovely boat - if you've never sailed one you should have a go - I got involved with sailing them when I was at Rondar. It's a boat you can sail in almost any weather with anybody. I've sailed events with my wife, daughter and my son and I've sailed events with people that don't sail. It's a very easy boat to do that because all the controls are very simple. Also it is exciting because it goes pretty fast downwind with a big kite. We've been close to winning events at the Euro Cups and the Nationals but we managed to do it in 2016.
Mark: What are your plans for 2017?
Dave: We're going to do the Fireball again, because it's what I love doing, it's a good crowd and it's good competition. Hopefully we can do well at it and will put a lot of effort into it. I'm going to sail the 505 as well - and give that a go. I sailed one back in 1992 for a couple of seasons but never really got to grips with it. But I stepped back into one last year and, having sailed so many other boats, it wasn't as daunting as I remember it being in '92, so I'm looking forward to that challenge.
I would like to do some Merlin Rocket sailing as well if time permits. It's an amazing fleet with such a spread of people; you've got young people and some right into their 70's still sailing it. Everybody has a great time together, the racing is good and the standard of competition is so high. I had a go at the Nationals having never stepped in one and did embarrassingly badly. Half way through the week we managed to get half way up the fleet. We've got Ben McGrane using the sails in the fleet and we have some good sails now having worked very hard with Richard. I would like to do some Merlin sailing for two reasons; one because it's a great crowd and a great boat to sail and obviously I'd like to sell some sails within the fleet as well - as we can do that at a cheaper price than most of the others.
Mark: Dave, many thanks for your time. It's enlightening listening to your sailing stories and also hearing about your time in the industry.
Dave: Thank you very much. Good to talk to you!