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Olympic Gold medalist dies with his sea boots on

by Bob Fisher on 30 May 2010
Reg White, with 18 year old Steve Olle as crew wins the 1979 World Tornado Championship SW

Reg White, who has died aged 74, was a universally loved and respected sailor.

An Olympic gold medallist and multi-world champion, his prowess in catamarans was legendary, but he was just as much at home in his clinker-built (fibreglass) 18-foot Brightlingsea One-Design, the boat he was sailing when he suffered the heart attack which proved terminal. He died with his sea boots on.

Born in the small east coast town of Brightlingsea (famed for its oysters and the fishermen/sailors who manned the big yachts between the wars) in October 1935, this son of an oyster merchant grew up on the foreshore and was into boats from a very early age, eschewing other sporting activities for sailing. His very early learning was in a West Wight scow, a gunter-lug rigged dinghy with a tiny jib that he added and a rowing skiff (originally used to ferry oysters from the smacks to the quayside) on which he and a companion rigged spars and sails made from two bedsheets and was steered by an oar. Some semblance of lateral resistance was supplied by two leeboards, copied from the Thames barges they had seen in the river Colne, which were pivoted on bolts through the gunwales. Practicality was a byword from an early age.

From school he underwent a boatbuilding apprenticeship at James & Stone’s yard in the town of his birth where his practical ability blossomed. At the same time, he sailed his father’s Brightlingsea One-Design (BOD), Tiller Girl, named for the dance troupe of which his elder sister, Pam, was a member, with elan. He chalked up several wins before father White decided on a new boat with an updated rig (no bowsprit and a taller mast), which was called, appropriately, White Magic. Reg carved a special place in the class’s history with this boat that he sailed until 1959 when he followed the trend of the younger local sailors.

With his old friend Ken Howe, he built two Hornets, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and when they drew lots as to who should have which boat, Reg announced that he was the 'dum one.' His rivals would soon learn that that was far from the case. A sixth in the national championship at Plymouth within days of launching provided the lie to that.

Roy Bacon was another member of that Hornet fleet and a catamaran enthusiast. Reg became involved with the building of a 16-foot hard-chined catamaran for Roy and that was the start of a partnership which later became Sailcraft Limited. Roy encouraged Rod Macalpine-Downie to Brightlingsea where Sailcraft became the builders of all Rod’s designs, starting with the Thai Mk IV. It progressed through the Shark to the Iroquois 30-foot cruiser.

Enter John Fisk, a member of the IYRU multihull committee whose enthusiasm knew no bounds. His ideas inspired Macalpine-Downie and intrigued Reg. He wanted greater international competition in catamarans and had challenged the Eastern Multihull Association of the USA to a match in 25=foot catamarans – at the very start of the C-class. It was late 1958, just after the restored America’s Cup had taken place and John explained it to Rod, Reg and myself as: 'a little America’s Cup.' The main problem was that he did not have a boat, but the combination of those around rose to the occasion and the prototype, Hellcat, was launched early in 1959, built in wood by Sailcraft. Several modifications followed and eventually a glassfibre version, Hellcat 2, was built, again by Sailcraft, and after just one trial sail against the prototype, shipped to New York, where she defeated John Hickock’s Wildcat by 4-1.

It was the beginning of a challenge that occupied Reg for many years, during which time he built and developed a series of winning boats, sailing in them either as helmsman or crew of four successful boats. During the campaigns he met and was influenced by many like-minded enthusiasts and in 1967 he was approached by Rodney March, who had a potential design for a B-class boat that could be built using a developed ply method. It was the original Tornado. Reg built two, one una-rigged with a wing mast, and the other with a more usual sloop rig. They were entered for the IYRU one-of-a-kind trials for an international one-design. The una-rigged boat was quicker but broke its mast after two races; Reg steered the other one to win the series convincingly.

Fisk worked hard to establish the Tornado and convinced his fellow members of the IYRU that it would be ideal for the Olympics. Just as soon as its selection was announced for the 1976 Games at Kingston, Ontario, Reg carried his development of Sailcraft-built boats to new heights, and at the same time went into training to represent Great Britain. He had begun to produce glassfibre Tornados and started experimenting with various fibre lay-ups, making the boat stiffer, and consequently faster.

His training afloat and ashore with his brother-in-law John Osborn was singularly intense. It was rewarded with a gold medal without the necessity of sailing the last race. Unfortunately after winning his second world championship in the class in 1979, he was denied a second chance to win gold when the British sailing team was withdrawn from the Moscow Games as Russia had invaded Afghanistan. He remarked on the irony of the recent allied intervention in that country.

His business flourished for some years with cruising catamarans and technical development of the Tornado, until the recession of the early nineties when Sailcaft was wound up and Reg began a new business venture building boats for companies that marketed them. It was called White Formula. As the business developed, he joined forces with fellow Tornado gold medallist, Yves Loday. The Anglo-French alliance produced a new range of small catamarans, starting with the Hurricane (in several sizes) and progressing to the Spitfire

Reg married Lyn, his childhood sweetheart, in 1954 and they had three sons and a daughter, who have, between them, produced fourteen grandchildren. Reg enjoyed being a family man and was much loved by all its members. His latter day sailing was with a new Brightlingsea One-Design, launched last year, which he would race with members of his family. It was aboard this boat, White Spirit, that he raced on Thursday evening with his grandson Rupert when he suffered a massive heart attack finishing the Brightlingsea Sailing Club’s evening race.

Reg leaves his widow, Lyn, three sons, a daughter and thirteen grandchildren.

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