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Greg Gregory: 1934-2013 - Boat Builder and avant-garde designer

by David Henshall Media 2 Jan 2014 08:12 GMT 2 January 2014
Even when he'd finally retired, Greg still enjoyed the pleasure of being out afloat on the waters of the Solent in his own cruiser © The Gregory family

In recent years the Christmas period has brought more than its fair share of bad news to the dinghy sailing community! On Boxing Day 2010, ex-Olympic Coach, Merlin Rocket Champion and top class Solent sailor David Robinson was killed in an avalanche whilst skiing. Then last year the famous International 14, Moth and Cherub boatbuilder Bill McCutcheon died at his home on the Isle of Wight. Sadly, history was to repeat itself, as Christmas 2013 would see the death of a truly innovative thinker from the 1960s and 1970s, Greg Gregory.

Many of today's generation of dinghy sailors could be forgiven for not knowing the part that Greg played in the development of the sport. It is now 30 years or more since he moved away from the competitive dinghy scene, but he left us a legacy that can be seen in so many of the successful performance dinghies we sail today.

Greg had been born in Malta but coming from a Naval family would soon return to Portsmouth where he did his schooling. Despite boats playing an important part in the Gregory household, Greg would start work as an apprentice in the aircraft industry, which at that time was still strong in the Portsmouth area. Later on he would move away from the work bench and into the design office and it was here that he would stake his first claim to fame as the 'brains' behind an ejector seat for the Folland Gnat jet trainer/fighter. The lure of dinghy sailing was strong though and when Rob Gregory, Greg's brother, was sailing a Cherub, Greg felt that he could do better than the 'established' Spencer Mk II design. However, this was not the first time that Greg had seen the opportunity to improve on an existing hull, as some years earlier he had been one of the drivers behind the development of the Albacore. At Locks Sailing Club, on the western side of the entrance to Langstone Harbour, it was felt that the established boat being raced there, the Fairey Swordfish, lacked some of the sea keeping qualities needed, given that the conditions on the Langstone ebb could be even worse than those at the nearby Hayling 'bar'.

Greg negotiated with Charles Currey, Sales Manager at Fairey's, which resulted in two bare Swordfish hulls being released to Greg. These were flattened out somewhat, before more freeboard was added to the aft sections. The name 'Albacore' - following on from the wartime Fairey aircraft of that name, was first coined in Greg's workshop and as we now know, the 'new' boat quickly replaced the Swordfish with the Albacore remaining a popular boat through to today.

This and other successes led Greg to leave the aero industry and set himself up as a boatbuilder, though he would continue to develop his design activities. Gregory Cherubs soon became very different to the existing boats, outclassing them upwind and down. The experience Greg had gained with the Cherubs led him on to the first of his more 'radical' boats, the beautiful looking 'Ghost' dinghy. It is too easy to just describe the Ghost as a 15ft long Cherub, for the hull form was highly advanced for the day, being a lightweight, easily driven hull form that could compete in speed terms with both the 505s and FDs, which were then the established 'benchmarks' in terms of performance sailing. A look at the hull shape of the Ghost shows that Greg's thinking was not far from that found today in the 'skiff hulls', but his forward thinking also extended to the rig. Greg was the instigator of the 'semi-fully battened' rig, which kept the full-length battens in the top 1/3rd of the sail, but reverted to standard length battens lower down. Greg's other development was in the use of a flat cut spinnaker, set on an over length pole, which in cut and setting shows a way forward towards the asymmetrical sails used today. Sadly the Ghost was considered just too radical by many and failed to become established in the UK, though the class did enjoy some success out in Australia where, with a fully battened main and the reaching spinnaker, it fitted in well with their more advanced expectations of what a performance dinghy should be like.

Greg would revert back to the 'Ghost' name for what would be his biggest success, the Ghost Rider Merlin Rocket design. With its radically pinched in stern and heavily vee'd hull form, this was a boat that all but re-wrote the form guide in the Merlin Rocket class. Ghost Riders would bring Greg success not only at National Championship level but in the ultra competitive Silver Tiller series, where boats have to be able to perform all season long, across a wide range of venues and conditions. By now he was also building Flying Dutchman with one of his hulls going to 505 Champion Larry Marks. With this boat Larry won the FD Nationals, a result that Greg could add to other successes for his boats in the GP14 and Albacore (a World Championship win!) classes. Along the way Greg also designed the quirky 'Peanut' catamaran and the Sombrero cruiser.

However, the dinghy scene was changing, and with Greg ever alert to 'new' opportunities, his focus changed once again, with him reverting back to more high tech work in the 'aerospace' field. He had though an incredible store of knowledge on matters relating to all aspects of dinghy performance, which he was never slow to share with others. He was always willing to help the younger sailors in the dinghy park, with his words of advice being used by many to improve their performance. This generosity of thought extended to those who worked with him, with successful designers such as Hugh Welbourne, who worked with Greg, being quick to acknowledge how much they learnt from him.

Sadly, in later life Greg would fall victim to long-term health issues, yet these should not be dwelt upon. Instead, his life should be celebrated to the full. We should remember Greg as an accomplished dinghy racer in his own right, a farsighted designer and first class boatbuilder, a man who gave the sport in those golden years a great impetus forward in terms of development.

Our condolences go to his widow Claire and all the family.

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