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The thick and the thin, thinner and thinnest!

by David Henshall 27 Jun 2014 09:01 BST 27 June 2014
The Finn Class, already well established on the Classic Scene, are now being joined by the nimble and at times very quick classic International Moths © David Henshall Media

Few would argue that along with the 505, probably one of the most iconic and instantly recognisable dinghies has to be the Finn. Here in the UK, we can easily make the connection between Finn and Sir Ben Ainslie. However, the bigger story is that for 60 years, the Finn has, thanks to its Olympic heritage, been at the forefront of single handed dinghy thinking. With the unstayed rig, set right forward on a workmanlike hull (few would describe the Finn as a beautiful boat in the same way they would, for instance, describe the shapely Contender), for 60 years now Finn has dominated the international scene for what are coyly described as 'heavyweight' sailors. Yet the modern day versions of this boat, as shown by the excellent versions by Devoti and Pata, are well developed, sophisticated and with the high level of control over the carbon rig, are far from the physical beast of a boat that they once were.

Much of the attraction of the Finn goes right back to the very early 1950s, when the boat won a design competition for a new single handed dinghy for the 1952 Olympics at Helsinki. The prototype boat, built by designer Rickard Sarby, was cold moulded using double diagonal planking, but very quickly after its selection for the Games it was announced that Fairey Marine would start hot moulding hulls using the same process that had been used for the Firefly. This created an immediate issue, for running much of the Fairey dinghy operation was none other than the top International 14 sailor Charles Currey. Charles had already been denied the chance to win an almost certain medal at Torquay, given his association with the company building the Firefly, To ensure that he could compete in the 1952 Games, he set up a process where the bare hulls were shipped out to a number of 'satellite builders' who built the boats, thus breaking the link between builder and sailor; Currey qualified as the UK helm in the Finn, then went to Helsinki and returned with a Silver Medal!

However, this does mean that 'all that is moulded is not Fairey' - though the hulls quite possibly are. In the Solent area alone a number of builders such as Jack Chippendale and Jeremy Rogers were busy building Finns. At Warsash, on the east bank of the Hamble River, just 150 yards across and in clear view of the main Fairey factory, at the Tormentor yard, Finns were being produced that were Fairey in almost everything but name. As with all the Fairey Boats, the construction was pretty much bulletproof and, as the hull was anything but lightweight, with its metal centreplate, it was little wonder that the boat quickly got a reputation for being heavy when on land.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the weighing scales from the Finn, the International Moth was also attracting a lot of interest from sailors across the globe. Here was a lightweight boat, which could be easily home built (and in many cases home designed) and which placed almost nothing in the way of rules restrictions in the way of innovation. As a consequence of this freedom, boats started to become highly specialised, with boats aimed at success on the Swiss lakes having almost semi-circular hull sections, whilst the boisterous conditions found 'down under' saw the Australians perfecting the tunnel scow hull form that quickly attracted the nick-name of 'the kitchen door' boat!

However, if there was one common theme emerging from the Moth fleet, it was that the lack of any form of weight limit in the class was resulting in the more successful boats being built using ever lighter construction techniques. For a while 3mm 'tortured' ply was the building material of choice, but then even this was thought by some to be too heavy. Hulls were getting slimmer, but the next big move came, so it is said, as the by-product of an accident. Weston Sailing Club, on the shore of Southampton Water, has long enjoyed an enviable reputation for being linked with innovation; in this case it was a Unicorn catamaran that had been tee-boned in the stern section, effectively writing off the hull. Some of the Weston Moth sailors took the hull, cut away the sound first 11ft from the damaged rear, epoxied in a transom and created an extremely narrow hull. Most people said that this would be impossible to sail (by all accounts it wasn't easy at the best of times) but the principle of minimalist hull forms had been established. It did not take long for even that old cat hull to start looking decidedly bulky, as modern materials and ever narrower hulls saw the Moth change into a high tech, high performance dinghy.

This rapid change can be seen in the plummeting PY of the International Moth. In the days of the Shelley, the PY placed the Moth down with the Firefly and Solo; once they went skinny, the Moths were soon beating boats such as the Fireball out on the water! In the end, putting the boat onto foils (another innovation that had been played with at Weston long before the idea took off elsewhere) was just the logical conclusion to a process of development that had started 30 years earlier.

It did not take long for the foiling to become a global success story, with the result that in just two seasons, the old 'low-riders' were yesterday's news and as for the classic versions of the boat, there was almost no interest at all. However, it was a very different situation over in the land of the Finns, where the core Olympic sailing scene had now been joined by what has to be the most diverse and active Masters' scene in any class. Thinking that you might be too old to pull a heavy dinghy up the beach was no barrier to competing.

From the outset, the Masters all helped each other, afloat and ashore, to the point that while the Lasers might get more boats, it is the Finn Masters that everyone looks to as the model for older sailors. Most of the Masters racing though takes place in boats that are every bit as high-tech as those sailed by the Olympic Squads. However, that bullet-proof construction meant that there was no shortage of 'old' Finns out there that were also looking for a way back onto the race course.

In just a few seasons the Classic Finn scene, which brings the older boats with rigs from yesteryear out into the restoration workshop and then onto the water, was up and running and proving highly successful. The rules are quite simple... alloy spars and Dacron are in, carbon fibre and mylar are out. The flexibility of the rig choice mean that many sailors race regularly with their every day 'modern' rigs (carbon/mylar) but keep their old ones for the Classic Finn regattas. One of the great advantages enjoyed by the Finn is that the demands of Olympic competition, plus the fact that the boats didn't have to be built down to a light weight, mean that hulls were built to the highest of standards. The result of this quality building means that even some of the early GRP versions can still be a worthwhile boat to race, yet can be picked up on the second hand market for less than the cost of a new mainsail!

This though is the classic scene, so it is of little wonder that many sailors rate the quality of the boat they sail just as highly as its performance. The early Fairey boats (be they real Faireys, or Fairey clones) are highly prized, as are some of the other woodies, with boats from Austrian Olympic sailor Hubert Raudaschl being particularly eye catching. For those not interested in the cosmetic side of classics, there is no shortage of all GRP boats, from the UK built Pearsons, through the Elvstroms to the Vanguards, but the real test is not what you sail but how you sail it, for even the oldest Finns still require that same degree of skilled helming.

It would be wrong to think that the Finns were the only game in town with respect to single handed racing in the classic scene, for clearly there are many others, but until now, they are the only one with their own stand alone 'class' activity. That was the situation until recently, when a group of keen Moth sailors from yesteryear started the dialogue about generating some interest in the classic/lowrider Moth scene. One of the early trend-setters was Ian Marshall, who competed at a number of high profile events such as the Classic Dinghy Revival Meeting at Bosham in his nippy 1967 Shelley 1 design. Ian's Shelley is a good example of a time when the Moth class looked like 'proper' small dinghies.

Time wise, after the Shelley's came an interesting attempt by Rondar boats to almost 'one–design' the Moth, with their all GRP Skol Moth. In the case of the Skols though, having a GRP hull and deck did not mean low maintenance, as the GRP could well stand for 'gigantic repair problems'. Issues with the hull and deck bonding, drain tubes that leaked into the buoyancy compartments and the overall 'fragile' construction used (to keep the weight down) all contributed to the demise of the Skol, yet amazingly these too still exist and are starting to reappear.

Then, as the 1970s drew to a close, Moth sailing would take a quantum leap forward. John Claridge, who was already known for his prowess in the fleet, and dinghy designer Mervyn Cook collaborated to produce a new range of Moths known as the Magnums. Cook's design was blisteringly fast in all conditions, from the constraints of a lake club setting such as Broxbourne, to the at times wild waters of an Australian World Championships (when Dave Iszatt, sailing a Magnum, beat the Aussie tunnel scow moths on their own waters). Best of all though is that despite the apparent lightness of the hull, Claridge had built his boats well, meaning that many examples still exist.

Even better news is that the small size of the Moth and the perception that there was 'not a lot of investment' tied up in a hull, means that good examples of the Magnum range can still be found, stored away in garages, sheds and workshops. What better boat then to become something of the 'signature' design behind a renaissance of interest in the classic and low rider Moths.

All that was needed now were some events organised with Moth sailing in mind, which the CVRDA (Classic and Vintage Racing Dinghy Association) were happy to do. Firstly at Hunts Sailing Club, when a Magnum again met a tunnel scow (along with an as yet un-identified model of Moth... but then that just highlights the diversity available in the class).

Then, at the Roadford Classic Dinghy Fest, a number of Magnums joined the classic dinghies and the Finns (who were celebrating their Classic Nationals). The event gave an interesting insight to the relative fortunes of the two single handed fleets. The Finns, who already have that established ethos of restoring and racing the classic boats, were there in strength, bringing with them all the trappings needed for a great weekend event. The amount of meat on their BBQ had to be seen to be believed, as was their ability to 'get through the grog' (as one of their number called it, but once afloat, the Finns were involved in just the sort of close competition throughout the fleet as you would expect in any mainstream Finn event. Yet despite the pressures of competition, the sense of the sailors 'all being in it together' was very strong, as was the clearly apparent fun being experienced. Clearly, the big 'F' in Finn can stand for fun as well, for this is a fleet that starts out with the intention of enjoying their sailing.

At Roadford, the Finns enjoyed a good turnout, which was made better still by the knowledge that a number of helms were missing, as they were away at the Finn Masters in Poland. However, as the 200+ strong fleet at Sopot sat on the beach waiting for the wind, the classics enjoyed two days of sunshine and wind at Roadford. Leading the charge was Martin Hughes, who sailed his immaculate Fairey to the front (apart from one race when he stopped to examine the paint job on the hull) but despite his apparent dominance, had he not returned on an OCS call in the last race the title would have gone to Peter Blick, who was sailing in an all glass boat that had been in his garage, un-used, for many a long year!

The breezes at Roadford came completed with some fairly heavyweight gusts, which meant that the Moths gave their helms something of a work out. The more modern, ultra narrow boats employed tee-foils to maintain some stability, but the Magnums rely on the nimbleness of the helm to move his weight fore and aft (as well as in and out onto the wings). Just like their foiling classmates, even the lowrider Moths have a steep learning curve for the boat handling skills, yet once mastered, the speed they could generate was quite remarkable. Lowriders maybe, but they were clearly close to reaching airborne velocities.

The conditions were also a test of the robustness of the Moths and this was a test that most passed with flying colours. At times the wind strength was close to the limit for sailing any sort of elderly/old classic boat, but though one Moth found a few fittings that needed bigger rivets, the majority of the time they held up to the demands of a full weekend afloat remarkably well.

What then is the future for these two totally dis-similar single handers, but who at the same time seem to be shared allies in the promotion of the classic scene? For the Finns, it is clear that they have already achieved that critical mass (let's face it – when have Finn sailors ever lacked 'mass'!) that will see their fleet continue to grow. The word is out already that more helms are buying classic Finns and with other boats appearing all the time, this is one way of getting cost effective class racing with the added bonus of it being hugely enjoyable and sociable.

For the classic Moths, Roadford was a great shop window of what a 'classic wing' (if you will excuse the pun!) would be like. Although the focus there was very much Magnum flavoured, already the tunnel scows, Skols, Shelley, Stockholm Sprite and other as yet unidentified species are looking forwards to 2015 when a number of 'all together' events will be held.

With the Moths light enough to car top, it is hoped to get boats to travel in support of these events and with invitations extended to some of the stars and innovators of yesteryear, the proposed 'moth-meets' could be a good way of getting yet more of this boats out from where ever they are currently being stored.

As classics, the Finns and Moths may be at different ends of the scales in so many ways, but both are assured of a future, one in which they will both play their part in putting the enjoyment back into sailing!

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