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Brief history of the Enterprise Class as it celebrates its 60th anniversary

by Alice Driscoll 1 Jan 2016 08:50 GMT 1 January 2016
Enterprises 1 and 2 approaching Calais © Jack Holt / Enterprise Association

It was on January 9th 1956 that two Enterprise dinghies sailed across the Channel between Dover and Calais in the middle of the night. This remarkable achievement rocked the sailing world, brought international recognition to the designer Jack Holt, and was the PR stunt that marked the launch of a boat that is still today one of the world's most popular dinghies.

Instantly recognisable with its distinctive light blue sails, the Enterprise class now has over 23,000 registered boats all around the world, from Australia to Canada, Sri Lanka to South Africa, and Thailand to Ireland.

Jack Holt had already proved his talent as a boat designer by the time that the Enterprise was conceived. Holt had started sailing as a boy with the Sea Scouts. In 1929, aged just 17, he set up business building boats in a hut under Hammersmith Bridge where his late great-uncle John Holt had repaired boats. He designed and built his first boat Candlelight, a 14 foot race boat. Lack of money resulted in Jack creating one of the greatest innovations in modern main sail rigging. Unable to afford the metal shanks used on masts to hoist the mainsail, Jack solved the problem by making an open groove in the back of the wooden mast, and feeding the leading edge of the main sail into the mast – this method of rigging still used today on the majority of boats.

In the 1930's, Holt travelled to Cowes with his home-built boat to compete in the championship for 14 foot dinghies, but his entry was greeted with derision by the class-conscious sailing establishment. Despite his designs and sailing skill resulting in a number of successes on the water, his talent as a boat designer was still largely overlooked because of the elitist nature of the sport.

Jack's luck changed when, in the mid 1940's, he met Beecher Moore, a young American businessman and keen sailor. Competing against each other, Beecher recognised Jack's talent but was appalled at the way society refused to give him the respect he deserved. Together they formed a powerful relationship bringing together Jack's talents as a designer and builder and Beecher's skills as a businessman and promoter. During this time Holt designed the Merlin, and in 1947 he was sponsored by Yachting World magazine to design a children's boat, the Cadet. In these post-war years, there was still a divide in the sailing world with yacht clubs for the gentry and sailing clubs for the workers. However, the youngsters sailing the Cadets were all competing against each other on the same water and class privilege was ignored, thus creating one of the first breakthroughs in encouraging mass participation in sailing and racing.

In 1955, the News Chronicle newspaper wanted to encourage the public to get sailing and sponsored Jack to design a new class of boat that would not only be cheap, but also easy to own and use. The Enterprise was the result. Thanks to Beecher's promotional skills, the News Chronicle gave national coverage to the ground-breaking sea-trial, sailing at night across the Channel in January 1956. From that point, the Enterprise never looked back.

Today the success of the class remains because of its strict one-design rules with identical boats available in wood and GRP. This adherence to class rules means that older boats remain just as competitive as new ones, relying on the skill of the sailors to get to the front of the fleet. The class is fortunate to attract a number of active boat builders and choice of sailmakers, ensuring the hull and equipment remains competitively priced and affordable.

Back in 1956, the Enterprise was designed as a kit boat to be home built. It cost around £65, the same price as a TV set, while a ready-made version sold for just over £100. Today, an old Enterprise can be picked up for as little as £300. Because the hull shape has not changed, if down to racing weight (around 130kg) and with good quality centreboard, rudder, sails and mast, it could be just as competitive as a brand new GRP model which costs around £8,000.

Over the years, the Enterprise class grew worldwide, with many fleets set up in former commonwealth countries to be sailed by ex-pats and locals. The International Enterprise Association was formed, and world championships have taken place in many exotic locations from Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe, to Durban in South Africa. The Asian Games, which are held every four years between the Olympic Games, used the Enterprise as its main two-handed dinghy. This led to World Championships being held, and hotly contested, in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. Ireland and the UK remain favourite locations for championship events, and today the class holds inland and sea-based national championships, masters (helms over 40) and Youth (under 25, helm and crew) championships.

The hull shape and design of the Enterprise has contributed to its widespread appeal. It is excellent as an inland boat, and close racing on rivers will always attract onlookers as the boats gently glide past, often angled to reduce the wetted surface area and minimise drag, or are vigorously roll-tacked and gybed to make the most of fickle and changing wind direction. It is equally good in big seas and heavy winds, with helms and crews hiking out hard to keep the boat sailing flat and fast, planing downwind unable to see through the spray thrown up from the waves.

With the crew weights ranging from 18 to 28 stone, the Enterprise has always attracted mixed crews with a number of women helms and all female boats, as well as families sailing together, resulting in fun and sociable events and regattas. Some of the world's top sailors and Olympians learnt to sail in Enterprises, and the competitive class racing attracts many of them back to the fleet to try and win the national championship titles. The active Class Association supports and encourages sailors at all levels, making newcomers to the sport and the fleet welcome – 60 years on, still echoing the original remit of this appealing dinghy; a boat that would appeal to everyone.

Boat Specifications:

  • Designer: Jack Holt
  • Builders: Several
  • LOA: 4.04m
  • Beam: 1.62m
  • Draught: 0.9m
  • Sail Area: 10.7m²

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