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The Man behind the H boats: A profile of Keith Callaghan

by Dougal Henshall 7 Jun 2016 14:00 BST 7 June 2016
Keith Callaghan © David Henshall

For more than 40 years Keith Callaghan has been very much at the forefront of the sailing scene, equally as an innovative designer and a first class crew. With his latest dinghy, the H2 certainly catching the eye, we take a look at the man behind a long line of dinghies starting with an H (and some cracking cruisers too!)

Has the time finally come when the brilliance of the Laser is at last starting to dim? If so, which of the two threats to it's continued dominance will be the one to finally switch the lights off? Will it be a long awaited verdict from the Connecticut District Court that may, or may not, render the Laser brand as toxic. Or would it be the strict one design concept that has kept the boat, with very few changes, pegged back as a product of the late 1960s/early 1970s. Looked at through the standards of today, there can be few doubts that despite the superb innovation seen in the Laser four decades ago, that keeping the boat close to that original form has perpetuated a number of fundamental flaws through its product lifespan. Anyone who has sailed a Laser in breeze will recognise the kinetics needed to bear away without stalling out the rudder, whilst the standard rig 'as was' can be enough to make grown sailmakers cry.

Little wonder then that since the boat exploded onto the sailing scene some 45 years ago, there have been many attempts to outdo the Laser and attack the lucrative market for an exciting, accessible mid-range single hander. Yet the history books will show that of these challengers, most have fallen by the wayside and are now forgotten classes. However, in the last two years that situation has changed with the arrival on the scene of two superb new single-handers that have shown just how good a boat from this genre can be. Where the lightweight RS Aero and the equally innovative Devoti D-Zero have gone, others have followed with the Melges 14 coming in from the US whilst the Australian JS 4.3 made its debut at the recent Dinghy Show. Yet, whilst all of these boats are making claims (of various validity) to be the 'Laser for the 21st Century', in terms of being talked about, it is another emerging single hander, the H2, that is currently grabbing the column inches.

One reason for this newcomer grabbing the media attention is that the boat is very different to the current crop of minimalist Laser-lites (indeed, the website for the JS4.3 celebrates the minimalist approach to the design) in that it is a generously proportioned, shapely hull that owes much of it's DNA to the Merlin Rocket, one of our oldest but most established dinghies. Nor is the driving force behind the H2 one of the latest generation of designers, for not only has Keith Callaghan seen his 70th birthday, but his designs have been gracing UK race courses since before that first Laser made the jump from being just a drawing board doodle (albeit one that would become affectionately known as the 'Million Dollar Doodle') to an exciting prospect afloat.

Yet for many, even amongst those who grace the Merlin Rocket fleet of today, the name of Keith Callaghan will hardly spark any great recognition, yet he remains one of our longest serving, successful designers, with a bulging portfolio of innovative designs that range from National 12s to 9m yachts. Yet that lack of recognition is hardly a great surprise, for Keith didn't hail from the classic sailing 'family' background. Instead, he had grown up living in North London, where he was a strong pupil at the local Grammar School. From an early age he had shown an aptitude for being 'good with his hands' but rather than let him focus on more technical learning, the school had other plans, steering him instead towards the more academic subjects. It is also telling that Keith was never keen on the usual range of team sports promoted at the school, preferring the more individualist pastimes of swimming and cycling. Given the location and lifestyle for the Callaghan family, getting afloat was far from being an 'expected' leisure pastime. This though was the early 1960s, the start of the golden era in small boat sailing, a time when the 'can do' attitude towards DIY was rapidly being extended towards boat building. This was also the time when having a boat was seen as one of the top aspirations for the so called 'working man', with this fuelling the expansion in the availability of boats of all shapes and sizes. Like so many prospective boat owners back then, what you did not have you could build, with Yachting World being just one publication that drew the budding boat builder into getting started.

Having studied the 49 pages on 'Building Chine Boats', Keith, his father and brother set out to build their first boat, Alicia, a 21ft Ballerina II pocket cruiser. By May 1963 the boat had been built and launched from Leigh in Essex, allowing the Callaghan family to explore the wonderful cruising grounds of the East coast. The mooring for Alicia was just off the Up River Yacht Club at Hullbridge, which was then a popular dinghy club. It was here that Keith, as a teenager, would discover the pleasures of crewing a Merlin Rocket. Keith likes to recall how, as soon as the boat lifted up onto the plane, he knew that he wanted 'more'! As he already had the experience of boat building, the simple answer was for him to make his own Merlin Rocket. Accordingly, he wrote to Ian Proctor, who was at that time the leading designer in the class, requesting a set of plans for Proctor's latest design. Proctor though had other ideas, for he was keen to protect his close commercial links with the mainstream builders of the day and declined the request for plans.

Undaunted, Keith went back to the books, borrowed a copy of 'Sailing Yacht Design' by Douglas Phillips-Burt from the local library and set about designing his own boat. After a number of iterations, Keith had settled on a set of lines that were very different to those he would have had from Ian Proctor. Instead, Keith had been strongly influenced by the designs of Mike Jackson, whose boats Rakes Progress and Sugar Plum were showing far flatter garboard planks and tighter turns in the bilge. Keith's design followed this line of thinking, but went on to take it a stage further, pushing the overall beam out to 2m, making the boat the beamiest Merlin Rocket yet built.

As England was busy beating Germany in the 1966 World Cup, work was progressing to complete the boat which, with the rig of the day (Banks sails, Proctor mast) would soon join the Merlin Rocket fleet at Up River YC. At the urging of a girlfriend, Keith was to christen the design Hebron which would establish the precedent of Keith's dinghies always being given names that started with an H.

Given that the skills needed to both design and build the boat had all be self-taught, Hebron was an amazing success as long as it was being sailed by a light crew in breeze. It was clear though that the design carried too great a wetted area, whilst having too little in the way of displacement. However, the boat showed enough promise for Keith to get a request for a development of the design. The resulting boat, Hotspur, showed just how practical time in the boat for the designer helped sharpen up the development process. Keith had found that whilst making the boat beamier increased the righting power, this was at the expense of a marked increase in hull windage when the boat was heeled. Hotspur would be narrower forwards of the shrouds, with the maximum beam carried further aft to help with control of the boat on the windy spinnaker reaches. As this was the time when Merlin Rocket helms and crews could still be generously proportioned, the hull carried more rocker than was normal at the time, making for a hull that tacked well and would carry weight well. Far from just designing for himself, Keith now found his skills were increasingly in demand, with 33 Hotspurs being built in total.

These were halcyon years for development in the Merlin Rocket class and Keith would find himself in the thick of the action. One of the up and coming stars of the class, Pat Blake, had chosen a boat built to the Hotspur design and in this he would win the prestigious Silver Tiller Series, the ultimate 'all round' test of a dinghy. After the success of the Hotspur came Hornblower with Keith finding himself increasingly in demand. For the 1972 season not only did Pat Blake upgrade to the newer design, but he also imported Keith as crew. The combination of the Rowsell built Hornblower, Blake and Callaghan came close to winning everything in a season, only to miss out in the end for both the Championships and Silver Tiller. It was then back to the drawing board for Keith, with the result being probably his most versatile and successful of designs, the Hexagon.

His experiences at the very top of such a competitive fleet had convinced Keith that the outcome of many races were decided in just 90 seconds; the 30 seconds before the start and the first 60 after the gun had gone. As a consequence, the Hexagon design was nimble and manoeuvrable, would accelerate fast, yet with a long straight run in the forward sections had the ability to claw its way to windward. The boat was also a 'looker' and would grace the Merlin Rocket stand at the 1973 Dinghy Show held at Crystal Palace. In the hands of Pat Blake and Keith Callaghan, Mythelated Spirit would come within ¼ of a point of taking the National Championships from eventual winner Alan Warren, whilst the following year, in a closely contested event, the pairing would finish third.

Their consolation would come with back to back victories in the Silver Tiller and with prospective owners queuing up for the next Callaghan design, for the first time Keith's income from dinghy design exceeded that of his day job as a Systems Analyst. Following on from Hornblower would come Hysteria, then Hazard, but already the trend was clearly becoming one of flatter, U shaped hulls sailed by lighter crews.

By now Keith, being ever inventive and forward looking, could see that whilst the Merlin Rocket class, with the beautifully built wooden hulls from the likes of Spud Rowsell and Jon Turner owned the present, the time was fast approaching when the expense of building (and maintaining) wooden clinker hulls would become a limiting factor for further expansion. He suggested that one solution to the looming problem would be to follow the example of the National 12s and allow '4 Plank' construction, as an interim step towards the adoption of fully smooth hulls.

At first the initiative was well supported, with the class seeking a dispensation from the RYA for two development hulls to be built. Keith modified a set of his plans to accommodate 4 plank construction, but in the intervening period, the appetite for change within the class had weakened. When it came to the crunch, not only did the class backtrack on the earlier enthusiasm, but the supporters for the development, which included Keith in their number, were to come in for a good deal of personal opprobrium. A while later the Class Chairman declared, "Merlin Rocket hulls will be clinker- end of"! which effectively ended any further development of different construction techniques.

His thinking may not have been flavour of the month in the Merlin Rocket fleet, yet elsewhere his thinking about how a smooth skinned boat would look had taken on a new life in an innovative single hander. Lawrie Smith knew Keith's designs well, having been runner up at the 1973 Nationals in a Hexagon, so when his father wanted a new boat to replaced his OK, Keith was asked for a design. The resulting dinghy, the Harrier, clearly showed its Merlin Rocket heritage, with a beamy, powerful hull shape that promised much in the way of performance.

Sadly, the GRP hulls were heavy, the rig unsophisticated and the boat could scoop water in over the side deck. Despite the problems, the Harrier would enjoy a reasonable success (particularly in the North of England) but bigger issues were looming. First, the mid 1970s were a time of deep depression that saw VAT peak at 25%. At the same time, a cheeky new single hander, the Laser, was taking the dinghy scene by storm, with these two differing pressures bringing about an early demise for the Harrier.

Around this time Keith would see both National 12s and International 14s built to his designs. Like so many people of that post war baby boomer generation, the 1970s would bring the additional pleasures of family, along with the additional demands that went under the heading of 'pressures of work'. Certainly for Keith, working for IBM meant that the later played a big part in changing his lifestyle, which also mean a change in his style of boating. Happening on something of a rarity, a Jack Holt Rambler design, Keith set about adapting the boat for his own needs. Essentially an open decked dayboat built onto a 17ft long variant of the Enterprise hull, the Rambler suffered from a number of handling vices. Solving issues like this were no great problem for Keith who moved the centreboard back 18 inches and redesigned the rig before adding on a small cabin. The revised boat was a delight to sail, allowing Keith to not only rediscover the delights of the East Coast, but to explore the Solent and the bits of Salcombe that the Merlin Rockets were either racing on – or ignoring!

By the mid 1990s the pressure cooker existence of being in high technology sales were taking their toll on Keith and when the chance came for early retirement, he left IBM with the intention of returning to his real love of boat design. By now computer technology was impacting on design which meant that his previous background in IT gave him an advantage in mastering computer design techniques that would manifest itself in his first new design. Trailer sailing was very much on the rise, a fact that was reflected in the drawing up of the lines for Blue Lightning. Just as Keith had self-taught himself the boatbuilding and design skills, he now returned to the printed page, using the famous book from the Gougeon Brothers on wood/glass composite construction. Using this technique, Keith sheathed a strip plank cedar hull to create a boat that was both strong and light. Despite having a fully fitted interior, Blue Lightning was fast enough to compete with the Sports Boats and was quicker than some of the specialist race boats.

Being IT aware also saw Keith utilising the power of the web to promote his designs to a far wider audience. One place where his designs struck a chord would be in North Germany, where much of their coastal sailing takes place in shallow water. A development of Blue Lightning, Blue Storm, lengthened out to 7m, would prove another success, with boats being built as far away as Australia. After successfully competing in the Practical Boat Owner design competition with yet another design called Blue Skies, Keith would find himself drawn back into the dinghy world, first with a 5.5m dayboat and then with Heatwave, a single hander thought of as a modern take on the Phantom concept.

Despite this boat being successful in terms of performance, the layout of the cockpit left something to be desired for the larger helms, an issue that would resurface in a few years time. Merlin Rockets are never far from Keith's mind though and with 'thinking' owners wanting an alternative to the currently dominant but aging Winder Canterbury Tales design, work would start on the first Merlin Rocket to be designed from scratch using a CAD package. When a commission came in for a new boat, Keith's new design, the Hazardous would be beautifully constructed by Laurie Smart and once again a Callaghan boat would grace the Merlin Rocket stand at the Dinghy Show (now at Alexandra Palace).

The roll call of success in the Merlin Rocket fleet is recorded in the annual Year Book and there, in clear B&W, it shows that 5th place in the 2013 Inland Championships went to Jasper Barnham and Graham Sexton sailing in Wicked, a Callaghan Hazardous design. This result, 41 years after the first recorded top level success for a Callaghan design, marks Keith out as the designer with the greatest spread of longevity in the class and given the competitive nature of the Merlin Rocket, ranks as an amazing record. Just as back in the 1970s, Keith was not just in demand as a designer, as once again he was being called back for duty in the front of the boat at the 'must do' event for the class, Salcombe week.

Crewing a Merlin Rocket has never been an easy pastime, even less so for one closer to 70 than 60, leaving Keith with the task of getting 'sailing fit' again. At the same time he was fielding inquiries that were coming in from the increasingly active classic dinghy scene, where his 40 year old Harrier dinghies, retro-fitted with a Phantom rig, were becoming an increasingly sought after boats. But it was something of what many would think to be a 'leading question' that really caught Keith's attention. "What" he was asked "would a 21st century Harrier look like"? Just as the Harrier was a straight lift from his then current Merlin Rocket design, so Keith took as a starting point the lines for his current Hazardous, trimmed them down, with the result being the Hadron, a very attractive single hander.

With home building firmly in mind, Keith had drawn the boat up as an easily constructed 4 planker. Unlike the current trend in single handers for them to be both super light, yet carry an overly generous sail plan, Keith focused his efforts on developing a boat that would give a club level sailor a rewarding sail, yet would still be manageable across a wide range of conditions. Care was taken to ensure that the boat was easily recoverable and with much of the built in buoyancy contained in a centrally mounted spine, if capsized the Hadron floated docilely with the plate almost level with the water. More importantly, Keith was able to create a cockpit that was far more ergonomically attractive to the more generously built helm!

From the outset the Hadron did so much more than provide Keith with a floating hiking bench and exercise platform, as it was quickly seized up by many like-minded souls to the designer, who found the CNC cut panels made for an easy build route to what was a very pleasurable sailing experience. The boat certainly appealed to home-builders everywhere, with six boats being built over on the US West Coast alone. However, if there was a problem with the Hadron, it was with the rig, which needed more in the way of automatic gust response. Even as the rethink on the mast/sail combination was underway, Keith had to return to the world of the bigger boat as he had been given a commission for an 8.2m trailer-sailer, with full standing headroom down below, that would satisfy the demands for an offshore capable cruiser racer. This would involve the designer in ensuring that his boat would meet the EU Recreational Craft Directive. Bigger boats can also mean bigger problems, with this project having more than its fair share of issues, though once afloat the boat sailed superbly.

Although in the past Keith had primarily keen known for his dinghies, his growing presence in the trailer-sailer scene was highlighted when an owner of one of his BlueStorm 7m boats in Germany wanted a bigger boat. When the lines were redrawn the resulting boat was certainly very attractive and well proportioned, though the more knowing viewers might well be excused for thinking that the boat was nothing more than a 'bl**dy big Merlin Rocket'! Launched in May 2015 at Hooksiel in Northern Germany, Keith's BlueStorm 9000 exceeded all expectations in terms of on water performance

After an extended sail in the boat, bringing it from the Baltic through to the North Sea, Keith was able to leave a very satisfied customer and return home. The sojourn in foreign waters over, it was time to return to the rethink of the Hadron, with the consensus of opinion now being that the core concept of the boat was so good it needed to be taken one step further on, starting with a reappraisal of the design of both the rig and the hull. This then led on to the decision to examine construction in state of the art composite materials. The slight boxiness of the original Hadron (to facilitate home building) was replaced by curved topsides, with the four plank hull form now a sweetly rounded smooth hull. With carbon/Aramid construction, the hull weight was planned to be on a par with that of the Phantom, which given the overall size of the boat made it a very light hull indeed. A fat top mainsail was developed by Jim Hunt at HD sails and after the tooling was completed by Keith's partner, Simon Hipkins, construction started at White Formula at Brightlingsea.

The new boat, to be known as H2 was launched at Alton Water in February, just in time for the boat to become the latest in a long line of Keith Callaghan dinghies to grace a stand at the Dinghy Show. Despite not having the backing of one of the major builders, the H2 seems destined to be able to create it's own niche, with a number of well known dinghy sailors buying in to the boat even before the first production hulls were completed.

Even with this pleasing success, Keith's boat is unlikely to bother those high volume builders who are setting their sights on that Laser shaped target. Its presence though is yet more evidence of the enduring success of Keith Callaghan as a designer, who now has a full half century of years at the drawing board. Nor does the H2 look to be anywhere near the last boat that will end his prolific existence as a designer.

The interest in the H2 is already fuelling talk of another dinghy and his recent successes with keel boats, in locations as diverse as Australia, South Africa and Germany, will surely bring in yet more in the way of commissions for this sort of boat.

With so many boats from such a wide spectrum of genres, it is hard to determine what Keith Callaghan should best be remembered for (nor should his prowess as a winning crew be overlooked). In the end it is probably best to leave the closing word to the man himself, who when asked, gave the following answer. "I would like to be remembered as someone who enjoyed boat design for its own sake - as a truly creative process involving science, technology and aesthetic design."

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