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The Fourth Wise Man

by David Henshall 27 Jul 2016 13:30 BST 27 July 2016
John Westell © G. Westell/505 CA

Back in May 2014, I wrote an article that looked at the inter-twined relationship between three of the great post war innovators who helped create the golden era for the sport. In Three Wise Men we saw how Austin 'Clarence' Farrar, Jack Chippendale and Peter Milne used their friendship and their complimentary skills to design, build and equip some of our most iconic dinghies. At the time the article was written, I had picked up on suggestions of there being a fourth wise man, but there was a lack of supporting material. However, in recent times, new primary source material has come to light that shows that not only was the fourth man very much in evidence, but that he was an understated giant (both physically and intellectually) who rightly deserved his position up amongst our 'greats'.

It is a clear measure of the quiet modesty of Woodroffe John Westell that apart from one dinghy design, he is almost unknown and unremarked. An internet search reveals very little and there is nothing on Wikipedia about the man. But what there is hints at a remarkable 'one-hit wonder', for that one success is with the boat that many still see as the best sailing dinghy yet designed, the 505. Yet it is also clear that as a friend and contemporary of the other three wise men, that Westell had a life that was far fuller, richer and more driven by inspired innovation that he has even been credited for.

Today, in the summer of 2016, with the 505 fleets from around the world gathering at Weymouth for their World Championships, here at YachtsandYachting.com we are proud to set the record straight, by telling for the first time the story of the life of a truly remarkable man, John Westell.

He was born in Devon on the 11th of March 1921 and thanks to his mother having connections to the distinguished Woodroffe family of Gloucestershire, was christened as Woodroffe John Westell. By the time he was at Prep school he was already dropping the Woodroffe as he didn't want to be known as 'Woody'! The family were successful enough to have a bungalow at Dawlish Warren and it would be here that John would discover the River Exe and the pleasures of dinghy sailing as a member of Exmouth Sailing Club. His personality would be determined in part by the death of his mother when John was only 11, an incident that resulted in both his life-long reserve yet quiet determination. By the time he was a teenager he was winning cups at Exe SC to match his other achievements, such as being promoted to Head Boy at Rousdon School, Lyme Regis. By the time John was 16 he was winning in the National 12 fleet at Exe, which was a significant result given the strength of the class at the club in those days. Already though John was showing a wider interest in the subjects of dinghy design, boatbuilding and sailmaking which he put to the test by designing and building a small dinghy for Tony, his younger brother. In keeping with the other wise men in their younger days, John was also showing his multi-talented skills by re-cutting and stitching an old sail to make it fit the new boat.

When war broke out in 1939 John was already working in commerce in North Devon but after Plymouth's worst blitz of the war, he signed up to join the Royal Navy Reserve. As an Ordinary Seaman John might have broken the cardinal rule of military service of 'never volunteer' but having done so, John found himself part of a small crew delivering a newly built Bird Class Minesweeper to the New Zealand Navy. With a top speed of 13 kts, at cruising pace this would be a long and slow journey via the Panama Canal, California and Tahiti. On his return to the UK, John was given a commission as a Sub-Lieutenant before being sent to HMS King Alfred, the officer-training establishment at Hove in Sussex. He had chosen to specialise in Meteorology and with his training complete, was posted to the Naval Air Station at Puttalam in what was then Ceylon (Sri Lanka). His duties here may not have been that arduous, as it seems that John spent plenty of time racing a Sharpie that had been built on Station. These sailing experiences in Ceylon would later influence some of his radical designs; in addition they certainly help hone his dinghy sailing skills.

Like so many servicemen out in the Far East, with the war over it would take John a while to get back to the UK, but once he had returned, with the help of a small inheritance, John bought himself an International 14 that he raced at Itchenor. At the same time, a friend had ask him to design and build a dinghy that would be 'something different'. It was here that John's experience in the flat bottomed Sharpie came to the fore, as he produced a 16ft long, flat-bottomed scow called Dingbat. The boat was a one-off, though the design would later re-appear in a different guise.

After Dingbat, John's intention had been to sail in the Prince of Wales Trophy Race for the International 14s, which was being held at Hunstanton in Norfolk that year. Without car and trailer to take the boat to the event, John and a friend, Bill Cherry, who had never sailed before, took the decision to sail the boat around the coast. With a borrowed set of National 12 sails set on the boat and their gear securely wrapped in oilcloth, the pair set off eastwards up the channel. On reaching the Thames Estuary John drew on his meteorological training to forecast 24 hours of settled weather, so with just bread and beer to sustain them, the pair sailed through the night across the Thames before coming ashore at Harwich. It was here that Austin Farrar, who they must have known from racing at Itchenor, offered to put their boat onto his trailer and take it on around the coast to Hunstanton and the POW event.

Wanting to have a job within the sailing industry, John was able to be one of the founder members of the new Yachts & Yachting magazine, where - either under his own name or as one of a number of pseudonyms - he became a prolific writer of articles. His style as a writer reflected his personality; detailed, careful and considered and lacking in hyperbole. In his private life John was by now the family man, having married Rosemary, who he had met at Exe SC and by 1950 their daughter Gillian had been born. He had always been the tallest in any group, now as he filled out with maturity it became clear that he was far better suited to the front of the boat than the back. In the 1950 Merlin (pre-Rocket days) Championships at Burnham, John would crew for the reigning Champion Jack Holt in Charm, a new Holt design, where they would finish at 5th overall.

Back on shore John was becoming ever more innovative in his ideas, believing that the solution to speed afloat was through the use of hydrofoils. In an article entitled 'The next foreseeable step' he demonstrated a set of plans for a foiling offshore trimaran with curved foils that look remarkably like those that are now being developed for practical applications on the offshore monohulls and multihulls, nearly 60 years after Westell had been proposing their use.

1952 would be a memorable year for John as his 6ft 2" and 16 stone build would help helm Nick Martin drive their International 14 Mordicus to the ultimate success when they won the Prince of Wales Trophy at Seaview on the Isle of Wight.

Although the International 14 was still seen as the pinnacle of dinghy racing, the whole performance dinghy scene was undergoing a seismic shift. The IYRU had sponsored a new performance 2-man dinghy (this was pre-PC days when everything was seen in terms of 1-man, 2-man and 3-man boats) with Isle of Wight based designer Uffa Fox getting the commission to design the new boat. With the IYRU wanting the new boat to appeal to the large number of Sharpie sailors racing in Europe, they had specified a hard chine hull in the design criteria. This was well outside Fox's comfort zone, with the result, the Tornado, best being described as a large, heavy, big brother to a Snipe. With a robust mooring post sat in the middle of the foredeck, the boat looked more like a coastal dayboat than a race orientated performance dinghy and the handling was anything but sparkling. Rather than focusing attention into the Tornado, all the IYRU had done was to accelerate the rate at which new designs for performance dinghies were being developed. Just in the UK, Jack Holt launched his lightweight pocket rocket Hornet dinghy, whilst Ian Proctor went for 'long and lean' with his Osprey.

However, up on the East Coast, development was taking even more radical steps. Austin Farrar had noted that the rules regarding the hull of the International 14 were very simple; 14ft long and with a minimum beam, but no maximum. As another very clever and innovative designer, Farrar knew that just making the hull wider would increase the waterline beam. Instead, he kept the waterline beam to a minimum, and then just below deck level reversed the flare to develop what Ian Proctor would describe as a 'top hat' hull form.

With the resulting boat, Thunderbolt, being almost a foot beamier than earlier boats, it represented something of a quantum leap forward in design. Not only did the flared topsides keep the spray out of the hull, but also the extra beam gave much greater hiking power. Thunderbolt, with Yachts & Yachting's Jack Knights on the helm, was well placed in the Prince of Wales Cup race when that extra righting power did for their mast, but this was clearly a great innovation. One who was impressed with Thunderbolt was Farrar's friend and fellow 14 crew Westell, so when John asked if he too could 'use' the bowler hat hull form, Farrar was pleased to give him the go ahead. At the time, Westell had a number of commissions for new designs, including two new National 12s. He drew up what was, in effect, a 12 ft long version of Thunderbolt, which resulted in N1197 Paddywack and N1202 Tutti being built.

John's other commission was for something much grander! The IYRU had called for a set of Trials to be held at La Baule to investigate a second 2-man performance dinghy aimed at complimenting the Tornado. John's close friend and fellow Itchenor sailor, wealthy businessman Max Johnson, would go to Westell with a request for a boat that would compete at the Trials. Johnson's motives for this are open to a certain degree of conjecture; as a friend of John Westell, he certainly believed in his forward-looking thinking and he could easily afford the indulgence of a new one-off design and build. However, he may well have been a remarkably forward thinker himself, for he had a belief in the exciting new technology of 'glass fibre' construction. In the years to come, Johnson and Westell would not only be involved in building GRP dinghy hulls, but would be responsible for the GRP bodies for the Colin Chapman's first Lotus Elites.

Westell's design would draw heavily on the Thunderbolt shape, thought Westell's magic would be in the way in which he was able to scale the shape up to a full 18ft without loosing the essential elements of the original concept. The boat, Coronet, would be built at John Chamier's boatyard at Warsash on the River Hamble, with some clever input from Jack Chippendale, who had been brought in to 'loft' the lines and advise on construction.

Jury-rigged with a set of International 14 sails, Coronet was launched into the Hamble River with a brisk South Westerly blowing, but it was clear from this first sail that the boat, equipped from the outset with a trapeze, was something special.

That summer a Round the Island race for dinghies had been organised, which would be a great proving ground for the new generation of dinghies to see how they compared to the more established classes. All of the top 'rock star royalty' dinghy sailors of the UK came to take part; some, like Bruce Banks, would be in their state of the art International 14s, others would be seen in the collection of new designs. Ian Proctor took the event very seriously, rigging his Osprey with a double forestay (for jib and genoa) and drafted in top sailor John Oakley to join himself and Cliff Norbury as crew. It says much of the quality of Coronet (still sporting the International 14 rig) that after a non-stop 55 mile race, including a long beat, made up of numerous tide-cheating short tacks along the back of the Island, that Johnson and Westell could have won, only to sail into a hole in the breeze with the finish line in sight.

In these pre-Channel Tunnel and roll-on-roll-off car ferries, it was no small undertaking to takes dinghies across to France, but a number of UK teams would load their dinghies onto trailers for the drive south.

It would not be an overstatement to say that some of the rules regarding entry to the Trials were rather loose. The Flying Dutchman class sent two boats, with top class helms, who would work together to maximise their positions at the expense of others. The two French Canetons went to the other extreme, wanting to race only against each other, which ended up in a 'coming together' and some fisticuffs (there was no Rule 69 in those days, maybe just as well). After a week of racing the Coronet was the clear winner, though it would be the Flying Dutchman that would gain full International recognition.

The Osprey and Hornet would also get positive feedback, but already some interesting 'horse trading' was taking place. The French Caneton class wanted a new dinghy and after making representations to Westell, the designer agreed to redraw the hull form, shortening the overall length and reducing the sail area. Jack Chippendale was approached with a request that he make the prototype of the new boat. Getting the hull form right was the easy part for the designer; getting the interior sorted was much harder. John travelled up for a meeting with Jack Chippendale, bring with him some sketches on how the interior might be completed. "You don't need those," was the response from the boat builder, "it needs to be like that." Jack's skilled team of woodworkers, having already moulded the hull, had gone ahead and developed an interior that can still be seen in the boat today. In an amazing display of insightful decision-making, the French agreed to adopt the new boat without delay and with the IYRU not liking the name Coronet, the metric length of 5.05 metres was pressed into service and the 505 class was born!

The 505 was an immediate success on boat sides of the Channel and even before the class gained international status, racing was taking place between the English and French fleets with one memorable event-taking place at Ouisterham. Max Johnson showed his continuing support for the class by arriving with his boat, number 24, stowed in the cockpit of his large motor cruiser.

Max would also give the new class another push forward by buying another boat, which he then gifted, to friends in the US. Boat number 23 would be the first 505 to get to America and would help get the class strongly established there, a situation that exists through to today.

With his now envious reputation within the world of yachting, John Westell would now flourish into a designer, builder and sailor of boats from small dinghies right up to large ocean going multihulls. He was still closely associated with both Yachts & Yachting magazine and Itchenor SC, when through Jack Chippendale he heard that Peter Milne was looking at designing a lightweight scow dinghy. In the same way that Austin Farrar had helped with the Thunderbolt shape, John showed Peter his 1947 design for Dingbat. In the intervening years, hull forms had developed a long way on from the simple hard chine, with the double chine, as perfected by Jack Holt with the Enterprise and Solo, proving to be well within the capabilities of the home builder. As seen in the Three Wise Men article, there was plenty of eividence of Milne's mastery of a situation; here it was in bringing together the combination of the double chine, the long lean scow form and Jack Chippendale's innovative building techniques that would result in the superb all rounder that is the Fireball. More than 50 years on, the Fireball is without doubt one of the dinghies that can be truly said to have 'changed the nature' of the sport of dinghy sailing.

After working for a while at Tyler's of Rochester (who built, amongst other boats, some 505s that were renowned for being both soft and heavy) John would return to his native Devon where he took up the role of Technical Direction (Production) of Honnor Marine at Totnes. The range of boats that Honnor were moulding ranged from 420s and 470s, through the early range of the 'Drascombe Boats' right up to the Ocean Bird 'swing-wing' trimarans. (The 'swing-wing' allowed the outer hulls to be folded in towards the main hull, thus reducing the overall beam of the boat when being brought into a marina.)

Despite the full time workload, John would continue to innovate and design and he would often drift away into a quiet and thoughtful state, which would prompt his wife Rosemary to recognise the signs and chide him, "You're designing some bloody boat again". He certainly had retained an innovative mind as the range of his interests continued to spread, from a 505 shaped International Moth, through the '707' Quarter Tonner to an eye-catching design for the exciting but ultimately ill-starred initiative for the IYRU 'Open 4.5m Performance Dinghy'.

Increasingly though John was turning to multihulls, which resulted in a highly experimental trimaran that John and long time crew Bill Cherry would race in the 1970 Round Britain Race. The boat was very quick but material science was struggling to keep up with the radical designs of the day and Trixia was just one boat that would suffer structural problems, with John and Bill having to retire at Crosshaven in Ireland.

The pair would be back in the next running of the Round Britain and Ireland Race in 1974 with another radical but very attractive Westell designed trimaran, Johnwillie, built by the pair at the Honnor Marine site at Teignmouth. Once again they were dogged by technical issues, when in strong winds in the North Sea, the boat would lose a hull. John and Bill had to be rescued and later, the remains of Johnwillie were recovered. Undaunted, John and Bill set about rebuilding Johnwillie with their efforts being rewarded when the pair went for 'third time lucky' in the 1978 Race. This time they didn't just complete the race but finished a highly creditable 4th in class and 14th overall.

After retiring from his job at Honnor Marine, John would continue to keep himself busy, working on a consultancy basis, dabbling in design and writing more of his clever, thought provoking articles. Sadly ill health was catching up with John and in January 1989, at the relatively early age of 68, he would lose his battle with cancer. His legacy though lives on through the enduring success of the 505, though few of the competitors at Weymouth this summer will really recognise the understated genius that brought about that perfect fusion of form and function.

John's daughter Gillian (to which I owe a large vote of thanks for so much of the detail in this story) remembered John as a lovely father, a dependable, big hearted and "a thoroughly decent man". But after spending a great deal of time researching the life of John Westell for the upcoming book on the 505, I can say with absolute certainty that John Westell, designer, innovator and top class sailor also fully deserves his place in our heritage for his enormous contribution to sailing and rightfully as "the fourth wise man".

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