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Sailing history for sale

by Dougal Henshall 12 Jul 2017 11:01 BST 12 July 2017
What a fantastic range of dinghy classes - Lord Birkett race start at Ullswater 2017 © Paul Hargreaves

The UK dinghy scene is unique in its richness and diversity. Sadly, it looks as though we may be about to lose a major part of this important heritage.

You only need to spend a day down at the excellent Portsmouth Dockyard collection, where the Mary Rose rubs gunwales with HMS Victory, the Warrior and so much more, to see the pride with which our maritime heritage is preserved and promoted. Yet that extended era of sea power is not the only time that the British have ruled the waves, for as the world of dinghy sailing exploded in the years immediately following WW2, it was our home-grown innovation and sailors that would come to dominate so much of the sailing world. The power base for this growth in dinghy design, hull construction and rig technology was the increasingly vibrant domestic scene, where innovative designs and ideas were constantly springing up.

Some of these disappeared just as quickly, whilst others (think of self-bailers and centre mainsheets) have gone on to form the backbone of the sport of today.

Hopefully by now the names of some of these innovators are no longer a mystery to the readers of today, for here at we are pleased to be celebrating the lives of thinking sailors such as Austin Farrar, Jack Chippendale and Peter Milne, and John Westell, along with the giants on whose shoulders they stood: Jack Holt and Ian Proctor (with the Ian Proctor centenary being celebrated in 2018, watch out for more Proctor-themed articles in the months to come).

Yet for all the brilliance and industry that went into those formative days of popular dinghy sailing, for all the innovative thinking, the thousands of jobs that were created and the long-term legacy that lives through to today, in comparison with other strands of our heritage the preservation of the racing dinghy story is facing a bleak and increasingly uncertain future.

Yet back in the 1980s, the picture was very different indeed. It might have been the time for Gordon Gekko and "loadsa money" but it was also the start of people who were looking with envy back at the products of yesteryear. The value of classic cars started to rocket, followed by classic motorbikes. For those with serious money classic yachts started racing in all the right places (St. Tropez anyone?) and as for classic planes, well, the sky really was the limit.

By comparison, the world of classic dinghy sailing was small beer indeed, with many iconic boats being rescued simply on the basis of them being given a loving home, with the alternative being the November 5th Viking funeral pyre. Many of these early additions to the classic scene were saved by individuals as true labours of love, as small boats seemed an effective way for the DIY boat-builder to make fruitful use of his talents. With the value of second hand dinghies still depressed, there was little in the way of a financial incentive to undertake restorations.

Moreover, with the rapid increase in labour costs, the painstaking work needed to reproduce that authentic look of yesterday came with an eye-watering price tag. As a result, there was a huge variation in the standard of restoration; with some being works of art that you'd feel nervous about putting on a start line, whilst others were little more than floating eBay bargains that could (and did) fall apart at the first sign of any breeze. It could be that some of these bargain basement boats actually harmed the nascent classic dinghy scene, for in some quarters it led to an unfounded reputation that this wasn't serious sailing.

The CVRDA, the umbrella group for the classic dinghy scene, did an excellent job of 'tending the flame' for classic boats, and there can be no doubt that without their intervention many more really significant examples of dinghy development would have gone up in smoke. Some classes were getting the message though, with the Merlin Rocket fleet taking a leading role in actively embracing their sailing heritage, with boats such as Jack Holt's multiple championship winning number 16 'Gently' being beautifully restored to the condition she would have been back some 70 years ago. With only horn cleats, and 'blocks' that were just a hole drilled into a piece of wood, Gently gave the user a graphic reminder of how far and fast the world of dinghy sailing has developed.

By now we in the UK were not alone in recognizing the beauty and the fun that was there to be had with classic dinghies and in some areas, we were already being left in the wake of more enlightened minds. Some of our most famous International 14s found that they were far more appreciated (and financially valued) out in the US, where there is also an active scene for International Moths hailing from the time when they looked just like small version of bigger boats.

In the same way, many of the most stunning examples of early 505s, made by Chippendale and Faireys, have ended up crossing the channel to France. There were bright highlights though, with the creation of the National Maritime Museum down in Falmouth, whilst top-class events such as the Bosham Classic Boat Revival have provided a platform for preservation of the best of the old boats, with the latter showing them of in their natural environment: the race course.

Growth in the classic scene might have been slow and steady but hardly spectacular, though at long last some classes are starting to take to the idea with gusto. Chief amongst these should be the low rider International Moths where interest is far outstripping the remaining supply of old Magnums. These had been built out of 3mm ply and with the rapid pace of development in the land of Moths had never been expected to be around for long. The builder back then, John Claridge, is still building boats today but he has seen a marked increase in enquires into the construction of Magnums dating back 30 years!

The word is that John still has the frames and might even end up making a new boat to the old lines sometime. This though raises an interesting point of 'what is a classic' with the classic yacht scene having to introduce a Spirit of Classic class to deal with old new boats, that need to be seen as distinct from the artificial creation of new old boats (think on that one). Other classes are also embracing their older boats by supporting the classic scene, with some very eye catching older National 12s now appearing.

Their big brothers, the National 18s, are perhaps one of the most inclusive of all the classes, where despite the arrival of the new Morrison designed boats, the oldies (and some are well past their bus pass) are actively welcomed. The Flying Fifteens are also working hard to be inclusive of their Silver and Classic fleets, but sadly these are bright beacons of enlightenment. Some classes simply don't even want to engage in talk on the topic!

Part of the problem is in the increasingly common use of FRP as a build material. Master boat-builder Alan Jackson who turned out a long catalogue of winning dinghies from his Essex workshop, decided to hang up his bandsaw when he came to the harsh realisation that foam was faster. No matter how clever he was in building the boat and how much 'magic' he could put into the wooden hull, the end results just couldn't compete with the higher technology composite brother. Comparison tests in several classes have shown the difference in 'raw' hull speed between the two materials to be somewhere in the region of 4%, though this could be at the lower end of the range. In modern dinghy racing 4% is almost an eternity and suggests that where an FRP alternative is available, that the days of the wooden boat are numbered.

But if this is the case, what is the future for the stock of wooden boats that will be the 'silent majority' of the class for years to come? This was less of a problem back in the glory days when classes were seeing new registrations running at 100+ boats per year. In the dialled-back numbers of today, it could take a full generational change to fully refresh the stock in a fleet. An example of this must be the Merlin Rocket, where their answer to all this is to insist that owners of older boats turn up and sail with the mainstream modern versions. There are some who do, in boats that are complete with heavily rebuilt hulls to take the rig loadings, carbon raking rigs and all the 'whizz bangs', yet in following the thoughts of Alan Jackson, still struggle to compete. Worse still, in terms of protection and furtherance of the heritage, these are non-events.

All this leaves our dinghy heritage in something of a strange position. There are a few high-profile boats on display down at the Maritime Museum. Ben Ainslie's Laser and Finn are in there, along with some other carefully selected icons such as Rodney Pattison's Gold Medal winning Flying Dutchman 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious'. The original Merlin is on display, Mirror number 1 is there with the first Heron, the first Dart catamaran and many others. These boats are at least safe as preserved for prosperity, though it is unlikely that they will ever taste the water again.

Then there are the privately restored boats that are still out afloat, at CVRDA events and at the Classic Boat Revivals. It always amazes me that spectators turn up at these events, only to mention in passing that they have a boat in their garden or garage that may well have been there for the past 30 or even 40 years (often it is their father's boat that they do not want to dispose of). Some of these are hardly of historical significance, yet in the space of three hours on a Sunday afternoon at Bosham last September, I was told of three really significant boats that are essential pieces of the jigsaw picture of our dinghy heritage, yet are languishing in this manner, some a little more than a stone's throw from the sailing club.

Some of these are of such significance that the first thought must be that they surely belong in a museum somewhere, saved as the informative signposts showing how the sport evolved. Thankfully, those who care about this side of the sport were reassured that in recent years such a collection of boats was being painstaking built up. Much of the focus of this collection was on the International 14 class, where enough of the boats just in this one class were worthy of the title 'iconic' to make the collection to be of genuine importance to the sport. Together, the saved boats could be used to help explain and project a timeline of development in race winning performance dinghies.

There were also Merlins, National 12s, the first ever Graduate, the prototype Gull and Minisail from the drawing board of Ian Proctor (N.B. it is all too easy to mock the inclusion of the Minisail but at one point, it was Europe's fastest growing single hander....until along came the Laser) not to mention a mix of old Hornets from the sliding seat era, and the 1960s Virago, from the drawing board of Fireball designer Peter Milne, which surely has to be the antecedent of the high performance sportsboats of today.

Some of these were from individual donations, others had come from previous collections from around the UK that had failed and folded.

Luckily, the best of these boats were already on display in museums, whilst most of the rest were stored in an extensive polytunnel up on the East Coast. Some of the boats had already undergone extensive restoration, others had been poorly stored and were probably past the point of no return. At least they had been saved from the bonfire, with the hope that one day they would be properly catalogued, restored and returned to the race course.

Then, just a few weeks past, came the dramatic news that the organisation that managed all these boats has itself fallen into administration. This left the boats as comprising a significant portion of the assets that need to be disposed of. The hope at first was that another entity, possibly with charitable status, could be created to keep the collection intact.

The very real concern was that if some of the more desirable boats in the collection were allowed to be cherry picked away, maybe to locations abroad, the residual value of what was left would be greatly diminished. Some of the boats are indeed very, very desirable, with POW winning 14s showing all the best of British in craftsmanship construction. Either as is, or once fully restored, these would be boats of real historical value and maybe on the US market might even attract something of a financial premium.

But on further inspection...

There is then a second tier of boats that are still fully capable of being subjected to restoration, with some needing little more than advanced cosmetic work. There are some gems in this category, but the danger is that already the point has probably been passed where there are more boats than potential owners willing to take on the tasks of ownership. One hope here was that a group of owners or maybe a club would take on a number of these boats, maybe as many as a dozen in one go, and jointly create an instant club classic fleet. It is a lovely idea, though once the practicalities came into play, most clubs would shy away from the virtual blank cheque they would need to be signing.

Sadly, there is then yet another tier of boats that are desperately in need of some serious TLC; the best that these could hope for is that someone has a family connection to that particular boat and is happy to let his heart not only rule his head but at the same time unlock the details of his bank account. Even for the home builder who is not accounting for his time, saving one of these dinghies would be neither a quick nor a cheap task to undertake. This just leaves the rump of the collection, made up of those boats that neither love nor the boatbuilders art can ever manage to save! What a bonfire they will make though.

However, the hard-headed business world of receivership has little place for the romance of the sea nor for the future preservation of the heritage in Championship winning boats. As identified assets of the old company, they will have been assigned a value and it is the job of the receivers to maximise the return on these in order to satisfy the needs of the creditors. How though do you put a value on a 1950s sailing dinghy in need of restoration?

One well-informed observer who had maybe more than a passing interest in one of the boats in the collection commented last week that, "If I'd offered them a pound for that boat I'd have wanted change!" And therein lies the potential fate of this massive slice of our dinghy heritage. It will be hard enough to find possible homes for even the best of the boats, but if they come with a top dollar price tag, the likelihood is that even the most ardent of restorers will seek out boats from other sources to be the object of their attentions.

More worrying still, the auction of boats and associated books and pictures is now live, with bids being sought irrespective of the importance to our history. Jamie Campbell, a well-known dinghy historian, with a far-reaching knowledge of the world of the development classes commented that, "The collection is undoubtedly the best in the country - bar none. There's about ten days left to keep it all together." Others have referred to the sale of the collection as being "the disposal of the most comprehensive collection of the boats in the UK". There have also been moves aimed at preserving the collection 'as is' for long enough for a proper and permanent home to be found for the boats. This task has not been made easy by some legalistic manipulation that has been going on behind the scenes that may yet scupper any plans, leaving the fate of the boats dependant on the fall of the auctioneer's electronic gavel.

The situation is further confused by the collection also including a large number of elderly ethnic boats from around the world that have little or no connection at all to the highly developed world of racing dinghies. Details of the collection and auction can be seen at but again, the fear is that with a hefty buyer's premium and VAT, none of the boats are going to be sold cheaply, further raising fears for the long term future.

But is this scattering of boats (or worryingly, even their ashes) to the winds what we should be doing, with respect to that wonderfully rich and diverse heritage that resides within dinghy sailing. It can hardly be the case that we cannot afford even the most basic of protection for the very beginnings of the sport that we all enjoy today. Without wishing to even risk the sound of sour grapes being picked, the UK Government found it easy enough to pump taxpayers' money into the behemoth that is the Land Rover BAR headquarters at Portsmouth. Yet talk to the people who hold the purse strings of the Heritage Lottery Fund and dinghy sailing is too middle aged, white and middle class (been there, tried that).

In a recent article on 'Where is the F in Fun', one of the observations made was on how the sport was splitting into two very diverse wings. On the one hand, the high tech very high value end of the top-end performance machines; at the other extreme the rotomoulded do anything and "maybe even race it a bit" boats. Is it really that case that when the top end of the market is currently awash with money, that just a fraction of a percentage point can't be set aside for us to preserve all the innovation and development that has gone before us? Because one thing is clear, and here we can look again at the near obscene amounts of money that are being ploughed into the AC boats. Wing sails? Done that courtesy of Austin Farrar some 60+ years ago? Foiling cats? James Grogono was doing that way before man went to the moon; maybe that was what was meant by the term 'summer of love'.

Maybe the young Oppie, Tera and Feva sailors of today, as they watch with awe the antics of the 49ers, Moths, Nacras and other fantastic speedster machines that they will no doubt aspire to, will not even think about how they came about. But our sport will be all the poorer if we lose any more of our heritage and if this upcoming sale gets the wrong result, then the hole in our history that this will create will be so big as to allow everything else to sail through to obscurity without us even noticing!

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