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70 years ago this week: The story of singlehanded sailing at the London 1948 Olympics

by Dougal Henshall 10 Aug 2018 15:00 BST 3-12 August 1948

For the last decade or so, A in our modern lexicon has stood for Austerity, but 70 years ago this month the UK was suffering under so severe a regime of austerity that just about everything in life was either unavailable or rationed. The war had finished three years earlier, but the demands of victory had left the country bled white and, though we were now at peace, some situations were getting even worse!

The previous year had seen the great freezing winter of 1947, that made the more recent 'beast from the east' seem like a chilly day! After the snow came the floods, coal shortages meant that the electricity was only on for 19 hours a day and industrial production slumped by 10%. Yet amazingly, in the midst of all of this, London was busy preparing to stage the first of the post-war Olympic Games.

Berlin in 1936 was the last of the pre-WWII games. The UK would take two medals home from the Olympic regatta at Kiel, with Gold in the 6 Metre Class (Christopher Boardman, Russell Harmer and Jack Martin) plus a Bronze in the O-Jolle class for (Sir) Peter Scott.

After Berlin in 1936, the 1940 Games were originally planned for Japan, but despite their openly 'buying' the Games, Tokyo would become the only nominated city to ever have the event taken away from them and in 1938 Helsinki steeped in to host the XII Olympiad. This was before the rapid spread of the war brought an end to these plans and it would not be until late 1944, when the defeat of Germany had become a question of when not if, that the idea of restarting the Games, as a way of healing the many global divides, took on a practical possibility. Many of the major US cities, that had grown rapidly on the back of the wartime industries laid claim to what would be the XIV Games, but it would be war torn London that would be given the honour of hosting the event.

However, London in 1948 was still pock-marked by bomb sites, with almost 15% of the housing stock damaged in some way. There were almost daily alarms caused by the discovery of unexploded bombs, whale meat and margarine were staple items of the diets and the closest most children got to a banana was a picture in a book.

The visiting athletes were encouraged to bring their own food (or, for the French, their own supplies of wine) and would sleep in Army barracks. Unlike the games of today, there would be no high-profile building projects; the stadiums and sports facilities that already existed would have to suffice. Yet despite everything, London 1948 would attract a record number of athletes from another record number of countries (though Germany and Japan were not on the invite list) whilst Russia was invited but declined to attend. Worse still, the shoestring budget was going to have to stretch even further, as amongst the 136 events required would be a full blown Olympic Regatta.

With London being the host city, the YRA (now the RYA) examined the options that were available to them as a regatta centre. When the Games had first come to the UK in 1908, the Yachting Olympics, raced in a variety of Metre boats, took place off the Isle of Wight and on the Clyde, but forty years later these were both passed by. Weymouth would have made a wonderful location, but the harbour was crammed full of Navy ships going through the process of being decommissioned. Despite the distance from London, the next best bet would be Torbay, well sheltered from any unseasonal strong south-westerlies and, as the official report concluded, was "free from strong tides and other navigational hazards".

Nor would the lack of available Army accommodation be a problem, as Torquay was blessed with a plentiful supply of holiday accommodation, with the famous seaside landladies surely keen to take in the visiting sailors as paying guests. There was a set rate of 15 shillings (75p) a day for bed and breakfast, packed lunches could be provided at cost! At every stage though the lack of money would complicate matters, with Torquay declaring that they couldn't afford an Olympic flame, as the Regatta Centre at Torre Abbey was not connected to the gas supply. A deal was done with the Torquay and Paignton Gas Company to provide bottled gas, but that meant an engineer would have to be on site 24 hours a day in case the supply ran low and the bottle needed changing. The engineers would not work alone, so that meant two men on night shift; who would pay the overtime? With a flame organised, 107 runners ran in a relay down the A303 (they may have made it past Stonehenge without delay, unlike today) and the 221 sailors, with some 600 'other' guests, assembled on the decks of the battleship HMS Anson, guardship for the pre-event drinks party. In these less enlightened days, the Royal Navy didn't have to worry about ladies onboard the battleship, as the YRA, IYRU and IOC had between them determined that this would be a male only competition.

This decision was just one that was made by the YRA that would impact significantly on the success of the British sailors. The leading Dragon in home waters was helmed by a Mrs Pritchard and though the boat qualified, the crew were told that they need to bring in a new, male helm, so instead they pulled out completely. In terms of classes for the event, the Dragon would be joined by the Star and the Swallow, with the Swallow being an all new British boat for the Games. The Star was also a late inclusion, after determined lobbying from the US saw it replacing the 15ft long Fairey Swordfish dinghy.

The big headache for the YRA had been in the selection of the Olympic singlehander, as there was nothing in the UK dinghy scene at that time that could be described as the obvious choice. At the 1936 Games in Berlin, racing had taken place in the Olympic mono-type, but as the roots of this narrow and heavy single hander lay firmly in Germany, this was considered as unsuitable for the 1948 regatta.

There were two single handers currently sailed in the UK; the International 12, which had done Olympic duty twice already in 1920 and 1928 but was not popular within the YRA, and the Brent One Design, aka the British Moth, which suffered by not being a strict one design.

It was felt that there was neither the time, nor the budget, to design and build a new purpose specific boat (a strange viewpoint given the development of the Swallow), when the problem was solved following the intervention of Sir Richard Fairey. Fairey, who was a successful yachtsman, was closely associated with Sir Ralph Gore, the President of the YRA and came up with the generous offer of a fleet of identical boats at a highly competitive price.

The only issue was that the boat was the 12ft long Fairey Firefly, which was a two-person boat. No problem said Fairey, as he pointed out that Charles Currey, who was by then working for him, was out sailing single handed in the Firefly in the windiest of conditions. Without any other practical alternatives, the deal was concluded, and the Firefly nominated as the Olympic single hander. News of the decision would create something of a storm of criticism in the yachting press, many of whom felt that the boat shouldn't be sailed without a crew out on an open water course.

The lack of available boats for practice and selection was solved thanks to the many similarities with the National 12, with many helms using the more established boat to sharpen up their skills in sailing a boat single handed with a jib. The Games organizers announced that extra fuel coupons would be made available on request to sailors, allowing them to travel to selection events that would be arranged at the major sailing venues all around the country. The Race Teams and Rescue Boats would also have to request extra fuel coupons just to be able to run the extra races. Looked at with hindsight, this first stage of the selection process gives an indication of how strong and widespread dinghy sailing had become in the UK, as each of the six regional qualifiers were packed with top class helms that would go on to become the mainstream stars of our sport – Vines and Holt from London, Goffe and Winter from the Midlands, Banks and Westell from the South West, Peter Scott (Bronze Medallist in Berlin) from the North West, Steavenson from the North East and from a monster entry in the South, Beale, Farrant, McDonald and Morris.

From an initial field of 170, the regional trials narrowed the fleet down to the best 24, who would then race in a further series of heats with the 'winner' then being chosen as the UK representative in the Firefly class. There was also the added complication that the YRA were running out of time, as with the start of the Games was now less than a month away, they still had to decide who would sail at the event. After four hard fought races in this final series, the picture was a little clearer, with the top 5 helms, Bruce Banks, Martin Beale, Arthur McDonald, Peter Scott and Alan Wilson then asked to stay on for yet another set of races.

This august group should have been six, not five, for the stand out Firefly sailor of the day was missing from all the selection events. Charles Currey, who had been sailing the Firefly longer than anyone and had perfected the art of sailing the boat single-handedly, had been denied a place at the Trials on the basis that he was not an amateur sailor. In his younger days, pre-war, Charles had been blessed with striking good looks, with ladies who knew him back then speaking of him looking like a throw back to the Norse gods; tall, sunburnt, blond hair and brilliant blue eyes. One of the grandees at the top of sailing clearly liked what he saw and made what can be best described as an 'improper proposal', which Charles may have rejected a little too robustly; whatever, his card was marked and with it his chance of competing.

The five who did sail were closely matched, but the stand out front runners were clearly Bruce Banks and Martin Beale. Both were hard driving front runners, with big fleet experience and who had that essential focus on winning, but they both lacked one unspoken but essential quality in that they were not obvious 'establishment' candidates. The stage was set for yet another somewhat bizarre approach to the Games, even more so as it came from the host country. Confident that he had done enough to secure the selection, Banks, racing under the burgee of Exe SC, sailed his closest competitor, Martin Beale out of contention, but in doing so allowed Arthur MacDonald to close up on them. It cannot be denied that McDonald was a very good sailor, who had delivered consistent results and who would be described as 'imperturbable of temperament, experienced, with considerable fitness and hard to beat in any weather', plus he was very attractive to the ruling elite in that he was an Air Vice-Marshall. Yet for all of this he did not have the beating of either Banks or Beale, but would nevertheless get the nod from the selectors, to the bitter disappointment of Bruce Banks, who felt personally betrayed by the 'system'.

Later in life McDonald would talk of his surprise at his selection, which he was determined to take in his stride. He did not do any more sailing or preparation and instead stayed on at his desk at the RAF Staff College at Andover until the day before his departure for Torquay. Meanwhile, at their factory on the banks of the Hamble River, Fairey's had completed 30 identical Firefly hulls at £112 per hull plus £16 for the sails, with the only luxury being the inclusion of a galvanised bucket for bailing.

The boats were launched into the river, then towed across the Solent to Cowes, where an Army Tank Landing Craft was waiting with its front loading doors open. Another problem then became apparent, as though the order had specified the boats but there was no mention of launching trolleys.

This meant that the Fireflys had to be manhandled aboard for transport down Channel to Torquay, then manhandled again to get them ashore. Lots were drawn that apportioned boats to sailors, with some customization of fittings allowed, but nothing more in the way of modification. The representative from Denmark, the very young Paul Elvstrom, would be one who would take the opportunity to add some extra fittings, including a cleat for his mainsheet. The validity of this was questioned by some of the other sailors, but it had been agreed with the event organizers so was waved through.

The boats were in place, the sailors ready and with the arrival of the Olympic flame, Arthur McDonald took the Olympic Oath on behalf of the competitors, before declaring the Games to be open. Despite the austerity, Torquay did its best to put on a great event and for the duration of the Games, the coloured lights that decorated the seafront were switched on, giving Torquay the honour of being the first seaside town to be so illuminated since before the war.

One group who were absent were the BBC film crews, though they were very much in evidence at the London venues. It is a popular misconception that the Berlin Games were the first to be televised, and whilst they were filmed, the broadcasts went out over a closed cable loop with only local dignitaries and senior party members being able to watch. However, London was televised and broadcast to the airwaves with the BBC paying the unheard-of sum of £1,000 for the TV rights!

If there is a phrase from that summer 70 years ago that we still enjoy now, it would have to be that "the weather isn't normally like this" as late July in 1947 was unseasonably cool and damp, with the wind being offshore and very unsettled. The racing area for each of the fleets would be a large circle of laid marks, with the start in the middle. The nominated windward mark would be identified by the Navy by use of a smoke float, with the rest of the course taking the shape of a triangle, followed by a sausage.

The local Sea Scout Troup for Torquay were brought in to help with launching and recovery, as each boat had to be lifted on and off one of the two launching trollies that had been fabricated locally. Eventually, the Firefly fleet were all afloat and Race 1 could get underway, with some of the wind-shifts causing problems for the packed mid-fleet sailors, many of whom were still getting used to sailing the Firefly single handed.

It is probably of little surprise for an Olympic Regatta that the first heat was plagued with Protests, some of which focused on Arthur McDonald for not displaying his own protest flag correctly. McDonald was just one of a number of sailors who would have a poor opening day, none more so than the inexperienced Paul Elvstrom, who after being shouted at by another competitor promptly retired from the race. McDonald would suffer an even greater ignominy by being late for the start. No such problems affected the American helm Ralph Evans, who with Koos De Jong from the Netherlands and Sweden's Rickard Sarby looked from the start to be the strong pace setters. There would then be an early break in the racing as a summer storm lashed the Devon coast. McDonald, worried about a lack of boatspeed, was one helm who checked his centreboard, only to find that the metal foil was already corroded and pitted. He sought permission to polish and fair his centreboard from the Event Committee, but when they checked the other boats, all the centreboards were found to be in the same condition, so the decision was taken that they could all stay as they were!

Even though the conditions had moderated, those who had warned of the problems of sailing the Firefly single handed in open water now saw some of their fears being justified, as capsizes were not just commonplace but with only the most rudimentary buoyancy, difficult to recover from despite the capacity of the galvanised buckets. As with any major regatta, being consistent would be key, yet all the leading helms soon had one high score to discard. By mid-way through the scheduled seven races, Evans was looking good, along with Koos de Jong, Sarby and Canada's Paul McLaughlin, while Arthur McDonald had enjoyed two good races, scoring a 3rd and 4th, but also two howlers with a 10th and 18th. Sarby would then pick up a DSQ result, with McLaughlin following him in a similar way in the next race – these two results helping to determine the final make-up of the podium.

With Evans winning the fifth race, he now looked a strong favourite for the Gold Medal with just the two final races to go. The breeze was building though, which would bring to the fore the youthful strength and reactions of Paul Elvstrom. He was though giving away a lot of weight in the stronger winds, for at only 72kg he was at least 10kg lighter than the other leading helms. On the penultimate day, reading the shifts would be crucial, but Elvstrom made a classic pin end start, then tacked on the first shift and crossed the fleet. Seeming to have both height and boatspeed, Elvstrom nearly blew it by concentrating more on the boats behind than on sailing his own race, but he held on to take the win and with France's Jean-Jacques Herbulot (who would go on to greater things such as designing the very popular Vaurien dinghy) taking second, pushing De Jong back into third and Evans into 5th, there would now be five boats fighting on the final day for the three medals.

Once again, the weather would have a say in determining the outcome of the event, as the final day saw a strong and gusty north westerly ripping across Torbay. Elvstrom put four reefs in his main and was prepared to sail the upwind legs without using his jib. One of the issues for the Fireflys was that once the main was reefed, you couldn't reconnect the kicking strap, but Charles Currey, who was on site for the Regatta, illegally showed McDonald how it could be done by cutting through the layers of sailcloth to expose the take off for the kicker.

The wind was such that one boat was dismasted before racing even started, whilst others were either capsized or waterlogged. The front runners though were all pressing for the victory, with the heavyweights still carrying full main and jib and however hard it made the beats, the added sail area certainly made the difference on the offwind legs, with Sarby and de Jong contesting the lead. As the race progressed the conditions worsened further, at which point Sarby capsized. On the last beat Koos de Jong, who was surely sailing towards a Gold Medal, got a tack wrong and though he saved the capsize, his boat was full of water.

Elvstrom, had been sailing conservatively, stopping to hoist the jib for the offwind legs, then sailing the beats under reefed main, seized the opportunity by sailing further inshore into smoother waters and in doing so, passed the busily bailing De Jong. His second win was enough for the Gold Medal and a place in dinghy sailing history, whilst Evans, by finishing 5th in the last race, was assured of the Silver. Koos de Jong was the man to feel sorry for, as although he was able to bail the worst of the water out and still finish the race 2nd, this would only give him the Bronze, rather than the Gold he so nearly won (this was under the old Olympic scoring system).

Sarby also recovered from his capsize to take the 'best of the rest' place at fourth overall. It was an ignominious last day for Arthur McDonald, as after having seen some of the other boats flying full sail, he shook out the reefs in his main, only to find that he could no longer control the boat, leading to a capsize. It is to his credit that he recovered, bailed out and set off in pursuit of the fleet, but before restarting he again reefed, but was unable to line up the tears in the sailcloth that would allow him to reconnect his kicker. On the wild dead run, he got caught by a gust, the boom lifted skywards destabilizing the boat and forcing another capsize. Exhausted, McDonald would be forced to retire, leaving him in ninth place overall.

With the regatta over, the lights on the promenade were switched off again and the fleet of Firefly dinghies 'sold as seen' from the beach at Torquay. Many went to colleges, which helped the class gain a vital acceptance with that sector of the British sailing scene; Elvstrom's boat went to Bangor College, where it gave years of service before being given a Viking funeral. Whilst the London Olympics may have turned in a hard-won profit of £30,000, of which the taxman took a third, Torquay were not so lucky and ended up with a loss on the event of £9,500.

Today we would see Torquay as a great opportunity wasted, for Great Britain won just one medal, with Stewart Morris and David Bond taking Gold in the Swallow. The fourth place in the Dragons could easily have been a medal had Mrs. Pritchard raced, we were also fourth in the Stars and fifth in the 6 Metre. But is defies all logic to think that had Charles Currey raced, or even Bruce Banks, that we wouldn't have had a medal in the single-handed dinghy as well, a result that might well have had far further repercussions in the world of dinghy racing.

In many ways, this ought to be the end of the story of the single-handed dinghy at Torquay, but it cannot be so, because the events out on the waters of Torbay would end up influencing the nature of our sport right through to today. Rickard Sarby had seen at first had the problems when you compromise on the choice of boat for an event and with the next Games scheduled for Helsinki in 1952, he entered his own design into a competition for a new single-handed dinghy to be raced at the regatta. A second phase of the competition called for the boat to be built and raced and here Sarby almost came unstuck again as an electric saw lopped of part of one of his fingers. But the boat was completed and after winning the Trials was christened the Finn, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Meanwhile, Paul Elvstrom would go on to dominate dinghy racing at the Olympics, adding three more Gold Medals in the Finn to the one he took at Torquay. His physical domination of the Olympic single-handed scene did not sit easily with the upper echelons of the IYRU and in the mid-1960s it was felt that a new approach to single handed sailing was needed.

This culminated in the three sets of trials that would be run in 1965, 1967 and 1968 that would eventually see the Contender chosen as the heir apparent to the Finn, only for the established boat to fight a successful rear-guard action to preserve its Olympic status and once again, the rest, as they say, is history.

The performance single hander trials would see lots of new innovations on display, with a number of lightweight boats that were very different to the heavyweight Finn. Sleeve luff mainsails were in use, wings were fitted to hulls and new materials explored. One observer of all this, who would later form part of the Committee set up to launch the Contender onto the world market was one Bruce Kirby, who saw how it should -and shouldn't be done... and yes, the rest, as they say, is history!

But as the insightful saying goes, "If you do not learn the lessons of history, then you are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past". As World Sailing once again look at the equipment to be used at the Olympics, one can but wonder if those lessons, from Torquay in 1948 through to today, have indeed been learned.

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