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Every Nimbus cloud has a silver lining

by David Henshall 2 Oct 2018 12:00 BST
International 14 'Nimbus' - Reducing clutter and weight in the hull took place in the late 1940s, as John Westell made the boat competitive again © David Henshall

One of the more interesting side stories to come out of last season featured the disposal by auction of the Andrew Thornhill collection of classic sailing dinghies. Going under the hammer were wide ranging examples of our dinghy sailing heritage, from Enterprise Number 1, through Moths, Minisails to some very rare beasts indeed. But the real gems tended to be in the development classes and although Merlin Rockets were there a plenty, the boats that really caught the eye were the International 14s, for here there were several truly iconic, trophy winning dinghies.

Here at Yachtsandyachting.com this event was covered with the July article Sailing History for sale, where we looked in a bit more detail at our apparent indifference to the preservation of our sailing heritage. It was a question that had to be asked! At a time when the sport of dinghy sailing seems to be afloat on a rising tide of money, how sad it is that nothing could be spared to ensure that the best boats in the collection could not be saved for our benefit here in the UK. The warnings about the break-up of this collection were well founded, as it seems that a fair number of the exhibits were snapped up by a new museum that will be focused on small boats – in China!

Luckily though, there are some here in the UK who have the vision, the love of these boats and yes, it must be said, the wherewithal to fund their interests, who are prepared to step up to the task of ensuring that not only are boats saved but are then restored to their former glory. Rather than just spending the future as an exhibit in a museum, there can be no better place for a dinghy with a proud racing heritage than out afloat. Of course, it helps if there is a strong emotional link to a particular boat and the forum pages of class association websites are full of requests from sailors asking is anyone knows the whereabouts of boats numbered 1234X.

This was indeed the case for one of the boats in the Thornhill collection that may well have ended up heading East. The dinghy in question was Nimbus, a 1932/3 Uffa Fox International 14 that had enjoyed a long and successful racing career before ending up in more recent years almost dumped in storage. Although a pre-war Fox design, Nimbus would go on to enjoy a second life afloat in the late 1940s when she was purchased by none other than John Westell, who would later go on to design the 5o5. John was a keen dinghy sailor and had spent some of his time in Ceylon during his military service sailing a version of a Sharpie.

As a keen innovator and with his own ideas on design (see our article The Fourth Wise Man) John had drawn up the lines for a 14 that he intended to build, but in these post war years of austerity, he was unable to get the materials needed to construct the hull. Instead, he chanced upon, then bought Nimbus, which he then set about upgrading. To reduce the weight, he removed much of the structure Fox had built in around the mast gate, replacing it with a lighter, yet stronger system of his own design. At the same time, an area of damage around the front of the plate case was removed and repaired, with a mahogany table top being sacrificed for the right piece of wood that closely matched the rest of the case. Nimbus would also incorporate many of John's technical innovations, for he was always searching for better solutions to the questions being thrown up by the pace of dinghy development.

Sadly, for such a proud boat, the passage of time had not been kind, as later neglect and inconsiderate storage had left the hull in a poor state. Several colonies of woodworm had made their home in the gunwales, some 60 of the Canadian Rock Elm ribs were fractured and the hull itself was not only soft was had been allowed to sag out of shape. All this was about to change though, as John Westell's daughter Gillian was one of those rare enlightened souls who not only cared about the heritage of the boat, but was prepared to step up to the task of doing something about it.

With the help of Andrew Dron, who lived close by the site where the boats were stored, an assessment was made that with careful work, Nimbus could indeed be saved. It might sound trite to say that the easy part came next, but with the interest in these boats from abroad, there was still the task of ensuring that Nimbus was successfully bought in the auction, which would then allow the real work to start. Gillian was clear in her mind that while she wanted the boat to be returned to it's former glory, she was adamant that the work should be done in a manner that would be sympathetic to how the boat would have been back in the days when her father was racing it. The choice of the boatbuilder for this task would be the crucial element of success and once Gillian had been introduced to Simon Hipkin at his Clacton workshop, work to restore Nimbus was soon well under way.

Simon's first task was to stabilize the hull shape and having worked out what the boat would have originally looked like, he made a set of jigs that the hull could nestle in to. The distorted hull areas were then carefully weighted, gently bringing them back to the original shape. The slow task of repairing the damaged ribs could then be started, with this job being complicated but the lack of the original wood, as Canadian Rock Elm is no longer available, instead Simon would use ash for this task.

The wood worms were then evicted, as the gunwales were removed and replaced, along with a new breasthook, thwart and centreboard strut. Simon was lucky to be able to obtain an old shop counter that dated from Edwardian times, with the mahogany being used to make new floorboards and a part replacement of the transom. Then the laborious task of sanding down and varnishing could start, whilst the attention could now turn to the rig, where nothing of the original set up remained. 1930s vintage International 14 rigs were nothing if not a complex set up of rigging, so Simon arranged for the basic spar to be produced by Collars.

Working from pictures and original drawings, Simon and his helpers then faithfully reproduced the fitted-out mast and boom, thought the two halyard winches set in the mast heel came from the broken mast of another old classic 14. With the work that went into the rig for Nimbus, Simon developed the patterns and techniques that will hopefully allow them to work on other rigs for dinghies of this era that are being restored.

With the mast complete, sailmaker Mike McNamara set out to produce a set of sails using more modern sailcloth than the original cotton, yet would still 'look' the part and set well, which again was no easy task. As with any such detailed restoration, the devil is in the fine detail and a lot more work would go into Nimbus, but then the happy day would dawn when she could be relaunched. Her first home, some 75 years ago, had been on Oulton Broad so it was only fitting that she would again be welcomed by Waveney & Oulton Broad Yacht Club for her re-introduction to the water. For such an auspicious occasion, the weather was superb for late September, with warm sunshine and the light breezes that were so essential for this first test sail.

Nimbus didn't only look superb but behaved beautifully out afloat and apart from a couple of very minor 'tweaks' is now ready for a more serious test out on the water.

But the best moment of all had to be when Gillian Westell, whose vision and commitment had made the whole project viable, stepped aboard to sail in her father's old boat. She was absolutely delighted with the finished project and is already looking forward to being aboard Nimbus in the company of other similar boats next season.

Having been on the helm for the launching and for Gillian's first sail in her boat, my initial observations were obviously coloured by the quality of the restoration. The boat looked beautiful and was from the outset very well balanced, being very light on the helm. The hull form is interesting, with the most obvious feature being the marked 'tumblehome' in the aft topsides, a feature that would soon disappear from the dinghy design catalogue! Once sailing though, you very quickly became aware of how the fullness in the hull area under the mast was extended right forward to the bow.

It was almost as if designer Uffa Fox had intended emphasising this feature (remember that Nimbus was drawn up only a handful of years after the iconic planing Avenger) and while this didn't impact on the sailing at Oulton Broad, I could imagine that it would make sailing the boat in breeze and a seaway very interesting indeed. Upwind would be testing, whilst heading downwind I can well imagine that the boat could easily roll on the pronounced bilge....we shall see, though I would not want to capsize Nimbus and right it...even less.

The great thing about this whole project is not just that such a part of our sailing heritage has been saved, but it has been preserved in a manner that will allow the boat to go back from whence it came – out afloat on a race course.

Gillian Westell wanted to extend her thanks to all those involved in the Nimbus Project, and to the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club who looked after her so well, even to the point of granting her access to one of the many trophies that Nimbus had won back in the day.

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