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And now for something completely different - The International Moth story

by David Henshall 7 Mar 09:00 GMT
The International Moth - The smallest boat but the biggest story! © David Henshall

Over the last year or so, there have been a couple of key themes that have kept reoccurring in the articles that I have written for you. One is the fascinating topic of innovation and how it has driven - and been driven by - dinghy development. The other topic must be how so much of an essential ingredient in small boat sailing, the fun factor, has been sucked out of the sport and discarded along the way. Sadly, it can be seen that classes that are rich in innovation yet are populated by people having fun in their sailing are few and far between; the UK's bigger and most high-tech development classes are either becoming prohibitively expensive or are increasingly turning their back on that spirit of innovation, trending instead towards a more one-design ethos.

There are far more of these qualities to see in the smaller development classes, with the National 12 and Cherub being great examples of boats that are both accessible, lots of fun, and are still receptive to new ideas. But there is one boat that stands out above all others, both in terms of the fun to be enjoyed and in terms of development, and this just has to be the International Moth. From the very first days of this amazing boat, more than 90 years ago, the emphasis has been on making the most of a minimalistic set of rules, with this 'do whatever you like' approach being a magnet for fun-seeking sailors who were also innovative thinkers.

If there is one other aspect of the Moth that marks it out as somewhat different to the other classes, then it must be because the boat evolved in different ways in different locations to maximise performance in a specific set of conditions. This individualistic approach harks right back to the very birth of the class, which occurred in the late 1920s in two very dissimilar locations. The very first boat was a very simple, hard chine box hulled scow, just 11ft long, but in the breezy conditions enjoyed at Inverloch, some 90 miles from Melbourne, the Olive sparkled in comparison to the other boats of the day.

Builder Len Morris soon sold the Olive to fund the building of an improved version and before long, the 'open rules' approach saw a number of other similar boats constructed. Meanwhile, far away on the eastern seaboard of the USA, a low freeboard skimming hull was becoming popular, with it's minimalist construction making it more akin to one of the sailing 'beach boats' that would later become popular in the immediate pre-Laser days.

The popularity of the US boats attracted the interest of a keen dinghy designer, William Crosby, who also happened to be the editor of the 'Rudder', a popular sailing magazine of the day. Not only did Crosby produce his own designs (he would soon go on to design the globally successful Snipe), but he featured this single-hander, which was now known as the National Moth, in the magazine. When the Australians read the magazine, they could see the similarities and liked the title of the boat and in these days before easy global travel, made light of the differences between the two groups.

The class that had started with the Olive, the Inverloch 11ft, would henceforth also be known as the Moth. Meanwhile, the US Moth had migrated its way across the Atlantic and had started to populate both the UK and Europe. In the UK the boat was initially sailed in locations such as the lake in Regent's Park, but the handling characteristics of these first generation Moths left something to be desired. The boats were slow upwind, though helms found them quick enough offwind whilst they were upright, only for the Moths to show a marked propensity to capsize without any real warning.

As Central London became more high-rise, the UK helms would want both a better boat and a more sailing-friendly location, so they asked Sidney Cheverton to come up with a better design and following the move north out to the Brent Reservoir (which is now the Welsh Harp) the first 'spin-off' from the International Moth would initially become the Brent One-Design, before finally settling down as the British Moth. It is an interesting aside that in the very earliest forms of handicap systems, that the British Moth was rated as faster than the existing International Moths.

At the same time, across in Europe, the International Moth was soon picked up in France, where they would also develop their own take on the concept of the small, lightweight single-hander. This was, after all, a time when - as a genre - singlehanded sailing was considered the lesser option when compared with two person boats. The few examples of singlehanders that did exist were big and heavy, essentially a two person boat sailed one up. In the mid-1930s, most Moths would have looked like conventional boats of the day, only smaller, though what they lacked in size they made up for in numbers, with the IYRU (now World Sailing) granting the class International status in 1935.

Along with most other small boat sailing, the development and spread of the Moth would then take a six year break before exploding back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The arrival of cheaply-available plywood sheeting helped the International Moth to really take wing as a class, although there were still big variations in how the various countries viewed the criteria of what defined a Moth. Meanwhile, down on the South Coast of England at Lymington, an incredible character called Tony Hibbert had started a sailing club that would be run by young people for the benefit of young people, with the boat of choice originally being the British Moth, though increasingly these would be supplanted by International Moths. As Hibbert's involvement in the affairs of the International Moth grew, he could see that the long term future for the Class would be best served by bringing all the disparate versions of the boat together under one unified set of rules.

In these pre-globalization days, doing anything on a world-wide basis was still far from easy, so Hibbert's vision would take longer to realise, which for now would leave the Moth to continue to develop along numerous national, but parallel paths.

One result of this would be that the Australian Moth scene would be dominated by the scows, known affectionally as 'kitchen doors' for their rectangular, almost slab like appearance, whilst the French would lead the way for much of mainland Europe by following a trend of lower wetted area hulls that would soon become the first 'radical' boats. The UK was still heavily reliant on imported boats, mainly from the US, but with hulls that were heavy for an 11ft dinghy, with a small sail area, and they were still slow boats (the next set of PY figures position the Moth as being similar in speed to an RS Feva) though British designers were starting to exert an influence on Moth hull shapes.

One example that shows just how the Moth was developing can be seen in the way that 505 designer John Westell was asked to produce a Moth-sized version of the 'Five-O', which he did, and by all accounts the finished boats (a number were made to the design) performed well. Another Brit that would make his mark in the Moth was Fireball designer Peter Milne, who would be developing a successful scow for the Australian market.

This though was not the only hull development that took place in the class, as another would bring about an addition to the otherwise simple rules covering the hull form. Another innovative sailor produced a lightweight 11ft long catamaran, which though quick, was clearly not a direction that the class wanted to follow. The matter was easily solved by the adoption of a limit in the hollows in the underwater sections of the hull which would prevent the moth from becoming a 'mini-multihull' yet would still allow 75mm of curvature in the bottom panel to the 'kitchen door' scows that were so popular down under.

This aside, the rules of the Moth remained delightfully simple. The hull had to be no more than 11ft long (this was pre-decimal days); a maximum beam of 7ft 4in; the mast could be no longer than 16ft 6in on which was set a measured 67.5 sq ft of sail and just four battens. There was nothing in the way of a minimum weight, nor a rise of floor nor any of the other usual rules found in the development classes. The result of these few rules was that the Moth would benefit from an influx of new thinkers, mainly young sailors who had yet to be blinkered by the more restrictive rules found elsewhere.

You didn't have to be young to sail a Moth but being young at heart was a distinct advantage. There was a lot of 'amateur angst' around the fleet, with boats that had been either built or modified turning up at events without any fittings and in some cases, with the GRP resin still tacky. None of this seemed to matter as everyone would rally around, screw cleats on, sort out rigs and generally all muck in together, as everyone knew it might well be their turn come the next event!

Of course, not everyone wanted to be constantly re-inventing the boats that they sailed, with the Roland-designed Europe becoming another offshoot of the International Moth that would break away to form their own one-design fleet. For those who did like to experiment the International Moth would be the perfect outlet for their talents, as an idea could be turned into reality with just a few sheets of lightweight ply, a rig and some fittings. If it worked, then the design could be developed further, if it didn't, it could be discarded with another design soon taking its place.

For those who preferred to work from plans for a known performer, the designs of New Zealand sailor John Shelley would open the Moth up to even more sailors. Drawing on lines from an existing bigger boat, the Shelley 1 would soon become an excellent all-rounder that went as well in the lighter airs as it did in the stronger conditions.

It was not the best at either end of the wind range, as these places were taken by more specialised hulls, but as a boat that would help popularise the Class, the Shelley was a great advert for Moth sailing. With its simple hard chine hull, the Shelley was not beyond the capabilities of a competent home builder, but in something of a rare move for the Moths, they were also available as a beautifully built boat from Isle of Wight boatbuilder Bill McCutcheon, which not unlike the Merlin Rockets of the day, were seen as almost works of art.

If you could be guaranteed wind, then the Australian boats with their hollowed 'tunnel scow' full form were blisteringly quick, whilst if you sailed in predominantly light airs, then the French designs of Benoit Duflos with their near semi-circular hull shape which gave them a low wetted area were all but unbeatable. Duflos had managed to distort a play sheet into a conical section, which gave the hull a fine entry forward yet flared out to create the required buoyancy. A measure of the dominant success of these French boats was seen in 1968, when by winning the World Championships Marie Faroux would become the first lady to ever take the title in a recognised international class.

Her achievement was even more remarkable given that the International Moth was now truly a global phenomenon, as Tony Hibbert's tireless work aimed at harmonizing the rules had finally brought all the various countries together. Nor was the result only gained in light airs, as the event also had its 'Mistral moments' when there was probably too much wind for comfortable sailing, and in these conditions no one would describe the Duflos, which had little in the way of lateral stability, as comfortable.

Yet despite those who found the Duflos a very tricky boat to sail in any breeze and waves, there were those who somehow would master the skills, with UK Moth builder John Claridge telling of competing in a very windy race, when Marie's brother, Jacques Faroux sailed his boat sat almost on the transom to go very quickly yet stay upright.

This concept of 'going quickly' was still only relative, for as the swinging sixties came to an end, the PY for an International Moth had only increased to a position somewhere between a Firefly and a Bosun. Hull designs were evolving rapidly, with some following the Merlin Rocket and National 12 by going flatter and beamier, whilst others were going narrower.

Out on the German lakes, some designs took the Duflos hull concept to the extreme, with a hull form that was little more than a pointed tube, hence their nickname 'cigar boats'. Like the cigar boats, some of the ideas seen in the fleet would border on the bizarre, such as the square-rigged, double-ended proa Moth, where you tacked by going from bow to stern (which then became the new bow); thankfully this was just one more experiment that would fall into the heroic failure category. More mainstream would be the decision made by Rondar Boats to produce an easily accessible all-GRP boat, the Skol.

With its deeply dished hull, the Skol was a good all-rounder and with the benefit of being offered as a turnkey solution, would help introduce even more people into the cheerful world of International Moth sailing. Mention must also be made of another similar project, which would kick start International Moth sailing out in Japan. Helped by some sponsorship from a famous soft drink maker (a clue here: "things go better with...") a fleet of identical Peter Milne scows were constructed, complete with multi-coloured sails in the corporate red and white livery. Organisationally, the work of Tony Hibbert was now bringing the disparate Moth formats ever closer together, which would see a couple of the antipodean ideas adopted on UK and European Moths. The Australians had been sailing with a higher aspect rig, using a 20ft 5in mast and a fully battened 85 sq ft of sail. With the extra power they could get from this set up, helms had started to add on small hiking racks to get their weight further outboard.

The International Moths have never been a class to do things by halves, which saw the small racks rapidly grow wider until the maximum beam was reached. This prompted something of a debate amongst the Class as to the legality of these developments, with some choosing to build on solid wings that were essentially a part of the hull, whilst others used racks that were bolted or tied to the hull but could be removed.

Once the use of racks or wings (wings didn't last that long) had become an accepted part of the Moth, hull forms could start to become narrower. But it would be Mervyn Cook and John Claridge who would move the class forward by experimenting with a simple idea about how the hull would float in static form. Until then, the established hull forms, which carried a reasonable degree of rocker, would float with the bow and stern above the waterline. Cook and Claridge took out much of the rocker, which left the ends immersed, but meant that a slimmer hull could be developed for the same amount of buoyancy. As soon as the boat started sailing, the hull form would develop sufficient lift to enable planing to start earlier and to allow for higher hull speeds. The design concept was backed up by Claridge's clever boat building skills, which saw him 'torturing' 3mm ply into a shape that was both radical and light.

From the outset the Magnums were far quicker than the existing Moths and once helms had mastered the knack of getting them downwind in anything of a breeze, the new boats would soon start to dominate the class. With each new version the Magnum hulls would get narrower, though some would develop pronounced flair into the topsides forward at deck level to help minimize the risks of 'going down the mine'.

In 1979, the Magnum 3 would come to the fore in the hands of David Izatt with a World Championship title win at Travemünde in Germany, but at the time this was considered something of a one-off, as the following year the event would be held down in New Zealand where the prevailing windy conditions would favour the Australian scows. However, instead of been blown away by the locals in their 'kitchen doors', Izatt would win again, then make it three in a row for the Magnum the following year. Scows would still be a feature of the class for a while longer, as the following year after David Izatt's three wins, Greg Hilton would take the title back for Australia in a scow, but this would be their last hurrah, as the next variants of the Magnum continued their domination.

Back in the UK, the International Moths were now causing event organisers some big headaches, as their performance was racing ahead of the PY system's ability to keep up with their progress. Certainly, in the right conditions a Moth was capable of reaching quite extraordinary hull speeds, with handicap-based events like the Bloody Mary and other major winter one-offs being taken by the Class. In one very windy race, a well sailed Moth overtook a Fireball on a reach and was pacing the leading 505 until an even bigger gust brought about a sudden and destructive end to the contest!

As the saying goes, "it's an ill wind that blows no good," which was very true down on the UK's south coast, where a winter storm had brought a tree down into the dinghy park at Weston Sailing Club. One of the casualties was a Unicorn cat that had the aft end of one hull crushed beyond repair. Two of the Moth sailors there, Clive Everest and Ian Ridge, saw an opportunity to try something different and, by saving the intact front portion of the cat hull, they cut away the damaged rear to leave an 11ft long but very narrow Moth hull. They built a transom in, bolted on some fittings, stuck a rig on and went sailing... and it worked, or at least it did once the pair remembered that the rudder gantry, consisting of two 50mm tubes, needed to be blocked off to prevent the hull from filling up.

The Unicorn-Moth was hardly the end goal, but it did prove the point that an extremely narrow boat could, with practice, be sailed. It is worth noting however that there is a reasonably held consensus of opinion that these narrow Moths, rigged with an alloy mast, were just about the hardest boats there were to sail; with later refinements life would get a lot easier. Even for those who could sail these boats under normal conditions, once the breeze was up, they became a very tricky proposition indeed. One idea aimed at saving a swim was to put small winglets on the bow, so that as the hull was depressed into the water, it would force the bow back up again. This was fine until you really blitzed it into the back of a wave at speed, for at this point the winglets could work against you, forcing the bow downwards and flipping the boat into a pitchpole capsize.

From the very earliest of days, there had been several core issues at the heart of the Moth story: highly localised development and what could best be described as 'ride stability'. These two factors would next come together in a series of moves that would ultimately help shape the International Moth into the boat it is today. The Magnum development was taking place at Lymington, which is on the north west coastline of the Solent, where much of the racing involves heading in or out of the river. Once clear of the harbour mouth and outside in the open water, the sweep of Hurst Spit provides considerable protection from the prevailing South Westerlies that blow in between the Island and mainland. However, within sight of the 'Jack in the Basket' (the pile mark at the entrance to the river) but over on the Island shore at Gurnard, the conditions were markedly different. Here, those same south westerly winds funnel up the Solent and when they meet the ebb tide curling around the top of the Isle of Wight, the resulting conditions can be testing indeed.

The problems of Moth sailing at Gurnard would prompt local Moth sailor, Andy Paterson, who was another forward thinking and innovative thinker, into addressing the issue of getting his Magnum downwind in waves.

He started by taking some of the buoyancy out of the aft sections of the boat, but soon moved on to building boats to his own designs, which saw him taking even more fullness out of the hull shape. Not only was the shape of the International Moth changing, but the hull construction was now starting to move away from tortured ply to into carbon fibre and before long the Moth would be amongst the first boats to sport an all-carbon set up of rig, foils and hull.

Andy Paterson's Axeman design would prove very quick, but when at full speed, Andy was aware that the boats would leave a marked 'rooster tail' from the transom, which he set about addressing with a small set of wings attached to the hull aft. It was a small step for the Moths to move these wings away from the hull and mount them instead on the rudder, with the idea finally morphing into the well-established T-foil of today.

By now though International Moth hulls were reaching the limit of what would be classed as 'conventional' development, with the boats carrying almost zero rocker on a hull form that was little more than a hard chined box section. One boat that would hit this 'carbon fibre ceiling' would be the radical Magnum 10 with its canoe-shaped hull made out of polystyrene, Kevlar and carbon fibre. After coming second in the UK Nationals in the boat, top helm Roger Angell took his Magnum 10 all the way out to Japan to compete in the World Championships, only for the boat to not perform at the event, which then compromised the plan to sell the boat out there. As the story goes, with no interest from potential buyers and the realisation that the '10' was more likely to be recorded on the heroic failure list than as a Championship winner, the hull ended up dumped at the skip in the sailing club!

One idea that would have moved things even further towards the extreme was to have a hull shaped like a streamlined torpedo, which would be sailed with this hull fully immersed. With only enough buoyancy in this to support the weight of the helm and rig, those who studied hydro-dynamics believed that this would be an even quicker solution to the conventional hull form. In the end though International Moths would develop in another direction completely.

A foiling dinghy was far from new as a concept, with designers as far back as the 1950s proposing foiling multihulls. At the time it was thought that the only boats with the required power-to-weight ratio to achieve the act of getting airborne would be the more extreme catamarans, but that was before the carbon fibre Moth reached full development.

Just as with the initial birth of the class, this next step would take place in two locations at once. Over in Australia experiments were taking place aimed at getting a Moth to foil successfully (it has been done years some years earlier, but the weight of the boat and the very basic design of the foils meant that it was not a race practical solution). Meanwhile, in the UK, exciting things were again happening at Weston, with the same two innovators, Clive Everest and Ian Ridge, again leading the way. Ian had been making some winged keels for a tank testing experiment and in what would be a ground-shaking evening at the King and Queen pub in Hamble (a known haunt for Moth sailors), there was some interesting discussion about fitting one of the winged keels to Ian's honeycomb-built Aero Moth. This was done, though the weather decided to delay matters by serving up a morning of light breezes. Just to confirm the validity of the idea, Ian in his Moth was towed behind the club rib and even before the rescue boat was up onto the plane, the Moth was clearly starting to foil.

Luckily, a sea breeze then filled in and under sail power alone, foiling was achieved, though with the only lift coming from the keel wings, stability was again a serious issue. However, as an exercise in establishing the principles of a foiling Moth, this was a huge step forward. The idea would kick around for some time, with other innovators trying a number of different formats. At this point, the foils were effectively passive, in that there was little in the way of attitude control. As a consequence, Moths could get up onto the foils and accelerate away, only to suffer shortly afterwards from a high speed wipe out.

The answer to this was to have extra foils in a tripod configuration, using the hiking racks as a take off point for the foils. Like three-wheeler cars, the sensible view seemed to suggest that the best option was to go for 'two in the front, one at the back', though Andy Paterson would defy convention, by going the other way about, with a diamond shaped bow foil, then two lift foils aft. Either way, the boats started to foil more successfully and were able to start showing their worth in races.

Their success would now force the Moth Association to act, for until now they had wisely followed a path of waiting to see if foiling would make the leap from an interesting but impractical idea, into a new path of development that could take the boat into uncharted territory. Luckily there were some precedents from the past that could be followed, including the banning of multihulled Moths. Taking this as a starting point, a clever compromise was reached, which would allow foils to be fitted to a hull, but they would have to be positioned along the centreline, exiting the hull below the waterline. It would be Andy Paterson who would respond to this, with a bow-mounted foil to compliment his T-foil rudder, but this was still a passive system. It would not be until the new millennium that a group of Australian sailors based around Perth came up with the idea for the bow-mounted wand that would actively control the main foils that were now a part of the centreboard. Even when the first really practical foilers knew what they had to do, there would still be a very steep learning curve in perfecting the wand mechanism and then learning how to sail the boat.

Australian Rohan Veal must take a lot of the credit for what happened next, as he worked to perfect his boat and his own sailing skills. In a direct contrast to normal dinghy sailing lore, where to sail fast you sail upright, Veal showed that when foiling it paid to sail the boat with the rig heeled markedly to windward. Sadly, the success of the foiling boats was not welcomed in all quarters and in Australia, where so much of the development had taken place, the wider adoption of foiling would effectively split the existing Moth fleet. Although this was a short term dip in the overwise rapid rise of the Moth, there could be no going back, for in contrast to many other areas of sailing, the International Moth sailing was now moving too fast and was delivering way too much fun to ignore.

The International Moth may have spent most of its 70 or so years positioned a little bit (at times a long way!) out in the 'left field' but now the Class would move not only into the mainstream of dinghy racing, but pretty much centre stage! Olympians and World Champions from other classes all moved into the Moth and it is no exaggeration to suggest that recent World class events have seen the greatest ever concentration of sailing talent on a single start line.

Even with the best of the best sailing the boat, for a while, the foiling Moth was something of a binary option, as in wind strengths below that required to get airborne, the answer was to not bother about going out and to stay firmly ashore. Soon though, the arrival of even more powerful rigs and slightly larger high-lift foils for use in light airs have gone a long way towards closing the gap between the point at which most other dinghy fleets are happy to race and the start of foiling. Opening this sailable weather window even wider has come at a cost though, with a second set of foils becoming an essential part of the fast sailor's equipment.

Yet even as the Moth lifted up and rose from the water, it was inevitable that the 'old' ethos of the Class would get left behind, with that 'glue it together and experiment' approach being replaced by high technology solutions that are out of the reach of most (though not all: see the excellent blog from James Sainsbury on home-building his Moth). For those without either the time or the skills required, getting into a foiling Moth is no longer a cheap way to get afloat, whilst getting a boat that will be competitive at a National level, let alone internationally, now requires an investment that is probably the highest cost of any dinghy in terms of £s per foot of waterline length.

However, the super highly efficient foilers are not the end of the story for all those Moths that have through time created such an amazing legacy, even before the boats achieved 'lift off'. There is a growing interest in the 'lowriders', non-foiling Moths, which to coin a phrase of today is a very broad church, as it embraces all of the boats, from some of the very earliest examples of Moths that are still in existence to that last generation of super narrow boats that ultimately led on to the foilers. This means that the boat bimbling Moth sailors are still well catered for, as they are either restoring old barn finds or making new boats to old designs, with all being welcome.

From a 50 year old ply and low aspect rig to the latest foiling flyer, the International Moth has always managed to balance out the demands of successful innovation with the heroic failures, whilst still providing a huge amount of fun. With less than 10 years to go before the centenary of this amazing boat, all the signs are that the International Moth, in both foiling and lowriding formats, will stay at the forefront of the dinghy scene well beyond that centenary milestone.

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