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Performance defining dinghies - the Top Dogs

by Dougal Henshall 16 May 2019 13:00 BST
International Contender British Championship at Hayling Island © Peter Hickson

At the recent RYA Dinghy Show at Alexandra Palace, a new entrant to the single-handed scene was on display, with the marketing suggesting that this was a performance dinghy that could be enjoyed by all. Now I've not had the pleasure of sailing this particular boat, so must keep any thoughts and doubts I may have to myself, but to be pitched as faster than an Aero 9 and almost as fast as a Phantom would certainly suggest that this could well be a design worthy of the title of 'performance dinghy'. But is it really?

After all, what IS a performance dinghy, and would we known one when we see one?

Looking back into the history of the racing dinghy, adding the term 'performance' in front of the normal title didn't really exist until the early 1950s, when the IYRU (now World Sailing) started the search for a "two-man performance dinghy": a decision that would end up enriching the sport with boats such as the Flying Dutchman, 5o5, Hornet and Osprey, all of which were examples of what could truly be described as 'performance' dinghies. Meanwhile, in terms of singlehanded dinghies, the question didn't really arise as there wasn't anything that could be said that properly related to the title; indeed back then there were few single-handers of any capability and it is noteworthy that even the Finn - which had already served at four Olympic regattas - was not given that soubriquet.

There was of course one singlehander that was totally performance-orientated, with a PY on a par with that of the Flying Dutchman, but the International Canoe had evolved along a very specific development path that put it clearly in another pigeon hole compared to the dinghies of the day. Even by the 1950s, the Canoes also could point to having a wonderful heritage of continuous development stretching back for almost a century, to the days of when Baden-Powell (of Boy Scouts fame) competed in America, thus setting the stage for future international sailing competitions in small boats. The Canoes had also been the first to allow the helm's weight to be extended out beyond the gunwale, a descriptive term that would soon assume a far greater importance.

Despite attempts by Jack Holt to take the Canoe into more populist territory with an easy-to-build hard chine version, most International Canoes of the early 1960s were beautifully built cold-moulded hulls but with rigs that were pretty standard for dinghies of that era, though today they would be seen as very unsophisticated. No-one could ever accuse the International Canoe community of not being prepared to be radical when the occasion demanded, and in the face of new competition they first tried to go down the one-design route, only for that to fail and to be eventually rescinded (a salutary warning there for some other restricted development classes flirting with the idea of going one-design). Then, with the skiff revolution sweeping through sailing, the Canoes too would adopt an asymmetric option, only for this too to eventually prove to be a developmental cul-de-sac.

Instead, the modern International Canoe of today is a celebration of innovation in design, and with high-tech construction techniques being applied to the hull and rig, the IC is back at the leading edge of performance sailing. Yet the class remains accessible, offering quality international competition and is truly one of the great pinnacles of small boat sailing for young sailors to aspire to. This mention of 'youth' neatly returns the narrative to the early 1960s, when the IYRU were at last starting to think about a "performance singlehander" to complement their now established performance two man boats (the FD and 505).

The Canoe was considered and then rejected, and quite rightly so said Y&Y journalist and pundit Jack Knights. "The new breed of young sailors," he said, "did not want an expensive luxury boat. Instead, they want something cheap, fast and exciting". For once the IYRU seemed to be listening, as that is what they set out to look for, calling for a series of Trials to be held at Weymouth. The design criteria made clear that this would be for a performance boat, where the helm's weight could be extended beyond the gunwale, but not on a trapeze, as they were specifically banned.

Yet the deeply entrenched 'old ways' of thinking nearly put the whole process back to its starting point, as the majority of designers still had in mind a boat that would be more like a souped-up version of the Finn. At one point, Jack Knights' fear of the Trials producing an expensive luxury boat might well have resulted in a Finn rigged with a sliding seat, which would surely have been a massively retrograde step (a bit like putting a big bore exhaust on a Ford Fiesta).

Even Uffa Fox, a designer who was steeped in the ways of the establishment, was quoted as saying that the dominance of the Finn had "put the development of the singlehander back by 25 years". An even clearer demonstration of the 'old ways of thinking' at work would come courtesy of one of the great stories in small boat development. With a great deal of interest in the upcoming Trials, hopeful designers had to wait for the IYRU to publish the design criteria for the Trials, before they could set about penning lines and then building prototypes.

The top dinghy designer of the day, Jack Holt, produced his entry for the Trials: the classic-lined Corinthian that had a stretched Finn-like hull, with a stayed rig and a sliding seat. The boat sailed well enough, but when Holt showed it to his business partner and friend Tony Allen (together they were Holt Allen) the reply was not quite what he expected. "You've built a boat for old men" was the youthfully minded Allen's reply, yet it was a measure of the respect that Holt held for his friend that he took the comments to heart and went back to the drawing board for a second go.

It is worth noting that when given a free hand, Holt loved the concept of the performance hull, with both the prototype Merlin and GP14 flat, low freeboard hulls that were considered 'too racy' to the point that they had to be redrawn. As a consequence, his second design was certainly sleeker, lower and flatter, and with the benefit of living close to his workshop, there was little time wasted between the completion of the design and the building of the prototype. The result, Cavalier, could have been a winning design concept, only for Tony Allen to again describe it as "yet another boat for old men". By now even the famously mild-mannered Holt had had enough, as he basically told his friend that if he thought he could do better, to get on and do so.

With the aid of a few friends and a couple of sheets of ply, over the course of a long weekend, that is exactly what happened. Tony Allen's design, with its simple, box-like after sections and soft scow like bow, sported a basic rig and a sliding seat. Yet the package was a near perfect interpretation of that youthful zeitgeist that Jack Knights had referred to. Here was a cheap and cheerful rocketship that the new generation of young sailors could thrash around to their heart's content. Given breeze, flat water and a reaching course, the boat more than sparkled and, just like the Fireball, would set about putting a big F into the fun of being afloat.

Yet as the boats assembled at Weymouth, it was clear that there was a gulf existing between what was needed against what was on offer, and it was of little surprise that in the late summer of 1965, the IYRU were nowhere near getting it right first time. There were a number of Finn-like boats with various additions to extend the helm outboard, then there was the incredible ground,breaking Paul Elvstrom designed and sailed Trapez, but probably the boat that came closest to ticking all the right boxes was Tony Allen's cheekily designed scow.

It was clear, even just from the name of the boat, the ToY (for "Tony's own Yacht"), that in keeping with the ethos of the design, that Allen and his supporters were not taking things too seriously. Yet despite not being selected, nor even recommended by the IYRU, the ToY would go on to be the only new boat from this first set of Trials to mature into a successful class, becoming well-established with strong fleets on both sides of the North Sea, giving the ToY a modest claim to be 'international'.

For a while the ToY story would be one of successfully filling the performance singlehander niche, with activity continuing in the Class through into the mid-1980s, only for the boat to be overtaken by later developments that would ultimately consign it to the history books. An attempt was made to relaunch the boat with a bigger sail and a trapeze, but without success, with another interesting take on the idea, the Wizard, best described as a 'super-ToY' lacking the magic to really get off the ground.

Meanwhile, for those who like to enjoy a moment of delicious irony, even as the ToY was making a lucky escape from the potential pitfalls of IYRU attentions, far away in Sydney, Australian designer Bob Miller was turning his attentions to the idea of a performance singlehander. His first attempt was a boxy, hard chine hull, with a fully battened main (not liked by the IYRU) and a trapeze (specifically prohibited by the IYRU) which was know as 'Miller's Missile'. In many respects this was like a ToY with a pointy front, yet as Bob Miller himself famously quoted, "it sucks."

After Weymouth and then a second set of inconsequential Trials at La Baule, the IYRU would show a degree of persistence by again setting up a third series of Trials aimed at finding a boat that would satisfy that title "performance singlehander", but by now the issue was becoming as much a philosophical debate as it was a method for selecting an individual boat. The Selectors would end up with two fundamentally opposing ideas; there was the European-centric idea of what the boat should be, with a hull that would be heavily rockered and very round bilged (one of the front runners as the Trials drew to a close was the Punch, which had a remarkable likeness to a big International Moth, with a near semi-circular hull form). At the other end of the scale were the supporters of a hull form that was lighter, flatter, with minimal rocker, a hull concept that was best represented by Bob Miller's second design, the Australian entry: the Contender.

Like the Battle of Waterloo, the final decision would be "a damn close run thing" that would not be decided until the final two days when a brisk wind blew. The well-prepared and sailed Contender romped away to win the closing races, with guaranteed international status as a reward, along with the intention that the class would take over the singlehanded slot for the next three Olympic regattas. Once again, it would be the whiplash tongue of Jack Knights that would come up with the best of the sound bites: "The age of the ape is over," he declared, "the age of the monkey has begun" - and all this from a Finn sailor!

The fight back from the entrenched supporters of the Finn would of course keep the Contender out of the Olympics, but it could not stop the Bob Miller/Ben Lexen boat from quickly becoming established as the boat that best matched the description of what it said on the box, for the Contender really was a 'performance dinghy' in every sense of the word. Though it never quite lived up to the billing given it by some of the sailing journalists, including one that described the Contender as a "505 eater on a reach", in breeze there was little to touch the boat on the off-wind legs of the triangular courses that were sailed back then.

Just how big a step forward the Contender represented was seen back in the early days, when a new owner tried to take legal action against the Class and builders for supplying him with a boat that was "impossible to sail". The action ended up falling flat, as around the globe young sailors were finding out that for once the IYRU had got it right and chosen the right boat, for the Contender was delivering fast, affordable (though this was questionable, as some on the IYRU still thought the boat overly expensive) fun and delivering superb, high quality racing, albeit after a steep learning curve for new entrants to the Class. After a full quarter of a century of growth, the Contender had reached a popular maturity that provided Championship fleets into three figures, with sophisticated boats that could be sailed in the windiest of conditions.

Yet at the same time, the class had more than its fair share of detractors, from those who complained about having to limbo dance under the low set boom (a situation made worse by the excessive rake on the mast and massive amounts of kicker tension) to those who wanted to reduce the hull weight by a significant amount. Even the strongest class stalwart would be pushed to deny that the Contender IS on the heavy side, but at the same time this has resulted in near bullet-proof build quality, with hulls that last for years whilst remaining competitive.

The top Contender builder of the time, Rondar, showed that they too could listen, as they developed a boat that was called the 'Concept Contender', with the same hull shape, only lighter, yet with a larger rig (and increased boom height), only for the ingrained conservatism within the class to reject any consideration of even parts of the initiative. Interestingly, suggestions were also made to bring the Finn 'more up to date', only for this initiative to also fail for similar reasons to that of the Contender.

Even so, the persistent calls for something 'better' would spark UK based boatbuilders RS into making a boat that could best be described as everything a modern take on the Contender should be!. Designer Clive Everest had established his reputation designing fast international Moths, where hull weight was an enemy to be avoided and stability was something that could be done without if it meant sacrificing speed.

The result was the RS600, a boat that is quite possibly the purest non-foiling, single sail single-handed dinghy yet developed. In contrast to the Contender, the epoxy/FRP hull was shorter and lighter, yet was equipped with racks to not only move the trapezing helm's weight even further outboard, but lifted the position of the feet further up and away from the water, thus reducing the propensity for a wave to knock the helm off the gunwale and the inevitable capsize that would follow. Until the 505 went for the big spinnaker, on the right course the RS600 could show them a clean transom, for this was a seriously quick boat, though one that was significantly trickier to sail.

The generous rig came with the ability to shorten the mast length and sail area for when the breeze was up, yet few would deny that on a windy day, the 600 needed a well-practised hand on the helm. Little wonder that it soon was attracting sailors from established classes such as the Contender and the International Moth, to the point that there was a real 'buzz' about the Class. For a time this shift in emphasis had started to suggest that the RS600 could actually replace the Contender as the top dog in terms of a performance singlehander, yet even a dinghy as brilliant as the 600 had problems that would only build as the class progressed.

Many sailors who tried the RS rocketship loved it, but found that it was a case of 'flawed genius', as it wasn't an easy boat to live with. There was a feeling that in the rush to get the boat out to market, that insufficient time had been given for post-prototype testing, but as a strictly controlled SMOD, the 600 would be what it was, "warts and all". Even so, the class enjoyed healthy growth, only for the next development to come racing along and change the game yet again.

Once more, the catalyst for change would come from the idea of a boat to replace the Finn, so in 2000 the new millennium would see yet another set of Trials being organised by the IYRU (except that it was now called ISAF) out at Quiberon in Western France. The Contender was there, as was the Jo Richards-designed Vortex, the Vis (an Italian skiff with large, 49er style wings), the Laser EPS, the RS600, and an RS600 that would raise the bar in terms of performance by being equipped with an asymmetric spinnaker. However, the boat that would really catch the eye was the Devoti-built Musto Performance Skiff, with its generous rig being augmented by a large asymmetric spinnaker.

The Vortex was something of an 'unlike anything else' approach to the performance singlehander, for where the RS600 had accepted a Moth-like minimum stability, Jo Richards had made a virtue out of having a stable platform for the helm. With a design philosophy that included both dinghy and multihull DNA, the Vortex belied the belief that there was a causal link between instability and speed. Just like the tunnel hulled scows of the 1970s, if you let the Vortex heel a bit to lift the windward section clear of the water, it could be surprisingly quick upwind. At Quiberon the Achilles Heel of the boat had been offwind, but later on the Vortex too would gain an asymmetric spinnaker which added greatly to the performance, yet sadly this was a boat that would remain in the 'limited appeal' category.

One reason for this would have to be the undoubted eminence of the Musto Skiff, a boat that is hard to write about with repeated use of hyperbole. A ground-breaking design from German Contender sailor Joachim Harpprecht, the well-considered layout, high quality build, and a growing international footprint have all added up to make the Musto the unashamed top dog in terms of singlehanded dinghies. Even though the class dropped the word 'Performance' from the name, making it just the Musto Skiff, this is now the boat that can be said to define what performance single-handed sailing is all about.

With the sailing media telling the sport that the future lay in single-handers with spinnakers, RS followed the trend and produced the RS700, which (like the Musto) was a hard chined hull and sported an asymmetric. Despite having the complexity of a spinnaker, in many ways the 700 was an easier boat to sail than the 600 and many sailors were enticed into changing up, which was a further blow to the long term prospects of the smaller boat. In hindsight, with two new and very similar boats competing for what would never be a big market sector, it was obvious that only one would succeed. The Musto started with the advantage, which it would then successfully build on, increasingly marginalizing its close competitor in terms of popularity.

When, in more recent years, the perennial question of the Finn's place in the Olympics came up yet again for debate, supporters of the Musto Skiff could well feel aggrieved that it was not given more consideration for the task, After all, it ticked so many boxes in terms of what the biggest stage in sailing needed. Accessible around the globe, demanding of talent and athleticism, yet highly tele-visual, it is hard to argue against giving the Musto the job, but just as with the Contender 50 years earlier, the established vested interests would deny it the opportunity.

Sadly, for the RS600, the arrival of not just a new bigger brother, but the additional looming presence of the Musto, saw the devotion and attentions of the boatbuilder wavering in favour of other projects. Helms who had switched from the Contender to the 600 either changed up again to the 700/Musto, or else went back to the Contender which by now had an all carbon rig and was attracting not only the ex-class sailors back into the fold, but new blood that would reinvigorate the Class.

The RS600 had all but vanished from the dinghy scene, but in truth it was just too good a boat to get condemned to the archives, and a new breed of sailors would find in the plentiful supply of reasonably priced secondhand boats, that there was little else out there that could provide as many 'bangs for the buck' as the 600. If ever there is a boat that has risen again from the fringes of obscurity to come back to being as strong as before it is a remarkable achievement, all the more so given that in the world of two-person boats, there seems to be a link that suggests that the higher the performance, the greater the loss of critical mass in terms of boats sailing.

Yet despite the contraction at the performance end of the single-handed market, pockets of buoyant growth continued to bubble up to the surface.

Building on the success of the ISO/Boss/Buzz family of Ian Howlett-designed dinghies, Topper had launched their own performance singlehander in a 'Blaze' of publicity, yet just as with the 600, in the rush to get the boat out to sailors, the first Blaze dinghies left a lot to be desired. Luckily for Topper and for the fortunes of the boat, wiser minds were allowed to prevail, which saw the rig and layout modified and the slow burning Blaze really caught light to become something of a mainstay of the domestic single-handed scene.

At the other end of the market, the idea of a performance singlehander for the more lightweight helm fuelled interest in the Farr 3.7, a dinghy that has attracted a small but vocal following in the UK, though the real power base of the class is down in the southern hemisphere. An easily accessible 'pocket-rocket' the 3.7 has proven that it is possible to still home-build a performance dinghy, which ought to open up the appeal of the 3.7 beyond the current limited attraction.

As for the boat that started the whole process of defining what performance single-handed sailing is all about, as the Contender hits 50 (the 50th Worlds are in the Netherlands in 2020) it shows few signs of ageing. After a number of years in the doldrums, the UK has at last again got a supportive builder, with Hartley Boats producing a very attractive package that now looks as if it can compete on the international stage.

Yet for a boat that has so much of its heritage here, in terms of overall ranking, the UK continues to risk lagging behind the Germans, Italians and the increasingly dominant Australians, with even Denmark posting a strong track record of success in recent years.

Looking forward, it is hard to see what direction the performance single-handed dinghy can take next. If outright speed is set as the criteria, then there is nothing that can touch the foiling Moth, though it is noteworthy that many top class sailors who are otherwise celebrated for their skills in a performance dinghy, have also tried the other route to the ultimate in speed offered by the foiling A-Class Cat.

The modern, equally high-tech International Canoe will continue to populate the 'left field' for thoughtful innovators, providing an exciting outlet for those who relish the challenge of sailing these amazing boats. If the requirement is for close quarter international competition then there is a clear choice between the Musto Skiff and the Contender, which suggests that, in what has always been a somewhat elite but constrained niche at the top of the sailing pyramid, that the opportunities for a new entrant would be limited.

Yet taking the Musto Skiff as the 'most recent' development in the performance single-hander scene, there has to be an expectation that somewhere out there are ideas for another marketing-driven development aimed at giving us another rocket ship for the solo sailor. Some have tried to modify existing dinghies, such as the attempt to rig a Phantom with a trapeze, an initiative that in failing proved that there is more to making a performance dinghy than just adding a pair of trapeze wires and a lengthy tiller extension. Experience to date of the new generation of dinghies shows that they have resulted in designs that are a step function faster than those they seek to replace. This might suggest something along the lines of a Musto Skiff on steroids, which might sound a fantastic prospect but how many club sailors would be willing to dedicate the time and effort needed to master such a boat?

Maybe the answer lies at the other end of the scale, a cheap, easily accessible, simple boat that offers thrills and spills without either the complexity of the alternatives, something akin to a modern take on the ToY. After all, the idea worked before, why not again? Proponents of the resurgent RS600 will probably have blanched whiter than the gel-coat of their hulls at such a suggestion, yet as the supply of cheap secondhand boats has dried up, their class is already climbing back up the exclusivity ladder and in truth, it has always been a boat that is in a niche that is almost as specialist as the International Canoe..

Yet, for more than 50 years now, sailors have shown themselves to be remarkably adaptable in quickly learning the new boat handling skills that the development of performance singlehanders have demanded. From the Contender, which was talked about as "impossible to sail", through the 600 (which some DID find impossible to sail), to the Musto Skiff, which even the sailors who sailed the boat at the Quiberon Selection Trials questioned how accessible the boat would be, given the demands of sailing a spinnaker-rigged singlehander, the experience has been that those who want to, can do.

So who knows what will come next in terms of a performance singlehander? One thing though is certain, for it to have that title and deserve it, the performance will have to be such that no one will question if it is just a dinghy, or if it truly is a 'performance dinghy'.

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