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The Unsung Wise Man - Reg Bratt

by David Henshall 13 Dec 2019 12:00 GMT
Reg Bratt's Auster included many innovations that would reappear later as mainstream ideas, but accredited to others © Reg Bratt

Those who follow these missives (massives?) will know that my most favourite theme is that of innovation in the world of racing dinghies and dinghy development.

Looking back at previous articles, we have had The Three Wise Men - Jack Chippendale, Austin Farrar and Peter Milne - and The Fourth Wise Man - John Westell, then an even more focused look at a sailor who has lived a life of innovation, Jon Turner, The Sorcerers Apprentice. For those who know their dinghies, these are all household names who have all, in their own way, put their very individual spin on the way our sailing, and the boats we sail in, have evolved.

Yet that list of names is far from complete as some can get overlooked, maybe because they were focused on just class, such as ace Hornet sailor Malcolm Goodwin, who was able to introduce a step function in performance in the class with his ground-breaking Revolution. Then there are that even rarer of breeds, the unsung innovators, who might be brim full of great ideas, yet somehow fail to gain any recognition for their efforts. Sadder still is that many of these clever people who were so active in the golden years of the boom era in the sport are now no more.

Yet there is one name, virtually unknown and very much unsung, who was not only a compulsive innovator, yet amazingly at 101 years old is still with us. Even more amazingly he retains a sharp mind and clear memory of the times when his ideas could have and maybe did in part change things that would later come to be accepted as part of the dinghy story. Yet another trend in my articles is that notion of people being 'ahead of their time', a popular theme that I have explored in terms of the history, but never have I been able to interview such a character in the flesh.

Today, nearly half a century after he was so very much hands on in the dinghy world, Weymouth's Reginald 'Reg' Bratt is now better known for his carefully constructed and insightful letters to the local press on a range of issues that include the rises in sea levels and climate change.

Yet if we look back more than 100 years, Reg's story starts at the same time as that other giant influence in the world of sailing, Ian Proctor. Both would be born in the final months of WW1, to parents that would have been described then as 'well to do'. His middle name was Raffles as there was a connection through his family to Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, whose claims to fame included the setting up of Singapore. As a young boy, Reginald had the benefit of his parent's property adjoining the Thames in Buckinghamshire, with there also being a connection with the famed Monkey Island, and it may well have been at this time that he gained his love of the water and sailing (back then Monkey Island was truly an island, with the only access being by boat).

After a chequered time at school, despite the thoughts of some of the tutors, Reg would develop into a clever and thoughtful student. Clearly, he had a liking for the science-based subjects as he would go on to prove his practical skills in the laboratory, when in a major test, he was the only student in class to successfully achieve the correct result in a titration experiment. Reg would also take up dinghy racing at Upper Thames Sailing Club, where he got the job of crewing for one of the top helms. His helm was very demanding, as Reg said, "he was very strict and made me move like a cat, no jerks or bumps, but always very smooth when moving around the boat."

From school, Reg would progress on to Cambridge reading Engineering Studies, but for relaxation he would take up gliding. The attraction here was not only the love of being aloft, but Reg was also fascinated by the techniques of flight and the physics that determine how a wing operates. By 1939 and the outbreak of war, Reg, as an accomplished pilot, would be taken up by the RAF and though he started out as a pilot, he would advance up through the ranks until he became Officer in Charge at RAF Bahrain.

With the return of peace, Reg found his technical and administration skills in demand, with him working as a Consulting Civil Engineer both at home and abroad, but his heart and mind were elsewhere.

Eventually, with his finances on a reasonably solid basis, Reg set up his own engineering business, thinking that this would help fund his other ideas, with alternative construction for masts being high on his agenda. Most dinghy masts were still made from spruce, though Jack Chippendale would soon be telling Ian Proctor that if he and Jack Holt kept designing boats at their current rate, there would not be enough trees to keep up with the demand. Proctor, with the input from his friend, crew and business partner Cliff Norbury, would explore the science and practicalities of aluminium, but Reg took another tack, focusing instead on GRP construction.

In the meantime, Reg was learning the true nature of the old adage that "in order to make a small fortune in the marine business, you must start with a big one". Yet success was destined to finally come his way. Not only did the flood of new dinghies that were coming to the market need masts, but they would need launching trollies too, and having made a few for friends, Reg would suddenly find that he had tapped into what would then become a lucrative market. Other cleverly-constructed items would follow, as diverse as boarding ladders and boathooks, with each in turn being commercially successful.

In his spare time Reg was still investigating sail performance, further exploring his strongly-held view that the conventional dinghy rig could easily be made far more efficient. By the early 1950s the idea of wing masts was nothing new, indeed Austin Farrar had been experimenting with them for years and with the two men known to meet and 'trade' ideas, it was little surprise that Reg was keen on building a more aerofoil efficient spar.

Nor was this a radical development, even then, for dinghies such as the early Merlins were already using a rotating semi-wing mast, which although an advance on the other masts of the time, would nevertheless carry a significant weight penalty as they were made in wood.

Reg would now experiment with GRP semi-wing masts that rotated on a ball and socket mount. On the size of mast that could be used for a 14ft dinghy, the chord depth could vary from between 5" and 10", with the maximum chord depth between a third and a half-way up the mast from the base. Another of Reg's interests lay in sails that would 'automatically adjust', though the reality of this was that the combination of wing mast and sail would be able to be tacked without any additional input from the helm. These ideas would all come together in a radical rig produced by Reg that saw the boom moved 40% of the way up the sail, with a stiff vertical batten just in from the clew that would help eliminate twist. By using a wishbone shape, the boom could be attached to the front of the mast, which then allowed the mast to rotate through a larger angle than the boom. The idea behind this was to allow the lee side of the last to align perfectly with the sail, thus reducing the turbulence that was such a negative factor with other sections. Reg was adamant that his rig should not be confused with other wishbone rigs that had been previously experimented with, as he had approached the technology from a very different perspective.

The forestay he decreed should be solid, with the shroud base scarcely any further aft than the mast heel so that the boom could be let out square when running downwind. Now that he had sorted out the technology above deck level, Reg needed two more pieces of the jigsaw to come together! First of all, he needed a hull to put this on and then he needed a stage to show the boat off to its best, against competition and more so, do it in front of the yachting media. His opportunity would come soon enough in the early 1960s, when the IYRU started talk of seeking a performance singlehander to replace the Finn. Even better, when the intention to launch a set of Trials was announced, the chosen venue was none other than his home waters of Weymouth.

The Whippet sailing at Weymouth and showing just how much innovation can be squeezed into one boat!

It was very much in Reg's nature that he should want to design his own boat for these Trials. With the passage of time that has elapsed, it is not easy to discern quite what the influences on him would have been at the time, though one would have to assume that Peter Milne's Fireball (which would also appear at Weymouth, sailed single-handed from the sliding seat) had more than caught his eye. The other consideration would have been ease of building, as Reg wanted the hull form to be kept simple and therefore light. The result was the Whippet, a clever and innovative scow that was very flat in the underwater hull shape. Whippet would carry Reg's rig, with a high aluminium hoop mounted aft, so that the angle of the mainsheet applied to the mainsail would be correct. Although trapezes were specifically prohibited from the Weymouth Trials, designers were encouraged to explore other ways of 'extending the helm's weight outboard of the gunwale' which saw Whippet rigged with a sliding seat, mounted right aft.

It would not be just harsh, but downright wrong to describe Whippet as a failure, even though she was usually found to be languishing at the back of the fleet. At times the boat showed an ability to produce some amazing bursts of speed when reaching in breeze and flat water, though overall there were things that were clearly not working as they should. Another innovative designer, David Thomas, who was at Weymouth with his own entry to the Trials, the Unit, thought that the scow hull shape was to blame, but (as he said years later) there was so much innovation in the Whippet he couldn't see what worked and what didn't.

After the Trials, Reg went to both Southampton University and to the scientists that run the test tank at Teddington, to seek out the experts in the field of marine architecture. They pointed out to him how boat hulls operate in the interface between the water and the air and suggested that he read a weighty set of three volumes by Harold Saunders titled The Hydrodynamics of Ship Design. Reg was able to get these from his local library, though to patiently work through it all meant that he had to keep extending the loan period! He could now see not only where he had gone wrong with Whippet, but where other designers were clearly missing a trick or two, as he felt that the answer lay in a plumb bow and a near-triangular hull form at the waterline (developments that Frank Bethwaite and others would makes years later).

When sailing upwind, he wanted the full waterline length immersed in the water, but was aware that the lack of buoyancy in the forward third of the hull would create problems sailing downwind, so in later version of the hull he included something of a bulb in the bow, a move that would be copied years later by the International Moths as they started to go super skinny. With plenty of power in the rig, Reg was not overly worried about surface wetted area, preferring instead a no-compromise approach to boatspeed, that saw his final design incorporate a double-chined hull with a flat bottom panel, which would hopefully provide the same sparkling off-wind performance of the Whippet.

For construction, Reg had intended using ply, but the material he was after was not available at the time, a problem that he said was the result of the policies of the Harold Wilson Government. In the end he was able to get an alternative from a supplier in nearby Sherborne, who supplied him with a specialist ply that had a quarter inch core of high density foam.

With the power that was available in the rig, Reg would add a trapeze, though many of the techniques of trapeze use were still being developed, with the use of the 'wire' on a singlehander being a ground-breaking move. The boats that did try this (first Paul Elvstrom's Trapez, then the Contender) would severely rake the mast aft to help reduce the forward pull on the helm.

It is little surprise that Reg would go for a completely different solution, preferring instead to employ a circular aluminium rack that the helm could not just trapeze from, but could move around to ensure that the boat stayed in the optimum fore and aft trim. Again, aluminium racks on boats such at the International Moth were still way off in the future, but Reg would be experimenting with size and location as 'his' solution to the problem. The new boat would be chock full of other innovations, including a pushrod system that linked the tiller to the rudder, which allowed the helm to cross the boat aft of the tiller head when tacking and gybing.

In contrast to the Whippet, the new boat, now called the Shooting Star, would be quick on all points of sailing and was particularly good in light airs. Shooting Star would certainly turn heads whilst out sailing, as just about everything that could be different from the boats of the day, was!

Yet despite all of the innovation, plus the undoubted potential for boatspeed and being hailed as a design success, the Shooting Star would be a commercial failure, for the world of performance single-handers was rapidly evolving around just one boat, the Contender. For a while the ToY would hang on in a form of co-existence with the now fully international Contender, but the Shooting Star would join the Unit, Viking, Nova and Dart as little more than interesting cul-de-sacs in the continuous pathway of dinghy development.

Undaunted, Reg would next turn his attention to multihulls and would be fired up by the lure of the John Player/RYA Speed Week that was scheduled to be held at Portland. Although a commonplace element of high performance multihull design today, Reg's designs would predate much of the more modern thinking by placing the hulls onto the crossbeams at an angle and - even more importantly - his designs reduced the side-on profile of the bow area to a minimum. With his boats home-designed and built, over the next few years it would be an iterative process, but in the end, he would gain recognition and success when his catamaran Boreas took the World Speed record for the 10sqm Class in 1974, which it would hold for the next three years.

Also appearing at Weymouth would be innovators such as Philip Hansford and James Grogono, who were two of the leading lights in the field of hydrofoils, with Reg next trying to follow their lead. In these pre-computer days, much of the design would rely on trial and error, with Reg doing a lot of trials and getting his fair share of errors.

On his final boat, the Auster, Reg would end up with foils that were too big, with too much lift and drag, and were too heavy (this was well before carbon fibre was easily available) and as Reg would later point out, by he was by now into his mid-50s and less able to compete himself.

He would eventually stop sailing, but he maintained an active interest in the development of outright speed machines, then as he moved from late middle into old age and became less active, at the same time his areas of interest expanded, for Reg is a true polymath in every sense of the word. Yet despite all his amazing ideas, some of them years (if not decades) ahead of others in the field, that cover everything from mast construction to hull design, rig efficiency to racks, to the bow profiles of modern multihulls, all of which are now accepted as the work of others, he remains virtually unknown in the bigger world of dinghy development.

Yet the operative word is 'remains' for at 101 years old, Reg Bratt is very much with us still and now, with the aid of the internet, he is able to indulge his mind in new fields of research, so who knows what ideas he may come up with next!

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