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Gregory's Ghost

by David Henshall 3 Jun 2020 13:00 BST
Hailing from the early 1960s, the Ghost was a stretched out development of designer Greg Gregory's race-winning Cherubs © Gregory Family

Regular followers of my frequent rambles through our rich heritage of racing dinghy history may recall that some 18 months ago I posted an article titled Ghost Hunting about the search for an innovative but rare racing dinghy.

Hailing from the early 1960s, the Ghost was a stretched-out development of designer Greg Gregory's race-winning Cherubs that carried more than a touch of the southern hemisphere in the rig. In contrast to the UK dinghies of the day, Greg gave the Ghost an interesting and very powerful high aspect mainsail that started life as fully battened and then dropped back to 'semi' fully battened.

With a lightweight hull for the size of boat, the Ghost was easily driven upwind, but the above deck technology available back then was not really up to the task. With a willowy mast from IYE, rigged with floppy 'limited swing' tube spreaders, the set up lacked stability in more ways than one! With the mast heel deck stepped, control of the rig both in the fore and aft and sideways axis was always going to be difficult, but a more fundamental issue came from the lack of understanding back then of rig dynamics.

The main was prone to stalling out, which - when you were blasting upwind in breeze - not only earned the ire of the crew who was stretched out on the trapeze, but could result in some major swimming.

Nor did things get any easier going downwind, as the Ghost sported a big spinnaker, but one that was cut more like an asymmetric and was even set like one, albeit on a spinnaker pole that was carried along the boom. This pole was massive and hung out beyond the back of the boom; it was certainly not an easy task for the crew when trying to do a reach-to-reach gybe with the spinnaker up (the trend back then was to always race triangular courses, which required that manoeuvre).

The hull itself was again very similar to the Cherubs of the day in that originally it was a simple, single hard chine. Early feedback from helms who found that they were being waterboarded prompted Greg to 'tweak' the design, created a pronounced chine in the forward sections, which helped to reduce both the spray and any tendencies for the long bow to dig in when heading downwind.

The Ghost was not just radical in design, but it threatened to rewrite many of the rule books around what could be expected in terms of on-water performance. Here was a simple, inexpensive dinghy that could be home built, yet one that was just about quicker than anything else that was afloat on a single hull at the time.

Just around the coast from Greg's home base at Lee-on-the-Solent, Hamble River Sailing Club put the Ghosts in with the Flying Dutchman (Hamble was home to a large contingent of FDs, including World Champions John Oakeley and David Hunt, and was offering them class racing back then) but this did the new boat no favours. It was indeed true that the Ghost could be blisteringly quick under some conditions, but as an all-round performer, both the FD and the 5o5 were far more polished and capable across a wider range of wind speeds.

Moreover, the authorities tasked with running sailing seemed unsure as to their view of the Ghost, for there were growing concerns about the proliferation of new performance dinghy classes, a factor that ran contrary to their support for the current status quo of class association structures. Just a few years earlier Peter Milne had launched the Fireball, now with the Ghost there was yet another new boat seeking to build up support, so it was little wonder that those who ran the sport showed barely any inclination to give it a helping hand.

'Down under' in Australia, there was far less in the way of barriers to anything that looked like an exciting development and the Ghost was able to appeal to the existing core of Cherub sailors wanting something bigger and with more speed!

Although the skiff revolution was still years away, the Ghost would be a signpost to what could be possible in the future and it would attract a loyal following. Meanwhile back in the UK, the class was being increasingly squeezed between the incredible success story that was the Fireball and the 5o5, which - with the FD focused on Olympic duties - was able to make the 'top predator' spot its own. Demanding and not an easy boat to maintain or sail, the Ghost would slip out of the sailing picture, though with many of them sporting all varnished hulls, they still could top the wow factor charts whenever one appeared.

With a highly stressed hull, made from sheet ply held together with a glue that has a 'this will go crystalline and break in 40 years' factor built in, the long joints between the topsides and bottom panel, then the side deck to cockpit floor would started to let go and those boats that were still sailing gently faded away into the ether.

That was the situation as recently as late 2018, when the Ghost Hunting article appeared. Then came news that there had been sightings of a Ghost on the Hamble River and after a little bit of detective work, Ghost number 10 was found to be very real indeed and resident in a garage just off the M27. It has survived the 55 years since leaving the workshop of Greg Gregory and was still reasonably intact, though in desperate need of a great deal of careful TLC.

Those long joints noted above, plus those joining the floor panel into the hog, would need more than a bit of T-Cut to take out the blemishes, whilst the decks showed signs of over-enthusiastic rubbing down in the past that had taken off the top veneer. For the paint and varnish work, probably the best bet would be to go as far as possible back to bare wood and start again, but it would surely be worth it as once restored this is a boat that would just shout 'Concours winner'.

Stand back just a few paces so that the problem areas are not so obvious, and the drop dead gorgeous beauty of the lines give an indication of what a wonderful boat this could be.

Part of the reason for this is that designer Greg Gregory was not only an innovative thinker, but he also possessed a lovely 'eye' for the lines of a boat. The morphing of the Fairey Swordfish into the Albacore was a product of his skills at the drawing board, plus his friend Charles Currey's vision of what the boat should be. Ghost and Albacore though were boats whose parameters and shape were already pre-determined in part by the existing expectations of Cherub and Swordfish owners, but Greg's real genius would become apparent when he had a totally free hand is defining the shape of a boat.

Back in 1970 a heated debate was growing within the Merlin Rocket class as the designs of the day needed a few pounds (kilos were still in the future) out on the gunwale. Crews such as Barry Dunning, then later on the likes of Jon Turner, would add high quality brains to the required brawn, whilst at the back of the boat no-one would ever describe the likes of Spud Roswell as being of 'slim build'. However, for those who lacked the all essential bulk the current design philosophy meant that it was an struggle to be competitive.

Luckily the lightweights had a vocal and well-connected leader in David Robinson (who would go on to become the UK's Olympic Sailing Coach) and in a classic 'what happened next' David discussed this issue of a boat for the trimmer helm with Greg Gregory. The designer was insistent that he had the answer, but as was the way back then, it seemed to be a case that the lines would appear... manaña.

Matters came to a head at a summer party at Greg's house, when David Robinson chided the designer for not having the promised solution to the 'problems of the universe'. In desperation, Greg told David to hang on whilst he went to his office in the next room, only to reappear 10 minutes later with the outline sketches for a boat called Ghost Rider (Greg certainly liked the Ghost tagline).

The full set of lines soon followed, but the core of the Merlin Rocket fleet could not believe that this was a serious alternative to the mainstream boats of the day, for Greg had designed a boat around a steeply vee'd shape, which left the chatterati of the class wondering if you would have to lay the boat on its side to get it to plane.

Even more perplexed would the boatbuilder of choice, Spud Rowsell, who made the comment that if the lines of Ghost Rider were right, then everything he knew about boat shapes was wrong.

Once completed, in comparison with other Merlins, the Ghost Rider felt even tippier when getting in off the beach, but as soon as the boat started sailing the stability set in, making a wonderfully steady and exceptionally quick platform for racing. In one of those twists of fate, David Robinson and Ghost Rider would miss out on the Championships in 1970, but the following year another boat from the same design would win in the hands of Frank Williams.

Yet even as the shapely Gregory boats were riding high, coming up fast behind them were the new breed of powerful hulls from the drawing boards of Phil Morrison and Keith Callaghan, and as quickly as they had burst onto the scene, the Ghost Riders would follow the Ghosts off into the history books. Those first Ghost Riders are now celebrating their half century and 50 years of hard racing have taken their toll, with many of the iconic boats (including the original Ghost Rider) having slipped away to the bonfire on November 5th.

Thankfully, a couple have been saved by real enthusiasts from the class and will hopefully be seen one again showing that 'Ghost Rider grace' off to the sailing public.

A look at the records will show that Greg Gregory might not go down in the sailing history books as a super popular designer and builder of racing dinghies, but those boats that do bear his name are remarkable for their shape, their innovation and their speed.

At long last we now know that examples of all these boat still exist and when number 10 can be found a new home and owner ready to restore her to those former glories, the Ghost story, including that of the Ghost Riders, will be there for all to see.

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