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RS Sailing 2021 - LEADERBOARD

Jack Knights - Sailor, Innovator, Journalist, and a Witty Wise Man

by Dougal Henshall 7 Jan 2021 11:06 GMT
Jack Knights Scans the Racing Scene - a column in Y&Y magazine during the 50s and 60s © Yachts & Yachting

As the UK struggles with the double whammy of a run of weather that is cold and stormy enough to keep us indoors (where we have to be anyway courtesy of the latest restrictions) it is hardly a surprise that stories in the sailing media are dominated by events happening down in the southern hemisphere.

Firstly, there are the near-daily dramas coming out of the 'roaring forties' where the Vendée Globe fleet are taking the big left turn to head back northwards for the Atlantic - and home.

Yet even this long running, if stunning, sea story is having to play second fiddle to the news from Auckland where the America's Cup foilers are putting on an amazing display of high-speed sailing (or not such high-speed sailing if you are in the UK camp).

Now this may seem almost like too much detail for an introduction, yet these stories are inextricably linked to yet another story, one which would otherwise have been lost in all the noise and clamour of everything else that is going on. Yet the tales (often tall) of our 'Two witty Wise Men' is one that needs telling, as their influence and presence runs like an unbroken thread from the start of the golden boom years of the sport in the late 1940s and early 1950s, right through to today.

This link between then and now starts with the news that 40 years ago in early January, the sport of sailing lost one of its keenest and most observant commentators, when Yachts & Yachting columnist Jack Knights died suddenly at just 51 years of age. (The second witty Wise Man will be covered in a future article.)

For those who remember the Y&Y magazine back in the 1960s and 70s, Jack provided an insight into the world that was going on behind the mainstream news, courtesy of his 'Jack Knights Scans the Racing Scene' page, where he would just as easily lavish praise for something well done as he could rip to shreds anything, or anyone, that he felt was selling his beloved sport cheaply. And if things had gone wrong, then there was no target that was too big, nor any personality too important to escape his well-written, if 'slashing' comments; it was Jack's forte to cut straight through the various layers of excuses and explanations to expose the real failings that were right at the heart of the issue.

It helped that not only was he a first-rate journalist, with a lovely command of English, but he was also well-connected right across the sport and, most importantly of all, he knew his subject better than many of those he was writing about.

Those who knew Jack well spoke warmly of the depth and breath of his intellect, which could allow him to compile a detailed report on an event for the media (he was also yachting correspondent for the Daily Express newspaper) from a collection of his notes, many of which were recorded on pocket sized pieces of paper. Jack liked to not only see the action first hand, but from close quarters, which would find Jack out in his small motorboat, the 'Rubber Duck' getting up close (but not in the way) of the thick of the action.

It would be wrong though to think of Jack just as a journalist, for he deserves inclusion in the 'Wise Men' series twice over, as he was also a constant and thought-provoking innovator, who was always looking for not just a performance edge, but a better way of doing things!

An example of Jack's work as a journalist, and how he presented his views in the media, can link us straight back to the current events in Auckland, where the story sounds worryingly familiar. For the detail in the story, we have to go back to the start of the 12 Metre era, when in 1958 the UK challenged for the America' Cup with the David Boyd-designed Sceptre. Across four races held off Newport, Rhode Island, Sceptre was soundly beaten by the American defender Columbia.

The racing had been so one sided that by the time Britain challenged again, six years later, with the yacht Sovereign, the clamour in the UK yachting media was that there must not be another result like that of Sceptre.

Then, as now, the signs were all appearing so positive for the UK's latest challenger, which looked the part, had been well-funded and supported and, having been 'talked up' by much of the media here, was supposed to deliver a level of performance that would take the fight to the defenders. Jack Knights however was not convinced and would draw a good deal of criticism for his negative comments on the British boat's rig, the composition of the afterguard and so much more. However, when racing started in the September of 1964, all of his warnings would prove to be well-founded, as - to put it bluntly - the UK boat was just slower that the American defender, the Olin Stephens-designed Constellation.

An advert for one of the top US sailmakers ran that "Boat speed makes you a tactical genius". The helm of the US boat, Bob Bavier, scarcely needed any of his legendary arsenal of match racing skills as the US boat pointed higher and footed faster than the sluggish challenger. As the one-sided contest unfolded (though in truth it was anything BUT a contest) what really riled Jack Knights was not just that Constellation would win the series 4-0, but the nature of the loss; in one race, the winning margin was over 20 minutes.

With the trophy locked even further into the arms of the New York Yacht Club, Jack did not waste valuable column inches with the more obvious "I told you so", but instead pointed out, in one of his most famous and widely-quoted articles, just how bad the UK's performance had been. His article was titled "The debacle at Newport" and it led with the feeling that the US defenders were as unhappy as he and others in the UK were with the challenger. He went on to point out that "the two new $600,000 yachts, American Eagle and Constellation, had been built quite needlessly. Sovereign could have been well taken care of by any existing American yacht sailed by a few close friends of the owner. Sovereign has let down more than just her own team". Ouch... that is telling it like it really is!

Yet pointing out these harsh realities in widely-read articles did nothing to endear Jack Knights to those administrators who ran the sport both domestically and internationally. This though was far from the first time that Jack had taken the RYA and the IYRU to task, as it was almost his modus operandi to point out how their shortcomings were failing the sailors and the sport. However, because he wrote with such authority, his views were always worthy of careful consideration, no matter how painful his words might be for the target of the month!

It would be easy to write something of an apology for some of Jack's writings, which could occasionally either hit other unintended targets (way before the term 'collateral damage' was coined) or at times veer towards the excessive, but that was his way, with his views being shaped by a life that had not always been easy for him.

His early years were spent in Ipswich, making him very much a child of the East Coast, and he would gain a love of the water whilst at Framlingham College, a prep school not far from Woodbridge and the Suffolk coast. He was just ten years old when war broke out in 1939, with the following years that are normally so important and formative for a thoughtful young man being marked by austerity, hardship and loss.

He was clearly very capable at his schoolwork, as after he had completed his national service in the Navy (during which he would receive a letter of commendation after saving some fellow officers from a capsized dinghy in the Solent) he qualified for Downing College Cambridge, where he went on to take a 'first' in English there. It was when he was at Cambridge that his skills as a dinghy sailor really developed and he would end up captaining the successful Cambridge University Sailing Team.

By now he had carved out a reputation as a hard driving helm in the International 14 fleet and when south coast businessman Jack Blundell commissioned Austin Farrar for a 'special' one-off 14, the deal was that Knights would helm it in the Prince of Wales Trophy race. The boat was Thunderbolt, a design that is closely associated with the development of John Westell's Coronet and the 5o5, but the key factor was that the flared (soon to be declared illegally flared) hull generated a lot more power than the conventional 5ft 6in beamed boats that made up the rest of the fleet.

The day of the big race was breezy and early on Jack Knights would be flying in Thunderbolt, only for the increased leverage from the beamier hull to strain the rig; the result was that his mast ended up 'letting go', leaving the two Jacks, Knights and Blundell, to be towed back to the shore by one of the other 14s. His skills as a race-winning helm would continue to develop, with him winning the Swordfish Nationals twice and then the Enterprise Championships, as well as a runner's up spot in the N12 Burton Trophy race.

Aside from the 14, Jack's next big love would be the Finn and it would be as a prospective Olympic helm that he would really make his mark on the international scene. He won the UK National Championships three times (he was North American Champion too) and came within a whisker of qualifying for the 1956 Games at Melbourne, only to just lose out to Richard Creagh-Osbourne at a hard-fought set of Trials at Weymouth. The experience though would leave its mark on Jack, as the conduct of Olympic Trials and the selection of our sailors for the Games would be a subject that he would return to many times in the future.

Another of Jack's favourite topics was the way in which the various rating rules were producing ever stranger boats, and having said so much on the subject it was only right that he should put his views into action out on the water. He went to one of the new breed of UK based designers, Stephen Jones, who drew up the lines for the boat that would be the instantly recognizable Odd Job Quarter Tonner. From the distorted hull form to the revolutionary rig (which owed a lot to dinghy thinking) Odd Job was years ahead of its time, yet this was high cost, high maintenance sailing, an area of the sport that was increasingly a 'bêtes noire' for Jack, who disliked not only the rise of cheque book sailing, but the way that increasing commercialisation was creating a 'them and us' divide in the sport.

Odd Job would also highlight the dichotomy that made up Jack's sailing personality, for he was clever and innovative enough to create the concept behind the boat, yet disorganised enough to come to the start line with his crew still putting the fittings on (this might have been okay in the International Moths of the day, for whom fitting out during the briefing was a well-established behaviour).

He was abrasive enough to upset half the fleet, yet charming and clever enough to attract a crew studded with star quality, with the likes of David Hunt, Barry Dunning and Peter Sweetman on board to help make the boat go. Yet for all this talent, Jack would still want to go his own way, to the point that when his crew pointed out that whilst there were boats to the north of them and boats to the south, but no-one around them, Jack chose to stand on, only to sail at full speed into the West Bramble Bank, with spectacular results for his crew.

Having ploughed a keel furrow to make their escape from 'the putty' Jack compounded his errors by standing on again, thinking he could shave across the bow of a starboard tack Contessa. Now Odd Job was super light but a Contessa is anything but... had it just been the rear stanchion that got carried away it would have just been an embarrassing moment, as it was the Contessa snagged their backstay and after a moment of real mast bend, the top section let go.

Worse still, the mast was a new development from Needlespars, with their being high hopes that this, their first foray into the yacht scene, would be a good move. With David Hunt, aka Mr. Needlespar on board, as the mast came down there was an awkward moment on board, until David broke the tension by describing it as a 'failure of molecular adhesion'...

The increasing complexity required for racing Odd Job was in a complete contrast to Jack's other latest sailing interest, which was focused on the rapid growth of the Laser. After his time with the Finn, Jack was well aware of the weighty shortcomings in the Olympic single-hander, with his thinking being that the boat was too heavy, too slow and not a boat for the growing youth scene that he firmly believed to be the future of the sport.

In the mid-1960s, the IYRU had started looking for a performance single-hander to replace the Finn, only for their own limitations to influence how their search would progress. The decision makers of the IYRU were still steeped in what was essentially yacht-centric thinking, which was steering them towards the selection of another heavy, expensive and slow alternative to the already heavy, expensive and slow Finn.

When the IYRU organized a series of Trials for a new performance single-hander, Jack was keen to put his own thinking, that the modern single-handed dinghy should be light and flat, to the test. He collaborated with leading Australian innovator and boat builder David Binks on a light, nippy, low freeboard hull that sailed well, but was made more remarkable for the sitting out aid which comprised a moulded seat set on the end of a long pole that could swivel in all the required planes.

Jack's boat, the Cobber, would attract a lot of interest but would lose out to a number of bigger, faster and overall, better designs, though here again Jack would repeatedly be exposing the lack of forward looking in the IYRU; "Their thinking", he suggested, was more about "creating an expensive Rolls Royce solution, when what the youth of tomorrow needed was something light, fast and cheap that they could blast around in!".

The message somehow got through and eventually the Selectors bowed to the inevitable by going for a modern looking, light and fast boat: the Contender. It says much of Jack's standing internationally that he would then be invited to be part of the launch committee for the new class, where he did not just provide support with the creation of the new organisation, but by actively sailing and demonstrating the boat here in the UK.

Jack's support ensured that the new boat would get plenty of positive coverage in the sailing media, though his insistence of telling things as he saw them put him at odds with some of his fellow journalists, including a public correction of one report that described the Contender as a "505 eater on a reach". "Not so" replied Jack, "the Contender was quick, indeed very quick on a beam reach, but it was still way off being on a par with the Five0".

His defence of the 5o5 was something of a surprise, as though he had raced the boat and would happily recognise its virtues, he was never a great supporter of the FiveO's competing claims for inclusion in the Olympics. This matter aside, he would personally invest a lot of effort into helping get the Contender established in the UK, along with a significant amount of his own money. Much of this would go into the creation of a company focused on importing hull kits from Australia, an important factor as the UK had yet to develop a home-grown domestic building programme.

Jack's strongly held beliefs that light weight, speed and easy accessibility were essential for the future direction of the sport would surface again when he designed the Cobra for the IYRU 2-man performance keelboat Trials. He had been a persistent and vocal campaigner for the view that the days of the already elderly Star were numbered and that a modern, lighter and more accessible alternative was needed; when the IYRU appeared to hesitate, he wrote, "This is not only important, but it is urgent. Now is none too soon to be designing the prototype!".

His answer was to design an easy-to-build planing rocketship, the Cobra, which was would tick all of the right boxes and was certainly a quick boat. Jack was adamant that the boat be lightweight and easy to build, which saw it constructed at Seamark Nunn from sheets of ply, bonded and sheathed with epoxy resin, a move that would mark it out from the rest of the entries. The rig would be formed from an aluminium lower tube, topped by a more flexible wooden top section, with the sail track mounted externally on the back of the spar. Jack's approach certainly worked, for when put on the scales at Medemblik, Cobra would be a full 75kg lighter than the next lightest boat.

Once again though, the Two Man Performance Keelboat Trials would highlight the good and not so good parts that made up the sum of Jack Knights as an innovating sailor. Out of all the designers involved in the Trials, Jack had managed to come the closest to interpreting what the IYRU were really looking for, which was for a 'modern' version of the Star.

Not only because Cobra was what the 'customer' wanted, but also because Jack had come up with a very good boat, only for there to be almost too much in the way of innovation. Jack arrived at Medemblik for the Trials with a boat that needed more time in race preparation and tuning with the result that Cobra failed to reach its full potential.

(N.B. this idea, of keeping the good points of a boat, whilst giving it what today would be called a 'make-over' would also be tried with that other elderly twinkle in the IYRU's eyes, the Snipe, when Jack Holt was asked to create a modern version. His answer to the challenge, the Jacksnipe, was a boat his namesake, Jack Knights, fully approved of... yet Jacksnipe would quickly fall foul of the vested international interests).

In a direct contrast, when the Trials started, Cobra would come up against the Ian Proctor-designed Tempest. Proctor had previous experience with the IYRU from the Two-Man Performance Dinghy Trials more than a decade earlier and would apply the lessons learnt there. His preparation was faultless, with Tempest being not just a 'good' boat, but one that was prepared under Proctor's legendary attention to detail that would very skilfully campaigned by John Oakeley and Cliff Norbury, to the point that they won all but one of the races in the Trials. For once there would be little room for the political manoeuvrings, as Tempest would go on to be selected and though Jack's boat would finish as runner-up, he would recognize the need to move on from Cobra.

He did not move far though, as once the Tempest had been confirmed for the 1972 Olympics, Jack would mount a typically robust and hard charging campaign. In his typically methodical fashion, he recruited a new crew, Mike Brooke, who was maybe lighter than some of the other Tempest crews, and had the fitness, strength and determination that comes with being a Royal Marine.

Jack would innovate again, with a waistcoat stuffed with six layers of towelling, which was kept under the foredeck in a waterproof bag. As such, the weight was minimal, but when the breeze kicked in, Mike would wear it (over the top of a Norwegian fisherman's sweater) which, once they were soaked after a quick dip over the side, really made a difference to their upwind performance.

Jack's desire to innovate extended to the Tempest rig, where some of the ideas he has experimented with on Cobra would make it over onto his Tempest. For sails, Jack was the first to move away from the accepted standard of UK made Mustos, preferring the North sails imported from Germany. The combination of improved mast control and better sails gave them something of an advantage, but as his crew Mike Brooke later said "it was a measure of how open and generous Jack was that he always wanted to pass the word on if he felt that it would benefit others".

This did not always work out as Jack as planned, for with his desire to help, Jack could also be a bit of a 'Captain Calamity', creating issues, not to mentions tensions, when there really was no need for them, such as when an offer to tow Alan Warren and David Hunt's Tempest back in at Poole started with them breaking the speed limit in the harbour, then ended up with them first stuck on a sandbank before being left marooned on their mooring unable to get ashore!

By the time of the final Olympic selection Trials, held at Weymouth, most of the other front running boats had rigged their mast in similar fashion and would have a North sail ready to use if the conditions suggested that the time was right. The racing would be conducted in conditions that were windy, even for a performance keelboat, and some of the 'acts or omissions' of the Race Team would be called in to question by some.

However, Jack & Mike would be trading places with the two front runners, Alan Warren & David Hunt, and Mike Peacock & Jon Allen. Jack's challenge may have become undone courtesy of yet another piece of innovation, for Jack thought that the Tempest needed a spinnaker chute, though the rules did not allow the forward buoyancy tank to be breached in any way. Instead, Jack moulded a roller that could sit alongside the forestay, with the sail passing around the roller and into a sock that ran back over the foredeck. The idea worked well, but when going upwind the extra weight was well forward and this small margin may have made all the difference.

In the end Warren & Hunt would gain selection, going on to win a Silver Medal at the Games. Jack and his crew Mike Brooke would finish up in Weymouth a highly creditable third overall, but Jack was already looking to be busy elsewhere, sailing everything from a successful Mini Tonner via a J/24 to a top of the ratings range Admiral's Cupper.

However, Jack kept his dinghy credentials firmly in order, mainly though continued sailing of his Laser, a boat that he felt was the way in which small boat sailing should be focused. He liked to compare his Laser with his Quarter Tonner, where one took days of work preparing for a weekend regatta (which then created another backlog of work to be done), when in contrast, with the other you just turned up, raced, covered the boat back up... and repeated: there are no prizes for working out which was which.

Jack and the low maintenance Laser might have been made for each other, as there was little for him to 'screw up' on the boat, which was always a possibility with him. One of his friends, who crewed a lot with Jack and happily added his own thoughts to those who remembered him with fondness, nevertheless went on to add that "Jack's boats were often shabby, though they always went quickly in his hands!"

It was whilst he was Laser sailing that Jack would become focused on another of his 'hot' topics, the growing interference of politics into sport. Jack had been racing his Laser at a sailing centre in Israel which was scheduled to be the host club for the Flying Dutchman World Championships, only for political pressures to see it moved to an alternative location. He argued that however successful Hayling Island Sailing Club might be at running events, the pleasures of Bracklesham Bay could hardly compete with the sunshine, warm water and t-shirt sailing found in the Eastern Mediterranean, and as for the safety concerns, the growing roll-call of damage done to boats coming back into the harbour channel hardly made Hayling the safest of options. The removal of the Worlds was just one of a growing number of top-class events that would become mired in political controversy over their location and who could (and could not) attend; no matter how pointed Jack made his comments, the blurring of the line between sailing as a sport and global political considerations would continue.

All the focus has been on Jack as a sailor, journalist and TV presenter (he did a number of programmes with the BBC) and little on his private life, which is exactly how he himself played things. Back when Jack was establishing his reputation, his sexuality could have been a limiting factor, instead he managed to maintain clear water between his private and public personas. Those who knew him well accepted him as a good and loyal friend and liked and respected him for who he was. Importantly, Jack never publicly pushed or promoted his private views, allowing him to be just who he wanted to be, a first-rate sailor and journalist.

In the mid to late 1970s, Jack's private views did though put him at risk of accusations of misogynism, as many questioned his lack of support for the growing movement towards women's participation in sailing. It is true that Jack was on record, across a number of articles that he had written, with a range of views that some chose to interpret as 'anti-feminist'. Yet as with so much with Jack's writings, the position was far more nuanced, for Jack was actually an ardent supporter of those ladies who were showing just how good and competitive they had become as sailors, irrespective of their gender. What he was less enthusiastic about was the growing administrative bureaucracy within the IYRU/ISAF that was focused on building a whole new element within the sport targeted solely on women' sailing.

When most people pass that 50th birthday barrier, many of those who held radical views in their earlier years often start to moderate their opinions, but if anything, Jack's became even more pronounced. He would openly question that much of the decision making which was determining the direction of small boat sailing was being made in committees behind closed doors. But if there was one failing that angered Jack more than any other, it was that crime of hypocrisy that would draw his most pointed comments, with the changing face of the sport presenting him with a constant stream of new targets.

As top class sailing in the UK faced a number of damaging issues, from the RYA's 'top-down' decision to sacrifice the Olympic Squad by boycotting the 1980 Olympic regatta, to the problems of rule observance, both in yacht ratings and with respect to the racing rules out afloat, Jack's monthly column became even more 'required reading', yet it was just as he was reaching out to a new generation of readers that he would die suddenly.

His death, just after the London Boat Show (another successful activity that he had been closely associated with) came as a shock to not just his friends, but to the sport on a global basis as a whole. He had been booked to fly out to Key West to sail on Ted Turner's 61ft S&S yacht Tenacious, which just 18 months earlier had won the 1979 Fastnet Race that had been mauled by the storm, leaving so many casualties in its wake.

At the funeral for Jack there would be a fitting moment of light-hearted humour, during an otherwise sombre, sad and serious afternoon. As Jack's coffin was being carried out from the church on the shoulders of the pall bearers, someone cracked the joke that Jack had wanted to call his beloved Finn 'Jack in the Box', to which the immediate reply was, "it's where he is now!"

Jack, as a clever wordsmith and journalist, would have relished the quality of the riposte, thinking it one worthy of Bob Fisher, who was not just his erstwhile partner in print (as another favourite in the stable of clever Yachts & Yachting journalists of the day) but was another insightful observer watching the rapidly changing face of sailboat racing. Even as early as that sad afternoon, there was a sentiment expressed by some, that in looking to the future, Jack, had he not been taken so soon, would have had to rein in some of his more barbed and pointed comments.

Already the sailing media scene, just like boatbuilding in the UK, was moving away from the earlier, individualist 'cottage industry' mindset, to one that was far more commercially aware, where the tone of the marketing message was almost as important as the content itself.

In all probability he would have 'butted heads' even more, with the risk that we would have upset people who had the ability to impact on his public platform. Jack though was nothing if not a survivor, who surely would still have found a way to express his views, moreover views that today can sadly get left unsaid.

That fear, that our sport today may have lost something of a much-needed voice, that would always speak out against some of the more questionable directions that have been taken, is all the more a concern when taken with the news that the aforementioned Bob Fisher, raconteur, commentator, sailor famed for everything from dinghies and multihulls to big boats, a doyen, nay a Championship winner of the sliding seat era Hornet (not to mention barred from more sailing club bars than can be listed), is planning to lay down his pen.

Jack Knights and Bob Fisher have plenty in common, which went well past the pleasures of having a refilled glass in hand after a great day out afloat. Now, having featured Jack, it is time to turn our focus onto Bob... with his role as the second of the Witty Wise Men appearing soon as Part 2 to this story.

Jack Knights: 31st July 1929 - 26th January 1981

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