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70 years of going Dutch - the UK's part in the history of the Flying Dutchman

by Dougal Henshall 26 Nov 2021 12:00 GMT
Kilian Konig and Johannes Brack on day 3 of the Flying Dutchman World Championships 2014 © Alan Henderson /

Since the early 1950s the Flying Dutchman has been one of the pinnacles of performance sailing. What though is the secret behind this amazing and often ground-breaking boat? The FD is not just one of the biggest dinghies out there, but also one of the quickest... and is undoubtedly right at the top in terms of looks!

Many years ago, I was writing for a now defunct sailing magazine and had rather cornered the market in Top Ten listings, with the Ten Best UK Dinghy Designs being extremely popular. I had planned to follow this up with the Top Ten Dinghy Sailing Experiences and had drafted this out, only for the magazine to fold and with this died what had been an interesting and fun idea for the 'interactive' linked series.

Now I have no intention here of recreating the list, but as a teaser of what might have been, there was the start and first beat in a Merlin Rocket at Salcombe, a narrow hulled International Moth with a heavy Needlespar mast downwind in breeze, a Contender on a breezy reach in open waters, a Tornado cat in breeze anywhere and... a Flying Dutchman upwind on an open water course.

Looking back, it was this last entry that I thought would surprise most of the readers, mainly because (at least here in the UK) the FD is not just misunderstood, but for the majority of the mainstream dinghy scene, is all but unknown. Yet this is a boat that was a true game changer that impacted on the nature of our sport and gave us so many developments in terms of sailing techniques and technology.

Unlike its close competitor for the Olympic double-hander dinghy slot, the 505, the FD was never a hugely popular class in the UK, although in its heyday, there was class racing at the top locations around our coasts and inland. Yet, despite this, the UK would build a long and lasting reputation for not just the top FD sailors, who would collect a hefty crop of Olympic medals along the way, but for the boats, the masts and the sails.

In my book 'Hooked On' that tells the story of the International Contender, it is pointed out that this is a dinghy which almost by design shares much of its DNA with the Dutchman. In the introduction I refer to the single-hander as being sailing's 'red sports car' with this being an easy association to make, for designer Bob Miller/Ben Lexen loved his Ferraris when ashore. The FD is equally uncompromising in its performance, but it is a statelier way of going quickly that is more akin to the classic Bentleys of Le Mans than the fiery Italian rocket cars.

From the historical perspective, it is amazing that we are already a generation on from when the FD was dumped out of the Olympics, and whilst it may have all but disappeared from our domestic dinghy scene here in the UK, across the sailing world the FD is still very much a dinghy at the pinnacle of international competition. What then is its story and the secret that underpins that 70 years of success?

To fully understand the Flying Dutchman story, you have to go back even further in time, to the late 1940s when dinghy sailing was, as now, entering into a period of fundamental change. Until then the mainstream of established dinghy sailing had been led by the International 14, whilst the domestic scene was populated by a myriad of local classes that tended to be heavy and hardly orientated towards performance.

Everything though was changing, as Bermudian rigs replaced gaffs, ply started to replace planks, and people started to enjoy the concept of leisure time. It was a time of exciting new ideas and designs, but the IYRU (now World Sailing) was worried by the way that events were unfolding. Their fear was that the unchecked arrival of a whole raft of new dinghy designs would dilute the current class structure, leading to a fragmentation of the existing class racing. At least they had a solution to the problem, as they had commissioned their own design for an exciting new double-handed dinghy that would be recommended for inclusion in the 1956 Olympics.

If this forward thinking sounds a bit unlike the World Sailing of today, then be assured that nothing has changed, as some poor decision making would result in their new boat, the (monohull) Tornado, being heavy, slow and far from the prettiest boat thing seen afloat. If you can imagine a cross between a GP14 on steroids and an over-sized Wayfarer, you'd be close! However, what would happen next has all the romance of a real sea story, when one day, a group of the leading dinghy sailors would be sat mulling over the problem at lunch during an event in the Netherlands.

A table napkin was sacrificed as a palette for the ideas that were flowing around the table, as the details of what would make a better new 'performance dinghy' started to crystallise. Unlike the International 14s that the group were all sailing, the blank canvas of the napkin would end up featuring the lines of a new boat which offered a great deal more than just a longer waterline length for greater speed. The Flying Dutchman may not seem a super radical boat in the thinking of today, but 70 years ago this was a ground-breaking development.

One of the most notable features was in the way the hull almost ignored the current concerns about surface wetted area, instead carrying a wide beam on the waterline and a long, flat run aft. This last point may well have come from the thinking of Charles Currey who, as we saw in The Winningest Wise Man was an aspect of hull design that he had been promoting for some years.

The IYRU had already said that they saw the rig of the International 14 as being about the maximum that two adult men could be expected to handle across the range of wind conditions, but the new boat would carry significantly more sail area, which would then require the use of a trapeze to keep the whole thing in balance. Conrad Gulcher, who would be the driving force behind the initiative, then took the table napkin and some other ideas to Naval Architect Uwe van Essen, who turned the rough working sketches into a stunningly-shaped hull.

However, there was a problem, in that the IYRU already had the Tornado as their chosen design, and would be unlikely to adopt yet another new boat, especially one that would be a direct competitor. Another issue for Conrad and his friends was that the big meeting for the IYRU was just weeks away and the delegate that would have to present their proposed new boat was adamant that he needed to see the design compete and out sailing before he would support the cause. In what must have been the 'mother of all-nighters' the team led by Conrad had the boat built, finished and was able to demonstrate it sailing and as promised, ready to be presented to the IYRU.

Given the negative publicity that was building around the Tornado, the IYRU would now weaken and agree to host some Trials so that all of the latest crop of designs could be seen. Given that the boat behind all this activity was very much a product of the Netherlands, it would be the British Head of the IYRU who would suggest the name of the Flying Dutchman, a nod to the fabled tale of the Dutch ghost ship that was damned to sail the high seas for ever, never again able to make a landfall.

Conrad Gulcher's Flying Dutchman would quickly become another legend of the sea, as it was so very different to the dinghies that had gone before it. Long, low and lean, there was some who thought that the FD had been given a green light because it looked like a small yacht to the very yacht centric members of the IYRU, but that ignores the fact that from the outset, the boat was a superb performer that was in a different class of performance to the Tornado. The IYRU still needed a little more convincing however and started by giving the FD limited international status, allowing its use for inland lakes only.

This situation was no more than a temporary hold, as within a year another set of Trials had produced the Coronet (soon to be re-jigged as the 5o5) whilst the FD was granted full international status. Of the IYRU's earlier favoured option, little more would be heard, apart from a possible plan to present it as an international 3-man dinghy, but this too would be quietly dropped.

With all that had been going on, it was now considered too late for the FD to take its place in the 1956 Olympic Regatta in Melbourne and was replaced by the 12m Sharpie, but by 1960 in Rome the FD had joined the Finn as a fully-fledged Olympic dinghy.

However, in the UK, the FD was enjoying something of a mixed reputation. In many ways, as a boat that was expensive from the off and elitist, it went against the overriding domestic trends of the day, which were all about accessibility, with classes such as the Enterprise, GP14 and Merlin Rocket fuelling the growth in the UK dinghy scene. In a recent talk with octogenarian Keith Paul (who won championships in the 505 and Contender, as well as in the FD) he recalled that in the 1960s there was a definite feeling that once you reached the top in your domestic class of choice, then the next step upwards would be a campaign in the Flying Dutchman.

Given that there were never that many boats racing at any one time, it is amazing that at the top dinghy clubs such as Brightlingsea, the FDs could muster sufficient boats for high quality class racing. Hamble River on the South Coast was already a hot spot of innovation in terms of technology and sailing techniques; with the FD being a demanding boat in terms of both, it was little surprise that the class would be strong in the area. It would be this level of regular competition that would start the process of raising the standard of the UK fleet.

Despite our entry winning a race at the 1960 Olympic Regatta, William 'Slotty' Dawes and crew James Rasmus would eventually finish in seventh place. The strong home scene around the FD would then come into play ahead of the 1964 Regatta in Japan, as Keith Musto and Tony Morgan could have taken the Gold, but would get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in the final race and would end up bringing home the Silver Medal.

Their success was due not just to the huge amount of talent in the boat, but also to Keith's incredible attention to detail. The complexity in the FD rig, with the massive overlapping genoa, gave rise to suits of sails that were aimed specifically at different wind strengths and race venues, but the different sails required different set ups, all of which needed to be calibrated and understood.

Hull wise, the FD had sufficient freedom in the tolerances for inventive builders to start tweaking the shape. The UK's early efforts and FD building were rather hit and miss, with Fairey Marine producing hot moulded hulls, but with Sales Manager Charles Currey busy elsewhere, these would not be in production for long. Other builders would produce hulls that ranged from the highly competitive offerings from the Tremletts in South and Greg Gregory in Lee-on-the-Solent, to the less successful, such as some of the early GRP hulls that had the double whammy of being both soft AND heavy!

Despite Keith and Tony's success, at home things continued pretty much as before for the Flying Dutchman, other than a new breed of sailors who were learning from the lessons of their 1964 campaign. What the UK lacked in numbers it more than made up for in quality, with the iconic 'Shadow' taking John Oakeley and David Hunt to World Championship success. Keith Musto, John Truett, Dougie Bishop, Johnson Wooderson and others would all be pushing hard but the UK fleet now contained a hard driving Naval Officer who had probably the clearest vision of what needed to be done to win a Gold Medal.

Having the vision is one thing, bringing it to reality is something very different, but in Rodney Pattisson the UK had an almost unique sailor with a range of extraordinary talents. An advert for one of the leading sail makers of the day declared that "boatspeed makes you a tactical genius" which may or may not be true, but for Rodney and crew Iain MacDonald-Smith, their path lay in having the boatspeed then adding in their own tactical genius.

Their first task was to win the qualification series at home, which was no easy feat given the strength of the opposition, but they would prevail and head off to Acapulco to represent the UK. Things nearly went badly wrong with a first race disqualification, but the incredible discipline of the pair held as they won the next five races, with their second place in the final heat being the only blemish in their scores to count.

The UK had now taken medals in successive Olympic regattas, but more than that, they were the dominant force in the fleet. Hulls, beautifully cold-moulded by Bob Hoare at Poole, sails from Seahorse, masts from Proctor, and the full range of fittings that a boat like the FD needed, could all be sourced from domestic suppliers. At the same time, the FD itself was rich in innovation and development, with ideas that are now commonplace, such as the spinnaker chute all stemming from moves within the class.

Having won in 1968, Rodney was now determined to retain his Olympic crown and the tales of his spending not just days or weeks, but months out afloat on Poole Bay, working to perfect his boat and his sailing would bring Rodney and crew Chris Davies a second Gold Medal at Kiel in 1972. Two medals for Rodney, three in a row for Team UK and still the juggernaut of British FD sailing looked set fair to continue.

However, those closer to the action would point to the huge advances made by other wishing to also be at the top of the medal podiums, with names for the future like Mark Bethwaite and Harold Cudmore gaining valuable experience at Kiel. Success at the Olympics was starting to require more than just a strong individual and though the UK continued to pull the cream of other fleets into the FD, with 5o5 Champions in particular making the move across, other nations were developing their own sailors.

Come the 1976 Olympics and once again Rodney Pattisson, now with Julian Brooke-Houghton as crew, had again qualified at the UK representative for Kingston. Their regatta started well, with a 1,2,4,3 scoreline across the first four races, but they were being paced all the way by the Diesch brothers, Jörg and Eckart representing West Germany. This would be (to borrow the phrase) a "game of two halves" as over the next three races the British boat scored 18,12,11 - adding 59 points to their score.

In contrast, the super consistent Germans carded 16,5,5 - an extra 42 points to take the Gold Medal - leaving Rodney and Julian clinging on to the Silver by the narrowest of margins as the Brazilian pairing of Reinaldo Conrad and Peter Ficker came oh so close with their last three races scoring 1,3,3.

Nevertheless, a haul of two Gold and two Silver Medals from the previous four Olympics had placed something of a responsibility on the UK to keep the results coming in the face of ever more determined and technically advanced competition. With such a technically complex and demanding boat, the question was now being asked if some form of cooperative approach might not offer better returns that by simply investing in a maverick singleton, however gifted and determined he may be.

Having asked the question, the RYA tasked Rod Carr to find the answer, with him bringing in Fireball World Champion Peter Bateman and Jim Saltonstall to run the UK's first properly formulated 'performance squad'. This trio were lucky in that they had some amazing material to work with, including 5o5 Champion John Loveday, multiple Merlin Rocket Champion Pat Blake, and Jo Richards, who was going quickly in almost everything he sailed. With this core of highly talented helms and their crews, Rod, Peter and Jim started a structured regime of training that covered all aspects of preparation focused towards success at the top level events.

Today, the concepts and the potential benefits of squad training are fully understood and accepted, but in the second half of the 1970s some of the techniques used were ground-breaking. With the 1980 Games being hosted by Moscow, the Olympic Regatta would be held high on the Baltic at Tallinn, with all of the efforts of the squad focused on success at this location.

It is interesting that despite Hayling Island hosting the World Championship just two years before the Olympics, that none of the British boats, neither individual nor squad, would make it to the podium, yet confidence remained high that one of the Team would not only qualify for Tallinn, but would medal there.

By now the FD was very much in the forefront of the technical revolution in boat building, with composite materials and aluminium honeycomb making for some superbly light and stiff hulls, although the price tag that went with them would see some FDs described as "the world's most expensive dinghies".

The 'what happened next' is something less of a happy tale. Pat Blake and Christian Houchin would defeat all comers to win the selection Trials and were confidently looking forwards to competing at the Games, only for the RYA to bow to political pressure and follow the (very patchy) boycott of the event.

The UK sailing team for the Games was strong, with medal prospects in a number of the disciplines, but sadly for the individuals involved they would be treated very badly and subsequently 'scattered' to other reaches of sailing. For the UK's aspirations in the FD, the great work done by the RYA's squad would still bear fruit as Jo Richards and Peter Allam would take the Bronze medal at Los Angeles.

Sadly, this would almost be the end of the UK's interest in the FD, as in the two Olympic Regattas that followed, British boats could only record sixth and 15th places. There were though other benefits to be enjoyed, as boatbuilder and extraordinary sailor Jon Turner, who had crewed for Spud Rowsell when he had a short-lived FD campaign, would put his own boat together and would go to Los Angeles as reserve/tune up boat to Jo Richards.

It was in the FD that Jon would first start experimenting with raking the whole rig aft in breeze, a technique that he would then port over into the Scorpion, before deck-stepping a Merlin Rocket and showing how effective the development was in that class. Jon would not be the only top helm to be found in an FD, but when Cathy Foster took over a boat with Hugh Myers as crew, she would join the exalted ranks of female championship winners in the FD!

By now though the writing was on the wall for the FD, as the skiff revolution was already gaining ground and with asymmetrics clearly the sail plan of the future. The IYRU clearly thought so and at the same time, were looking more and more at identical boats from a single builder: the SMOD concept. The FD, with boats often built for a regatta, be that light or heavy airs, was seen as too expensive and a barrier to getting new nations represented at the Games.

In 1992, Luis Doreste and Domingo Manrique would give the host nation something to cheer as they took the final Gold Medal in the class, before the FD bowed out having served in nine Olympic cycles. The attention was now shifting towards boats such as the Laser 5000, BOSS and 49er, but when a new set of Trials was called for Torbole in 1996, some backers of the FD would try to bring the boat right up to date with a racked, twin wire asymmetric version, the Mach 2.

Nearly thirty years on from that sad moment, and with the FD turning 70 years of age, it is an amazing tribute to the quality of the original design that the class is still alive and functioning although sadly, that interest no longer includes the UK apart from a couple of dedicated supporters.

Cross the channel to the continent and it is a different matter; head east a bit and the FD remains strong on the European Lakes, which was just where the IYRU thought it should be 70 years ago!

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