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Arrested development - has the restricted development genre had its day?

by Dougal Henshall 23 Dec 2021 12:00 GMT
in this classic shot from a crowded Salcombe, can you recognise the one boat that ISN'T a Winder? © David Henshall

Let's start with a little Christmas Quiz and play spot the odd one out. Numerically, the Merlin Rockets are our most successful development class, but in this classic shot (above) from a crowded Salcombe, can you recognise the one boat that ISN'T a Winder? (the answer will be at the end of the article)

When we recently featured the iconic Magnum Moths in the article When Flares Were in Fashion it seems that we struck something of a chord with our readers, as the feedback resulted in a bulging postbag of interesting comments. Not only was there a general appreciation of how innovative the Magnums had been in a class that was already a byword for radical design, but the article also showed just how many successful sailors of today had honed their sailing skills (and their swimming abilities) and their understanding of what makes for a quick boat, when learning to handle any number of narrow and tippy boats.

For sure, the Moths come top of any list of tricky rides out afloat, but at the same time they were far from unique, as there were plenty of other examples of the restricted class genre that were more than happy to spring unwanted surprises on the unwary sailor.

Still, it would be the International Moth that came to demonstrate all that is good about the development class ethos, yet at the same time would make it clear that high levels of development all too often ended up being a double-edged sword. Before looking at this aspect in more detail, it is worthwhile looking at the nature of what a development class really is, for there is a wide spectrum of just how much development each class may allow or restrict!

In its purest form, a development class is best represented by a simple box rule that sets out the overall parameters, with as few additional caveats as possible.

This means that most of what we think as development is more correctly known as restricted development, where the basics are little more than a starting point, as weight, beam, rise of floor, construction and hollows in the topsides have all constrained designers from coming up with really radical developments.

In many ways these limitations on what will be allowed has helped maintain a balance of power between the existing stock of boats and the arrival of new designs. This is the famed 'evolution not revolution' factor at work, where each new change is at best an incremental step forward, allowing a well-prepared and -sailed design of yesterday to still be competitive with the latest 'go faster' development.

Without a doubt this is a good thing as the history of dinghy design is littered with the fabled stories of wonderfully radical designs that were going to set the sailing world alight, only to fade away into the obscurity of failure without, as the saying goes, 'having bothered the scorers'! One of the most iconic and high-profile examples can be found in the annals of the Merlin Rocket class, after David Robinson went to designer Stephen Jones with a request for something completely different.

The result of this was Shaft, which was just about as different as it was possible to be. There had been a danger that, had Shaft delivered a quantum leap forward in performance, she would have changed the evolution into revolution, but thankfully for the status quo not only was Shaft no quicker than the current stock of boats, but was also often slower and could be almost Moth-like in its ability to spit its crews into the water without any prior warning.

Yet even with Shaft and its equivalents in the other development classes, it is the nature of the development ethos that the path is always trending towards ever greater performance, with the result being that, to stay fully competitive, owners will need to stay on the merry-go-round of needing to upgrade their boats on a regular basis.

However, the flip side to this approach is the concern that the constant need for a new boat can play into the argument of cheque book sailing. Moreover, not everyone wants to change their boat, with this being more of an issue in those classes where there is strong sense of pride of ownership, where the owner invests something of himself in his boat, rather than it just being an instantly replaceable commodity item.

There is though one other consideration, which like a bright light at night-time will bring the Moths back into the story, in that whilst continuous development may result in faster boats, they may not always be 'better' boats, with the attendant risk that some very good boats can get rendered obsolete along the way. This then begs the question as to the situation where some variants might be so good that they could/should become stand-alone classes in their own right, a case of a development design that then becomes a one-design.

Going right back to the earliest days of the Moth class, this is exactly what happened, with the action taking place right in the heart of Central London. During the 1929 Wall Street Crash that brought the Roaring Twenties (or as the French would call it, les années folles - the crazy years) America was already exporting its culture around the world, with one import into the UK being the first of the US version of the Moth dinghy to make the migration to these shores.

This was of particular interest to a group of first-generation dinghy racers who met on a regular basis to sail on the lake in Regent's Park. Their boats were a motley collection of lug sail dinghies that were raced under a rudimentary handicap system, but it had long been identified that what was needed was a single class of boat that would sail well, plus a better stretch of water than the increasingly wind-shadowed Park.

The second quest was probably easier than the first, as by the early 1930s the regular dinghy racing scene had moved out along the North Circular to the Brent Reservoir, which would later be renamed the Welsh Harp.

Choosing the boat would be trickier, as the Moth, though speedier than the existing stock of boats, suffered from a number of drawbacks. Although nippy, the boxy, hard chine Moths were less than impressive when being worked to windward, and whilst they were quick off wind, once pushed up onto their chine, they could quickly lose stability, which was not a desirable quality in these pre-wetsuit days.

However, the great thing about the Moth Class was that from the outset there was a great deal of freedom within the rules, which allowed local designer Sidney Cheverton to produce his own set of lines. His boat enjoyed more freeboard than the US Scows, though Sidney had recognised the virtues of what he called the 'unorthodox fore sections', as he felt the spoon-shaped scow bow allowed the boat to be driven harder than the average dinghy. Rig wise, with the boat being intended for inland waters, a high aspect mast and sail were added (though in its initial guise the sail area was 16% less than that on the American Moths).

From the outset Sidney had to carefully include other criteria, for cost would be a big factor; as he said later his Moth was a boat which any young man should be able to buy and maintain. One way of limiting the build cost was to have all the hulls made the same, with a builder turning out the first boats for a fixed price of £20 per hull! Despite the strength of the Moth influence in these early stages, it was now felt that the new Sidney Cheverton boat would move away from the continual development ethos, with the boat being called the Brent One Design, before a class association was formed for what would now be known as the British Moth.

However, despite the fact that all of the new boats were the same, there is still enough Moth DNA in the make-up of the class to allow a degree of development of the hull shape, the fittings and layout of the boat and - in more recent time - the rig, with carbon spars now an accepted part of the modern British Moth.

It is an interesting aspect of this part of the story that even in the early years of the golden era of dinghy development the British Moths rated as fast, or faster than their International Moth cousins. All that would soon change, but whilst the 'mainstream' Moth would go on to become a central part of the international dinghy sailing story, the British Moth would happily fill a niche as a superb boat for restricted inland waters.

Other small single-handers have come along with claims of similar abilities, yet the facts are that next year the British Moths will celebrate 90 years of sailing. Moreover, with their occupation of that albeit tight niche looking as strong as ever, although derided by some. the British Moth remains a clever little package, which it backs up with a friendly class association and, best of all, a boat that is an absolute delight to sail.

For the International Moths, the continued and accelerating path of development saw hulls start to lose their boxiness, becoming ever more rounded, with some of the quicker boats having a near semi-circular hull form. There had already been other attempts to create a one-design version, with one example being the 'Flying Moth', but designers and builders were finding that with Major Tony Hibbert's careful nurturing, the growing strength of the Moth scene in the UK was leaving little in the way of room for yet another spin off. However, out on the international scene it would be a different matter as the demand for a more powerful Moth hull, moreover one with better sea keeping qualities, would prompt a new wave of development.

From France and the Low Countries would come a new breed of hull designs, beamier, with very little freeboard aft and with a very Finn/OK-like rig that featured an unstayed mast positioned right up in the point of the bow. The best of these started out with a design from Pierre Marique which quickly became a regional favourite with a number of successes, so when the FIV (the French equivalent of the RYA) started looked at changing the Moth into a one design, Alois Roland modified the lines, with the result being the Europa Moth.

This French development was something of a surprise, as they were at this point one of the dominant nations in Moth development and racing, but we should be grateful as the Europa (which then became the Europe) would evolve as a one-design into one of the sweetest of the 'small' single-handers ever produced.

As sailing for women exploded in the 1980s, the Europe was perfectly placed to become the Olympic boat for them, but there is far more to the Europe than just as a boat for the ladies. The ability to select a rig to suit the sailor allowed a far greater range of helms to enjoy high quality international competition within the class, in something of a direct contrast to the 'one size MUST suit all' strict one-designs that are now in use.

After a number of Olympic rotations, the Europe was replaced by the Laser Radial, but the sheer quality of the original design has kept it both modern and up-to-date and popular, particularly in areas such as the Nordic nations. In the UK, the class struggled to gain a broad base of popularity given the wide choice of alternative small boats, but neither did it fade away. The Europe was just too good a boat to ignore and more recently the boat has seen a new surge in interest, helped by the efforts of a really engaged class association.

The points noted above about pride of ownership, plus the fact that the boat offers the helm an enhanced level of 'engagement', has resulted in the Europe booming for sailors of both sexes, in part due to the fact that is a boat that all can race together, on a level playing field.

In the same time span, there could have been a third splinter group breaking away from the Moths, but this would end as a salutary tale of just how difficult this can be to achieve. The problem stemmed from the commercial production of the Skol range of Moths. The original Skol Moth design hailed from Australia and featured a remarkably fair hull, free of the distortions that were starting to appear in some of the more radical designs of the early 1970s.

An improved prototype was then developed in the then Czech Republic, before the boat moved into production with Tony Hibbert down at Lymington. The first generation Skols retained the dished hull form popular out on the continent but with a very conventional deck layout - with a stern deck and side tanks - which created what looked like a bathtub cockpit and when sailed downwind in breeze could be just as full of water.

The key thing about the Skol was that the construction was all GRP, but despite this flying in the face of the rapidly home-built ply, resin and tape alternatives would prove remarkable successful. When Dick Owens won the Championships in his Skol, interest in the boat rocketed, for now there was a cost-effective turnkey solution that gave a newcomer immediate access to competitive Moth racing. Tony Hibbert then handed his interest in the Skol on to successful Lymington boat builders Rondar Boats, who quickly had a popular success on their hands with the Mk II Skol, which had lost the stern tank and was now completely open at the transom.

It is one of those lovely stories that tells how one lunchtime, with some spare time on their hands, the team at Rondars did a classic 'cut and shut', when they chopped the hull of a Skol, manipulated it to create a hull that would perform better when planing, and thus created the Mark III.

No-one would ever call the International Moth 'vice free' but the latest Skol was certainly an easier boat for those of a nervous disposition, given that the Moth rig was changing fast. The 'old' UK and European low aspect rigs were being replaced by the more powerful Aussie-style high aspect mast and sails, which could make an already tricky boat to sail in wind and waves a real handful.

Moving forward, the Skol performed to the point that there was talk of another spin-off, but at the same time the Aussie-style rigs were being set on powerful tunnel scows which would soon become the dominant boats to beat.

This though begs the question, was the Skol III a missed opportunity for a new one-design class, aimed at the growing market for a lightweights single-hander. With the benefit of hindsight, the answer here has to be a qualified yes, for in the years to come there would be several other boats launched at the 'smaller' sailor end of the market, that have since gone on to carve out something of a niche.

Would those other new classes have reached the traction of a critical mass in the face of a separate Skol Moth Class? The question of course is hypothetical, because with the rapid changes that were taking place with the Moths, the Skol was soon obsolete and quickly forgotten as boats went either flatter or narrower. However, the fact that a healthy number of Skols have survived (even if the wood reinforcing under the decks now has the consistency of Scotch Porridge Oats) is a telling testament to the quality of a boat that could have had its own future.

As we saw recently in the Magnum article, the Moths would always be at the forefront of dinghy development, a factor that some decades later would seem them leading the way into foiling. Once again though the Moths would be the inspiration for yet another new development, with the very clever WASZP building on the best of the Moth's recent developments as a foiler, then developing them into an accessible and affordable one-design.

Just as with the British Moth and the Europe, the WASZP looks to be more than ready to create its own niche, without causing a negative impact on the original Moth idea.

So far, we've told this tale of breeding one-designs from development class parents with specific reference to the International Moths, but there have been plenty of other attempts, with varying degrees of failure, in other classes too.

Just after the Merlin class had been mated with the Rockets, South Devon Boatbuilders produced their own take on the Merlin Rocket with J.V. Kelley's Mayfly. Kelley had already been designing boats for both the National 12s and International 14s and, in finishing in sixth place at the 1951 MR National Championship, would show that his design philosophy, with very full bow sections, was one worthy of pursuing.

The Merlin Rockets, driven by new designs from Jack Holt and Ian Proctor, would pursue a very different approach, but the thinking behind Mayfly was good enough for it to thrive outside of the Merlin Rocket class as the trimmed down, hard chine Mayfly that would enjoy critical success in the 1970s and 80s.

Later on, the dominance of Ian Proctor's famous Mark IXb design would result in the first serious thinking that maybe it was time for the Merlin to go full time down the one-design route, only for wiser heads to prevail, keeping the ethos of restricted development alive.

In more recent times, this line of reasoning has come under pressure - as with the exception of the wonderful Jon Turner boats and some amazing solo efforts - the class has become almost a de facto one-design, built around the Ian Holt/Winder FRP boats. Out of the 120+ boats built in the last decade or so, more than 100 have been Winder FRPs, with only a few development minded souls who have produced boats such as the innovative and uber-modern looking Rockatross being able to argue that the Merlin Rockets are not today a "one-design in all but name".

Little wonder then that there have been voices from within the class, suggesting that the small number of non-Winder boats should be grandfathered, then the rules changed to put the existing situation onto a more formalised footing, creating what would be a 'Winder One-Design', with this viewpoint appearing to have some merit. After all, with such an over-whelming numerical superiority (as well as being in many helm's eyes the best boat out there) the Merlin fleet now have enjoyed almost three decades of prosperous stability.

The flip side to this would be if the rumours of a radical new design and build ever become a reality, then those pressures could prove irresistible. After all, what would be the impact on the core of existing boats if a new boat proved to offer a step forward in performance? In no other fleet has the fault lines between the development thinkers on one hand, and those who fear for the longer-term future for the class as a whole, been laid so bare.

Yet those who want to leave the door open to further development in a class can point back to the Merlin Rockets trying the one-design route back in the late 1990s, when a group of sailors at Welsh Harp (where else, given the Harp's important role in the birth of the British Moth) looked to Phil Morrison to create a smooth-skinned one-design Merlin.

The result, the MR-X, was yet another brave attempt to spin off a new class using the best features of an existing development fleet. The MR-X, with its sharp, clean lines proved an able competitor that deserved a bigger and better future, but the pressures that brought it into production would contain the seeds of its own longer-term demise. There is a thread of irony in the tale of the MR-X, as the wider fleet bypassed this one-design but instead followed the path of the Winder FRP boats, creating the situation of a virtual one-design.

Today it is possible to make the argument that the heyday of the development classes was back in the days of lightweight ply, a time when innovative sailors could come up with an idea and then have a way of turning it into reality. When you think of the birth of Punkarella, the innovative National 12 that was years ahead of its time, we know that the idea started from a moment of inspiration during a Friday lunchtime session at a local pub and by midnight, the bare hull was complete.

However, the National 12s offer a very different case study that, depending on your viewpoint, suggests that it is either a great success story or a great way to spoil an otherwise great class.

The 12s had already driven a beamy, smooth-skinned hull through the rule books, with a series of developments that stretched the limits of current acceptability, only to then become mainstream.

The move to four-plank hulls, dagger boards and smooth skins had dramatically changed the dynamics of the 12 fleet, but later developments would include double bottomed hulls and T-foils. Nobody would deny how these have made the boat quicker, but that step forward in performance has come with a worrying decline in participation. For most of the decades of growth in the dinghy scene, the Burton Trophy was one of the holy grails in dinghy sailing, but in what must be a worrying trend for the class there is a danger that the 12 is moving out towards the realms of a fringe activity.

The Cherubs were like the International Moths: always been a place for the young and the young at heart, with a focus on those who were happy to spend as long building their boats as they spent sailing them. Most of all the Cherubs were all about having the fun that comes with a lot of sail area on a short hull, along with the opportunity for the real innovator to do their own thing.

For the clever Cherubs, who were at the forefront of many of the developments that were leading sailing towards the asymmetric rig, the move to a full blown asymmetric was an easy step to take, but then - as twin wiring and the flirtation with foils followed - the pool of followers shrunk.

The Cherub of today is an amazing dinghy as it continues to push the boundaries of what can be done with a 12ft hull, but the price has come with a loss of a broad base of support.

The big difference with the situation of today is that now new designs tend to be marketing-driven with them being built from high-tech composite materials. Not only does converting the requirement into the final choice of design introduce a fairly significant lead time (the exact opposite of the 1960s Moth line of thinking of 'just ****** do it') but the very formal and expensive process of creating the tooling required means that boatbuilders are placed under incredible pressure to get it right first time.

In the same way, the elder statesman of the dinghy racing scene, the International 14, has reached almost the summit of what is possible within the constraints of the current rules and - unless there is a future relaxation, which again would be harmful to the existing stock of boats - the current 14s are close to the point of plateauing out.

The complaints made about the cost of remaining competitive in the 14 fleet back in the late 1940s are still with us 75 years later, but now they are compounded by the fact that, with boats such as the RS800 and 49er, you can get better performance at a fraction of the cost and still have amazing international competition.

Does this suggest therefore that the days of the development/restricted classes are over? In some ways, the simple commercial constraints imposed by a sport that is still shrinking, coping with the double whammy of more interesting alternative activities and conflicting demands (with the impact of Covid as the final straw for some) on what is now limited personal free time, suggest that a genre of boats in which the obsolescence is virtually built-in may have had its day.

The answer may well be found in the future fortunes of two of our oldest development classes that have now taken up opposing positions.

The International Canoes went one-design for a time, but in recent years have reversed that decision, a move that has prompted a wonderful renaissance of new designs and thinking in the class, with the result being a generation of top-class sailors taking up the challenge of the Canoe, making it an exciting place to be.

At the same time, the 'Big Daddy' of development classes, the National 18, has gone the other way and are now embracing the full one-design ethos with their very smart and competitive Phil Morrison-designed hull.

Without the benefit of a crystal ball, the future for all these classes has yet to be written, but it will make for an interesting spectacle as dinghy sailing, as a vibrant part of our wider society, continues to emerge from all of the restrictions that had been imposed by the pandemic.

However, if the picture of the future is as yet unclear, we can at least look back with the benefit of 20:20 clarity at those examples of the development class dinghy that have turbo-charged performance not only in their own class, but in the wider sport of dinghy racing.

This still leaves the question though: "What price do we have to pay for choice?"

A Happy Christmas to all our readers!

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