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Craftinsure 2021 - LEADERBOARD

Welsh Moths - The quintessential English boat at the quintessential English Club

by Dougal Henshall 6 May 12:00 BST
A quintessential English dinghy with a backdrop that shouts out its Englishness, with the Arch and hallowed turf of Wembley as a backdrop - British Moth 90th Anniversary open meeting © Sam Pearce / www.square-image.co.uk

For 90 years, a little bit of North London has been an undisputed baseline for our sport.

90 years ago, just as now, the UK was being gripped by a financial crisis as so many of the traditional industries were becoming uncompetitive on the world stage. The national economy was depressed and there was social unrest, which would prompt the poet W H Auden to describe the 1930s as a 'low, dishonest decade'. However, it was in this febrile atmosphere that the still relatively new sport of dinghy racing would be developing at speed and looking for ways to attract a new breed of young sailor.

The International 14 was the dominant force in two-man boats (ladies didn't really figure at this point in time, sadly) but in terms of 'global' competition the core activity was in single-handed dinghies. The 1912 designed International 12 had already served in two Olympic regattas, with this trend continuing at the 1932 Games at Los Angeles when the dinghy scene was represented by the Snowbird, a 12ft hard chine design that would provide a signpost to many of the single-handers that would follow in the decades to come. The Snowbird would not impact on the UK dinghy scene, but in its place another American import would soon be creating a great deal of interest.

A group of sailors based in Central London had been looking for a new one-design dinghy to replace their collection of disparate boats that they raced on Regent's Park Lake. From their Headquarters at the Volunteer Arms pub on Baker Street (just a couple of doors down from the home of Sherlock Holmes) the interest focused on a racy version of an American Moth that had been imported from the US, but a lack of freeboard and an unsuitable rig - not to mention some questionable boat handling issues when going downwind in breeze - suggested that although this was a good starting point, a better boat was possible.

At the same time, the group were also searching for a larger stretch of water for racing, as the lake in Regent's Park was too small and the further development of high rise buildings was making the wind across the water unstable.

One of the group from the Volunteer Arms was Sidney Cheverton, who wrote about how he had spent some time in 1931 checking out stretches of the Thames as well as a number of various lakes and reservoirs.

In North London, his attention would focus on a large stretch of water that was formed by the confluence of the River Brent and the Silk Stream, which had been constructed a hundred years earlier to provide water for the nearby Regents and Grand Union canals. Although originally known as the Kingsbury Reservoir, the water was more commonly referred to as the Welsh Harp, after a famous nearby pub, the Old Welsh Harp Tavern, which has stood just to the east of the lake.

The lake ticked all the boxes and was clearly the best bit of water, but at the same time, the area was still under something of a cloud, as just a year earlier the grassy slopes on the lakeside had been the scene of the extraordinary 'Sunbathing Wars'. The protagonists in this battle were the local residents and the members of the Sun-Ray Club, who believed in the healthy pursuit of sunbathing au naturel.

Their lack of clothing had been tolerated until one sunny weekend, when a number of locals were out walking around the lake, they were confronted with the shock horror of a lady wearing nothing above her waist! Strong words were exchanged before various individuals traded blows as the naturists were driven from the area... to be replaced by dinghy sailors!

At the same time, Sidney Cheverton was busy reworking the lines of the American Moth, keeping some of the more eye-catching and desirable features whilst adding his own thoughts in as to what would make "a fast and enjoyable boat, capable of being sailed in the middle of winter without hardship". Sidney's other considerations were very modern and ones that we'd happily identify with today, for he was determined that his new boat would be one that "above all, a boat that any young man could afford to buy and maintain".

His design, which had the working title of the Brent One design, is talked about as having a scow hull but in truth "it is...but it isn't", as instead it has the full bow of the scow, yet also enjoys the vee shape of a more conventional dinghy.

With a reasonable degree of rocker on the hard chined hull, the surface wetted area was kept to a minimum, which - when added to the high aspect rig - almost ensured that the boat would be a cracking performer in the light airs found inland. Initially the new boat would sport bamboo spars, with these needing a considerable amount of support; the rigging included two forestays, twin shrouds on each side and a backstay that ran down to a bumpkin that projected out over the transom.

The very first boats were heavy, but once the dinghy moved into production the weight was reduced, with Sidney's concerns of price accessibility being reassured when Webb's of Leigh-on-Sea began to build for £20 per hull.

It is hard to over-state the role that Sidney Cheverton had played in moving the UK dinghy scene forward, as the dinghies of the day were dominated by Uffa Fox designs, but these were very much developments on an earlier theme. Singled-handed dinghies were almost non-existent in the UK, with the exception being the International 12, which - although a design that was ground-breaking back in 1912 - was again clinker built with strong links to the traditional thinking of the early 20th century.

In contrast, the Brent One Design was unlike anything else afloat, but with its hard chine and spoon bow it certainly attracted plenty of interest once seen sailing and with more people wanting to join in, the dinghy was renamed the British Moth. By 1932 a class association was formed. Home for the Moths would be the Welsh Harp and even today the close links between the boat and the water remain, courtesy of the Brent Cup, which is the overall National Championship trophy.

The British Moths can enjoy the claim that not only were they the first dinghies to be raced on the Harp, but until the mid-1930s they were the only racing boats based there. Technically, that statement is not wholly correct, for there were other boats that raced on the Harp, but these were powerboats of various sizes and speeds!

Somehow the Moths, the power-boaters and the nudists all managed to get along together, but it is a salutary reminder of how small the sailing scene was, that when war broke out in 1939, the whole of the Moth fleet was still based on the reservoir. Being an inland water, some sailing was allowed to continue during the war years (the National 12s were allowed to continue racing nearby on the Thames) but the Harp had a bigger claim to fame, as a seaplane was moored on the lake.

The rumour was that this was a getaway plane for Winston Churchill in the event of enemy troops landing in London, but at the same time it did go to reinforce the view of just how close the lake was to the seat of power in the capital, with Westminster being just over 5 miles away to the Southwest.

The six years of war had caused a huge social disruption to life in the UK and with the return to peace, the Moths that had survived had been scattered to a host of locations further out of London, with the biggest single group at Teddington, based at the BBC's Ariel Sailing Club. In many ways this didn't matter to the sport of dinghy sailing, as even before the end of the war Jack Holt had built his first Merlin, which his business partner Beecher Moore took on promotional sails to as many London clubs as he could reach.

Although the heart of this new activity was based on the Thames at Ranelagh, the new dinghies would soon be spreading out to the prime sailing positions on London's reservoirs, with fleets on both the Welsh Harp and Aldenham, which was another 5 miles further out. When Jack Holt launched his second major adult boat (the Cadet had come next), the GP14, it would be no surprise when that too started arriving in strong numbers on the Harp.

The Moths were also regrouping and had now appeared on the Thames, where the wide, rolled side decks allowed for 'dry' capsizes, which allowed them to be paddled through under various bridges to sail at different clubs, with Desborough SC near Shepperton a popular choice for many Mothists.

The new post-war growth in the class was aided in part by some fairly forward-looking rules covering the construction of the hull, with some being made from thin sheets of solid mahogany, which resulted in heavy hulls, whilst others were made from aluminium, which was light.

However, this freedom would work against the British Moth, as the plans were being considered for the 1948 Olympic regatta at Torquay. Despite its charms and a proven track record at Olympic level, the International 12 had never been a popular a boat in the UK, so when the search was on for a single-hander, attention fell on the British Moth, but it was not to be, as the requirement was for a stricter one-design than they could offer.

Although non-selection could hardly be classed as a failure for the Moth, at the same time the search for the new Olympic boat would turbocharge the fortunes of the Fairey Firefly.

Although sailed as a single-hander at Torquay, the Firefly was the near perfect 'multi-role' boat, not only as a strict one-design fleet that offered cost-effective close racing, but also as a superb performer in the growing genre of team racing. As sailing in the early 1950s blossomed into the 'golden era', the universities were quick to pick up on team racing, which saw a massive growth in the activities on the Welsh Harp. At one point there were as many as ten affiliated university sailing clubs on the Harp, which was now one of the UK's leading centres for this exciting new format of racing.

With so much team racing going on, alongside the high-class fleet racing, it was hardly a surprise when the Welsh Harp was able to produce a star-studded line up of home-grown top sailing stars. Success in the team side of the sport would bring to the fore some new names, with few being surprised to read that the Harp was home to none other than Eric Twiname.

One of the two core clubs on the lake, Wembley Sailing Club, was from the outset a hot-bed of competition in the Merlin Rocket fleet, which would see names such as John Caig coming to the fore (before John went on to win two Fireball World Championships) and brothers Rob and Geoff O'Neill, who in addition to their successes afloat have kept the sailors of North London supplied thanks to their comprehensively stocked Welsh Harp Boat Centre, to say nothing of their production of Sovereign Trailers.

To this roll call has to be added the name of dinghy designer Ian Holt, whose Canterbury Tales design for the Merlin Rocket would be one of the great game changers for the class.

Life was also changing rapidly for the British Moth, helped by Bell Woodworking, who were busy producing kits. The emphasis was still very much on keeping the boat accessible to all, so from early on Bell would produce a bare hull for home finishing at £25, and a kit for the full boat at £42, whilst Jeckells were happy to supply sails for £5.

Although no longer a resident of Welsh Harp, the British Moth was now spreading across the south of England, with boats sailing in Dover Harbour, Bristol and Bath, Oxford, London and up into East Anglia.

The storming growth in dinghy sailing was seeing even small, very restricted stretches of water occupied by at least one sailing club, with these being the prime location for the high rig and the nimble, fast tacking hull of the British Moth.

Moving forward in time, the class also showed that they were alive to the changing nature of the sport, being willing to accept a significant reduction in hull weights whilst adopting modern build techniques and material. On such a small hull, weight aloft would always be an issue, with the high aspect rig proving to really benefit from carbon spars and both Dacron and Mylar sails that are today in use across the fleet.

The build tolerances in the hull have also seen some of our top designers looking to work their magic on the basic hull shape, with some boats getting a reputation for either being very quick upwind, or down, but none of these iterations on the hull have been out-and-out game changers. In the same way, various top builders have worked to create a better boat, but there is as yet nothing in the way of a winning combination of designer, builder and rig.

Instead, the British Moth of today is very much a case of 'a lot of big boat thinking crammed into an 11ft hull', as the boats now enjoy full raking rigs with the same range of modern adjustments found on leading-edge dinghies.

Yet the class remains easily accessible for all, as on the restricted waters that are clearly the forte of the British Moth there is a lot more to front running that just mere boat speed, making them a great boat for the clever, head-out-of-the-boat sailor.

Yet, when seen in the context of the 'bigger picture', the British Moth should have gone the way of a number of other, older classes, swept away by the arrival of the new SMODs. Somehow though the boat is still firmly entrenched in the niche that it has occupied since the 1930s and there is little sign that the class will surrender that position any time soon.

But the fact remains that the biggest danger facing the British Moth of today could be that of 'habitat loss', as many of the smaller clubs that have been their home were struggling even before Covid.

The situation at Welsh Harp shows this very clearly, as the lake is now home to just two sailing clubs, Wembley and Welsh Harp, but at least these iconic clubs are still showing plenty of signs of life (more than can be said of even mightier clubs such as Aldenham, which are sadly no more). Moreover, Wembley and Welsh Harp continue to thrive, even though they have to time-share the lake. They have arrived at a pragmatic solution which sees members of one club given associate membership of the other club for a nominal fee, allowing sailors to compete in both lots of racing.

Even more amazing is that the two clubs have bucked the trend in the UK that has made handicap sailing the default activity and instead have retained their core class racing, with Merlins and Lasers at Wembley, and GP14s and Lasers at Welsh Harp (the clubs do not even sail a handicap fleet). Their success is a great example of how, with careful work from a committed group of sailors, it is possible to retain the status quo that provided such good sailing back in the golden days and continues to do so today.

Like the British Moths, who had seen off so many challenges, so Wembley and Welsh Harp continue to prosper in the face of competition from a number of much bigger clubs, which have access to more open water, which lies just 30 minutes away to the west of London. When a club can advertise with the tagline 'The best sea sailing in London' you would think that this would be irresistible to the sailors of today, but the continued success at the Harp suggests that there are other factors at work, with open, friendly accessibility potentially playing a big part.

This openness could be seen in the genuine warmth of the welcome offered by Wembley to the British Moths, with this being a real credit to the club and its members. That the Moths had not been a class on the Brent Reservoir for 75 years was not an issue, when the invitation was made for them to return 'from whence they came' for their 90th birthday celebrations.

Even the weather got in on the act with a gentle but reasonably steady south westerly breeze that seemed to funnel up across the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium, through the sweeping arch that dominates the skyline, and then out over the lake to give a very decent beat, a nice beam reach and then a broad run back to the starting area.

With flat water and some tricky shifts, the conditions were tailor-made for the Moths, a quintessential British dinghy, racing at a quintessential British sailing club, and with that icon of Englishness, the arch of Wembley, as a backdrop to the racing.

After three rapid fire back-to-back races, there was hot food then the obligatory birthday cake, with the hopes expressed that they could be back in 10 years' time for their centenary. This was an event far removed from the pressures at the top of dinghy sailing today, but our sport is all the richer for days like this.

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