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Timeless designs

by Mark Jardine 31 May 10:00 BST
Phil and Annika - 2021 WA Hobie Cat State Championships © Drew Malcolm

It's hard to believe that two of the most popular dinghies were designed over 50 years ago. Between the Hobie 16 and the ILCA (the dinghy formerly known as the Laser), over 350,000 have been produced; what is even more remarkable is that they are still going strong.

They're both comparable in speed with modern non-foiling designs of similar length and give that all-important fun factor. They've got their quirks and frustrations for sure, but there is no doubt that Hobie Alter, Phil Edwards, Bruce Kirby and Ian Bruce designed timeless boats.

So, what is it about the boats which have kept them so popular? Let's first look at the Hobie 16.

Hobie Alter was very specific that the 16 was to be a beach cat, so needed to avoid having daggerboards. The slab sides of each banana-shaped hull provide the equivalent of a daggerboard, and the Hobie-patented automatic-release stock (comprising a casting, a cam, and a spring-loaded plunger) mean the rudders kick up when hitting shallows; you can sail the boat straight up the beach.

The leeward hull frequently is beneath the water, so the trampoline is raised above the hulls by pylons, secured by aluminium alloy beams on all four sides. It's an industrial look and solution, but it works.

Both the main and jib are fully battened, and the boom is extremely low, requiring a bit of agility to get underneath. In light winds the jib battens require a nudge to get from side to side as they overlap the mast.

This week I'm lucky enough to be out at Wildwind in Vassiliki, Greece with my family and I've taken both my boys out on the Hobie 16 for their first trapezing experience. To say they loved it is an understatement, with whoops of joy as we lifted a hull while they were on the wire, followed by giggles as they were washed round the back of the boat when we hit the water or they lost their grip.

Bruised but enthused is the way I'd describe them both right now. The fun factor is there in abundance, and this 52-year-old design is passing the test with the latest young generation of sailors.

In a strong breeze the 16 is capable of 25+ knots of boat speed, and the latest stunt the team at Wildwind pulled off was foilboarding behind one. The latest in tech powered by an old-school cat!

The ILCA - Laser, Kirby Torch or Weekender, call it what you will - has a hull shape that is hard to beat. Easy to get going in the light stuff, and yet fast in the breeze. Yes, it's tippy, and prone to catch you out if you make the slightest mistake, but it holds its own with the majority of modern designs of the same size.

The issues with the mainsheet catching on the aft corners and the rudder stalling out are well known, but aside from a major redesign of both the mainsail and a new rudder, these problems aren't going to go away.

Over time there have been significant changes to the class, with probably the change to 'XD' sail controls being the most significant. Before the high-purchase kicker was introduced, it was commonplace for sailors at the leeward mark to intentionally luff up into the breeze with the mainsheet on hard, then yank on the kicker as hard as possible, before continuing the upwind leg.

The ILCA dinghy can be found on almost every beach club holiday in the world, and I've yet to see a boatpark at a sailing club without at least one, with its ubiquitous flat cover and the outline of the three spar parts showing through.

I've often wondered if the deck mould could be modified to give rolled side decks and an open transom, combined with a modern rig and rudder. Would this be an improvement? Would a deck mould modification coupled with a new rig be cost effective? In many ways the RS Aero is just this, so I guess the time has passed for my musings on the matter.

I had several chats on the phone with Bruce Kirby around the time that the trademark dispute was really gathering pace, where we talked about the future of the class. While the design is timeless, it certainly has its imperfections.

Both the Hobie 16 and ILCA are over 50 years old, so is there a modern dinghy or catamaran which can truly be regarded as timeless? Will the RS Aero I've mentioned above, still be going strong in 50 years, found on every beach and in every dinghy park? What other catamaran will continue to be produced in numbers 50 years after it is designed?

I've given this some thought, and you may well find my choice for a modern-day timeless classic an odd one.

I looked through every dinghy design I knew of, and thought which boat incorporates modern and rugged hull construction, is relatively cheap, can be sailed by both kids and adults, is simple and quick to rig, and my conclusion landed on the RS Zest.

I've had quite a bit of experience now, both sailing the Zest and more importantly watching how much fun the kids have in the Zest, and I think it's the ideal boat for clubs and beach holidays. With its vertical battens the mainsail can be rolled around the mast, it is equally balanced with or without the jib, the boom is high enough for adults to comfortably pass underneath, the rudder is easy to put down and up and (most importantly) it has a centreboard rather than a daggerboard, even though it is of rotomoulded construction. Also, the fittings have been kept to an absolute minimum, which is vital for club-owned fleets to keep the maintenance down.

Watching the Zest racing, it is surprisingly fast for such a stable boat, and is also easy to right when capsizes do happen. With the high boom visibility is good, so those who are newcomers to racing have an excellent view of everything going on around them, making it the perfect boat to introduce sailors to club races.

A common factor across all the clubs that I have seen succeeding in the rapidly-changing world that we live in is their club-owned fleets. Which is why the Zest is my choice as a modern timeless dinghy. Of course, only time itself will tell if my thoughts are correct, or if I'm totally barking up the wrong tree, but I believe it has the attributes, and the fun factor, to qualify.

I don't expect all our readers to agree with my choice, and I welcome you to email me with your thoughts on a modern timeless design via mark@yachtsandyachting.com with your reasoning!

Mark Jardine
Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com Managing Editor

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