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Nothing lasts forever.... unless you're an International 14

by Dougal Henshall 1 Jul 2022 12:00 BST
Nothing lasts forever.... unless you're an International 14 © Dougal Henshall

It isn't often that the stars align for writers, with a number of earlier articles all coming together to tell an interesting story that has a wider context.

This though is one of those happy moments of synchronicity, that ties in such diverse pieces as Sailing history For Sale, which detailed how a collection of dinghies that helped define our sailing heritage was about to go under the auctioneers hammer, Every Nimbus cloud has a silver lining, telling how one of these boats was given a stunning keelband to mast head restoration, and then more recently, Welsh Moths - The quintessential English boat at the quintessential English Club, a look at how a combination of a North London reservoir and a clever little single hander have come together to give us one of our most endearing (not to mention enduring) classes.

However, in terms of the chronological timeline of racing dinghy development, the Moth (both British and otherwise) has to cede top position to that genre-defining masterpiece, the International 14. After all, it would be the 14 that would bring the giants of 'between the wars' dinghy design, Morgan-Giles, Thornycroft and Fox, to the fore whilst at the same time laying the foundations of sailing competition on the international stage.

As a restricted development class, the 14s would progress through periods of mainly evolutionary development interspersed with step function when a designer would come up with an innovative idea that would move the game forward. But, as we saw in the Nimbus article, this process contains the almost inevitable harsh truth that the earlier boats will get left behind in the arms race towards the front of the fleet.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the high-water mark of the single trapeze and (admittedly huge) symmetric spinnaker, the 14s were able to promote their class with one of the all-time great taglines, "14s are Forever". This was far from mere advertising speak, for the continuing evolution of the class ensured that it stayed relevant, even as other classes headed off towards what the RYA refer to as the 'Moribund' List.

Sadly, for those boats that had helped create the perception that the 14 was the place to be, many of the early boats had already formed the basis of a Viking funeral pyre. Even an awareness of the growing interest in the classic dinghy scene looked likely to pass the 14s by, as the Merlin Rockets grabbed the moral high ground of promoting the pleasures of restoring and sailing in their early boats.

Then would be something of a bizarre twist in the story as the Merlin's looked to focus their attentions on an elite clique of highly modernised boats that were based on the Thames, whilst the first rumblings started that suggested that the world's largest collection of classic 14s would at some point be sold off. Such was the size of the collection that it sadly became evident that there were far more boats than potential owners, with the result that a number of truly iconic boats got loaded into a container before being dispatched to China, where attempts to establish their eventual fate have so far proved fruitless.

Even with their loss, enough boats would end up being bought by UK sailors to ensure that an amazing core of sailing history had been saved. This though was only the start of a long story, as many of the boats were not just of pensionable age, but really were old ladies in need of very careful and sympathetic restoration. As was featured in the Nimbus piece, Gillian Westell was amongst the first to see the fruits of her labours out afloat, but there were plenty of other sailors who were busy steaming rock-elm ribs and carefully replacing damaged hull timbers.

They are a very diverse group of 14 fans, in terms of age, skill sets and geographic location - as far from being Thames based, work is taking place from North Wales to Norfolk via the Home Counties and South Coast. and the quality of the work is quite outstanding. For some, the Covid lockdowns might even have been in some small part a blessing, as it enabled work to progress with a new focus, but the only thing the group hadn't been able to do was to arrange an on-the-water gathering.

Thanks to the sterling efforts of Trish Knight - owner of the 1929 Uffa Fox designed and built Daring (a truly iconic boat, as it won the Prince of Wales Trophy that year) - the first gathering for these wonderful old boats was organised at Grafham Water this weekend just gone.

She must have thought that the odds for a successful gathering were against her, as at least two of the boats were unable to make it on the day, then the impact of the rail strike made travel across the country a slow and painful experience and even once there, the strong and gusty wind conditions were hardly ideal for sailing boats of this vintage. Even so, it was amazing to see literally hundreds of years of sailing heritage ranged up on the grass, with the passage of design development clearly on display.

Better still, a number of the older boats even ventured out afloat for a 'demonstration race' held in the slightly easier conditions and flatter water close to the shore. This also gave those interested souls watch from the shore a chance to see how these 80-year-old boats performed and whilst they looked stunning out on the water, the exaggerated fullness in the forward sections really highlighted just how much hull design has moved forward.

This was all the more apparent when the bow waves were contrasted with those of a pair of relative 'youngsters' in International 14 terms, though boats that are just shy of being 50 years old can hardly be thought as modern.

These two, with trapezing crews and spinnakers all rigged showed just how exciting 14 sailing in breeze can be and when they caught some of the fruitier gusts posted some impressive turns of speed (but also gave them a swim or two). The oldies were sailed in a much more sedate fashion as one might expect from boats whose next big birthday could have three digits!

There was also plenty of time for the relaxed exchange of ideas, as some of the skills needed to keep these elderly boats in race trim go way beyond what is normally needed in the dinghy world. This is even more the case than that found over in the Merlin Classic fleet, where the boats have, in the main, been subject to highly sophisticated upgrades right up to the use of raking carbon rigs. So far the 14s have taken the other path, with a premium placed on the retention of authenticity.

This undoubted success of this first gathering is surely indicative of more to follow and as more of the boats progress through the process of restoration, the numbers will undoubtedly grow. The only downside is that the Grafham highlighted the harsh truth that if these 14s really are going to be forever, then they will need an increasing level of careful handling.

The very smartly presented 1975 McCutcheon built Opus 1, in the talented hands of Lyndon Beasley and Ian Marshall, looked more than capable of sailing a 14 sized race on any of the open water courses they use for their major events, but this boat is as advanced ahead of the ribbed construction oldies as it is lagging behind even the previous generation of 'penultimate' boats.

They might all be 14s, but clearly are not all equal and the notion that the old boats can somehow 'race' alongside their 2020s younger sisters looks to remain one of those nice ideas that are in reality just impractical.

The 14s have always been an elite group and these vintage boats seem set to continue that approach, but as the class sails towards the centenary in just a few years, it will be an amazing testament to the keenness and skills of the group that so many iconic boats will be on hand to celebrate the event!

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