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Melges 15

Designing the new orthodoxy - A wise and radical man: Mike Jackson

by Dougal Henshall 30 Jun 2023 13:00 BST
The Lark was designed by Mike Jackson © Dougal Henshall

As well as telling us in his classic 1798 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner of how his becalmed boat was "as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean", Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously also told us that if we could only learn from history, what lessons it might teach us. If he but knew, Coleridge could have been describing the development of the domestic racing dinghy 150 years away into the future.

Throughout the first few decades following the birth of dinghy racing, early developments had little to do with what we would now recognise as hulls that were 'fast by design', as any changes were mainly incremental, small evolutionary steps away from the working boats of a particular area.

This is not to decry the incredible efforts of the early designers, as the materials they had at their disposal and the technologies available were limiting factors as to what could and couldn't be done; plus there was the still limited knowledge that made up the accepted thinking of the day. Yet, even with all these limitations, the likes of Giles, Thornycroft and Fox were still able to lay down major markers for what would be the way forward for our sport.

Even the important step functions in performance, such as the arrival of the planing hull (a development that would proceed the much vaunted Avenger by at least a season or two) would be a refinement of what many had tinkered with already, so there was little in the way of radical developments at this point.

Come the post-war years of the late 1940s and 1950s this situation actually changed very little. Jack Holt, the 'Wizard of Putney', would work hard to bring boats to the market that would make sailing all the more accessible, but even his more radical lines of thought (such as with the genre-breaking Hornet) can be seen to have roots in the equally long, lean and boxy Sharpies that were the rocket ships of the day. Where Jack did aspire towards some radical thinking was in his clever adoption of the new materials of the day and his use of plywood panels that would help to fire the starters gun on the DIY boatbuilding era.

In the same way, Ian Proctor would apply his own design philosophy to the Merlins and National 12s of the day, where he would flatten the rocker lines and improve the planing sections aft, but again these would be incremental steps rather than any attempt at radicalism. Even his first breakthrough one-design, the Osprey, would owe its lines and build characteristics to Proctor's current Merlin design, as can be clearly seen in the pictures of the early boats with their full clinker construction.

We can thus see that the radical thinkers that were around back then, with the likes of Austin Farrar and John Westell to the fore, were sailors less constrained by conventional thinking and were prepared to try something very different.

Across what are now seen as the traditional classes, Farrar and Westell would be the exception rather than the rule, as the massed ranks of the Enterprises, GP14s, Fireflys and Solos joined the Merlins in becoming the powerhouse driving the golden era of dinghy racing expansion. Maybe they had the advantage of not knowing what could and couldn't be done and were thus more than happy to swim against the current of conventional thinking, a trait which has to be at the heart of a radical thinker.

This last point makes the location of our next subject all the more surprising, for Putney, on the south bank of the Thames, was home to not only the famous Ranelagh Sailing Club but also the next door workshop of Jack Holt. Now whilst Jack may have been at the forefront of the expansion in the post-war dinghy scene and the way his use of the emerging new materials was often ground-breaking, his designs might struggle to be called 'radical'.

That epithet will instead go to another Ranelagh member, a truly 'Wise and Radical' sailor, Mike Jackson.

Mike had enjoyed his first taste of taking the helm during a family holiday in Wales, but the big sailing moment in his life would come when was sailing a 14ft dinghy on the Thames at Twickenham. Seeing one of the 'new' National 12s out sailing, Mike thought that, with a longer waterline and more sail, he would have the beating of the smaller boat, only to have the 12 sail away from him.

It would not be long before Mike ended up sailing one of the Uffa Kings, the first generation 12s by Uffa Fox, at Minima in the company of such names for the future as Cliff Norbury. After a couple of these early 12s, which Mike said would remain competitive in light airs on the river for many a year, he would end up at Ranelagh having completed a bare hull, but all his instincts were telling him that the Fox and the Holt hull shapes that followed were wrong.

Being at Ranelagh meant that he could explore his ideas further and he eventually took them to Jack Holt.

His radical idea was that the garboard planks should be flat, creating more of a U shape to the hull form (in contrast to the more Vee'ed sections of the day), with this creating a narrower waterline beam and less surface wetted area, which as Mike would later say, "what's not to like about it".

Mike would get his answer when he took his ideas to Jack Holt who dismissed them, saying that the idea of a flat area alongside the hog would never catch on. His response is understandable given that at the time, the idea was truly radical, as to date no other dinghies had been designed in this way.

Mike would persist and would end up building his boat, N1516 Lucia, to his own lines. Not only would Mike build the hull, but the foils, mast and sails as well. Making his sails were just another aspect of Mike's strong belief that his own ideas would end up better than those that were currently available.

The complete boat would soon be getting mixed results, but some of these would also be down to Mike's own lack of sailing in big fleets on open sea courses, as up until then the majority of his racing had been held on inland waters. At the prestigious Burton Week Mike would score very impressive third and fifth place finishes and would have also taken a second place but for a port and starboard incident. In these days before 720 degrees penalty turns, Mike learnt another lesson: that a window in the jib was essential in a big fleet scenario!

Lucia would end up being sold, but Mike would go on to develop his ideas further with development on his design philosophy, with the result being a boat that was quick inland, not so good on the sea. Meanwhile, Mike was busy gaining further experience on the open water courses and in building that all important 'big fleet' experience.

Along the way his ideas were firming up with the knowledge that if his hull shape was able to generate significant planing lift between two and seven feet back from the stem, with little change in the boat's trim, marginal planing would occur earlier, and once up onto the plane, the boat would speed along fairly flat, rather that the pronounced bow-up attitude that had been seen in the first generation boats.

The result of all this thinking would be the iconic March Hare, which could have won the coveted Burton Trophy at the first time of asking, only for an almost self-inflicted gear failure to force Mike out of the big race whilst leading. All week it had been breezy, with March Hare simply being quicker than the other entries, both upwind and down.

1964 would see a massive fleet of 197 National 12s gathering at Torquay, only for the first couple of days to be lost because of strong winds. When racing finally got under way the breeze was light and fickle, which saw Jackson and March Hare round the first windward mark in 51st place... but by the finish that combination of careful, good sailing and a quick boat would bring them the top prize.

Just how much a game-changer the radical March Hare would become was seen in the results of the Burton Trophy, as up to that point Holt and Proctor had been the dominant designers. After 1964, they would not win again as first Jackson, then the likes of Martin Jones and Phil Morrison, would step up to become the next generation of successful go-to designers. Although his hull shape was undoubtedly a step forward in performance, Mike also insists that credit be given to his rig, which included innovations that (to his surprise) few followed.

His rigs were always the simplest in the fleet, as the usual additions of shroud levers and extra forms of adjustment were ignored, and even the mainsail clew was tied in and fixed. His mast was set up without spreaders, the cunningham was linked to the mainsail foot inhaul, and the mainsheet was used to control the twist. With such a simple boat other crews wonder how Mike was able to generate so much boatspeed, and one of his crews was asked what he did in the boat to make it go so.

Her answer speaks volumes of Mike's approach to sailing: "he hums to himself all the way around."

The success of March Hare would take Mike on to some surprising new opportunities for this was the time when the IYRU (now World Sailing) were looking for a lighter and quicker replacement for the weighty Finn. With a set of Trials organised for Weymouth in 1965, Mike would be just one of a large group of top designers who created new singlehander dinghies for the competition.

Mike's entry, Fury, would be well-presented and would catch the eye as a boat that could easily be sailed by the average sailor, but on the racecourse Fury would lose out to the bigger, 'heavy metal' entries such as Trapez and Unit.

With Fury and his other designs Mike was enjoying a run of successes which would now catch the eye of boatbuilder John Baker, who was keen to launch a new one-design dinghy. The result was a stretched March Hare styled hull shape with an Enterprise sized rig; after a few changes the Lark Class was born.

A strict one-design, those Mike Jackson design characteristics made the Lark into a sparkling performer inland, with the boat also becoming a firm favourite on the growing team racing circuit. With so many successful designs sailing off his drawing board, it was little wonder that he was approached by Alan Vines to produce a new design for Fairey Marine, but sadly this was one project that would not go ahead.

Mike would also retain his close association with the restricted development classes with an innovative International 14, but his next big success would come in another class that was popular at Ranelagh: the Merlin Rocket. Again, his designs would be far more radical than anything else in the fleet with his Rake's Progress being an inspiration for the next generation of designers such as Keith Callaghan.

Drawing on his earlier experiences, next up would be a boat that almost qualifies for iconic status in the Merlin fleet, the exceptionally quick Sugar Plum, before Jackson's Superstition designs became mainstream in the class.

Although his designs were very successful, few of his boats ever made it to the very top of the championship podium. Though Mike McNamara won both the N12 Burton Trophy and the Silver National Points Week at Paignton in 1969 in an amateur-built March Hare. Mike McNamara also came up with a wonderful example of just how clever and how helpful Mike (Jackson) could be for others.

Mike Mac was also at Putney, learning his trade working alongside Jack Holt and had made himself a suit of sails that just didn't set right. He asked Mike Jackson for some help and rigged his boat in front of the club to await Mike's arrival.

The only problem was that it was pitch dark when Mike Jackson, who by now was rapidly scaling the management ladder in industry, rocked up in his smart Jaguar. Leaving the car lights on to illuminate the scene, Mike got out of the car with a mouthful of pins. In no time at all he had reshaped the sail, then told Mike McNamara to cut the sail like that before departing again!

It was at this point, whilst his focus was very much on the Merlins, that Mike Jackson would give us what is probably the most visible evidence of his questing, radical mind. Just as Austin Farrar had done more than a decade earlier with his developments of the International 14, Mike had the ability to look at the rules of a class and see from the words on the page opportunities that could be exploited.

In this case it was with the Merlin rig and with the rules regarding mainsail measurement.

Mike saw that, unlike most classes, which relied on a quarter, half and three quarter height measurement, the Merlins just had the one requirement for a check to be made at the half height. Sail batten technology was still in its infancy, nor was the sail cloth as stable as the products of today, yet Mike could see that if you could somehow keep the upper leech standing, that a quadrilateral sail could be made instead of the conventional pin-head main.

This was a far from easy development to complete as the existing rules made a full length top batten difficult to achieve, but Mike would persevere with his thinking, and the square-topped main, which for so many years was the hallmark of the Merlin Rocket, was born! Not only did the new shaped sail gain a significant amount of 'free' area but the design resulted in a better shape aerodynamically.

Other sailmakers then worked to produce their own versions of the rig but would be held back until the rules finally changed to allow the adoption of a full-length top batten.

Although a successful designer and sailor in the Merlin Rocket fleet, Mike declared himself a National 12 man at heart, which he backed up with yet another wildly radical design. Now that other designers were following the thinking of the flat sections in the garboard planks, Mike came up with a design that had almost zero rocker for the first 8ft of the hull, before rising up gently to the base of a V-shaped transom.

In these days, several decades before T-foils, Mike's solution was to fit the boat with a very fat rudder made out of 0.8mm play set over lightweight ribs, with the whole thing sheathed in GRP to provide the required strength. The result was in effect a 13ft long National 12, but more importantly Final Chapter was, at the time, the boat with the lowest wetted surface area and narrowest waterline beam of any comparable boat.

Final Chapter excelled in marginal planing conditions and was thought by many to be more tolerant to weight in the boat than other designs. 40 years on, it is still considered to be a very quick boat indeed.

If all this radical thinking was not enough for one sailing career, Mike would go on to show that other side of his almost limitless abilities by becoming one of the UK's top (and longest serving) member of the international racing administration scene. He was a leading delegate for the UK across three Olympics, along with taking on Chair positions within the IYRU, so it was of little surprise when he was awarded the Gold Medal for services to the sport.

Yet Mike was far more than just a Committee Room warrior, as was seen at the ISAF High Performance Dinghy Trials at Torbole. Despite those vying for selection including such demanding boats as the BOSS, B14, Laser 5000 and 49er, Mike was adamant that as Chair of the Selectors, he wanted to sail all of the entries.

So impressed was he by the 49er that he would buy one for his own use, proving the view that the Bethwaite design (which could easily be seen as radical in its own way) was not just a hot shot for the young!

It is however a sign of the true polymath that there are few limits to the path a radical mind might wish to follow.

In addition to his undoubted skills in a boat, Mike would go on to learn to fly light aircraft, which he then trumped by moving on to helicopters. But just as he had used his talents to drive forward the agenda of the RYA and then World Sailing, Mike would now take on a role within the Light Aircraft Association, where he was a member of the working group looking at how the more advanced home builds (clearly a connection there!) could be licenced to allow instrument-only flying for bad weather and at night.

At work he had moved from the more traditional engineering role and was now involved in software development; with a widely spread client base, he purchased a very capable light aircraft that would become the first fully-licenced light plane in the UK. With this in place Mike would fly to his widespread client base in locations as diverse as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

It is a valid question to ask how someone who has lived such a busy and multi-faceted life faces the daunting challenge of retirement, but in Mike's case (to borrow the phrase) "the answer had been there all the time". Mike finally gave up work in the mid-1990s only for his interests to return to music. As he later said, he had been brought up in a musical family, but by his own admission he didn't have a huge talent as a performer.

However, his skills as a manager, both of people and of complex tasks, would see him rising to the role of Musical Director, with a 'new' career high spot being when he conducted a full orchestra and 4,000 singers in a performance of Handel's Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall.

From this it may well look as if Mike had finally decided on a more orthodox path, yet one of the key criteria for being deemed to be a radical wise man cannot be overlooked. Being radical might be ground-breaking, but at the same time it is implicit that you are breaking the ground for others to follow and in this respect, Mike Jackson has long ticked all the boxes.

Better still, the truly radical can inspire others to be equally adventurous, and with time it can be seen that Mike's design philosophy would ultimately become a signpost for others to follow. The most obvious of these will be the next in my series on 'Wise and Radical' men with an upcoming feature on Jo Richards. Just like Mike, Jo would spread his innovative designs across a wide range of genres that includes the clever little Pico, a training boat that has introduced so many to our sport, to the very leading edge of the ever-innovative Merlin Rockets, plus of course some extravagantly radical offshore multihulls.

But back to the subject of this article, Mike Jackson. I've been lucky, nay, blessed to have been given unrestricted access (and thus insights) into the other great architects of the golden era of dinghies, which gives me the right to put these giants into a true perspective. There was Jack Holt, who set out with the aim of democratising the sport. Then Ian Proctor, a man for whom the purity of design was an aim in itself, before we come to Mike, a sailor, designer, administrator but above all a radical who seemed destined to make things better across so many areas of our sport!

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