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Winning at last! - How did the Firefly class come to be at the 1948 Olympics in the first place?

by Dougal Henshall 15 Mar 16:00 GMT
1948 Olympic Firefly wins Concours d'Elegance at the RYA Dinghy and Watersports Show © Paul Wyeth / RYA

Selecting the 'Boat of the Show' at the RYA Dinghy and Watersports Show has always been a tricky task, as beauty in boats is very much in the eye of the beholder. Luckily for Mark Jardine and Fynn Sterritt, who were doing the judging this year, amongst the usual crop of suspects for the award was a stand out entry that didn't just catch the eye, but said so much about the underlying values that make our sport so special. Little wonder then that Mark would afterwards say that whilst deciding the boat of the show is difficult courtesy of the incredible diversity, the winner stood out to both of us, "a stunning example of a classic combined with a unique provenance".

This winning boat was an original Fairey Firefly that had been constructed in 1948 as one of the boats for the Olympic Regatta that was being held down in Torquay that year. We'll return to some more details on Firefly 503, Jacaranda, later on but maybe an even bigger story is how the Firefly Class came to be there in the first place.

To put things into perspective we first have to go back even further to the early 1930s, an era that was marked by the rapid rise of both Germany and Japan. In the wider Olympic story Germany went first by getting the 1936 Games, with Tokyo being offered 1940 (only to become the first and only city to be stripped of the award). Both these bids were highlighted as being subject to high level corruption on a scale that makes the problems experienced today seem like a mild joke.

Still, 1936 went ahead, with the Yachting Olympics being held at Kiel, with dinghies being represented by the O-Jolle single hander.

This would be the last Olympic Games before war broke out and for many years the idea of a global sporting get together was the last thing on anyone's mind. Still, by early 1944 it was becoming increasingly clear that the end of the hostilities was in sight and what better way would there be to rebuild international friendships than to restart the world's largest sporting event.

The first question though was which city would get the honour of hosting the Games, with many of the large American industrial bases thinking that their role in providing the material for the war would put them in contention. Instead, it would be a classic case of 'to the victor goes the spoils' which in this case meant that the UK and London would gain the honour of hosting the Games for a second time.

However, many questioned the choice of London for in 1948 the UK was essentially broke, and even though the nation was at peace, this was the era of stark austerity and rationing. Around London so much of the housing stock was still suffering from blitz damage that the competitors were told that for the main locations they would be housed in military camps and that whilst bedding was provided, would they bring their own towels!

Some teams came in almost fully self-sufficient, with one team shipping in a whole consignment of beef which was an almost unheard-of luxury in these hungry days. Not everything went as planned as the Australians found, when all their clothes suddenly went 'missing' after being shipped through the docks in London.

So tight was money that some of the early planning worked on the basis that the UK could not afford an Olympic Regatta, plus there was the issue of where one could be held. The Solent, base for the 1908 Regatta, was no longer deemed suitable, whilst Weymouth was full of demobilised warships, but then Torquay came to lead the list of possibilities. On paper it looked good, as Torbay offers a superb open area for a multi course set up, whilst there was plenty of accommodation courtesy of the local landladies.

In exchange for a modest payment and extra ration vouchers, competitors would get a bed and a packed lunch, plus the sportsmen could be given the event 'extra' of a pound of boiled sweets per week!

In Austerity Britain, this all sounded wonderful, but the problem was that much of the extra expense looked to be falling on the local Council, which was itself broke, which created some bizarre situations. The first response was that they wouldn't be an Olympic flame as the Regatta Headquarters at Torre Abbey wasn't connected to the main gas supply.

Then it was decided that an Olympic Regatta HAD to have a flame, so bottled gas was used, but then a gas engineer had to be on site 24hrs a day in case the bottles ran low... and he might need a break so a second engineer was required, and who was going to pay for their overtime?

Then there was the minor issue of getting the Olympic Flame from the main stadium at Wembley (as no new facilities would be built for the Games) down to Torquay. In the end a relay of runners headed down the A303!

In a similar vein, the question was raised as to the possibility of switching on the coloured lights along the Prom. The answer was NO.... then yes... followed by a compromise, they could be switched on but only for the duration of the Regatta, then they had to go off again. So for that glorious fortnight Torquay became the first seaside town in the UK to have the waterfront lights illuminated again since 1939.

However, these were simply administrative issues that could be addressed; of far greater concern for the IYRU (World Sailing) would be the 'slate' of boats that would be sailed in the Regatta.

The core classes would be the 6 Metre which would be joined by the Dragon, with the graceful keelboat making its Olympic debut. They would be joined by the Swallow, the winner of a competition in the UK for a 'sportier' one-design keelboat that would be suitable for mass production.

There had been a single-handed dinghy in the Olympic Regatta since 1920 but now the RYA looked to reflect the growing strength of the two-man boat scene by having a second dinghy fleet for Torquay. The chosen boat was the Fairey Swordfish, a 15ft hot moulded hull that was a direct antecedent to the Albacore of today, despite the Swordfish sporting a spinnaker.

The real issue though came with the need for a single-hander, as one of the great RYA personalities of the day was on record as saying that the International 12 was "the worst 12ft dinghy that he'd seen," this despite the I-12 having already featured in two Olympic Regattas.

The O-Jolle, single hander of choice for the 1936 Games was seen as persona non grata due to it having a strong German/Central European flavour which left the RYA with... the British Moth. The only issue here was that the current rules on this boat weren't that tight, so getting 24 hulls identical to each other was going to be a big ask.

Salvation would come in the form of Sir Richard Fairey, head of the aircraft firm that bore his name. At the end of the war and with the arrival of the jet era, the steam ovens that Fairey had been using to hot mould wooden sections for aircraft wings and fuselages were falling idle, so a new company was formed, Fairey Marine, with the intention being to 'hot mould' boats on an industrial scale.

Their first boat was a pre-war Uffa Fox design for a 12ft double handed dinghy, with the Fairey Firefly also going down in the history books as pretty much the first true SMOD, as Fairey's sold the boat fitted out and complete with an aluminium mast, albeit with a wooden taper to the top section, sails and foils.

One of the first problems was that the company was producing the boats for the Olympics to a price, so the clever 'Reynolds' mast, with the wooden top section was replaced by a straight, untapered tube, which didn't help control over the mainsail shape.

The Swordfish was looking forward to Olympic glory until the point where a deal was suggested for the Firefly to be taken into the Regatta, only to be sailed as a single-hander.

What followed next was an episode of what could best be described as 'horse trading' that ended up with the Firefly being adopted, but with the Swordfish dropped in favour of the Star. In this respect the RYA could well have been playing a very clever hand, for the Firefly was in many ways close to the National 12 which was not only a UK centric class but enjoyed a domestic fleet that contained much of the 'cream' of UK dinghy sailors of the day.

Such was the competition for the one available place at the Games that the RYA would end up organising a first cut of Selection Trials at regional venues all around the country. The leading boats from these events would then go forward to a final, National Trial, with the winner of that going on to Torquay.

A look at the list of regional front runners from the Trials who were put forward to the National Final reads like a 'Who's who' of top flight English sailing royalty:

RegionEntriesFinalistsHelm names
Thames365Alan Vines; Jack Holt; J.Rushton; W. Smith; G. Edwards
Midlands274M. Goffe; R.C. Paine; John Winter; O.T. Atkins
South West233Bruce Banks; T. Litton; John Westall
North West205Peter Brett, Dr C. Clarke; H. Kalis; A. Snodgrass; Peter Scott
North East193M.C. Eames; Robin Steavenson; L.M. Bilton; J. Tulloch
South456Martin Beale; C. Farrant; Arthur McDonald; Stuart Morris; Alan Wilson; Frank Woodroffe

A measure of how seriously this was being taken can be seen in the release of extra fuel rations that would not only allow the competitors to attend the events, but for the host clubs to run extra support boats.

This surge in interest was far from universal though, as there were many who thought that the selection of the Firefly has saddled the UK with the wrong boat for such a high-profile event. Critics pointed out that whilst it was certainly possible to solo sail a Firefly, as soon as the breeze came up they could be a real handful and in a South Easterly breeze, Torbay really took on all the best (or worst, depending on viewpoint) aspects of a true 'open sea' course.

In the end there simply was neither the time nor the budget to create an alternative, so the Firefly's position was confirmed and the Trials to select a helm with medal winning credentials were hosted around the UK.

It was at this point that things started to go wrong for the host nation's medal prospects. One of the leading National 12 helms of the day was now working with Fairey Marine, and in this role Charles Currey had been involved in the first test sails of the Firefly. It was Charles's prowess in sailing the Firefly single-handed on a windy winter's day on the Solent that had convinced the authorities that it was okay to use the boat for the Olympic Regatta (for more on his story check out The winningest Wise Man).

Nobody had as many hours in the boat as Charles, as he continued to hone his skills in the tricky conditions in the mouth of the Hamble River. In so many ways he was the obvious choice for the UK, except for the fact that he could on occasion be outspoken and in the past he had upset people in the upper echelons of the RYA. His card was 'marked', though the excuse for his exclusion from the event was that as an employee of Fairey's he had compromised his amateur status.

Even with Charles out of the running, the UK was still rich in hot prospects, with Bruce Banks and Martin Beale the two best all-round front-runners. Both had successfully progressed up through their regional heats and now they would go head-to-head in the final selection Trials. Both men had impeccable sailing CVs, with a proven track record of being able to control a big fleet situation and out afloat there was little to separate them.

With the racing so close the RYA was forced to extend the Trials and keep the competitors racing for an extra day. In a salutary lesson for all those aiming for the very top, Banks and Beale were so focused on each other that they rather lost focus on the bigger picture, which included the lurking presence of Arthur McDonald, who had already shown his own form by winning the 1937 Burton Trophy in the National 12 fleet.

In later life Bruce Banks would talk (with some feeling) about the perils of focusing on just one competitor, as while he and Martin Beale were indulging in their own private match race, Arthur McDonald snuck through to reinforce his own claim.

Arthur had other advantages in the eyes of the selectors, for he was an out and out establishment figure; as well as being a very special individual, as he had played a big part in the UK's secret war, ending up as an Air Vice Marshall. A careful, cerebral sailor, on the last day of the Trials and with the wind blowing hard he took the opportunities that came his way, but was more than a tad surprised when he was announced as the winner and thus the UK representative for Torquay.

An intensely proud and patriotic man he saw his attendance at the Olympic Games almost as just another part of his duty, but nevertheless he would stay at work at the RAF Staff College until it was time to head down for the start of the Regatta, with him doing nothing more in the way of special preparation.

It does though speak volumes of his self-preparation and state of mind that Arthur would later describe the situation as 'absurd'. He went on to describe himself as a middle-aged Staff Officer who was sat behind a desk, in contrast to the Danish entry of a young Paul Elvstrøm who was just 19!

In the meantime, Fairey Marine had been busy building an extra 24 Firefly dinghies at their factory at the mouth of the Hamble River. Their production of these boats was very much a commercial transaction, with the deal being that they would provide a complete boat, with sails, but with little else.

The only concessions towards the boat's inclusion in the Olympic Regatta would be a clever cleat that would be mounted down on the hog which would allow the jib to be cleated or released by the sailor's foot, allowing the helm to play the main.

The only identifier of just how special these boats were about to become came when the wood workers at Hamble carefully inlaid the Olympic Rings logo into the transom.

Once the order was complete the boats were then launched and towed across the Solent to Cowes Roads, where a Tank Landing Craft was waiting, after being loaded up this would deliver the dinghies onto the beach at Torquay.

The hard-nosed approach of Fairey's would then become apparent as the order was for boats; no mention had been made of launching trolleys. A couple were locally fabricated up from some car wheels and lengths of gas pipe, with the 'trolley dollies' for the event being the Boy Scouts, who were very much in evidence as helpers ashore. It would be hard work as they had to load a boat onto a trolley, launch it and then come back for the next boat in line!

Torquay was now ready for competition to commence, with sailors allocated their boats after a ballot, but almost immediately there would be some dissent after issues were found with the metal centreboards. Some were found to be badly pitted, but when further checks were made all the boats were found to be the same, so the sailors were told to get on with it.

In the time available for practice (seeing that only the UK competitors had ever SEEN a Firefly) the earlier problems highlighted by the critics now came into a very soggy focus. Without self-bailers or transom flaps and buoyancy bags (in the eyes of Fairey Marine these were an extra), a capsize or a swamping could be a race ending event, as all the boat had on board was a galvanised iron bucket.

A number of Torquay landladies would later comment that they'd lost a number of saucepans, as these were found to be a more effective method of bailing. The organisers were also relaxed about other changes, such as those made by the young Paul Elvstrøm who fabricated his own mainsheet jammer that he mounted on the transom.

These issues would take on an even greater importance as the August weather seemed determined to be the exact opposite of what you'd expect on the so called 'English Riviera'.

It was cold, wet and worse, the wind was coming off the land; with the Firefly course set closest to the shore, they would suffer the most from sudden changes in pressure, with windshifts that turned beats into runs and for the really unlucky, race ending calms.

Things didn't start well for the UK, as Arthur somehow missed the start of the first race and would spend the day playing catch up, only to get out of sync with the shifts. If it had gone wrong for Arthur it would be even worse for Paul Elvstrøm, who, thinking he had fouled another boat, retired, when in hindsight he might well have been okay.

The schedule for Torquay called for the Regatta to be split into two parts with a three day lay over in the middle, but as the fleet took part in the last race before the break, at long last the British boat was seen to be leading. Sadly, Arthur was way off his normal form and would surrender the lead to Sweden's Rickard Sarby who would go on to take his second win, moreover he was of only two competitors who were carrying all top ten finishes at this point.

The unpredictable wind conditions had played havoc with the fortunes of many of the fancied helms, with most suffering at least one bad result, others were lucky to have one good score to count!

As so often happens when there is a pause in the competition, the weather can change, with various helm's fortunes either improving or going totally down the pan. Sarby, who in the first four races had been so consistent, now lost the plot completely, rounding out the seven-race series with a DSQ, 11, 14 to end up outside of the medal places.

His place was taken by the Dutch entry of Koos de Jong, who in races 5 and 6 scored a pair of third places, but as the scoring was under the old Olympic system this mean that he lost ground on Ralph Evans of the USA and Elvstrøm, who traded first and fifth places, whilst our UK entry was stuck mid-fleet with a seventh and eighth.

Then came the incredible final day, when the sun shone but the breeze filled Torbay with white horses, with the wind being enough to blow out the Olympic flame. This was an ominous portent which saw many of the boats putting in a couple of reefs into the main, whilst others headed out without setting a jib with all the signs being that this was going to be a tough day.

Charles Currey, who was there in a 'support' capacity showed Arthur how a hole could be cut in the rolled main to allow the kicker to be connected, but somehow Arthur still managed a capsize.

Thinking that conditions were softening, he shook out the reefs and set off after the fleet, only for the breeze to return as strong, with gusts that were even strong than before. Arthur tried to shorten sail again but couldn't make the holes in the sail line up, which meant that he then tried to sail the run without a kicker.

He caught a gust, the boom skyed up, rolling Arthur in for a second, race-ending capsize, a result that would leave him in ninth place overall.

Out front Evans had been leading, a result that would have given the Gold to the USA, but it would be Paul Elvstrøm who best read the wind and sea conditions to sail further inshore into flatter water to take a lead that he would not relinquish, with his winning result creating the opening chapter in the incredible legacy that is the Elvstrøm story.

Once back ashore and even before the medal had been hung around his neck, the Firefly fleet was rafted up on the beach, where the boats would be 'sold as seen'. The winning boat went to Bangor College where it provided sterling service for many years, before being given a Viking funeral.

Others were purchased by sailing clubs, those that were left were snapped up by individuals. It really was a case of 'everything must go', but the wisdom of all this became apparent when the final post Olympics finances were revealed, which showed that the Games (as a whole) had even turned a profit, from which the taxman would take almost 40%.

Of the boats that were sold we know the fate of Elvstrøm's steed, another was last seen in a Museum in Denmark, one may be in France and there are two in the UK. One of these was the boat sailed by Arthur McDonald that has luckily been saved thanks to the efforts of a number of considerate, and incredibly talented sailors.

Although many older Fireflys are given a new lease of life by being upgraded to the later layouts, Alistair Vines has done a wonderful job of keeping the boat as close as possible to the original whilst returning it to its former glory.

In just four years' time Firefly F503 Jacaranda will be 80 years old but given how she looked at the Farnborough show she's still looking young for her age. The question now is if any more of those boats that enjoyed their fortnight in the Olympic spotlight can be found and restored to join her; come 2028 there will surely be a major celebration of those days when the Firefly came to Torquay!

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