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The Three Wise Men - Farrar, Chippendale & Milne

by Dougal Henshall 8 May 2014 11:14 PDT 8 May 2014
Racing at the 51st 505 Worlds at Hayling Island in 2006 - the 505 is a classic design in Austin Farrar & Jack Chippendale both played a part © Steve Arkley / www.sailshots.co.uk

One of the most notable changes that have taken place in the sport of dinghy racing in the last 40 or so years has been the impact of the spreadsheet and 'business model'. Until then, much of the development within the sport had taken place within what could best be described as a 'cottage industry'. Though this may have looked disorganised and unstructured, the old ways of working did have one key advantage over today's production lines, as many of the great thinkers and 'do-ers' of the day all knew each other well. This friendship allowed for an unprecedented level of interaction and cross fertilisation of ideas that helped drive the 'big-bang' of expansion in the sport in the 1950s through to the end of the 1970s. This sharing of ideas can be seen very clearly in the lives of three of our great innovators, people who could almost be described as the 'Three Wise Men' of British dinghy sailing.

The first of these giants was Austin 'Clarence' Farrar, a man whose innovative skills covered the whole range of dinghy technology, from the design and building of the hull, through the fittings used, then on to making championship winning sails.

Coming from a very wealthy and keen sailing family, Farrar was already sailing before his seventh birthday, but as he grew older, he wisely recognised that his analytical skills were far more suited to a role as crew. Back in the 1930s, the top dinghy sailing was all in International 14s and this would be the fleet that would attract Farrar into the top boats of the day. With Farrar proving to be a clever tactician, his helms were then free to concentrate their efforts on sailing fast with this proving to be a winning combination. It was as an International14 crew that Farrar formed what would become a highly successful, life long partnership with Charles Currey that would bring him into contact with two other sailing greats.

The first of these was born in 1924, just a year after Farrar, and in very different circumstances. Jack Chippendale started life very differently, living in a small house in 'Old' Portsmouth, where it was expected that he would follow most of his contemporaries into the Navy. However, health issues saw Jack failing the medical tests, so instead he was apprenticed to a boatbuilder where they were expected to work a full 6 and a half-day week. Whilst this was incredibly hard work, it was also a great learning experience for Chippendale. It was here that he started developing his ideas about making boats as beautiful as they were fast. Not long after the end of the war, following a row in the boatyard about the best way of building wooden masts, Jack Chippendale broke away to set up Chippendale Boats, initially on the Hamble River.

Just a little further east of the Hamble, at Dell Quay, the third of the great innovators, Peter Milne was rapidly learning the finer points of dinghy racing, for after learning to sail, his father bought him a Snipe, which at the time was very much a 'leading edge' dinghy. However, Milne was then called up for his National Service, which saw him joining the Navy with a specialisation in submarines. When not under the waves, Peter Milne was certainly riding high on them, as his sailing skills saw him building up a wide experience of yacht racing as well as a friendship with Peter Nicholson that would see Milne working for the famous Gosport Yard of Camper and Nicholson.

Whilst Peter Milne had been sharpening his skills as a yachtsman and designer, the world of post-war dinghy sailing was almost exploding with new interest. Led by the easy to build designs of Jack Holt, dinghy racing was about to experience something along the lines of a revolution. In the late 1940s, Uffa Fox was still seen as the best and 'safest' option for a quick dinghy design, though there was an increasing cadre of dinghy racers who held the view that the Fox hull shape, with its deep, rounded sections under the mast and long but narrow run aft, was no longer the way forward. One sailor who was vocal in this view was none other than Charles Currey (who even wanted to put a flatter, beamier transom on the Firefly) and it is almost certain that when sailing their 14, Currey and Farrar would have talked at length about what a fast design should look like.

Farrar responded to these pressures by designing the first of what would be an amazing series of innovative International 14s that would push the design boundaries of the day to the absolute limit. However, it wasn't just as a designer that Farrar would bring his innovative skills to the fore, as he was already working hard to perfect the techniques needed to develop cold moulding for small hulls.

The idea of a cold moulded hull was far from new, but where Farrar would be so innovative was in the development of the new glues that would revolutionise the process. Farrar would be the first to recognise the advantages of the 'Aerolite' series of glues; just as with epoxy today, Farrar also developed the technique of covering the hull with a diluted coat of glue prior to the varnishing. Working with veneers is far from simple, and Farrar was forced to innovate further to develop a new form of staple gun that had the power to fire a staple through the required thickness of wood.

With the building sorted, Farrar then built a boat that would grace any list of iconic dinghies, the International 14 Windsprite for sail maker Bruce Banks. Beautifully planked up, so the two sides were a mirror image of each other, the hull was finished off with a transom made from a piece of Honduras Mahogany saved from a concert piano that was being scrapped. Windsprite didn't just set new standards for finish, but was innovative in her layout, as Farrar stiffened up the forward sections of the hull by building in a bow tank. The developments didn't stop there, as the boat had an all new system for controlling the position of the centreboard, as well as another that would allow rapid reefing/unreefing of the mainsail. Less visible to the naked eye was the way in which once fully down; the centreboard could be angled to help the boat climb to windward. 'Gybing Boards' are in widespread use today, but back then this was all new and a further testament to the radical developments that were going on at the time. Windsprite would go on to be the most successful International 14 ever, winning the Prince of Wales Trophy no less than 4 times, a record that has never been equalled.

With Charles Currey closely associated with Windsprite, it is of little surprise that the details behind the techniques of cold moulding would quickly find their way back to the Hamble and the busy boatyard of Jack Chippendale. Like Farrar, Chippendale believed in beautiful looking boats, as was seen in his first Merlin. Before accepting the commission to build his first Merlin, Jack had gone down to Dorset to see the boats sailing at Christchurch and had been struck at how beautiful the boats were. Determined to take this even further, Chippendale had wanted to build a 'signature' boat but had run into difficulties in that he could not get the high quality wood that he wanted. Eventually, his searches unearthed a cache of hemlock, which Jack was able to plane down into plank thickness. The result was a striking looking hull, which went some way to establish the Chippendale reputation for building hulls that could win both the Concours and out on the race course.

The team at Chippendale Boats became known for being able to interpret the ideas of designers, adding in more than just what was there on the plans. In the early 1950s, when the IYRU (now ISAF) were setting up the Trials for the new '2 Man Performance Dinghy', Ian Proctor turned to Chippendale to build the prototype of his new Osprey dinghy. It was a measure of Chippendale's reputation that Osprey was not the only prototype he would build for the Trials, as Jack was already busy cold moulding a new hull that was more than just radical, but in the eyes of many sailors, extreme.

When West Country dinghy sailor John Westell had been thinking about designing a boat for the Trials, through his friends Bruce Banks and Charles Currey, he found his way to none other than Austin Farrar. Farrar had designed an International 14 with widely flared topsides that had, like the trapeze, been promptly banned by the class.

Westell asked Farrar if, now that it couldn't be used on the 14s, could he 'have' the design concept. Farrar, who was incredibly generous with all his ideas, gave his permission, allowing Westell to design a large hull with sweeping flares to the topsides. With so much curvature in the hull, the boat would have to be moulded, so Westell too travelled to Hamble to engage the services of Jack Chippendale. Jack 'lofted' the lines and set to work, whilst Westell returned to the drawing board to try to complete the details of the interior. On returning to Chippendale's boatyard with the finished plans, Jack took one look before saying, "not like that, like this", before taking him outside to where the finished boat, complete with interior was already waiting. That boat of course would become the 505, which would soon find its way back across the Hamble to Fairey Marine where Chippendales cold moulded hulls would give way to the more cost effective assembly line production of hot moulded hulls.

In addition to the Osprey and 505, Jack would build a number of other very successful prototypes, including the Kestrel; although the prototype was laid up in wood, Ian Proctor had always intended the Kestrel to be built using GRP, making it the first boat specifically designed to be built using glass fibre.

The next prototype to leave the Chippendale boatyard (which had now relocated to Fareham) would, like the 505, be one of the great dinghy designs. Having spent a number of years designing successful yachts, Peter Milne had moved to start work with the innovative engineering firm of Norris Brothers, who at the time were busy working on a number of projects with the famous speed record holder, Donald Campbell. At the same time, Milne has been following his interest in the stunning performance found in the American lake scows, a hull form that (with the exception of the British Moth) had little in the way of a following in the UK. Milne knew that the secret to getting these hulls to performance was a long, narrow hull form, built using a lightweight construction technique. Like Jack Holt before him, Peter Milne wanted to make a boat that would be easily accessible to as many people as possible, so kept the hull to a manageable 16ft in length, with a simple flat bottom panel that ran from bow transom to the stern. Like Proctor and Westell, Milne then took the design to Jack Chippendale to get the prototype built. However, the boatbuilder quickly highlighted the flaw in the basic design of the boat; Milne had designed the cockpit, with curved sides that ran parallel with the line of the gunwale.

Whilst this added an air of attractiveness to what was a strikingly 'functional' design, it resulted in the requirement of a high level of boat building skill. Jack Chippendale suggested making the cockpit a simple rectangular box that would sit on the flat bottom panel and along with the thwart and centreboard, would form an easily built core to the boat. Even without a trapeze and spinnaker (both of which would be added to the boat fairly quickly) the new boat, christened the Fireball, was an instant success that would also see Chippendale boats make their first move into building GRP hulls (to offer a glass hull/wooden decked composite boat).

Milne was also intrigued by the possibility of creating a hollow in the underwater hull form and with the scow hull now becoming popular in Australia, drew up plans for a scow hulled Moth, complete with 'tunnel hull' that would be readily adopted by the Antipodeans' Moth fleet. The interplay between designer and boatbuilder would continue, as at one point the idea was to create a whole family of performance scows, starting with the Bullet, the small Fireball, intended as a Youth Trainer, right up to a 'big ball' that paid homage to the large US lake boats.

The pair also collaborated on Milne's single handers, designed for the 1965 IYRU Trials (that ultimately gave us the Contender...), before Milne diversified his design philosophy into boats such as the Mirror 14, Javelin and the Hit singlehander. After his experiences with the Trials, Peter's thinking about hull forms developed further into what can now be seen at the 'classic' Milne hull shape, with a fine entry that quickly flared out into a flat, beamy run aft. Spray rails would aid stability as well as helping provide stiffness to the flat panels. The idea was to create a hull form that offered fast and stable offwind performance, which in Peter's mind equated to fun – and if you look at his designs, they certainly offered lots of fun!

(It is also interesting to take a moment to look at some of the pictures of the Hit, then at the latest crop of 'new' single handed dinghies that have recently reached the market, it is clear to see that Milne was spot on in his thinking, just 30 years too early!).

There was a further collaboration between Milne and Chippendale after Jack had be granted the Licence to build the first Contenders in the UK, which he would build using his well established cold moulded techniques. However, when Jack tried to build the boat, it was clear that the 'Official' Plans from the IYRU contained a number of fundamental flaws in the hull lines. The two eventually had to sort the problem out using good old fashioned 'lofting', which Milne then used to produce a new set of plans that were fed back into the IYRU, for a fee that included a condition that their involvement should not be publicised!

After this, Peter Milne would, in the main, shift his focus back onto bigger boats and their designs, with one reason being that Chippendale boats had ceased to exist. Facing increasing competition, Jack had invested in a project to build the Proctor Typhoon dinghy; the idea being a one-design hull, with everything else being left 'open'. In both design and concept, the Typhoon was another boat that was years ahead of its time and despite being launched to wide acclaim, would end up being the final nail in the Chippendale boat building coffin.

Milne had been ahead of the game with his single handers; Chippendale had done likewise with the Typhoon, in the same way Austin Farrar was years ahead of the rest of the world, as at his base up on the East Coast. his attention was now focussing on wing rigs. His attention on rigs had already seen some quantum leaps forward in spinnaker design, where he had taught himself the complex mathematics of spherical trigonometry needed to design more advanced sails.

The greater the intellectual challenge, the more enjoyable it seemed to Farrar, who then set what is probably the world's first solid wing mast on an International Canoe. As his knowledge and position of one of the world's leading experts on wing theory grew, Farrar found himself in great demand with entrants in the Little America's Cup, sailed in massive C Class catamarans. Farrar's papers show that he knew, even back then, that the multi segment wing was the ultimate solution, though at the time the engineering constraints of available technology resulted in a hybrid; a solid wing, plus a sailcloth trailing edge.

It is no exaggeration to say that when Oracle and ETNZ were busy competing in San Francisco that their rig technology was a vindication of the research done 50 years earlier by Austin Farrar. In the same way, be it the 197 505s that assembled for their World Championships in La Rochelle, or the enduring success of the Contender, the fantastic fun that the Fireball still delivers, these are just part of the legacies left by the interplay between Peter Milne and Jack Chippendale.

As individuals, all three were ground breakers, but it was the sum of their talents, when they helped and influenced each other, that created the 'synergy' that would power much of the development in performance sailing. Austin Farrar, Jack Chippendale and Peter Milne, three amazing men who gave us so much in the way of innovation. Whilst we may not recognise their contributions, they are still there, reminders each time we go afloat of the Three Wise Men who all loved the sport of sailing.

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