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Ian Proctor : The Man Who Designed Racehorses

by Dougal Henshall 5 Mar 2018 00:00 PST 5 March 2018

You don't have to travel far from the shores of the UK to get a full appreciation of how different the dinghy scene is here, compared to that found elsewhere. For sailors from abroad, a visit to the RYA Dinghy Show at Alexandra Palace can be as confusing as it is informative, for few other sailing nations have anything like the rich diversity and variation in the boats and locations that we enjoy here.

The reason why this should be is clearly apparent to keen students of the history of our sport, who will do no more than point to the UK being home to two true giants of dinghy development. Between them, Jack Holt and Ian Proctor would almost dominate the world of small boat sailing, both in the UK and internationally, for nearly a quarter of a century.

It would be easy to do a 'compare and contrast' between the two, given that their respective careers would overlap in so many ways, but this would run the risk of missing out on so many of the individual facets of their lives that made them so special. Holt was born into a poor working family in London in 1912, in that glorious post-Edwardian golden era before the outbreak of World War I. In contrast, Ian Proctor was born in the last months of that terrible war in 1918, which means that this summer is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate his centenary.

Yet the paths of the two great designers are so closely linked as to make it difficult to refer to one without comment on the other; at times their thinking converged, at other times they applied very different philosophies to their designs. Both would suffer but overcome the hardship of serious health issues and would equally face other challenges. For much of his life Holt would feel that his birth and artisan status as a woodworker/boatbuilder would keep him marginalized by the sailing establishment, only for him to travel to the Palace in 1979 to receive an OBE for services to sailing. Yet Proctor, whose businesses would provide a major stream of export income to the UK would not be so honoured, though he would enjoy the ultimate glory for a small boat designer when his Tempest racing keelboat was selected for the Olympics.

As a designer/boatbuilder, Holt was ever the pragmatist and his boats reflect this. Easy to build, easy to sail, he would lead the way in the immediate aftermath of World War II with firstly his cheap alternative to the International 14, the Merlin; then the Cadet, GP14 and the Hornet, with these three remarkable for their simple, boxy hard chine hulls. Proctor on the other hand was a designer who never wanted to compromise on his ideal of balancing form and function, leading him to become the master of the curvaceous hull form. Holt may have been the spark plug for the new dinghy revolution, but it would be Proctor that would give it the glossy finish.

Unlike Jack Holt, with his practical inner-city schooling that would lead him to an intended career in cabinet making, Ian Proctor would go to Gresham's School in Norfolk, which gave him not only a broad and liberal (even in those days) education but also the chance to take up small boat sailing on the Broads. This was something that he would take to in a big way and by his early teenage years was already an accomplished helm. These school days also saw Ian as a keen sketcher with books from school containing drawings of dinghies that Ian had seen (there is a nice one of Colin Ratsey's International 14 'Hawk').

Possibly because of the location of the school on the east coast, the first dinghy Ian would own would be boat that was a close relative to the 12m Sharpie. Ian would modify this and add a rudimentary sliding seat; performance was clearly uppermost in his mind. Elsewhere however the 'new' National 12 dinghy was attracting helms and crews across the country and in 1938 there are references to Ian being a winning helm in the class. At this time there is also a lovely reference to Ian being sat in the boat when it was on its trailer ashore, with none other than Beecher Moore for company. The comment made at the time was that, "this boat needs to be 2ft longer," which of course would end up being somewhat prophetic! It is also an important footnote in history that Beecher Moore would suggest a business partnership with Ian, only to get turned down; subsequently, Beecher would create an alliance with Jack Holt and the rest, as they say, is history!

There is no record as to the reasons why Ian would give this answer, other than the obvious fact that storm clouds were again gathering over Europe. Post schooling, Ian had gone on to the University of London to study medicine, but the lure of becoming a doctor wouldn't last and by 1942 he had dropped out and joined up. Once in the RAF, Ian was able to move into the Air-Sea Rescue service where he would quickly advance to be in charge of a high-speed rescue launch. In 1943, during a brief spell of pre-embarkation leave, he married his fiancé Elizabeth (known to everyone since as 'Betty') but after only a few days of honeymoon Ian was shipped out to Egypt, where he would be in command of a three-boat rescue unit. These were exciting and dangerous times and Ian would find himself doing far more than simply rescuing downed airmen. After a 'special operations' team had kidnapped a German General on the island of Crete, it would be Ian's boats that would collect the commandos and their captive from the beach.

In the end though it wouldn't be enemy action that would do for Ian, but the simple act of swimming in the sea at Alexandria. On a sweltering day off the coast of Egypt, the water may have looked inviting, but it must have been contaminated by raw sewage, with the result that Ian contracted that most terrible of muscle wasting diseases, polio. For an active young man to spend many months in hospital and end up with permanent damage to one side of his body, shoulder and arm - and yet to be still classed as 'lucky' - is an indication how dangerous polio was back then. Once well enough, Ian was repatriated to the UK and invalided out of the RAF. Now with a wife and growing family to support, Ian worked as a boatyard manager in Gosport and journalist, becoming the editor of the 'Yachtsman' magazine, though his well-respected writing would be found across the sport.

Dinghy design had always been a fascination for Ian and now he was able to put this interest into practical operation. His first designs were for National 12s and it was this class that would bring Ian into the Warsash-based workshop of Jack Chippendale.

Ian suggested that whilst Jack worked on his N12, Ian could help with the typing! Thanks to the quality of the National 12s that Jack was turning out, he was also involved in the very early days of the new 14ft Yachting World Restricted Dinghy, a.k.a. the Merlin. Despite his obvious disabilities and the danger that a capsize would pose for him (his weakened chest muscles would struggle to keep him breathing once he was in the water) Ian, who was writing extensively for Yachting World, had raced in the breezy first Merlin Nationals in 1946, finishing a very creditable third overall.

Ian had some clear but very different ideas as to what made a good hull form and in 1951 would collaborate with another builder of National 12s, the Nottingham-based Wyche and Coppock, to help develop the lines for a similar but more sea-kindly 14ft boat, the Rocket. It was a reasonably easy task to then further modify Rocket to conform to the Merlin rules, with the hybrid boat performing well in open competition. Once the two classes had merged, Ian would find himself in increasing demand as his boats became ever more successful.

Dinghy builders up and down the country now had full order books and a waiting list, which prompted Jack Chippendale to make the wonderfully colourful statement (cleaned up somewhat!) that if Holt and Proctor continued at the current rate of designing, "there wouldn't be enough spruce trees," to make masts for them all. There was an element of truth in this, for with the dinghy market booming, the existing methods of wooden mast construction just couldn't keep up with the demand.

One of the great supporters of the Proctor story has to be in the close partnerships he created with other forward-looking forces from within the sport. One of these was Cliff Norbury who, as a highly skilled engineer, had been involved with the Hawker aircraft company. As aluminium replaced wood and canvas, Hawkers had experienced difficulties in getting the metal thin enough to form the leading edge of the wings. In the end, they resorted to 'chemical milling' – a process of acid baths that would reduce the mass of metal in way that could be closely managed. In the early 1950s, Ian and Cliff would undertake some scary experiments, boiling lengths of aluminium in an old pig trough full of caustic soda.

The resulting tubes were made to create dinghy masts, firstly for a National 12, then a Merlin Rocket. With the demand for metal masts quickly outstripping their ability to acid bath basic tubes, Ian was able to negotiate a deal with an offshoot of what would become British Alcan to produce a series of dies that would allow the easy extrusion of mast sections. With Cliff Norbury's technical input, the legend that would become Proctor Masts was born!

At the same time, Ian was busy creating another legend! The IYRU (later ISAF/World Sailing) wanted a new high performance two-man dinghy. Ian produced a stretched-out Merlin Rocket shape that he called Osprey, with the early boats being built by Chippendales with a fully clinker hull. An early test for Osprey would come in the 1953 Round the Island dinghy race and, as this was scheduled to be run just before the IYRU Trials at La Baule, it would be a wonderful opportunity for an intensive day of practice.

In typical fashion, Ian applied his considerable talents to the fine detail of how to successfully compete in the event. Together with his crew of Cliff Norbury and John Oakely, Osprey would be the best-sailed of the entrants, plus Ian had created a special mast for the race. This has two foresail halyard sheaves, so that both a genoa and jib could be rigged, with one laid on the foredeck whilst the other was in use. Upwind the jib was used, offwind the jib dropped, and the genoa set. Osprey led the race, though nearly came unstuck in the last few miles before the finish line at Cowes. With the wind falling light, it looked as if Osprey would be overtaken, so everything that could be thrown overboard to lighten the boat was ditched – with the last item to go being a tasty cake that Betty Proctor had made for them to enjoy! After sailing all day, Osprey shaved across the finish line just seconds ahead of the second placed boat and was then immediately packed up for shipment to France.

In the IYRU Trials at La Baule, Osprey would perform well and would gain praise from the Selectors, but would lose out to the Flying Dutchman and Coronet (forerunner of the 505) for International Selection. Ian would revisit the plans for Osprey and would come up with a simplified method of construction that used his favourite technique of mixing flat ply panels with clinker in the turn of the bilge. Although denied international status, Osprey would go on to become one of the established 'top dinghies' in the UK and it is just one of the Proctor classes that remains popular through to today.

At about this time, there were two more great examples of how the Proctor innovative mind was working. Firstly, he asked Dick Wyche if he could bore an inch hole in each of the garboard planks of a borrowed Merlin Rocket. Trusting Ian as always, Dick agreed, which led to the fitting of the first tube self-bailers. It is part of the story that these were initially fitted the wrong way around, so instead of bailing they forced water into the hull, but once this was rectified, the concept of self-bailers was established (previous Merlins had a brass bilge pump for the crew to operate located either side of the plate case).

It was typical of Ian that having sorted the idea out, he then wrote about it in magazine articles; others would read this and would develop the idea further, as well as slapping patents onto the device.

The other development that Ian would pursue was in the field of GRP construction. Whilst at La Baule with his Osprey, he would have encountered Max Johnson, the owner and backer of Coronet, a project that may well have been inspired by Max's growing interest in this new building technique. On his return from La Baule, Ian would start working with Jack Chippendale, who built a number of wooden boats to sort out the hull form and interior layout, before the final tooling for the first specifically designed racing dinghy for GRP construction was laid up. The result was the Kestrel, which many saw as a GRP one-design aimed at competing with the ever more expensive Merlin Rocket; instead, the Kestrel would carve out its own niche that it still occupies today.

Ian was though far from just a backroom 'boffin' of the day, as he was now also one of the leading helms in the UK; amongst his many successes was the rare honour of winning the Merlin Rocket Championships twice, once as crew, then again as helm. This practical approach to what was needed out afloat would influence his design philosophy, for he believed strongly that for a helm to succeed, he had to have confidence in the boat that would allow him to push to the maximum. Boats with handling vices would hold helms back, so Ian worked to eradicate them from his designs.

This thoughtful approach would then manifest itself in a small boat that would have huge implications. Ian had been thinking about a small boat for his children to sail, that could also be easily home-built by other families. There was already an established boat in this niche, the Holt-designed Heron, but Proctor wasn't a lover of the hard chine hull form. For a while he had been looking at multi-chined construction that was closer to his round-bilged ideal and started out thinking that the solution for the Gull would be a hull form similar to that of the Osprey.

Jack Holt meanwhile had been working to develop the double chine hull form, which appeared just a year or so earlier on Holt's Rambler cruising dayboat. Having recognised the value of this easy to build hull form, Proctor would then use a very similar shape for one of his most iconic designs, the do anything, go anywhere Wayfarer. When the Wayfarer was launched at the London Boat Show, so great was the interest in it that a queue of sailors wanting to place a deposit on the boat formed right around the Small Craft stand!

Ian was now the master of not only the dinghy design scene, but of small cruisers too. Using a hull form similar to that of the Osprey, his Seagull and Seamew cruisers could be built at home and then sailed with the family for weekends or longer. These boats and the other cruisers that would follow would sell in their hundreds and would do so much to help promote coastal yachting as a pastime that was accessible to all.

In the world of dinghies, Proctor designs dominated that very English genre of the restricted development class as in addition to his Championship winning National 12s and Merlin Rockets, he would enjoy success with International 14s, Canoes and the bigger National 18.

With Proctor Metal masts now a global sales success, being found in anything from the smallest of dinghies right up to the America's Cup yachts, both business and personal interest saw Ian travelling to the US on a number of occasions. It was during these trips that his interest was piqued by two very different influences. On the one hand, he saw the American lake scows, on the other, the accessible fun and racing that could be had from a simple 'beach boat' such as the Sunfish. Back in the UK he brought the two ideas together in a simple, easy to build single-hander called the Minisail.

This was such a success that it would go through a number of formal changes, to GRP construction, then as the Sprint and complete with a sliding seat, into a really fun performer that wasn't just easily car-toppable but would be the 'best of the bunch' of the UK beach boats. It is all too easy to forget that in the years immediately before the Laser that the Minisail was billed as "Europe's fastest growing single-handed class" as it became ever more popular out on the Continent.

With his designs increasingly successful, Ian was able to experiment in other fields of design. Following a commission from the Sunday Times for a dinghy design, he crossed over into Jack Holt hard chine territory with what is probably the easiest to build two-person boat, the ST (or as it is known today, the Signet). At the same time, he could come up with innovative solutions to design criteria, such as when the Ministry of Defence sought out entries for a competition to be the new recreational dinghy for the armed forces. One of the tests required the hull to be capable of withstanding being dropped onto a concrete hardstanding! Proctor's Bosun dinghy was bullet-proof enough to survive this, yet sailed well enough to match the opposition out afloat and having won selection, the Bosun would go one to be not only a Forces favourite but popular with Scout groups around our coasts.

It would however be another design competition, again from the IYRU, that would bring Proctor one of his greatest glories. With Trials set up in 1965 to produce a high-performance keelboat successor to the elderly (even then) Star, Proctor got it completely right with his design for the Tempest. As a designer who was constantly in pursuit of simple beauty in design (which was reflected in his choice of car; what else could it be other than a Jaguar E-Type) the Tempest was proof that if it looks right then it probably goes right. With a novel liftable keel that Ian had experimented with in his Peregrine (think of a stretched Osprey with a keel), the sweeping lines of Tempest and well-thought out hull form gave a level of performance that was simply better than the other boats in the genre.

At the Trials, with John Oakely and Cliff Norbury sailing the prototype, Tempest would win all the races bar one when a rudder problem forced it out. Tempest would not only win the Trials, but would be a significant factor in Ian winning the Yachtsman of the Year award in 1965, an accolade that was surely given for his skills as a designer as much as his undoubted qualities on the helm.

Following IYRU selection, the Tempest would go on to perform superbly at two Olympics in 1972 and 1976, before a resurgent Star proved to be superior in the Committee Rooms to regain its place at the highest level.

If there is to be any criticism of Ian Proctor, it could be that he failed to respond to the changing dynamics of the dinghies in his heartland: the restricted development classes. Technical changes in the rigs, which made them more and more powerful, were being reflected in a rapidly changing hull form. Boats were becoming beamier and flatter, with designs from the likes of Mike Jackson and Phil Morrison leading the way towards what was almost a revolution in thinking. For a long time, Proctor chose not to follow the trend, indeed, he even detailed his reasons for not doing so in a number of articles. However, the demands for progress were irresistible and in just two short seasons, Proctor boats found themselves outclassed by the newcomers.

Meanwhile, Proctor, in yet another collaboration with Jack Chippendale, was already looking to the future. The costs of building dinghies on a one-off basis were becoming prohibitive, leading the pair to the conclusion that a whole novel approach was needed. Their answer was the Typhoon, a performance boat that would be built around an innovative and exciting SMOD hull, but with the individuality of freedom in the rig. In many ways, Typhoon was way ahead of its time, with ideas such as the domed foredeck to get a shaped 'end plate' effect on the genoa, to the flush-through hull, and it also benefited from the best of the Proctor design philosophy.

Sadly, Typhoon would struggle from the off after being hit with a unsavoury PY number by the authorities. The idea was that the SMOD hull would streamline production and bring costs down, instead the project would itself bring Chippendales down as the firm sunk into liquidation.

This idea of innovation plus design would come to the fore again in Proctor's final dinghy design for the Spectrum. The thinking behind this boat was a platform that could 'multi-role': with a change of rig it could be a fun beach boat for the family or an exciting race boat complete with asymmetric. Again, the idea was very good, but in the end the boat would fail to get past the advanced prototype stage.

One cannot however discuss the boats of Ian Proctor without mention of his greatest success, the Topper. After the Laser brought about an early demise for the Minisail, Ian had kept returning to the idea of a simple singlehanded scow that would be accessible for youth and adults alike. After the prototype Toppers had appeared in wood, production shifted to GRP with the boat enjoying some success out in Europe. Then, in a wonderfully progressive move, construction changed to polypropylene and interest in the class exploded on a global scale.

The change had required a huge capital investment in the tooling and production equipment but, once this was in place, the production of Toppers could take place on an industrial scale. The innovation in both the design and production process would see Ian Proctor winning awards from the Design Council twice in three years.

In later years, as the driving force in the mast business moved into other hands, Ian was able to enjoy his retirement at his beautiful waterside home on the River Dart, though much of that time was taken up in dealing with the ongoing demands of the many class associations he was involved with. When the Merlin Rockets held an anniversary event at Upper Thames, Ian, Cliff and one of their winning designs were all reunited whilst other classes saw him frequently at events that he could 'pop in' to! However sad it may well be, it was at just such an event, the hosting of the Wayfarer Worlds at Hayling Island in 1992, that just after helping a boat launch for the competition, that Ian would suffer a fatal heart attack and would die at a club he had himself raced from so many times before.

The legacy he left us though is not just huge, but ongoing. In the fields of innovation, masts, the nearly 100 or so designs, the friendships but more than that, the dogged determination to continue to do what he loved in the face of adversity, all this surely marks him out as one of the true greats of the sport. Then there are his writings, with an extensive catalogue of insightful articles, not to mention the carefully crafted books he wrote that are still regarded as thoughtful guides to topics such as wind, current and strategy through to today.

And yet, despite all this, there have been those that found it easier to question Ian and his boats than to praise them. Little wonder then, that when Jack Holt was being honoured for his services to dinghy sailing, a poorly-informed journalist asked Ian if he could explain why the Holt designs were so much more popular in number than those he had created. The reply came back in a flash! "It was easy," replied Ian, "rabbits breed faster than racehorses!" Maybe said in jest but this was such an insightful observation, for Ian had always preferred those racehorse-like aspects of quality and beauty to the commercially successful quick fix.

(And if the truth be told and the Mirror - which we now know to have been a Barry Bucknell design from the outset - is removed from the equation, Proctor boats have probably outsold those of his friend, Jack Holt.)

As well as appearing at the RYA Dinghy Show, there will a gala event to celebrate the Proctor Centenary, with the boats out on the water, scheduled for the 2nd and 3rd June at Bosham SC.

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