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Staying atop the Singles Chart

by David Henshall 17 Oct 06:58 PDT
Melges 14 U.S. National Championships © Hannah Noll / Melges

Singlehanders are such a part of the sailing scene today, but what does it take to stay at the top of the Singles Chart?

If there is one truly trusty bellwether that gives us a sound indication as to the overall health of the sport of small boat sailing, then it has to be the current buoyancy of the singlehanded scene. Here, there is more vitality, action and innovation taking place than just about anywhere else, with the result being an amazing degree of diversity. Just looking at the adult classes, in one sub-species alone, the nonagenarian Moths, boats range from the British Moth to the ultra high-tech foiling International Moth. Elsewhere, in terms of complexity, there is the basic simplicity of the 'step mast and go' Laser through to the boat that was originally intended as a Laser replacement, the simply super, beautifully crafted and sophisticated Devoti D-One.

Just how the Devoti evolved into such a wonderful, high-end hiking asymmetric-rigged singlehander will be looked at in more detail later, but its creation speaks volumes on how the market for the singlehander has evolved. Thus the narrative has its place in the wider context of dinghies that have been envisaged as candidates able to unseat the Laser from its Olympic perch.

Now though, with the 50th birthday of the Laser drawing near, the charmed life of this most ubiquitous of racing dinghies is showing signs of stress. Searching questions arising from anti-trust concerns have grown at the same time that a number of genuinely capable alternatives have emerged. The RS Aero, Melges 14 and Devoti D-Zero are all high-quality examples of classes that are getting the sort of traction needed for them to stake a viable claim for the greater glory of the Olympic Regatta.

But before we start to consider the possibility that the sport might be thinking that it is time for a change, we have to ask if the sport is finally falling out of love with the Laser; and if so, why? To answer that question, it is a worthwhile exercise to take a look at how we got into this situation in the first place.

Dialling the clock back by 100 years or so, sailing dinghies made their first appearance at the Olympics back in 1920, when the regatta was held at Ostend. In an event notable for the large number of classes taking part, the key inclusion was that of a singlehanded dinghy, for in these early days of the sport, the actions of the individual were rated more highly than those of the two– or three-man crews. It is also worth noting that the early boat of choice, the often maligned (at least in the UK) International 12 was granted International status the best part of a decade before the two-man International 14.

It is therefore an interesting aspect of the sport, that although the two-man boat, with a particular emphasis on the International 14, would quickly become the perceived pinnacle of dinghy sailing, it would be a singlehanded dinghy that would remain in Olympic favour until two-man boats finally made their appearance in the mid-1950s.

By then though there was almost a down-playing of the role of singlehanded dinghy racing, with it being perceived as a somewhat lesser activity. By the time of the first post-war Olympics at London in 1948 the organisers in the UK had no problem with a new competition to find a new 'lightweight' two-man keelboat for the Games: the Swallow. But when it came to the choices for the singlehanded dinghy to be used at Torquay, the only two options available were the Brent One Design / British Moth and the Fairey Firefly sailed one-up (see The story of singlehanded sailing at the London 1948 Olympics).

After an event characterised by the sight of good sailors swimming following capsizes, it is little wonder that Rickard Sarby, who would finish just off the podium in fourth place, would want something better for the competitors. For the following Games at Helsinki in 1952, a competition for a new boat was staged with the winner being very much a dedicated singlehander: the Finn. From the outset there were those who saw the the Finn as heavy and with a hull form owing much to earlier dinghies.

Yet even as the Finn was being readied for its Olympic debut, elsewhere in the world of sailing a new phrase was being discussed, that of 'performance sailing'. Away from the development of the Finn, the action was taking place in the developing world of two-man dinghies where the Flying Dutchman, Hornet, Osprey and Coronet/505 were all leading the way towards a form of sailing that was far more performance-orientated.

Five years after the Finn, the UK domestic singlehanded scene would get the Solo, but in comparison with the continued rise in two-man boats, the launch of Jack Holt's endearing (not to mention enduring) singlehander can hardly be seen as a major milestone. Instead, the key developments were still taking place in two-man boats, when at the start of the 1960s, Peter Milne's exciting, lightweight Fireball made performance sailing not just lots of fun but easily accessible to all.

Following the meteoric rise of the Fireball, by the mid-1960s the IYRU (World Sailing) had finally agreed on the need for a more performance-orientated singlehander and tasked the UK with the organisation of a Trials event that would be held at Weymouth. The make up of this first attempt to define the genre provides a useful snapshot of the singlehanded scene of the day.

The one acknowledged boat that could be said to already fit the bill was the International Canoe, but as they had aligned themselves closely with the Canoe Union rather than the IYRU, they were permitted to take part in the Trials, but only on the understanding that they would not figure in the overall considerations. The Finn too was represented, with the class showing the same determination then to make their mark as they do now, by providing one of the leading helms of the day to sail their boat: the Russian Valentin Mankin. This too would be to no avail as the Finn class had also been told that they too would not figure in the final results.

Of the other boats that would appear on the beach at Weymouth, some were remarkable for their almost novelty factor, yet even on the most bizarre of these there were real gems of innovation hiding away! Many of the established classes such as the Solo and OK would be there, along with a pretty little boat, that would later provide the basis for the Lark hull, but they would all be dealt something of a lesson in what constituted a genuine performance singlehander. Chris Eyre, who was there with his Shelley International Moth and had expected to do well, summed up the fate of the smaller boats; in his own words, "big boats go faster than little ones!"

Amongst these larger entrants, David Thomas with his sliding seat-equipped Unit showed how it could be done, whilst Paul Elvstrom ignored the entry criteria that stipulated no trapezes by arriving with his ground breaking Trapez dinghy.

There were others, such as the bizarre Widget, and then the Fireball, rigged with a sliding seat and sailed singlehanded, but these were little more than interesting side shows to the main event. The problem facing the sailing establishment was clearly demonstrated by none other than Jack Holt, who was then at the height of his design career. Jack had designed the shapely Cavalier specifically for the trials, but when he showed it to his business partner and Hornet supremo Tony Allen, he got the response that he had designed "a heavy and old-fashioned boat".

Jack placed a great deal of importance on Tony's views and, as a consequence, went away and produced another entry: the Corinthian. Tony's response was, if anything, even more pointed: "you've created a boat for an old man". At this second knock back, even the renowned genteel nature of Jack Holt had taken enough, with his reply to Tony Allen being along the lines of "if you think you can do better", but that is exactly what Tony did! In one weekend of work with a few sheets of ply, Tony and some other helpers from the east coast mafia would create the hull for the ToY (or 'Tony's own Yacht') and as they had a Solo rig lying by, that got pressed into service.

Simple, effective, and when given breeze and flat water, the ToY offered a huge amount of fun for the money. The ToY would end up as the one new boat that would end up achieving the critical mass required to create an active class out of this first set of Trials.

In many ways the ToY was the writing on the wall for the sport, with it writ large that the growing number of teenage baby boomers wanted more fun and excitement from their sailing. At this point around the mid-1960s, it was still the case that for most, entry to the sport came from crewing for an older helm, but the events at Weymouth would be the start of a fundamental sea change. Indeed, the performance singlehander trials would be more significant than any could have realised at the time.

After two more sets of Trials, for the IYRU it was pretty much a choice not just between two boats, but between two very different design philosophies that clearly represented the changing nature of the sport. On the one hand there was the Jeton, which was very quick in the light to medium airs and looked like the designer had crossed a continental lake-style International Moth with a Finn, before adding on pivoting panels to allow the helm's weight to be shifted outboard.

The other boat, which many at the final Trials in Medemblik felt was the boat that the IYRU wanted, was the Contender. An unashamed lift of the Flying Dutchman hull form by designer Bob Miller (later Ben Lexen), the Contender was at the other end of the design spectrum from Jeton, for it was light, beamy and rigged from the outset with a trapeze. Luckily for the Australian boat, the last few days at the Trials were breezy and the Contender romped away from the rest, to end up with the coveted selection as an International Class.

No wonder that Jack Knights (who was a talented Finn sailor himself) who was at the Trials would declare afterwards that the choice of Contender meant that, "the age of the ape has passed, now it will be the age of the monkey".

Even so, the Contender had had to fight for its place, as some poor parenting skills from the IYRU and a determined fight back from the Finns contrived to nearly throttle the early growth in the boat. Take-up internationally would be steady rather than spectacular, maybe due in part to the (then) radical nature of the boat. Just how radical can be seen in the early threat of legal action that the class faced in the UK from one buyer, who claimed he had been sold a boat that was "impossible to sail".

Even allowing for the arrival of the Contender, by the time that the swinging sixties finally ended, 1970 would see a singlehanded scene that both domestically and internationally looked reasonably stable. One writer for the yachting press commented that there was a place for everyone and everyone knew their place. Globally, the runaway singlehanded success was the US's Sunfish, a very simple beach boat with a lateen sail, but in the UK, the same genre saw boats that were either local 'takes' on the Sunfish concept or were more dinghy hull orientated.

It would not be long before the UK market would be skewed by the presence of Ian Proctor's Minisail, which first appeared as a ply self-build, then a GRP hull, before the addition of a sliding seat. Purely on the numbers, the Minisail was a huge success and for a while it carried the tagline of 'Europe's fastest growing singlehanded class'. This success might have been partly due to the gap between the assessed performance of the boat (as reflected by its PY number) and its undoubted abilities when the course and conditions suited it; there were those who thought that the Sport version, which sported a sliding seat, should have had a sombrero and Zapata moustache as standard!

Although marketing initiatives were still some way off into the future, had a reasoned and considered view been taken of the smaller end of the singlehanded scene, it would have been clear that there was a growing niche opening, just waiting for the right boat to come along and exploit it. The only question at this point was just where on the beach boat / proper dinghy continuum the new boat would sit. It is worth remembering that when Bruce Kirby was sketching out what he later referred to as his 'million-dollar doodle', that his original concept was for a simple car-toppable dinghy.

Kirby himself titled the boat the Weekender and helped position it with a sail insignia of TGIF for Thank God it's Friday (we're lucky that it didn't read TFIF). Kirby was also lucky in that he'd been present at some of the IYRU singlehander trials and had seen both hull shapes and innovations that were of interest but on unsuccessful dinghies. Not only could he draw on the best of these, but once the Contender had been selected, he was part of the International Launch Committee for the new class. In this position he saw at first hand how a lack of management from the IYRU had at times compromised the successful delivery of the new boat.

Kirby saw that it could be done better, and by 1971 the new dinghy (now known as the Laser) had been successfully launched, but few could have imagined just how dramatic the next few years would be. In hindsight, the market was ready and waiting for a boat like the Laser, but other factors also helped it on its way. One of these factors came courtesy again of the Contender, for another member of the Contender launch committee had been the UK journalist Jack Knights, of Yachts &Yachting fame.

An early purchaser of the Laser in the UK, Jack didn't just love the boat but wrote repeatedly and at length about the virtues of the Laser's simplistic and strict one-design ethos. At the time Jack was sailing a Quarter Ton yacht that sported an interesting but complex rig, which gave him plenty of opportunity to compare and contrast his two boats. His Quarter Tonner 'Odd Job' "has a very poor ratio of time spent working on the boat to time actually spent sailing." He saw his Laser as the exact opposite, with the maximum time spent sailing, with a minimum time spent working on the boat!

The Laser was also lucky in that - although Bruce Kirby and his backers couldn't have known it in advance - the timing of the Laser's launch coincided with the start of one of the great financial meltdowns in recent history. As the Stock Market lost 40% of it's value in a little over a year, inflation started running into double digits. With hourly wage rates soaring, many of the older boat builders who were still building boats using traditional intensive labour inputs, suddenly found that they could no longer produce boats at an affordable price. Another blow would come with the UK joining the EU, as one spin-off would be the introduction of a new tax, the dreaded VAT, which added another 10% onto the price of boats. Dinghy sailing, which had enjoyed a wonderful period of strong and continuous growth since the late 1940s, was now about to feel the cold winds of unwanted change.

In this environment, the Laser, the complete antithesis of cheque book sailing, didn't just flourish, it quickly came to both dominate and decimate, with the result that in just a couple of seasons, many of the existing small singlehander classes found themselves all but wiped out by the new phenomena. The beach boat genre virtually disappeared and even the Minisail, a boat that had previously enjoyed a broad base of support, found that it was being rapidly pushed out to the margins. In an extinction event on a par with that which changed the face of dinghy racing in the 1950s, the Laser even saw off some of the established dinghy classes (the ToY and the Keith Callaghan-designed Harrier were just two current classes that became 'collateral damage'), even though by now the failings of the Laser were well known and documented.

Dinghies are not necessarily built with comfort in mind, but for those whose body didn't conform to a certain build, the Laser could seem like an instrument of medieval torture. The mainsheet snagged on the transom quarter and the shortcomings of the rudder blade made steering in wind and waves a matter of how quickly you could move your body mass. In these pre-XD days, sitting on the boom to get more kicker on was just one well-known trick, with it being little wonder that sailing club dinghy parks were soon littered with broken Laser spars.

Yet the positive qualities in the Laser saw it selling in huge numbers around the world and now the impact was felt on a wider basis across the sport. Sailors started to ask themselves why they were crewing for someone else, when they could just as easily be sailing their own boat, as and when they liked. As the fortunes of the Laser flourished, some of our cherished two-person boats started to show the first signs of stagnation leading to a period of lengthy decline. It helped that, in comparison with so much of the rest of the sport, the strictly one-design ethos of Laser sailing was providing great competition at an affordable price and, whilst there were rumours of the good guys getting access to a range of boats and spars that they could check and weigh before purchase, the Laser remained a remarkable leveller of talent. It was what you did in the boat that counted and it would come as no surprise that the successful sailors in the Laser would develop into leading helms in other classes.

As the Laser swept on unchecked across the globe, International status would follow, along with a growing clamour that the boat should be included in the Olympics. Even though the boat was a pivotal choice that would help attract more of the smaller nations to the Olympic regatta, at the same time the rumblings of discontent started to coalesce into some genuine opposition to the boat. The builders were accused of profiteering with regard to the supply of follow up equipment, with the cost of the Laser sail being a particular point of contention. The inherent shortcomings of the boat were also highlighted, which led to the belief that there ought to be a boat like the Laser, only better!

One such initiative was led by an Anglo-German initiative, which saw the answer as being much closer to the conventional dinghy hull form. Their designer of choice, Peter Milne, produced a slimmed-down singlehanded version of his Mirror 14 hull, which could be supplied in GRP or built from a wooden kit. Mindful of the importance back then of the European block vote, the new boat (now known as the Hit) paid homage to the Finn/OK styled rig, with a conventional unstayed mast, and a halyard hoist for the main rather than the Laser's simpler 'stuff the mast up the pocket' solution.

The ergonomics were taken care of with a deep cockpit, and with the hull form far more that of an attractive dinghy than beach boat, the Hit was packaged as a serious rival for the Laser's Olympic aspirations. Yet despite the clever design and deliberate leanings towards a more euro-attractive dinghy, the Hit ended up as just one more well thought out boat that fancied taking on the Laser, only to fail; in the decades to come many others would follow with the same result.

In 1996 the Laser appeared for the first time at the Olympics and delivered to the growing TV audience some enthralling racing as Brazil's Robert Scheidt and the UK's Ben Ainslie showed just how close the game could be played out in two identical boats.

For the 2008 Olympics, the Laser Radial would supplant the Europe dinghy as the women's singlehander, with this accolade possibly representing the high-water mark of the brand's fortunes. Since the launch of the original boat, repeated attempts had been made to expand the 'Laser concept' into other genres of dinghy, but these had diluted both focus and funds, with the result that - despite their dominant monopoly position - the builders of the Laser had found themselves in difficult financial positions. Other legal issues were also starting to make inroads into the Laser story, with the IYRU, now badged as ISAF, having to consider some tricky 'what if' scenarios as they looked at the hosting of major World and Olympic events.

Yet once again the environment of the sailing world was changing, with the foiling Moth breaking new ground that multihulls would soon move in to, yet in terms of one-design, close-quarter racing, the Laser still occupied the dominant International position. Even into the new millennium, there seemed little possibility that an alternative to the Laser might finally find the room and opportunity to flourish. That the door might finally be prised open to the idea of an innovative replacement was seen when two of the giants of the singlehanded scene, RS and Devoti, considered a collaboration on a new boat that would challenge the existing order. Devoti are of course famous for their mastery of the Olympic singlehanded scene with their Finns, whilst RS have in the past developed two of the best and most pure singlehanders yet to grace a race course with their RS300 and RS600 designs.

It might well have been a case of yet more good luck for the Laser, as fundamental differences would arise in the direction that the concept boat should take, with RS arriving at the cleverly packaged (and priced for accessibility) RS100, whilst Devoti took the 'we don't compromise on quality' approach in developing their superb D-One, which was certainly THE new boat of the noughties, if not so far this millennium.

Hindsight though is a wonderful thing and it may well be that in the rush to add an asymmetric to a hiking singlehander, that the potential market for these boats was simply overstated. The excellent Musto Skiff has shown that what market there is for a kite-rigged singlehander is better served by a trapeze boat, but for the other entrants into this market sector, the future looks to be challenging. Even the support of big name backers cannot alter this simple dynamic and instead the real opportunities have come from boats that are much closer to that original Laser ideal.

It says much of the potential that is believed to exist that the big two - Devoti and RS again - were both ready to invest in designs that really can not only go toe-to-toe with the Laser but win on both quality and innovation.

The RS Aero, designed by Jo Richards and with the benefit of multiple rig choices, has sold in sufficient numbers both domestically and internationally to be able to claim with a genuine validity that, if the Laser were to stumble for whatever reason, that they could take up the slack. The Dan Holman-designed Devoti D-Zero meanwhile has more than a touch of real class to it, and with the strength of the parent company, who are themselves no strangers to the ways and means of the international committee rooms, could just as easily take on the Olympic singlehander role, either as a straight replacement for the Laser, or with a different rig, as an ideal boat for the lighter weight ladies.

It is the latter of these two scenarios that is bringing the whole issue of the future direction of singlehanded sailing into sharp focus. Following another extended period of navel-gazing, World Sailing are again looking to ring the changes on the boats that are sailed at the Olympic regatta, though how the events would stack up is, as yet, not clear. Nor is it just the event structure that is lacking in clarity, for with the avowed intention of creating a light-weight ladies' boat (now there is a question; is it the boat or the lady that is lightweight?) World Sailing have come up with a shortlist of potentially suitable boats. Interestingly, the Europe, which performed this role so well in the past, never made it through the discussion stage and instead it is the RS Aero, Devoti D-Zero, and the equally well accomplished Melges 14, that will square up against the incumbent Laser.

The Laser now faces not just one highly capable challenger, but three, as the Melges 14 represents yet another high-class candidate for a role that is as yet not even vacant – but could be!

It remains to be seen if World Sailing will take the easy option to stay with what they have today, or will at long last break with the past and put the Laser to one side (though in the rarefied atmosphere of the World Sailing Committee Rooms, there would always be the option for the boat to make a Star-like return).

Those same high-level discussions also saw, for the first time in nearly 50 years, the serious possibility that the career of the ever-present Finn might also be drawing to a close. Meanwhile, out in the real world, there is very little wrong with both the Finn and Laser, as they continue to represent the very best of athletic, talent-rich competitive sailing in the traditional manner to which most of us are accustomed. However, the further you move away from the rich atmosphere of those Committee Rooms, the harder it is to argue the fact that after 100 years of success, that the dinghy racing world now stands on the cusp of a period of major change. It is not just being a negative doomsayer to identify that the number of people participating in dinghy sailing is falling, but there is now a very real possibility that the way in which we participate in the sport is likely to be very different in little more than the next decade.

Some classes will evolve and reinvent themselves (look at how the International Moths have seized upon the opportunity they were given) whilst others will undoubtedly struggle. One trend that is now clearly identifiable is that the law of product cycles is becoming a feature of modern boats, which hints at an exciting beginning, a stable mid-life and then sadly a point at which it all ends.

Could it therefore be the case that the Laser, the boat that more than 40 years ago changed the game by making dinghies into little more than a commodity item, will itself fall out of favour, not because we don't like the boat, nor because that there are now demonstrably better boats, but simply because in today's world, change and renewal of marketing-led forces will demand that we all have something 'new' to dedicate our limited resources of time and money to?

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