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Yes I, am the Great Contender

by David Henshall 28 May 2020 10:00 PDT
The Contender of today is a glorious mix of form and function, but there are others that are not so lucky © David Henshall

"Oh yes I, am the Great Contender..." - with thanks to The Platters, then Freddie Mercury, for the title.

The long weeks of lockdown have created many numerous (and at times bizarre) spin-off activities, and as the prospect of limited overseas travel loom, the 'staycation' could well be in for a massive 2020 boost! As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining, and for and for dinghy sailing, the downside that organised racing could still be months away looks to be more than offset by an increase in the numbers of people just wanting to find a fun activity that gets them out of the house, exercising but with the safety that comes from maintaining the security of one's social space.

Sailing in single-handers, which was already the number one trend in the sport, now looks set to become a part of the 'new norm'. Old Lasers have been dug out from the elephant's graveyard at the back of dinghy parks, elderly GRP Solos are emerging from years of hibernation under a boat cover with all sorts of other boat looking for an unexpected reconnection with their owners.

Sadly, some boats have been so long forgotten than even if the current restricted lifestyle were to continue, they would remain unclaimed and unloved. There are the real wrecks, boats that need the 'coup de grace' of a Viking funeral, but there are others that really surprise the onlooker, for they were once expensive boats that surely retain sufficient residual value to make their salvation worthwhile.

One such boat that is not so much of a barn find, but a 'back of the field' feature, is a Contender which has lain undisturbed for enough years for the brambles to claim it as one of their own. Yet this is a class that surely is worthy of a second look as this is the year when the 50th World Championships should have been celebrated (now rescheduled for 2021) and even if it was only to be used as a 'hack' for blasting around, it is still a lot of boat to have been abandoned.

The future is looking even bleaker for this once proud top dog in the single-handed pack, as the owner of the compound where it has been left is now starting moves to clear the space and soon this boat too will suffer a fate even worse than that of the Viking funeral, as it will be sawn up and consigned to landfill.

Luckily, before that final act has been played out, I managed to get access to the locked space to look at the boat and to document it, along with a couple of others that are already earmarked for a final voyage to the great boat park in the sky. These included an Ian Proctor-designed Alpha, which is a rare boat to find these days, as is an Express dinghy in good condition, but the Contender would end up being something of a mystery.

The origins of the hull itself are easy to determine, for there are a number of pointers that indicate the original builder. Strangely, the colour of the boat was significant - a white hull and blue decks - with these being the colours best-liked by Rondar Sales Manager David Pitman, who would take three consecutive World Titles in the class, plus countless others.

Square drain tubes running through the aft tank to openings in the cockpit floor, and a strange non-slip pattern on the GRP decks (that could well have been described as 'slippery when wet') are all the hallmarks of a Mark 1 Rondar, circa mid-1970s, from their factory down in New Milton. The boat sports an IYRU plaque, but to date no records have been found to give any hint of the life that the boat once led before it was cast aside in this manner.

The next line of enquiry was with the rig, for next to the boat was an apparently unused Proctor mast, with the section and the black coating being from a much later date than the hull. Maybe there would be a clue in the mainsail and, though the sail bag showed signs of being a great second course for the local mouse population, the sail itself had not been badly chewed.

There would be two surprises here, firstly in that the sail had never been numbered, and secondly that the sailmaker was none other than Jack Holt. I have been around Contenders since that time of the mid-1970s and this was the first time I had ever seen a Holt sail, which I hoped might give me some leads to follow, but this too was a dead-end. The other sail was far more modern and bore the logo of the two Tonys - Tony Gale and Tony Smith - who used to operate their sail loft from White's shipyard in nearby Woolston, just to the east of Southampton.

This sail was at least numbered (albeit badly) and if the number is correct, then this points to the boat being a later-than-expected Mark 1 Contender, probably dating from 1976, as shortly after this Rondar completed a new set of tooling for both hull and deck. With the operators of the compound not holding any records of the owner, and with the boat devoid of any other clues as to its history, the research trail on this boat has now gone cold.

Viewed from a dispassionate perspective, this is a 45 year old hull, stripped of fittings that will probably soon be no more, but maybe, just maybe, the sight of it will jog a memory somewhere which will lead to the gaps being filled in. After all, there isn't a lot else to do right now!

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