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Leading designer, builder and sailor, Jim Young passes away at 94yrs

by Jim Young & Richard Gladwell/ 18 Jun 2020 15:49 PDT 19 June 2020
Tango - Mahurangi Regatta - Mahurangi Harbour - January 2020 © Richard Gladwell /

Noted designer and boat builder Jim Young passed away Thursday morning aged 94 years.

Young is best remembered as the designer of the Young 88, the 30ft keelboat which is New Zealand's largest one design keelboat class.

His contribution to New Zealand sailing spans 71 years including winning national sailing titles, boatbuilding, yachts and powerboat design.

Always noted for design innovation, Young designed a 12ft catamaran, Kitty which won the 1958 12ft Interdominion, in the capable hands of David and John Peet, before the type was made illegal.

He was one of the first to utilise a canting keel in his keelboat, Fiery Cross. The Young 88 featured a unique interior layout which has since been copied in all boats of this size and type.

Young is also the designer of the Vindex range of fast planing, cruising launches, pioneering the concept - again since copied by many others.

Young employed many young sailors and designers through his boat building business, the most notable being a young Bruce Farr, who went on to become a highly successful designer in his own right on the international racing scene.

He will be remembered for the diversity of his design portfolio many of which went on to become the iconic design of their type, and with their almost timeless style.

The lines of his Young88 are timeless and almost 40 years later it would not look out of place in any line up of contemporary 30ft racer/cruisers.

Similarly with his wooden Vindex powerboat and 40ft production version which became Formula 4000.

Born in Wellington, Jim Young's affinity with boats began with canvas canoes on the Waiwhetu Stream in Hutt Valley, before moving to Otahuhu and Sandringham, aged 10, and then to Auckland's North Shore.

He started a boatbuilding apprenticeship in 1940 working on the construction of wooden naval vessels and general boat maintenance until 1945.

Too young to fight in WWII, he joined J-Force and did service in Japan in 1946 before returning to New Zealand. As someone who knew a bit about boats, he was put in charge of a tugboat, and took the opportunity to build a 13ft yacht not unlike a Z-class

He won the Sanders Cup in 1949, sailing White Heather - a 14ft X class that Jim designed, built and skippered himself.

Initially, Jim worked from a 34ft long shed in Little Shoal Bay, before moving to premises at the bottom end of Barry's Point Road, in Takapuna.

Like his peers, John Spencer and Des Townson, Jim split his time between design and building. But while Spencer became known as the "Plywood King" and Townson the master of the type known as 'fast Gulf cruiser/racers' plus a string of popular racing dinghies, Young was diverse and experimental. He had an endless supply of design ideas, usually based on research and then adapted into a prototype, on the basis that he couldn't expect an owner to commission an unproven design concept.

In 1954 he came up with Tango, with a short keel and spade rudder - which proved to be years ahead of its time - and is now restored and part of the Classic Yacht fleet.

In 1958 he launched the canting keelboat Fiery Cross - notable for being a 45ft double-ender, very narrow 7ft 2" beam and 2.2ton canting keel. The building project had started in 1945, with the canting keel design was inspired by L. Francis Herreshoff in his famous book 'Common Sense of Yacht design.

'Anyway on a long boat you get on a reach and up to speed and you just bowl along - and that was one of the things that I had in mind for Fiery Cross with its swinging keel', he wrote in Sail-World ahead of the publication of his book "Jim Young: Designer, Boatbuilder, Sailor", published in 2015.

"I thought we could have a fast boat, a pleasant boat to sail and that is how Fiery Cross turned out to be - she was just lovely - and so narrow it didn't matter which side of the boat you sat on", Young told Daniel Johnston in a story published in in 2010

"I'm used to sitting on the lee side of the cockpit and you can put your hand over in the water because the rail would be just above the surface - and this water is going past at about 9 knots. So you really feel as if you're going fast and the sensation of speed is as important as the speed itself."

Fiery Cross caused a lot of consternation amongst handicappers, and was banned from racing until Young agreed to not cant the keel while racing.

1958 was also the year in which he designed Kitty, a 12ft catamaran to contest the Silasec Trophy for the inner 12ft Interdominion title. The 12fter rules were sufficiently loose to permit multihulls to sail against monohulls. Sailed by brothers David and John Peet, Kitty won every race before being banned from the competition. The design went on the become New Zealand's first catamaran class.

"In 1960 Alan Aspden of Northcote was impressed with the performance of our Hi-Fi planing boats and could also see the potential of the right shaped hull and carefully thought out lightweight construction, Jim explained in a Sail-World story.

"There were no boats around like that so this was a challenge of faith and a brave commitment for Alan. After developing the hull form I made a light scale model, and ballasted it to float at the designed marks, To see how it would behave at the hoped speed of 18-20kts I towed it from an arm extending out from the side of the slip punt so it was clear of the punts waves, and could track as it wished.

I regulated the speed of the 1.5 hp seagull so the punts following displacement waves were spaced equal to the scaled speed of the model. (A duck makes a following displacement waves with the size and spacing directly in keeping with the speed at which the duck is paddling. Just like a small version of the displacement waves generated by a harbour tug when it's going somewhere.

"Vindex attracted a lot of attention. I could tell her from some miles away just by the size and speed and long flat wake. As usual there were those who said she was fast only because she was so lightly built and would only last eighteen months. Fifty years later, with her double diagonal on stringers construction. Vindex is still as good as new."

It was Jim Young who took on the teenager Bruce Farr, as a fully fledged boatbuilder designer, as he had already employed two apprentices, and wasn't allowed to take on any more. Farr, already with a national champion Moth design, drawn, built and raced while he was 15 years old, spent half his time building and the other half designing with Young, before going out on his own, working from his parent's house in Devonport.

After Tango, Jim Young's next keelboat success was Namu - a 36fter commissioned by irrepressible Flap Martinengo - as much a master of the mind games of sport, as he was of the Auckland tidal nuances and simply making a boat sail fast, without spending a lot of money. He was the best advertisement a designer could have, and with a voice and unique humour you'd never forget.

After being able to regularly beat boats 10ft longer and defying the ability of handicappers to contain her, Namu grew a foot becoming the NZ37. Jim built Notre Dame for his own use, before entering the export market - sending a dozen to America, right at the time fibreglass production boats were entering the US market, but nevertheless selling 30 boats of the design.

With the exception of Bruce Farr, most of his peer group of top New Zealand designers and builders, refused to get involved in designing boats to a rating rule, concentrating on the obsession with speed, cruising comfort and primarily serving the needs of the local market.

He did have a crack at the Half Ton Cup with his Mama Cass design which evolved into the Young 88.

Best known was Heatwave which competed in the 1977 One Ton Cup in Auckland against a host of international designs, plus the 32ft Moonlight designed by Des Townson - another who eschewed designing to rating rules. Heatwave had the bad luck to break a spreader just before the start of the final race setting off 30 minutes astern of the fleet. She recovered well and placed sixth overall.

Sold to a German owner Heatwave performed very well in the 1978 One Ton Cup in Flensburg, Germany, finishing third overall, and but for a cancelled race meaning all races had to count in the pointscore, would have won the prestigious trophy. Nevertheless it was a good day for New Zealand designers, with top designer, Ron Holland's designs taking first and second overall in the regatta.

In 1981, Ross Field a former cop, later to be a Whitbread Round the World Race winning skipper, and production boat builder Roger Land saw Jim's design for what became the Young 88 - a fast cruiser/racer just a few inches shy of 30ft overall.

One of the first built was Paddy Wagon for Ross Field, which like Namu before it, turned in a stunning on the water performance for the hard-driving Field in the Two Man Round the North Island Race.

Land, the commensurate salesman managed to sell 10 boats before the production line started - with the boat being outstanding as a cruiser as well as a raceboat that again sailed well beyond its waterline.

As always Jim's design had several features that were well ahead of their time - and gave the boats an unique place in the market.

First was the extreme deck beam at 10ft 10"with a narrow waterline of just 7ft 6" on a boat that was just 29ft 4" overall. The beam was carried well aft which created plenty of volume below decks, and allowed for two near-double berths, or a deep locker carrying dive gear, sails etc with an open transom at the aft end of the "T-cockpit" layout.

The Young 88 led to the Young 11, the first of which was was Honeywell, built by Jim's brother Alan for Ross Field. Ross had the first Young 88 Paddy Wagon. Roger Land saw the Young 11 as a logical step up from the Young 88 and Honeywell became the plug for the fibreglass moulds. With her beamy, dinghy type lines with flared sides Honeywell could hardly differ more from Fiery Cross, Jim explained in an extract from his autobiography published in Sail-World. "I don't know of any boats with that hull form before 1980 but now they appear the most common hull form. In fact, I wrote a piece published in Sea Spray in 1980 suggesting two designs of that hull form as ideal to exploit the spectacular weight savings with added strength in the new light weight structural system. Unidirectional glass laid over both faces of a strip planked core.

"The Young 88 and then radical Rocket 31 were ideal for the new technology which offered great strength with spectacular saving in weight. It is now popularly known as Cedar Core construction. The Y88 plug was built by Greg Elliott and the Rocket 31 was built by Terry Cookson. They were the first yachts to be built using the technology. The first powerboat was the Vindex 40 built by Peter Sowman in 1981. Later to become the Formula 4000.

"Camp Freddie, a Rocket 31 built and sailed by Greg Peck in the UK won every regatta she entered. She was the overall winner of Class One Cowes week in the UK in 1994. In strong winds. Her slightly lower spec. sister Zapata won Class Two. Camp Freddie then went on to win the Round Isle of Wight race against 1800 starters. The only New Zealand design to make such a coup. Yet the local yachting press didn't even notice!"

"The concept of the light, dinghy type, high performance keel yacht had never been seen in the Northern Hemisphere. Nor had it been seen in New Zealand before 1980. I believe it was the astounding performance of Camp Freddie (one UK yachting scribe describing her as looking like a squashed jandal) that inspired the now globally popular production sports yacht."

"Recently my grandson Aaron Young owned and sailed Positive Touch, the first R31 and built by Terry Cookson in 12mm strip kahikatea in 1982 for Laurie and Jim Kean. She had 10oz. of unidirectional glass cloth on the inner and outer faces of outer faces of the 12mm core. Aaron added the latest fin and a new rig and spent a season in this now thirty year old design cleaning up the latest and best."

A prolific designer, we've only covered a handful of Jim Young's many designs. In 2015 he published an autobiography "Jim Young - designer, boatbuilder and sailor", which covers his design legacy and thinking.

On a personal note, my first boat (built at home) was plywood canoe - which was used mainly for surfing. I learned to sail in a Young 2.8 and had some great rides particularly in a strong breeze. I still own a dinghy to this design, they are just the best. Then came a Young 88 - which I at home (moving house in between)finished from a Roger Land supplied hull, decks and kitset. Another great boat which was enjoyed more cruising than racing.

Jim Young was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2012.

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