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Henri-Lloyd - For the Obsessed

Hot Wood - Dougal Henshall charts the success of Fairey Marine's moulded dinghies

by Dougal Henshall 13 Nov 2020 11:41 PST
Charles Currey on the helm of a Fairey International 14 at the Worlds in Bermuda and, despite being a mass-produced hull in a restricted development class fleet, the Fairey boat offered cost effective access to the top class fleets © David Chivers / Austin Farrar

The name of Fairey Marine, and their incredible range of hot moulded wooden dinghies, is central to the growth that marked that golden era of dinghy sailing in the UK. A great product that was well marketed, for there was nothing like success to help sales.

From the research done when preparing to write the book Real Magic, which charted 70 years of the Merlin Rocket, it is now clear that the starting gun for the post-war dinghy sailing boom in the UK was actually fired by Jack Holt and Beecher Moore, as early as mid-1944. Using some black market timber and purloined bronze for fittings, Jack first made Kate, then Merlin, which Beecher Moore would demonstrate to as many of the top dinghy clubs on the Thames as he could reach. His message was clear: Before long, the war would be over and with the return of peace, boats like Merlin would be in great demand.

The drivers for these changes were all in place, with the growing role of women in the sport and a tacit agreement that the International 14, the benchmark dinghy of the day, was just too extreme to ever be a 'populist boat': some may have questioned this view, but this was the content of a discussion, held just before the start of the war, between none other than Beecher Moore and Ian Proctor, as the two sat together, on shore, in an early National 12!

Yet had this been the sum of the story, the golden era of dinghy sailing would have had a very sluggish start, for despite Holt and Moore searching for additional builders for their Merlin, the numbers of clinker (or carvel) hulls that they could produce would go nowhere near towards satisfying the demand that they had in part created. What was needed would be a different approach to the cottage industry that typified the small boat scene, both before and just after the war years. On numbers alone, it would take a move to a more industrial process of boatbuilding to supply the volume needed, yet nothing like this existed.

When the answer came, it would have its basis, like so many things back then, in the expediencies of wartime supply. The aluminium for making aircraft was in such short supply in the UK that collections had been organised for all the pots, pans and kettles that could be spared, with these being melted down and recycled. Anything else that could be pressed into service would quickly be exploited, with plywood being a prime candidate for use as a covering for aircraft wings and fuselages. After all, the use of moulded wood (and incidentally more advanced cold moulding techniques) was already well established in the field of aircraft manufacture, having been perfected by the Swiss as far back as the start of powered flight.

The more modern aircraft though would place a whole new range of demands on wooden construction, with the same airframe potentially seeing service from the frozen wastes of Northern Russia to the heat and humidity of the jungle. Either set of conditions could accelerate delamination of the ply, which has always been the big bugbear of any multi-layered wooden structure, with this due in part to the glue technology that was available at the time. This led to a search for a technique to somehow 'fix' the layered bonds, with one solution being the construction of a giant microwave oven that would effectively cook the structure.

Although this worked, the technologies needed were still in their infancy, so a more low-tech solution was employed. It is so low tech, that for many of the younger readers here today, talk of pressure cookers may raise some quizzical eyebrows, but in short, the use of pressurized steam heat can cook its way through everything from a tough joint of meat to a complex wooden structure.

Despite those shortages of wartime, this was easy to do technology. A long, heavy duty cylindrical pressure vessel was constructed, which was then connected up to a boiler. The wing or fuselage were wrapped in a protective rubber sheath, put into the 'autoclave' (the techy term for the industrial pressure cooker) and then the valves were opened. The pressure forced the veneers together, the heat cured the glue, with the end result being a structure that was strong, light and highly resistant to delamination.

One British company who invested heavily in this technology was Fairey Aviation, but their concern must have been that they would soon be facing a classic 'double whammy', as aviation was already welcoming in the era of jet engines, which didn't mix well with wooden airframes, plus the recognition that - as hostilities were drawing to a close - the demand for warplanes would soon cease, leaving the firm with a lot of unwanted hardware.

Faireys though were better placed than many other firms, as seated at the top of their decision makers were competitive sailors from the pre-war years. Together they had correctly identified the direction that post-war small boat sailing would take and they had the added bonus that they were already well connected to the people who could make that happen.

For once the YRA, the Yacht Racing Association (now the RYA) were ahead of the curve, as one of their first post-war actions was to implement a design competition searching for a one-design 12ft dinghy.

Cowes-based dinghy designer Uffa Fox already had just such a boat drawn up (one could almost use the phrase 'oven ready'!) as he had designed the Sea Swallow back in 1939, only for it to stay firmly on the drawing board for the next six years. Fox was connected to Faireys courtesy of a friendship that harked back to his International 14 sailing days with Colin Chichester-Smith, who was by then a Director at Faireys. They had the hardware, a hefty stock of left over birch veneers and were looking for just such an opportunity. A new company, Fairey Marine was formed, Fox retitled his plans from Sea Swallow to Firefly (the name of one of Fairey's most successful planes) and when the YRA selected the Firefly as the new 'National' dinghy, work at Hamble could start on making the hull moulds.

There was one more piece of the jigsaw still to come, which came in the form of Charles Currey, another top International 14 sailor, who was well known to both Chichester-Smith and Fox. Currey would be brought in to help develop the new Fairey Marine Company, by sailing the new boat and helping promote it out afloat. It is hard to understate just what a game changer the new Firefly was in 1946, as the majority of dinghies were still being constructed using multiple rock elm ribs to brace the inside of the hull. When the first Firefly hulls were popped out of the autoclave, the hulls were not only light, but completely smooth inside and out.

The construction was expected to be robust, but one of the early hulls would still be put to the test. The bare wood was sealed with varnish, before being taken out to the creek that used to act as the northern boundary to the factory site, and there the hull was buried in the soft mud. After being untouched for a full twelve months, it was taken out, hosed off and was found to still be 'as new' (then decked and sold - the motto at Hamble was 'waste not').

Since the rise of the International 14s in the late 1920s, then the National 12s in the 30s, the current model in dinghy sailing had developed around there being a clear differentiation between the boat builders, spar and fittings makers and sail lofts, but Fairey would fundamentally change this with an approach that is very recognisable today, as the Firefly was very much a SMOD. For just £65, you got the whole boat, complete with mast and sails, fitted out and ready to race.

Already a radical boat (in 1946 terms) the Firefly would take another huge step forward, as it would be equipped with a metal mast. Aluminium spars had first appeared back in the late 1930s, but these had been expensive one-offs: instead, the 'Reynolds Mast' would utilise a sheet of aluminium bent and formed around a mould. This though would be the limit of the available technology so tapering above the hounds would not be possible. Instead, the mast would be completed with the addition of a wooden top section.

Once finished, fitted and rigged, the prototype Firefly would be launched from the Fairey yard at Hamble Point, with Uffa Fox and Charles Currey on board to sail it, but in these pre-Health and Safety days neither man wore a lifejacket, though Fox dressed for the occasion by wearing an overcoat and wellington boots. It could have gone badly wrong, for this first sail ended with the mast coming down, though luckily the yard launch was on hand to tow the pair back in. Once the rig problems had been sorted, the Fairey factory at Hamble went into production, though there were those who would bemoan the fact that the beloved 'traditional craftsmanship', that was considered such a part of boat building, had been replaced by industrial process.

Although a sales success straight from day one, the Firefly was not loved by all, with none other than Charles Currey speaking out about the limitations of the boat. He argued that the hull form was too rounded and that what was needed was a flatter run aft towards a beamier transom. Having already sold more than 100 boats and with a full order book, Chichester-Smith decided against any changes as he feared that a second design would split the class and work against the original Firefly, which now looked to have a buoyant future.

Uffa Fox and Fairey Marine had already moved on to their next project, as the YRA now set out the criteria for their next National dinghy, which called for a 15ft hull.

A number of potential designers thought the outcome would be a pre-agreed conclusion, with the nod again being given to Fox, but for whatever reason, his was the only design submitted. Those who had questioned both Firefly and the design competition itself would soon be given more to speculate on, as the resemblance between the new National 15 and the Firefly was inescapable, with it looking as if the designer had just stretched out the lines of the smaller boat. Christened the Fairey Swordfish (an even more famous aircraft name from Fairey Aviation days), the new boat was given an immediate vote of confidence when the YRA selected it as a two-man dinghy for the 1948 Olympic Regatta at Torquay.

Events elsewhere would then go against the Swordfish, as the YRA were struggling to fill the singlehanded dinghy slot for the regatta, with the Brent One Design (today the British Moth) not being 'one-design' enough for the organisers. Had the Swordfish kept its place at the Games it would have proved an interesting sight, for as already stated one of the unwritten rules at Hamble was 'waste nothing'. Having made the hulls, Faireys found that they also still had a plentiful supply of ex-Admiralty paint, so rather than the eye-catching varnished hulls, the deal for the Swordfish was a buyer could have the boat "any colour he liked as long as it was grey".

The YRA were then able to solve their single-hander issue by doing a deal whereby the Firefly would be shoehorned into the singlehanded slot, but only after Charles Currey had demonstrated that the boat could be sailed solo in breezy weather by going out in the Solent on a cold and windy day.

Bowing to pressure from the US, the Swordfish would then be dropped, to be replaced by the Star. Fairey then produced a number of identical Firefly hulls, with their use at the Olympics proclaimed by the sign of the 'Five Rings' being inlaid into the transom, before the hulls were loaded onto a landing craft for delivery onto the beach at Torquay.

The Fairey Firefly at the Olympic Regatta, Torquay, in 1948. It was okay in the lighter airs but once the wind freshened later in the week, the story would be one of capsized boats that were difficult to get sailing again (bailing was courtesy of a galvanised bucket provided by the organizers)

The 'what happened next', as the young Paul Elvström came back from a retirement in the first race to take the Gold Medal, is the stuff of legend... but the least said about the UK's showing is probably for the best: Charles Currey was debarred from entering the selection Trials, with the publicly given reason being that his employment with Fairey Marine denying him amateur status, though there were darker forces at work in the Committee Rooms.

Suffice to say that sailing the Firefly single-handed was not a universally popular choice for the Games, with the result that an all new boat, the Finn, would be developed for the next Games at Helsinki in 1952. There would be a final twist in the story of the Firefly at Torquay, for once the Games had finished, Torquay Council, who had had to buy the boats in the first place, then sold them off, 'as seen' from the beach. Some went to interested supporters, but the majority went to educational establishments, thus helping to forge the connection between the Firefly and schools, which still exists through to today.

Once the Finn has been selected, Fairey Marine would take on the building of hulls for the UK market, again using the hot moulded process, though this would lead on to one of the great 'fudges' in sailing, as Charles Currey arranged for the hulls to be shipped a little more than 200m across the river from Hamble Point to Warsash, where they went into John Chamier's boatyard for completion. This would allow Currey to neatly skirt the amateur status issue, which he repaid with a hard-won Silver Medal in the Finn at the Helsinki Olympic Regatta.

Fairey Marine would now undergo a shift in emphasis, as they moved somewhat 'upmarket' into the world of international dinghies. The Finn was already an established success for the Hamble yard, which would now be joined by the 'new' international two-man performance boat, the Flying Dutchman, which like the Finn would not be an Uffa Fox design. However, Uffa Fox would now play an even bigger role in the fast-growing story of their hot moulded success, as Fairey Marine started the production of International 14 hulls. This came with an acceptance that they would have to 'tweak' the moulds on an annual basis to keep their Fox-designed Int. 14s competitive, but this was considered a risk worth taking and soon the 'Fairey 14' was yet another big success.

The International 14 was about to be at the heart of the next big change to hit dinghy sailing, as the IYRU (now World Sailing) were concerned about the proliferation of new designs in the new genre of 'performance dinghies'. Without any consultation with other designers, the IYRU simply gifted the job of designing a new boat to Uffa Fox, with the understanding that his new boat, the Tornado (not the later catamaran), would be granted not only immediate International status, but subsequently a berth in the 1956 Olympic Games.

Tornado was a hard chined 12m Sharpie clone, which was way outside of Fox's comfort zone, a situation that sailing journalist Jack Knights would describe as "like inviting a pacifist to design a rifle". Worse, out afloat it was no faster and, on some points of sailing, slower than the Sharpies, which prompted an outbreak of yet more new design activity. One of these would be the Flying Dutchman which would be granted conditional International status ahead of a set of Trials scheduled for the summer of 1953 at La Baule, Western France.

Although Fox had scored a 'miss' with Tornado, he would go back to his roots with a design that could be seen as a stretched Swordfish (or an even more stretched Firefly) as again, the design philosophy behind the 18ft long hull of the Fairey Jollyboat was clearly a development of Fox's earlier boats.

The role that Fairey Marine would end up playing in the development of the 'performance dinghy' is often overlooked, but looking forwards to the Trials at La Baule, on paper at least the Fairey Jollyboat was seen as a potential winner. At the same time, much of the upper echelons of the sailing world thought that the whole idea of Trials was a wasted effort, as the International 14 was surely the boat that everyone should be focused on.

With Charles Currey at the heart of their organisation, Fairey Marine wanted to cover their bases, so in addition to hot moulding the Jollyboat, they would 'hot-up' one of their Int. 14 hulls. The hull was decked, given something of a double bottom and a trapeze and christened the Fleetwing, with the boat being one of the surprise packages at La Baule. Fleetwing was never going to be in contention for the top places overall, as she was giving away too much in the way of waterline length to the much bigger and more powerful boats.

Sadly, the Jollyboat would also fail to impress the Selectors, with her apparent lack of speed offwind being seen as a weakness. This came as something of a surprise to the supporters of the Class, for the following year, on a breezy day at Cowes, a Jollyboat would set an early outright speed record of 13.4kt over a five-cable course.

The Fairey involvement with the 'new' performance dinghy scene, which had taken in the Flying Dutchman, Jollyboat and Fleetwing would now be boosted when the winner of the Trials, the John Westell Coronet, would morph into the trimmer 505. Jack Chippendale, who would build the prototype FiveO in his factory at Warsash, just across the river from the Fairey factory, would go one to make a number of boats, but as he described in an interview, his workers found it hard to cold mould the FiveO hull in a cost-effective manner. As there were already a number of tie-ups between the Chippendale and Fairey companies, Jack suggested to Charles Currey that Faireys should take on the 505, with the result that another 'classic' was born.

That 'waste nothing' ethos would now be applied to the Fleetwing, as the boat had clearly been a successful experiment at La Baule. However, with the FD, 505 and Jollyboat already on their books, Faireys decided against keeping the boat as targeted at the performance end of the market. Fleetwing had actually been a development of another boat based on the basic International 14 hull, that had been decked and detuned with a smaller rig, which would then be badged using yet another famous Fairey aircraft name, by calling it the Gannet. This would be a boat aimed at the Merlin Rocket/GP14 market, yet sadly it was a failure in terms of sales and would soon be dropped, though its place in the sales order books would soon be more than taken by a boat that was closer to Charles Currey's way of thinking.

Although deemed a success, sales of the 15ft Swordfish had been sluggish, which Charles Currey attributed to a number of deficiencies in the design of the hull. These failings were highlighted just along the coast at Locks Sailing Club, which raced around and sometimes out of Langstone Harbour. It is probably a moot point if the bar across the entrance to Langstone is worse than the one at next door Hayling, but in a brisk south westerly and against a spring ebb neither are good places for a dinghy, though it was felt that the Swordfish, with its heavy iron centreplate and tucked in transom, suffered more than most.

Greg Gregory, a local boatbuilder and friend of Charles Currey had discussed these issues on many occasions, with both men thinking that the hull sections needed filling out, the run aft needed flattening with the aft sections being made wider. Above the waterline the hull was given a little more freeboard, whilst the overall weight would be reduced. A deal, that was only partially official was done between Charles and Greg that saw some Swordfish bare hulls delivered to the Gregory workshop, where they were chopped, darted, built up... and the Albacore was born.

It was soon clear that although not equipped with a spinnaker, the new boat was superior to the Swordfish, which prompted Faireys to take on the Albacore (this would spell the end for the rather maligned Swordfish, as before long it would be quietly dropped from the range) and in little more than ten years over 2,000 hulls would be completed. By this point Fairey Marine could justifiably carry the tagline on their advertising that they had the 'biggest range from Europe's largest boat builder'.

At the same time, other designers were showing that they were more attuned to the changing nature of the UK sailing scene, with the likes of Ian Proctor keen to include a small coastal cruiser in the portfolio. Wanting to follow suite, Faireys went back to Uffa Fox, who made much of his design for the Atalanta, though it is hard to ignore the fact that the overall concept looked very much of a 'knock off' of the similarly shaped 'Buttercup', designed by Robert Clark 20 years earlier. (Sorry to puncture a popular urban myth, but nor was the Atalanta a spin-off from Fox's 'Airborne Lifeboat' hull form).

With its turtleback deck line, it would be hard to describe the Atalanta as a beautiful boat, but with the safety of a centre cockpit, plenty of berth space below, a galley, sea toilet and inboard auxiliary engine, the Atalanta was an attractive package when compared with the other small cruisers available at the time. More importantly in these pre-marina days, with lifting bilge keels, the Atalanta was perfect for coastal sailing as it could float in a little more than a foot of water, yet with the keels lowered, was a competent performer to windward and could be surprisingly quick offwind.

Better still, for a 26ft boat, the Atalanta would set a new standard for lightness, meaning that she could be towed comfortably behind a suitable vehicle, making it a justifiable claim that Fairey Marine had scored yet another 'first' by developing a boat that could be called 'a trailer-sailer by design'.

With another success on their hands, the team at Fairey Marine looked for more 'easy options' which in this case meant making a bigger Atalanta at 31 ft long, then some baby ones, the Fulmar and Titania. The 31ft version would enjoy a qualified success, but the smaller pair, were just too short for their high freeboard and would attract jokes because of their 'dumpiness', though the problems were far from just aesthetic. To maximise space down below the smaller boats had their inboards mounted out to one side in the bilges which could result in some strange handling, which became known as a problem when in a confined space!

By the start of the 1960s, the years of post war austerity were fading in the memory and the rebuilding years of the 1950s had given way to the start of the decade of the 'swinging sixties'. Fuel was cheap and powerboating was now very much the new 'in' thing, all the more so as it was possible to have the powerboat equivalent of a GP14 or Wayfarer, as was proved by Charles Currey, when in the first Cowes to Torquay race he motored a pretty much standard 28 ft diesel 'Fairey Huntsman' from Cowes westwards to the finish in rough weather.

The Fairey focus now shifted dramatically towards the higher value powerboats, which was a good move for them, as it was now becoming clear that the dinghy scene was already slipping away from them. Sailors wanting a racing dinghy were now trending towards specialist racing dinghy builders, whilst increasingly GRP was proving to be an even more successful industrial process that hot moulded wood. Those Fairey classes that were still buoyant would find other builders, whilst some of the stalwart Fairey names started to slip away into what the RYA coyly refer to as the 'moribund classes list'.

Fairey's themselves were now moving towards their own GRP production line, originally for the Firefly, though the drive had all but gone out of their dinghy and small cruiser lines. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the International 14s, where not only the hot moulded wood was considered 'old hat', but the whole Fox design theme had been replaced by boats that were flatter - and faster. It is hard to ignore the significance of these changes that would see Fox's last mainstream dinghy design, the Pegasus, put to Bell Woodworking rather than being moulded by Fairey.

Having had a first golden era with the dinghies in the 1950s, Fairey Marine would enjoy a second wave of popularity in the 1960s and 70s with their powerboats, but the wider picture for British industry was one of a series of increasing deep crises. First to fail would be the parent company behind Fairey Marine, then a decade later, the name of Fairey Marine itself would follow so much of UK manufacturing into the history books. Many of the classes that Fairey Marine had once supported continue of course through to today, with the Finn and 505 still core performers on the international scene. From the Fox stable of designs, the Firefly and Albacore are still with us, albeit as classes than have moved somewhat out towards the fringes of mainstream activity.

But the original concept, of a hot moulded build technique that would be both light, bullet proof and with long term robustness, remains in many beautifully restored examples across the wide range of classes that used to bear the famous 'winged badge' of Fairey Marine, fitting tributes to the world's biggest builder of fast, hot moulded hulls.

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