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The winningest Wise Man - Charles Currey

by Dougal Henshall 18 Dec 2020 04:00 PST
(L-R) Austin Farrar, Charles Currey, Bruce Banks, Keith Shackleton © Austin Farrar Collection / D Chivers

This next instalment in the 'Wise Men' series of articles will be something of a departure from the norm. Up until now, with the exception of Jon Turner, the wise men that have been featured have all been innovators who sailed, whereas Charles Currey was an incredible sailor, who at the same time was also a clever and insightful innovator.

This though is far more than just a question of semantics, for that distinction of being first and foremost one of the best sailors in a generation that was so rich in talent is a ringing endorsement of our subject, Charles Currey.

For that first generation of dinghy sailors at the start of the explosion in the sport, from the mid-1940s through to the early 1960s, Charles Currey was right at the heart of things through his role as Sales Manager at Fairey Marine, as the Company churned out ever larger numbers of hot moulded dinghy hulls to feed both the domestic and international markets (see Hot Wood, which charts the success of Fairey Marine's moulded dinghies).

Charles might well have been an accomplished salesman, but he never lost sight of his roots of being a totally committed dinghy sailor, who could be seen out every weekend in one class of dinghy or another. This meant that his words would carry that ring of authenticity: he knew his subject and his boats, he knew his clientele and if he said something was good (or, at times, not so good) then you knew that he had reached that perspective from personal experience.

With the Fairey boats being pretty much the prototype for the future development of SMODs, Charles also found himself also being an innovator in his role of Sales Manager, which was already starting to blur the distinctions between amateur and professional in a sport that would all but set new levels of hypocrisy around who was a 'gentleman' against the rest - the 'players'. In time, this one topic would become yet another hurdle that would confront Charles, but it was a measure of the man that he would meet these challenges head on and in his own way, would end up prevailing, even if the success took him years.

This sureness of what was right and wrong (and the determination to make wrong become right) would have been instilled into Charles from an early age, as he had been born during the war years of 1916 into what was very much a family steeped in the traditions of the Royal Navy. His father, Captain Charles Currey, was a long serving Officer. The tradition, almost an expectation, was that the young Charles would follow his father into the service, which would see him heading down to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth at the tender age of thirteen, but the cold showers and early morning swims would take their toll, with the result being a serious bout of pneumonia.

Back then a severe infection like this could prove fatal and in the case of Charles, it nearly was. Though he would finally pull through, he would find that he had been effectively invalided out of the Service.

There has always been intense pressure on the places at Dartmouth and though Charles re-applied, a problem with one part of his entrance exam saw him just fail to achieve his goal. As a Plan B he applied for the Royal Marines and passed the medical, only for the long-term effects of his earlier illness to again hold him back.

The Navy's loss would turn out to be a huge gain for the nascent sport of dinghy racing as Charles would then be able to indulge his passion for being in small boats, and with the family home at Bosham, on the shores of Chichester Harbour his interests would increasingly be focused there. He attended the School of Naval Architecture, where he learnt the science that underpins small boat design, then worked for three years 'hands on' as a boat builder which gave him a great insight into the practical aspects of dinghy hull construction.

From an early age, his skills in a small sailing dinghy had been matched by an 'eye' for a hull line and it would be this desire to innovate that would drive him forward, yet even in this Charles would face obstacles to his deserved success. At one point he designed a small single hander as part of a competition, only for an adult to 'steal' the lines, passing off the design as a piece of his own work.

By now Charles was working as joint manager at a boatyard at Itchenor but he had already carved out an even bigger reputation as not only a builder of race-winning National 12s, but increasingly an innovative designer for the class with his Sunshine range of designs.

Despite his earlier health issues, as he grew into his 20s Charles had become both strong and tall, which saw him not only winning in his own right as a helm, but as a leading crew whose skills were very much in demand. Although he was closely associated with the development of the National 12, the leading boat back in the second half of the 1930s was still the International 14, with Itchenor being one of the leading clubs for the class, but then, as now, the primary objective for the 14s was success in the Prince of Wales Trophy.

In 1936 Charles was a part of the British 14 Team that raced against Canada at Lowestoft, but the 'big win' would come the following year, again at Lowestoft, when he crewed Peter Scott to victory in the PoW race.

It was during this period in the second half of the 1930s that Charles and Austin Farrar (who had kicked off the 'Wise Men' series - see The Three Wise Men - Farrar, Chippendale & Milne) would start experimenting with a further development of an idea that was being led by Beecher Moore up on the Thames which allowed the crew to extend their weight out beyond the gunwale. Sailing on a Sharpie down on Chichester Harbour, Austin, Charles and Bobbie Brewis, who would later becomes Charles' wife, conducted some experiments using a belt with a latch on the front that would be the true forerunner of the modern trapeze harness.

In the popular telling of the story, the trapeze first saw light in the Prince of Wales race at Falmouth, yet the camera doesn't lie and there are pictures taken two years earlier showing Bobbie stretched happily out 'on the wire'!

He was now an established front runner around the dinghy scene, both domestically and internationally, but the storm clouds that were gathering over Europe would see him finally achieving his goal of entry into the Navy, albeit as an Officer in the Volunteer Reserve. For a man with so much experience, plus a near unique set of technical credentials, wartime service would offer Charles a host of new opportunities. Up at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, Charles would be involved in the development of remotely-operated gunnery targets, as the previous technique involved using a high-speed launch with the target being towed behind on a very long wire.

Radar controlled gunnery was still in its infancy, though was seen very much as an essential part of the future, so the targets now incorporated a wooden frame covered in a mesh wire to ensure a good radar 'return'. Being in the towing launch was still a risky business though, but Charles was prospering up at Scapa and had been promoted to be in charge of the Unit.

He was also able to keep up with some of his earlier sailing friendships, with Bruce Banks in particular being able to 'wangle' an improbable visit to Scapa, but seeing that Charles's wife Bobbie and Bruce's future wife were all somehow included helped explain the reason for the venture.

Yet another promotion would see him leaving Scapa to head for the English Channel area, where he was operational in high-speed Motor Gun Boats. Apart from the usual 'hit and run' activities of Coastal Forces, there were a number of risky operations that involved either collecting or delivering people to the more remote areas of Brittany.

One operation that went well was when he was involved in the plan to rescue some of the family of the French wartime leader, Charles de Gaulle, from a French fishing village, but one that didn't go to plan was to collect a Special Operations agent from a beach on the Guernsey, only for the defending forces to intervene. 25 years or so later, Charles was running a Fireball event as Race Officer, when the man who had been the agent appeared and the pair were finally able to celebrate the fact that he had managed to avoid capture and had escaped to freedom.

As the war came to an end, there would be yet another challenge for Charles, as he had to choose between being able to stay in his chosen career as a Naval Officer, or accept a job offer to take on a very different role with a proposed new company that would be called Fairey Marine, which would be centred at Hamble.

Thankfully, he chose the latter and was closely involved with the development of the first generations of hot moulded hulls. The very first boats used domestically-sourced beech veneer that had been left over from the programme for building the wartime Horsa glider. The Firefly would be the first boat to go into production, followed by the 15ft Swordfish.

Once the production line moved into full strength a new supply of wood was needed, which would see Charles liaising with the Wood Research Centre at Princes Risborough, where the search was conducted for an alternative. The chosen wood would be Agba, a tree that grew in West Africa, with Charles negotiating the rights for a plentiful supply direct from the grower. His arrival at Hamble had created something of a stir, as Hazel Davies, a lifelong employee at the factory would later recall. She described him walking into the workshop: "Tall, handsome, bronzed from his time at sea, it was like a visit from a Viking God!"

Even before the end of the war, the decision had already been taken to restart the Olympics, with London being selected as the host city. With Weymouth full of Navy ships, the sailing event would take place at Torquay, with the Swordfish being given an amazing vote of confidence, as it was initially selected as a two-man dinghy, only for it to be then dropped in favour of the Star (where the US had high hopes for a medal) though the Firefly would now be pressed into service as the single-hander.

In these days before cam cleats it would have been impossible to manage both the main and the jib sheets, but Charles would have a game-changing idea that he worked to develop with a Mr Lewery, who had space in a workshop at Emsworth... a man who in time would become the 'Lew' in Lewmar!

The idea was a simple foot-operated over centre rope jammer, which could cleat the continuous jib sheet on either tack. On a windy winter's day, Charles took a Firefly out into the Solent to prove that it was perfectly possible to sail the boat single-handed in breeze, at which point the boat was accepted as the Olympic single-hander.

However, Charles would not even be allowed to take one of the places in the Selection Trials, as during the pre-war years he had upset one of the Grandees at the YRA (now the RYA) and his 'card was marked'. Using his status as a worker at Faireys as a fig leaf for the decision, Charles was declared to have forfeited his amateur status and was therefore prevented from competing. His close friend Bruce Banks would also fall foul of the old boy's network within the YRA, as the establishment selected one of its own, with the UK entry for the Firefly going to Air Vice-Marshall Arthur McDonald.

Charles and his growing family would though be at the Olympic Regatta at Torquay, courtesy of 'the bus' - and old coach that Charles had borrowed to convert into an early version of a motorhome, where his father, Captain Currey, was the Chef de Mission, with Charles on hand to assist. Some of that help went way beyond the normal rules, as when late on in the programme, a windy day was going to make life difficult for the sailors out on Torbay. The way that the Fireflys had been rigged allowed the main to be reefed by rolling the sail around the boom, but once this happened it was impossible to attach the kicker.

A lesser person would have left Arthur MacDonald to get on with things but instead Charles didn't only help by snugly rolling the sail, but then using a spiked knife (a forerunner of the Captain Currey knife that is still available today), he cut through the layers of sailcloth to expose the boom fitting that allowed the kicker to be re-attached. All was going well out afloat until MacDonald tried to shake out the reefs whilst out afloat, only to find that it was too windy to manage the boat with the full sized main... so he reefed down again, only to not be able to match up the hole Currey had made in the sail. When the fleet turned to sail down the run, MacDonald's boom, without a kicker, lifted, rolling the boat in to windward and although it was eventually righted and bailed out, it would be another poor result for the UK entry, who eventually would finish ninth overall.

Following on from Torquay, Fairey Marine embarked upon a golden era of expansion that saw them adding new boats to the hot-moulded range in an unbroken progression. Charles had wanted to create a second 12ft dinghy, as had long held that the Uffa Fox design needed a flatter, broader run aft, but the attentions of the Company would be elsewhere, with the Fox-designed Jollyboat and International 14, and then, in the run up to the 1952 Olympics at Helsinki, the Finn.

Having been denied entry once, Charles now used his contacts in the industry to arrange that John Chamier's Tormentor boatyard at Warsash - just a couple of hundred yards away as the seagull flies and clearly visible from Charles's office - would take on the completion of the Finn hulls, allowing sufficient separation from the building of the boat to protect his amateur status. There was also enough flexibility in the build tolerance for Charles to flatten the run aft, making for a better performing hull.

The Fairey/Tormentor Finns would prove fast, but particularly so with Charles at the helm. Showing what 'might have been' at Torquay he qualified for Helsinki 1952 where we would take the Silver medal, beaten only by Paul Elvström who was now at the height of his powers. Just how much of an amazing result this was can be seen in the fact that it would be another 48 years before the triumph of Iain Percy at Sydney ensured that the UK would again have a Finn medallist at the Olympics!

Shortly after Helsinki Charles led Fairey Marine into the thick of the action as the IYRU (World Sailing) tried to find a new performance two-man dinghy. Faireys were already moulding the Jollyboat, to which they added the new Flying Dutchman. At the IYRU Trials, Charles and Austin Farrar would sail the Fleetwing, a modified Fairey International 14 that was decked, had a partial double bottom, a larger rig and a trapeze. The combination of a top helm and crew in a well-prepared boat saw them performing well, only to lose out in pure boatspeed terms to the larger and more powerful entries.

The 'what happened next' is a story for another day, but the John Westell designed Coronet would morph into the 5o5, and after Jack Chippendale had built the prototype, Fairey Marine took on the moulding of the new boat. Charles Currey was closely involved with the setting up of the 5o5 and when, in the first summer of the new class, a competition was held at Ouisterham in Normandy between the British and French boats, Charles led the visitors to victory.

By now the Currey bus had been replaced by a Mark 1 Land Rover, which created some problems as they had to find somewhere in the utility vehicle to hide the large bottle of liqueur that Charles had been gifted, which would have otherwise been confiscated by the Customs on their arrival home.

If he wasn't sailing the 5o5 or campaigning in the 14, Charles could be found in any one of a number of Fairey race dinghies. There was the Gannet, a de-tuned International 14 that was targeted at the Merlin-Rocket scene, which Charles sailed with his wife Bobbie, the Firefly and Swordfish and then the Albacore, a boat whose development Charles would be actively involved in along with local sailor Greg Gregory.

He would be successful in all of these, but the twin pressures of further promotion into the senior management role at Hamble and the demands of a growing family, who were all carving out their own sailing careers, would impact on his ability to compete.

There were other developments that would also be taking his attention, such as the move into bigger boats that were not necessarily focused on the racing scene. The obvious candidates for this genre would be the cruisers, the Atalanta and the variants the design spawned. However, there was another line of development that would again bear that innovative stamp of the Currey mind, such as when he took a now redundant Swordfish hull (as the original boat had been eclipsed by the Albacore) to which he then added a variety of engines, including an Anzani outboard.

Another development would see the hull for the Fairey Falcon, a Wayfarer-esque bulky multi-purpose boat, turned into the Fawn, a shapely little motorised dayboat, though Charles would also experiment with creating a 4-5 seat river boat.

Just as Faireys were about to take the next big step forward in 1959, success would spring a big surprise on Charles when he went along to the Int 14 Prince of Wales event, not intending to sail. On the day of the 'big race' for the Prince of Wales Trophy the wind was blowing hard, too hard for Colin Chichester-Smith, a colleague and friend of Charles, to risk going afloat. Colin offered the boat to Charles, who sailed with a scratch crew; with just the last beat to go to the finish, all the signs were that this would be another win for the great Stewart Morris, but Charles was holding a surprise second place.

Close to the finish line Morris had failed to cover, which is something of a surprise given that there was a degree of 'previous form' between the two helms. Right on the finish there was just enough room for Charles and his crew to tack under Morris into a safe lee-bow position, which allowed Charles to grab the well-deserved win.

Back at work, Faireys were now shifting their emphasis away from the dinghy world to one focused on powerboats. The initial hull form was a development of an American designer, Ray Hunt, that had been mated with a deck line and cabin structure designed by another Chichester Harbour-based sailor, Alan Burnard, who had just joined Fairey Marine. The first Fairey powerboat had been the 23ft Huntress, but the big issue for designers and boatbuilders back then was the weight of the engines, as cost effective yet powerful units had yet to become commercially available. Once they did, the Fairey powerboats would become one of the mainstays of not just the developing mainstream powerboat scene, but the racing scene that was starting to attract a great deal of media attention.

What was needed was a headline event that would bring these threads together and the Daily Express newspaper would rise to the challenge with an offshore powerboat race from Cowes, 156 miles westward to Torquay. The first running of this modern classic would take place in 1961, but the weather would not be kind, with a strong head wind and big seas that would soon cull out many of the less well-prepared entries. Topping the desirable list of skills for a successful powerboat helm would be the ability to nurse a boat through tricky conditions, allied to a technical background that is at the heart of this more mechanical form of boating.

Once again, this would play to Charles's strengths, as he eschewed the chance to drive one of the more highly powered out-and-out race boats in favour of taking the standard diesel-powered Fairey demonstrator, that carried its full complement of accommodation and fixtures. The faster boats had raced away from the start, before heading into the really rough stuff at the Needles, St. Aldhelms, Portland and then the long slog across Lyme Bay, but Charles carefully nursed 'Fairey Huntsman' so successfully that he not only finished in third overall but was the most successful boat overall as he won a number of prizes for his performance.

As the new decade developed into the swinging sixties it would be a golden time for Fairey Marine and for Charles, with the two names becoming almost synonymous together. Back then Income Tax was levied at high levels on all but the basic levels of pay, but add-ons, such as the use of a company car, were still free from any form of taxation. Part of the remuneration that Charles received from Faireys was an open topped Morris Minor, which he drove with the roof down in all but the very worst of weathers.

Away from work at the Fairey site at Hamble, Charles remained close to his roots, working as a Race Officer at top events, as well as being closely involved in the technical management of the Finn class. Yet for all his successes in these fields and the long term success of the ever more exotic Fairey powerboats, events beyond his control would be creating the biggest barrier yet to the continued commercial existence of the brand.

Like so many other UK manufacturing companies, Faireys would struggle to compete, even though they had started to embrace GRP building in place of their traditional hot moulded wood. Charles still had time to help lead Fairey Marine in some other interesting activities that reflected the early days of the Fairey name on the Hamble, when they produced two mocked up sea-planes for a Hollywood blockbuster film.

One was just a prop, for the close-up shots (and being eaten by a giant pterodactyl) but the other had to float, the engine had to work, with it doing everything but flying! No matter how interesting these novel projects may have been, they were not enough to save the company and eventually the axe would fall and the Fairey name would leave the Hamble River, with the creation of a new marina on the site proving to be a far more commercially-viable operation than boat building had been.

Life for Charles would now be focused on Bosham, though he retained his long-term interests with the Royal Naval Sailing Association and the growing interests in the Fairey 'classics'; plus he could always be relied on to provide a humorous tale or three, which would be told with great gusto and arm waving.

Sadly, like so many sailors of his generation, the years he had spent abusing his body out afloat would now come back to haunt him, as knees, hips and ankles would all be either failing, or being replaced, or having the replacements renewed. Yet the twinkle in his eyes still burnt brightly, and to have your Finn or Wayfarer measured by Charles (an activity he retained for many years in his retirement) was to have the chore of the task turned into an afternoon of fun and interest, for Charles would always give freely of his wide knowledge on all sailing matters.

The interests and the twinkles in the eyes would finally fade when that cruellest of illnesses of dementia would take away that wonderful intellect, with all the memories of a different era of developing and sailing small boats.

I count myself privileged to not only have known Charles, but to have been gifted the chance for what would turn out to be his final interview. After heading down to his house, Charles was sat, in his wheelchair out in the sun room, with its panoramic views over the Itchenor race course area. On arrival, Bobbie and the family were apologetic for what they thought would be a wasted journey, for the dementia had taken over completely, with his ramblings making no sense at all. However, as he had been so kind to me over the years, it was the least I could do to sit in sailing comradeship, as he talked away about shapes in the clouds and other meaningless connections.

I was just getting ready to leave when I suddenly realised that he was talking to me with a clarity and a recall that was quite extraordinary. He talked pre-war exploits in National 12s and International 14s, then about his time during the war in Motor Gunboats. He thought it highly amusing that when it became time to leave the Navy, he managed to arrange to deliver his ship from Harwich to Portsmouth, which included a detour into Chichester Harbour, past Hayling Island Sailing Club, right up as far as Itchenor, flat out the whole way (which seeing that he had 'tweaked' his engines meant speeds well in excess of 40kt).

He talked of his trials and tribulations, of Torquay, Finns, FiveOs and 14s, and the personalities that he raced against. Then, sadly, as abruptly as it had started, the clarity vanished and his thinking was lost again and couldn't be recovered.

Yet in that 45 minutes or so, I was given a wonderful insight into a man who was one of our great sailors, yet at the same time was so much more... a designer, boatbuilder, thinker... but maybe most of all, he was a friend to the sport of dinghy racing itself.

Little wonder then that this retrospective of his life has the title, The Winningest Wise Man.

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