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Three Lost (and Great) Wise Men

by Dougal Henshall 3 Sep 2021 06:00 PDT
Three Lost (and great) Wise Men: Peter 'Spud' Rowsell, Graham Edwards, and Bruce Kirby © SW

In our ongoing 'Wise Men' series, we've focused mainly on a single generation of dinghy sailing shapers, shakers and movers who helped define the very nature of our sport as it moved forward. Sadly though, it is a natural aspect of that focus on quite a narrow age group that we can end up losing others in worrying clusters. With each loss, those links to the golden era of our past get weaker, which makes the passing of three greats of our sport in little more than a few weeks an even sadder summer for our sport.

Some readers may be surprised at that descriptive term of 'great', for in that bigger picture of the makers of the golden era, one could easily be included in that list, one would be for a more limited domestic audience, whilst the third inclusion way well be a surprise as people say, "who?" - but that is just the point, for there are many definitions of greatness. There are the great sailors, with the name of Paul Elvström springing to mind, the great designers, builders, and innovators such as Jack Holt and Ian Proctor, then there are the greats who refuse to be left out simply because they were great characters.

The first of our three lost wise men certainly fills the term of 'great' in so many ways, for he was a big man both physically and in his character. There were no half measures with Peter 'Spud' Rowsell; this was a sailor of whom no-one would say that they might have met him, for if you had enjoyed the pleasure of Spud's company, even if it was just for a post-race chat in the dinghy park, then you'd not forget it. His raucous, infectious laugh alone was so much a part of events around the country and abroad, for although Spud is often thought of as being associated with the Merlin Rockets, it should not be forgotten that he was also a force to be reckoned with as part of our Olympic sailing scene.

As a child born in the middle of the war years down in working class Exmouth, it was expected that Spud would end up being handy with his hands and he soon showed an aptitude for woodwork. Christened 'Spud' by his father, who thought he looked like a potato, he was lucky to be of just the right age to be able to step into the Jack Holt Cadet dinghy, which was becoming widely available, giving young people like Spud the chance to shine out afloat. By the age of ten he was already winning races, but by his early teenage years his size was already suggesting that it was time to move on from the Cadet.

The big moment came when Spud crewed for his elder brother in the National 12 Championship at Weymouth, as this is when he took the life-changing decision to become a boatbuilder. Spud moved into the class as both a race-winning helm and as a boatbuilder, before moving on to the dinghy that would come to define him, the Merlin Rocket.

It was far from straightforward though for Spud, as the top designer of the day was Ian Procter, who enjoyed a close relationship with leading dinghy builders Bob Hoare and Jack Chippendale, and was happy to protect this virtual closed shop by not selling on plans for his boats to other builders. Spud instead turned to other designers, such as Mike Jackson and Tom Booth, who was also a local, but again the timing was fortuitous, as the Merlins were going through a period of change, with wider, flatter hulls making their mark at the top of the fleet.

Spud, who was now heading up the Rowsell boatbuilding business, was perfectly placed to satisfy this new demand and, at the same time, be one of the leading exponents of the change to 'power sailing' out afloat. With Jon Turner beside him, both in the workshop and in the boat, Spud's fortunes took a massive leap forward with the pair coming third at the 1969 Nationals at Whitstable.

They could have, maybe should have, won the following year against the bumper 227 boat fleet at Pwllheli, only to make mistakes that gave Alan Warren and Barry Dunning back-to-back victories. Spud and Jon would finally get their reward when they took the title in 1974, then again in 1978, with a string of other top class wins to their credit.

Like many a sailor who has been brought up on the water, Spud was also deeply superstitious, with just one foible being that he'd never have anything green on or near his boat. Given that Spud was a great one for 'dishing it out', some of his fellow sailors at the Merlin Rocket Nationals got to his boat one night and added a new crew member by taping a small 'Kermit the Frog' to his spreader (for those who don't know or cannot remember the Muppets, Kermit was very definitely bright green). Somehow Spud missed this when rigging up and only saw the little green face looking down on him as he sailed out to the start. To say he went ballistic is an understatement, the boat had to be capsized, Kermit removed and consigned to the deep, and then the boat bailed out - all with the fleet watching on in fits of laughter.

As one of the in-form sailors of the day, it was only to be expected that Spud would see how he measured up against the best on the international scene which saw him, with Jon Turner as crew, take on the Flying Dutchman. As Jon would later say, Spud was too big and he was too short, and although Jon had bulked up to 105kg, he lacked the height of the other top FD crews.

Their time in the boat also highlighted the gulf in not only quality, but also resources, between a very good domestic sailor and the best international teams. Spud would also find himself at some point in a Soling with none other than Barry Dunning and Alan Warren. After it had been settled who was going to be at the back of the boat, Alan Warren took the helm on the basis that he'd beaten Spud at the recent Merlin Rocket Nationals.

The three musketeers then set out for some hilarity and high jinks ashore and afloat, whilst others were taking their Olympic life more seriously. The great Paul Elvström had 'words' with Spud after one seriously (stupidly in some eyes) windy race when Spud went for the spinnaker to finish first. Given that it was not unknown for the Soling to sink in these conditions, the view was that this had been a reckless act, yet it was one that the crew on the 'K' boat thought hugely amusing!

The other side of this story is that it showed up one of Spud's great strengths: his mastery of being out afloat in the biggest of winds and waves. Far from being reckless, it was evidence of Spud's possession of some rare skills, which he would use to great effect as a member of the RNLI at Exmouth. His other great skill was in being able to play tricky tidal conditions, and at this he had few equals. Jon Turner, who sailed so much with him, reckoned that if the Olympics were sailed in estuary conditions, then Spud would have been a sure-fire medallist.

After a period of working up a yacht for the Round Britain Race, Spud, who already had form for winning at Salcombe, took his interest a stage further when he started to build that most location-specific of racing craft, the Salcombe Yawl. These boats are things of beauty, which is completely in keeping with those iconic Merlin Rockets for which he has remained famous for. The class itself may have gone FRP, but in the genre-leading classic Merlin scene, Spuds boats are still highly prized for their looks and that extra race winning something that he managed to build into so many.

Once again, we go back to Jon Turner, who worked and sailed alongside Spud in the brightest of the golden years. "Spud," Jon said, "loved life, food, drink, boatbuilding and sailing, and spent his life in pursuit of these goals."

In so many ways our second lost Wise Man has much in common with Spud, as Graham Edwards (known throughout sailing as either 'Big G' or 'Nunky') was again larger than average both in terms of his physical size and of the even larger character that was in the man, to the point that his love of life always seemed to be on the point of bursting out.

Like Spud, Graham was for many years associated with the Merlin Rocket, but whereas Rowsells had set up a production line to churn out the maximum number of boats, Graham's workshop activities were smaller and far more bespoke. He may not have built so many boats, but at the same time this allowed him to look beyond whichever design was in vogue that year, which instead allowed him to create a run of successful (and sometimes not so successful) one-offs.

Moreover, boatbuilding was far from being a full-time, year-round activity for Graham and it was always a question as to his true vocation: was he a market gardener who built boats or a boatbuilder who grew strawberries and lettuces? Certainly, visitors wanting to discuss a boat with Graham would end up having to take pot luck, for he might be in the workshop, or he might be in any one of a number of huge poly-tunnels. Finding him though was easy, you just had to listen for the laughter then follow the noise!

Just as Spud was very much the son of one sailing hotspot, so Graham almost had the waters of the Hamble River flowing through his veins. He had already discovered the delights of the sea and sailing, to which he added boatbuilding with his first ever dinghy, an Ian Proctor Gull in which he quickly found success as a helm. You could easily tell Graham's boats as they were invariably bright red and white, as this was the team colours of one of his other great loves, Southampton Football Club.

After finishing school, he took on a boatbuilding apprenticeship with Moodys at the Swanwick boatyard. The second half of the 1960s were a lean time for the UK's boatbuilding industry and no sooner had Graham completed the formal element of his training than he got caught up in another downsizing at the yard and was laid off.

This would be only the first of three hard blows that he would have to bear, as Graham would then face the ignominy of being disqualified from the National 12s Burton Trophy over a minor technical infringement. What made this worse was that Graham, who was fast becoming a highly skilled helm, had won by a huge 4-minute margin, despite having earlier cleared his boat through measurement. Even worse was the fact that there were other helms, who were more a part of the class scene, who also had problems but were allowed to escape from the harshest of sanctions.

The incident would have a long-term effect on Graham, as although he never lost his taste for competition and the sheer love of being out afloat, he was happy to find fulfilment in the front of a boat where his physique and determination saw him happily crewing in FDs and 5o5s.

The third blow to fall on Graham would be the worst, yet at the same time the most formative. Like Jack Holt several decades earlier, Graham would be knocked off his motorbike, but whereas the 'Wizard of Putney' was left with nothing in the way of support, Graham received a package of compensation. On the advice of his father, he purchased a nice plot of land in Warsash that was well located for market gardening, and with the addition of some polytunnels, Graham was soon growing tomatoes, lettuce and the crop that would become synonymous with his workshop: strawberries.

The winter months saw Graham with time on his hands, so he went back to his earlier training and started boatbuilding. It was hardly surprising that with Graham's workshop being so close to the Merlin Rocket heartland at Hamble that he would start building boats, and it helped that the designer of the day, Greg Gregory, was also a local.

Despite becoming an interesting and sought-after alternative choice for those seeking a new boat, Graham also had some wonderful stories surrounding his work that gave him a colourful reputation. From the owner who left his new sycamore gunwales on Graham's gateposts, to the occasional delay while Graham and his helpers went off to pick the crop of the moment, the stories all had that underlying grain of truth.

It is certainly the case that when Barry Dunning went to Graham for a version of Greg Gregory's latest design, all went well with the boat until the day that the Class Measurer came to run his tape over the completed hull. The normal tricky moments in measuring a Merlin come when checking the all-important rise of floor but, in this case, they never got that far, as the very first box on the form was that the boat was 14ft long. There are not many Merlins that are 14ft 1in long, with Barry and the measurer then being asked to come back in half an hour as Graham was seen reaching for a large saw.

The great thing about Graham was that, with Spud Rowsell busy turning out the popular boats of the day, Graham was able to indulge the innovators by building some of the more exotic one-offs. The story of the razor-bowed Shaft and distorted hull form might be a salutary tale of caution for other designers, but at the same time it might have worked and had to be tried. Not only was Shaft famous just for being Shaft, but a picture of the time showed the boat bearing what would go on to become a sought-after addition, a pair of the iconic strawberry stickers on each side of the bow. A bright red strawberry would go on to become Graham's leitmotif and would appear in many more forms on later boats.

Other one-offs from Graham were more successful, but with his growing reputation came a demand for other boats, with Albacores and Flying Fifteens being joined by what multiple World Champion David Pitman described as, "some of the best International Contenders in the world."

In between times Graham would build everything from the David Thomas 'Mini-12' Cuckoo, which would feature with John Noakes on Saturday morning children's TV, to an early windsurfer. With the expansion of Warsash, the polytunnels and Graham's workshop would eventually be covered by a new housing estate. He would continue with his love of boats, with one of his last projects being another boat from the drawing board of Warsash designer David Thomas, this time 'My Dream': a shapely 30ft yacht that Graham beautifully strip planked.

Later on, as his health began to fail, Graham turned his hand to making models of some of his boats, with his model of the 'My Dream' taking almost as long as the full-sized boat, such was the care and time that was lavished on it. Just like Spud, Graham loved life, food and sailing and in the same way his hardest fight would be that against the long term illness that would eventually claim him. With their paths showing such a remarkable symmetry, it is only fitting that their final ends should be within weeks of each other.

Together, Spud and Graham have shown us two very different forms of greatness, in both the physical and the size of their character, but even as we mourned their passing, the world of sailing was rocked by the news that another great, albeit a different form of greatness, had also sailed off into the sunset.

Just as with John Westell, who was thought of as a 'one hit wonder' with his design for the 5o5, only for a more detailed investigation to reveal a whole catalogue of innovative designs, so Bruce Kirby might well appear to be another man whose life can be seen in the reflection of just one boat. However, if that were to be the case, then what a boat to be defined by, for Bruce will go down in the history of our sport as the designer of the Laser, one of the most influential dinghy designs of all time.

Yet again, a more comprehensive look at Bruce's life shows that there is so much more there to celebrate, as a successful journalist, yachtsman, and designer.

Bruce had been born in Canada at the end of the 1920s, and as soon as he was old enough he would start what would become a lifelong passion for the water by sailing with his family. The war years would then intervene, but Bruce would continue sailing and by the early to mid-1950s was good enough in the Finn to be selected for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. This was the era of not only Paul Elvström being at the height of his Finn career, but there would be other great helms such as Andre Nelis who were also competing. Nevertheless, Bruce would score four top ten results to finish in eighth place, a result that still had him placed higher than the UK's fancied entry of Richard Creagh-Osborne.

Canada may not have had a strong domestic Finn scene, but what it did have was a very active involvement in the International 14 class. As one of Canada's leading small boat sailors, Bruce shifted from mainstream journalism to working within the sailing media, where he was a prolific writer (before becoming editor) of the One Design Yachtsman magazine.

Despite the connection to One Designs, Bruce was creating a new reputation as a designer in the development genre with his first set of lines for an International 14, which he modestly called the Kirby 1. As with some of the other designers that we have featured in this 'Wise Men' series, Bruce would draw insight and inspiration from some of the many detailed works on hull and yacht design, which he would put into great effect: his later designs for the International 14 would bring him both acclaim and success.

He no doubt learned plenty during his first foray into Olympic sailing as he was a strong entrant in the 1958 International 14 Team Racing event at Cowes. The final, between Canada and New Zealand, was sailed in the most extreme of conditions and would see Bruce's name recorded as one of the winning helms. He would repeat the success in 1961, when the team racing was held at Toronto, the only difference being that now the winds were at the other end of the scale, with the racing taking place in the lightest of breezes.

Kirby's designs, which were now amongst the first 14s to be moulded in GRP, were becoming more popular but Bruce's attentions were being pulled back to the Olympic regatta (which just as this year was held at Enoshima, Tokyo) and the opportunity to again be the Canadian representative in the Finn. In a measure of how quickly the international scene was evolving, Bruce would score some good results but would lack consistency: it speaks volumes that whilst he finished tenth overall, in eleventh place was Andre Nelis, who had been Silver Medallist in 1956 then Bronze Medallist in 1960.

However, Bruce's involvement with the Finn, along with his close interest as a journalist, would make him a more than interested spectator when the IYRU started looked at a replacement for the Finn. There were two distinct lines of thinking on what sort of boat would be best when looking ahead to the future. There were those who thought that a development of the Finn, heavy, round bilged and rockered, though with some form of aid to "extending the helm's weight out beyond the gunwale" was the answer.

Set against them was a smaller group of more radical designers who view the future in terms of a boat that was light, flat, and fast. The Fireball, which was still only a couple of years old, was an inspiration to this latter group, which included Bruce. Once Bob Miller introduced the Contender into the IYRU's thinking, then tweaked the hull to make it a little less extreme, the way forward was at last clear to these new thinkers. Once selected, the Contender would find an early home in Canada, where a number of enthusiastic sailors would build their own boats and sail them locally, giving Bruce the opportunity to see how they performed.

At the same time, Bruce would enter his third and final Olympics, this time at Acapulco in Mexico, where he competed in the Star, but he had a less than successful regatta.

The story of what happened next really is the stuff of legends, as during a conversation with Ian Bruce, Bruce Kirby sketched out his thinking on a piece of paper in what would become known as the "million-dollar doodle". The original idea had been for a simple, lightweight dinghy that could be carried on top of a car, with this having the working title of the 'Weekender' or the 'TGIF'. This was the era of the beach boat, which in the UK and Europe was best represented by Ian Proctor's Minisail, though there were many other low freeboard single handers that were also popular at that time.

Bruce's genius was to take the best ideas from these boats (such as the two piece mast that dropped into a moulded pot in the foredeck) then merge them with a design for a 'proper' dinghy hull, albeit one that showed the influences of Bob Miller's work with the Contender. Bruce was back to those One Design roots, with the whole ethos of the new boat, now named the Laser, being that of simplicity and total conformity.

Today, it is hard to be truly objective about the Laser as the failings of the boat are all too well known, but what is more important is how Bruce's design was the right boat at the right time. Already at the start of the 1970s there were concerns that the golden era for dinghy development was coming to an end, with spiralling costs of not only the boats, but participation, looking for a 'new' solution, with the Laser ticking all the boxes.

The rest, as they say, is history: the global explosion in the number of nations successfully competing in the Laser and its inevitable elevation into the Olympics, followed by the Radial as the Women's single-hander. Sadly, the latter chapters in this story are not ones that the sport can be proud of, with Bruce having to fight an extended legal battle over the ownership of his designs and the rights that this confers on the holder, but none of this should detract from that afternoon of brilliant insight that gave us the idea in the first place.

Nor is the Laser that aforementioned a 'one hit wonder', for in his design for a vice-free yet still nimble keelboat, Bruce's Sonar has not just followed the Laser to full International status, but since 1996 was an integral part of the Paralympic Regatta. This gives Bruce a unique status as the only designer to have two of his designs at an Olympic Regatta at the same time. And if designing an Olympic dinghy, or even two Olympic boats, were not enough, then Bruce also has the accolade of having designed not one, but again two boats, but these were 12-Metre challengers for the America's Cup, a competition that would provide Bruce with another life-long interest.

Bruce, with his wife and family, lived just an hour or so north of New York in the picturesque waterside town of Darien, in Southern Connecticut, where - if you were lucky - a visit to the quayside bistro could see you sharing a coffee and a pastry with a man who matched the definition of great in so many ways. Yet for all his successes, in conversation he remained mild and unassuming, always happy to fall back on one of his many insightful soundbites. It would be easy to put as his epitaph his famous comment that, "boat design isn't brain surgery: we might pretend it is, but really it isn't," but a far more revealing comment was when he famously quipped, "who wants to design a slow boat - or to own one for that matter."

We must therefore say goodbye to three wise men, three great wise men at that, with each being bestowed with the word 'great' for very differing reasons. One thing though is for certain, in that with their passing, with weeks of each other, the hole that they have left in our sport is great indeed.

Peter 'Spud' Rowsell: 1944-2021
Graham Edwards: 1945-2021
Bruce Kirby: 1929-2021

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