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North Sails Performance 2023 - LEADERBOARD

Racing Sailboats - It's all in the Name!

by Dougal Henshall 3 Nov 2023 05:00 PDT
Original RS catalog featuring Ultra 30 team © RS Sailing

It is a sad fact of life that the sailors who were drivers at the heart of the so called 'golden era' of dinghy racing are getting older, but their ability to get together for an afternoon of fun and laughter is as strong as ever.

One such gathering took place just this week, with the occasion being a celebration of the birth, the rise and fall, and then the rise again of RS, Racing Sailboats, an institution that is right at the very heart of the UK dinghy sailing scene.

To understand how RS first came into being, we first have to go back to the mid-1970s, when dinghy racing itself was undergoing something of an upheaval. On the one hand, the phenomenon that was the Laser was really getting going with helms suddenly finding that the supply of available crews was starting to dry up.

On the other hand, over in the core 'traditional' and development classes, the choices for crews wanting hulls, rigs and fittings had never been richer. Sailmaking in particular was going high-tech and had produced a new breed of sailor, with the likes of Neil Thornton, Pete White, Eddie Warden-Owen and David Pitman who really knew their stuff, were winning out on the racecourse and could make you a suit of sails that suited your own particular requirements.

This though was just a part of the equation, as the range of fittings was also exploding, with major fitting makers coming up with some very clever solutions to the problems crews faced when fitting out. This was great except for the fact that the majority of chandlers had evolved to serve the more lucrative bigger boat market, with dinghy fittings all too often crammed in between anchor chain and bilge cleaner.

Salvation would come courtesy of a new breed of outlets specifically aimed at feeding the dinghy scene, with the best of these (as measured by sales of Proctor mast tubes) being the famous Larry Marks Chandlery at Woolston, just east of Southampton. Here, the likes of Alan Wright, Chris Rhodes and Adrian Williams were able to supply not just the latest fittings but could also cleverly advise on how best to use them.

Better still, they were also innovators, so they didn't just supply stock, but could come up with novel solutions. Luckily Proctor Masts were just 20 minutes along the road, and some of the masts that the team came up with were like works of art, with tubes that had been etched in an acid bath to reduce wall thickness before being sleeved in high load areas.

The Marks chandlery might have been a focal point for the south coast scene, but this wasn't much help to the increasingly important developments that were taking place around London.

After all, Queen Mary Sailing Club was proudly sporting the tagline 'the best sea-sailing in London', whilst nearly all of the smaller reservoirs that surrounded the City supported at least one club... and then there were the powerhouse clubs all along the Thames. New chandleries would soon start to spring up, but what would be the big change came about almost by accident.

Mike Lingwood, who was then working as a Chartered Surveyor, was looking for a south London base and found one along Battersea Road. Mike's flat would be upstairs, but there was some discussion about what to do with the empty shop downstairs at street level. Ideas ranged from a laundry to a crêperie before a tie in with Tony 'Butch' Curtis saw the shop turned into a chandlery called London Dinghy Services. Mike, who was a keen dinghy sailor saw this as a win-win solution, as it meant that he'd be okay for getting fittings for his 5o5 campaigns.

Once the shop was operational the concern was that at first progress was slow, then there would be a change of personnel, with Jim Thompson and Nick Lightbody coming in, then a change of name to.... Racing Sailboats... and the rest, as they say, would be history.

More skilled staff would join, allowing Racing Sailboats to take on the Marks chandlery crown of being 'Best Proctor Stockist', as their holding a stock of bare tubes allowed them to respond to an urgent request for a replacement spar after a breakage.

Meanwhile, windsurfing, the next 'big thing', was about to sweep the sailing scene, with Racing Sailboats being in right at the very beginning of the windsurfer boom courtesy of a clever decision by Mike Lingwood to take on one the promotion and support of the first windsurfers.

As a result, the shop would be rich in innovation, from offering windsurfer tuition, to a catalogued driven mail order operation, to the development of bespoke spars; Mike being both supplier and customer as they created a rotating wing mast for his 5o5 that consisted of a half a Proctor section wedded to a Holt.

The whole Racing Sailboats scene would be fast moving, with success bringing its own problems, as Mike would find when he got back from an open meeting late on a Sunday night only to find a Danish crew camped out on his doorstep waiting for him to open the shop on the Monday morning.

By then though the windsurfer side of the business had become an operation in its own right that shared little synergy with the dinghy side of things. There would be a move to a bigger shop in Este Road in Wandsworth and yet more names, with windsurfing gathering up the talents of Graeme Fuller, whilst the dinghy side of things was graced with Colin 'the ferret' Merrett and then the irrepressible Harold 'H' Barnes, who would go on to win multiple titles in the 5o5.

Yet the sailing scene itself was changing again and whereas before Parkers and Rondars had been the dominant force in FiveO building, it would be RS who would up the ante by importing the incredible Kyrwood hulls that would quickly become almost a pre-requisite for championship success.

The Racing Sailboats success would itself spread with a shop in the Midlands and the list of sailors who either worked at one of the shops or was closely associated with them reading like a who's who of top-class sailors.

However, all that talent couldn't disguise the fact that the market was changing once again (say Laser 2 today and many sailors will ask 'what?', but for a key period in this story the '2' was a massive steamroller of a class) which was not helped by yet another period of serious financial upheaval.

Despite the hype, the sailing scene itself had started to shrink, whilst at the same time new players were coming into the market who employed a sharper, bottom line focused approach to doing business. The chandlery as a meeting place to chat with friends, discussing improbable innovations was now streamlined to become a place that people went to intending to buy, although the mail order side of selling was itself showing the way for the online businesses that were to come.

The end for the 'old' Racing Sailboats would come when the name would be bought out by new players who had a far grander vision for the future, which started when Phil Morrison and others sat the generous frame of Spud Rowsell on a chair and drew the lines of a boat around him. This of course would be the legend that is the RS400, with the world view today being that this was the start of the RS story.

As the above has shown, the real beginnings of the world that is now RS were far humbler, but you would not have thought that this weekend when old hands going back to the very earliest of days gathered once again at Emsworth. Thankfully this time it wasn't for a funeral, but instead because Nick Lightbody wanted a new mast for his Scorpion. Everyone was sent a summons to attend to see if they could remember how this mast making lark was done, though wisely the work was left in the hands of mast making supremo Mark Rushall.

As more people arrived and more cans of Doom Bar were opened, work on the mast (which might even measure!) finally came to a halt. The events being recalled were rich and varied, ranging from various activities at the Earl's Court Boat Show (often fuelled by Guinness) to waking up in strange locations, and then the really interesting ones, lighter fuel anyone... (sadly, this report would be served up in a plain brown paper wrapper if even the tamest stories were included).

Suffice to say that both staff and customers will all have incredible memories of times spent 'at the shop'. Within an hour the workshop was noisier than when Mark had been routing out the tube section, but it was such a wonderful afternoon full of memories that there will surely be a return fixture.

There was one (marginally) more sober moment when our drinks were refreshed so we could properly toast some very special people who were remembered as 'absent friends': Ruth Rushall, Harold Barnes and Nan Harris.

For most of our current generation of sailors, RS today mean the incredible enterprise that produces everything from the smallest trainer right up to the RS21, with their range including a boat for all aspects and tastes in sailing... but just for an afternoon RS once again meant something very different, a business built by a group of friends who ended up combining work and their sport to create something very special in so many ways!

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