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The wisest Wise Man - Cliff Norbury

by Dougal Henshall 26 Jan 04:00 PST
Cliff Norbury in the Proctor factory with a 'big stick' © Norbury Family

It was way back in 2017 when the RYA came up with an interesting request for me to research and document the incredible life story of Ian Proctor, with the result being Ian Proctor: The Man Who Designed Racehorses. Researching the story of how Ian Proctor had helped fuel the 'golden era' of our sport was a privilege in itself, but at the same time it gave me an incredible insight into how those friends closest to the action would play an often-unsung part.

One such incredible sailor was Cliff Norbury, a man whose influence still extends across much of our sport today, and with the sad news of his passing, the time is right to look at the life and sailing career of a man who really does deserve the title of the 'Wisest Wise Man'.

For starters, Cliff wasn't a legacy sailor who had followed on as just the next generation from a classic yachting family; instead the major pastime for his parents had been off-road motorcycle trials, in which sport they had been champions in the sidecar class. His father worked as an aeronautical engineer and when he took up a post with Folland Aviation, the family moved to Hamble, on the central South Coast of England. In the immediate post-war years Hamble was pretty much the hottest of the hot spots to be at for top class sailing, and all this activity on the doorstep prompted the purchase of one of the new breed of dinghies, the GP14.

After crewing with his father, Cliff went on to perfect his own skills in a Hamble Star, a 14ft carvel-built dinghy that was being raced hard on the river at that time, but he must have been a busy lad, for in parallel with his improving sailing skills he was already showing a distinct flair in the field of advanced study.

Cliff went on to win a scholarship and would go on to start working as an apprentice, also at Follands, before his skills were further recognised with a sponsored move to the Cranfield Institute of Technology, where he would excel as Student of the Year with an MSc in aeronautical engineering.

The expectation was that a long career in the nascent aero-space industry would take him away from sailing, but dinghies were by now an entrenched part of his life. With his wife June, the pair sailed a National 12 at all the top clubs such as Ranelagh, Minima and his home club at Hamble, where another of Cliff's claims to fame was his decision to sail in shorts - right through the winter.

Like many of their contemporaries, Cliff and June would sew their own sails, but many of their boats would be made by Jack Chippendale (whose centenary we'll be celebrating this spring). In these halcyon years at Hamble the Norbury's were a core part of a fluid group of highly talented sailors, many of whom would be racing in the highly competitive National 12 fleet, with such stars of the sport as John Oakeley, Peter Cook, Dick(ie) Vine and Tim Hockin to the fore.

The relationship that counted most though was that between Cliff and Ian Proctor. Cliff and Ian had already been front runners in the National 12, but increasingly Proctor was looking towards the Merlin class, which was going through a shotgun marriage with the Rocket, with the result that builders such as Wyche & Coppock, Holt and Chippendale were all turning hulls out as quickly as they could.

One of the issues though was with the supply of spars, a situation that Jack Chippendale had highlighted with another of his famous comments that if he (Proctor) kept churning out designs as the rate that he was, there wouldn't be enough straight spruce trees to make the masts. The combination of Ian Proctor and Cliff Norbury would then work together to investigate the possibility of developing an alternative by changing to building with aluminium, an area that Cliff was well qualified to lead.

Post-war and the jet age had ensured that aluminium was now the essential building material for aircraft, but Cliff's team would be faced with the problem of making the sharp yet shaped leading edges for the wings. The answer lay in what was called 'chemical milling', where the main mass of metal is progressively reduced in an acid bath.

Working alongside Ian Proctor, the pair looked at ways of creating an easy to rig, cost effective alloy mast (in this they were by no means the first to try) but the alloy tubes that were available had walls that were too thick. This was a core subject for Cliff, who set up an experiment down on the shore at Warsash (just across the river from Hamble) where a length of iron drainpipe was filled with caustic soda, before a bonfire was built around it. Once the mix was boiling merrily, a length of aluminium tube was lowered in, with spectacular results.

A second experiment, using an open topped pig trough that would allow the gases to safely bubble away, was far more successful (not to mention a lot safer) and the concept of the Proctor metal mast was born. The change from wooden spars, which had to be held in column, to one made from aluminium, which could bend, would require changes to the cut of the sails, but Cliff was already a thinker who was focused on the development of the 'active' rig.

In a single year, he would win in the N12s and then, as crew for Ian Proctor, take the National Championships in the Merlin Rockets, with both these boats sporting one of their metal masts.

The die was cast in more ways than one: Proctor went to Alcan, the aluminium company, and persuaded them to create a series of dies that would allow a teardrop shaped tube extensions (another of Cliff's ideas) to be extruded. With Proctor masts now ready to take on the sailing world, Cliff would turn his back on aerospace and instead take up a role within Proctors, where he would end up as Managing Director until his retirement.

However, those years back at the start of the 1950s were important in another far reaching way, as this was the birth of what would soon be called performance sailing. The IYRU (now World Sailing) wanted a two-man boat for the Olympics and simply gifted the commission to Uffa Fox, only for his Tornado (not the catamaran) to be a miserable failure, despite already being offered a place at the 1956 Olympic Regatta at Melbourne.

With the Tornado uncompetitive (not to mention unloved) the door was open to any new dinghy that might aspire to the label of being an internationally focused 'performance' boat. Ian Proctor promptly stretched out his latest Merlin Rocket design to create the Osprey, which Cliff and others would work up in the waters of the Solent.

Although the Osprey was launched with a wooden spars, Cliff would soon be at work creating a 'special' metal mast that incorporated a double jib sheave, so that a jib and genoa could both be rigged at the same time. Going upwind the crew would hoist the jib, but at the windward mark this would be dropped and laid on the foredeck whilst the genoa was hoisted for the offwind legs. (The Coronet, another of the boats aiming at the now vacant IYRU slot, operated a similar system.)

Osprey was an immediate success, and more importantly it introduced spinnaker trapeze reaching to the world of sailing, with the crew out on the wire. On what previously would have been a two-sail leg, would now see the spinnaker hoisted. Along with journalist John Westell, Cliff would be one of the first to experience this thrilling new development in sailing.

Another line of thought was that the new breed of performance boats might well be three-man rather than two (sorry ladies, at the time you weren't expected to be sailing in boats like this!) so when Osprey entered the 1953 Round the Island Dinghy Race, it had Proctor, John Oakeley and Cliff on board.

In a combination of foul tide and an easterly breeze the anti-clockwise rotation meant short tacking along the south side of the Island and here Cliff's skill out on the wire helped Osprey build a healthy lead which they would hold to the finish back at Cowes.

From the Solent, Cliff would next take Osprey to La Baule for the IYRU Trials, where she came up against the larger and more powerful Coronet and Flying Dutchman dinghies. Even so, in Cliff's hands Osprey would perform so well that she would be sought after as a one-design replacement for the French Caneton, though Proctor would say "non" as he had already identified his boat as having all the qualities needed to become a mainstay of the UK domestic dinghy scene.

After Osprey and La Baule, Cliff would return to the boat that in so many ways had been his first love, the National 12, where despite being up against a true concentration of talent, he would win the much-coveted Burton Trophy.

Cliff and June back together in the N12, about to head out onto the circuit!

He would also claim another podium place in the Merlins, but in between he could be seen enjoying his sailing down on the river at Hamble, in anything from a Finn to a Wayfarer to a Star (this time, the Olympic keelboat version).

Indeed, it would be the now elderly American keelboat that would be one of the driving forces for his next major project with Ian Proctor. Moving into the more 'modern' 1960s the IYRU wanted an eye-catching performance inspired replacement for the Star and called for a set of Trials, with Proctor's response being the mighty Tempest.

This would be the boat that would redefine the keelboat genre and would be responsible for moving small keelboats more towards the modern line of thinking now found in 'sportsboats'. Once out afloat Tempest would prove so quick that at the Trials the IYRU would try to level things up by insisting that Tempest carry extra weight, but nothing would stop the selection of this superb boat that would share a PY around a racecourse with the 5o5.

Cliff had sailed the boat in the Trials, and it seemed that his tough, yet careful, analytical style of 'thinking' sailing was perfect for the boat, as he went on to win the National, European and World titles.

This should have made him an obvious choice as the UK's entry for the 1972 Olympic Regatta at Kiel, but then the circumstances that make topflight sailing such a difficult sport to master would once again come into play. Merlin Rocket sailor Alan Warren had been asked to sail a Tempest to act as a stalking horse for Cliff, only for the (in)famous combination of Warren and David Hunt to show a similar mastery of the boat.

The criteria for the Selection Trials specified an upper wind strength of 25kt (an interesting rule given that the Tempest really came into its own in conditions that kept other boats ashore) and for the series of races it was all of that, often more. The Trials were allowed to go ahead, which suited Warren and Hunt just fine as they powered around the course to take the event and the trip across to Germany.

It is always unwise to offer 'what if' solutions to various scenarios, suffice to say that Warren and Hunt went to Kiel and took the Silver Medal, being the only boat in the fleet to win two of the races.

Away from the performance mode of sailing, Cliff would buy a 39ft cruiser and would take the whole family across the Channel to explore and enjoy the delights of the French Coast. But was with so many of his generation, his next move was to give back to the sport that had meant so much to him, as he took on increasingly senior roles on a number of RYA Committees.

Here he was able to maintain his close association with the Olympic scene, with one of his many roles being the UK's Team Manager. His advanced levels of technical knowledge were also put to good use, as he became Chair of the IYRU/ISAF Technical Committee, with one of the many issues that Cliff would address being the increasingly contentious problem of weight distribution in a hull.

In total, as Team Manager and Measurer he would be present at four Olympics Regattas, often working alongside his old friend and leading N12 competitor Mike Jackson, who recalled how he made valued contributions to the tricky business of committee meetings, thanks to his very valuable if forthright opinions.

Cliff was also an enthusiastic supporter of the RYA's Youth initiatives and in particular the efforts of Jim Saltonstall and his legendary band of 'ferrets'. Jim would speak fondly of how Cliff would help out in surprising ways, such as when Jim had a need for a model mast set up, so that he could teach his next band of ferrets the interactions of sail control. Cliff would promptly step in, getting his team at Proctor Masts to create a solution.

As well as being the master of the practical solution, Cliff's analytical mind was equally successful when innovative solutions were required, as was seen in 1978 when the UK was aiming at yet another attempt to win the America's Cup. The Lionheart project would bring Cliff and John Oakeley back together again, with 'JohnO' being both sailmaker and helm. Cliff's contribution would be with a clever, innovative bendy top for the mast that allowed an extra 7% of sail area and yet was perfectly legal.

Sadly, it isn't in the remit of this article to discuss the failure of Lionheart, though it should be noted though that in its original guise the boat, sporting her bendy topmast, showed potentially race winning straight-line speed.

One of Cliff's last major projects would have an even more fundamental influence on the future of direction of our sport, when took on a leading role in what was at the time a Warsash-based group looking to create a new breed of Olympic performance dinghy that would replace the increasingly super-expensive Flying Dutchman.

During a number of meetings at his home at Warsash, under Cliff's careful guidance, the basic conceptual ideas were turned in a realistic plan to build the prototype for a Phil Morisson designed lightweight, twin trapeze rocketship.

His skill was to bring together a number of the foremost development thinkers if the day, with the boat would progressing on to become the Laser 5000. Although the boat would later become an object of some humour given the final commercially constructed weight, at the time the 5000 was a groundbreaking development that (despite being destined to lose out to the 49er at the Trials) would set out new levels of interest for the notion of 'skiff sailing' through the very popular televised Audi sponsored Euro-Cup series.

Just before Covid, the RYA had a celebration for the longest serving members, an event that would bring Cliff and Alan Warren back together, with Cliff pipping his old competitor to the title of the 'longest' by a matter of mere weeks.

Sadly, that crown now sits with Alan, but Cliff's influence remains across our sport as was seen this summer when the Osprey fleet competed at Hayling Island Sailing Club for their 70th Championship. Unfortunately, Cliff was not able to attend, but he was sorely missed, as he undoubtedly will be going forward.

The events mentioned are but a thumbnail portrait of a much bigger story, because as a leading thinker of the day, as an exceptional crew and as a helm Cliff was first and foremost a setter of trends. It is far from an exaggeration to see his lifelong association with sailing as a metaphor for the sport itself: When Cliff started out dinghies were rigged with wooden spars and cotton sails, but his efforts at the heart of the development of the alloy spar would help drive the sport forward.

Then, by the time he was looking at retirement, Proctors were already looking at seeing the mast and boom not as something to be extruded, but instead to be laid up using carbon fibre. At the same time that everything was changing above the deck there would be so much more, from keelboats that planed, to a new breed of dinghies that would usher in the mode of apparent wind sailing.

In all of this Cliff would leave his mark, making him truly the 'Wisest of all the Wise Men'.

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