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Taking the P... The price of heritage - Part 1

by Dougal Henshall 19 Apr 05:00 PDT
Rodney Pattisson, Iain MacDonald-Smith and Superdocious at the National Maritime Museum © C Houchin

I blame the BBC, as they've been running a series on Radio 4 called 'The Reunion'! Actually, I shouldn't complain as the programmes are very good and interesting, though sadly there was recently one very special reunion that they missed, but one can hardly blame the Beeb as this was an event that was allowed to slip by under the radar.

The meeting in question took place down at the National Maritime Museum at Falmouth and saw the 1968 Flying Dutchman Gold Medal winning trio of Rodney Pattisson, Iain MacDonald-Smith and their boat Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious brought back together to celebrate the rearranging of the displays in the museum.

From a media perspective this was a golden opportunity, not just for an interesting article but also to try and grab an audio/video history of what it was like to get a crew and boat 'long haul' back in the 1960s. This was well before the era of the sort of support that the Team GBR enjoy today (what's more Rodney and Iain arrived in Acapulco a whole month early to acclimatise). But it was not to be, the event happened, and any external interest came along as an afterthought.

Take a wider view at this and the lack of any promotion of the Superdocious reunion (the full name was too long for the event organisers) can almost be seen as an allegory of how the sport of dinghy sailing looks back at the amazing story of domestic development. This has been a leading issue as far back as the early years of the new millennium, when an interested group of dinghy sailors of yesteryear were getting worried at the alarming rate at which the detailed story telling how the UK came to enjoy such a rich dinghy racing heritage was being lost.

A measure of how important this loss is becoming can be seen in the fact that in the Spring of 2024 the sport will be celebrating both 90 years since the birth of Peter Milne, of Fireball fame, but also the centenary of master boatbuilder and 'influencer' (to use the modern parlance) Jack Chippendale. Again, Jack is a good case study to delve deeper into, as he is just one of our 'greats' who has thankfully left us with more than an hour of him speaking to camera.

Recording audio/video histories in this manner, then getting them up online, ought to be the least our sport could do, but attempts to get anything going have faced a number of struggles, not least how best to present them so that everyone could view the content, preferably on a gratis basis, as so many of the photographs from the golden era of the sport are held behind costly paywalls.

On the face of it, collecting audio histories might look a good idea, but when an approach was made to the Heritage Lottery Fund for some support, their response was that whilst undoubtedly a sensible solution, their considered view was that the sport of sailing was too white, too middle class and surely wealthy enough to come up with some funding from within!

Although this seems harsh, when taken in the light of some of the ideas that have received funding, in a way it is understandable when you consider the money that seemed to be flooding into the upper echelons of competitive sailing in such high-profile areas as the Olympics, Americas Cup and the headline long distance offshore races.

If this all sounds a bit like the much maligned 'trickle down' economics that was such a buzzword recently, then the situation faced by the lower divisions of the dinghy sailing scene highlight the current financial divide. Far from being cash rich, the harsh truth of today is that many clubs and classes are struggling to keep afloat, whilst the list of casualties that are no longer with us grows longer with each passing season.

Worse, we really need to equate the loss of clubs as what is in reality is a loss of an important local amenity, but even here, alongside the smallest of classes, the smallest of clubs still have a heritage tale to tell.

The problem facing grassroots dinghy sailing is that whilst there is a great need for these stories to be told and recorded, the sad truth is that once you get down to those lower divisions, it is likely that the smaller, less well-known clubs would fail to even make the short list (if such a list was ever to be created) of interviews to be conducted.

This then leads on to an even bigger issue! If the dinghy racing world can't even find the required resources to support the recording of some video/aural histories online, what chance is there of saving important items in the physical world. Top of the list would have to be some of the iconic boats that for nigh on 80 years have been the foundation stones for so much of the sport that we enjoy today.

The bottom line is though that boats take space, moreover space in three dimensions, as any portrayal of a boat would have to be with it shown with the rig in place, not least because the development of rigs has to be seen running parallel with that of the boats themselves.

The message is clearly understood that even the most interested in the sport would hardly want to go and see an old 'shed' of a boat, with this indicating that a good level of restoration capability will become a prime requirement, but even this raises the first of many Black Flags!

One view of restoration might look to create a pretty exhibit, albeit one that lives in the dry and sterile environment of a museum, whilst at the other end of the spectrum are those who wish to undertake the more challenging restoration leading to the point that the boat can be taken out, so that it can be seen in the more natural environment, afloat out on a racecourse.

Sadly, to date the UK approach to this seems to have been as successful as that Eurovision favourite of 'nil points'. That said, we do have the National Maritime Museum, home to Superdocious, located on the Quay down in Falmouth, but it is only when you finally arrive in deepest Cornwall that you find that it is neither national nor a museum.

As the staff there are at pains to point out, this is first and foremost a tourist attraction, targeted at the hordes who descend down to the far Southwest throughout the year for their holidays. Get a wet day and the inevitable question of what to do with the kids, the aim at Falmouth is to make the answer "visit the Museum".

This has resulted in the key attractions ranging from pirates to tattoos, from the Titanic to lighthouses and the wrecks of the Cornish coasts.

That said, they do have some dinghies of note exhibited, starting with Rodney's FD which sits alongside Ben Ainslie's medal-winning Laser, but this second boat merely highlights the issues facing Falmouth. Yes, it is a Laser and a famous one at that, but this is a class that more than any other has prided itself on having all the boats identical to each other, so there's little to be learnt from seeing another, albeit one with a golden performance to celebrate.

Then there are the boats slung from the roof, including an early Oppy, a Mirror, a Dart, then 'Thunder and Lightning', a Prince of Wales Trophy-winning International 14, although this boat highlights the issue of how sensitive to the original set up the current presentation looks to be.

Set against these are the inexplicable absences, with nothing in the way of any mention of the Redwing, which has its powerbase in the far Southwest, nor the Scorpion, a boat that is as Cornish as pasties and clotted cream (and with the Museum holding the archive of Scorpion designer Taprell Dorling), yet somehow space is given over to a South American reed boat and a Maltese rowing boat (which obviously has the advantage of being prettily painted).

The end result is that in terms of a narrative telling the story of our domestic dinghy development, there is nothing to link the boats on display to those key influences, tying in the technological development and the social changes that brought us to where we are today.

Yet it is something of a bizarre situation that the scattergun of boats that are currently exhibited, in the hope that they might grab the interest of the passing visitor for all of 90 seconds, are just a small percentage of the dinghies that the Museum holds elsewhere in a store.

What makes this even situation even sadder is that Falmouth also holds a number of key collections of designs, plans, papers and records but there is no reference to any of this in the Museum. The originals of Jack Holt's, John Westell's and Peter Milne's plans are all there, along with Jack Chippendale's archive, but these but hidden away and not openly accessible to the public.

This suggests that collectively the Museum already holds many pieces of the domestic dinghy development jigsaw, either in the main building or in the remote store, but no one has ever looked at creating a display that would join up the dots and fill in the missing gaps.

The problems that are faced are threefold.... firstly, the Museum is mainly staffed by volunteers, who although friendly and helpful lack the detailed knowledge of how one designer was influenced to produce his best designs and then how he went on to influence others, thus creating the richness of diversity that has created the UK domestic dinghy scene.

Secondly, the boats exist purely as museum exhibits: Ben's Laser or Finn might well stay buoyant if put out afloat, but the rest seem held together with the patina of dust that collects on them as they hang in the roof space. Finally, as has been noted already, Falmouth is primarily there to fulfil a very different function and it is easy to come away with the impression that they could quite happily dispense with the dinghies all together if they could then fill the space up with something that carried a broader range of interests for the visiting tourists.

What makes the chosen role at Falmouth all the harder to understand is that there are other museums that do seem to be working to crack the codes, creating a number of cohesive narratives for the visitor to follow. Like Falmouth, La Rochelle on the West coast of France used to be a focal hub of the fishing industry, yet in more recent times the changes in how catches are handled have seen a decline in the traditional work within the port.

In keeping with its Cornish counterpart, La Rochelle is located within a major holiday destination, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that both are a long way from the main centres of population. And yet, where Falmouth can be seen as a disappointment for those wanting to see more of UK dinghy development, the French are forging ahead with moves to protect their heritage and are on the lookout for new opportunities to expand the stories that they are seeking to tell.

At the most fundamental level, the decision was taken by central government that if a boat is really worth saving, then it should be saved by the simple device of declaring it a National Monument. It is then protected, and funds can be sought for preservation and restoration, just as if it were a Castle or Grade 1 listed building. It is a simple enough ploy, but one that ensures that the truly iconic statements of how the French domestic dinghy scene developed will be saved for the future generations of sailors.

In typical Gallic fashion, their emphasis is on what they have done in France, so the boats that they have on display are a real reflection of their own innovation, whilst ensuring that the other boats that are there, despite their foreign upbringing, still relate to the core theme.

The result is that the displays work together to tell a cohesive story, and with 2024 in mind, the plans are already in place to ensure that the next planned arrangement will reflect the development of Olympic dinghies, a nod to the fact that the Olympic Regatta will be held in France in 2024.

It has to be understood of course that there is far more to running a museum than a display of dinghies, and a large part of the La Rochelle site is given over to telling the history of the town, in the wars against the English, the wars against the weather and in the way that fishing and shellfish cultivation played such a part in the development of the area.

With the French focus on offshore yachting, they have some wonderful examples of yachts out in the basin nestled up alongside commercial craft, with even a harbour dredger for company, but again thought has been given to how they collectively work together to 'tell a story'.

The other BIG difference though between La Rochelle and Falmouth has to be in their core belief that whilst the boats may well be museum pieces, first and foremost they are sailing dinghies and as such, have to be capable to being taken out and sailed!

Every two years a wonderful carnival atmosphere descends on the town that culminates is a glorious parade of sail, with the dinghies following such iconic yachts as Pen Duick II along the estuary past the huge marina, before sailing in between the two stone towers that have for so long stood sentinel over the entrance to the old port.

The crowds love it and gather in impressive numbers on the quayside, where they are kept informed by a well briefed PA system. Everyone gets to see the boats out sailing, whilst being told why they are significant and though it would be easy to say that this is a very 'French' way of doing things, there can be no doubt at all that it is all done very well.

Better still, the following day, the boats from the museum will all be out in the Sound, just in front of the marina, for a series of races, where despite the age and questionable robustness of some of the older entries, they all get raced hard, with little consideration given to the possibility that a fresh sea breeze might build as the day goes on.

Inevitably there are a few casualties, but the repair and restoration workshop are co-located with the Museum, so this is taken as just a part of the role that their near unique exhibits have to perform.

Despite many obvious similarities, the museums at Falmouth and La Rochelle are so different to each other that however you tried to make a meaningful comparison between them, the result would be flawed, and it is certainly NOT the case that one is all good whilst the other has it all wrong.

And yet... somehow the French have got the key parts right, their staff seem well informed and with regard to the future, they know what they want, where they are going and what story they will be telling next.

Thankfully, the idea that our dinghy heritage might actually have a future might well have started to gain some traction once again here in the UK. One of the shared negatives of both Falmouth and La Rochelle is their location, for the big thing in museums, as in the retail trade, is that old chestnut of location, location and location!

This is certainly the saving grace for the hoped-for new kid on the block, for although the existing Classic Boat Museum at Cowes on the Isle of Wight is a short ferry ride away from the mainland (though easily reached by boat owners), the central South Coast is a lot easier to reach than the extremities of Cornwall.

There will of course be those who champion an even more central location somewhere in the Midlands, but in terms of the development of the domestic dinghy scene, the Solent, with the Island and mainland shores, have an incredible story to tell. It would not be difficult therefore to create a cohesive display celebrating many of the often-ground-breaking innovations and craftsmanship that was active in the area.

In dinghy terms, hull design and build techniques have enough of their foundations here that in another discipline they would surely be worthy of a blue plaque. Then of course there is sailmaking, the metal mast story and the creation of dinghy specific fittings, all within a loud hail of each other.

To their credit the minds behind the Cowes Classic Museum have recognised much of this and the site is well worthy of a visit already, but looking ahead it could (and hopefully will) be so much better in the years to come, with better buildings to replace the current old sheds that are hardly an ideal setting when the aim is to help pull in the visitors.

If that's the good news, then the bad is that the museum is already in danger of falling foul of the Falmouth scattergun approach to exhibit selection. With Cowes being the home of Uffa Fox, it is only right and proper that his designs and builds are represented, with his boats easily capable of creating the core of the exhibits. However, if the museum already has a 1935 era International 14 on display, there are very few sailors who could tell the difference between that and one from 1933 or 1937.

In an ideal world, of course, there would be space for all the available boats, but if hosting multiple Fox 14s meant that there wasn't space for a gorgeous cold moulded 14 from the Souters boatyard (who were also based in Cowes) or one of the show stopping beautifully crafted examples from Bill McCutcheon, who had his workshop just along the shore at Wootton, then from the outset the display quickly starts to lose that all important wider relevance to our sport.

This side issue is highlighted by another collection of boats based over in the Great Lakes Museum at Kingston, Canada, where they too have some 14s that range over 50 years of development but are struggling to take on more exhibits due to the already highlighted issue of 'space'. Yet their intention to focus down on the 14 means that when things get sorted they will be in the advantageous position of having a cohesive story to tell!

Of course, on the face of it boat collection is easy when well-meaning supporters of the museum are around to offer a donation of whatever dinghy has been resident in their garage for the past 50 or more years. However, there has to be a bigger picture and in the end, the focus has to be on developing a better way of creating a display.

Firstly, following the French is no bad thing! Think of what your boats are trying to say and then seek out examples that help them tell their story. It is a bit like sourcing the accompanying pictures that accompany this article, as though there might be a stunning picture of a Solo or an Enterprise going great guns, as neither are mentioned classes, any such photos would do little to support the narrative.

When taking a cold, dispassionate look at boat collection, the first question to be asked has to be, "What's the story". Only then can one ask, "Does this boat add to the story" with this being a simple, binary YES or NO answer.

But for those who prefer a more nuanced approach, a good starting point would be to create a scored matrix, with the four axes being Importance, Significance, Desirability and Accessibility. To see how this would apply in practice, a worked example could be made using the 1912 designed International 12 (as a point of related interest, the UK entry at the 1928 Olympics in this class has just been skilfully restored by Chris Barlow for another excellent museum in Wales).

The questioning starts by asking if this an important boat? The immediate answer is absolutely YES, with the 12 scoring highly on this point. The Cockshott designed hull would go on to bequeath it's DNA to the future generations of dinghy designs that followed, plus it did full Olympic Regatta service, not just once but twice.

Secondly, significance. Whilst it could be argued that the 12 is a significant design, the question is simply an extension of the original mission statement. For a museum intended to promote the innovation and skills of the Solent, when this requirement is applied the score drops down to a 'nice to have' rather than a 'need to have'.

Thirdly, desirability. We all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this is never truer than when looking at boats. In the context of this question, the has to be a far more stringent application of intellectual filtering. Does the boat have a special story to tell and is there something about this specific boat that says that it deserves to displace another exhibit on the museum floor. Maybe it was raced by a local or was the first boat to win all of the major trophies on offer in the class, but as always it is impossible to quantify the story of an exhibit.

Then finally, accessibility. This is the one absolute factor, as after all, a candidate boat might score highly on importance, significance and desirability, but if no examples have survived the passage of time, then no matter how much the Museum might want, they cannot have.

A good example of this would be the John Westell-designed Coronet, the direct 'father' to the 505.

Is this an important boat, to which the obvious answer has to be YES. Next, in terms of a Solent Museum, is Coronet significant? Again, the boat scores full marks here, as Coronet was made at the Tormentor Yard in Warsash and was frequently seen 'working up' out on the waters of the Solent. To this can be added that many of the local helms of the day got to sail it, plus it was a strong competitor in the 1953 'Round the Island' dinghy race, so on these factors, Coronet would score as highly desirable.

BUT... the boat was last seen in the 1970s, somewhere out in Mombasa and attempts to track it down to determine its fate have to date not resulted in any more information. The expectation is that it no longer exists.

Closer to home, there are a number of Lowrider Moths that have strong Solent connections such as the Lucky Sixpence and Chelsea Morning designs, which again might score highly across the first three categories, but to date, the thinking is that none exist any longer.

Taking a rigorously managed and calculated approach to possible exhibits might all sound very 'business speak', but in the final analysis, saving our heritage has to be seen in terms of a business, as this is the only way forward towards preserving even a small part of the story our sport has to tell. Not necessarily from the funding point of view, but the days of starting with a good idea, then step by step undermining it with a scattergun selection of poorly chosen exhibits and the failure to reflect the 'mission' for the museum have already been seen as the routes to failure.

This though begs one final question? Can we afford to fail?

In the past, the fact that there has been a lot of talk, but not a great deal of action, aimed at heritage protection has been a concern, but the idea that there will still be plenty left to address 'tomorrow' has held sway.

However, not only is a reconsideration of this situation being forced on to those interested parties as the boats and helms of the golden era are lost, but we could also be facing a whole new player into the dinghy heritage market. Those who have followed these articles for a number of years might recall the 2017 piece Sailing history for sale I wrote which looked at how a great collection of the UK's domestic dinghy heritage was being sold off under the auctioneer's gavel.

Thankfully some of our iconic boats were purchased by UK buyers, with 1930s era 14s from Morgan-Giles and Uffa Fox being saved for restoration and sailing, but the bigger concern was the fate of all the boats that were left.

At the time, the fears were that they'd been bundled into a couple of shipping containers and dispatched off to China, to never be heard of again. That was the accepted narrative until earlier this year, when news broke of a well-stocked and sorted museum, located a couple of hours south of Shanghai, that was full of 14s, Merlins, Hornets and some uniquely rare boats that we no longer have examples of here in the UK.

These were the bulk of the boats from the 2017 sale, either restored or in the queue to be sent off to the workshop. At least these dinghies have been saved, but the bigger issue must now surely be what happens if the team behind the project later decide to fill in some of the gaps in their collection. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Falmouth, Cowes or La Rochelle might identify important targets (that score highly on all four criteria of the matrix) only to find that their reliance on boats being gifted to them has sailed headlong into the financial muscle of a team prepared to not only pay well for the right boats, but to then pay to have them shipped out to China.

This one development highlights the single biggest hurdle to helping our heritage. It either has to be capable of self-financing, as with Falmouth, or assisted/funded by State intervention as with La Rochelle, but these approaches all take time to prepare.

The Chinese solution, which could be described as a 'vanity project' for a single individual has shown how even quite a modest outlay could create the core of an exciting series of exhibits. At probably less that the cost of a middle band classic car, it could be done.

Whatever, we do need to act, as within the next decade, maybe even sooner, those essential 'first person' links to the golden era of domestic dinghy development will be lost, as something akin to a mass extermination event sweeps away many of the remnants of the sport as it was.

The personalities that shaped it will have passed, sailing off into the sunset in their home-built plywood dinghies, whilst their sailing clubs pull down the bar shutters for the final time.

Maybe all this doesn't matter, except for the fact, that in just about every sport there is, the heritage DOES matter and there is no valid reason why should dinghy sailing be any different!

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