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The 2024 'Fine Lines' Top Ten - Part 10 plus Jack Chippendale history

by Dougal Henshall 1 May 11:00 PDT
'Fine Lines' Top Ten part 10 © Bob Campbell

This, the tenth and final 'Fine Lines' in this series ends up with a real example of what the thinking is all about: that near perfect fusion of style and function.

The result is a picture that will get the Jack Chippendale Fine Lines 2024 Award (though in truth there isn't a prize other than the glory of being considered the best Fine Lines picture of the year) because the 5o5 is a boat that Jack was intimately involved with. His team created the interior layout as they cold moulded the hull, and in doing so created a classic. Jack would recognise this boat, not just as a 5o5, but also as a testament to that standard of finish that he had strived for, but for more on this story, plus a more detailed look at Jack's life and his boats, read on below.

When we think back to those glorious years that were laying the foundation for the 'golden era' in the UK's domestic dinghy scene, we tend to see it in terms of the great designers of the day: Holt, Proctor, Westell and Milne. The people who actually built the boats are more easily passed by, though Jack Holt had to be the exception to the rule as he was a very skilful craftsman, although circumstances would require him to put pragmatism over aesthetics.

In this aspect he had few equals, with his Cadet being a wonderful example of how to make the boat building task easier for the 'less than expert' home builder. Take away the tricky bits of bringing everything together into a stem by using a bow transom was a stroke of genius, as was the clever decision to keep the angle between the bottom panel and the topsides constant throughout the length of the boat.

Things would change with the arrival on the scene of Ian Proctor, for as we saw in The Man Who Designed Racehorses, Proctor was an out and out designer, someone for whom the purity of the design and how it fitted into the 'purpose' were all paramount.

What Proctor needed was that other half of the equation, someone who could turn his ideas into a race winning dinghy. This brought him into contact with Jack Chippendale, a Portsmouth lad who had been born 100 years ago today (1st May 1924).

Health issues had kept him out of the Navy, but he had worked through the war years building boats as a reserved occupation. With the coming of peace Jack had his own business but times were hard as the 'peace dividend' saw a sharp decline in the need for ship's boats for the military, yet the leisure scene had yet to take off. Jack was keeping his business afloat by building beer crates, but then a meeting with Ian Proctor would set him in a different direction.

Jack started building Proctor designs, firstly National 12s, then - after being taken down to Christchurch in 1950 to see an early open meeting - the Merlin dinghy. His first attempt had to be planked up in Hemlock, with timber recovered from an old barge trimmed up for the hog, but the boat was a success, and soon more orders would be coming in. From the outset Jack set out to make his boats different by being better, and in doing so would set the standard for the Merlin / Merlin Rocket that would prevail right up to the time when the boats went all FRP.

As Jack's business in building beautiful race winners grew, so did the spread of the classes he was involved with. He produced Finns and Flying 15s, Cadets, plus the rapidly evolving N12s and Merlins, but Jack had other skills as well. Having been classically trained, Jack could 'loft' hull lines; this saw him taking plans for new boats to create a prototype.

He had already made the first Osprey for the IYRU two-man Performance Boat Trials, when John Westell and Max Johnson came to him with a real 'rush job': could Jack take John Westell's lines for a trimmed down Coronet to produce what would be the prototype 5o5?

This went on to become one of the great sub-plot stories of the day, as John was struggling to complete the layout for the cockpit. Heading from his home in Essex back down to the Chippendale workshop with some sketches of possible solutions he was met with a complete boat, as Jack and his team had pooled their own experiences to realise that it would have to be like they saw it... and that is how it ended up.

Cold moulding 5o5 hulls was highly labour intensive at a time when Jack's workers were already busy on N12s and Merlins, so Jack was happy to gift the FiveO building to Fairey Marine, a company that he was already well connected with. Other one-offs would include what many saw as the prettiest International 14 to date, then an International Canoe before another Proctor prototype for the Kestrel.

Jack's fame had now spread, not that he saw this as such, for he was far from holding an over-inflated ego, he just made beautiful boats. But this one factor would bring him in touch with Peter Milne, who was creating his own prototype for a cheeky 16ft scow that would become the Fireball.

Jack took one look and saw straight away that an easy change, turning the cockpit into a simple rectangular box, would made the boat far simpler to build, not only for the professionals but for the home boat builder. It was this ability to be able to create a modern, lightweight performance dinghy, at home, which would launch the stellar growth of the Fireball, with Chippendale Boats being at the heart of the operation.

They started producing GRP hulls that were then finished off with the now standard stunning sapele ply decks with this creating another strong success story. Bigger boats would also follow, Folkboats and Quarter Ton one-offs, but at the same time the whole world of dinghy sailing was changing as the 'golden era' started to run out of steam.

The writing was on the wall when, following a chance encounter with Australian designer Bob Miller (Ben Lexen) at Waterloo Station, Jack got involved with building the new International Contender, only for this to bring Jack into a head on conflict with the IYRU. The bottom line was that the official plans, as sold under licence, were simply wrong as they wouldn't have resulted in the stunning hull lines that we know today.

Jack brought Naval Architect Peter Milne into the dispute, and together the pair would loft and craft lines until they were correct, at which point the IYRU paid the pair a sum of money that also required their silence!

Jack would also find that the growing politics in the sport would leave him in difficult straights when he got caught up in the internal wranglings within the Fireball Class over the Bullet, the 'Baby 'Ball' that had been developed as a youth trainer and entry boat into the adult class. The Bullet had been carefully conceived and would get one of the top awards for the neatness of the design, only for the project to suddenly become 'unloved'.

Worse though was to follow, as boatbuilding suddenly became a very tricky place to be. Rampant inflation and soaring material costs were making it near impossible to build quality boats to an affordable price, moreover owners were getting 'burnt' far too often by the arrival of yet another new design.

Working again with Ian Proctor, Chippendales created the Typhoon, a boat that could be best described as a 'semi-SMOD': The hull would be a fixed one design, available from just one or two builders, but the rig, foils and fittings would be open. As a concept this could have worked and put Chippendales back onto a sounder financial footing, instead the tooling outlay would be the final straw for a struggling business.

Jack was offered the chance to follow so many other businesses of the day by going bust, then reopening the following day as a nearly identical enterprise but with a different name. Jack though was old school, he didn't want to leave anyone out of pocket, and once Chippendale Boats had folded, that was that.

Although now retired, Jack still felt that he had plenty to give and worked as a teacher with the task of helping the next generation of boatbuilders gain the skills they needed, as Jack rightly saw that those able to work well with wood would have plenty of opportunities going forward, despite the adoption of new materials.

This aspect of his life is no more than those who knew him would have expected, as his own mastery of the woodworker's tools had been hard won, yet he was always willing to share his expertise with others. Kindly, jovial, avuncular are all personality traits that sat well with his undoubted talents, yet he was no man's fool and not someone to be trifled with as some of the biggest names in the business would find out.

And so today we celebrate the centenary of his birth, a day on which a man with the humblest of beginnings would rise to the very top of his profession, even though that is an aspect of our heritage that is all to often overlooked as others, with larger egos and self-importance set about grabbing the headlines. But for now, Happy 100th birthday Jack Chippendale; those who know the story of UK dinghy sailing will be saluting you tonight!

For anyone interested in the life, times, stories and boats of Jack Chippendale, there will be a day of celebration on Saturday 11th May 2024 at Fareham Sailing & Motor Boat Club, which is located on the quay adjacent to the building that had housed the Chippendale boatyard.

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