All the Fs in sailing – Fantastic full on fast, fun, and FLAT

by David Henshall 30 Jul 21:00 AEST

Fantastic full on fast, fun, and FLAT © David Henshall

As wider society slowly emerges back into the light of what is fast becoming the ‘new normality’ following the Covid lockdown, questions abound surrounding the long term fate of the UK dinghy sailing scene. Even though sailors are slowly starting to get back afloat again and some are even racing, the full range of organised events still looks some way off with some fearing that dinghy sailing could well be stuck in a half-tide land of limbo for some time into the future.

Yet for dinghy sailing, the truism that every cloud has a silver lining seems very is starting to look increasingly true, as one of the main beneficiaries of the lockdown could well be the grassroots activity of sailing at your home club. With the usual routines of regular racing proving difficult to organise, sailors are re-discovering the depth of pleasure that can be enjoyed when just having fun out on the water.

Having fun is a bit like beauty, in that it is in the eye of the beholder, but there are few sailors afloat in these strange times who haven’t come back ashore, grinning from ear to ear after enjoying the simplest yet most satisfying of pleasures by just blasting along on a reach!

It may seem incredible to many of the older sailors, but a whole generation have now grown up with the mantra being drummed into them since they were first old enough to don a life jacket, that the reach is a boring point of sailing, and that a windward-leeward course is the only true measure of a sailors prowess on a race course. We are told that the true downwind leg is so much more tactical and that as racing to win is the only valid reason for being afloat, why would you even want to sail a reach anyway?

Just how ingrained this way of thinking has become was made apparent a few years back, at what was then a popular, multi-class event on the south coast. The conditions were perfect with sunshine and breeze, but when I went along to spectate, the very correct RO had set a windward-leeward course. I was amazed, for the three classes that were competing – Merlin Rockets, N12s and the Firefly – were all boats that love nothing more than a ‘screaming’ reach.

As I knew the Race Team, I did enquire as to the rationale for setting this course, only to again be given the line that sailing windward-leeward is so much better, though better than what was not explained to me. However, there is a moral to this story, in the fact that no matter how correctly it was run, this particular event was failing to attract the attract the numbers that were needed to make it viable. It was on its last legs before the lockdown and now sadly there are signs that it may never re-appear.

This is just one example, but there are plenty of others that highlight in terms of cause and effect that there seems to be a clear relationship between taking away the fun and the decline in participation. In a race, only one helm/crew can win, but everyone can come back wild eyed and excited after sailing those high speed reaches that are the very stuff of talk in the bar afterwards.

This limiting mindset has been assisted in its takeover of the sport by boats that have been developed purely for sailing on windward-leeward courses and like so many one-trick ponies, then find that they aren’t much good doing anything else. Some boats simply don’t reach at all, whilst there are others that are much better on the reach; but if there is one genre of boat that has ‘reaching master-blaster’ written into its DNA, then it has to be the scow.

The counter view, that those flatter hull sections that push the surface wetted area through the roof, plus a blunt bow that butts into each and every wave when beating upwind, are all added to aesthetics that probably only appeal to those who can see some beauty in a box, suggests that the scow is something of a concept of yesteryear.

These views are not wrong as such, as today performance sailing belongs to the skiff hull shape, inspired by the thinking of the Bethwaite family and others, with the result that there have been few new designs for a scow for several decades now. But, with the clock being turned back to allow dinghy sailing to experience something of a ‘hard reset’ could this be the opportunity for the scow hull to make something of a comeback?

The tender, over canvased skiffs will always have their place for those who only want to return to racing, but for the sheer pleasure of thrashing back and forth (a bit like most windsurfers, who we are told do it standing up) there is growing evidence that the next ‘niche’ could be for a modern, lightweight scow?

Unlike the skiffs, the scow hull form hails back to the very earliest days of small boat sailing, when the need for easy construction helped the development of a shallow, basically box-shaped flat-bottomed boat with sloping ends. Their shallow draft and stability on the mud when the tide went out saw this sort of hull popular on both sides of the North Sea, but it would be the Dutch who would use the term schouw (which in turn dates back to the old German schalde)… and if you go right back in history, to the Saxon expression skalden which describes a boat that is easily launched into the water.

In the UK, the word would be shortened to scow, but at the same time the use of the word became very loose, as it was now used to describe boats ranging from a dumb lighter to a small sailing dinghy (hence the Lymington Scow, which isn’t one really, but is part of that Solent Scow, West Wight Scow etc “scows that aren’t” family).

This Dutch connection is important, as they were the colonial power holding the US East Coast at the time, so not just their ideas but their names would become established there. Meanwhile the scow was evolving into a sub-genre of the small sailing boat, gaining spars and a sail, with leeboards, which were great in shallow waters but lacked a good all-round capability.

Back in the early days of the 20th century there would be a lot less in the way of cross fertilization of ideas and even within the more limited domestic scene, new ideas could be very localised. Almost from the outset, dinghies developed in the UK would evolve along lines that tended towards a high degree of sophistication, and by the middle to late 1920s, the Boat Racing Association singlehander had morphed into the International 12. Even more importantly, the International 14 was already gearing up for greatness and just a year after the first Prince of Wales Trophy event, the 14s were being formally recognised with full International status.

Yet, in the same time frame, the dinghies that would become the Moth were hatching out in both in the USA and Australia. The Australian boat was a very simple box construction, but the US version would show traces of that Dutch DNA with a more curved, low freeboard hull. Early on in the 1930s it would be one of the US Moths, believed to be a ‘Boy Scout’ design, that would cross the Atlantic as deck cargo to arrive in the UK where fortuitously it was the ‘right thing at the right time’, as organised dinghy racing in London was outgrowing the lake in Regent’s Park, prompting a move northwards to the Brent Reservoir (Welsh Harp).

The Moth was seen as a candidate for adoption, though referring to the test sails as ‘Trials’ might be a tad grandiose, nevertheless up on the Brent Reservoir the scow was put through its paces. Very quickly these highlighted both the good and the bad aspects of the scow hull form, and it was hardly a surprise that they were found to be slow upwind, but quick when sailing downwind and reaching. Other factors that were taken into account included the ease of sailing the boat, as the hull form offered good stability… up to a point at which it went very wrong and from then on there was little chance of saving the swim.

One key finding that would impact on the story of the scow was that those who sailed them thought that they could be driven harder and for longer than a conventional hull form. A friend of the group was Sydney Cheverton and as he had some design experience, he was given the task of drawing up a set of lines that would incorporate the best of both the conventional and scow hull forms. In 1932, the first Brent One Design, which would then become the British Moth, was launched and soon a number of orders for the boat saw this endearing – an enduring – class becoming established at a number of inland locations.

Cheverton’s lines for his boat were not the first time that an attempt had been made to ‘improve’ on the basic flat-bottomed hull shape, for further down the northern bank of the Thames Estuary towards Southend, the 20ft long Westcliffe One Designs already had a not dissimilar advanced scow hull form. Big, bigger and very big scows were already sailing out in the US, where they had become known as the ‘sandbaggers’ due to the requirement for weighty bags of sand to be carried on board that were used to help ballast the beamy hulls. The task of moving them from side to side may have limited the tactics on the beat, as a tacking duel would have been well-nigh impossible!

The Westcliff One Design was a popular and speedy performer on the Thames Estuary, only to get replaced by more conventional dinghies.

This though was one American idea that would not translate into the UK domestic scene as the notion of a ‘big’ scow seemed to run contrary to our way of thinking: the small versions were okay, the bigger versions would be ignored.

As a result of this and despite the success of the Brent OD, interest in the scow hull would remain something of a local aberration that seemed to be more popular up on the East Coast of the UK, as elsewhere the Uffa Fox hull shape was now almost an industry standard, being found in National 12s as well as the dominant International 14s. Those ‘flatties’ that did exist, such as the Brigham Scows up on the Humber, were small in number and fairly specialized for their location.

Our dinghy heritage could though have worked out very differently, as after the six year break for the war years, the scow hull shape very nearly hit the publicity jackpot in 1946-7, when the Brent One Design/British Moth found that it was potentially ‘in the frame’ for use as the Olympic single-hander at Torquay in 1948, only for a two-man boat that would be sailed single-handedly to trump it on the grounds of a stricter one design ethos and better sea-keeping capabilities!

Thankfully, there were those with a more open mind towards the potential of innovative hull shapes, with one of these being none other than John Westell, an International 14 sailor and Y&Y journalist. During his years of wartime service, John had been based out in Sri Lanka where much of his off duty relaxation time was spent blasting around, having fun in a very flat bottomed Sharpie style dinghy that he had designed.

Thanks to this John was able to recognise the values found in this style of boat and once back in the UK he would use the experience to design a boat that can easily be described as the big granddaddy of the UK performance skiff genre. John had a commission for a dinghy design, with the primary criteria being the ability to provide the thrill of high speed planing.

John gave the boat plenty of waterline length for upwind speed and a hard chine hull, which was intended to be sailed heeled so that the chine would then create a V-shaped section that John said “would be the envy of any dinghy”. Off wind, he envisaged the flat hull form blasting along on a reach at very high speeds when compared with the other dinghies that were sailing in the late 1940s. Dingbat, as the boat was called, was a clear leap forward in the pursuit of outright boat speed, but at the time the concept was just too radical for the mainstream and would remain a one-off, albeit one that fully met the design criteria.

Meanwhile, the next decade in the UK would be one of wonderful innovation in terms of dinghy development, with all the best designers getting in on the act. There would be Holt with the Hornet, Proctor with his Osprey, and then Westell again with the Coronet/505 line of development, and not a scow to be seen amongst them. However, looking at the final lines of the 505, it is possible to see that once again Westell was ahead of the game, as although the commercial drivers behind his design called for a hull with lots of curves, his love of a boat that would be a killer on a reach was driven in part by the experiences he had gained with flatter hull forms.

Meanwhile, elsewhere around the world, scows were enjoying the start of a renaissance as in Australia scow hulled Moths were gaining a hollow in the hull that would become the famed ‘tunnel scow’ shape, whilst in the US the lake scows came in a number of different shapes and sizes, with the biggest being very fast indeed. There would be an interesting scow related ‘spin off’ story, when US dinghy designer Dick Fisher chose a scow hull as the basis for a fun beach boat that could compete with the dominant Sunfish (a theme that will reappear in this story later).

His 1956 design for the Trident Scow (with its exaggerated tunnel in the hull) would not be a great success, but one of Fisher’s friends was the powerboat designer Ray Hunt, who suggested that the hull form would work better with an engine attached. Much trial and error later, the design finally became the iconic Boston Whaler, which – along with the UK version, the Dell Quay Dory – would become the main small runabout (not to mention sailing club rescue boat) until the sweeping changes brought about by the RIB revolution.

Inspired in part by the performance of these scows, both big and small, the scow hull was about to enjoy some of its best moments as the 1960s really started to swing.

By now John Westell had been joined in the offices of Yachts & Yachting by Peter Milne, and just as Westell had been able to kick around his ideas with Austin Farrar for the double curved hull that would become the 505, so Peter was able to draw on Westell’s experiences with Dingbat as he drew up his own lines for a similarly sized scow. By now the double chined hull was an accepted feature of UK domestic dinghies, so Peter Milne gave his new boat a more sophisticated hull shape that would retain the flat bottom panel, yet at the same time was able to reduce the surface wetted area to an acceptable level.

Whereas the previous attempts to create a super scow had resulted in an overly boxy shape, Milne got the hull and deck form for his Fireball design almost spot on first time. It just needed one extra moment of magic that would come courtesy of boatbuilder Jack Chippendale, who saw that by making the cockpit a simple rectangular box that included the plate case, that he could make the boat an easy project for a competent home builder.

If there is one dinghy that captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s it has to be the Fireball. It wasn’t just that you could now easily build a performance dinghy at home, but that here was a boat that had all the ingredients for having a very high fun factor built in from scratch. The scow hull form gave it plenty of stability, then when you bore away onto a reach it just seemed to take off at ‘warp speed’ (another new expression that was very much of the moment!).

Even better, the Fireball did not need a huge macho male crew at the front, with this being perfect for the new breed of girl crews who wanted to be a part of the action out afloat. The boat was fun afloat and with plenty of girls in the fleet, it would soon become a byword for fun ashore. The Fireball would provide a platform for role models at both ends of the boat and in 1968, Christine Sandy crewed her brother Peter to the first of their National Championship victories.

Just how successful the Fireball would be at opening up the access to performance sailing to all was seen in 1975, when Joan Ellis, crewed by her husband Art, won the Fireball World Championships. Marie Faroux had won the Moth Worlds some years earlier, but back then there were question marks hanging over the international status of the Moth event, but there were no such issues surrounding the Fireball Worlds. This mean that Joan would go into the history books as the first female winner of a full international one-design World Championship.

The Fireball was a fantastic success story; you could built it yourself or have a stunning-looking ready-to-sail boat from Chippendales, which you could race just about anywhere, even inland, and when the breeze was up it was THE boat for blasting. One of the songs of this era was the Beach Boys singing ‘Fun Fun Fun’ – instead of the T-bird they could have been singing about the Fireball.

If there is a boat that defines how there are few limits to how much fun can be had out afloat it is the Fireball.

With the scow profile riding high, the time seemed right for the UK to move towards the US notion of ‘the bigger the scow, the better the fun’, with the launch of not one but two mega-scows onto the domestic scene. The first was a straightforward expansion of Peter Milne’s successful thinking with his ‘big-‘ball’ AKA the Hurricane, and although impressive, it didn’t progress much past the prototype stage.

More successful – but still of limited appeal – was the 24ft long Yachting World Scow, with its crew of three, the two fore hands trapezing and the helm steering from out on a sliding seat. The wetted surface area on the huge, flat hull must have been horrendous, but the technique was to let the boat heel onto the leeward bilge, then to sail it more like a cat.

The problem was, the rapidly developing multihull scene could do all this already and better. Though the YW Scow was a spectacular sight when afloat, the inescapable logic was that you could either go quicker in a cat, or you could have just as much fun in the smaller and more user-friendly Fireball.

Having missed the bullseye with his Hurricane, Peter Milne next tried to shrink the Fireball shape to create an advanced youth boat/trainer with the Bullet. This was a much better prospect and would provide Peter Milne with design awards for the clever way in which he packed so much of what made the Fireball special into the smaller boat. A super boat for the increasingly demanding youth scene, the eventual failure of the Bullet would be as a result of politics ashore, far more than any shortcomings on the boat when afloat.

In between creating the small, medium and large members of the Fireball family, Peter Milne also used his design skills to produce a scow Moth that helped feed the growing dominance of this hull form amongst top level Moth sailing. The Milne name carried enough weight for the tooling to be done to create what almost became a scow hulled ‘one design International Moth’.

With the backing of Coca-Cola, the class was launched in Japan, with the boats clearly identifiable courtesy of the striking red and white sails that identified the sponsor! Elsewhere, in the prevailing strong breezes enjoyed in Australia, the scow Moth would develop into a very potent performer, despite being nicknamed the ‘kitchen door’.

With the maximum hollow allowed in the hull forming an efficient tunnel shape, the stable scow hull was perfectly positioned to make the most of the rule developments that were sweeping through the Moth class. First the adoption of the big rigs, then the addition of the wings to extend the helms weight outboard, would together turbo charge Moth performance, and as long as there was enough breeze to lift the windward half of the hull out of the water, the scows seemed to be unbeatable.

But at the same time, this single factor was again highlighting the inherent problem of the scow hull form in that it is essentially bi-polar in terms of performance, with a very weak showing in the lighter airs contrasting with the stellar showing once there was breeze.

They were already Ugly, with the scow hull form you got the Good and Bad as well. Even with a tunnel hull, light airs were a trial of patience as you dream of when the wind would finally return.

Although other classes and designers would be having similar thoughts, the problem would be solved in the Moths with something of a convergence in the philosophy of hull design. Why wait for sufficient breeze to lift half the hull out of the water, when you could start out with a boat that was only half a hull in the first place, but one that was still essentially flat in the bottom sections.

Mervyn Cook would get there first with his Magnum designs, which emphasized the U shape to create a narrow, flat hull that was fast but tricky to sail. Then came the World Championships, where the Magnums came up against the skiffs, with the expectation that the ‘kitchen doors’ would romp away for yet another win, only for them to find that the narrow skiffs were still there keeping pace with them. The scows never got far enough ahead in the breeze to make up for how far they were behind in the lighter stuff, and with a narrow skiff hull victorious, the writing was on the wall for the scows.

In between all of these high profile efforts to perfect the scow hull, there had been a number of other designs from around the world that enjoyed mixed levels of success. The best of these was the Flipper, which hailed originally from Denmark and, like the Bullet, was very much a youth trainer.

For a time it seemed as if the Flipper would go on to knock the 420 out of popular contention when the scow was chosen by the IYRU as the two-person dinghy for the 1971 Junior Worlds (a fore-runner of the Youth Worlds of today). There was an interesting competition as the South African Tempo Scow tried to go head to head with the Fireball. The two boats were similar in size and the Tempo could certainly be quick, but its low freeboard gave sailors a very wet ride and would soon be consigned to the SA domestic scene (and even here it faced strong competition from the Fireball).

Away from the Moths, the best advert at the time was for a single handed scow, the ToY, which in the late 1960s through into the 1970s and enjoyed strong support along both sides of the North Sea. With its simple hull form and rig, the ToY offered a promise of inexpensive fast fun, which it could deliver on a day when there was reasonably flat water and plenty of reaches in the course.

Eventually the ToY would fall foul of the arrival in the UK of the more glamorous Contender, but not before the far sighted Y&Y journalist Jack Knights took the IYRU to task for the way they were persisting in limiting access to the sport to the majority of younger people. “Having a Rolls Royce solution,” Jack said (meaning the Contender), “was all very well, but what was needed was a light, simple, cheap and accessible blasting machine so that the young people could have fun.”

In numeric terms, the big scow success stories to sit alongside that of the Fireball would eventually come from the drawing board of Ian Proctor. Moving forward into the 1960s and with international travel becoming an accepted part of the sailing scene, it was now much easier to pick up on influences from abroad and it was whilst Ian was working in the US that he was impressed by two boats at opposite ends of the size scale. As a designer with a love of both speed and style, the US lake scows had really caught his eye, as had the almost ubiquitous Sunfish beach boat. On his return to the UK, Ian brought these two ideas together in a simple scow hulled fun focused beach boat that he called the Minisail.

There were so many great ideas in this one small package, with a two-part mast that that you slotted into a hole in the deck and a sail that could just be rolled up. The Minisail would go through a number of design developments that would take in GRP construction and a sliding seat, but all of the Minisails retained the two key features of a scow hull and a boat targeted at having fun. For a couple of years in the days before the launch of the Laser, the Minisail was Europe’s fastest growing singlehander, only for the class to get all but swept away by the Kirby-designed phenomena.

However, Ian Proctor never lost sight of the values that can be had with a scow hull and would go back to the flat hull form for a more advanced form of the Minisail. By now John Westell had moved on from Y&Y, and instead it would be Peter Milne was working alongside of Ian Proctor, with the result that the bow sections of Ian’s latest boat would end up looking very familiar!

It would take a couple of design iterations before the new single-hander, which was originally made in GRP, would be released to the market, where it sold in reasonable numbers on around the Mediterranean and middle East, but it would be once the hull was moulded in polypropylene that the Topper would become the boat that is so loved worldwide today.

Yet despite the runaway successes of the Fireball and then the Topper, the sailing world would already be moving on as the skiff revolution reached the parts that other genres were missing.

In theory, this should be the end of the story. Apart from the US lake scene, where the lake scows continue to develop into a range of amazing performers such as the innovative I-20, which utilises a tunnel hull shape, the scow hull form looked to have had its day in the sun.

From now on, all the new dinghy designs that at least reached the prototype stage would show at least some influences of skiff DNA. This was the situation until just a few months ago, when the sudden lockdown and the very real fears that this could be a situation that could be with us in the longer term started to reset some of the thinking at the most fundamental levels of our sport.

Of course the super-skiffs that now dominate so much of the upper echelons of the sport will continue to rule, but if the wider majority are starting to think about a return to a more grassroots orientated pastime at the home club, where the emphasis is on fun, then maybe it is time to turn the clock back in terms of the boat we sail.

Proof that there is a lot more to come from the scow hull can be seen in the thinking of innovative designers such as Hugh Welbourn. In his younger days Hugh had worked with master boatbuilder Jack Chippendale, with one of the projects being Peter Milne’s ‘big-ball’ Hurricane. When Hugh started the work on his design for the seriously eye-catching Quant 23, he settled on the scow hull form, but as he said, “Scows are interesting boats: They look simple and can be, but they can develop some pretty interesting geometries along the line.”

He went on to stress that, “the key element is understanding what happens when you heel the hull for light weather and going to windward. If you can get the running surfaces sorted out, then you can effectively get some incidence on the foils. You can feel this very strongly on the Quant23, which has a designed light airs heel of 10-12 degrees. You really feel the effect come in when heeled and then she’s a real witch upwind, lovely to sail.”

As we read earlier, some 50 years ago Jack Knights – who knew a thing or two about what made sailing so good – was championing the cause of an inexpensive, accessible rocket ship. If he were still with us today, he would be railing against the cost of getting afloat, which for a long time has been outstripping inflation, so keeping it simple is an essential, so this would not be a singlehander with sails, but a sail – singular.

There is no point in making a boat for blasting and then building it in such a way that it weighs in heavier than the famously weighty Finn, but neither does construction have to be so high-tech as to carry a five-figure price tag. Accessible should mean just that, with the inherent stability of the scow hull being a great foundation block to start from, so when you put all these factors together, you end up with a boat that looks like the love child of a union between a Fireball and an RS600.

With light construction it would be easy for one person to move around on shore (a tick in the box there for social distancing), fast out afloat yet manageable, accessible and with a nod to the important commercial aspects of today, targeted at a yawning gap in the market.

You can almost sense the marketeers who drive the sport today cringing in the seats and groaning, “but it’s the wrong shape!” but that just shows the limitations of their own experience. “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it” used to be a good rule to follow and as dinghy sailing seeks to reinvent itself post-Covid, maybe it is time for us to think again.

F might stand for Flat (as in bottomed) but is also stand for Fast but more than anything, F stands for FUN. Blasting about might not appeal to the purists but maybe now is the time for us to go back to that best of basic essentials….of having fast fun (even in a flattie).

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