Certain sailing folk find today’s efficient, practical craft way too clinical for their tastes. There’s little poetry in glass fibre, they feel; not much romance in epoxy resin. So many a weekend seafarer in search of a head-turning hull discovers historic racing dinghies: sublimely shaped timber creatures that combine speed and good looks, conceived by figures at the forefront of 20th-century yacht design, such as Jack Holt, Ian Proctor and the fantastic Mr Uffa Fox.
“You can’t pass a razor blade between the timbers, they are so well made. The workmanship is as good as in Chippendale furniture,” says Andrew Thornhill QC, who is so passionate about these boats he stepped in to save a collection in Exeter for the nation. He is now chair of the Eyemouth International Sailing Craft Association, whose flotilla of vintage and classic boats includes 30 International 14s (14ft-long, two-person racing dinghies, considered among the most innovative designs). “The class officially dates from 1923 but some of ours go back to 1910,” he says. These elegant vessels impart the same frisson of pleasure as fine cabinetry: “The boats were built on tiny rock elm timbers, about 80 each side, with an inner skin, an oilcloth, then an outer skin all nailed on – glue was rarely used. The colour of the Honduras mahogany hulls was fantastic, and the planking was beautifully cut.”
While Thornhill aims to showcase each development in the history of the International 14, other collectors focus on a specific period – and many favour the designs produced after the second world war. Dr Neil Witt, head of Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Plymouth – and a classic dinghy devotee – explains: “It was the heyday of British dinghy racing. In the postwar years there was an explosion of leisure time and disposable income, and sailing clubs sprang up anywhere there was water. Advances in aircraft technology made during the war were put to use, moulding plywood boats into shape – either hot-moulded in the oven or with glue in the workshop.”
After competing in yacht races in the 1980s, Witt became hooked on the smaller stuff when he saw some classic racing dinghies on Roadford Lake in Devon. He began his collection with an Uffa Fox-designed Flying 15 (a 20ft two-person racing keelboat) and now has a stable of seven, and “a bad case of Boat Acquisition Syndrome”. Aside from Flying 15s, Witt buys and sails Finns (single-handed Olympic-class racing dinghies) and International Canoes (high-performance single-person dinghies).
Witt has swapped and sold, and now has some real gems on his hands. One of his ICs, called Rannoch, was designed and built by Uffa Fox in 1947. “It’s one of only three of its kind built after the war,” says Witt. “The other two are in museums.” And how much would such a treasure cost? Rannoch is insured for £10,000, but Witt shrugs: “They’re worth what people are prepared to pay.” He says that certain enthusiasts will give a dinghy away to someone who promises to keep it on the water, racing. In the main, though, prices are heading north as good examples become a scarcer commodity, says Thornhill. “At the moment, £5,000 for a 14 in really good order is a fair price. Ten years ago, they were £2,000. There is a rarity value already, and one day I think they will really go up.”
So, should retro stylings and clever designs of the classics tempt you, where to start? You can focus on a class, a period or a celebrated model, or join the fanbase of a specific designer. Best-known designers include Ian Proctor, father of the Wayfarer (1957), and Jack Holt, famous for creating the popular Mirror design, with Barry Bucknall, in 1962 (Holt’s centenary next year will be marked by races and regattas). But most celebrated, by several nautical miles, is Uffa Fox. The father of the planing dinghy, Fox applied hull shapes developed on high-speed power craft to racing dinghies and created some of the groundbreaking early International 14s. When he designed for Fairey Marine of Hamble, he put to use the moulded and glued veneer techniques of Mosquito aircraft to build the Firefly in 1946; in 1950, created the Jollyboat.
If the ICs and 14s impress with their speed and style, it’s the Jollyboat that makes collectors come over all warm and fuzzy. Ed Bremner, photographer and digital media consultant, owns at any one time around 10 racing dinghies. “I was brought up on the River Thames and now live on the Cornish banks of the Tamar. I’ve always been surrounded by boats,” he explains. In the mid-1990s, on a whim, Bremner began to search for the dinghy his father taught him to sail in. His pride and joy, called Missy Effie, a 1953 J3 Jollyboat, is both pretty and quick (in 1954 a Jollyboat clocked a record 17.8 knots). He found it in Exchange and Mart, but points out that, on the website of the Classic and Vintage Racing Dinghy Association, Jollyboats for sale usually pitch between £150 and £1,500. However, Bremner counsels that the initial cost is only the beginning of the story: keeping a classic seaworthy is an expensive business and buyers should factor in maintenance costs of hundreds of pounds each year – but he adds that collectors rarely regret a purchase. “You get ownership of something so beautiful that people stop and stare and say, ‘Gosh, what is that?’”