Rupert Holmes charts the innovations and developments in yacht design that marked the post-war years through the 1950s

Although the post-war period was a time of scarcity – food rationing in the UK continued until 1954 – it was also a period of great optimism. There was more social mobility than ever before and many of the new technologies that had been developed for the war effort were now available for civilian use. This optimism meant the prospect of owning a boat was brought to a far wider audience than had ever previously been possible.

This was also a time at which the mainstream media was strongly promoting boating. The Mirror, Express and Daily Mail, for example, all sponsored boat shows or small boat designs, while the Sunday Times and Observer would later sponsor trans-ocean solo races.

In addition, new materials that had originally been developed for aircraft construction were now available for boat building. These included plywood and fibreglass, as well as techniques such as hot moulded timber. Hamble-based Fairey Marine, the company that was spun out of Fairey Aviation after the end of the war, pioneered this technique starting with the Uffa Fox-designed 12ft Firefly dinghy in the late 1940s.

Designer profile: Uffa Fox (1898-1972)

Uffa Fox sailing with the Duke of Edinburgh and a young Prince Charles

The Cowes, Isle of Wight-based designer and boatbuilder was a prolific innovator and a colourful, larger than life character. He served an apprenticeship at Saunders Roe in East Cowes in which he was involved in the development of hydroplanes. This was a key influence that led him to develop the first planing dinghy – the International 14 Avenger in 1928.

Uffa was well travelled and incorporated the ideas of others in his work, attempting to improve on their ideas. During the war he developed the Airborne Lifeboat that could be carried under the fuselage of a Lancaster bomber and dropped near pilots who had been forced to eject from their aircraft over the sea. After the war he designed a wide variety of successful boats, from popular dinghies to large yachts.

He also had a huge enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge and experience both through writing – he penned more than a dozen books that were valued for their insights into boat design, seamanship and performance – and as a popular broadcaster. He became a friend of the Duke of Edinburgh, racing with him during Cowes Week in the Flying 15 Cowslip and later in the Dragon Bluebottle, and was instrumental in teaching the then young Prince Charles and Princess Anne to sail.


Folkboat 1942

A later fibreglass Folkboat that remains true to the original concept

Although not a post-war design – it dates from 1942 – Tord Sunden’s 25ft Folkboat was arguably the first vessel intended from the outset as a people’s boat that would bring sailing to a far wider audience than ever before. Production boomed at yards across Europe after the war, with more than 4,000 built.
The original design was of clinker construction, which is quicker to build than carvel hulls, although many later boats, especially those from yards in the UK and Poland, had carvel hulls. Most of these also had larger coachroofs that provided more headroom and accommodation volume than the simple and scant interior of the original design.

Although the boat was primarily intended for racing and weekending, a powerful bermudan rig provided excellent performance by the standards of the times, even in light airs. At the same time the boat proved very capable in strong winds thanks to a beautifully balanced hull shape and mammoth 55% ballast ratio. Many notable ocean crossings have been undertaken in Folkboats, despite their diminutive size.
On the downside, by today’s standards they are relatively slow and can be very wet, especially to windward. Construction changed to fibreglass towards the end of the 1960s and the class inspired many well known derivative designs from the early 1960s through to the late 1970s.

LOA: 7.68m – 25ft 0in
LWL: 6.00m – 19ft 8in
Beam: 2.20m – 7ft 3in
Draught: 1.2m – 4ft 0in
Displacement: 1,960kg – 4,322lb
Ballast: 1,040kg – 2,293lb
Sail area: 24.00sq m – 258sq ft
Price today: £2,500-£17,500

Flying 15 – 1947

Vamoose, an early Flying 15 still in use. Pic Credit Tim Jeffreys

In an era in which planing dinghies were still unusual, this 20ft planing keelboat, designed by Uffa Fox in 1947, stood out among her contemporaries. The powerful spade rudder mounted well aft gave good control, while the low centre of gravity fin keel minimised weight and wetted surface area. More than 70 years later it remains a popular racing class with active fleets around the globe and a well attended and hotly contested world championship.

Although most keelboats of this era were heavy displacement long keel designs, the ideas Uffa incorporated into the Flying 15 had already been successfully implemented towards the end of the 19th century. Cowes based Charles Sibbeck’s 20ft half-rater Diamond of 1897 and 45ft Bona Fide of 1899, for instance, were both light displacement designs with a short chord bulb keel and separate rudder positioned well aft.

At an even earlier date the prolific American designer Nathaniel Herreshoff had produced Dilemma in a similar vein. This boat proved to be so fast that similar designs were banned by the rating rules used for racing at the time and were mostly ignored for much of the next
80 years.

This was by no means the only time the racing community has slowed the progression of yacht design – many innovations have been rejected because they threatened the establishment, rather than because they didn’t work. A boat that totally outclassed existing designs was all too often seen as a threat to the status quo, resulting in a de facto ban. Even worse, cruising sailors often want boats based on what they perceive to be the latest cutting edge thinking, so the design of raceboats is strongly reflected in the cruising yachts of the same era.

LOA 6.1m – 20ft 0in
LWL 4.6m – 15ft 0in
Beam 1.5m – 4ft 11in
Weight 307kg – 677lb
Mainsail and genoa 13.9sq m – 150sq ft
Price today £500-£15,000

Firefly – 1948

Weymouth England August 2007: Firefly sailing dinghies, National championships. Still popular today, the Firefly was the first mass-produced boat

This was the first sailing boat to be mass produced and was generally built in batches of two or three dozen boats. Hull construction was of three layers of 1⁄8in (3mm) spruce that had been stockpiled for the war effort, changing to 2.5mm agba veneer when this became unavailable. The planks were applied over a male mould with each temporarily held in place with staples.

Once planked up the boats were put in a vacuum bag and heated under pressure in an autoclave for 30 minutes. This process compressed the planks together, activated the glue and helped it impregnate into the timber. The result was a lightweight yet stiff monocoque structure that could be built in around half the time of a traditionally planked clinker dinghy. It sold for just £65, including an aluminium mast. When the boat was selected for the 1948 Olympics, in which legendary Danish sailor Paul Elvström won his first of his four gold medals, the Firefly quickly gained recognition and popularity.

Hot-moulded construction was quickly rolled out to a wider range of craft, including the 15ft Albacore, the 18ft Jollyboat dinghy and the Olympic Flying Dutchman class. It was also used for larger boats, including the 26ft and 31ft Fairey Atalantas.

LOA 3.66m – 12ft 0in
Beam 1.4m – 4ft 7in
Hull weight 74kg – 163lb
Sail area 5.6sq m – 60sq ft
Price today £250-£2,500

GP14 – 1949

GP14 sailing dinghy on Wimbleball Lake. Somerset. UK – More than 14,000 GP14s have been built and the class still has an active racing programme

Although plywood has been around since the mid 1800s, and the ubiquitous 8ft x 4ft sheets since the late 1920s, it was not until the mid 1930s that a waterproof glue that enabled the material to be used in boat building was developed. Production mushroomed during the war, with engineering grade plywoods used for aircraft production, among other things.

This material opened up many new possibilities for boatbuilding, speeding up production, which reduced labour costs and allowed for easier home building than a traditional planked hull. One of the first post-war boats designed specifically to be built of plywood was Jack Holt’s GP14 dinghy. The idea was for a cost-effective multi-purpose family boat that could be kept at home and trailed to a variety of launching sites behind a modest car. It quickly proved popular and more than 14,000 have been built.

Holt went on to design some 40 different dinghy classes, including the 11ft gunter rigged Heron in 1950. This was intended to be a boat just big enough for a family that could be carried on the roof of a small car. While many of the earliest plywood dinghies sported a very distinctive hard chine shape, Holt’s 1955 Enterprise dinghy had a double chine, more closely mimicking the shape of a round bilge hull.

Plywood dinghies from a variety of designers quickly came to form the backbone of the fleets sailed at many of the new sailing clubs around the country that sprang up in the 1950s and 1960s.

LOA 4.27m – 14ft 0in
Beam 1.54m – 5ft 0in
Hull weight 133kg – 293lb
Sail area 12.85sq m – 138sq ft
Price today £500-£4,500

Silhouette – 1953

The Silhouette satisfied the demand for self-build boats in the 1950s. This example is a fibreglass MK3 model. Photo by David Harding

There was pent-up demand for affordable cruising boats in the post war period, and the 17ft Robert Tucker designed Silhouette proved hugely successful in satisfying this demand – by the early 1960s there were already more than 1,000 afloat and some 3,000 were built before production of the Mk lV and V finished in the mid 1970s.
Tucker designed the boat for home building in plywood, with material costs estimated at just £100. Most early boats were built by their owners from scratch, although production building started in 1956, with the boats priced at £245 and the fibreglass Mklll version was introduced in 1965. Early boats had a cramped two berth cabin, plus room for two children under a boom tent in the cockpit, while later boats made better use of the limited cabin space.

LOA 5.26m – 17ft 3in
LWL 3.81m – 12ft 6in
Beam 2.00m – 6ft 7in
Draught 1ft 6in – 0.46m
Price today £750-£3,500

Fairey Atalanta 26 – 1955

Curved styling of the Fairey Atalanta is influenced by its hot moulded ply construction. Credit Alistair Rodger

Despite its unconventional styling, the 26ft Fairey Atalanta was a masterpiece of design and engineering by Uffa Fox. It was built using the same hot moulded process as the Firefly, but using twice as many veneers of timber. The unusual curved styling was partly a function of the construction method, but also served to create an inherently stiff, strong and lightweight structure.

The boat has shallow draught with twin swing keels, each weighing 215kg, plus the then luxury of an inboard engine, six berths and headroom of close to 6ft. It could be trailer sailed, yet several have crossed the Atlantic, including one in the gruelling OSTAR race, and another has completed a circumnavigation.

This was the first of a number of similar designs from 20-31ft, including the 25ft Fairey Fisherman, which was based on a lifeboat hull. Fairey Marine also produced a range of fast and sporty motor cruisers that were well regarded in their day and are now sought after classics.

LOA 7.9m – 26ft 0in
Beam 2.36m – 7ft 9in
Draught 0.4->1.75m / 1ft 6in->5ft 9in
Displacement 2,000kg – 4,410lb
Price today £2,500-£8,500

South Coast One Design (SCOD) – 1955

SCOD employed traditional carvel construction.
Photo: Rick Tomlinson

The boating world is often one that’s slow to change and by no means all popular designs of the 1950s used the new materials. Larger yachts and those from more established designers and boat builders still tended to be hand built using the same tried and tested techniques as they had been for the previous 100 years or more. However, top-quality timber such as teak, oak and pitch pine were no longer available, or were so expensive that they could only be used on the highest budget projects. Instead less durable timber such as mahogany, iroko and larch was generally used, with oak reserved mostly for structural frames.

Traditional carvel construction was employed for the South Coast One Design, a 26ft Charles A Nicholson-designed long keel cruiser/racer. Although only 12in longer than the Folkboat, this was a very different craft, both heavier and more powerful, with a deep 5ft 3in draught and more freeboard. There is therefore a lot more interior space, with full headroom, four berths, a workable galley, separate forecabin and separate heads. Although SCODs were significantly more expensive than a Folkboat, yet alone a plywood design of similar size, more than 100 were built by various yards on the south coast over a 15 year period.

LOA 7.90m – 25ft 11in
LWL 6.40m – 21ft 0in
Beam 2.30m – 7ft 10in
Draught 1.60m – 5ft 3in
Displacement 3,100kg – 6,830lb
Price today £3,500-£8,500

Eventide – 1957

Shallow draught and the ability to confidently dry out open up a huge number of possibilities for Eventide owners.

Many of the new generation of small yachts were bilge or triple keel designs that allowed for an inexpensive drying mooring and easy beaching to scrub off and antifoul. Although twin keels had
been around since the Lord Riverdale began experimenting with them in the 1920s, only a handful had been built before the 1950s.

Maurice Griffiths, long running editor of PBO’s sister title Yachting Monthly, was also a prolific yacht designer with a passion for making sailing affordable and bringing it to a wider audience.
His 24ft and 26ft plywood Eventide designs of 1957 were aimed squarely at aspiring cruising sailors.

While many were professionally built, most were constructed by resourceful and ambitious owners.

The distinctive raised topsides significantly increased the accommodation volume, there was relatively good headroom, adequate stowage and space for four berths. A fin keel option was available, but almost all Eventides are the triple keel version, with owners valuing shallow draught and the ability to dry out at low water over better windward performance.

Although nowhere near as many were built as the tens of thousands of plywood dinghies, some 2,000 sets of Eventide plans were sold and it’s believed that at least half that number of boats have been built. Before the war the building of such large numbers of sailing boats of any description, yet alone a four-berth yacht, would have been unimaginable.

LOA 7.30m – 24ft 0in
LWL 6.10m – 20ft 0in
Beam 2.45m – 8ft 0in
Draught 0.85m – 2ft 9in
Displacement 1,814kg – 4,000lb
Price today £1,500-£4,500

Early catamarans: 1953-56

The Shearwater catamaran was unlike any other boat when first launched in 1956. The class still has an active following – this was the 2013 national championship

There was nothing new about the concept of catamarans in the 1950s – Polynesians started voyaging in them thousands of years earlier. Somewhat more recently, Herreshoff had experimented successfully with catamaran designs as early as the 1870s, while a commodore of the New York Yacht Club in the same era imported a traditional catamaran from Polynesia.

However it was not until the 1950s that the modern multihull revolution finally got under way. Much of the early pioneering was by British designers, including James Wharram, who craved simple and care-free long distance cruising. Olympic canoeists Francis and Roland Prout, on the other hand, were initially focussed on the speed potential multihulls offered.

Inspired by French sailor Eric De Bisschop’s pioneering voyage from Hawaii to Marseille on his 38ft double canoe/catamaran Kaimiloa in 1937/8, Wharram was keen to further prove the seaworthiness of the concept. In 1953 he designed and built a plywood 23ft 6in ‘double canoe’ which he sailed across the Atlantic to Trinidad two years later. For the return journey he built a 40ft version on the beach in Trinidad, reputedly with help from Bernard Moitessier, before sailing first to New York and then to Ireland in 1959.

This was the start of a prolific career that has seen him design dozens of distinctive V-hull double-ended catamarans, from 13ft to more than 60ft. He has sold more than 10,000 sets of plans, with the bulk of boats completed built by enthusiastic amateurs, and still sails his creations at the age of 90.

Meanwhile, having successfully trialled a pair of canoes joined together with cross beams, with a small rig added, the Prout brothers started designing purpose built small racing catamarans. Their first two won almost all the races they entered, drawing plenty of admiration. The third, the 16ft 6in Shearwater lll in 1956, was equally successful and developed into a large racing class with more than 1,500 boats built.