The 1960s saw a huge increase in sailing participation, fuelled in part by the DIY boatbuilding boom. Rupert Holmes reports
The 1960s was a decade of huge change in which many earlier developments, including the advent of fibreglass construction and shorter keels, with a separate rudder further aft, finally became mainstream.
At the start of the decade traditional wooden boatbuilding still dominated at most yards, but by 1970 virtually all new designs were of fibreglass and even plywood was generally reserved for home-built boats.
There was also a huge DIY boom – on which this magazine’s early rise to prominence was built – that helped fuel enthusiasm for economical home boat construction.
Furthermore, this was an era of social mobility – far more so than in today’s world – which opened up the possibility of boat ownership to a far larger demographic.
It’s no surprise that the popularity of boating ballooned as never before.
This was helped by a proliferation of new sailing clubs throughout the country – as many on inland lakes, reservoirs and gravel pits as on the coast – that helped to keep boating affordable and provided a ready-made social scene.
At the start of the decade most yachts were still built individually to order, but it ended with factories churning out hundreds of boats – in one notable case close to 10,000 boats – a year.
It’s easy to forget the extent to which the 1960s was a major period of discovery.
The first-ever satellite, Sputnik 1, had been launched in 1957 and by the end of the decade people had walked on the moon.
At the same time we were also exploring the boundaries of human endurance. In 1962 Michel Siffre, for instance, started spending time underground, in a project that eventually culminated in six months in a cave in Texas.
Racing a yacht solo across an ocean is also a great way to test the limits of endurance.
The first ever such race was the 1960 OSTAR and the decade culminated with the first ever non stop solo circumnavigation.
By then new orders for wooden yachts had all but dried up and designers were turning their attention to improving glassfibre boats.
Westerly 22 – 1963
Westerly Marine Construction started life in 1963, building a 22ft fibreglass gunter rigged sailing cruiser, and grew rapidly to become Britain’s biggest boatbuilder by a large margin.
By the time the company closed its doors almost 40 years later, the range stretched up to almost 50ft and more than 70 models had been built under the Westerly name.
Westerly was founded by Denys Rayner, a former naval officer who’d been a keen amateur yacht designer before World War II.
In the late 1950s he designed the Westcoaster, a compact shallow draught plywood 20-footer with an easily handled rig and surprisingly roomy accommodation by the standards of its time.
Rayner quickly realised the potential for growth as well as the opportunities offered by fibreglass construction.
The Westerly 22 is a distinctive boat that offered good internal space in an open-plan layout, plus twin keels with shallow draught, and an easily handled gunter rig.
Over the next four years almost 800 boats based on the same hull were built.
These include the Nomad, which had a larger coachroof, more interior space, including a separate heads, and an inboard engine. There were also two stretched versions – the Westerly 25 and the Windrush.
- LOA: 6.78m (22ft 3in)
- LWL: 5.59m (18ft 4in)
- Beam: 2.26m (7ft 5in)
- Draught: 0.69m (2ft 3in)
- Displacement: 1,371kg (3,024lb)
- Ballast: (approx) 454kg (1,000lb)
- Sail area: 21.1sq m (227sq ft)
- Price today: £1,000-£3,500
Nicholson 32 – 1963
Despite the advances in materials, most new designs in the early 1960s still had traditional hull shapes, with a long keel.
Fibreglass construction therefore tended to mirror the shapes of wooden hulls, even though many different shapes were possible.
The Nicholson 36 of 1960, for instance, was a very traditional long keel design with a wooden deck, coachroof and coamings.
Few people who see one today are likely to guess that the hull is made of fibreglass.
Two years later the Nicholson 32, of which almost 370 boats were built by the time production stopped in 1981, was of all-fibreglass construction.
It was heralded as one of the best long-distance cruising yachts of its time and still fulfils that role for budget constrained owners.
Aleko Steffan, for instance, who has featured in PBO, recently sailed his 1964 example Beduin (pictured above) from Greece to the Pacific, sailing out via the Magellan Straits and returning via the Beagle Channel and Falkland Islands.
The design benefitted from many improvements through the years, most notably with the launch of the Mark X in 1972. This added 3in of freeboard, 1ft of overall length, a new deck and coachroof, plus a higher standard of fit out. This resulted in a larger and more comfortable cockpit and a noticeable increase in accommodation space.
While the hull shape still appealed to traditionalists, these changes hugely modernised the boat and are undoubtedly key reasons for its almost 20 year production life.
- LOA: 9.7m (32ft 0in)
- LWL: 7.31m (24ft 0in)
- Beam: 2.80m (9ft 3in)
- Draught: 1.60m (5ft 6in)
- Displacement: 5,500kg (12,200lb)
- Ballast: 3,000kg (6,615lb)
- Sail area: 55m2 (594ft2)
- Price today: £10,000-£25,000
Mirror Dinghy – 1963
This Jack Holt-designed 10ft 10in dinghy – barely longer than the original Mini car that was launched four years earlier – employed an innovative method of plywood construction: stitch and glue.
Pre-cut plywood panels were held together with wire, then glued with fibreglass tape applied over the top. This massively speeded up construction, while reducing the skill needed to build the boat.
The involvement of Barry Bucknell, whose programmes about DIY projects had built a huge TV audience, also helped boost the design’s popularity, as did support from the Daily Mirror newspaper. It was a far cry from today’s Britain, in which any leisure boat is liable to be described as a ‘luxury yacht’.
It was not long before Mirror dinghies were being built in garages, sheds and even living rooms around the country.
Fleets quickly built at virtually every sailing club in Britain and at peak production an astounding 10,000 Mirrors a year were sold.
The Mirror was initially pitched as a family boat that could be sailed, rowed or motored with a small outboard.
However, it quickly found a niche it still fits 55 years later – it’s a perfect boat in which children as young as 10 can safely leave the adults on shore and enjoy sailing without interference from the grown-ups.
Other designs were spawned from the Mirror and built using the same techniques, including the 14ft Miracle, the Mirror 16 and the 20ft Mirador trailer sailer.
Although a fibreglass version of the Mirror was eventually produced, original manufacturer Bell Woodworking did not seem able to move beyond building boats of timber.
In the 1980s the reception of its Leicester factory famously had a sign saying: ‘If God had meant us to build fibreglass boats he would have made fibreglass trees.’
- LOA: 3.32m (10ft 10in)
- Beam: 1.40m (4ft 7in)
- Displacement: 46kg (101lb)
- Sail area: 6.50m2 (69.9ft2)
- Spinnaker: 4.40m2 (47.3sq ft)
- Price today: £300-£2,000
Pen Duick II – 1964
The first Observer Single Handed Trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR) may have had only five entries, but it enjoyed huge coverage thanks to sponsorship from a national newspaper.
The race has since inspired many generations of sailors and led to the development of much of the equipment we now take for granted, including roller-furling headsail systems, windvane steering and sophisticated autopilots.
The second edition four years later saw a much expanded entry.
One of them, French naval officer Eric Tabarly, turned up with a boat specifically designed for the race by Gilles Costantini. This successfully challenged many false assumptions about yacht design that had persisted for decades.
Both recognised that a lighter boat for a given length could have a smaller and therefore more easily handled sail plan.
Built of plywood, Pen Duick II was the longest boat in the race at 13.6m (44ft 7in) but at just 6.5 tonnes – a moderately light displacement for a boat of that length even by today’s standards – it was by no means the heaviest.
After the race Tabarly described it as ‘a fantastic boat in bad weather, both against the wind and with the wind.’
He stormed to victory, beating Sir Francis Chichester across the line by more than two days. Tabarly returned home to a hero’s welcome and was awarded his country’s highest honour, the Legion d’honneur.
He had beaten the British Establishment at its own game and France’s love affair with solo offshore racing had begun.
At the end of the decade Pen Duick V exhibited many of the features that can still be seen in todays trans-ocean race boats: it’s a light displacement boat with wide beam that’s carried well aft, plus a deep draught and high aspect fin keel with a big bulb on the bottom.
- Hull length: 13.60m (44ft 6in)
- LWL: 10.00m (32ft 8in)
- Beam: 3.40m (11ft 1in)
- Draught: 2.20m (7ft 2in)
- Displacement: 6,500kg (14,333lb)
- Sail area: 60m2 (646ft2)
- Price today: N/A (one-off design)
Designer Profile – Dick Carter and Rabbit – 1965
Dick Carter was a key figure responsible for moving the mainstream of yacht design into an entirely new era in the middle of the decade.
Having won the 1962 Block Island Race in New York’s Long Island Sound, in his Bill Tripp designed 33ft Medalist, he was asked to sail an identical French boat in the 1963 Fastnet Race.
The owner had to drop out before the race, leaving Carter as skipper and he was again victorious. However, he noted the boat was very hard to steer downwind in a big wind on the way back to Plymouth from the Fastnet rock, especially in quartering sea.
‘I didn’t think twice about it,’ he says. ‘It was obvious to me at the time that what was needed was a rudder well aft that was separate from the keel.’
This initially led to a commission to design a boat for the 1965 race and when the prospective owner backed out Carter continued with the build and raced the boat himself.
While others had already designed fin keel boats with a skeg-hung or spade rudder, none had directed their efforts specifically at the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s rating rule.
Carter designed Rabbit to have the highest rating allowed in the then nascent One Ton Class and the 34ft boat won the 1965 Fastnet Race.
That victory marked the end of new long keel racing yacht designs.
Given that cruising yacht design has always following that of racing boats, it was not long before new cruisers were also sporting shorter keels and separate rudders.
Rabbit also had a unique reverse transom: ‘It just seemed logical to me as a way to end the boat and make a statement,’ says Carter. This statement was also widely copied by many of the new breed of boats that were inspired by Rabbit.
Although Medalist was a long keel boat, she had been ahead of her time in many other respects, including wide beam, high freeboard and hull windows.
Carter therefore wasn’t afraid to include cruising comforts in his own designs, which he aimed to make bright and spacious inside – a rarity in those days, particularly among performance boats.
Despite being self-taught and falling into yacht design by accident, Carter became one of the most prolific and successful designers of the 1960s and 70s, drawing further Fastnet Race winners, plus the Carter 33 cruising yacht that was built in Greece and Poland, and Vendredei Treize, the giant 128ft three masted schooner Jean-Yves Terlain raced solo across the Atlantic in the 1972 OSTAR.
Now aged 90, he has just written an excellent book: Dick Carter, Yacht Designer in the Golden Age of Offshore Racing Design. Rabbit has also had an as-new restoration and is now sailing in Italy.
Albin Vega – 1965
Scandinavian countries may have relatively small populations, but boating is enormously popular.
Swedish designer Per Brohäll took his time to ensure every aspect of the Albin Vega was as good as he could make it – he even lived on board the prototype. The boat proved instantly popular and sold in numbers that dwarfed those of the Westerly Centaur – when production finished in 1980 some 3,500 Albin Vegas were on the water.
In many respects the Albin Vega is like an enlarged Folkboat, but with more beam, better accommodation, including 5ft 9in headroom, and a slightly drawn-out counter instead of the earlier design’s raked transom.
An inboard engine was fitted as standard, although the propeller is aft of the rudder, which can make for interesting manoeuvring in tight spaces.
Despite their small size Albin Vegas have sailed to most corners of the globe.
Notable voyages include Matt Rutherford’s 314-day, 27,000 mile circumnavigation of the Americas, via the North West Passage and Cape Horn in 2011-12 , plus Jarle Andhøy’s voyage from Larvik, Norway to Antarctica in 1996-7, when he was just 19 years old.
- LOA: 8.25m (27ft 1in)
- LWL: 7.00m (23ft 0in)
- Beam: 2.46m (8ft 1in)
- Upwind sail area: 31.2m2 (341ft2)
- Draught: 1.17m (3ft 10in)
- Displacement: 2,300kg (5,100lb)
- Price today: £4,000-£8,000
Dufour Arpege – 1966
This French 30-footer, designed by Michel Dufour, was well ahead of its time.
In addition to its separate skeg hung rudder it has a low centre of gravity bulb keel, wide beam and innovative foam sandwich deck construction.
When it was launched sailing in France was on an ascendency and the boat was an immediate success – around 1,500 were built in a production run of almost 10 years.
The design excelled on the race course, where the stability that arises from both the hull shape and the bulb keel provided considerably more sail carrying ability than narrow designs that heel more readily.
The Arpege has also proved to be a capable cruiser, whether for local sailing or voyaging across oceans.
The wide beam also helped make the boat a civilised cruiser for its era as it provides exceptional volume for accommodation and stowage.
The layout below decks is unusual, but works well. At the foot of the companionway are the galley, chart table and two quarter berths. The main saloon is forward of this, ahead of a bulkhead and is well lit, thanks in part to a large overhead opening hatch. The two full-length settees make excellent sea berths; outboard of these there were originally also two pilot berths, which are small by today’s standards but are excellent for stowage. The forepeak houses the heads area and yet more stowage.
- LOA: 9.24m (30ft 4in)
- LWL: 6.71m (22ft 0in)
- Beam: 3.02m (9ft 11in)
- Draught: 1.35m (4ft 5in)
- Displacement: 3,323kg (7,325lb)
- Ballast: 1,383kg (3,050lb)
- Sail area: 35.52sq m (382.30sq ft)
- Price today: £5,000-£12,500
Early fibreglass – how long would it last?
Concerns about the longevity of plastic boats seem absurd now, when end of life disposal is a bigger worry.
However, many boat owners are conservative by nature – or have out-dated knowledge – and in an era in which they were only too well aware that wooden boats had the potential to quickly decay, it’s perhaps not surprising that there were many concerns as to the longevity of fibreglass hulls and the extent to which they could be repaired.
The later discovery of osmotic blistering fuelled these worries, which were compounded by an industry that quickly sprouted to fix the problem – but often at an eye-watering price.
It’s certainly true that many of the early fibreglass hulls were poorly built. They may have had the benefit of many layers of chopped strand mat and lots of resin, but that’s just as well as the material was poorly understood and quality control was often lacking.
Common problems, even among the top quality builders, included voids in the laminate, areas with too little resin (and therefore little strength), and areas with excess resin creating a brittle structure.
It has often been said that no boat has ever sunk as a result of osmosis.
Strictly speaking that’s true of the Nicholson 32 Beduin, but I know of no boat that has got closer. She has twice been treated for osmosis and the second time the layup was so badly compromised in one area that water was seeping underneath the old repair, through the decomposed remnants of the original laminate and into the bilge.
Fortunately fibreglass boats of this era are invariably made of extremely thick chopped strand mat. The outer layers of Beduin’s hull could therefore be ground away over the entire underwater area. Any areas with even more extensive damage were then ground even back further, before being locally repaired.
The entire underwater section – and a chunk of the topsides – was then re-laminated with several layers of woven rovings and epoxy. It’s a repair that to date has lasted almost a decade and some 25,000 miles of sailing, including high latitude work in the South Atlantic and Pacific.
Fortunately, most boat owners don’t need to fear osmosis. As poor build quality is a key risk factor, most boats that succumbed to osmosis did so within 10 years of launch and locally treating blisters is usually the only treatment necessary.
Most boats built from the 1990s onwards were laminated to much higher standards and from the end of that decade generally used isopthalic resins that are resistant to osmosis. In addition, much use is now made of woven rovings that, unlike chopped strand mat, don’t have enormous numbers of exposed fibre ends that wick moisture into the laminate.
Westerly Centaur – 1969
When the time came to update the original Westerly range, following the untimely death of founder Denys Rayner in 1967, the company turned to Laurent Giles.
This turned out to be a stunningly successful partnership that heralded a further stage of rapid expansion for Westerly.
During a production run of more than a decade, 2,620 boats using this hull were sold, including 97 fin keel Pembrokes and 79 aft cabin Chieftans.
The Centaur broke new ground in the UK with its generous beam – a feature Laurent Giles took from American boats of the era. At 2.6m (8ft 5in) this was a 15% increase on that of the earlier Westerly 25. While the tall coachroof looked ugly, the big windows make for a wonderfully bright interior.
These features combined with higher freeboard and longer waterline to create much more interior space – all three Centaur layout options offer standing headroom, a separate forecabin, separate heads compartment and a decent galley.
The topsides flare in the bow – called a knuckle at the time, but these days it could almost be referred to as a chine – increased space in the forecabin, while also providing a drier ride.
Despite the extra accommodation space, this was also a boat that sailed much better than its predecessor. In particular the aerofoil shaped twin keels were deeper and slightly toed-in at the front, creating much greater hydrodynamic efficiency than earlier bilge keel designs.
Both smaller and larger variants followed the launch of the Centaur, with the 23ft Pageant (more than 500 built) launched the following year, and a 31ft range that started production in 1972. The latter, named Longbow, Berwick, Pentland and Renown, was available in four variants, covering aft or centre cockpit, and twin or fin keels. In total more than 1,000 were sold, including a number with ketch rigs.
LOA: 7.93m (26ft 0in)
LWL: 6.50m (21ft 4in)
Beam: 2.60m (8ft 5in)
Draught: 0.90m (3ft 0in)
Displacement: 3,040kg (6,700lb)
Ballast: 1,270kg (2,800lb)
Price today: £4,000-£10,000