Torie Morley and Toby Hamer realise a burning ambition to restore a Fireball dinghy– and reveal how Skunk earned her stripes
We first had the idea to sail a Fireball after attending a Mengeham Rythe Sailing Club regatta in a Laser 2000. Seeing the Fireballs flying around us, we just knew we had to get in on the action – but we would have never thought that the following weekend we would be driving down to Cornwall to pick up an old wooden boat advertised for ‘free’ on the class website.
After a long, slow drive home we unloaded the boat: a few prods with a screwdriver showed that it was extremely rotten, with splitting seams and soft wood panels all around. Unfortunately, this meant that getting it watertight would have been impossible, so we had to take a sledgehammer to it. However, the boat did come with a great top cover and a good set of spars, and we would also use the centreboard later in our project.
We didn’t want to give up at the first hurdle, so we carried on looking for a good project boat, preferably in glassfibre. A week later Torie’s dad, Andy, called us over to say he had got us a little present off eBay. Pulling into the drive, we were surprised to see Little Orange. The boat wasn’t the nicest of colours: think 1970s bathroom orange and you won’t be far off. She was very scratched and chipped, covered in a thick layer of grime and had not been afloat in over 20 years.
The first step was cleaning Little Orange to see what we had to work on.
Underneath the grime, we found many cracks and chips in the gelcoat: we used a Dremel to enlarge these before filling them with epoxy and car body filler. We spent days sanding down the whole hull, which was very painful on the hands, but at last the sanding stage was over and we’d got rid of most of the scratches.
With the boat turned the right way up, we felt around the deck and noticed some spongy areas. Inside the tanks, we found lots of rotten foam core that needed replacing. After drying out all the tanks with heaters and making them watertight, we pulled out the rotten foam and reinforced the decks with glassfibre.
Little Orange didn’t come with any foils, and being an older boat the newer centreboards didn’t fit in the narrow case, so work started on making a centreboard of the relevant size. Andy built a jig out of scrap metal, and we sandwiched lengths of red cedar together and left them to set. We then cut out the correct shape using a jigsaw and planed both sides of the board to give it its aerofoil shape. To make it strong enough to put up with us jumping on it to right the boat we covered it in carbon-Kevlar wrap and layers of epoxy, and let it set in an electric blanket for a few days.
Carbon fibre is not normally allowed on a Fireball under the class rules, but this was the only material we could find which would give enough strength to the extremely narrow board. Using the warped centreboard from the rotten Fireball we shaped out a rudder blade, coating it in layers of epoxy while building a stock out of marine ply and mahogany.
The boat came without thwarts, which caused issues: not only because there was nowhere for Toby to sit, but also because the sail number of Fireballs is usually written on the thwart. As the boat also came without a measurement certificate we did not know her make, age or sail number! After discussions with the class association the boat was assigned sail number 7551, a number appropriate for the age of the boat which was not registered to any known vessel. (Many early Fireballs have rotted away to early graves, gone to the fishes or made excellent bonfires with no record of their destruction.) So, thwarts were cut, sanded and varnished to give an excellent feature to the finished boat, and engraved with our shiny new sail number.
It was then time to start covering up the ’70s bathroom orange. We got hold of some grey and white car primer and sprayed that on the hull followed by the black and white topcoat, sanding it down with high-grade sandpaper between each layer to get a smooth feel. At this point, the name Skunk stuck!
Rigging the boat
For the decks we were given some unwanted two-pack epoxy paint. We had great difficulty painting it on due to the stickiness of the epoxy, but it gave a great finish to the decks and proved to be hard-wearing. When this dried we applied Pro-Grip thin foam rubber to the side decks to provide purchase for the crew while trapezing, tapering the edges to stop it from lifting. We cleaned up the spars using Vim, serviced all the pulleys and wires and re-riveted or bolted on the fittings where necessary. New sails were another present from Andy, and although they were measured in 1998 they were far crispier than the bed sheets from the original boat.
Rigging the boat was a challenging process as she came without any lines, and with many fittings missing it involved a lot of head scratching and trial and error for Toby. He used rigging diagrams found online, images of other classic Fireballs and pointers given by Fireball sailors who came to look at the boat.
Classic Fireballs used to use a jib track system mounted on the foredeck but this was phased out years ago, so we had to invent our own jib bar system which replicated the inbuilt modern system. Creating systems such as the jib bars, kicker, spinnaker hoist and drop, pole uphaul, outhaul, Cunningham and centreboard setting lines all took days of puzzling and refinement as each rope had to run with minimal friction while working around the selection of cleats and blocks we had amassed from the two Fireballs. Luckily, a friend from work was scrapping an old International 14 and we were given the rights to whatever we wanted off the boat for a mere £50: so, armed with screwdrivers and spanners, we stripped it of all its nice Harken fittings!
We encountered a substantial problem when we tried tensioning the rig. Modern Fireballs run huge rig tensions to achieve the mast rake they require, but we found that we could barely get enough tension to measure without pulling the boat apart. This became apparent when fittings began ripping out of the deck! So we settled on a compromise: we set up the boat in a balance between achieving the maximum purchase possible while keeping all the fittings in strong areas of the hull, and not putting immense loads on any single fitting. It seemed to work – but time would tell…
Sailing or swimming?
Three days before the 2014 Fireball nationals, we took Skunk for her first sail. We had a great time, but needed to make a few alterations. The next day we took her for another sail but disaster struck when the mast step exploded, leading to a long and muddy walk when towing the boat back to the slipway.
We spent the whole of the next day with Andy fixing the step. Taking it apart, we found a mush of rotten wood. We ripped it all out and fixed in a large chunk of American oak, glassed it in, painted it and left it to dry overnight.
The next day we attached the fittings, packed up the boat and headed to Tenby for the nationals.
Arriving in a boat park surrounded by shiny new boats which were all at least 40 years younger than Skunk was slightly intimidating, but we were warmly greeted by the class chairman who immediately arranged for someone to help us rig and tune our boat. The windy conditions meant we had running repairs throughout the week: fixing loose pintles and shroud fittings, and adjusting systems and rigging. We couldn’t race on one day due to the jib bow fitting ripping out. To fix this, Toby had to stitch-drill a new hatch into the bow to gain access to the fitting, and reinforce it with more screws and metal plates.
Tips on techniques
We had only sailed a Fireball twice before coming to the nationals, so learning on the job in windy conditions was interesting: we spent a fair amount of time practising our RYA capsize recoveries! Friendly class members in the boat park gave us tips on techniques, and we were even given a new boat, made by Winder, to sail on the lay day to see what it was like. (Don’t tell Skunk, but we fell in love with it.) We had a great time all in all, and even left with a few prizes including second-placed Classic Fireball, novice helm (first), ‘F**kwit’ of the fleet and Miss Fireball 2014.
Later in the year we were proud to represent the Fireball class in the battle of the classes at Southampton Boat Show. As the only Fireball there, it was great to represent the class: we sparked a lot of interest and turned heads if nothing else.
We very much enjoyed renovating our Fireball and would recommend it to anyone looking for a cheap way to get into Fireball sailing and learn more about boatbuilding. The class actively promotes classic boats racing in the circuit, and as we discovered, everyone is very willing to help you get a restored boat out on the water. Andy was a great help throughout the project, and he finally got to sail in a Fireball again after more than 25 years.
About the Author:
Toby Hamer, 20, is a student at Chichester University. He has raced dinghies and is a sailing instructor. Torie Morley, 19, is studying at Brighton University and spends every summer bumbling around Emsworth Sailing Club with her dad, Andrew.