Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Designer Unconstrained

As is well known the major challenge for any designer of racing yachts is exploiting the rating rule. Whether we are talking about America's Cup boats or small restricted design classes whichever yacht goes faster through the water will have a better chance of the gold. Such boats can have great disadvantages, sometimes being quirky and even unsafe. Once outclassed, as they inevitably are, they may have little residual value.

It must come as a welcome relief, therefore, to be asked to design something that is unconstrained by a rule. The designer can then apply his creative ability and experience purely to achieve the requirements of his client.

The picture above shows examples of the work of the three greatest Scottish yacht designers (in my opinion) of all time.

At the top is Thistle, George Lennox Watson's 1887 design for a syndicate of members of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club to challenge for the America's Cup. She was the only one of the three to be built to a rule, the YRA rule of the same year, which was intended to encourage greater beam to produce stiffer yachts than previously. She was 86 feet 4 inches on the waterline.

The designers of the other two did not require to comply with a rule.

The middle yacht is Rosemary IV, designed and built by William Fife III of Fairlie in 1928, when his yard was without an order, to keep the workforce busy. She is 36 feet on the waterline. Having no client to please allowed Fife even more freedom and the design is in my view one of his best, having significantly shorter overhangs than his normal productions.

The yacht at the foot is Alfred Mylne's Islander, also designed in 1928. Not only are the ends much shorter than the designs that Mylne did to a rule, she has much firmer sections than either of my other examples.

When the Clyde Clubs Conference were considering a new design in 1928 Alfred Mylne would have been extremely keen to become involved. The new design was intended to replace the 19/24s, nineteen feet on the waterline, twenty four feet overall, sail area massive, which had in turn replaced the 17/19s, governed by a similar rule.There was a general recognition that rules like these had resulted in some pretty extreme boats and several accidents and should be replaced with a new more wholesome boat.

Most importantly, the new boat would be  strict one-design.

The Conference considered various existing designs, such as Westmacott's Sea View Mermaid and Solent Sunbeams and Alfred Mylne's own Belfast Lough River Class of 1921. They probably wanted something slightly larger, because of the better opportunities for short cruises on the Clyde and the Scottish West coast.

Alfred Mylne had recently produced a new design for the Royal Bombay Yacht Club and this duly became the Scottish Islands Class One Design, but with a Bermudian rig as opposed to the Indian boats’ gunter.

The Islander would be 20 feet on the waterline as opposed to the Rivers 18, with the same overall length of 28 feet 6 inches. The sail area would 420 square feet, against the River's 350.

In February 1929 The Yachting Monthly reported that

"The new class has one feature which is a sign of the times, in that the boats will be fitted with auxiliary power and side propellers, those owners who do not wish to carry an engine being required to fit the propellor and carry a weight equivalent to that of the engine."

The view was also also expressed that

"fitted with auxiliaries the new boats will not be very fast, particularly in view of their moderate sail spread..."

There is no doubt that with modern sailcloth the boats are nowadays not under-canvassed. The seas are timeless and the short overhangs, buoyant ends and firm sections are still as valid for safe sailing in a small boat as they ever were.

In order to preserve the one-design principle to the letter and not just to the spirit various rules were enforced. The first five boats were built on a mass-production principle by the McGruers, who worked closely with Mylne and could deliver on a price, having just built the identical Indian boat.

On completion the first owners selected their hulls by lot.

The dummy propellor rule was another example.

Later on the owners were to agree that new sails would only be ordered by a vote, unless for a blown-out replacement, limits were placed on yachts being hauled out for scrubbing and so on. Occasionally owners would compete in each others' boats too.

I've researched the history of this class and published the results on sister website While doing this I was struck at how owners would sell their Islander only to buy another one, to the outside world identical in all respects. The extreme case was the sale by Herbert Thom of his Gigha, the newest boat and buying Westra, number one, following mutterings about an unfair advantage. Underlying all this must have been a reluctance to believe that it was the helmsman who was making the difference.

Herbert Thom did get an advantage in one respect however. It's often been remarked that the Islanders had a rule that each yacht should have a different hull colour and a lot of rather pointless research has been done, admittedly some of it by me before I learned better, to identify the "original" colours. The rule is contained in the 1959 edition, but until I find the earlier one I won't accept it existed earlier. Instead I've had access to personal papers, currently top secret, confirming that all the original fleet were white, apart from Sanda, which was light blue and Thom's current yacht, be it Gigha, Westra or, later Canna, which was always varnished.

It has been suggested by one apparently authoritative commentator that this led to litigation, a judge ruling that varnished was "brown" but there's no evidence of an actual case. From what I've learned of the original owners they were a dignified bunch with better things to do than waste time and money in the courts.

What is certain is that, like everything else he did Thom was exploiting a rule. Traditional varnish could easily be scraped off at the end of each season and the minimum number of fresh coats applied at the start of the next to keep the topsides light, whereas paint would just be abraded to give a sufficient key for a fresh coat, composed of course mainly of lead.

All this suggests that new poachers will soon arrive on any hillside and the gamekeepers will find it hard to keep up. There are lessons in this for our friends in Scottish Coastal Rowing, who have their first World Championships in Ullapool next year.

This is a repost from my  Scottish Islands website, where my friend Hal Sisk posted the following interesting comment

“In 1893, John Coats Jr.commissioned the great G L Watson, at the height of his career, to create two identical 36ft cutters purely for match racing. These were specifically not to be influenced by any rating rule, truly unconstrained. The result was the delightful clipper-bowed pair Gypsy and Brunette.
In his extraordinary busy period,also designing the America's Cup challenger Valkyrie and Britannia II and a steam yacht of 1025 tons for Arthur H E Wood, he also managed to find time to occasionally helm one of the pair in their frequent Saturday races.
My beautiful Peggy Bawn, built the following season as a "fast cruiser" which could also race as a 2.5 Rater, is almost a sistership to the match racers. So she also represents an unconstrained design, from the Golden Age of Yacht design. Indeed her hull shape and hydrostatic parameters conform closely to the "Britannia Ideal" which, for a sea-kindly sailing craft, persisted as a type right up to the late 1960s, until more powerful auxiliary engines caused sailing yacht design to move in the direction of quasi motor sailers.
See also my foreword to Martin Black's "G L Watson--the Art &
Science of Yacht Design".
Hal Sisk 
PS Yachtsmen are slavish followers of fashion and most one designs reflected the style of recent racing craft. An classic example is the Dragon class, with unnecessary long U-shaped overhangs, looking backwards to racing rules which primarily measured waterline length." 
It's possible that Hal may hold the key to the identity of the mysterious Leggy Prawn.

Ace Marine now own the Mylne archives and can be found here:-

G L Watson can be found at

Successors to the Fife dynasty can be found at

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water