The Uffa Fox Era, 1928 -1939

Under the drive of the Y.R.A. Dinghy Committee the concept of a National Fourteen at last meant something and for the next few years, although keen racing was to be found in many places, the centre of interest was Cowes, where in 1923 the Island Sailing Club – formed many years before to encourage open boat racing -asked Charles Nicholson to design an open 14ft. dinghy. A fleet of dinghies was soon established, tough, deep hulled, clinker built craft, costing about £35, with sloop rig and often a short bowsprit. Among the builders of these craft was one Uffa Fox, of whom more later.

Generally speaking all these craft still showed their link with the yacht tenders from which they originated. They were more in the tradition of the general purpose dinghies. Being sit in rather than sit out craft. Reefing being a key factor in rig control and indeed some of the craft had deep hulls, so the crew would sit inside and not offer the same windage as would sitting on the gunwales. The Admiralty or R.N.S.A. 14ft. dinghies that went out of service around the 1960’s were similar in character being developed from them by a committee of the R.N.S.A. in 1935 and some idea of the difference in performance can be gained by comparing the Portsmouth Handicap of the 1960’s, of 115 for the Admiralty 14ft. with the 88 of the then International. But Cowes was now to witness a battle that was to change the concept of the Fourteen from that of a yacht tender to the out and out racing craft that we know today. First Morgan Giles challenged the Cowes clinker craft with one of his carvel, U bowed dinghies and proved it the better boat. This prompted Uffa Fox to reply by designing his first dinghy, Ariel, which in its turn beat the Morgan Giles boats.

Uffa Fox had served in the R.N.A.S. and R.A.F. during the First World War and he applied the knowledge he had gained in working with flying boats to small boat design and construction. With Ariel (62) built in 1925 Uffa cut down the ‘Towering topsides’ of the native Cowes boats. She was carvel built to a design halfway between the planing shape of today and the U bowed Morgan Giles hulls. She had a sliding gunter rig with a roller reefing jib; fittings and gear were reduced to minimum weight but not at the expense of strength, for Ariel was still sailing in 1963.In 1926 Uffa designed Radiant, a deep, V-d boat designed to knife her way windward and run fast with little hope of planing. With her Uffa conducted many experiments on the position of mast, centre plate and proportions of head sail to main, and arrived at a formula which was to be the guide for the class for the next thirty years; in this 20% of the sail plan was in the jib, 80% in the main, which brought the mast about 4ft. from the stem. Under theI.Y.R.U. rules only 85% of the fore triangle is measured and the overlap of the jib is free. Uffa also devised a formula for the hull -3 beams to a length — giving a 4ft. 8in. beam for a 14ft. hull.

It was during 1926 that the Trent Sailing Club challenged the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Y.C. to a three boat team race in Fourteens — thus was started the famous ‘Trent Inland Waters Challenge Cup’.

Meanwhile in Canada an event took place which had an important part in the Fourteen story. During a Royal Tour, H.R.H. The Prince of Wales was taken sailing in a Canadian 14ft. dinghy. He seemed to enjoy the experience and on his return, through the good offices of Commander Lawford, presented a Trophy for the National Fourteen Class. Little did he realize how important this trophy was to be, that it would become the most coveted trophy in the dinghy world — the Prince of Wales Cup — the P.O.W. – which became the proving ground for new designs and new helmsmen.

The P.O.W. Cup was first sailed for in 1927 at Cowes, 41 boats entered and the course was a reaching one with no proper beat. The winner was Irex (78), designed and built by Bruce Atkey of Cowes and sailed by his son Cecil, 2nd was Radiant (63) Uffa Fox, 3rd Vamoosa (98) Morgan Giles.

In these early days the number of a boat gave no real clue to its age, as blocks of numbers were allocated to fleets as they became established and it took some years for owners of older boats to register in the National class.

At this time the joystick or tiller extension had not been invented and to make it easier for the skipper to sit in the middle of the boat many of Ernest Woods boats had tiller and yoke steering connected by wires while one — Marcel Wave (41) went still further and had a complicated wire and pulley ‘reverse effect’ steering.

At the Y.R.A. meeting in November 1927 it was proposed to apply to the I.Y.R.U. for International Status for the British National Fourteen. To this end the rules were again modified, the principal alterations being: –

a. The weight, length, sail area rating rule was done away with, as few had used it. (Because of this Avenger had to be modified while building; she was originally planned to be 16 lb. under weight and with 10% less sail).

b. The inland rig 140sq.ft. was abolished in favour of the sea rig, 125sq.ft.

c. The weight of the hull was reduced from 380 lb. all up for a 14ft. boat to 225 Ib. stripped hull.

d. The height of the sail plan was set at 22ft. 6 in. above gunwale level and the mast could be made in any way, instead of being restricted to solid or bamboo.

e. Inside ballast was forbidden.

Thus modified the rules were submitted by Sir William Burton to the I.Y.R.U on October 15/16, 1928. Not without some opposition the class got International Status for then, as now, different countries had their own ideas as to what class was best to encourage and at that time many felt the 14ft. was far too small.

The rules of the class remained basically unchanged until the 1970’s and the soundness of them demonstrated by the wonderful boats produced which were pleasant on the eye and able to perform well, both in sheltered inland conditions and in fresh weather on the sea.

Overseas, in North America, during this time, events were following a similar pattern. They were quicker to adopt the Berumda sail than we were, but the sloop rig did not find favour, and the boats remained catrigged until 1932. However, one undesirable characteristic was becoming apparent; in the search for greater speed the entry of the dinghies became progressively finer. The masts were solid and heavy and set well forward. The result — the boats became more and more unstable, so much so that they had to be held upright when in the water until the crew got aboard. The masts which weighed 30lb., varied from stiff to highly flexible. Normally they were about 2ft. from the stem at which point the hull was 3ft. wide. The hoist of the sail was 23ft. 6in. To add to the weight problem the smallest sail track available was of heavy 5/8in. metal. In those days people still believed that weight meant strength and few had any idea as to the strength of material required by dinghies. Many owners improvised track with brass and alloy strip on wooden battens.