1.44 Southern Lights – the new breed of Antipodean lightweights

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1.44 Southern Lights – the new breed of Antipodean lightweights

A few years before the 505 and FD arrived in Europe, the sailors of New Zealand and Australia started to evolve a new type of boat. They were light- often as light as new designs from the 2000s. They were flat in hull sections and rocker and wide sterned, designed more for planing performance than for displacement speed. They were powered by trapezes (or sometimes a sliding seat or plank) but the rigs were only moderate in size. They were the opposite of the heavy, over-canvassed conventional skiffs, and they were lighter and flatter than boats like the 505 and FD. While the skiffs get most of the credit, in many ways the lightweight performance dinghies were the true forerunners of the modern stream of high-speed boats.

Three 12 footers – New Zealand’s Cherub and R Class and Australia’s Gwen 12 – showed the shape of things to come. On their sterns came a new breed of skiff which applied the same “light is fast” philosophy. But just as important was the fact that many of the older one-design classes – in fact, almost every one that would survive – were willing to undergo radical changes to re-make themselves in this new southern style.

The three lightweight 12 footers were all born outside the mainstream development classes. The Gwen was a one-off with a family sailing emphasis.  The R Class and Cherub both evolved from gaggles of miscellaneous dinghies that had been collected into classes for local club racing. The R Class was born in the southern city of Canterbury. The Cherub was created from the “Pennant” class in the sailing capital of Auckland. Because the R and Pennant classes were formed to unite disparate bunches of one-off designs, the class rules were loose. For many sailors that seems to have been a bonus, for the creators of the traditional classes like the Zeddies and Idle Along had never foreseen that their designs would be the battleground for national racing, and left a heritage of loose and obscure class rules and plans that caused many bitter battles; the legendary Graham Mander was once told that his boat was banned, for reasons that would only be discussed AFTER the national championship had been sailed.

Against such a background, the simple and open rules of the Pennant and R Classes were a relief. They were basically limited only in length and sail area. There were few restrictions on hull shape or sail design, and none on weight. The moderate sailplans ensured that experiments would be cheap, and put the emphasis on innovation rather than just on increasing stability and sail area. It was the recipe for a revolution.

The R Class

R Class
An early 1960s “R Class”. With lightweight hulls (55kg/120lb in the mid ’50s), efficient high-aspect rig with full battens and rotating mast, big spinnaker on a long pole, trapeze and self-bailing cockpit, the R was perhaps the most advanced dinghy of its day. The illustration, from champion sailor Bret de Their, comes from “Give a Man a Boat”, the wonderful biography of NZ dinghy legend Peter Mander and perhaps my favourite sailing book. With permission of Bret de Their.

The R Class doesn’t just come from a small nation in a remote part of the world – it comes from a provincial part of the less-populated island of that small nation. Yet for years, the Rs have been design leaders. At some times, they have possibly been the most advanced dinghies in the entire world, and they remain the world’s only fully-foiling doublehanded dinghy class.



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