The National Dinghy had nearly vanished, but found new life by blending tradition with progress
The lake is dead calm, like a mirror pond. Not a wisp of wind can be seen on the water. Yet the boat is hustling along, as if moved by magic. “Trim peak halyard,” the skipper commands. “I need some power.” Indeed, the boat picks it up another notch and everybody smiles, even the gentleman seated on the leeward side. His name is Rolf Halle, all of 90 years young.
“Isn’t the National Dinghy a terrific boat?” he says. Halle, of all people, ought to know. He sailed such a boat for the first time in 1929, at age 11, and he’s still loving it. And he’s hardly alone.
June marks the 100th anniversary of the National Dinghy, also known as 22-square meter dinghy or I-Dinghy. (To avoid confusion: The class symbol is an old Germanic “I” that looks like a “J.”) It is one of the world’s oldest sailboat classes and still maintains a full racing schedule, mainly in Germany and Austria.
Celebrating the centennial in fine fettle is the reason for putting on a big race, the European Cup at the Potsdam Sailing Club in Berlin, and an even bigger party. Every boat that’s campaigned today was built in the 1920s, 1930s or 1940s, and had undergone at least one major refit. Each one is an example for high-end boat recycling, preserving the beauty of tradition and blending it with the power of progress.
“Some of these projects can last up to 10 years,” says class president Manfred Jacob. The computer engineer from Hamburg, Germany, is one of the few amateurs who had the tenacity and skill to do the job all on his own. But that’s only the start. Once you have a nice boat, you want to keep it that way, which amounts to occupational therapy in the offseason. “You’ve got to treat it right,” sighs Norbert Wagner, a 1972 Olympian, who ran the German loft of North Sails near Munich. “That’s a lot of work. But it also breeds a lot of love. At one point, you know all the rivets by first name.”
This kind of care has been a fact of life since the inception of the class at the general meeting of the German Sailing Federation in 1909, in an era when sailing was seen as a “field of senile activity,” as one magazine report put it. Sailors from Berlin and Hamburg were discussing the establishment of a national class to consolidate the wildly diverse designs that were specialized either for light-air lakes or rough coastal sailing. A strong influence was the American sandbagger Laura, which was brought to Berlin in 1864 and dominated local races for more than a decade.
The sailors sought a more versatile boat and established a class for “small, dinghy-like vessels with modest sail plan and crude construction” that were suitable for training beginners and for racing by “unpaid amateurs.” The rule stipulated that overall length plus beam couldn’t exceed 25 feet, 7 inches with a minimum beam of 4 feet, 7 inches.
Measured sail area was 237 square feet, excluding the overlap of the headsail. Minimum weight was a hefty 990 pounds and the boats had to be built from clinkered oak planks; spars had to be massive. It was a crude affair, alright. After World War I, the class went high-tech with carvel planks, hollow spars and no weight restrictions, which is pretty much how things have been ever since. Interestingly, the gaff rig prevailed, even though Bermuda rigs have been class legal.
In the beginning, several of Europe’s top small-boat designers pushed the development of hull shapes, which in turn made the class intriguing for top-notch sailors. Reinhard Drewitz, for instance, experimented with extremely long waterlines and hollow shapes of the underbody aft, some of which was inspired by American design trends of that era.
As the National Dinghy evolved from staid trainer to advanced racing machine, it experienced boom times in the 1920s and 1930s. Hundreds of boats were built and campaigned, mainly on the lakes of Germany, Austria, Hungary and Switzerland, but also in France and Italy. Some of Germany’s best — like Walter von Hütschler, the 1938 Starboat world champion; Dr. Peter Bischoff, a 1936 Olympic gold medalist; and the brilliant but controversial Manfred Curry — were regulars in the winner’s circle. Curry, who was born in Munich as the son of U.S. emigrants to Germany, especially pushed the envelope with revolutionary ideas for aerodynamics, hull and sail development.
When Europe recovered from World War II, hardly any National Dinghies were being built anymore as the class was pushed to the brink by simpler, faster and more modern designs like the Flying Dutchman, an athletic two-person dinghy that became an Olympic class in 1960.
When the fiberglass revolution swept the boatbuilding industry, the National Dinghy all but disappeared from organized racing. “Nobody wanted them anymore,” remembers Wolfgang Ainetter, an Austrian, who grew up sailing these boats. “Some were cannibalized for parts and torched. Others were turned into cabin cruisers with keels. It wasn’t pretty.”
In 1978 two classic-yacht fanatics from Lake Constance, near the base of the Alps, set the precedent by buying up a neglected and forgotten boat that still had substance. They painstakingly restored it to its original beauty and started showing it off. Soon, others followed their example and an international class association was formed.
Plywood or cold-molded construction was considered heresy and hence remains verboten. It’s restoration or bust. Mahogany planking on oak frames and spars from Sitka spruce are the norm. And, just like 80 years ago, accomplished sailors gravitate to the National Dinghy. Before the current recession, there was brisk business in buying up old hulls, restoring them to mint condition and outfitting them with the latest and lightest in racing hardware, spectra lines, profiled aluminum centerboards and state-of-the-art square-top mainsails that work well with gaff rigs. “The ergonomics of these boats used to be horrendous,” observes Helmut Gubi, a longtime Finn and Laser sailor, who occasionally crews on National Dinghies. “But guys switching over from Olympic classes brought with them many practical ideas that made the National Dinghy much more functional, especially in a breeze.”
Nobody can put a finger on the deeper reasons for this renaissance, but the explanation offered by Gubi’s brother, Michael, a two-time European Cup winner in the National Dinghy and a successful campaigner of Olympic classes, is as good as any: “We [owners] are all in the Harley age, so maybe it’s a form of coping with midlife crisis.”
But using a boat to prop up a baby boomer’s ego is only one part of it. “Today there are too many classes and not enough boats,” Gubi says. “People either lose interest in the sport or they return to their sailing roots. That’s the appeal of the National Dinghy.”
Since the beginning of the revival, about 40 boats have been brought back, estimates class chief Jacob, but not all of them are raced. Barring modern construction methods and materials is a deliberate decision to check willy-nilly growth while promoting restoration and preservation. It increases the value of existing boats, but also raises the bar for getting into the game. “Finding a good hull that can be restored and going through a full refit requires commitment and resources,” says Jacob. “But when you are done, you have a boat with unique personality and character.” And such boats are less likely to change hands easily, which explains why some of these sailors have loved and sailed National Dinghies for decades.
“The boats are as pretty as they have been,” says Halle, the nonagenarian who earned his stripes on those dinghies as a teenager, “but today they are much more complicated.”
Well, not all of them. Ainetter’s boat, for instance, has never undergone a Gucci refit, so it doesn’t have the bells and whistles. His sails are 25 years old. His hardware is dated, to put it mildly. Yet he consistently finishes near the top in the handicap standings, which give time allowances to boats that are closer to the traditional spirit. “All the modern stuff won’t help if you are going the wrong way,” he wryly observes about sailing on light-air lakes, where most of the races are being held. As a squirt he learned the ropes on one of the early clinker-planked boats, bailing like mad to keep it afloat. “The centerboard trunk had gaps that were so wide, a catfish could make a home in there,” he jokes as he fondly remembers the educational value of the National Dinghy in the days when sailing time had to be earned with sweat equity. And that aspect is still there, if owners want it. “These boats are complex and have a lot of power,” says Nikolaus Riekh, another class veteran, who sails with his college-age daughters. “It takes good teamwork and skills to master a National Dinghy.”
There are many traditional classes that could have chosen this path, but never got over the initial hump, so what’s the secret of the National Dinghy’s success? “These boats are light-air rockets, says Jacob, “which means they are sailed most often when the weather is nice and conditions are pleasant. You enjoy yourself with style and that comes across really well.”
What about recession jitters? Been there, done that, suggests Ainetter. “New stuff comes and goes, but the National Dinghy stays.”
Well, then, Happy Birthday. Here’s to good health and good fun. And another century.
This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.