In spring of 1930, the 22-square-metre skerrycruiser Vigilant is nearly ready on a ramp on the Medina River of the Isle Of Wight in the south of England. Apart from the lead keel, the rudder and the rigging, the boat is finished. It was designed by the famous sailor and yard owner Uffa Fox (pictured right).
It was built aboard a decommissioned ferry, which the boat designer and boat builder occupied as a practical boat and home office. The business housed amidships, Fox lived with his wife Alma in the side shelters. It seems impossible to live and work cheaper and closer to the trade. However, the way to work for Alma Fox, a headmistress in Cowes, was a bit longer. It started in wellies.
In the summer of 1930, Fox took the boat with a sailing friend to a regatta in the archipelago at Sandhamn to the eastern seaboard of Sweden and back. It is many hundred nautical miles from the south of England through the English Channel, the North Sea, the Kiel Canal, the Baltic Sea and back. Not exactly ideal waters for a boat that is barely more high-bodied and slightly longer than a Dragon.
A few years earlier, Fox had invented the modern planing dinghy with Avenger. Because the winner was already decided, racing in local waters was known as “Fox-hunting”. It was mostly a question of who would come second. At the zenith of his sailing success, Fox set up his own boat-building business aboard the disused ferry in 1928.
Fox lead an unconventional sailing life, audacious by today’s standards. With courage, stamina, skill and luck, the weather-turned English Channel can be crossed from England in a youth cutter or an open 14 ft nutshell. In comparison, the voyage to Sweden with a skerrycruiser is a comfy affair. Vigilant at least had a cabin with full stoop height and two berths.
How Vigilant opened a new chapter in offshore sailing
This time Fox is not successful on the regatta courses in faraway Sweden. But he enjoys the summer time off, the freedom on the water. When Vigilant got caught in a storm on the North Sea during the return trip to England, Fox observed how well the sleekly slender planks with the stretched bow and stern did in rough water. He described it in one of his books, read all over the world, perhaps somewhat rapturously to the point of exaggeration, thus:
“The square metre boat is just what you need for the rough waters found along the British coast. The volume in the ends of the boat makes it rise lightly and elegantly like a sea swallow over the waves.” Fox became the ambassador for the type of boat, which then also found favour in German and American waters.
The insights of his bold summer cruise were quit a departure from commonsense of offshore sailing where only conventionally heavy, wide, high-sided and old fashioned robust boats seemed suitable for the sea. A slim, light and cleverly proportioned boat needs less energy to move forward and yet can be impressively seaworthy as observed.
Fox’ influential publications
Supported by his wife, the eloquent and passionate Fox published his findings, ideas and successes in a series of books in the 1930s read worldwide. The volumes, published by Peter Davies in London, are soothingly independent, informative and orientating in an age of industry-affiliated and marketing-driven boating publicity. At the same time, the volumes unfold an interesting panorama of sailing, boat and yacht building in the 1930s – from sailing canoes to the J-Class sailing warhorses for the America’s Cup. Because Uffa Fox knew all kinds of boat and yachts at that time and as well designers like Johan Anker or Knud Reimers personally.
With his next square metre boat design Sea Swallow for the championship off Marblehead in the 30 square metre class, he gave the originally Swedish boat type a special Anglo-Saxon touch. The curved deck makes the boat easier to build than one with a conventional angular deckhouse. The shape is more wind-slippery and overcoming water runs off quicker. The pointed stern of the double-ender matches to American and English preferences.
Fox’s square metre boat episode is momentous for Anglo-Saxon sailing. His books are read throughout the Commonwealth. Thus, the sleek and beautiful planks made their way to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
In 1947, Fox achieved his greatest success with the Flying Fifteen. With it, he transferred the idea of his revolutionary dinghy Avenger to the planing keelboat. The 6-metre-long, 1.50-metre-wide, 450-kilogram dinghy-like boat with plenty of buoyancy in the forebody offered capsize safety and rapid planing. Amazing speeds were achieved in the windy waters of the Solent. The Flying Fifteen, built 3,700 times, became the prototype of the gliding keelboat imitated in many ways. It inspired generations of sailors to this day.
30 sqm boat cruises with Tre Sang
After the war, H.G. Hasler recalled Fox’s findings with bold adventures and cruised around the exposed coast of Southwest England and to Ireland with his 30 sqm boat Tre Sang. When waterproof plywood became available in the 1950s and modern fibre-reinforced plastic and sandwich materials followed in the 1980s, the idea of modern sea sailing with other, light and planing ocean-going yachts became unstoppable.
Thus Vigilant, the 22 sqm boat provisionally propped up by two trestles on the ramp of the disused Medina river ferry in spring of 1930, opened the interesting chapter of agile and easy sailing.
- Sailing, Seamanship and Yacht Construction (1934)
- Uffa Fox’s Second Book (1935)
- Sail and Power (1936)
- Racing, Cruising and Design (1937)
- Thoughts on Yachts and Yachting (1938)
- Crest of the Wave (1939)
- Seamanlike Sense in Powercraft (1968)
- June Dixon: Uffa Fox. A Personal Biography, Brighton, Angus & Robertson 1978
Thanks to Uffa Fox Ltd. for permission to publish the photos.