In the spring of 1930, the 22-square-metre skerrycruiser Vigilant stands 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 regatta sailor and shipyard owner Uffa Fox (pictured right).
It was built aboard a decommissioned ferry, which the boat designer and boat builder occupies as a practical boat and home office. The business housed amidships, Fox lives with his wife Alma in the side shelters. It would be hard to work and live more cheaply and closer to the trade. However, the way to work for Alma Fox, a headmistress in Cowes, is a bit longer. It starts in wellies.
In the summer of 1930, Fox takes the boat with his sailing friend to a regatta in the archipelago at Sandhamn to the eastern seaboard of Sweden and back. It is many hundreds of 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, regatta sailing in local waters was known as “Fox-hunting”. It was more 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 leads 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 has 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 gets caught in a storm on the North Sea during the return trip to England, Fox observes how well the sleekly slender planks with the stretched bow and stern do in rough water. He describes it in one of his books, read all over the world, perhaps somewhat rapturously to the point of exaggeration, thus:
“The squaremetreboat 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 becomes an ambassador for the type of boat, which then also finds favour in German and American waters.
The insights of his bold summer cruise break with the tradition of offshore sailing that only conventionally heavy, wide, high-sided and old fashioned robust boats are suitable for the sea. The slim, light and cleverly proportioned boat needs less energy to move forward and yet can be impressively seaworthy as observed.
Supported by his wife, the eloquent and passionate man 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 ships at that time and also designers like Johan Anker or Knud Reimers personally.
With his next skerrycruiser design Sea Swallow for the championship regattas 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 squaremetreboat episode is momentous for Anglo-Saxon sailing. His books are read throughout the Commonwealth. Thus, the sleekly 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 gliding keelboat. The 6-metre-long, 1.50-metre-wide, 450-kilogram dinghy-like boat with plenty of buoyancy in the foreship offers capsize safety and rapid planing. Amazing speeds are 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, which has inspired generations of sailors to this day.
After the war, H.G. Hasler recalls Fox’s findings with bold South England and Ireland cruises 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 the spring of 1930, opened an interesting chapter in the history of 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.