Racing in the days before kicking straps. Note the crew on 112 acting as a makeshift kicker

Racing in the days before kicking straps. Note the crew on 112 acting as a makeshift kicker

National 12 history

We take a look back over 70 years of development

Thursday February 9th 2006, Author: Toby Heppell, Location: United Kingdom
This year the National 12 has reached the venerable age of 70. Over the course of the year the class will be celebrating this fact.

The National 12 was introduced to the world at large in 1936 in an attempt to make sailing more accessible for ‘ordinary’ people. In this it certainly managed with the first boats retailing at £45 (roughly the equivalent of £1,980 today.)

While today such a boat would certainly be a one design, the National 12 is a development class its measurements and rules adapted and developed over the years. There are some rules that have not changed over time and others that have. Currently on the most basic level –the full class rules are significantly more complex – the boats may be no longer than 3.66m, no wider than 2m, no deeper than 51cm and no lighter than 78kg.

Uffa Fox was asked to design the first National 12s. Having drawn a great deal of fast International 14s he was the obvious choice to build the newly created 12 foot dinghy class (the first ever National 12, N1, bellow, is now in the ISCA Maritime Museum at Oulton Broad, Lowestoft). The Uffa-King design proved exceptionally popular and 175 boats were built in the first year alone, a number that would be very difficult for any design to reach in its first year these days. In 1936, the same year that the boat was launched, the first National 12 National Championship took place in Poole Harbour. It was here that the Burton Cup was first awarded to the winner of the National Championship, Sir William Burton. The Burton Cup is still awarded to the winner of the National Championship to this day.

In 1938 a new design came from Dick Wyche called the Wrath. This had flatter floors than the Uffa King, making it more stable, and more ready to plane. Also In 1938 Jack Holt began to make his own National 12s and was the only person to carry on making the boats throughout the war. Another of the early designs was by Charles Currey. His design in 1939 was called the Sunshine.. This was wider than her contemporaries, had less rocker, a narrow bow and flatter mid and rear sections. This design proved to be very quick and was still able to win the Burton Cup at late as 1952.

Other designs of note during this era – both built in 1946 - were Jack Holt’s 500 series (left.) These were built primarily for river sailing but surprised many by proving to be a good all rounder. The other was Dick Wyche’s Gnome, notable mostly for her very tall sail plan. She was built for inland sailing and the tall rig enabled her to pick up undisturbed air.

In the 1950s plywood was introduced to the class which meant that boats were significantly cheaper and easier to build. Also in this era boats began to be designed with more powerful flared hulls, leading to a much greater power to weight ratio than ever before. A fine example of this progress is the Ian Proctor designed Mark IV featuring finer bows than his previous design - the Mark II - to improve windward performance in waves. It was also wider with more flared topsides. Also at around this time the development of self bailers allowed boats like the Mark IV to have a lower freeboard. It was during the early stage of these developments that planing was possible on a regular basis for the first time prompting this statement from The Times in September 1949; she is capable, in a certain combination of circumstances of a mysterious performance called planing.

As well as the hull shapes being updated there were a number of significant, if small, changes going on. The invention of Dacron sails that don’t shrink like cotton ones used to improved National 12 sailing dramatically as well as the kicking strap and stainless steel rigging that did not rot and break unexpectedly.

Development continued on hull shapes with the overriding theme of boats becoming wider in the middle and finer at the front. In 1967 Martin Jones took this concept to the extreme, designing the Mr Jones, (bellow) which flared out to a maximum beam of approx 6'3" combined with a fine entry, narrow transom and relatively flat rocker. Ian Proctor continued to develop his hull shape making small tweaks to his design throughout this era finally designing his last National 12 in 1967 – The Mark XIII. This concludes what is today known as the ‘vintage’ National 12 era from 1938-1970.

The modern era

In the early 1970s the first of the modern National 12s were built. Two major innovations at this time made huge differences to the manufacturing process. Interestingly, in terms of buying boats these two innovations required two substantially different approaches. The first of these innovations was that wooden boats were able to be made from four sheets of plywood per side instead of seven. The upshot of this was that it made the construction of the boat much simpler and began a new wave of amateur boat building in garages across the country. The second major development was the use of glass-fibre which led to ‘off the shelf’ boats. The Paper Dart, (bellow) designed by Phil Morrison, was the first of these boats and was supplied with a pre-tuned rig and sails. The boat actually looked very similar to modern day asymmetric boats and it is interesting to see some of the early ideas for Morrison’s later designs, such as the RS400, being used here. Although the boat was reasonably popular these were still the early days of glass-fibre building and wooden boats continued to be lighter and stiffer.

A one-off boat built in 1979 proved to be well ahead of it’s time and paved the way for the modern, wide, fast designs. This was a boat called Punkarella. Rumour has it that this boat was designed in a pub one evening using a beer mat to show how a boat might be made from a single sheet of plywood. Whether this story is true or not the boat certainly did exist and was made from a single sheet of ply that had been ‘pinched’ at the front as one might with a beer mat, leaving a boat that was fine at the bow and very flared at the aft end.

During this time the rigs were also undergoing significant change with loose-footed mainsails being adopted in 1977 giving a much more powerful sail, especially downwind. There was also a significant leap in spreader technology and stiffness allowing sailors to force pre-bend into their masts.

This brings us up to the 1980s were many of the important basic principles of boat and rig design were understood. Many of the National 12s built in the 1980s are still around and offer a cheap entry into the fleet. There were no great innovations in hull shape here but things were moved on at a steady rate; hulls started to be at absolute maximum width of 2m and there were many small rig changes too, such as swinging spreaders, mast rams, mast gates and fully adjustable shrouds.

The result was a much more controlled and sophisticated rig and added more power when the sailor needed it. The Design 8 (left) which was built by Dave Ovington was the first foam-sandwich production National 12 in 1987 and was a modified version of the Crusader design by Phil Morrison.


A cross section of all these varied designs can be viewed at various events throughout this year as a part of the National 12’s 70th anniversary. In particular there are three big events that the National 12 class association is putting on.

The first big event on the calendar for the National 12 fleet this year will be the Dinghy Show on 4 – 5 March where they are on a special feature stand in Palm Court. “We will have five boats on the stand, ranging from the first Burton Cup winner which is 70 years old, through to the latest Aardvark Technologies carbon Big Issue II design which is a couple of months old,” explains Class Association member Graham Camm. The Association is also going to be running a quiz for kids to be sponsored by Gill and a ‘guess the weight of the National 12’ competition – also sponsored by Gill. There will be a range of other interesting and exciting activities going on throughout the show including vintage footage of National 12s racing.

Following on from the Dinghy Show, the next big event looks set to take place over the May bank holiday. This event comes in the form of a special 70th Anniversary Regatta at Northampton SC and also includes racing for the regular Gill Travellers Series. The highlight of this event will be a pursuit race on the Monday where each generation of National 12 will be given a handicap number to race to; this leaves the opportunity for a very close finish between vintage and modern boats. The Association are expecting at least 100 boats and hope to have N1 at the event as well. “There’s also going to be lots of social stuff including an anniversary dinner. We are trying to get as many of the previous Burton Cup winners along to that as possible,” comments Camm.

The third anniversary event of 2006 will be the National Championship. As well as the usual hard fought event for the modern boats there will be racing for the vintage boats on a separate course and any vintage National 12 owners are encouraged to join in. The event is going to take place at Porthpean near St Austal on the 19-25 August. The racing for the vintage boats will not be a full week but will be limited to the first two days of the event. The week promises to be extremely good fun with lots of family entertainment arranged.

Even at 70 years old the National 12 continues to evolve and change and this is surely one of the reasons that it continues to appeal as a class. Next week we will be taking a look at the newest National 12s to see what is new and what direction the class is likely to take in the future.

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