Look at the height of them rigs!

Look at the height of them rigs!

Thames flier

We look at Ulva, the latest Thames A-rater to get the full rebuild from Ossie Stewart and his team

Monday March 1st 2004, Author: James Boyd, Location: United Kingdom
Dotted around the world there are examples of classes purpose-built for the location they sail in. On the Swiss and Italian lakes for example you get ultra lightweight boats with unfeasible sail plans. Turn the clock back by more than 100 years and in Victorian Great Britain a new class of boat was born specifically tailored to sail out of Thames Sailing Club at Surbiton in the shadow of Henry VIII's palace at Hampton Court.

Like the boats that have evolved on the Swiss lakes so the Thames A-Rater was conceived to race on a narrow stretch of the Thames with reasonably high banks either side. Thus these three man boats have evolved with abnormally tall rigs and shallow draft to allow them closer to the river banks to stem the tide.

The original rule for the Thames A-Rater was conceived in 1888 to allow club boats on London's great river to compete against each other at the Upper Thames Sailing Club's Bourne End Week, first held the previous year in celebration of Queen Victoria's Jubilee. At the turn of the century and into Edwardian times Bourne End Week held rank in the aristocracy's social diary alongside Henley and Cowes Week. Competitors began to get serious with the Thames A-Rater when in 1893 Queen Victoria presented a trophy, subsequently known now as the Queen's Cup, for the top A-Rater.

Thames Sailing Club, home of the A-Rater, is close to Kingston-upon-Thames, home to historically one of the UK's most prominent aircraft builders - Hawker, subsequently Hawker Siddeley - and during the first part of the 20th century the class attracted several aircraft designers. Most notable of these was Sir Tom Sopwith's genius engineer Fred Sigrist, who during the 1920s and 30s campaigned the A-Raters Viva and Caprice. As a result the class has a tradition for staying at the leading edge of innovation.

Well before this the class was one of the first to abandon the long keel in favour of a centreplate. In the 1920s, the class was one of the first to use Bermudan rigs made in a 'composite' of wood and aluminium. Masts began to get taller and even in the 1920s were approaching 40ft high on a 25-28ft long boat. The tallest mast in the class, believed to have been tried after WWII, was 47ft...

In the 1930s the legendary architect of dinghy racing, Beecher Moore (below), bought the A-Rater Vagabond and with her powerful 40ft tall rig was the first to fit an early incarnation of a trapeze, then known as the 'bell rope', several years before it was tried and swiftly banned in the International 14s. Vagabond was also fitted with twin sliding seats.

In the 1970s six fibreglass mouldings were taken off the hull of Ulva, designed and built in 1893. By this time the wooden boats were getting tired and inevitably the new glass boats cleaned up, to such a degree that they had to have their sail area reduced. These boats remained dominant until the taste for restoration caught hold and a number of the older wooden boats were rejuvenated.

History restored

One of the key figures in the class is Olympic bronze medallist Ossie Stewart who for more than two decades now has run Harts Boatyard in Surbiton, located adjacent to Thames Sailing Club. Stewart and his team at Ossie Stewart Sailboats including designer Jamie Stewart and boat builder John Clark have handled the restoration of three A-Raters to date. The first was the 1907 Caprice IV, probably the longest and beamiest A-Rater, while last summer they completed the restoration of Carina, built in 1903 upon it's 100th birthday.

Above: Ossie Stewart (left) and James Stewart with Ulva

Their latest project, started in October 2003, has been reinstating the original Ulva to her past glory. At present the team are working round the clock to ensure that the boat is ready to be displayed at this coming weekend's RYA Dinghy Sailing Show at Alexandra Palace.

The rebuild of Ulva has been extensive and Ossie Stewart reckons only about 15% of the original boat remains. "The trouble is when you rebuild these things most of the planks have got damage - rot, plus 100 years worth of wear and tear. This is the third one we’ve done and experience tells us that it is better just to take a whole plank off and put a new one on it."

With the hull stripped out, the original Ulva was used as a plug. Into this MDF bulkheads were fitted to record the shape. The unsalvagable parts of the hull were then replaced (most of it), the makeshift MDF bulkheads removed and the structural stringers and frames added. Effectively the restoration process was similar to how a boat like this would be built if starting from scratch - only in reverse.

The hardest part to build was the V-shaped spray rail at the front of the cockpit. Jamie Stewart takes over: "You are bending it but with the angle on it it wants to roll inwards so you are putting twist on it as well. We didn’t steam it because we had to glue it, so we glued it in and then twist it round - we just forced it." The spray rail is two laminates of ply, but you wouldn't know if you looked at it.

In the construction around 4,000 nails were used. "It is a real nightmare - you drill the hole for the nail all the way through. Then you countersink it and then you hit the nail through, then you trim the nail off to length and then you have a guy on one side with a dolly and then the guy on the inside turns them over by hand. Every nail is turned over by hand and there are 4,000 of them and it is probably 30 seconds per nail. You get in a rhythm. Two taps is move on, one tap is stay. So it becomes musical."

In the Thames A-Rater class there are two schools of thought when it comes to hull design. All the hulls tend to be low freeboard skimming dishes, some particularly low freeboard, but essentially there is the long and skinny school while others are shorter with more beam. While Vagabond (see photo below) is typical of the former persuasion, Ulva is of the latter. Both have proved equally competitive.

One of the reasons that the glass boats dominated the class from the 1970s onwards was that they had aerofoil section centreboards instead of the traditional phosphor bronze lifting plates. More modern foils have now been added to the refitted wooden boats which are now (thankfully) back in winning form. Obviously being a river boat the foils are shallow - down they draw about 5ft - in order to hug the bank to get out of the current.

Ulva has a tear drop-shaped rudder. Other A-Raters have a cassette system allowing the rudder to be raised. However most impressive is her traditional Y-shaped tiller, made from around 13 pieces of solid mahogany (see photo on page 3). This tiller shape dates back to before the advent of the tiller extension when the helmsman could steer with his knee, presumably while retrimming his monocle/cravat.

With the advent of carbon fibre, so the class has slowly moved across to the new wonder fibre for their masts. This is not so much for any sailing performance benefit, but more for the practicality of stepping them. At around 34lbs they are substantially lighter than the old alloy masts that weighed in at 100+lbs.

While the new Ulva will have a carbon fibre spar, neither of the Stewarts are fully sold on the idea. "It is interesting that when they started using carbon fibre masts, the characteristics of the boat changed completely - they make the boat too stable," says Ossie Stewart. "When you sail on the river you want to be able to roll tack the boat like you do any other boat and you need a much heavier crew with a lighter mast."

Thus the Thames A-Rater is one of the few classes in the world were less stability is considered a bonus. Jamie Stewart completed a yacht design at Southampton University two years ago and investigated the Thames A-Rater for his thesis. Part of this included putting an A-Rater through tank testing and a wind tunnel (how many traditional keelboats have had that scrutiny applied to them?) "When I was doing the course I had to explain to four qualified naval architects that I wanted the centre of gravity of the boat as high as possible and they all looked at me and said ‘haven’t you learned anything in your four years here?’ But that’s Raters..."

As a result this season they will be fitting an alloy mast to Caprice IV - one of the beamiest and longest boats in the class. "Even if you have the weight penalty it is better for the boat in terms of feel and sailing it, because it feels so much better with less stability," says Ossie.

They are also considering, semi-seriously, a system whereby you could hoist lead up the inside of a carbon mast on a halyard in light conditions. The class rules don't specify where you have to put your lead correctors! "It is one of the only classes where they don’t weigh the rigs," says Jamie. "If they don’t measure the rig then the centre of gravity of the rig can change."

A-Raters are known for their unbeatable performance in less than six knots of breeze. In these conditions they have cleaned up at Queen Mary Sailing Club's January highlight, the Bloody Mary, on two occasions. "It needs to be no more than six knots of breeze because these things are incredibly fast in light winds, because it was what they were designed for - planing on the river - but as soon as the trapeze boats start to use their trapezes and start planing upwind, they're gone," says Ossie.

However Thames A-Raters are allowed to be 'turboed' if they are not racing on the Thames. On the river they sail with main and jib and a maximum of 350sqft of sail. Off the river they can effectively double their sail area, are unlimited in the size of kite they can fly and are allowed to use trapezes.

"I did Salcombe Week in our other boat last year with two trapezes and an Etchells spinnaker and it went like shit off a shovel," says Ossie, adding that they normally sail in this configuration with two of three crew out on the wire. They tried it once with three, but broke the mast...

The first event for Ulva is likely to be one of the Tuesday night or Sunday races out of Thames Sailing Club. Aside from these and the annual end of May Bank Holiday fest at Bourne End Week there are a number of other events for the class along the Thames such as the Braganca Bowl, sailed for at Tamesis Sailing Club in Teddington.

Other boats are available for rebuild. Clark currently has a syndicate of 12-14 people who between them own four A-Raters. Each syndicate member pays £4,000 plus £300 per year for running costs. "So if you want another boat - you get another three people," says Ossie.

It is also possible to get an entirely new boat and seeing that Jamie Stewart is the only man on the planet with a degree focussing in Thames A-Rater design, he would seem the obvious choice to do it.

Ulva will be on display at the RYA Dinghy Show at Alexandra Palace, possibly rigged (if there is enough headroom in the hall) and with an example of an early dipping lug rig made from bamboo as used on the first Thames A-Raters.

More photos of Ulva, nearing completion on the following pages

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