A one-design tradition lives on in Falmouth and Chichester Harbour
Alfred Westmacott arrived in 1899 on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England, at a propitious age and time: he was 31 years old and had moved to a burgeoning yachting area to start a career as an independent boatbuilder and designer. He was well established by the early 1920s, the years when post–World War I interest in one-design racing was reaching new peaks, and it was then that he created what many people think is his finest design: the Sunbeam.
The story of the 26′6″ LOA Sunbeam one-design class is one of remarkable endurance. Two fleets emerged: Solent Sunbeams in The Solent and surrounding waters and Falmouth Sunbeams in Cornwall. Both are still active today.
Nearly a century has passed since the Hamble River Sailing Club near Southampton, opposite the Isle of Wight across the legendary waterway known as The Solent, asked Westmacott to produce a new design. The club members had in mind a yacht specifically for the newly fashionable Bermudan sloop rig, with the idea of improving on gaff-rigged and earlier Bermudan-rigged classes.
Westmacott had come to the Isle of Wight from Newcastle in northeastern England, where his father, Percy, had founded the shipbuilding division of industrial firm of Armstrong, Mitchell & Company on the River Tyne. Westmacott apprenticed there and returned after studying naval architecture at Glasgow University. Soon, however, he was eager to go out on his own with an emphasis on small craft instead of ships. He moved to the eastern end of the Isle of Wight to form his own firm, Westmacott, Steward & Company. Only five years after doing so, his company absorbed the Woodnutt & Company boatyard near Bembridge on the west side of the island, which included sailmaking, chandlery, and rigging operations.
The company had a wide-ranging clientele, involving both sail and power boats, but Westmacott always maintained a lively interest in small racing sailboats. He quickly found success with them. Nearly 200 boats were built to his X One Design, a 21-footer of 1909 that initially carried a gaff rig but switched to the Bermudan rig after 1928.
In 1922, the Seaview Yacht Club near Bembridge asked Westmacott to design a new sloop specifically for Bermudan rig, which he did. This was his Mermaid design, but restrictions imposed by the club resulted in a boat difficult to sail in strong winds. He quickly had another chance when the Hamble River Sailing Club, then newly formed, approached him in the same year to design what they hoped would be “an improved Mermaid.” The result was the Sunbeam.
The first Sunbeams were launched in 1923. In March of that year, Yachting Monthly reviewed the new design, reporting that it “promises to be one of the best which has ever been produced. The design shows a sweet-lined little vessel, with ample beam and draught, and with its moderate sail area it should be a most suitable type for racing inside the Wight...the success of the new venture is practically assured from its inception.”
By the end of the year, nine boats had been built for members of the Hamble River club, and the boats caught the eyes of members of the Royal Cornwall Yacht Club (RCYC) far to the west in Falmouth. In May 1924, seven boats—delivered by train—took part in the RCYC’s first Sunbeam race. “Falmouth owes a great debt to the Sunbeam for the splendid sport it has provided,” the Falmouth Packet reported at the end of that season.
The Solent fleet remained on the Hamble River until 1930, when the boats moved to Bembridge and other Solent ports. They remained centered on Bembridge until 1966, when they gradually moved back to the mainland again, settling at the Itchenor Sailing Club (ISC) on Chichester Harbour east of Portsmouth. The fleet has remained at the ISC ever since. The Falmouth fleet has remained in Falmouth and St. Mawes, its close neighbor across the Carrick Roads.
The Woodnutts yard built 39 Sunbeams, all of them with pitch-pine planking over steam-bent elm frames and elm backbone timbers. The last of the originals was built in 1935, and 41 years passed before another Sunbeam was built, this one by the Curtis & Pape Boatyard in Looe, well east of Falmouth but still in Cornwall. Since then, eight more have been built of wood, the most recent in 2008. Most of these boats were built on the Isle of Wight or in Cornwall. In all, 48 wooden Sunbeams have been built, 31 of them for the Solent fleet and 17 for Falmouth. Only one of these Sunbeams, JUDY, has not survived: she sank with the loss of one hand while racing in strong winds during the Cowes Week regatta in 1939.
Most of the boats have stayed with their original fleets, but some movement over the years has been inevitable—one boat, ROMANY (No. 32), has passed back and forth between the two fleets four times. Currently, each fleet has 23 wooden boats, and only one boat—BUBBLY (No. 22)—is elsewhere, having been taken from Falmouth to Salcombe, Devon, when her owner moved there. Five Sunbeams traveled considerably farther afield in the 1930s, when their owner, Sir Walter Preston, shipped them to Finland aboard his steam yacht. For several summers, friends joined him there for racing, which was interrupted only when the boats were laid up during World War II. All five returned to The Solent in 1947. Another boat that has traveled far is DAINTY (hull No. 1), which her owner, Peter Nicholson, has taken by trailer to the Mediterranean every year since 2004 to take part in the autumn classic-boat regattas at Cannes and St-Tropez, France.
The boats have always adhered to strict specifications, which have been changed only reluctantly. The use of epoxy in splining hull seams of one boat became controversial in the 1980s, and it had to be removed before the boat could rejoin the fleet. In the early 2000s, however, the Solent fleet allowed the use of epoxy in splining the edges of planks and in coating hulls inside and out. Later, the same fleet even allowed fiberglass hulls, nine of which have been built since 2010. The Falmouth fleet, however, has never accepted anything but traditional construction.
Some discrepancies have emerged in rigging rules, too. The fleets have taken different views of running backstays and boom vangs, for example. (Solent does not permit running backstays, but Falmouth requires them; Solent allows solid vangs with springs to support the boom, but Falmouth allows solid vangs only without such springs.) The main difference, however, is that the Solent boats started permitting a 155-sq-ft spinnaker in 1925 and the Falmouth fleet has never allowed them. Instead, the Falmouth fleet retains an intriguing system called “kitty gear” for booming out the headsail when sailing downwind.
Kitty gear was originally used on all the Sunbeams, and Westmacott had previously specified it for the Mermaids, too. He may have incorporated the idea from that class’s predecessor, the 1907 G.U. Laws–designed yacht Mermaid class. The system consists of a pole with its inboard end permanently mounted to the forward face of the mast and the outboard end attached to the tack of the loose-luffed jib. From the forward end of the pole, a tack line is used to increase or decrease jib luff tension, and port and starboard guy lines lead aft to the quarters. When sailing downwind, the outboard end of the pole is hauled to the windward side and aft by use of the windward guy while slacking the leeward guy and the tack line. When sailing to windward, the guys are used to bring the tack back to the centerline at the stemhead, and the tack line tension is increased.
A conventional whisker pole, attached to the mast and to the sail’s clew, is an all-or-nothing system, whereas the kitty gear has the great advantage that it can be deployed to varying degrees: the jib tack can be hauled slightly away from the stem on a reach and increasingly farther away as the point of sail changes to a beam reach, broad reach, or run. On a dead run, the pole is more or less perpendicular to the centerline.
Once the windward guy is cleated, luff tension can be adjusted to suit the point of sail by using the tack line, a task made easier by having the pole angled from the mast to push the tack downward. There seem to be different ideas about luff tension, but at least one skipper, Neil Andrew, thinks that too much is a bad thing: “The leech will always be a little bit slack, so you need the luff to match that, otherwise you will be spilling wind at the top,” he said.
Originally, the tack line was taken below deck to a purchase system that led to the cockpit, but another skipper, Jonathan Money, came up with a new system after buying POLLY (ex-LINDY) in 1995. “It was a fairly antiquated class at the time,” he said, “and I fitted POLLY out more like a Dragon, with more sophisticated systems.” For his kitty gear, he led a Dyneema tack line via fairleads along the top of the deck, through the cockpit coaming to a clutch, and then to the centerline winch that is otherwise used for the jibsheets. His method has since been adopted by most other skippers.
Nick and Juliette Leach probably have as much experience as anyone in sailing both with the spinnaker-rigged Solent Sunbeams and those with kitty gear in Falmouth. Juliette very much prefers the latter: “The kitty gear is much easier,” she said. Her father was the captain of the Solent class in the 1970s, and she first sailed a Sunbeam, JOY (hull No. 2), with her parents when she was about six years old. She was still doing so when she got together with Nick in 1994. He, meanwhile, had sailed as a young teenager with the Falmouth fleet in ROMANY, which his father owned in the ’70s. They now own POLLY, sailing her out of Itchenor.
Both fleets limit the working sail area to 300 sq ft, with some flexibility in dividing that area between the mainsail and jib. Most Falmouth boats have 205-sq-ft mainsails and 95-sq-ft jibs, but the Solent boats, needing less jib area for sailing downwind, use mainsails of 215 sq ft and jibs of 85 sq ft. Fifty years ago, rules opened the way to aluminum spars, with specifications to keep the weight equal to wooden spars; today, partly because of the difficulty of finding suppliers for aluminum masts, the Solent fleet has voted to allow carbon-fiber masts after one of their boats, FLEURY, tested one in the latter part of the 2019 season. Carbon-fiber masts may create a problem for Falmouth, however, since the new masts are stiff enough to do without jumper stays, which the aluminum masts have always had. As Neil Andrew, a former class captain, notes, “Jumpers are adjustable, and many people argue that adjusting them is part of the skill of sailing a Sunbeam, and so not to have them would be a backward step.”
What are Sunbeams like to sail? Andrew has owned VERITY, hull No. 20, since 1996, and in 2018 he won, by the narrowest of margins, the Sunbeam Championships at Falmouth. After being a runner-up many times, it was his first championship, and he became, at 69, the oldest skipper to win it. “The performance,” he said, “is scintillating, especially in light winds, as they are a bit overcanvased. And they are very close-winded and perfectly balanced. They are a joy to sail, especially upwind.”
“I would argue that they are as pretty a one-design as ever designed,” said Money, the innovative former owner-skipper of POLLY. “And they sail as beautifully as they look. In the 1920s, they must have been so fast compared to anything else.”
Money found excellent buyers for his boat in 2015, when Nick and Juliette Leach bought POLLY. Initially, the Leaches sailed together in JOY, until the boat was sold. They took POLLY to Itchenor but have sailed in both the Solent and Falmouth events. The Sunbeams, Nick says, “are like a small yacht, but you don’t need to be particularly strong to sail them. You can do so whether you are 19 or 90.”
For Andrew, working on VERITY or just admiring her is every bit as enjoyable as sailing her.
“Sometimes,” Andrew said, “I look at her from a different angle or perspective, and I think, ‘How simply perfect is that hull shape, the shape of the deck, the sheer, the camber, the sweep of the cockpit coamings.’ And I think, ‘There is just no way you could improve on that.’”
Nigel Sharp is a lifelong sailor who started work as a freelance marine writer and photographer in 2010, having spent 35 years in the boat building and repair industry.