Splendid Sport – The Story of the RCOD Fleet 9 Apr 2005
This article is extracts from the RCODs 50th anniversary booklet which was originally printed in 1984. It told the story of the yachts and of their owners and crews as well as the craftsmen who built and maintained them. It, with updates from other anniversaries, is made available here on the weekend the RCODs celebrate their 80th!
The first Class Captain was right – the Royal Corinthian One Design Class has proved to be splendid sport. Newcomers to the RCYC have made their way into sailing through the RCOD fleet.
By 1934 there were several One Design fleets racing on the River Crouch. Only the Royal Corinthian did not have its own class and when Willie Hornby Steer joined the Club in 1934 it was with the aim of sharing one of the proposed new fleet of One Designs. He remembers the impetus for the RCODs coming from the Commodore F.G. Mitchell, whose portrait now hangs in the Dining Room. Harry Smith, the designer of the RCOD, also owned the Burnham Yacht Building Company and his firm built the majority of the boats. Four were made by King and Sons, whose famous boat-building yard was where the flats Kings Wharf now stand, and two were built in Brightlingsea by Stone. Harry Smith's Company also made two yachts in teak for export to Kenya.
The creation of a whole new class of yachts gave a boost to the boat building industry in Burnham during the '30s. Indeed, this was the great merit of the Class to local RCYC members like Percy Sabel, who was the first owner of Corsair. He supported the RCODs to help the yards to survive during the Depression. And, after the Burnham Yacht Building Company had finished the RCODs, five of the men who had worked on them had to leave the town because there was no more work for them in Burnham.
Building The Boats
The Burnham Yacht Building Company was in the shed behind King and Hines hardware shop in the High Street with the whole of the Maltings Yard which is now part of Priors.
Herbert Larter was one of the six men who worked on the RCODs in that yard and, as he remembered, they did everything on site. To cast the keels they dug a hole in the ground and lined it with timber. Then they put in the mould and packed it round with black sand. They had an old copper, standing on bricks, with a bonfire underneath for melting the lead. 'When it was all nice and hot and runny' Herbert Larter said 'we just turned the tap on and let the lead run into the mould'. He also remembered making the masts all in one go out of spruce.
The hulls were built upside down on moulds in the top part of the shed. It saved the boat builders from lying on their backs underneath the hull. This made the planking easier, particularly in the "tuck". Anyone who has varnished the inside of an RCOD will be familiar with the section of planks in the tuck just ahead of the rudder. Herbert Larter thought this might be a weak point because there is a great depth of keel at that point and when the boat is sailing hard it puts a lot of leverage on the hull around the tuck. That is also the part of an RCOD which might tell you where the boat was built because it seems that the Brightlingsea builders did not bother to round the planks inside so they are a series of flats.
Once the yachts were planked they were lowered out of the top floor shed, still upside down, and turned the right way up on the ground. Then the wooden and lead parts of the keel were bolted on.
There was little bought in for the yachts; even the fittings like cleats, blocks and sail slides were made by the yard. In fact, the RCODs had Smith's Patent Hanks. These were slides with a piece that spun round so that when the mainsail was flaked down on the boom it would fold neatly down the mast track.
Another builder from the Burnham Yacht Building Company remembered the day that two of them finished planking one of the RCODs and realised that it was just a little long. Harry Smith was very careful to make sure that all the boats were One Design but when he came to measure this one they had to let the end of the tape slip a bit as Mr. Smith reached the bow.
The design for the RCOD Class was completed and signed in July 1934. The yachts cost about £140.00 new and there was a fleet of fourteen racing at the beginning of 1935 which shows how quickly the project moved.
Number 1, Coral Nymph, was on the water probably at the end of 1934. She belonged to Mrs. Ogilvie who lent her to members to try. During an early trial the RCYC Journal reports 'a slight alteration from the fore to the after end of the lead keel. The keels of the other boats will be cast accordingly'.
It was a stormy spring in 1935 but for the second race of the season some dozen RCODs started and had an extraordinarily close race which was won by Corella.
A Friday Boat
Boatbuilders can be superstitious. One of these superstitions concerns boats launched on a Friday. Herbert Larter confirmed his belief in this superstition by telling of one RCOD launched on a Friday. He thought it was on Good Friday 1935 to be in time for the Easter racing. The yacht was craned in and the race started. He said: 'The thing that sticks in my mind is that she was a Friday boat and about two tacks after the start she was in collision with another boat and got holed in the bilge and they had to drive her up on the mud to stop her sinking. That's a Friday boat.'
Appropriately enough one of the first actions of the RCOD owners recorded in Yachting Monthly in 1935 was to hold the Class Dinner. 'Quite a crowd' attended and Mr. F.G. Mitchell, the Commodore, talked to the Class members about elementary racing tactics. The talk bore fruit. In June 1935 the Club Journal reported: 'Only one protest has been made this season to date. Two RCODs fouled at the Holliwell Mark and both protested against the other… A large gallery attended to hear the case.' A correction to the report had to be published in the next issue – feelings were obviously running high.
In its first season the RCODs and the Sharpies were the largest fleets in the Club. Each had sixteen boats racing. There was a heartening variety of winners in those first two months. They were Corella, Coryphee, Corsair, Coral Nymph, Cormorant and Corydon.
There was great enthusiasm for the new Class beyond Burnham. Yachtsmen came to see the RCODs from the Royal Natal Yacht Club. Two were sent to Kenya. Corinthia, at that time painted white and dark blue, was entered as a British exhibit to an international exhibition in Paris. She stood outdoors and there were some fears that the summer sun would dry her out but no harm seemed to have been done.
At its first meeting the Class made rules which anticipated the growth and spread of their new yachts. These laid down the colours of the sail insignia – red in Great Britain, black in Kenya, orange in South Africa and blue in France. It was also stipulated that all the yachts based in Burnham were to have names beginning with COR.
In the first year of racing the Seasons Points Cup was won by Coryphee (W.J. Mason) and Burnham Week by Corsair (Percy Sabel). Number 17 had been ordered and would be built during the winter. 'Who' the Class Captain asked ' will make it eighteen?'No one did. But in November 1935 Yachting Monthly's correspondent in Burnham wrote that orders had been placed for boats in South Africa, Australia and also for a class on the Broads. There is no trace of any of these but of the two sent to Kenya one was spotted by Ray Dowlen (Cork) in the 1970s.
The Class stopped growing after 1936 and settled down as a keen racing fleet.
The War Years
It is poignant now to read the September 1939 issue of Yachting Monthly. The Burnham column says: 'By the time these notes appear Burnham Week will be upon us once again and the end of another season. Fifteen classes are again catered for and I hear the entries are very satisfactory'.
Burnham Week was cancelled the day before War was declared. The White Harte Hotel had laid in its stocks for the Week and these kept the town afloat for the years ahead but the racing stopped.
In April 1940 there no restrictions on sailing on the Rivers Crouch, Roach and Blackwater. Some members from the various Clubs launched One Designs and went sailing. Later civilians were banned and the boats were used by the Training Ship which was based in the RCYC at the beginning of the War. Members like Mrs. Joyce Leith (Cork) who lived on the Quay used to recall with fury how they could see the One Designs sailing but were not themselves allowed to go on the river. Eventually all the yachts were laid up.
Mr. Vic Chiddicks worked at Petticrows (then a boatyard at the back of the RCYC) throughout the War. He described how they used to fill the One Designs with water to stop them drying out and when the Marines moved into the RCYC they used to take a turn with the hoses, fighting each other with them and keeping everything damp at the same time. In fact the greatest danger to the yachts seems to have been from the exercises around the Clubhouse and the boat sheds rather than from enemy action. Vic Chiddicks remembered one mock battle when a bullet went straight through an ECOD, then through another boat and stopped in the topsides on a yacht full of Marines.
In spite of the precautions that had been taken you could see daylight through the topsides by the end of the war. And, as soon as the country was at peace, the owners wanted to get back to normal and into the water as quickly as possible.
The RCODs were filled with water ashore to help them to take up. Only two of them had had stainless rigging and, as they had all been laid up in a hurry, nothing had been washed in fresh water. After six years ashore the rigging had rusted, the ropes had rotted and so, said Vic Chiddicks 'We were busy as anything after the War'. His wife had also worked throughout the War as a wire splicer and she was kept on by Petticrows to renew the One Designs' rigging.
In 1946 the fleet was back in the water and racing, all ready for the 2nd state of its life.
After the War the Class started to think about keeping up with the times. The Class rules ensured its One Design status. The desire for good, competitive and economical racing led to long discussions, class meetings and a few changes. There are some recurring themes in the maturing of the RCOD Class.
The Sail Plan
The boats were designed with the bermudan rig they have today but with a roller jib. This was amended by yacht designer, Norman Dallimore in 1948 to substitute the roller with a hanked on jib and a spinnaker.
Of course not all the RCODs took to anything so new-fangled as a spinnaker straight away and as late as the 1950s Cork, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Leith, and Corposant, sailed by the Corinthian Otters, retained the old system. This came into its own while reaching. At those moments when a spinnaker does not quite pay then the jib boomed round slightly often did. Corposant got her spinnaker when the Salmon/Maxwell/Boulnois partnership took over in 1958 and Cork had already re-rigged in 1956. Both went on to be winners.
For the fleet as a whole the spinnakers put new strains on the yachts – particularly in the mast area which became a weak point. Shipwright, Harry Stebbings, remembered carrying out the operation providing new oak floors, stronger mast steps, new hanging knees and a tie rod from beam to mast step.
The first committee on sails sat in 1936 and looked into better cloth and the positioning of battens. At that time the cloth was cotton. In 1957 the sailmakers Cranfield and Carter answered a query from the RCOD Class Secretary Peter Gimpel (Corella) about the use of terylene. As always the Class had to move with the times but not without a lot of discussion and a vote. Terylene was allowed the following year and four brave owners – W.R. Hornby Steer (Coram), J.Odle (Corinna), M. Gaffney (Coryphee) and J. Campbell (Corsair) – led the way and got a discount for bulk ordering and cash.
A committee on sails in the 1970s tightened up the rules and clarified the measurements, the cut and the materials to be used. But in essence the sail plan has stayed the same.
There was another committee in the 1970s because the RCODs decided, with some trepidation, to look into the possibility of metal spars. Several owners had had unhappy experiences with new wooden masts that either had no shape or broke in the first blow. Charles Williams (Coriander), a trained joiner with an experienced eye for wood, put this down to the poor quality of wood available.
Two slightly different metal masts were put on trial by Nick Hartshorn (Cordial) and John Heathfield (Cordon Bleu). They were rigged to be as near to the traditional wooden mast as possible. In practice the spreaders had to be moved down the mast to make it work and a mast was designed – with a metal hook and slab reefing instead of roller – which was adopted by the Class.
(Update) By the 1990s the original mast section was no longer available so there were a number of different mast sections in use with one owner sporting a cut down Dragon mast and doing rather well with it. Holt Allen were asked to produce a set of drawings based on the Dragon section for consideration. After much discussion this was adopted and now the opinion in the Class is that it is more efficient, stronger and more elegant.
Back in their infancy the RCODs were painted with whatever took the owner's fancy. Later, in the interests of fair racing, it was decided to lay down the type of antifouling paint to be used. The scrubbing dates had been fixed from an early stage.
Even using the same make of antifouling and launching within a month the owners complained about the different rates at which yachts were fouling. The Chief Marine Chemist from International Paints attended the Burnham Week scrub in 1953. On his suggestion, in 1954, the Class decided that not only should the boats' bottoms be painted with the same brand of antifouling but with paint from the same batch. They still seemed to foul at different rates.
By the 1970s owners had heard of new types of antifouling Was it, a few of them wondered, time to change brand loyalty? Another committee was set up. Martin and Jean Whipgood who had moved from crewing in RCODs to the comfort of their own cruiser, volunteered to paint one side of their boat with the current antifouling and the other with something else. The committee inspected the result. Both sides had grown similar amounts of weed. The vote in the antifouling referendum on that occasion was for no change.
(Update) Over the years the old red algicide became less and less effective probably because of the stringent anti-pollution regulations that were being introduced. So now the boats are antifouled with Micron Optima. One effect of the new anti-fouling is that the class has been able to dispense with the haul-out and scrub at the end of June. 'Now' said Class Captain Hugh Davies in 2002 'we only need to do a scrub and dress just before Burnham Week.'
In 1935 the Class adopted their own points system instead of using the one approved by the RCYC In it the winner received points equal to the number of starters plus one, the second boat received points equal to the number of starters minus one and everyone else got one less all the way down the fleet.
In 1974 two experimental systems were run alongside the Class one. These showed that although the winner remained the same the middle of the fleet positions changed to favour those who turned out regularly rather than those who did well occasionally in large fleets. To address this Gerry Salmon (Corpo Santo) introduced the Early and Late Seasons Points Trophies to give those turned out at the cold ends of the season something to aim for.
A dramatic failure of the 'number of starters' points system came in Burnham Week 1976. Cordial, helmed by Nick Hartshorn, was ahead on the Week by Friday evening. A big turnout was expected for the last Saturday so if he did not sail, thus reducing the number of available points, he could not be caught.
He sailed, he did not win and so he tied for the Week with Cormorant. Derek Caudle (Cormorant) promptly proposed the Club minimum points system for Burnham Week which was accepted the following year.
(Update) This minimum points system was later adopted for the whole season and is still in use and suits the Class well. There was a suggestion for a fancy newer system in the mid-1990s but there did not appear to be any advantage in it. So, in 2002, the minimum points system still reigns.
The seventeen yachts that began racing in 1935 were all still out on the water until the 1950s. One was sunk without trace in 1953. Only about four boats were out on a blustery day. Corvette was leading with Cornichon second as they approached the mouth of the Roach with spinnakers set. The sky darkened and John Barker, crewing for Peter Gimpel on Corella in third place, saw a gust hit the front of the fleet. Cornichon heeled, filled and sank. Two of the crew stayed with the boat and were picked up by Corella sailing between the mast and hull of the sunken yacht. The two other crew members had been swept away on the ebb. They were rescued although one of them had to be pumped out.
Cornichon disappeared and no trace of her was found until the Burnham Week of that year which was also stormy. Derek Caudle tells of a fisherman who came into the RCYC lounge carrying a tiller he had found on the Buxey Sands which, he thought, might belong to the missing One Design. It was Cornichon's but that was all that was ever found.
There was a tragic sinking in 1962 when Number 13, Corncrake, sank and a young woman lost her life. After this disaster all the RCODs installed buoyancy and the Class also introduced the rule that everyone should wear a life jacket in stormy conditions.
Several RCODs have been awash since installing buoyancy and it has worked. And, superstition again, number 13 took the number of the disappeared number 10 and was renamed Cordon Bleu.
The Class was created to race and race it has. Not only has it had its own races it has provided teams for the Club and good sailors for other fleets.
The RCOD Class produced a winning team for the Scheldt Trophy with Marsh Gaffney (Coryphee), Gerry Salmon (Corpo Santo) and Bob Walkden (Corella). RCOD owners like Alan Myer (Corella) went on to success in his ocean racer Galloper and Pat Dyas (Corella) became a leading figure in Dragons and Admiral of the RCYC until his death in 2002. Other owners that moved into Dragons, Etchells and Sports Boats include Bob Melville, Peter Gimpel, Chris Edwards, Duncan Kay, Nigel Cole plus Dick and Rachel Threlfall.
In 1980 a new cup was presented for the best performance by any One Design in Burnham Week. The first name on the Bim Jones Trophy is that of an RCOD – Coram with George Winder.
(Addition) Derek Caudle (Cormorant) presented the Caudle Cup to be competed for by the RCODs and the RBODs. to promote good relations between the neighbouring fleets on the river. But the hottest competition has always been within the fleet itself and almost all the boats have had a winning streak as the variety of names on the sides of the cups show.
A person's first sail in an RCOD can be a turning point as they decide to spend every Saturday afternoon in the future getting very wet and increasingly stiff and sore around the knees.
Willie Hornby Steer, who owned Coram from new for more than forty years, left his mark on the Class both by his clubbable personality and by the large number of people he brought into the fleet as his crew. The stories were legion – masts broke, crew fell overboard, on windy days he might shout 'Cut the Halyards'. But Coram always made it back to the mooring in time for the cocktail hour.
Allan Munro started as a partner before he and Kay took over Corsair completely. He used to recruit his crew from the London Scottish Rugby team. In Burnham Week 1969 the Times correspondent wrote 'The venerable Corsair sailed by Allan Munro won the RCOD event. It was a victory of human flesh over the wind. Corsair, thirty years old, carried four men weighing altogether fifty-three stones without a single reef as a concession to the wind….'. Allan, as Class Captain, used to summon the whole fleet for training on a Sunday morning. They gathered, slightly hungover, while he explained team work and tactics, divided them into teams and sent them out to race.
The Munros were a famous partnership. There have been many others. Mrs. Mason insisted her husband, Bill, said 'Please..' in front of orders which slowed things down a bit. Arthur Campbell and his brother George bought Cornichon from Lady Burton. George beat her down from £105.00 to £102.10s because of the boat's poor racing record. Later they sold her and went in with George's wife Dorothy in Corinthia, in which they were most successful.
Addition: More recently a wife (crewing) was heard to say to her husband (helming) during a flat calm: "I can feel a breeze coming". "No" came back the reply "it is not. The burgee is more sensitive than you dear." Ouch.
A dark secret was the results of an archaeological dig into 45 years worth of black varnish in Coram's bilges. As well as uncovering the usual screws and yacht fittings this revealed a variety of fly buttons.
The imminent end of the RCOD Class was first predicted in the 1960s. When the Ajax N23 was introduced many thought the days of the RCOD were numbered. Hugh Somerville, the Sunday Times Yachting Correspondent writing in 1967, referred to the Ajax as a 'replacement for some of the crumbling local keel boat classes…' Could the 'c' in RCOD possibly stand for 'crumbling'? Many seemed to think it did.
Two years later Hugh Somerville visited Burnham again and he was taken to task about this article in the nicest possible way – he was invited for a sail with Tony Cash in Coryphee. It was very windy. Coryphee heeled and filled. With her full buoyancy she stayed awash with all crew safely aboard. Hugh Somerville was most impressed by the seamanlike way in which he was picked up by Derek Caudle in Cormorant and offered Derek's spare pair of dry trousers. He finished his next article 'Who said crumbling classes anyway?'
The RCODs should be safe from crumbling. Herbert Larter said they have a good chance of not going rotten because they were planked in mahogany (whereas the ECODs for example were planked in soft wood. Stan King, who built four of the RCODs liked them because the keels were made of lead which does not deteriorate.
The boats themselves have stayed One Design while adopting changes that made for good sailing. The big change in the last seventy years has been they way in which they are sailed.
Photographs of the fleet in the 1930s show the RCODs heeling over in a high wind, reefed well down with the helmsman and crew sitting in the cockpit, their yachting caps just showing over the coaming, apparently unmoved by the fact that the boats are tipping over at quite an angle. Now the crew sit out, there are metal spars, tiller extensions and hardly a yachting cap in sight.
The RCODs appeal is made up of their sleek lines, the close racing they have offered and the good company of the Class members. The phrase "splendid sport" sums up the strength of the class because although, of course, it is best to win there has always been excellent racing to be had at any position in the fleet.
Update: Although the Class was badly damaged in the '87 hurricane the numbers are building up again. The RCODs enjoyed their 70th anniversary in 2005 and are looking forward to their 80th in 2015 with eleven of the original seventeen boats entered.
As Willie Hornby Steer (6' 6") said, he was an RCOD Class member for 45 years because the people were nice and if the boat ever went on the mud one 'could just step overboard and push off'. What more can one ask.
Updates: 2005. Wendy Eagling