Dinghy sailing is the activity of sailing small boats by using the five essential controls: (1) the sails and (2) underwater foils (daggerboard or centreboard and rudder). It also involves adjusting (3) the trim (forward/rear angle of the boat in the water) and (4) side to side balance of the dinghy by movement of the crew, particularly in windy weather ("move fast or swim"). In rivers and tidal waters (5) the effective choice of route (in terms of existing and anticipated wind shifts, possible obstacles, other water traffic, currents, etc.) is the final essential skill.
When racing, the above skills need to be refined and additional skills and techniques learned, such as the application of the "racing rules of sailing", boat handling skills when starting and when rounding marks, and knowledge of tactics and strategy. Racing tactics include sailing so as to minimise the effect of other competitor's sails on your speed, or to influence their movements to your advantage.
Those shared challenges, and the variability of the weather and sea can make dinghy sailing and racing a fascinating and rewarding recreational sport: physically, mentally, and in terms of personal relationships with other crew member(s), competitors, and organizers.
Development of the dinghy
There has always been a need for small tender boats for transporting goods and personnel to and from anchored sailing ships. Together with other smaller work craft such as fishing and light cargo, small inshore craft have always been in evidence. Charles II of England had a private sailing boat presented to him when he returned from exile to England in the 17th century, and he sailed for recreation and competition.
In 1887 Thomas Middleton, A Dublin Solicitor considered that yacht racing was becoming an excessively expensive activity, with boats becoming eclipsed by better designs each year. He proposed the 'One design' principle. He wanted yacht racing to be an exercise of skill with all boats being built to the same design. He called the boat 'The Water Wag'. The Water Wag Club still prospers in Dun Laoghaire harbour, with racing each Wednesday evening during the Summer season.
Towards the end of the 19th century people began to use these small boats for sport and recreational sailing, utilising the opportunities for leisure afforded by the industrial revolution. Larger privately used sailing boats had developed separately, and have resulted in the yachts of today. There has been some crossover, in that the sloop sail plan was adopted as standard and most convenient by early dinghy designers.
Planing and trapezing
The development of the sailing dinghy was helped in the early 20th century by Uffa Fox (1898–1972), an English boat designer and sailing enthusiast. He developed and contributed to many dinghy classes which are still with us nearly a century later: the Albacore, International 14, National 12, the Firefly, Flying Fifteen and the Scorpion.
He also introduced the major advance of hull shapes which can plane, and which can therefore reach beyond the usual speed limits for small sailing boats. In effect, a boat which is planing is skimming along the surface, rising up on its own bow wave. This results in less friction because of reduced waterline length, reduced displacement (the amount of water needing to be pushed aside by the boat), and reduced 'wetted area'. The power given by the sails has to overcome less resistance, and therefore speed increases dramatically.
In 1928 Uffa Fox introduced planing to an astonished racing world in his International 14 boat, the Avenger. He gained 52 first places, two second places and three third places out of 57 race starts that year. Note: Graham Anderson in his 1999 book Fast Light Boats, a Century of Kiwi Innovation  argues that planing centreboard sailing boats were introduced into New Zealand in the early 20th century - well before Uffa Fox popularised the concept.
Another advance in dinghy sailing was introduced in the 1930s, when the technique of trapezing was introduced. This involves using the crew to provide more leverage to keep the sails vertical, by hanging outside the boat on a harness and rope attached to the 'hounds' or upper mast. As a result the boat is easier to keep upright, and the sails can deliver maximum power most of the time.
Trapezing during a race first appeared in 1934, on the Thames A Class Rater Vagabond sailed by Peter Scott (son of the famous Scott of the Antarctic), and John Winter. The owner of the boat, Beecher Moore, of Thames Sailing Club had worked on developing the technique, in discussion with Uffa Fox. Vagabond was spectacularly successful in that race, winning by four minutes.
The innovative technique was immediately banned, and received little development until it was reintroduced on the Osprey and Fiveohfive Class (505) in 1954 by John Westell and the Flying Dutchman class in the early 1960s.
Post WWII developments
During the Second World War plywood had become a major building material for aircraft. After the war, plywood was adapted for building sailing dinghies. Two primary methods of construction were adopted: Stitch and glue and timber framed construction. Jack Holt designed many dinghies to be built by home handymen using these construction techniques. The Mirror Dinghy was predominantly built using stitch and glue, while the Heron is an example of a boat built using plywood on a timber frame.
At the beginning of the 21st century, dinghy sailing is still a rapidly developing sport. It is losing its image of being expensive, time consuming and exclusive. This is because of the earlier work of pioneers such as Uffa Fox, and through the use of modern designs and techniques such as lighter hull materials (e.g., fibreglass and foam sandwich hull construction, which eliminate time-consuming maintenance of wooden hulls), more responsive sail materials and design, easily transportable boats (many car-toppable), and simpler rigs such as Gennakers instead of more complex Spinnakers. These advances are more economical in time and money, and have greatly extended the appeal of dinghy sailing.
Increasingly sailing is a young person's sport, and the number of participants is mushrooming. In many dinghy clubs in the UK the adult members are sometimes outnumbered by junior members, and the balance of activities can change from mainly racing to increasingly providing training courses.
Sailing is also becoming more accessible to people with disabilities, partly through new boat designs, and generally through recognition of everybody's right to participate in all areas of life. (See the Sailability website)
In Britain dinghy sailing has also been considerably advanced by the RYA, the regulatory authority which regulates racing and which provides modular and accredited training courses for leisure and competitive sailing. A basic sailing course can be completed in several days, and participants can be sure that the training is competent and delivered in a safe setting. Similar organisations exist worldwide in most other countries to administer and promote both leisure and competitive sailing.
Types of dinghies
The origial 'one design' dinghy was the Dublin Bay Water Wag of 1887, designed by Thomas Middleton.
Skiffs are the fastest and arguably most difficult type of dinghy to sail. A skiff has a flat narrow hull with a disproportionately large sailplan, usually consisting of an asymmetric spinnaker, blade jib and fully battened main. Sailors manage the rig with the use of racks (wings) and trapeze. Examples are the 49er, an Olympic boat, 18 Footers (see below) and the advanced International 14
High Performance dinghies are fast and powerful dinghies designed for racing around an Olympic triangle (Olympic Racing Course). Examples of such dinghies are the International Flying Dutchman, the International 505, the Jet 14, the Fireball, the Osprey, the Javelin and the International 470. They can all plane easily, even upwind and they use trapeze and a symmetric spinnaker. Not all are two handed boats: the International Contender and the RS600 are high performance single handed boats equipped with a trapeze, but not a spinnaker, and demonstrate a comparable performance. Skiffs are usually classed as High performance dinghies.
Cruising dinghies are designed for leisure and family sailing and are usually more stable than high performance dinghies. This is provided by a 'chined' (less rounded) hull, greater displacement, and proportionally smaller sail area. Examples of these are the Wayfarer, the Mirror, the Laser Stratos, the Drascombe, the CL 16 and the Laser 16. Sailing these boats can still give much excitement.
Classic dinghies are typically used as yacht tenders or shore boats, and emphasize beauty and versatility over sailing performance. Although many are still made entirely from wood, the majority of the most popular classic sailing dinghies combine a fiberglass hull with enough finely finished teak or mahogany to represent the "best of two worlds" approach. Examples of classic sailing dinghies are Minto, Fatty Knees, Trinka, Bauer, Whitehall and Gig Harbor.
Catamarans are fast twin hulled boats which fall under the definition of dinghy, unlike dinghies catamarans have high aspect ratio rigs with fully battened mainsails and a rotating mast, this allows the rig to be highly aerodynamic and gives a catamaran with two slim hulls its great speed advantidge over traditional monohulls.
Racing dinghies cover a wide range, and many are descended from Uffa Fox's seminal International 14. People often "travel" with their dinghies to international races in famous sailing spots such as Lake Garda in Italy. The Snipe International Class still stands as one of the strongest classes, after reaching the status of world's largest fleet of dinghies in July 1936. The International 14 remains a popular racing class, having acquired racks (for trapezing crews) and a gennaker since its original design. The Laser Standard, Laser Radial and Laser 4.7 are the variants of the Laser dinghy, a single-hander whose combination of simplicity, portability and performance has done much to advance dinghy racing and training. More modern dinghies like the Musto Skiff,, Splash, RS600 and RS Vareo have also increased dinghy sailing participation around the UK. Two popular dinghies used in high school and college racing are the 420 and Flying Junior.
Sports Boats: These classes are larger off-shore racing dinghies which shade off into classes of yachts with fixed keels. Usually they have several crew members as well as the helm. Melges 24 and Laser SB3 are current examples of this type.
Development classes: Most dinghy classes have a fairly fixed layout of sails and hull design, and changes are very infrequent. However, some classes can compete and sail with less rigid definitions and measurements. This encourages experiment which often leads to innovation in techniques and construction. Examples are the International 14, National 12, the 18ft Skiff and the International Moth. The Moth is worth noting because of its use of foils on the rudder and daggerboard. These generate enough lift to push the hull above the water, significantly reducing friction and allowing speeds in excess of 25 knots (46 km/h). Classes which are not development classes are usually referred to as "One design". The first one design was the Water Wag, which first sailed in Dublin Bay in 1887. The class is still sailed today, well over a hundred years later.
Learning to sail
Many people learn to sail at accredited sailing schools, or through their local sailing club. Many of these schools teach certificated syllabuses which first of all teach the beginner how to sail in manageable chunks, and then after the first couple of lessons they usually begin teaching more advanced skills or moving onto more powerful rigs. Boats that many children learn to sail in, are the International Optimists, and the Laser Funboat and Picos. The Wayfarer is a standard teaching boats for Adult schemes. In the UK, the RYA is the governing body of all dinghy sailing qualifications offering children's Stage 1 through 4 certificates, and Adult Level 1 and 2 certificates. More and more boat hire companies ask to see certificates before they will allow you to hire out a boat.
Racing is one of the most popular forms of dinghy sailing, and it contributes to the development of sailing skills as well as to improvements in dinghy and sail construction and design.
Lists of dinghy classes
Bob Bond "The Handbook of Sailing" DK & Pelham Books revised 1996 ISBN 0-7207-2016-8
- SailJuice: Articles about how to Sail and Race Faster
- News, Opinion and Controversy from the Racing world of Sailing
- 470 sailing team
- A UK dinghy sailing forum for enthusiasts and instructors.