The little pram dinghy that gave so many of us a lifelong love of sailing is 50 years old

Mine was number 33,524, painted blue when we bought her and called Domino. Like so many people, my father bought a Mirror dinghy to teach himself – and me – to sail. I started as his race crew, aged about 7 or 8, and that little dinghy and the love of sailing and boats it ignited was to influence the course of my whole life.

The same thing could be said, I am sure, for tens of thousands of Mirror sailors. Few boats have had such a wide-ranging and democratic effect as the Jack Holt/Barry Bucknell creation, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Happy, happy birthday dear old Mirror.

The little 11ft pram dinghy was launched at the London Boat Show in 1963 for the princely sum of £63. Its unique attraction was that it was relatively inexpensive to buy and could easily be built from a plywood kit using the simple ‘stitch and glue’ method.

The Mirror was developed with some input from Bernard Hayman, then Editor of Yachting World. He took the prototype out with the features editor (and also budding designer) David Thomas for its first public outing. They went out into the Medway on a breezy day. Hayman sailed it for a while then it was David’s turn. “The mast step was a wooden chock with a hole right through. The mast was sitting on the stitch and glue keel joint, which was weeping,” he remembers.

“‘Hold on Bernard,’ I muttered and gave the mainsheet a good heave. The joint let go. “We’re sinking,” said Bernard. “We must take this round to Jack Holt and let him sort it out.”‘ He did. The Mirror dinghy phenomenon was born.

The Mirror was my first command. It was a very suitable one for a child, being very buoyant and under-canvassed. My Dad moved on to racing bigger boats when I was about 10 and left me to get on with racing the Mirror, which I did precociously and zealously every weekend and twice a week after school. If I look back now, I’m sure that being allowed complete control of my own boat at this age taught lifelong lessons in independence and cultivated a great sense of adventure.

In the summer, Domino was put on a road trailer and came on holiday where it magically turned into an expeditionary voyager. No cruise since has ever seemed more epic than the trip across Sheephaven Bay to the village of Dunfanaghy for an HB ice cream, or from Killowen across to Carlingford.

On Carlingford Lough the kid crews were occasionally stopped on our cross-border expeditions by an army patrol (the Army operated a ship in the lough back then) and the soldiers seemed incredulous that people would allow us to roam around without any obvious adult supervision. I’m sure our parents were keeping an eye out from somewhere.

Eventually, the excitement of the Laser lured me, and many other teenagers, away from the Mirror and it was sold. I don’t even remember when that was. I must never have given my first love even a backward glance over the shoulder.

But the thrill of the Laser didn’t match its promise. There was no Radial racing, and if it blew hard I was too light to be competitive. And I missed the fun and companionableness of having a crew. Solo racing felt lonely, serious.

After that it was all about successively larger club racers and then, later, cruising and exploration. But if I’m really honest I’d say that very few experiences have ever matched the excitement of racing the Mirror as a child. The sounds and smells of the dinghy park still thrill me: the tinny percussion of halyards frapping on dinghy masts instantly produces a emotional surge of trepidation and exhilaration. Just as evocative is the warm, resinous smell of varnished plywood in the sun.

We’ve all moved on, and it was quite a shock to find out recently that the Mirror dinghy has pimped itself for the 21st Century and got on with courting new and younger admirers. I was genuinely taken aback to discover that the Mirror is no longer gunter rigged. Hey, that business of lacing on the mainsail and feeding the bolt rope into the gaff was a ritual!

The main now has a central sheet purchase. Well, excuse me, that hole in the transom was made specially for the bitter end of the mainsheet.

Since it was first launched, over 70,000 Mirror dinghies have been built. They still race all over the world, and I’m sure give parents and children as much pleasure to sail and race as they did 50 years ago. You can pick one up for £300-400, or pay ten times that or more for a race-ready one. Either way, they are fantastic value for the sport you get, and a wonderful way to share with children – and then to hand over, please – the glory of sailing and the thrill of competitiveness.

Read more about the history of the Mirror dinghy in the April issue of Yachting World, out in a few weeks’ time.

But what about you? Have you got a special Mirror dinghy memory?