From the board of Alfred Westmacott, the Solent Sunbeam is a pretty dayboat that still offers excellent racing in two main centres on the UK’s South Coast, as David Henshall explains
Given the ‘local boat’ flavour enjoyed by many of the one-design yachts and dayboats found around our coasts, it is not surprising that many are attributed to little-known ‘local’ designers.
There is one name in this field that surpasses all others, however, for in addition to drawing the lines of many beautifully proportioned yachts, Alfred Westmacott would also give sailing three of its great enduring designs, the X One Design (1909), Seaview Mermaid (1921) and the Solent Sunbeam (1922).
A look at these boats shows the maturing artistry of Westmacott, the designer who, on being told that he couldn’t allow Mermaids to be built for anyone but Seaview Yacht Club, took the design on a further stage with the lines that would become the Sunbeam, a true modern classic. This class was 90 in 2013.
A traditionally trained naval architect from the Victorian era, Westmacott responded to a commission from three Hamble-based yachtsmen to design a racing dayboat by producing a boat that was not only pretty, but one that could handle the boisterous conditions of the Solent.
The new boats were built at the Woodnutt boatyard at St Helens on the Isle of Wight and at 26ft 5in LOA, with long and graceful overhangs, were a full 2ft longer than the Mermaid, although the beam had been kept to a slender 6ft. For the new design, Westmacott specified carvel construction, with pine planking laid over oak frames.
In comparison with the Mermaid, Westmacott firmed up bilges on the Sunbeam and, despite a long, deep keel, thanks in part to a generous high aspect rig, the first boats were considered excessively tender. The problem was soon solved by the addition of some carefully shaped pig iron ballast that was nested down into the floor.
West Country differences
The Sunbeam proved popular from the outset, not only in the Solent, but down in Cornwall where an active fleet was formed at Falmouth. The distance between the two fleets resulted in some differences – for instance, the West Country boats race without a spinnaker, whereas the Solent fleet, which has been focused at Itchenor SC since the 1930s, allows their use.
The Solent Sunbeam class rules allow a great deal of freedom in the rig and layout of the boat
- A lever mast ram in front of the mast.
- Thwartships track for moving genoa sheeting inboard.
- Rig control lines cleared away from the decks and taken below.
- Optional rod kicker system.
- 2:1 genoa sheet, brought back to the cockpit, through cleats, then neatly through coaming to crew.
- Main winch for tensioning jib and mainsheet halyards.
- Spinnaker sheets brought forward and into the cockpit.
- Low level side seating can either keep crew weight low down in the hull or facilitate sitting up on the deck – but no sitting out, toestraps are not allowed.
- Soft wire loop on boom for stowing spinnaker pole.
At Itchenor the boat that everyone strives to beat is Danny (V26), helmed by Roger Wickens. Behind Wickens there is very close competition in the chasing pack, with Stewart Reed sailing one of the newer boats, Firefly (V62), duelling with Gayle Palmer in Little Lady (V6).
Then there is Jonathon Money who brings Polly (V18) up from Falmouth. This combination of boat and helmsman has a hot reputation for front running in the fleet.
Buying new and second-hand
Unlike many other local one-designs, new Sunbeams have continued to be built, both in the Solent and down in Cornwall, although as the costs for building a new wooden boat climbed up towards the painful six-figure sum, building using these traditional methods came to a halt in 2008.
However, with a focus on both reducing cost and modernising maintenance practices, the class welcomed glassfibre construction, a move that has ensured an influx of new boats and crews into the fleet. Two new boats have already been launched in 2013 and three new boats are planned for 2014. The availability of a fully fitted out new boat, including sails and all gear, for around £60,000 is freeing up boats onto the second-hand market, where boats can be purchased for less than £20,000.
Extreme care was taken that the new glassfibre boats were carefully laid up to ensure a similar weight distribution to the existing wooden hulls, so they only enhanced the Sunbeam’s reputation for close, but convivial competition. With the cockpits and woodwork on the glassfibre boats being completed in highly varnished teak, the new boats have also maintained the tradition of Sunbeams looking as good as they sail.
With restored old boats, new glassfibre boats and a growing fleet with their own start at Cowes Week, the prospects for the Sunbeam are looking bright!
LOA 8.00m/26ft 5in
LWL 5.30m/17ft 6in
Beam 1.80m/6ft 0in
Draught 1.19m/3ft 9in
Sail area 27.9m2/300ft2