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Exclusive Interview with David Thomas

Monday, 05 December 2011

One of Britain's most prolific yacht designers, David Thomas, made his name with classics such as the Impala, Elizabethan, Sonata, Hunter 707 and Sigma range.

David Thomas has also worked with Cornish Crabbers and Mystery Yachts to create the Mystery 30, the Cornish Crabber 26 and the Crabber 12.

In this exclusive interview, David Thomas discusses his 43 year career and the imminent launch of his latest baby.

What were your early experiences that have influenced you to become a yacht designer?

My Star Sign is Cancer the Crab. After being Blitzed in Southampton we went to live near the little harbour of Eling at the navigable top of Southampton Water. My new friends all seemed to be involved with canoes or small dinghies. We bought a 9ft clinker rowing dinghy when I was 10. I was taken under the wing of various members of the Eling Sailing Club with my main inspiration coming from an ex- Carpenter and crew on the then King's yacht Britannia; “The Chippy off the Britty “as he put it. He taught me the 'proper' ways to row and and handle a boat - tie knots splice ropes etc. Another member fitted a centreboard in my dinghy and my mother and I made a sail from Egyptian Cotton donated by the Commodore Mr Hatcher who owned a little engineering company nearby. Sailing races were organised by the Club although sailing in yachts was not allowed again until after the War. When that time came my father and I searched for a new dinghy and found a 12 footer that had been laid up during the war. Her owner had not come back for her. She had a fine bronze badge on her transom saying that she was built at the Belvedere Yard on the River Itchen. When Mr Hatcher saw her he said “ my grandfather designed that dinghy, she's an Itchen Ferry Punt”. It transpired that he was a grandson of the famed Dan Hatcher who designed some of the fastest gaff – rigged, Itchen Ferry type fishing and racing yachts of the 1930's. I designed a new Gunter Rig for Heron11 and a Half Deck to make her more seaworthy for the voyages that were planned. My school friend Alan and I cruised her round the Solent and won the Victory Regatta dinghy race in her at Dockhead in September 1945.

How did you come to design your first boat?

I carried on with my sailing and spent a lot of time thinking about my parallel interest in architecture - civil engineering - big bridges - Winchester Cathedral and so on. I contacted the leading yacht designers and they all said “ go to university” or “ get an apprenticeship with a ship building company” . An older friend came on leave from his Merchant Navy apprenticeship as a Deck Officer and painted such an attractive picture of his experiences that I was smitten. After 10 years I came away with a Masters Ticket having made sailing friends in many countries and managed to fit in lots of sailing experience in a variety of different craft. After coming ashore I spotted an advertisment for an editorial assistant at Yachting Word. They had 200 plus applicants and I was in the final ten for interviews . Then I remembered that they had published a teenage dinghy cruising article that I had submitted and that just managed to turn things my way. I learned a completely new career and ended up as assistant editor and it was during that time I had an idea for a new racing dinghy. I used the designer’s desk during our lunch hour to create a boat called the ‘Unit’. It was selected by the International Yacht Racing Union as a boat to replace the Finn class racing dinghy. The Unit had a brief career, but it was enough to get me started. Of course, my more successful boats came afterwards. At the time, I sailed with a boat builder from Lymington who asked me to design him a cruising yacht– I designed the Elizabethan 31 for a 'job and finish ' fee of £200. She did well for him and he then came back for a Half- Ton cruiser racer. We raced her offshore successfully and then won the Gold Roman Bowl in the Round The Island Race in 1970. After that I drew a Quarter Tonner, Quarto, which won the J.O.G . Championship After that, my opportunities to design have come about by good fortune – usually being in the right place at the right time. The Sigma range started after a chance meeting with the Managing Director of Marine Projects, David King and old friend David Hopkins on the pontoon at Southampton Boat Show . I also designed a successfull quarter tonner, which lead to an approach by Hunter Boats to do them a new little boat that became the National Sonata and resulted in many more Hunter yachts. After my ten years as a journalist, I became Production Manager with sailmakers Ratsey and Lapthorn for another ten year period, but as I was designing so many boats in my spare time I felt confident to take it up properly and so my Company David Thomas Yachts Ltd was formed.

How has technology influenced your designs and what methods do you prefer?

I was a self-taught yacht designer having learned much from the incredible books of Uffa Fox but I took to the mathematics and drawing side of it quite easily. I did a lot of cruising and racing, on both my own designs and others. I have learned most about design by keeping seriously active on the water. For me, professional standards and technology crept in to my normal sailing practice, but never shifted my focus from the value of the highest available practical sailing experience. I was designing spinnakers at Ratseys using a Sharps  programmable calculator and the spherical haversine formulae from my professional navigating time and proving the sails to win races in my Soling. I changed from hand drawing to computer drawing in the later 1970s and found that the computer gradually improved both my accuracy and the quality of my output. The computer can do in minutes what the hands would take days. It can also be a remarkably artistic tool with care and practice. However I would recommend embryo hull designers to work with their hands first, for it is through the hands that the heart goes into the hull.

You have continuously designed new and innovative sail boats for decades. How do you develop ideas?

This is very difficult to answer, I’ve always been confident that I could produce the boat that people were looking for. I could take their specification and use my experience to create something that would be a nice boat to handle and own. My priority was that mine would be safe boats too. I can remember going down to Gilkicker to watch the start of an RORC race when bad weather was forecast and then going home to my bed when the sailors were off to race through the night in dangerously testing conditions This was one of my main worries as a designer. It can be a lot of pressure when you consider that the risk is not just to the builders who put their new product into your hands, but also that of the crews who put their lives in the hands of the designer when they take it to the water. I would not want to have the round the world yacht designers responsibility of sending their crews to sea with gear that is tested by  technology rather than time.

Last year’s new launch, the Crabber 26 would appear to be a new venture for you in the direction of traditional yachts – what do you feel your background brought to the project?

Well, actually, when this project came about, I thought I’d love to design another gaffer. Gaffers are where I started. I wanted to include in my design a lot of the experience I have had in up-to-date racing and cruising yachts. The Crabber 26 has used the best of my practical skills, to bring her up to date in hull form, rig and equipment. If you like, to improve on the handling and inefficiency that the old professionals were forced to endure to please their owners call for productivity. I wanted to make the 26 easier to handle and more family friendly. Lots of  versatility - a gaffer for a new era. I thought long and hard about it though. I had a lot to consider and I was very aware of the history of the Crabber range. She had to be very specialised and suited both to those who love the old Crabbers for their romance as well as new Crabber owners who sail for unconstricted enjoyment. Alright, with a bit of romance as well!

The Mystery 30, formerly the Link 30, has recently been refurbished and is premiering its more traditional interior at London Boat Show. What was your inspiration for the Mystery 30?

She was and still is the basis of a performing cruiser racer one - design. She handles extremely  well as a cruiser but can race at a top class as an offshore one design. She was partly inspired by the escence of the Folkboat – which has become an everlasting class. I believe that the Mystery 30 will take people on from 25ft to 30ft when they need that extra space to cruise more widely and perform as well. She has so far been successful as a cruiser/ racer. At the moment, she is a lady in waiting for her own OD Class but with the emphasis on the new 'cruise' interior for this London Boat Show, I think she’ll continue to do very well. When times are hard, yachts need to be versatile.

The Crabber 12 is the latest all new boat from your drawing board, premiering at the London Boat Show. What inspired you to design this versatile family dinghy?

This project has been very important to me. I’d have to say, my inspiration comes from my earliest sailing days, In a way the Crabber 12 is a throwback to the Itchen Ferry Punt. She does look a little like the12ft Heron that taught me so much. I look forward to sailing her. She will be a family friendly dinghy that is willing to show her form . A thoroughbred, but not too frisky . I think she will have the fun of racing in a fleet one day soon.

David Thomas's Mystery 30, Crabber 12 and Crabber 26 can be seen on stands H155 and M09 at London International Boat Show 2012 on the 6th -15th January 2012.

Click here for discount tickets.

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