The Mighty P Class Sailing Dinghy: Maker of New Zealand yachting legends

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

By Vincent Saunders
New Zealand is renowned for its sailors and their dominance in the fiercely competitive international sailing arena. Events, such as the America’s Cup and Whitbread trophy races, the Admirals Cup, Kenwood Cup and the Southern Cross Cup, have been won by New Zealanders. These sought after yachting heroes have gained a stellar reputation around the world for their sailing ability winning more than 60 world titles and 18 or more medals for New Zealand.

P Class craft, unique to New Zealand, are very small but they punch above their nautical weight in the training of young sailors. Difficult to handle in rough conditions, they are designed to teach young people how to safely learn to sail and to instil basic sailing skills. The maximum age for a P Class competition skipper is 16 years.

P Class craft have been the backbone of New Zealand sailing clubs since the 1920s, where they have helped to foster a competitive spirit and dedication to sailing among some of our great New Zealand sailors, such as Peter Blake, Russell Coutts, Dean Barker, Chris Dickson, Leslie Egnot, Barbara and Bruce Kendall, Craig Monk, Aaron MacIntosh, Jo Aleh, and Peter Burling. These craft continue to be a popular training dinghy for young sailors. 

P Class sailing dinghy, 2016 by Susannah Pyatt.

What is a P Class sailing dinghy?
The contemporary P Class craft is described as a small, single Bermuda-rigged sailing dinghy which is 7 feet (2.13 meters) long with a slab-sided v-bottomed hull. It has a small cockpit, which limits the amount of water taken on board. Although the hull weighs in at around 40 kilograms she is designed to be buoyant and easy to right when capsized. The letter P affixed to the sail stands for “primary trainer”.

P Class North Island Champs, 2016, by Samej, Flickr

How was the P Class developed?  
The first P Class sailing dinghy was designed and built in 1920 by Harry Highet when he could not afford to buy his own boat. Named MASCOT, she was designed to be unsinkable, affordable and easily built in a back yard. Her maiden voyage was at Onerahi, near Whangarei. Highet, mindful of keeping costs low for others and keen to see boys build their own dinghies, sold his plans for seven shillings and sixpence apiece.
At first, the P Class was known as Tauranga Seven Foot One Class, before a title change in the 1940s.  Initially, the craft was constructed of wood, then plywood. Later, materials such as fibreglass, terylene (for sails), carbon fibre and kevlar, were used in their construction. These expensive materials increased the cost of a sailing dinghy to more than several thousand dollars, but they also increased the race effectiveness of the class.
The P Class became very popular and in 1940, an inter-provincial competition was organised as part of the Wellington Centenary celebrations. At the end of World War II, two trophies were inaugurated: the Tanner Trophy in Wellington and the Tauranga Cup; both are raced to this day.

The development and manufacture of the P class sailing dinghy gained momentum as the result of the “do it yourself” movement in New Zealand during the 1950s and 1960s, when garage workshops abounded.

At the New Zealand Maritime Museum
The museum has two P Class sailing dinghies, which represent part of the evolution of the craft: JAN and HEAVY METAL.

JAN was built by Percy Voss for Francis Holmes, who was harbour master at Paraparaumu in the 1940s. An effective racer in Paraparaumu, JAN was later taken to Taupo, where she won a number of P Class titles on the lake. Eventually she returned to the Voss family and was sailed by Percy’s grandchildren off Auckland’s Takapuna Beach.

Made from kauri, JAN was designed to be both versatile and easily stowed.

HEAVY METAL is made of glass reinforced plastic, a cost-effective and relatively maintenance-free material. Manufactured by Hitech Sailcraft firm in 1994, she represents the continuing evolution of the P Class sailing dinghy.
HEAVY METAL provided a canvas for the sense of humour of its owner, David Todey. He painted the synthetic hull with imitation rust streaks giving it the impression that it was made of metal. Whether this improved the speed of the craft is open to debate, but she had a successful racing career.

HEAVY METAL’S shallow cockpit is designed to help the buoyancy of the craft.

P Class success
There can be no doubt that the humble P Class sailing dinghy, initially built with local timber and calico in the garages and sheds of New Zealand, has greatly contributed to New Zealand’s sailing success around the world – even in races such as the Americas Cup where the technology is highly advanced.

Further reading:
Caundle, Gun. 2014. Our Secret Weapon. Ocean Books