An unexpected development in the last 18 months is that participation in traditional dinghy classes has gone through the roof – but the dinghies of today are being built with some very non-traditional materials.
Demand for Pro-Set epoxy has never been so high or so diverse. This is partly due to the way the pandemic has drawn sailors back to their passion more closely than ever.
Dave Johnson, sales director of Wessex Resins and Adhesives, licensed manufacturers of West System and Pro-set products in Europe, is awestruck by the explosion of interest and engagement in the small-boat scene, particularly in the UK. ‘We have just about every UK dinghy builder using our Pro-Set products now. The big names like Ovington and Winder, Maguire, White Formula, RS, Synergy, Hadron and so on.
‘Singlehanded dinghy sales went ballistic last year and show little sign of slowing down. A recent Merlin Rocket open yielded a 100-plus turnout. The International Moths are foiling faster than ever and proving incredibly popular, and most of them are laminated, infused and bonded with our Pro-Set product.’
Wessex Resins has been manufacturing West System and Pro-Set epoxy under license from Gougeon Brothers for more than 40 years.
Over this time Gougeon Brothers Inc has developed a range of battle-hardened, marine-proof products that work across the whole range of water-borne craft, from wooden classics to the latest carbon composite extreme machines.
‘There’s a huge amount of science and legwork that has gone into developing our products – we are working closely with Gougeon Brothers in constantly developing products. They’re formulated to be strong and reliable, and also very user-friendly. It functions very, very well without too much of a Formula One type of setup. We know it will perform very well in typical boatbuilding workshops. That’s what it’s formulated for, to be easy to use, and it will cure well and get good characteristics even in less than ideal environments.’
Back in early 2020 when the pandemic first hit, the phone stopped ringing and sales dropped off a cliff. But it didn’t take long for the tide to come back in, higher than ever.
‘Certainly, at the start of the pandemic, like so many other businesses, we did not know what to expect at all. But within a few weeks the telephone calls and the requests for information started coming in. That allowed us to give really solid advice on, say, the restoration of a dinghy in a garage that had been under dust covers for many years and maybe had been a point of family sentimentality.
Finally, the covers were being dragged off these boats and work commenced while people couldn’t do anything else. They were able to get our product via mail order or through the click-and-collect shops.
‘We saw this growth in activity and that was reflected in a lot of on-the-water activity when the clubs opened up again. A lot of singlehanded boats came out of the garage and were restored and put back on the water. People used our products to rebuild boats that might have been past their sell-by date. The great thing about high-quality epoxy is that it will create a lovely long-lasting sailing dinghy that will stand up to the stresses of rigging and setting up in the dinghy park, the launching, the racing and potentially the capsizing too!’
Johnson makes the point that it’s not the just the quality of the epoxy products and their ease of use that set them apart from the competition, it’s the after-sales support and technical advice.
‘There are six of us that are involved in tech support on the phone and via email. Now these can be an inquiry ranging from somebody restoring an 18th century, gaff-rigged cutter to somebody putting together an antique violin, or it can be somebody repairing a fibreglass 505, or making a carbon fibre acoustic guitar. So it’s really wide and varied, and it has been ever more so during the pandemic.’
Back in the 1950s and 60s in the post-war explosion in home DIY projects and the follow-on of DIY plywood dinghy kits such as the Mirror, GP14, Enterprise and Fireball dinghies, Barry Bucknell and Jack Holt were the pin-ups of the DIY era. Every gravel pit across the UK soon had a sailing club on its shores with membership bursting at its seams.
Johnson sees a parallel with what’s been going on during the strange times of the past 18 months. ‘Of course, we’re never going to see the numbers on the water that we saw 50 years ago with the massive growth in popularity of dinghy sailing, but we’re certainly seeing a revival. People are calling us up telling us about the old plywood boats that they are bringing back to life and it’s wonderful to be part of that.
‘I am fascinated by that Barry Bucknell story, and how the Mirror dinghy actually brought about social change, and did it in a particular era where everybody seemed to want to build a kit from Bell Woodworking and buy into the Mirror scene and then go sailing either at a club that had a fleet of them, or go cruising in one.
‘Now that’s highly unlikely to ever happen again because they sold in their masses but there must be many thousands that are stuck in a garage or in a back garden or some somewhere under a cover, waiting for restoration.
‘We saw inquiries coming in from people who actually wanted to do that and the beauty of the Mirror is that you can get every single spare plywood part from Trident Marine, and you can also buy a full-on composite version from Winder Boats. Now that’s a lovely circular story because we’re supplying to Mirror dinghy builds and restorations in plywood, but we’re also supplying the composite boat that Winder builds.’
Johnson has seen a revival of the DIY spirit, kickstarted by the limitations of lockdown. ‘It has been a boom in terms of boat maintenance, boat restoration, boat renovation. It involved a hefty amount of people who were able to get down to the boat at the local boat yard that was maybe a walk away and isolate themselves and do the work themselves.
‘We had inquiries ranging from somebody who was repairing the genoa track areas of his Sigma 33, to someone doing an osmosis treatment on a Hallberg-Rassy in their back garden. So, the breadth of inquiries was centred around DIY-type repairs, seeking advice from a company with sound knowledge about boat repairs and boat renovation that dates back more than 40 years. We know we can give really sound logical and appropriate advice with a good choice of materials as well.’
As well as the on-the-phone advice, the West System website has never experienced so many downloads of its free online manuals. ‘The most popular is the Wooden Boat Restoration & Repair Manual,’ says Johnson. ‘It’s an illustrated guide to wooden boat repair – how to restore the structure using West System epoxy.’ The manual includes information on dry rot repair, structural framework repair, hull and deck planking repair, hardware installation with epoxy and protective coating.
‘This manual is the thing that’s given people the confidence that they have the ability to get around to that DIY project that’s been rotting away in the garage for years. They don’t necessarily need to go to a professional boatbuilder and they discover they get enormous satisfaction from having restored their boat all by themselves. And once they’ve done up their boat, it will outlive its owners. There’s no reason why a well-restored boat shouldn’t last a 100 years or more. It’s a great environmental message too, when we can keep boats alive rather than scrap them or send them to landfill.’
Johnson’s enthusiasm for his job is infectious. ‘We have so many loyal customers, from our keen individuals fixing up their boats in the garage or the back garden, to our commercial customers who are enjoying one of the biggest booms in boatbuilding that we’ve seen in the past 20 years or more. The world has been tough over the past 18 months, but it’s also helped reconnect people with what’s important in their lives, and for us sailors, that’s getting our boats back on the water and enjoying them.’
The Wooden Boat Restoration & Repair Manual can be downloaded HERE.
For hard copies of these resources and downloadable online versions click HERE.