It seems likely that the first ever one-design racing boats in European waters were the Water Wags of Dublin Bay, devised in 1886 and still going strong today. The idea caught on, for reasons that were expressed by H C Folkard twenty years later as follows:-
"The introduction of a one-design class is the result of the uncertainty and dissatisfaction occasioned by rules of measurement and rating of the Yacht Racing Association as applied to small racing yachts, the frequent alteration of those rules, and the facilities afforded for evasion, whereby unfair advantages have been gained, coupled with the expense attendant on the short career of a racing-boat under such rules, involving the building of a new boat nearly every year."
By 1927 Lloyds Register of Yachts was able to list over sixty one-design classes and by the last edition of the Register in 1980 there were 250 of them. There is an inherent problem with one-designs however, going to the very root of human nature - everyone wants his or her boat to go faster then everyone else's. This applies whether or not there is a good commercial reason, such as a fishing boat wanting to be the first to land her catch, a tea clipper chasing the London market or a pilot boat looking for the richest of the incoming client ships. Who among us can honestly deny that the blood stirs when another sail appears during our pleasant afternoon on the water? And with one-designs success and failure are ostensibly down to the helm and his or her crew, so that it becomes much more personal than with cheque-book yachting.
Because everyone has an incentive to maximise performance the rules become more and more prescriptive. At present I haven't found a copy of the original rules of the Islanders. They were rewritten in 1958 after the conversion of Jura and here is a copy:-
One can easily see the amendments that would have been necessary in 1958 and we can assume that these rules follow the original ones pretty closely in other respects. The image above is of a Brunton two-bladed folding propeller and I suspect that very few of the boats have one fitted today, whether or not connected to a 3 hp Watermota.
The first racing in the Class took place at the end of May 1929 among Westra, Cara and Bernera, with Stroma and Sanda following the next month. From then until war stopped racing the yachts raced often and keenly. Their exploits were written up in the yachting pages of the Herald and Scotsman newspapers but constructing a narrative from those records would be very time-consuming and not make for interesting reading. I'm hoping that this blog will generate comments from those with memories or family records of those years to add some colour to the bare facts.
Over the years I have heard various stories. I was told that when the Class decided to order a new sail the Secretary would obtain prices from an agreed list of sail-makers on the basis of a multiple order, and the sails when delivered would be drawn by lot, as indeed did the first five owners select their boats in this way. I have also heard of surreptitious visits to boatyards in winter to weigh the masts of the opponents' boats.
Herbert Thom had a lot to do with this and won consistently, but also regardless of whether he was sailing his own or one of the other yachts. He deserves a biography as one of the most successful British yachtsmen of all time. Again perhaps this blog will result in memories of him begin recorded before they are lost forever.
The very strict rules were no doubt a reason why the Islanders eventually ceased to race. By the early 1960s there were plenty of state-of-the-art racing machines available, with opportunities for sail-trimming, tuning and tweaking within their rules that went far beyond the pure helming skills that Islanders depended on. It's a tribute to the pitch pine used in their construction that so many hulls survived, sometimes laid up for many years in the open, sometimes as shoe-string cruisers, to become restoration candidates.
In February 1997 at a cheerful meeting in the Glasgow Art Club the owners of most of the boats came together and agreed to re-establish themselves as group. The initiative came from Martyn Webster, who had decided to build a new boat. He was concerned that Mr David Boyd of Sandbank would only have been able to supervise her construction in some metaphysical way. The owners amicably agreed that they should not exclude a new yacht built with modern methods, provided matters such as weight distribution would be essentially unchanged. Since then there has been friendly co-operation among the owners and encouragement to new owners to keep the original external appearance and configuration, without the strict application of a rule book. I suggest that this happy attitude is more likely to encourage the survival of the boats among owners who appreciate the sheer joy of sailing a truly thoroughbred traditional yacht.