DOWN MEMORY LANE: Celebrating the life of Jack Holt in Chichester

Jack Holt at the Parade of Sail in his honour in 1993
Jack Holt at the Parade of Sail in his honour in 1993
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Chichester Yacht Club is on course for a weekend of centenary celebrations on April 21-22 in honour of Jack Holt OBE, the famous sailing dinghy designer who was born on April 18, 1912 and passed away in November 1995, having made his home in the Witterings for the last 20 years of his life.

Jack Holt, a quiet, unassuming, anti-establishment figure, was the ultimate sailing dinghy designer who lived in the Witterings for his last 20 years and was a member at Chichester Yacht Club (CYC).

Jack and Iris at a House of Commons lunch

Jack and Iris at a House of Commons lunch

Ask any dinghy sailor, have they ever heard of a Cadet, Solo, Mirror, GP14, Enterprise, Merlin Rocket, International 14, Hornet or National 12, the iconic and prolific designs of the latter half of the 20th century still maintaining their popularity around the world today.

There are a staggering 70,600 Mirror dinghies alone and 30 dinghy designs to his credit.

These were the boats that Jack built.

Embracing every dinghy sailor, children, families, racers and even those who liked to sail on the edge; his design and build portfolio catered for them all.

Jack Holt sailing Enterprise 1

Jack Holt sailing Enterprise 1

But it did much more.

Setbacks

A series of setbacks carved his niche in life and propelled him to sailing superstardom.

A broken leg from a motorcycle accident scuppered his cabinet making apprenticeship and spurred his first confrontation with the establishment when he could not get his leg mended properly, being in plaster for more than six months.

An article on Jack Holt from 1974

An article on Jack Holt from 1974

Disenchanted and so far behind in the apprenticeship left him with only one option – going into business himself. Inspired by his great-uncle John, he decided boat-building was the way ahead.

Finishing the hull on his first creation he realised he did not have enough money for the brass fittings to attach the mainsail to the mast, traditionally a track along the length of the mast with lots of shanks sewn on to the leading edge of the sail.

Penniless, he had to come up with an idea to circumvent the problem to finish the job and sell the boat.

That proved to be one of the greatest innovations in modern mainsail rigging.

An open slot would be rebated inside the back of the mast and a rope sewn to the leading edge of the sail, the bolt-rope and groove.

The rope would fit into the groove and be hauled up by the main halyard.

No expensive brass fittings needed.

Job done, but sneered at by established yachtsmen.

The first of what must be more than 150,000 sailing dinghies.

Celebrations

His epitaph and OBE citation is diminutive – Jack ‘brought sailing to the people’ – and yet his stature in the sailing world is immense.

It is only fitting his centenary birth year will be celebrated in style.

Deservedly stealing the limelight in the Dinghy Show at Alexandra Palace, several sailing clubs will host events in his memory through the year.

Chichester Yacht Club will sport a celebration centenary weekend on Saturday and Sunday, April 21-22.

Early in Jack’s career, pleasure boat or yacht ownership was really the preserve of the wealthy or connected classes.

But this was about to change, courtesy of Jack.

Beecher Moore, long-time friend and business partner, wrote in Jack’s obituary in the Independent: “Yachting World magazine asked Holt to design a children’s boat.

“His design could be sailed by boys and girls aged eight to 16.

“They were soon sailing them very proficiently and word of this small boat went all over the world. It was called the Cadet.

“In those early post-war years there was still a divide in the sailing world: with the yacht club for the gentry and the sailing club for the workers.

“But youngsters, in Holt’s cheap and simple Cadet, did not know this and when Cadets from yacht club and sailing club were out on the same bit of water the class privilege was ignored.

“It was the first breakthrough in solving the class problem on the water.”

Media

Perhaps inadvertently Jack also cottoned on to something else – the media.

Yachting World magazine is a long-time pillar of the sailing fraternity, but generally read by sailors.

The Cadet, GP14 and Heron were promoted in its pages, but the coverage in the daily press dwarfed that of magazines.

When the News Chronicle introduced the Enterprise it fast became one of the most popular dinghies of its time, but the Daily Mirror introducing its namesake launched the Mirror into sailing mass-market history.

In 1963 the Mirror dinghy could be purchased for £65 complete in kit form, built easily at home and transported on top of the recent Issigonis masterpiece, the Mini car.

The Mirror outstripped by far sales of any other boat and remained the most popular in the world for many years until overtaken by the single-hander Laser.

The Observer also contributed, publishing a photograph and article about Jack in December 1974.

Yacht club

Jack was a member at Chichester Yacht Club from the mid-1970s for more than 20 years, where he sailed his own-design Solo until he died in 1995.

So there is a strong connection – a historical blue plaque at the front of the club building, his ashes were spread from committee boat Cyclone over the club start line and a very smart bench, donated by his daughter Sue, overlooks the water, engraved with the immortal epitaph ‘brought sailing to the people’.

Sue will be coming over from Canada to attend the celebrations.

Members still have their recollections of Jack.

Neville Wells was touched by the brief from no less than Jack himself at the Putney workshop on how to rig his new Mirror.

He wasn’t expecting the top brass attention he got.

And when he next saw him at the club he was surprised to find the maestro about to leap aboard his Solo in carpet slippers.

When Neville challenged, Jack hailed back ‘I don’t want to scratch the woodwork’. By all accounts he didn’t get his feet wet either.

Peter Hughes, Solo sailor and architect of the CYC 1993 building, recalls being totally flattered one day when Jack, the famous designer at his zenith, sidled up to him in the dinghy park to seek advice on various aspects of technical drawing.

Jo Cronk, a boat builder himself who eventually worked with Holt, was given the ultimate peep show of the first Solo dinghy under wraps and near completion when it was all commercially ‘top secret’.

Family

Jack’s daughter Sue, who will be coming over from Canada for the celebrations, was inspired by her father, who was so quiet and unassuming about his success, forever taking the time to answer questions, even when enquirers just walked up to him saying ‘Mr Holt I am so pleased to meet you, I have a Merlin sail number...’ or such like.

Jack, of course, would not have a clue who they were, so he would say ‘I’m sorry I’ve forgotten your name’, and they would reply perhaps ‘Fred’ and he would then say ‘yes I know that, but what is your last name?’ or conversely they would say ‘Smith’ and he would say “I know that but I can’t remember your first name’.

Sue always felt this was a lovely way to make the person feel they were a bit special.

So in one way or another Jack Holt has probably touched us all with our dinghy sailing.

There can only be a few dinghy sailors who have not enjoyed or heard of a Holt design boat, so it is with great pride his centenary should be celebrated here in Chichester.