Why is Atalanta so special in post war yachting development?
A1 Atalanta was an exceptional boat for her time and contributed significantly to the explosion in yachting of the late 1950s and 1960s. Fleets of class designs were growing fast (e.g. Folkboat, Stella, South Coast One Design). Plywood construction yachts for amateur and professional build were also coming into their own through designers like Robert Tucker (Silhouette), Maurice Griffiths (Eventide), Buchanan (Wild Duck) and many more. But these were largely developments of traditional yacht forms, and built individually or in very small groups.
Atalanta was very different. She was a lightweight scaled up dinghy, with innovative accommodation and strong construction derived from aeronautical engineering. She started what is likely the first true mass-produced yacht class eeight years before Jim Roy’s Macwesterr and Denys Raynor’s Westerly GRP production lines were fired up in 1963. Fairey Marine built 169 of the 187 Atalanta 26s in 6 years 1956 to1962. And another 80 of derivative designs in the same period.
Beginnings – the brave new concept
In 1952, Fairey Marine built a 22ft long cruising boat, by splitting an Uffa Fox designed Swordfish dinghy longitudinally, then widening and lengthening it. Simple accommodation was provided in two cabins, one for’d of the cockpit and one aft. Additional space was created using a tent over the cockpit. The boat was designed by Alan Vines, an employee of Fairey Aviation and a keen sailor, and was called Sujanwiz after his three daughters – Susan, Jane and Elizabeth. Sujanwiz sailed very well, cruised extensively and crossed the Channel. Jane commented recently that “She was a fast and exciting boat, but extremely wet!”
The Vines family often visited Uffa Fox in Cowes. Between them, they hatched a plan to persuade Fairey to develop the design into a 24ft cruiser. Fairey agreed and they built a prototype with twin retractable keels in 1954, named Atalanta after the last flying boat built by Fairey Aviation.
The design was radical, combining as it did the precision aviation engineering and manufacturing experience of Fairey Aviation, the inspiration of Alan Vines and the design expertise of Uffa Fox. The design of Atalanta remains unique. A lightweight semi-planing hull form, with full bows to lift the bow in waves and flat run aft. Atalanta in full cruising mode weighs barely one and a half tons. The centre cockpit keeps weight away from the stern and forms a large social space between the two cabins. The vertical whipstaff tiller uses very little space. The twin side-by-side lifting keels allow easy passage between them, hinging on large diameter bolts with simple lifting arrangements and well engineered clamping plates to prevent movement at sea without preventing them ride-up on grounding. Accommodation for four adults in two cabins, or for six with the optional cockpit tent. The roll-edged deck moulding provided great strength with little weight, reducing windage whilst maintaining headroom.
Hull construction utilised the methodology developed by Fairey Aviation. (One quirk of this was that almost all of the boat plans were drawn on paper headed ‘Fairey Aviation’.) Three 1/8” layers of Agba veneers were glued and laid up over a plug and then baked under pressure for thirty minutes. The resultant mouldings, one for the hull and one for the deck, were light and immensely strong particular when joined to form the cigar shaped shell. Few internal ribs and stringers are needed and there are only two bulkheads, one at either end of the cockpit.
The really impressive design feature is the main bulkhead between the for’d end of the cockpit and the fore cabin. This bulkhead is four inches thick. It carries the mast heel on deck and slopes aft to support the keels at its base, with shroud plates around it on the hull. The stresses of the rig and the keels are carried in this one central area.
Atalanta was sailed hard in the Solent throughout 1955 and her performance confirmed the predictions made by Uffa Fox and Alan Vines, that a dinghy style, light displacement design, could be extended safely to the larger cruiser and have a number of advantages over heavier boats.
Although Atalanta was successful, she was deemed to be on the small side as a family cruiser, and subsequent production boats – the Atalanta class – were two feet longer and had increased internal volume, but retained all of the novel design features.
Atalanta’s first 60 years
Atalanta’s first owner was Captain Bill Urry and he, his wife and his young family of four children enjoyed many exploits and more than one hair raising experience including a 360° roll over mid channel. She competed in the 1958 Round the Island Race, crossed the Channel several times and went down the Somme estuary. She changed hands several times and in 1988, 34 years old, was bought by Bob Slaughter, still using the original 2-stroke Stuart-Turner engine. Bob sailed her briefly, before storing her in a car park near Brightlingsea in the early 1990s ‘with the intention of doing her up’. Sadly, Bob died in the spring of 2016. His family contacted the Atalanta Owners Association (AOA) in the hope that someone could take her on and restore her. The call was answered by AOA Commodore Mike Dixon.
Mike and a few friends went to Point Clear in August 2016. Tree branches and bushes were removed to reveal a rather sorry looking boat, sitting on a corroded homemade trailer beneath torn and leaking tarpaulins. She looked salvageable, just, and a deal was struck with the owner.
Having carried out an initial assessment of the 62 year old and seeing her as she was, very neglected and unloved, Mike’s initial thought was that the kindest option was to put a lighted match to her. But this is where the heart overruled the head. Mike knew she was unique – one-of-a-kind – the prototype – the fore-runner – part of yachting history, and that she must be saved, at the very least as a museum piece, but so much better if she were to be restored and sailing again.
He has form! Over the years he has owned, repaired and restored two other Fairey Marine boats. Whilst Atalanta is subtly different from the subsequent production boats Mike already understood the concepts. Mike was also aware of the vast experience and help available from members of the Atalanta Owner’s Association.
Mike optimistically reckoned that it would take eighteen months to rebuild her, for her to be ready in time for the 60th. anniversary events of the AOA due in August 2018. Mike would do as much work as possible himself, whilst acknowledging that there were certain jobs that would have to be carried out by professionals. Commendably, although not ready for launching, Atalanta was shown at the 60th in Suffolk Yacht Harbour. It was to be a further year for her to be finally launched.
Was there a plan? In the strict sense no, but what had to be done was understood and having a loose plan meant that when specific jobs became onerous and dispiriting, focus could temporarily shift to other tasks. In that way, lots of seemingly random tasks proceeded in parallel, with the whole project largely coming together at the end.
One over-riding principle was to retain as much of the original boat as possible – a surprisingly large amount – and to restore her so that, on the outside at least, she resembled the boat that left Fairey’s yard in 1955. Mike took the pragmatic decision that as Fairey had utilised the most up-to-date materials at the time, it would make sense to adopt the same principle during the re-build. So yes, extensive use was made of epoxy and stainless steel, but well disguised. Plastic cleats have been replaced with Tufnol ‘originals’ and the paint job closely resembles the original. One or two modern features have been incorporated such as the VHF and a simple plotter.
External work included extensive repairs to the deck, rounded topsides and to a limited extent the hull. A complete layer of new veneer was laminated over the entire deck area, strengthening it and allowing a return to the varnished finish applied by Fairey when she was new. The fore hatch and its coamings were refurbished and new toe rails, rubbing strakes and shroud plate pads fitted. Probably the biggest job of all, was eplacing and rebuilding the entire cockpit area. This involved two entirely new transverse bulkheads, new keel boxes, new side lockers and seats, new cockpit sole, completely re-designed and rebuilt engine space and a new box covering the engine.
Internal work was relatively simple as Mike wanted to retain the spartan ambiance which was very much of the 1950’s period. The work included; complete removal of all the remaining old stained, peeling and flaking paint, making good and repainting; installing the unique round-ended shelves originally fitted to all Atalantas; installing the oil burning cooker (no gas on board); installing a portable toilet (minimise through hull penetrations) and building a fit-for-purpose anchor cable locker.
The requirement for a modern diesel engine required significant reworking of the cockpit area and stern gear: new engine bearers for the Beta diesel; new fuel, cooling water and exhaust systems; extended deadwood to allow increased diameter propeller reamed out over its six feet length for the new stern tube; new shaft and propellor. The whipstaff, Bowden cables and other equipment for the rudder uphill downhaul were all replaced and secondhand rudder fettled to fit.
Replacing the keel supports and clamping brackets, including the two pivot bolts and four clamping bots, was a particular challenge. Atalanta’s arrangements are different to the production Atalanta 26 and Mike did a complete redesign and had them fabricated in stainless by Airfield Consultants.
Apart from sourcing and completely refurbishing a sturdy road trailer the rest of the work focussed on the rig. The spars were completely overhauled which included calculating the angle for new swept back spreaders and sockets as the original fitting was missing. All of the mild steel fittings, the running and the standing rigging were replaced. Sails were ordered from James Lawrence with small panels to simulate the originals. Demonstrating Mike’s planning skills, the boat had been trailed to Brightlingsea mid-restoration for measurements to be taken enabling delivery of the sails to coincide with completion of the restoration.
Atalanta was towed back to Brightlingsea in August 2019, almost exactly 3 years since she was recovered from the undergrowth. There were the inevitable glitches, but on the second attempt, Atalanta was finally re-launched after an interval of thirty years. Three days later, she made her way up the Wallet round the Naze, and up the River Orwell to her new home at the Orwell Yacht Club at Ipswich. Regrettably the first trip was under engine – there was little to no wind.
Atalanta made her ‘maiden’ sail down the River Orwell with a following breeze under jib alone to Shotley. The following day, she was sailed with full sail back to the Orwell Yacht Club, leisurely tacking back and forth against a head wind – much to the initial frustration of the many leisure craft hammering home up the river under engine. However, once other crews saw that she was a classic, their frustration turned to admiring glances and lots of thumbs up and even photographs.
Having spent something in the region of four thousand manhours on the restoration, Mike is determined to gently (because she’s an elderly lady) enjoy Atalanta. She is to be exhibited at the 2020 Southampton Boat Show in the Owners Afloat area and there are plans for a major event based in Cowes in 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Uffa Fox’s death.
Mike must pay tribute to many people, especially those members of the Atalanta Owner’s Association who gave much needed practical advice and help. The Association has an extraordinary wealth of material available to members on its website atalantaowners.org.
Mike Dixon is a retired RYA Yachtmaster Instructor and Examiner. As well as twenty years in the Merchant Navy as a deck officer, he has clocked up over thirty thousand small boat miles.