“THE AJAX WILL BECOME A VINTAGE CLASS’
(Dr Dick Mayon-White – Class Chairman 1971)
Origin of the Class – Designer – Oliver J Lee
The Class originated at Burnham on Crouch in Essex when a group of keelboat and dinghy sailors believed that the local One Design Classes were becoming very expensive to maintain and that there was room for a modern multi-purpose keelboat in glass fibre with built in buoyancy as standard.
They were all members of the Royal Burnham or Royal Corinthian Yacht Clubs. Burnham was and is a well known East Coast sailing centre with five Clubs and several long established wooden One Design classes. In 1966 the sponsors came together as a syndicate to generate funds of £8000 for the design and build of a prototype hull. Oliver Lee then demonstrated the wooden prototype of the Ajax around the East Coast Clubs, principally Burnham, Woolverstone (Royal Harwich) and Lowestoft (Royal Norfolk and Suffolk). The main amendment to the design was the reduction in the size and height of the cuddy. The Ajax was considered for trials in Holland to choose a keelboat design for the Olympics. The Soling was eventually chosen.
Criteria required from the Designer and by the Syndicate:
Total cost complete with sails and equipment to be less than £1000.
Hull and deck to be glass fibre
Spars to be light alloy
Yacht to have full positive buoyancy
Yacht to be suitable for racing, family day sailing, camping cruising and to be towed behind a medium sized family car.
To have a large and deep comfortable cockpit
To be easy to helm and crew by people of all ages
To be of minimum maintenance and durable construction to give a long life with minimum depreciation
To be able to lie on exposed moorings on river, lake and sea.
Sails to be in synthetic fibres and mainsail to be roller reefed.
Rudder and skeg to be removable via a trunking in the after deck.
Length 23 feet 3 inches (7.07m), Waterline Length 19 feet 2 inches (5.97m)
Beam 6 feet 5 inches (1.95m), Draft 3 feet 8 inches (1.12m)
The First Fleet.
The personalities involved were Bob Walkden (prime mover and effectively the ‘Father’ of the Class), Doug Baldwin (Holt Allen), Bob Bennett, Harry King Spark, Clem Lister, Edward du Sautoy, John Furlong, Lionel Prosser, Nim Crowther & John Hill, Bobby Sutherland & Peter Roberts (10 yachts).
The exodus from the established classes did not materialise. After an initial year of Class racing, the first Championships were held in 1968 during Burnham Week competing for the Gimpel Trophy. This was presented by Peter Gimpel, then Vice Commodore of RCYC and a well known Dragon sailor. It was decreed that the Burnham Yachts would be named after those of Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar!! (See Note at end). The membership of the Burnham fleet was split between older keelboat sailors and those fresh from dinghy classes like the Hornet. Thus, ‘sitting out v sitting in’ caused some controversy in the early days. Passage races to Brightlingsea were arranged by the Burnham Fleet in 1968 & 1969.
Bob Walkden was the self styled ‘Admiral’ and very much regarded the Ajax Class as his baby. Polly Oliver (17) was a quasi-works team effort, owned jointly by Tony Allen and Doug Baldwin (who managed Holt Allen Masts) and did most of the sailing, rather well!
Clem Lister and Edward du Sautoy initially shared Hermione (18) which Nim Crowther sailed later after Clem Lister bought Polyphemus (40). A late addition was Arthur Campbell with Caprice (52).
Oliver Lee. His background was as a naval architect and surveyor working for the established naval architectural practice run by Alan Buchanan in Burnham. Many successful East Coast yacht designs came from the Buchanan board.
Halmatic of Portsmouth was chosen as moulder because prospective owners could not be attracted without an established name. Glass fibre moulding had been used for only a few years and there were limited moulders in existence. The hull cost Oliver £400 from Halmatic and was then finished off by him at Burnham in Warner’s Yard. The mast and boom were from Holt Allen at Burnham and it says much for the strength of the 2 x U shaped aluminium sections glued together with Araldite, that some of these masts still give good service some 40 + years later.
Oliver found that Halmatic, despite their good name, was not completing the moulds to his satisfaction. Blowholes were showing in the deck and having completed fitting out, these were only discovered once the protective skin was removed. He therefore decided to design the Squib (19 feet long) to be moulded locally at a much lower cost. He said that in price range the Ajax was equivalent to an MGB and the Squib was that of a Mini. The initial price of the Ajax was £850 ex sails. The Squib was £500. Because of the similarity of the design and although a smaller version, the Squib as a two man keelboat attracted a much wider market and following. It quickly outgrew the larger version (amid some rancour) becoming the very successful National Class it is today with over 850 yachts.
The Ajax was shown at the Earls Court Boat Shows in 1967 & 1968. In total, 61 yachts were built, 57 by Oliver, 3 in Cheshire by a local builder and one in Shotley near Ipswich. The first yacht was number 11 and the last 71.
Overseas sales were branded as the ‘707’ and exported to Australia, New Guinea, Switzerland, Canada & three to Northern Ireland. Gerry Watson owned ‘Pathfinder’ (45) and arranged with Oliver to become the Ajax agent in Ireland. He also imported two further hulls, numbers (53) & (54). Both of these were fitted out by Gerry and sold, number (53) to Trevor Eves in Bangor and (54) to Tom Clifford who lived in County Kerry. Aquilla (53) was reclaimed from Ireland by Cedric Thomas and restored for his daughter Lindsey and added to the Falmouth fleet. (54) now renamed ‘Pathfinder’ has been reclaimed by Philip Watson from a rather sorry state in central Ireland. He is son of the original owner Gerry Watson who flew with the RAF in WW2.
Although now subject to some ‘out of class’ amendments, (mainly a taller mast) she is regularly sailed near Dublin. Number (45) (originally named ‘Pathfinder’ Has been brought from Ireland to Cornwall and extensively rebuilt by Charles Emmett and is regularly raced at St Mawes. She is now called Kali.
The ‘707’ was to be equipped with a larger ‘Swiss Lakes Genoa’ if required.
The Swiss yacht (12) ‘Odysseus’ was traced and recovered from Montreux on Lake Geneva by Simone and Dudley Kennett. She now sails regularly at St Mawes. A Mr Coote imported ‘Muntreste’ (60) to Papua New Guinea and sent Bob Walkden a photo of his Ajax with a bunch of locals in full war paint. He captioned it as from the Commodore, ‘The Royal Headhunters Yacht Club’!
John Williams found the Australian Ajax ‘Matika’ (51) on the web site of a yacht club in Sydney. She had been fitted with a larger mast and sail plan as shown by various photos sent by the owner. Bob Tate (current Class Chairman) located ‘Poseidon’ (35) in Nova Scotia having originally been in Montreal. He explored the possibilities of bringing her back from Canada but this proved difficult and expensive and was shelved.
The Class Association.
This was formed in 1968 at the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club. Bob Walkden (Burnham) was the first Chairman, Tony James (Royal Harwich), Secretary and David Reid (Aldeburgh), Treasurer. The use of the Ajax motif was incorporated in a tie – ‘Ajax man in profile with spear and shield’. The Class applied for National status in 1970. Unfortunately, Bob Walkden in his initial enthusiasm had used the sail insignia ‘N 23’. The RYA Keelboat Committee were very unhappy with the premature use of the ‘N’ on the sail indicating a National Class and that the yacht had been marketed as an ‘N 23’. The request was turned down because the Class had only been established in East Anglia but the original designation was really the main problem.
The ‘N’ was quietly removed at a later date.
The Association has flourished over the life of the Class and has overseen modest changes without compromising the One Design principle. Foremost has been the rule to restrict the purchase of sails to three suits in five years. The election of Chairman is now rotated between the East Coast and South West on a five year basis.
Class Rules. The first rules were based on those of the Dragon Class.
A reduction in the size of the spinnaker was requested by Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Y C because they found the sail impossible to handle on a fine reach in medium strength winds. The mainsheet horse replaced the original post for the mainsheet and at a later date the horse was extended across the boat to enable the traveller to be played in stronger winds.
New Fleets 1967 to 1970.
Royal Harwich Yacht Club (Woolverstone)
Dr Dick Mayon-White, a past Commodore of the Club, had ordered ‘Friday’, Number 13. She was launched in mid 1967 and encouraged others who had been sailing the existing wooden Royal Harwich One Designs to consider a change. Although there was some resistance in the Club to a new Class, the fact that the existing One Designs were only 8 in total, meant that there was little scope for growth without building more wooden boats. By the beginning of the 1968 season there were 6 yachts ready to compete in class racing. These were Friday (13) Dick Mayon-White, Apollo (31) Gordon Bassett, Mars (41) The Brown family, Sirius (34) Ray Catchpole and Tony James, Pegasus (29) Jimmy Mayhew and Osprey (37) Charles Lowe.
Richard Plumpton joined later with Athena (56). John Furlong & Samaki (28) moved from Burnham as did Jeremy Prosser with his father’s yacht Thunderer (14).
Others joined the Harwich fleet over the next three years until there were some 21 yachts in all available to race. A start of up to19 boats was quite normal. Those who emerged as dominant in the fleet were Mars (Chris Brown) and Sirius (Ray Catchpole/Tony James).
The Class having grown quickly then gradually declined. This was partially due to the growth of other classes but was hastened by the movement into sailing cruisers. Since 2000 the Class has steadily expanded again and RHYC members have successfully visited Falmouth and removed the top silverware. Those successful were David Kerridge, Tom Hill, Richard Chenery and Doug and Ian Sharps.
Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club (Lowestoft)
The Club adopted the Ajax to complement their fleet of Dragons. Emerging from their safe haven of a harbour directly out into the North Sea can be a rude awakening for any yacht but the Ajax stood up well to the conditions after amendment to the size of spinnaker. Alas, this fleet of ten yachts, all named after seabirds, gradually dispersed after several years of competitive racing and most were sold to the West Country. The Championships were successfully held at Lowestoft four times between 1970 and 1979. Pat Edge, Ben Blower, Bill Cripps Bent, Dr. Reynolds and Keith Flatman were all prominent members of the local fleet.
Aldeburgh Yacht Club
The Class was adopted quickly and a fleet of seven yachts were active from the early 1970’s onwards. The Squib then became an easier crewing proposition needing a crew of two rather than three and the Class declined with transfers to Royal Harwich and Falmouth.
The Championships were held at Aldeburgh in 1971 and 1974, a crowded starting area giving competitors some anxious moments. The finishing line needed amendment during the course of the race programme because it was fairly certain that the second yacht at the final bend would always emerge in first place due to the strong flood tide. David Reid was Class Treasurer and strong supporter of the Class at Aldeburgh together with Robin Somerset, Frank Cooksey and Richard Cave.
The Ajax was originally represented on both sides of the River Fal. There were some at the Royal Cornwall Yacht Club and moored at Falmouth, Flushing and Penrhyn. Another group of yachts was based at St Mawes Sailing Club and also further upriver at Percuil Sailing Club.
The prime mover of the start of the Class at Falmouth was Michael Dover, Commodore of St Mawes Sailing Club. He persuaded Jack Webb, Bertie Hamblin, Chris Wilson, Richard Bown and several others to acquire any Ajaxes that were coming on to the second hand market. They discounted the Sunbeam as too expensive and the Squib as not likely to be fast enough for local conditions.
He bought ‘Hermes’ (70) and because at this point in time there was a general exodus from the East Coast Clubs, the yachts were very competitively priced. By 1976, the fleet numbered 12 yachts, raced as a class in Falmouth Week and in the handicap class at Flushing. Percuil raced on Friday evenings and St Mawes on Sundays.
The Class gained popularity locally and eventually moved to the St Mawes side of the Fal where there are now upwards of 30 yachts, especially during Falmouth Week when it is the largest local One Design Class.
The Championships are held at Falmouth every two years and the South West Championships annually. Particular mention should be made of David Liddington, four times Champion and David Mathewson, Champion twice, both of whom have beaten the East Coast Fleet on their home waters! Keith Ingham, Michael Beaman, Derek and Molly Saveker, Simone Kennett and Cedric Thomas have all played their part in the continuous development at St Mawes and Percuil. St Mawes members have been energetic in ‘rescuing’ Ajaxes , particularly those originally exported as already detailed.
With four fleets on the East Coast, rotation of the Championships between the Clubs was an obvious progression. The first two years of Class racing were at Burnham during Burnham Week, the traditional end to the East Coast racing season. No Trophy was awarded until 1968 when Peter Gimpel, who was a Dragon sailor and Vice Commodore of the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club, presented a magnificent Silver Trophy which is a treasured possession of the Class. Doug Baldwin sailing ‘Polly Oliver’ was winner of this in the first year at Burnham.
The 1969 Championships were then held at Harwich and won by Chris Brown in ‘Mars’. Chris has now won the Championships ten times but has still not succeeded at Falmouth. Now that only two Fleets exist, the Championship alternates annually between Harwich (East Coast) and Falmouth (South West Coast). Local South West and East Coast Championships are also held.
New yachts were not forthcoming from Oliver Lee’s yard as he had turned his attention to Squibs. In early 1974, Eric Bergquist, a boat builder from Lymm near Warrington in Cheshire asked Oliver if he could use the mould. This remained in Oliver’s ownership but was taken to Cheshire where the new builder completed three yachts, all with fixed rudders. The fixed rudder is a handicap in rivers where fouling takes place (i.e. the East Coast) because the after part of the yacht is not so accessible to be scrubbed on a mooring.
Donated by Peter Gimpel, Vice Commodore of the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club at Burnham on Crouch. Peter with his brother Charles founded the renowned Gimpel Fils Art Gallery in the West End. They specialised in the Avant-garde and numbered Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson amongst the list of artists shown in their gallery at Davies Street London W1.
Oliver’s father donated a Team Trophy for competition by the Clubs and raced for usually prior to the Championships.
The Mike Rowe Memorial Trophy and the Victory Plate are given to the third and fourth placed yachts at the Championships.
Bob Walkden sold his Ajax and moved to Brussels. There he organised a match by visiting Royal Harwich members against the Royal Belgium Yacht Club in the Veerse Meer in Holland. They were mainly an ex pat community and sailed in Scandinavian BB11’s with the accent on the social side! Only one competitor was Belgian!
Long Distance ‘Cruising’
Three notable cruises were undertaken in Merlin (39). The owners George Josselyn and David Lowe sailed from Harwich to Ostend and then up the French and Belgian coast to Holland. They had some anxious moments on their return and the full story of this and of two subsequent solo cruises by George from Falmouth to Poole, and Harwich to London are fully recorded on the Ajax web site.
Decline (and Revival) of the Class generally.
The Burnham fleet had disbanded by 1970 because the Clubs had adopted the Squib and Oliver was not now promoting the Ajax. The Aldeburgh fleet dissipated as did the Fleet at Lowestoft. Only at Royal Harwich did the nucleus remain but even there the number of yachts racing had considerably reduced. However, due to the impetus given to the Class at Woolverstone by John Williams and George Josselyn, (who revised the Rules in 1988), numbers have been gradually rebuilt until Royal Harwich now has 24 yachts on the books and with Falmouth having at least 26, the total of originally some 61 yachts are mostly accounted for.
Although the Class remains a strict One Design, any yacht design which does not move with the times rapidly becomes outdated. The sail plan does not allow radical changes but improved materials have been introduced from the several sail makers who supply the Class. Spinnaker gear has improved and spinnaker booms are now carried along the main boom when not in use. Additional buoyancy has been introduced following experiences in Falmouth when yachts suffered knock downs and the buoyancy compartments proved inadequate. Weight levels have been addressed with replacement floors. Osmosis affects all fibreglass yachts built over 40 years ago and Ajaxes are no exception. Twinning lines, double block jib sheets and mainsheet traveller control have all been introduced and because mast technology has changed, the Class has replaced the Holt Allen mast with improved designs from Z Spars and Selden (ex Proctor).
The Technical Committee continues to examine potential improvements but rule out any that prejudice existing yachts.
History of the Mould
The mould was eventually moved from Oliver Lee’s yard at Burnham to Cheshire. The builder there sold three yachts but then lost interest and after some years he was persuaded by Tony James and John Selby to transfer the mould to Classic Mouldings in North Suffolk. After discussions with Oliver’s widow and with the assistance of David Mayne, the mould was transferred into the ownership of the Class Association and is now stored safely at Woolverstone.
It was last used in 1987 by Guy Wallhead and Martin Kendall who ran a boatyard attached to and now part of Shotley Marina. Oliver Lee helped them true up the mould before yacht number 71 ‘Dionysius’was completed. The builders were very careful to keep the weight down and thus their yacht was too light and had to have substantial amounts of lead added in order to make minimum weight. She has always been regarded as a fast boat and won the Championship at her first attempt.
Although the yachts are now over 43 years old, they still perform well and give their owners much pleasure whether for racing or when used for more leisurely activities. They are seaworthy and vice free, can be sailed in very strong winds under jib only and are at home on the river or the sea. The closeness of the racing is proof of the One Design concept where the quality of the helm is the main factor. The yacht was constructed to a high specification and provided they are regularly maintained and checked for osmosis, they should have many useful years ahead of them. The second hand price is consistently modest and second hand yachts do not linger long on the market place.
In Suffolk, David Kerridge has been in the forefront of refurbishing the RHYC yachts and has now built up considerable experience with the hulls. He knows the weaknesses particularly where the bow tank has allowed moisture to penetrate. This knowledge has benefited the Class generally.
The East Coast Fleets were not in being long enough to establish a solid common rapport but now that there are only two active centres, the Class has consolidated and the relationship between East and West is excellent. Both give a warm and social welcome to visitors for the Championships and because Falmouth Week is a substantial Regatta, the Royal Harwich members stay on to take full part in this Classic event of the West Country season.
1) John Furlong sent me this memory of a race on the Crouch in 1968.
“On a blowy day we were down to a two man crew due to a late defaulter and we all broad reached from the start down the Crouch under plain sail and in close company. Our windward performance up the Roach was abysmal, so with all the courage and innocence of youth we set a spinnaker from the Roach buoy on a broad reach and surfed past and away from everyone in a white knuckle ride that ended abruptly when the wind veered sharply and we broached near the Branklet buoy. The incoming water surged to the bow as we decelerated and we simply sailed under. Bobbing around just afloat with gunwales awash, our attempt to bail with buckets was fruitless – she just filled again as fast as we emptied.
So, on a rising tide, we ran her ashore and bucketed out the water until she had some freeboard. We then refloated, set sail and limped home, pumping hard, to finish the race by sunset, to a very public and raucous greeting from our competitors and others, drinks in hand on the Royal Corinthian balcony. Oliver Lee was delighted!
We must have been the first Ajax to sail under with all sails set!”
2) The Achilles
Oliver retained control of the original Ajax ‘plug’ which vegetated in the corner of his yard until a visit by Chris Butler, a boat builder from South Wales. He asked whether Oliver would sell it and eventually secured it for £1000. If you develop it, “don’t put my name on it”, said Oliver unwisely. They took it home and added a few inches more freeboard and made a new deck mould. Thus the ‘Achilles 24’ was born. Some 600 yachts later, Oliver sorely regretted he had not negotiated a royalty agreement!
This word is said to have come into common usage after 1855 when a member of the Royal Harwich Yacht Club owned a small 60 ton yacht named “Sphinx”. She set a very large foresail which her fellow competitors named “Sphinx’s Acre”. This nickname was shortened over time and became the word ‘Spinnaker’. The Club still has a very large silver Trophy called the Sphinx Cup given by the owner for Club competition. The Oxford English Dictionary notes the yacht as the prime source of the word.
4) Notes from Doug Baldwin (Holt Allen) joint owner -“Polly Oliver”
There was at Burnham a strong fleet of East Coast One Designs. The age of these was causing concern to insurance companies and keel bolts were being checked. If this was to spread to the Royal Corinthian and Royal Burnham One Designs, then the two oldest wooden classes would become extremely expensive to maintain.
Bob Walkden and Oliver formed the initial consortium and produced the plug, made by Jack Tue. If a syndicate member ordered a boat, their financial input was offset against the price.
The local competition was also in the Dragons and newly adopted Solings. So the mould had to be made by a recognised moulder and Oliver chose Halmatic, having dealt with them
when he was at Alan Buchanan.
At Holt Allen, I was keen to get spars onto larger day boats and cruisers. We had started to make masts from two extrusions glued together with Araldite which allowed us to fit internal reinforcing where necessary. This was how we made the Ajax mast.
The big mistake was calling the yacht a “National Ajax”. This did not go down well with the RYA and retaining the N23 as the insignia compounded the error.
The Squib killed off the Ajax at Burnham, it was half the price, was a two person boat and nearly as fast. Oliver did have a knack of designing new boats which made existing ones obsolete. He continued to do this when he designed and built radio controlled models.
Tony James August 2011
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are purely personal to those of the author and not the official view of the Ajax Owners Association.
Historical note: (Ajax fleet names adopted in bold)
Nelson’s Fleet at Trafalgar
Victory Royal Sovereign Britannia Dreadnought Neptune Prince Temeraire Tonnant
Achilles Ajax Bellerophon Colossus Defence Defiance
Leviathan Mars Minotaur Orion Revenge Swiftsure Thunderer Belleisle Spartiate
Africa Agamemnon Polyphemus Euralyus Naiad Phoebe Sirius Pickle Entreprenante
French ships at Trafalgar
Bucentaure Formidable Indomitable Neptune Achille Aigle Algesiras Argonaute Duquay-Trouin
Fougeux Heros Intrepid Mont-Blanc Pluton Redoutable Scipion Berwick Swiftsure Hermione