One of the most prolific and pioneering boat designers of the twentieth century was Uffa Fox (1898-1972). Although responsible for fewer individual designs than some other well-known designers, such as Ian Proctor, Uffa Fox has designs to his credit covering a wide range of boat types, including sailing dinghies, racing keelboats, sailing cruisers in a range of sizes, motor boats, and rowing boats. Fox’s diversity of interests is reflected in the fact that the Museum possesses more boats designed by him than those of any other designer.
Uffa Fox was born in 1898 on the Isle of Wight and grew up on Cowes waterfront. When his school days were over he began an apprenticeship with S.E. Saunders, boat builders, who even then were engaged with high speed craft capable of over 50 knots.
His apprenticeship lasted seven years covering boatbuilding, shipbuilding and design. At the age of 21 he set up his own boat building business, adapting an aged ‘floating bridge’ which had formerly linked Cowes to East Cowes, to provide a workshop, drawing office and living space, as well as a gangway to the shore and a slipway for launching boats into the river.
Uffa Fox was the father of the planing dinghy. Having worked on high speed power craft, he believed that if a dinghy hull were made the right shape and her crew held her upright, she could be made to plane over the surface. He was a little diffident about it but finally gave his theories full rein in the International 14 Avenger. In 57 starts in 1928 she gained 52 first places, two seconds and three thirds including winning the coveted Prince of Wales Cup. A large order book was soon built up and for many years his were the most sought after designs. Following the success of the 14s he applied the concept to other classes, gaining racing success particularly in the International Sailing Canoe class.
Prior to the Second World War Uffa had established his name primarily in the world of dinghies, where his designs dominated the National 12s, 14s and 18s. During the Second World War he developed the idea of the Airborne Lifeboat, a vessel to be carried beneath aeroplanes and dropped by parachute to survivors of ditched aircraft. Lightly built, with lines that blended to the shape of the planes, the Airbornes had sails, engine, survival kit and instructions on how to sail. Many aircrews owed their lives to this invention. For all his success in the field of yacht racing he maintained that this was his most fulfilling design.
Although well known in yachting circles for many years it was Uffa’s association with royalty which made his name wider known, as he sailed with the Duke of Edinburgh on the latter’s International Dragon Bluebottle and was also involved in teaching the royal children to sail.
The 20 foot keelboat, the Flying Fifteen, was one of Uffa’s most successful post-war designs, out of which came his next wave of inspiration, producing a range of planing keelboats from the Flying Ten through to the Flying Twenty Five. Then, using similar hulls he produced a range of cruiser/racer yachts from the Flying Twenty Five through to the Flying Fifty.
In the 1960s Fox became associated with the American yachtsman and boat builder George O’Day. This liaison resulted in the Daysailer and Javelin* classes which, though less well known in the UK, are actually Fox’s most numerous classes.
Uffa Fox died in October 1972 and was remembered at well-attended memorial services on the Isle of Wight and in London. He is remembered today not just as a yachtsman and designer but also as a writer (author of 14 books in his own right), philosopher and eccentric character.
*The class name Javelin has been used by at least three different dinghy designers and in different regions of the world may represent the design of that name by Uffa Fox (North America and Japan), Peter Milne (Europe) or John Spencer (Australasia).
This article is a précis of information on the official Uffa Fox website http://www.uffafox.com/index.htm