Expert sailor Robert Deaves updates us on the OK singlehanded dinghy
The OK Dinghy is one of those classic designs that has survived the test
of time and remains to this day one of the most widespread international
dinghies with a loyal worldwide following. This popular 4.5m long
singlehander is sailed in over twenty countries across the world, and
has inspired generation after generation to get involved in
The class has recently seen an upsurge in interest following the
introduction of carbon masts in 2003 and a gradual modernisation of the
rules to allow new materials to be used. Recent world championships have
been held at venues including New Zealand and Goa; last year's world
championship at Parkstone YC in the UK was oversubscribed with a maximum
field of 81 boats participating. International sailing is one of the
OK's strongest assets with large fleets in New Zealand, Australia,
Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Poland and India as well as Great Britain.
Good turnouts at the Spring Cup in Medemblik, Kiel Week, Warnemunde Week
and others, keep attracting boats from all over Europe and provides a
good indicator of performance at the world championships.
In just over 18 months, the OK Dinghy will become 50 years old. Like the
Optimist, the OK Dinghy was born out of a philosophy to encourage
amateur sailors to build their own boats and 'just get out on the water'
at a time after World War II when sailing was gradually becoming less of
a rich man's sport.
One man linked these two successful classes together. A close friend of
the great Paul Elvstrøm, Axel Damgaard Olsen was a Danish architect
living in Seattle, USA. On a visit home to Denmark in 1954 he brought
with him plans for the now world famous Optimist, and as far as that
class was concerned, the rest is history. He also inspired his friend,
the yacht designer and boatbuilder Knud Olsen to transfer an idea from
his imagination onto paper for a fast and light, hard-chined planning
dinghy with a simple unstayed rig. Knud drew the plans for the OK Dinghy
and in 1957 the first OK hit the water - they immediately knew they were
onto a winner.
It was simply 'okay', and with Knud's reversed initials, the boat found
popularity worldwide and introduced thousands of people to sailing who
would never have had the opportunity without Knud's design.
The principal idea behind Knud's design and Axel's imagination was
people having fun together on the water. Tolerances were close but
flexible enough for amateur builders. Axel encouraged builders to keep
everything uncomplicated and fun. The simple plywood construction lends
itself perfectly to home builders and although early fast boats were
generally plywood, enthusiasts also experimented with fibreglass.
Half a century after these opening scenes, the class has spread to
virtually every corner of the globe with over 15,000 boats having been
built worldwide. The same way of thinking still holds true of the class
today. Everyone has their own idea of what is the best design, but in
truth a wide range of very different hull shapes have won the world
championship in recent years. No hull, rig or trend tends to dominate
for very long.
The phenomenal rise to fame of the OK occurred largely as a result of
intensive Scandinavian interest, a part of the world that dominated the
OK racing scene at International level for many of the early years of
the class. This all happened in the days before the Laser was conceived
and very much filled a niche in the market for sailors without the
machismo or finance to campaign a Finn.
Two years after it was first launched, the OK was introduced into the UK
by Richard Creagh-Osborne and a class structure was soon established. In
these early days, over 100 boats were being built each year and sail
numbers in the UK are now past the 2100 mark.
However, it was 47 years before Britain could produce a World Champion.
It was a standing joke within the class that no British sailor was good
enough to win the worlds - the best they could achieve was second or
third. However the ghosts were finally put to rest in 2004 at Parkstone
Yacht Club when Jim Hunt - who had turned his hand to OK sailing just a
few years previously - dominated the experienced field to win by a large
Britain is now looking for its second title, but with Hunt moving off
into the Finn class, the mantle has been left with Nick Craig - runner
up in 2004 - offering the best possible chance. As highlighted in a
recent thedailysail.com interview, Craig has come, oh-so-close, on a
number of occasions, but the title has continued to elude him. Also
having moved into the Finn class, "just for fun" he says, Craig has two
chances over the next nine months.
The first will be in Denmark at Skælskør Sailing Club, located about 70
miles to the west of Copenhagen, where Craig is leading a seven strong
British team in July. The second will be at Belmont 16ft Sailing Club on
Lake Macquarie, about 100 miles north of Sydney in Australia in February
2006. The class world championship is traditionally in Australia or New
Zealand on a four year rotating basis. In these years the class also
holds a European Championship. In 2006 this is being sailed in Loctudy
in north-west France. Thus each European Champion has the honour of
holding the title for four years; the current champion is Bart Bomans
The class has always proved popular in Europe and the antipodes, with
some growth in the Far East and the occasional flourish in America and
Canada. The OK seemed to fit nicely into a 'niche' between the starter
boats and the Finn, and for this reason, the OK developed a reputation
as a Finn training boat, especially in Nordic and eastern European
countries. In fact many of the top Finn sailors of the past cut their
teeth in the OK.
Interestingly, the OK has followed a similar technical path to the Finn,
both classes introducing fast fibreglass hulls, metal masts and Dacron
sails around the same time. However, with the Finn going to carbon masts
in 1993, it took another 11 years before the OK class was willing to
take this step - albeit with some trepidation - but the results so far
have proved encouraging.
The OK has always tried to foster amateur level sailing and for this
reason there is a camaraderie among the sailors that remains friendly
while also being very competitive. The simplicity of the building and
measuring process plays a large part in this, and while it remains very
simple to sail, it offers a challenge both in terms of evolving designs
and perfecting sailing technique.
Early boats sported a thick wooden mast with a wedge to hold the boom
down. A hole in the mast for the boom was seen as simpler and cheaper
than a gooseneck. These early rigs were partly responsible for some of
the myths surrounding the OK, when low booms were the norm and
decapitation an everyday hazard of sailing the boat in strong winds.
Today, goosenecks and powerful vangs allow sufficient adjustability to
sail upwind with no vang tension at all. The boom is normally strapped
to the deck upwind in any breeze, but on releasing the mainsheet the
boom will clear all but the most colossal of helms.
The class today
No single hull design or construction method has ever dominated class
racing, although in the early years, the Scandinavians seemed to get it
right most of the time. Wooden, composite and glass boats, (some new,
some over 10 years old), have all finished in the top positions in
recent World Championships. Even though hull tolerances are greater than
some classes, it doesn't seem to make much difference to the OK, as long
as the basics are correct.
Over the years builders have tried to exploit the rules to the limit to
find that magic rocket ship. Some boats are even built straight down the
middle and prove equally fast on the water. The variations in speed are
in the way the boat is sailed and in getting the most out of the rig,
with its unstayed rotating mast.
In the UK the Don O'Donnell OK (or variations and copies of it)
dominated the results from the 1970s until the mid-1980s when some
fuller bowed boats were introduced. These proved fast in the right hands
(usually the larger sailor), the earlier ones being built by Bob Hoare (of
FD fame), the later ones being imported from Hein in Germany. The mast
that was universally used in the days before carbon was a Needlespar,
matched with a Batt or Ullman sail and the occasional Green sail from
In 1995 everything started to change. Following the World Championship
at Felixstowe Ferry, development commenced on an all-glass hull.
Composite OKs are normally favoured because plywood is light and strong,
and the problem with building glass decked OKs is keeping the weight
down sufficiently, whilst making it strong enough to cope with the
enormous strains that the unsupported mast puts on the foredeck.
Previous all-glass OKs built in Europe never seemed to have that edge
required to win.
Rushworth Racing Dinghies had been producing composite hulls for five
years, and these had won many UK events. The hull shape was taken from a
standard Parker hull, which itself came from an O'Donnell wooden hull.
Even though this particular hull shape has been around since the
mid-1970s it is still quick over the water even today.
The existing mould was modified - the prototype was duly launched in the
spring of 1996 and won its first race. The major difference between the
Rushworth OK and previous hulls was in combining the decks and the
bulkheads in one piece. The sidedecks were moulded separately before
being fitted to the hull. This all added strength to the deck area
without adding weight.
Over the next 7-8 years Rushworth boats achieved success across the
board, winning most UK Nationals as well as many International events.
Finally in 2003, in the hands of Indian sailor Nitin Mongia, a Rushworth
hull won the world championship held in Goa, India. In 2004 at the World
Championship at Parkstone, Rushworth hulls sailed by Hunt, Craig and
Mongia filled the top three positions. The masts were all UK made by
Seldon and the sails were UK made Norths. In a class where the British
had always struggled to make the grade here was the proof that they
finally had the sailors and the technology to take on the world - and
The new look OK really needed a new mast to replace the outdated
Needlespar aluminium mast. And after nearly a decade of heated
discussion and debate the class finally introduced carbon masts in 2003,
just after the Goa worlds. The possibility of wing masts - which caused
an arms race in the Finn class - was reduced by making the fore/aft
dimension proportional to the sideways dimension at the same height. The
change to carbon masts was very much an unknown quantity, but so far
this strategy has succeeded with five mast builders across the world
producing some high quality and consistent products. In the UK, the most
popular is the Seldon mast - used by both Hunt and Craig last year. The
Seldon mast is a simple solution with two CNC filament wound tapered
round sections joined together with a separate track. Superspars tried a
similar version which has yet to be proven. JP Williams continued the
amateur construction philosophy of the class by building a nice
one-piece mast at home and this has been used to good effect by some
Other UK sailors have opted to go overseas in search of speed. Both the
Ceiligh mast from The Netherlands and the C-Tech from New Zealand are
highly engineered good looking tear-drop shaped masts, although the
Ceiligh is the most expensive on the market at the current time. The
Danish sailors have also developed their own one piece masts, but again
these have not been proven internationally.
Although a grandfathering policy was built into the mast rule so as not
to outclass existing aluminium masts overnight, the majority of the
fleet switched to carbon within a year and aluminium masts are now
rarely seen on the circuit. The flexibility of constructing in carbon
also allows a greater tailoring of mast stiffness to body weight and
sailing style, something that was very much hit and miss with aluminium.
Computer controlled construction techniques remove the human factor so
manufacturers can reliably reproduce consistent and accurate mast bends
again and again. This in turn means you get the mast you want first time
and allows a wider range of body weights to sail the boat competitively.
After an unsuccessful attempt at building OK sails in the 1980s, North
Sails came back in 2000 with a new world beating model, based on their
Olympic winning Finn designs. Developed by North's Paul Hobson in
conjunction with Craig, Hunt, and Ian Howarth of Seldon, North Sails
have virtually dominated the UK market for the past five years. Overseas,
WB Sails of Finland have produced a large open leeched sail that won the
2003 Europeans while Greg Wilcox won the 2002 worlds in New Zealand with
his Port Nicholson Sail, made in Wellington, New Zealand. Other popular
lofts include North (New Zealand) and Pinnell & Bax. The Germans and
Danes still mainly use the Danish Green sails, among a host of sails
from smaller lofts. And will the OK Dinghy follow other classes and
adopt hard sails made from Mylar and Kevlar? There have been a few
experimental sails, but the class is sticking with Dacron for the time
Having achieving the pinnacle of OK sailing and having built some 65 OKs
over the years, Rushworth is moving on and now the OK moulds lie unused
in his Christchurch workshop. In the past five years, the UK has
produced the best hulls, sails and masts in the world, and the class
association is now actively looking for a builder to take over the
moulds and continue the line of competitive OKs started by Rushworth.
Craig, on the other hand, is now campaigning a New Zealand hull with a
Dutch mast and a UK North sail, looking for that extra fraction of a
knot that will help him to achieve his ambition to lift the OK Dinghy
World Championship title later this year in Denmark. Watch this space.
For more information see the international class website or British
The Daily Sail