I had just got off the telephone, and was feeling somewhat stunned.
An operator had come on the line and announced that she had a call for a Mr Legg from the United Kingdom. Then a rather loud voice with an unusual and slightly slurred English accent boomed,
“Is that Legg?”
The conversation then ran something like this. “I want to make it quite clear that I won’t have you messing around with my design. As long as I am alive nothing will be changed. Do you understand that?” I managed to get in, “Just a minute, I was only….” But the tirade went on and on without a stop, and then the phone went dead.
The phone call had obviously been from Uffa Fox. We had been building his Flying Fifteens for nearly a year now. I had built myself one and I thought it was a nice little boat, but it did seem to have a few things that could be improved on, and I had written to him with what I thought was quite a nice and polite letter suggesting some small alterations, and had not expected a blast like that.
The following day a telegram was delivered very much in the same tone. This was getting to be a bit rich, so I wrote a letter telling him so, and questioned his claim of being an English gentleman, in spite of his connections. But I stopped short of telling him what he could do with his Flying Fifteens as we were building quite a few of them, and in spite of the fact that they were very heavy on the helm and needed some other minor corrections, I wanted to keep on building and sailing them.
Some two weeks after the phone call a letter arrived. It had been written on the same day that I had received the call. It elaborated even more on his displeasure of some “Colonial” having the audacity to suggest changes to one of his designs. Uffa had obviously received my first letter that day and blown up ! I had the greatest respect for the man as a yacht designer. OK, he had got his message across, loud and clear, but enough was enough, and I now doubted that we could have a affable relationship if that was his way of discussing things.
The unusual keel, and old-fashioned shape of the rudder with its centre of effort
so far aft of the pivot point, exaggerated the pressure on the helm.
Photo courtesy of Dick Voller.
At the time we were building the Fifteens we were also building the 25ft “Top Hats” designed by Captain John Illingworth and there was a complete contrast in attitude. We had nothing but total cooperation and assistance from that gentleman.
I taped Uffa’s letter to the office wall to remind the staff of the nature of the beast we were dealing with, and awaited developments, but nothing happened. Sometime later we received an invitation to build another of his designs called “The ugly Duckling“. It was a round bow yachts tender, and we did build a few. Most went to Sydney but they were not generally accepted in Australia, and they really were ugly. They looked more like a bath with one end squared off, and then Port Melbourne YC took up as a class, Uffa’s “Jolly Boats”. We were asked to build them.
It appeared that our dispute was forgiven and forgotten.
I was determined to do what I could (within the tolerances allowed) to rectify the little problems with the boat, so I built myself another “Flying Fifteen”, and moved the mast forward to its limits, the keel aft as far as it could go, the rudder to the maximum thickness, and the leading edge as upright as allowed. The keel castings had been overweight so we got the moulding pattern back from the foundry and re-faired it. I had a mainsail cut a little flatter, and the headsail cut a little fuller. The overall result was a definite improved performance, and after a day’s sailing I didn’t go home with my arms feeling like they had been pulled out of their sockets.
Uffa to my knowledge was never aware that we had played with his tolerances, but the whole affair led me to believe that no matter how good a designer, it is not reasonable to assume that a design straight off the drawing board is perfect. It takes time out sailing on the water to sort things out and make the necessary adjustments.
Fleets of “Flying Fifteens” have never stopped growing, and today I believe numbers have grown to nearly 4,000 worldwide. They are numerically the largest keel boat class in the World, and seem to have prospered since Uffa’s death, thanks to a sensible attitude of the controlling Associations.
For my part it had been a long time since I had owned a boat that I could just go out for a leisurely sail in on a Sunday with a friend or two and, occasionally if the breeze was moderate, on my own.
With the new boat we were unbeaten in races leading up to “The Prince Philip Trophy” held in Hobart that Christmas, and I spent three weeks towing the boat around Tasmania before the event, hardly aware that there was a boat on behind, it was so easy to tow.
The Flying Fifteens have kept up with modern construction methods and materials, and are the only one design class boat that I can think of that have survived and thrived, for over sixty years.
PS. Just today after I had finished this story, and some forty-four years after that row with Uffa Fox, I have been given a clue as to why he may have been so upset with us Colonials, and why I had so much trouble getting the boat to trim properly.
It seems that in the early days the English FF Association had seen fit to increase the size of the mainsail without consulting the designer. This had led to a court case, and I had not been aware of this. I don’t remember having ever seen an original sail plan and had only worked off sail dimensions supplied by the association.
If that was the case, sorry Uffa, I certainly would have been upset too.