Westerly goes racing

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Westerly goes Racing

(First published in WOA magazine No. 48, Spring 1992)

By the end of 1975 we had, for the first time, produced more than 500 boats in a year. Our fast cruisers (Cirrus, Tiger and Westerly 28) had come to the end of their production lives and the time had come to move into the booming racing market. Our first step in this direction was with a quarter tonner designed jointly by Chris Hawkins and Laurent Giles, the GK24.

The technique for selling cruiser/racers was then, as now, to put a crack crew on board the first boat off the line and send them out to win everything in sight. The GK24 was launched in the summer of 1976 and by the end of the year we had sold 44 and won a lot of races. 1977 saw 150 GKs being sold in a variety of guises.

We never succumbed to the demand for kit boats, and we weren’t about to now. However, there was clearly a need for some sort of low budget boat so we produced a budget version which was structurally complete and ready to race, but with only the basic bunk bases fitted below. This version had the combined advantage of light weight and low cost, which enabled one to spend the money where it was really needed, on the sails. Most racing people used outboard motors, and the fractional rig was popular since it was superior to the masthead rig in all but a very narrow band of conditions around about the Force 3-4 mark.

The "standard" version of the GK24 was properly fitted out with a double berth fore-peak, a separate heads and two quarter berths, a saloon and galley. At that time the merits of the fractional rig had not been fully realised so the great majority of these boats were masthead rigged, which was thought to be superior upwind and in general less worrying. There was a wide variety of engines on offer from the little Vire 6hp petrol engines and the extraordinary Dolphin 12hp petrol engines (when coming alongside you had to stop the engine, put it in reverse and start it up again!) to the Petter 6hp single cylinder diesel.

Today the most popular GK24s are the masthead inboard diesel boats with the engine-less fractional rigs a close second and the other versions trailing along behind. It is extraordinary to think that fractional rigs have been around on Westerlys since 1976 and their terrific advantages have still not been realised (at least not demanded), by the general yachting public. However let us allow that hobby horse gallop off into the distance while I just leave you with the thought that having produced 70 GK24s in 1978, we built a few each year up until the end of 1981 when they finally faded out (the last was No.320).

Meanwhile, in 1978, we won the franchise to produce the amazing J24 in this country. Unlike the intensely fashionable cruiser/racers, the J24 has been a force to be reckoned with since the mid 70s, worldwide. The secret of its success is that the designer Dick Johnstone totally ignored all I.O.R. considerations and went for a simple boat that was fast, cheap to build, fast and exciting to race, and most of all fast!

They are so light, with such small wetted surface area and such large rigs that they can trounce boats of twice their size in every condition from breathless to full gale. Rather like racing cars, they are not for the faint hearted, since their owners insist on flying spinnaker in far too much wind. This is all very well on a broad reach, but if there is any sort of sea running and you are close to being on a dead run, they are inclined to surf down the front of one wave and bury themselves in the back of the next one. Happy the sailor who has flown a J24 in a gale! In 1979 we also took on the ill fated J30, of which we produced only 9 in 2 years. I never did get to the bottom of why they were so unpopular but they were superseded in, I think, 1982 by the J29 which was an altogether better boat and more popular. Unfortunately we did not build the J29 and our tenure of the building rights came to an end in 1981 with the demise of Westerly Marine Construction.

Meanwhile, in 1978 we also produced a half tonner called the GK29. This time it was a Laurent Giles design, yet again the crack crew treatment boosted sales for a couple of years before a newer boat became fashionable. We made 170 GK29s in 1978 and ’79 and then took two more years to produce the last twelve. Almost all had the lightweight Petter 12hp engine. She was an extraordinarily good cruiser/racer, having enough speed and more than enough accommodation to frighten the life out of Jeremy Rogers and his Contessa 32. Sadly though the I.O.R. pretensions meant that they were soon outmoded, and in spite of outsailing the Contessas during 1979, they never made it into the big league.

Having spent 4 or 5 years in the doldrums so far as second hand prices went, 1984 saw them suddenly picking up from the £12,000 or so that they sold for in 1984 to becoming a popular substitute for people who could never quite catch up with the rapidly escalating Konsort prices and yet saw the advantage of a boat that was nearly as big as a Konsort, was a good deal faster, and had much the same layout. There were relatively few ‘sailaway’ GK29s so that homemade interiors are relatively rare, as were the half ton rigged boats with their taller masts and deeper keels. The standard cruiser/racer version had an iron keel drawing 5’3", and a deck stepped mast, whereas the half ton I.O.R. version had a 5′ 8" draft with a lead keel and a two and half foot taller mast.

Our last fling with the GKs was to produce the GK34 in 1980. By this time we had really got the bit between our teeth and produced a couple of Kevlar hulled, ultra light high-tech flying machines, named “Getabout Kowboy” and “Geriatric Bear” The first of these was sailed to a number of victories by David Burrow. Their innovation lay not only in their high-tech composition but also in having a three quarter rig with no mast head option. These boats were flyers, even the standard GRP hulled GK34s win races today, but for some reason they never caught on so we only built 8 in 1980 and a further 9 in 1981 before they came to a grinding halt. Most were fitted with the 20hp Bukh engine.”