Star Class Racing Yacht
The International Star Class racing yacht
This beautiful boat is a racing yacht in the International Star Class, a design formula conceived in North America in 1910. The modern Star is raced in over 170 fleets throughout the world and has continued to attract many of the best racing yachtsmen. It has been raced in all but one Olympic Games since 1932 and the Star World Championship remains one the most cherished prizes in competitive sailing.
Why is this boat so aesthetically satisfying, to the non-sailor as much as to people familiar with yacht design? The outlines of the yacht in the picture above, formed by its sailplan and hull, conform exactly with how a lay person – child or adult – would sketch a typical sailing boat. In side view it is almost a perfectly symmetrical pyramid, with the gently curving sweep of the 'chine' at the base of the boat (the sharp edge near the waterline) eloquently defining the pyramid's base. The Star is extravagantly endowed with sail area and in its modern manifestation the gap between boom and hull is minimal so that visually, the boat reads as a unified whole.
For a yacht, the Star is small, and its racing crew of two must not only set the sails and steer the boat but they are very much part of the motion dynamic, visibly integral as they move around according to the direction of sailing and trimming the boat in counterbalance to the force of the wind. There is no other racing sailboat in which crew and canvas* interact so elegantly with wind and water. No wonder the Star Class has remained popular not only with sailors but also with photographers throughout the 20th century.
(*note that the sails are not actually made of canvas)
A brief history of the Star Class
Whilst the Star Class has existed since 1910/1911 the modern Star is in many respects different from the original. A Star Class yacht can be built by any boatbuilder prepared to work to the design formula – a set of rules and technical specifications governed by a Technical Committee. The development of these rules can be traced in the Star Class Log, first recorded by the International Star Class Yacht Racing Association (ISCYRA) in 1922, and in Starlights, a monthly newsletter of developments and activities within the class. A correctly completed boat receives a measurement certificate and is entered into the class with a unique sail number (issued consecutively).
From time to time the class Association has approved modernising rule changes in response to technological developments. This is not surprising and is a crucial factor in the continued success of the Star, as the original 1910 design formula was created in a very different context to that which prevails in modern sailboat racing.
In response to the requirements of a group of New York yachstmen in 1906 the Naval Architect William Gardner designed a small chine-built arc-bottomed racing yacht called the Bug (a chine is the intersection of the bottom and sides of a v-sectioned boat). An improved version was commissioned in 1910, and Gardner's draftsman Francis Sweisguth drew the plans for the boat that was to become the Star. Copies of the plans were bought by the Nahant Dory Club in Massachusets, at which time the design was known as the Nahant Bug (after the original Bug) but they had red stars on their sails and at the suggestion of the American Yacht Club the name "Star" was adopted in preference.
Thirty three Star Class boats were built in the winter of 1910/1911 to be raced the following season on Long Island Sound. The class grew steadily and during the 1920s the sailplan was changed from a gaff to a Marconi rig. A gaff rigged mainsail is supported by the mast and two booms: one boom located at the bottom and another higher up, coming out at a slight angle from the mast. A Marconi rigged mainsail has a single bottom boom. The same Star mainsail could be used in either configuration.
The Star's rig was modernised again in around 1930, when the mast was lengthened and the boom shortened, resulting in a more aerodynamically efficient sailplan with a higher aspect ratio. At this time Francis Sweisguth was still a member of the Technical Committee but the driving force behind the development of the Star's rig were most likely its sailmaker members who included Ernest Ratsey of Ratsey & Lapthorn, at the forefront of whose mind was the need to maintain the appeal of the Star in the face of competition from other racing classes.
At the same time developments were taking place in the construction of the Star's hull. The original design formula had been adjusted in 1925 to specify building tolerances (permitted margins of error) and a further "Table of Limitations" was issued in 1930. Boatbuilders then discovered that faster boats for particular sailing conditions could be produced by taking the hull to the maximum or minimum limit at particular measurement points. Right through to the late 1960s, slightly different hull shapes were a feature of wood-built Stars, by which time fibreglass construction had been introduced, with low-density foam or balsawood cores. The optimal hull shape which had emerged by the late 1970s is more or less the one in use today.
In a number of other respects the development of the Star has mirrored the development of racing sailboats generally – materials, spars, fittings, layout, etc – and whilst the Class rules allow scope in how the boat is set up, nearly a century of trial and error has resulted in the evolution of a fairly standard model, with only minor differences between one boat and another. This is pure speculation, but it may be that in the future the Star Class will give further attention to the needs of sailors of normal build, so that they can compete more effectively with the heavier sailors who are able to manage the Star's comparatively large sail area.
International Star Class boatbuilders
A vital ingredient in the success of a class of sailing boat is the commitment of professional boatbuilders with the skill and enthusiasm to build race-winning boats, often for themselves as well as for other sailors. To a lesser degree the same applies to sailmakers.
The first 33 Stars built in 1910/1911 were built in the boatyards of Issac E. Smith (22) and Richard T. Green (11). Over 8,000 Stars have since been built, though many no longer exist. The Seattle-based boatbuilder Skip Etchells took the class forward in 1942 after tank tests had demonstrated improved lines for the hull. Etchells later established the Old Greenwich Boat Company in New York, moving to Stamford, Connecticut, in 1956. Etchells Stars were raced very successfully and became known for their quality of workmanship as well as their performance. Other prominent contemporary builders included Lippincott and Eitchenlaub, each producing their own variant of the hull shape allowed within the class rules.
Buchan Boats emerged as Star builders during the late 1940s. The Buchan family had emigrated from Scotland to the Seattle area in the early 1920s, and Bill Buchan (then a spare time boatbuilder) and his father came to the class out of pure enthusiasm for racing this beautiful boat. Like Etchells, Buchan Boats sucessfully exploited building tolerances to produce faster designs, and Bill Buchan won his first Star world championship in 1961. Buchan Stars remained successful for several decades – especially the fibreglass 5600 series during the 1970s – and the Buchan design remains the basis of the modern Star.
International Star Class sailors
The present International Star Class world championship trophy superceded an older one in 1926. The original trophy was competed for three times from 1923 to 1925 and was first won by the celebrated Bill Inslee sailing Star No. 1 – "Taurus" – in a three-race series on Western Long Island Sound. More than 100 members of the class contributed towards the new trophy, first won by helmsman B. Comstock, again on Long Island Sound.
Ernest Ratsey of the world-famous sailmakers Ratsey & Lapthorn was successful in the class during the early 1920s and his brother Colin Ratsey finished second in the world championships in 1931. Adrian Iselin built Star No. 202 in 1924 – "Ace" – and not only won the old trophy in 1925 but also, in the same boat, the new trophy eleven years later in 1936. Iselin constantly re-equipped his boat to stay competitive and last raced Ace in 1952. It is now kept by the Mystic Seaport Museum of America and the Sea.
It's interesting to note that early Stars were also raced by females. Patsy Raskob, a girl of twelve, finished 18th out of 28 in the 1932 world championships and 12th out of 16 in 1933. A Mrs Balken also raced in the 1933 and 1934 series.
In 1936 the Brazilian helmsman Walter von Hütschler introduced a more flexible rig to the Star and won the championships in 1937, 1938, and again in Keil, Germany in 1939 – the first time the event was held in Europe. Only three boats from North America competed and by winning the series von Hütschler is credited with preserving the trophy through the war, returning it to the U.S. via Norway.
The post war world championship results feature familiar Star class names like Etchells (Skip and Mary, his crew), Lippincot, Lowell North (North Sails), C. de Cardenas (Havana), and Bill Buchan Jr, and in 1966 the great Paul Elvstrom from Denmark won the trophy from a fleet of nearly 80 boats, also winning the following year.
The Star Class hall of fame was extended in 1971 when Dennis Conner – now best known for winning back the Americas Cup from Australia in "Stars and Stripes" in 1987 and again from New Zealand in 2003 – won the Star Worlds in 1971 and 1977 and finished second in 1978. Other regular "Star" names from the modern era, further underlining the pedigree of class and boat, include Tom Blackaller, Buddy Melges, and Paul Cayard – the evergreen Bill Buchan Jr won the championship again in 1985.
Discover more about the Star Class at the Class Association website.
[ First published August 6th, 2006 ]