Classic Projects: Mirror sailing dinghy
Image credit: Alamy
The family-size, build-it-yourself Mirror sailing dinghy was a masterpiece of design that made sailing accessible to ordinary people in the 1960s and 1970s.
According to the Daily Mirror, the family-size, build-it-yourself sailing dinghy – the Mirror – was ‘the boat that launched a thousand Olympic dreams’. This might sound like a tabloid exaggeration, but UK double Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker claims he owes his career to the Mirror and British round-the-world, record-breaking sailors Dame Ellen MacArthur and Dee Caffari are both fans of the little dinghy that brought sailing to the masses in the 1970s.
Everything about the Mirror was designed with simplicity and popularity in mind. Until the mid-20th century, sailing had been an elite pastime with only the wealthy able to entertain the idea. Yet with the rise in dinghy sailing, the sport developed grass roots appeal and by the time the newspaper of the working class got involved in the 1960s, a new icon was added to the list of miniskirts, the Beatles and Flower Power.
The masterstroke was to combine the skills of legendary yacht designer Jack Holt with those of popular home-improvement TV presenter Barry Bucknell. It was the age of do-it-yourself, and when it came to boat building the public couldn’t get enough of it. The Mirror’s popularity soared, peaking in 1976 with an outbreak of ‘Mirror Mania’.
Although you could buy ‘ready to sail’ (and even part-assembled ‘ready to finish’) versions, the vast majority were bought in kit form by fathers eager to display their woodworking skills prior to getting out on the water with their kids.
While the price tag of just over £60 seemed to imply the dinghy might be cheap and cheerful, it was in fact a masterpiece of design. The kit contained everything needed to build a complete sailing boat, apart from bonding resin and final finishing material. Pre-cut wood materials, spars, hardware, main and jib sails, standing rigging and lines just needed patient assembly in the garage.
With construction requiring neither special tools nor woodworking experience, the two-to-three-person Mirror soon became the most popular sailing boat in the UK.
In essence, the superstructure of the hull and deck was an arrangement of flat marine plywood panels stitched together with copper wire, the joins reinforced with glass-fibre tape. As the hull was in the ‘pram’ format, meaning it was double transom-ended (squared off at both ends), there were no complicated curves to negotiate, so anyone with flair for home improvement and a little time to spare could turn the dream of owning a yacht into an affordable reality.
You could never accuse the Mirror of being elegant. Yet despite its rudimentary appearance, early reviewers were keen to register their approval. While the concept of bringing egalitarianism into sailing appealed, what really mattered was that Holt’s maritime design experience had combined with Bucknell’s understanding of what the DIY enthusiast could achieve, to produce not only a seaworthy craft, but one that would appeal to real sailors.
Writing in the 1964 ‘Dinghy Yearbook’, the much respected Richard Creagh-Osborn ventured that the Mirror was ‘one of the best one-design dinghies’. Soon, the classic Viking Red sails were a common sight on the lakes, reservoirs and coastal waters around the UK.
The Mirror was dealt a fatal blow by the imposition of 25 per cent VAT on leisure boats in the late 1970s. Yet its legacy and influence remained secure. There’s even an academic paper on how “the Mirror dinghy can act as a representation of increased social and economic autonomy for large sections of the British population in the last half of the twentieth century”.
The Mirror sailing dinghy facts and figures
Designer: Jack Holt and Barry Bucknell
Original cost: £63 11s (£63.55)
- More than 70,000 built
- ‘Mirror Mania’ hit its peak in 1976
- Named after the Daily Mirror newspaper
- Dame Ellen MacArthur is a big fan of the Mirror
- A Mirror can be transported on the roof rack of a car
- Easily identified by their ‘Viking Red’ sails
- The first ever Mirror (sail No1) is at the National Maritime Museum, Cornwall
- Mirrors can be sailed, rowed or even powered by outboard motor
- Mirrors are still raced competitively worldwide
- There is even a book called ‘Mirror Mania’, edited by Sally Carslake
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