Boat Magazine - Class Notes, July 2006 - Comet class
by Vanessa Bird
With her flared topsides, hard chine construction and rounded bottom, it's not hard to see what influenced the design of the 16ft (4.9m) Comet dinghy. She bears more than just a passing resemblance to her forebear, the 22ft 7in (6.9m) International Star (see CB211 & 215), and for a long time was referred to as the "Star Junior", or the Star's "younger brother". The influence was certainly deliberate. Her designer, C Lowndes Johnson, was an avid Star sailor and builder, and in 1929 won the International Championships at Louisiana, America, in his home-built Star, Eel. His success on the water and flair for building winning boats led, in 1932, to him receiving a commission from Maria Wheeler to design a two-handed dinghy for her sons David and Thomas. She wanted a shoal-draught dinghy that was easy to handle, and which would show a good turn of speed in the waters of Chesapeake Bay, on the east coast of America. Johnson's design, which was also influenced by the local skipjacks, was designed to be built at a moderate price and had a bermudan sloop rig that was simple to set up, yet generous in proportions.
The 16-footer, which was originally known as the 'Crab' drew immediate interest and, after details were published in the March 1932 issue of Yachting magazine, Johnson received orders for 100 sets of plans. Her appeal lay in her simplicity and also her performance on the water. Easily driven to windward, she would plane off the wind and she proved to be popular with both beginners and experienced sailors alike. Further publicity and interest came from the 1933 New York Boat Show, during which a model of the Star was displayed on Yachting's stand. The magazine's editor, Herbert L Stone saw great potential in the design and, with the help of John Eiman and Wilbur H Haines, two sailors from Stone Harbor YC in New Jersey, helped set up the class as it exists today.
By 1938, 40 fleets of Comets had been established around America and over 1,000 boats built. Numbers increased at an impressive rate and by 1950 over 3,000 Comets had been launched and 125 fleets established across America, Canada, Puerto Rico, Panama and the Virgin Islands.
Despite being a one-design the Comet has evolved significantly over the past 74 years, particularly with regards construction. Johnson designed the boats for home construction and early boats were heavily built, with caulked planks, canvas decks and cast iron fittings. The introduction of spruce and western red cedar-built boats in 1938 lightened the design considerably, as did glued construction and GRP, which was first allowed in 1957.
The hull shape and cockpit layout have also seen significant changes over the years, and much controversy, too. Competition between the fleets encouraged sailors to tweak their boats and in the mid-1940s this included building Comets with flatter underbodies and longer waterlines. The new boats proved faster on a reach and unpopular with class stalwarts, but it was not until 1971 that they were banned from competing. Hull tolerances are now very tight, to the extent that three out of the top seven finishers in the 1972 Internationals were disqualified, because one measurement was out by a 1/4in!
Like many of its contemporaries, the Comet's success has been put down to its "basic soundness" and its "adaptability to change" and while it's never achieved the international acclaim that the Star has, it has more than proved its unerring durability.
- Do not confuse the Johnson-designed Comet with the singlehanded dinghy of the same name often seen in UK waters. The singlehanded Comet was designed by Andrew Simmons and is just 11ft 4in (3.5m) LOA.
- The first Comet National Championships in 1935 were won by 15-year-old Roger Willcox in Escargot, no66. His sister, Sally, was runner-up in the 1939 National Championships when she, too, was just 15-years-old.
- The Comet's designer, C Lowndes Johnson won the 1942 Comet National Championship.
- The Horner brothers were well-known for their lightweight cedar-planked Comets in the 1930s, which they built in the attic of their parent's house. Their mother was rumoured to disapprove of their boatbuilding, to the extent that any boat they finished had to be squeezed out of the attic window while their mother was at church on a Sunday morning!
- For more details on the Comet, contact the Class Association.
LOA 16ft (4.9m)
Beam 5ft (1.5m)
Draught (c/board up) 3in (76mm)
Draught (c/board down) 3ft (0.9m)
Sail area 140sqft (13m2)
Designer C Lowndes Johnson
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