Contest III, Royal Bermuda Yacht Club Photo by David McCreary

Contest III, Royal Bermuda Yacht Club Photo by David McCreary



The Bermuda Fitted Dinghy is one of the world's most amazing sailboats. It raises impracticality to an art form. By class rules the hull is exactly 14'1"; it's sailed with a crew of six or seven men (that is not a typo). From the late 1700s, ordinary Bermuda fishing dinghies and workboats were "fitted" with sails, keel and ballast. The first official race was in 1853; shortly thereafter boats were constructed specifically for racing, these became the true "fitted" boats, workboats were then regarded as "unfitted".

All spars are made of wood (nearly always sitka spruce), sails are of cotton, dacron or woven synthetic material. No mylar or other exotic sailcloth is permitted. Genoa jibs are not allowed. A boat may have a maximum of three sets of sails, one each for light, moderate and heavy wind. Sails consist of a working jib, mainsail and spinnaker.

With regards to the mainsail, this from the measurement rules:

"Mainsails shall be loose footed on the boom. The hoist dimension of a mainsail shall not exceed double the length of the foot dimension measured at right angles perpendicular to the luff. The tack of the mainsail shall be no less than 24 inches below the gooseneck fitting".

 Contest III, Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. Photo by David McCreary

Contest III, Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. Photo by David McCreary



Unique to the class rules is the jettisoning of crew. Once crew has left the boat (normally on a downwind run) they may not re-board. The trick then is for the remaining crew to manage to keep the boat upright. Finishes are always upwind. It's rare for all the boats in a race to actually finish: one crew member's usually futile job is to furiously bail water as it pours over the leeward side. It's common for boats to swamp and sink in one race, then be righted, bailed and sailed to victory in a later race the same day.

The starting sequence is also unique: boats start alongside a "stake boat" — often a small barge — with large ropes running the length of the sides. Crew grab the ropes and pull the boat along the side of the stake boat and then sail away. The boats may not cross in front of the stake boat. Boats are measured prior to a race, they are measured by tonnage, computed as follows:

"Length of water line multiplied by the mean of five breadths taken at points one-sixth, one-third, one-half, two-thirds and five-sixths of the length from woodends forwards to woodends aft, the product to be multiplied by the mean of five depths taken on the outside of the same points at which the breadths are taken. The breadths shall be measured from the outside of the planking. The depth of a straight keel dinghy shall be measured from the top of the gunwale to the garboard seam. The depths of a curved keel dinghy shall be measured from the top of the gunwale to points on the outside of and one inch from the center of the keel."

 Contest III, Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. Photo by David McCreary

Contest III, Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. Photo by David McCreary



Handicapping is accomplished based on the tonnage measurement. The smallest measured boats line up at the front of the stake boat. Larger boats are behind and start four seconds later for every cubic foot of measurement they exceed the smallest or "scratch" boat.

Fitted dinghies were sailed before there was a port-starboard racing right-of-way rule, and the class saw no reason to follow that rule when it was promulgated. When boats approach each other, both hail and must bear away. The fragility and expense of the boats make this an exceedingly good idea. With all three sets of sails and the hand-made wooden hulls, the expense of a new boat can approach $100,000. There are five active Fitted Dinghies racing in Bermuda at this time. Another half-dozen, dating to the 1800s, are on display at the Bermuda Maritime Museum.

 Historical photo courtesy Bermuda Maritime Museum.

Historical photo courtesy Bermuda Maritime Museum.



The image of the Fitted Dinghy has become a Bermudian icon. The Monetary Authority minted a one dollar coin starting in 1988 with an image of the boat one one side, the design based on a drawing by a local Bermudian artist.

The class has had periods of great activity and decades of neglect and obscurity; the class is currently in a period of resurgence. Plenty of racing in the summer season and some new boats planned bode well for the next 150 years of Bermuda Fitted Dinghy racing.

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