Fred Gibbs (left) and his friend Ron Mercer in the first Slipper, taken around 1934
How it Started...
The idea of building a small GRP sailing dinghy at Smith and Gibbs took root in the late 1970s. The phenomenal success of the Mirror Dinghy prompted Smith and Gibbs to consider whether building a GRP dinghy of a similar size would present a sound business proposition. The answer to this was a clear yes - particularly considering similarities of the Mirror dinghy to Fred's earlier design from 1932 shown at left - The Slipper.
Several questions remained about exactly what market the Slipper would be aimed at - from the outset it was decided that it would be intended for the cruising fraternity rather than racing circuit. Although the Mirror was soon to become an established class and achieve fame on the international racing stage, complete with class rules, spinnaker and all sorts of racing add-ons - no such plans were envisaged for the Slipper. It was designed for the devotees of 'Swallows and Amazons' sailing - particularly families - who wanted to enjoy the quintessential 'Messing around in Boats'!
It was also the intention to target the Slipper for use as a training boat at sailing schools - of whom many had expressed the view that there was a clear gap in the existing dinghy market and who would consider fleet purchases of a suitable training boat. One of the main criteria was that of value for money - it had to be competitively priced, as well as robustly built for heavy training schedules yet offering exciting performance with ease of handling.
Drawing up the plans for the Slipper, great emphasis was placed on preserving the graceful clinker lines of the original as far as possible. As there were no plans of the first Slipper in existence, Fred worked largely from memory but also from a small number of photographs that he still had from the 1930s. There was of course one major change that would be adopted in the latest incarnation - that of using glass fibre materials instead of wood, at this stage only for the hull. As far as finer points of the hull shape were concerned, whereas the original Slipper had little fore and aft 'rocker', some was introduced in the GRP hull to improve performance and manoeuvrability.
In order to produce a hull moulding for the first Slipper dinghy, a plug had to built to be built to obtain the shape of the boat, from which a mould could be produced in turn to facilitate the production of hulls. Fred produced a plug in around four weeks and following a great deal of careful finishing and polishing to obtain a perfect working surface, the mould was 'laid up'. The decision was taken at this stage to adopt a two-part mould, with a bolted joint running along the keel line so that mouldings could be easily removed from the mould by separating it amidships.
It was not clear exactly how many wooden Slippers had been already been built (it was probably either five or six), but in any case the decision was taken to start sail numbers for the GRP Slipper from one upwards. The first hull was extracted from the mould in late 1979 and the mould separation technique worked well, an excellent moulding being obtained for Slipper No. 1.
The sail plan chosen for the GRP Slipper was initially a Gunter Rig - at this time many small dinghies (including of course the Mirror) were supplied with a similar sail design and the popularity of the Gunter approach supported the notion that widespread familiarity made it probably the best choice. However, after getting feedback from the first customers, from Slipper No. 7 onwards, the Bermudan rig was introduced. This change was beneficial in terms of simplifying the rig setup - obviating the need for a separate mast and gaff and providing a seamless method of threading the bolt rope to the head of the mast.
Unlike the Miracle, which had a two-part mast with a joint section, the Slipper mast would consist of a single section. Experience gathered at Smith and Gibbs in servicing masts had shown that the two-part mast could create more problems than it cured. Joints would become encrusted with sand and corrosion and the stainless steel locating screws would become corroded into their aluminium threads. Also, when a two-part mast is reassembled, great care must be taken not to 'twist' the halyards running through the join. Finally, the increase in length of an one-piece mast did not turn out to be a major issue as most customers had room to accommodate the overhang if they were 'car-topping' the Slipper. As transporting by trailer became more popular, in common with many other classes of dinghy, the mast could be transported on a forward yolk fitted on the road trailer.
The maiden launch of the Slipper was in early 1980 at 'The Crumbles' - an area of the beach at Eastbourne that is now completely developed as part of the Sovereign Harbour Marina development. A calm sea and a gentle breeze provided excellent conditions to test the new Slipper's performance. A few minor alterations to the rig were necessary to optimise the performance but overall the result was more stable and responsive than expected.
Although the outer hull for the first Slipper was entirely glassfibre, for the first run of boats the fore and aft buoyancy tanks, gunwhales, centreboard case and capping, side benches and centre thwart, rudder stock and rudder were constructed from ply and mahogany. This combination of old and new materials resulted in a traditional design that retained graceful curves in the simulated clinker lines of the hull and the intention was also to reflect this in the use of varnished wood for most of the interior fittings. This approach was a complete success, with unanimous positive feedback and, after a number of demonstration events, an order book for several boats was achieved after only a few weeks. Slipper No.1 was sold to an Eastbourne Sailing Club member and several Slippers with single digit sailing numbers were built for an Eastbourne-based sailing school.
A major modification introduced early on was to introduce GRP fore and aft buoyancy tanks. Compared with other dinghies such as the all-ply Mirror, which needed a complete bow to stern repaint/revarnish, by comparison, early Slippers required a greatly reduced end-of-year maintenance schedule. However, GRP buoyancy tanks would not only further reduce this maintenance schedule, but would still ensure sturdy airtight buoyancy compartments compared with tanks constructed of jointed plywood.
Inflatable side buoyancy bags had been fitted as standard from No.1 to provide sufficient flotation on capsize. At a much later stage, GRP side tanks would be developed and offered as an alternative to the side buoyancy bags, although there was a slight increase in overall weight.
The next design upgrade introduced around this point was a glassfibre daggerboard case moulding. Up to that point, the case had been constructed of ply for each boat, a time-consuming task that required care to not only ensure a watertight seal between the case and the hull, but also the correct width in the case slot to ensure clearance for the daggerboard to be raised and lowered without there being either insufficient or excess clearance. The answer was a separate dagger board case mould upon which the GRP case could be layed up, released and 'glassed' onto the corresponding location in the hull with the aid of a locating jig.
Another refinement that would reduce production time was the adoption of an anodised alloy rudder stock and tiller assembly, complete with fitted tiller extension, at the same time upgrading the hull rudder fittings to anodised alloy components that were of sturdier construction and less prone to bending the thinner stainless steel types previously used. This added a more modern appearance without detracting from the classic lines as well as reducing costs still further.
A significant number of Slippers were produced with the previously described modifications and as word spread, many were sold to customers from other clubs and sailing schools further afield. Feedback from these customers praised the Slipper not only for being excellent value, but also for its responsive yet forgiving performance. Many Slippers were sold through retail outlets such as London Dinghy Centre, Southern Boat Centre in Heathfield and other trade customers.
After a successful run of Slipper production it became clear that, despite the changes introduced earlier, some steps in the build still required a great deal of time in terms of preparation of materials. It was also clear that the Slipper could still retain its classic looks if care was taken in any further design refinements that would incorporate more use of GRP components.
The next major design change was to incorporate a GRP gunwhale cap assembly that would replace much of the inboard timber, as well as providing a seamless and elegant replacement for the wooden bow and stern trim. The result was a carefully shaped gunwhale moulding that complemented the overall appearance, enhancing the aesthetic profile topsides as well as maintaining hull rigidity through its one-piece construction.
The addition of mahogany port and starboard gunwale trim completed the trim, still avoiding the 'all-glassfibre' appearance. The picture at left shows the fully-rigged Slipper No. 51 ready to sail on the beach opposite the former Sovereign Sailing Club, either side of which, two of Smith and Gibbs' Sovereign 17s belonging to the Fishermens Club can be seen in the background! (To follow).
During the nearly ten year production life of the Slipper dinghy, positive feedback was plentiful regarding both the performance and construction of the Slipper, many complements praising its timeless elegance despite the prevalence of GRP in its manufacture. The aim had always been to give Slipper owners more time to enjoy it on the water rather than slaving away in the garage with glass paper and varnish! It was felt that the balance had been struck, with only a small amount of upkeep required to maintain the Slipper's wooden fittings
As a business dealing with all aspects of the small boat market, Smith and Gibbs offered a wide variety of goods and services such as dinghy and yacht repairs, sail repairs and custom made boat covers, replacement dinghy masts as well as general chandlery such as rope, marine paint, boat fittings and dinghy and yachting clothing. The Slipper dinghy, as well as the Pup, a smaller 9ft rowboat and tender, and the Sovereign 17, a 17ft club angling and small commercial fishing boat, were all built by the company during the 1980s at its premises in Latimer Road.
In the 1990s, the Recreational Craft Directive was introduced by the European Union and adopted as UK law as part of new legislation to improve safety for small pleasure boats and light commercial craft. The legislation was intended to reinforce and harmonise safety standards throughout the EU with the additional aim of opening up European markets to EU producers.
The Directive required manufacturers of small pleasure craft to obtain approval under the Directive guidelines on issues such as buoyancy, documentation and identification of the craft. Although there did not appear to be any major issues to indicate that the Slipper would not conform to the new legislation, the decision had already been taken to wind down production of the Slipper as well as the other two designs well before the arrival of the RCD.
This was in addition a time of great change at the business, as more industrial moulding work was taken on by the expanding company of Sovereign Mouldings. Boatbuilding effectively became eclipsed by the virtually continuous (and far less seasonal) demand for general GRP moulding work, mundane though this was in comparison with the more glamourous and exciting world of pleasure craft.
There had been no plans to develop the Slipper as a racing class; neither RYA class recognition was pursued, nor a Slipper Class Association formed. Some enquiries were received regarding the development of a spinnaker system for the Slipper. Although the practical requirements for a spinnaker were discussed in outline, a spinnaker option was never supplied as part of the Slipper rig.
The Slipper had always been aimed at newcomers to sailing; where Mum and Dad (probably just Dad in most cases!) were looking for a new and exciting experience to share with the kids. Sailing schools and clubs also demonstrated a firm following, with one club accumulating a fleet of six Slippers.
The last Slipper, sail number 68, was moulded in the early 1990s and sold to a local sailing club. After nearly two decades of production no more hulls were layed up, although the moulds were mothballed and put into storage.
2020 marks the 88th anniversary of the Slipper. It is clear that this timeless design stands out from the crowd and no compromises have been made in the design ethos in offering a traditional, well built and safe sailing dinghy that comes first for good looks. To all those who have read 'Swallows and Amazons', to all those who regard small dinghy sailing as an adventure, the Slipper is an excellent choice.
Will we ever see Slipper sail number 69? Never say never again...
Brian Gibbs 2020