The History of the Cherub Class

Random image from folder in the frontpage namespace The Cherub is a two-person 12 foot racing dinghy with asymmetric spinnaker and twin trapezes. Just twelve feet long, weighing around 70kgs fully rigged for sailing, the Cherub combines spectacular performance with the “on the edge” handling characteristics only found in true lightweight skiffs.

Originally created in New Zealand by John Spencer in 1951, Cherubs are mainly sailed in Australia and Great Britain, with a growing fleet in France. As well as this, boats can be found as far away as Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, the USA and Portugal.

The Cherub rules are simple and allow for maximum flexibility for designers, allowing boats to be created to incorporate sailors own ideas. Also means the class develops over time as techniques, materials and ideas improve. All this makes the Cherub one of the most interesting and innovative of all dinghies: The challenge extends from the sailing skills to setting up the boat to suit the sailor, and maybe even designing and building, too.

Cherub sailing is the real thing: True planing performance upwind, but then turn the corner and you’re in for the ride of your life….

In 2001 various individuals in the fleet tried twin trapezing, and reported favourably. Members with long memories remembered when this was tried and rejected in 1989, but a dispensation was made official in October 2003. A simple ballot to establish a trajectory was held in 2004 and twin trapezes were approved.

There followed a dispensation to allow bigger spinnakers and then a ballot to increase the upwind sail area to 15.5sqm and the spinnaker to 21sqm in early 2005. Numbers are growing and techniques have changed but the Cherub remains true to John Spencer's vision of being a boat which can be built in a garage and sailed by a pair of ordinary human beings - fast!

1997 rules Change

In 1997 the Brits elected for a further simplification of the measurement rules, and, with the impact of the new SMOD semi-skiff types, also elected to increase the sail area slightly to 12.5 sq.m. fore and aft, 15sq.m. spinnaker. To compensate for this increase in area the maximum beam was increased to 1.8m. The hull rules were simplified and the rather type forming rise of floor mesurement was removed and replaced with a narrower minimum distance between the chines. To help the upgrade of older boats and maintain the ballence of the rig a 30 cm snout was allowed. These changes stimulated a number of new designs exploring the new hull shapes made possible. Patterson 7

From 1981 to 1984 there were no new Cherub designs in the UK, due to a package of rule change proposals under consideration. These were adopted by the UK Class Association (but not the Australian or New Zealand Associations). in 1984, and the following designs are all to these rules. The revised rules relaxed the mid-length chine restrictions, and permit sailplan development. The area of main and jib also increased slightly to 125 sq.ft. Its interesting to note that these changes were supported by John Spencer, the original designer of the class, but the Australian Cherub Association, very much the largest at that time, was very much opposed.

The initial bunch of new rules designs tended to have both the narrower chine beam and a greater rise of floor. Whilst they all seemed to be able to go quickly at certain times and in certain conditions none really established a dominance over the old rules designs. Perhaps the nearest to demonstrating extra speed was the Deeley V, with a fine straight entry and plenty of rise of floor. Reputedly designed “without regard to human error” the design tended to prove the point with spectacular pitchpoles, but could be extremely fast in between times. Rigs moved from the old “threepenny bit” mainsail with overlapping jib to a fuller headed mainsail with a large roach and a smaller jib with minimal overlap.

A couple of further minor rule changes occurred at this time. The most significant was that false floors, and thus fully self draining boats, were permitted. Although British Sailors went to the 1990 Worlds in Australia they borrowed local boats. At this time the Australians were all sailing Wop developments, and design innovation seemed to be limited.

The real breakthrough came with what was in fact a sort of evasion of the rules. By drawing a boat with the rise of floor measurement falling on the flaring topside, rather than at the chine, Alistair Cope and slightly later Dave Roe designed boats that were even narrower on the waterline than any before, but were flat floored with low rise of floor. Dave Roe's Italian Bistro proved to be a major leap forward in design, planing faster and earlier than anything else in the fleet, and managing to combine that with docile handling and surprisingly good weight carrying ability.

Norwegian blue the first Italian Bistro

1991 saw the introduction of bowsprits and an increase in spinnaker size. This inevitably meant asymmetric spinnakers. A year or so had been spent in intense development until the final rule was defined (during which twin trapezes were tried but rejected), which gave a sail of a nominal 140 sq. ft, (actually about 150-160 sq.ft.). This, coupled with the new flat narrow hull shapes has led to a boat with quite astonishing offwind performance in medium breezes.

Meanwhile in Australia the International Association had elected to update the fore and aft rig to a more modern layout based roughly on the UK rig. Surprisingly perhaps, however, they elected to make the sails a tight one design, rather than adopting the looser restrictions used in the UK. The Australians have also adopted self-draining hulls.

In 1995 there was a surprise development in Australia. Iain Murray & Associates designed a Cherub to the UK rules, complete with asymmetric spinnaker, for Hugh Treharne (Tactician on Australia 2 in 1983 amongst other achievements) and some other prominent Australian sailors. They wanted a suitable boat for their sons to sail in-between the junior classes and the skiffs, and felt that the International rules Cherub with its boxy hull shape and conventional spinnaker was too far removed from the mainstream of development. Their initiative was not greeted with enthusiasm by the Australian Cherub Class, and the boats were registered in the UK.

The 1995/6 worlds saw the new rules UK boats competing against the Australians for the first time. Unfortunately the top U.K. sailor, Dave Roe, suffered an appalling run of bad luck, breaking every spar on the boat. In the only two races he finished without gear failure he was second to one of the IMA Sports Cherub designs, and in two other races he lost a spar whilst in second place. The Sports Cherub, called by that name, won the regatta easily, counting four firsts and a second.

The Australians and New Zealanders have adopted asymmetric spinnakers in 1997. However the Australians were adamant that the rigs should continue to be basically one design, and that the hulls should remain at the original rise of floor measurements, not the narrower ones used in the UK.

The 1980 Worlds in the U.K. were again dominated by Aussies and Kiwis. The fastest Aussie boat, Wop, was a particularly boxy design with very minimal rocker and a flat transom, coupled with a very fine bow. This boat would have won the worlds but for a disqualification in a protest hearing. The Wop design and its NZ development, Foreign Affair, was dominant in AUS and NZ for many years.

The Worlds were won by an Iain Murray design, Flat Stanley, and Iain is, of course, another designer who has gone on to considerable prominence after an early association with Cherubs.

The 1974 Worlds in the U.K were dominated by Australian and New Zealand boats. Hulls were mainly narrower and flatter with much lower rocker and lots of panel curvature. Rigs were much more powerful. Some of the Australian boats carried over-rotating wing masts in spruce and balsa. These were developed from work by the well-known Australian designer Frank Bethwaite in the Australian NS14 Class. This line of development led directly to the Tasar which he designed for Performance Sailcraft (The original Laser builders). Frank's daughter Nicola was second in this event, and was to win the 1976 Worlds in Australia with brother Julian crewing. Julian Bethwaite of course went on to invent the modern asymmetric spinnaker and to have an enormous influence on development in the 18 foot skiff and high performance classes all over the world. Kiwi boat from 1974 worlds

The beamier boats started going out of favour. The Forman 4 et al were still wider than tended to be fashionable during the eighties, before the 1997 rule change that replaced the mid length beam restriction with an overall beam restriction, but the trend was for less extreme boats. The underwater shape by now was significantly different from the majority of classes as planing performance started to become the most significant factor in design. Arguably this was the time at which the modern Cherub started to evolve.

In the late 70s the UK boats started getting very much flatter, to the extent that some UK boats in the 1978 Worlds in New Zealand were actually flatter than the local boats.

One shouldn't leave discussion of the 60s and 70s without acknowledging the debt the class owed to the late Freddy Babcock through that era. His company, Watling Joinery, donated many prizes, and he devoted an enormous amount of time and effort to the class, serving it in many ways, notably as Class Association President.

Russell Bowler won the first (1970) World Championships, held on the Swan River, Perth, Australia. His boat, the original Jennifer Julian, was one of the earliest foam sandwich dinghies, probably the first built outside new Zealand, the construction method having been pioneered in 12 ft skiffs. Russ had been twice Cherub National Champion in NZ, and had moved to Perth as an architect. He designed Jennifer Julian specifically for the Worlds and Perth conditions. At the time of writing Russell is a Partner and Chief Structural Engineer of Farr Yacht Design. In 1970 Russell helped David Steele build what was surely the first foam sandwich boat in the U.K.

In 1970 the International Association adopted a package of rule changes. The most significant was the adoption of a larger jib, taking the area of main and jib up to about 110 sq. ft, and the replacement of the wire luff spinnaker with a more conventionally shaped sail, but still set from the 9 foot pole. The Cherub started to get a reputation as an extremely rapid boat when the wind was blowing hard. UK boats of this period were typically fairly wide and deep Veed designs, with less rocker than most classes, but still had a good deal of rocker by modern standards.

At this time in New Zealand there was a lot of crossover between the Cherub and the unrestricted rig Q Class (now merged with the 12' skiffs). Quite a number of boats were rigged for both classes, and Bruce Farr designs were amongst the most successful in this form. The Kiwi Farr 3.7 trapeze singlehander provides a good idea of the sort of shape of these boats.

Sail No 001There's a nice tale about how the class came about. The story is that back in 1951 John Spencer designed a 12 foot cruising dinghy for Ray Early to sail round the Auckland Area in New Zealand. When asked what their new boat was, his wife said “I don't know, but she's a perfect little cherub to Sail”. It seems, however, that this is a “nautical myth”, and according to John Spencer the first boat was built to race in the “Pennant” restricted class and was to be named Cherub even before launching.

The Class grew in popularity in New Zealand, and then spread to Australia. Apparently the first Cherub to reach Australia did so carried in a Flying Boat being flown by one Frank Bethwaite, a name that appears elsewhere in this story.

The Cherub was the first significant design from John Spencer, and many would put it as the starting point of the whole Antipodean Sailing boom. The Cherub grew very fast in New Zealand in the 50s, about 450 boats in the first 8 years. This was mainly due to what was effectively a partnership between Sea Spray magazine and John Spencer. Sea Spray allowed Spencer almost as much space as he wanted to provide publicity and `how to' construction articles. In fact for a time Sea Spray was the official Cherub HQ, keeping the sail number register, and being the central point for all correspondence from the town associations. Sail No 001

This was all in spite of a certain amount of oppostiion from the administrators, who were committed to promoting the older (and heavier) National classes, Z, IA and X class. They had actively discouraged the Cherubs for example and had it not been for Sea Spray magazine becoming an active John Spencer promoter, the Cherub could well have disappeared without trace.

The Cherub was a considerable influence on other classes. The 14ft NZ Javelin was virtually a straight enlargement of the Cherub. Frank Bethwaite's first prototype for the NS14 was a drawn out Cherub, although they later elected to use a Spencer Javelin hull design for the first boats. From NS14 development came the Tasar, the Bethwaite skiffs and the 49er.

The Class was introduced to the UK in the 1956 when boats were built by McCutcheon's of Cowes. Early Cherubs had appreciably less sail area than modern ones, with stated dimensions of 62 sq.ft. for the mainsail, 27sq. ft for the jib, and 60sq.ft spinnaker. The spinnaker was particularly unusual, since it was typically a virtually flat triangular sail, which could be carried with the true wind forward of the beam. This sail, set from a spinnaker pole that could be 9 ft long, resulted in spectacular close reaching performance, but was rather less effective on a run. In the early days these spinnakers were quite often cut as single luff sails - the first asymmetric spinnakers!

Sail No 0909 showing spinniker shape

In the 60s Cherub design in the UK was very much in the mainstream of dinghy design at that period. A Cherub hull of that era tends to look pretty much like a baby Scorpion. In the late 60s the first of many infusions of antipodean ideas occurred. John Spencer's mk 7 design was introduced into the UK, which had a wider and flatter hull shape, and planed appreciably faster.

The theme in design through the next few years was beam. The only restriction on beam was that the boat should be no more than 5 feet at mid length, and boats of this era flared out a great deal after that. One result of this was that if the boat was allowed to heel a lot the poor crew was left attempting to stand on a gunwale that was sloping steeply towards the bow. Large and solid foot stops to brace the front foot against were a common feature! At least two UK boats had a maximum beam in excess of 6 feet, giving something close to Merlin-Rocket proportions.

The Cherub Class International Association was formed in 1967 with membership comprising the New Zealand Australian & UK Associations.

Jim Champ, 2001 and updated by William Lee 2005

with acknowledgements to numerous previous compilers and contributors.

I'd particularly like to thank:-


Gary Bellamy, Will Perret, David Steele.


Richard Gladwell, Farr Yacht Design, Sea Spray Magazine, Robin Elliot


Murray Burns & Dovell, Nel Bethwaite.

  • history/history.txt
  • Last modified: 2023/03/15 18:03
  • by dave_ching