John Spencer


John Spencer, designer and founder of the Cherub Class, died in March 1996 aged 65

He was born in Melbourne, and brought up in Wellington and Tauranga. He trained as an Architect, and worked for 4 years in the profession, during which time he designed the first Cherub. He then set up as a boatbuilder, and through the 1950s was designing and building many dinghies, and then in 1956 his first keelboat, the Adrienne class. At the same time he was also designing many home built power runabouts, and I've seen it claimed that over half the boats at the 1961 Auckland Boat show were his designs, both Sail and Power! Through the 50s came other dinghy classes, mostly restricted classes, not One designs, including the Flying Ant and the N.Z. Javelin. By the 1960s he was designing and building Cherubs, Javelins, and a good many 12 footers. In 1964/5 came Infidel, and then many more serious racing boats. Infidel was the big boat that really caused a stir though. A 60 odd footer, it seems she won just about everything around New Zealand/Australia except the Sydney/Hobart race, which she was banned from by a hasty rule change. Six years later came Buccaneer, which wasn't excluded from the Sydney Hobart, and did win it. Meanwhile Infidel had been sold on to America, and renamed Ragtime, and promptly won line honours in the Transpac two years in succession. In 2001 this hard chine “black box” finished the Transpac for a record 12th time, and is arguably the single most influential offshore racer of the last thirty years Later on in his career he designed the highly popular 'Firebug' build-it-yourself plywood sailing dinghy, and was heavily involved with 1m radio controlled yachts, acting as Technical Officer for the class.

The more that one researches John's achievements and work, the more one appreciates just how great his influence on modern sailboat design has been. Perhaps no-one else since Uffa Fox has had quite such a wide ranging influence. His Cherubs, Flying Ants and Javelins were very influential in the 50s/60s sailing boom in NZ/Australia. Because the Antipodeans were primarily sailing in restricted development classes they were much more keyed into the possibilities of designing boats to go faster. Because their boats went faster Australia won the America's Cup in 1983, and New Zealand in 1995. In Johns yard in Browns Bay back in the 1950s a couple of local kids would come and sweep the workshop, then draw boats in the sand with him. These kids were Mark Bethwaite and Ron Holland. Mark's father Frank took some of John's designs with them when they moved to Sydney, and the first NS14s used a Javelin hull. Later Mark designed a radical NS14, which led directly to the Tasar. At the same time his younger siblings were winning their first World Championship in a Cherub, using the same lines of development as the family NS14s. Frank's youngest son, Julian, went on from Cherub World Champion to 18ft skiff World Champion, to invent the asymmetric spinnaker, and is currently the best known dinghy designer in the World. In the meantime John's influence had spread to keelboats, again very much with the aim of designing boats that the ordinary bloke could build and have fun sailing. His boats were always light and always quick. Other New Zealand designers followed this trend - Ron Holland naturally acknowledges Spencer's influence, and Bruce Farr was also influenced By Spencer in the early years of his not-insignificant career… Then, above all, there was Infidel. Her performance in the Transpac so impressed American designer Bill Lee that he built what was almost a round bilged version, Merlin, and promptly founded the whole ULDB sled concept…

John was a champion of the restricted class concept, and supported the U.K. decision to relax the Class Rules in 1984. He was, by all accounts, an innovator and free thinker, never overly concerned by the possibility of upsetting the current yachting establishment, thoroughly committed to light, fast, fun and inexpensive boats, and fond of the occasional drink or two. I'd like to think that the sailors of the class he founded will continue to keep all those ideals in mind.

Acknowledgements to Peter Tait, Firebug HQ, NZ (who holds John Spencer's archive material),Craig Simons of the Australian Cherub Association, Mike Hardcastle from NZ, who is restoring Andante , a John Spencer designed keelboat, from whom I got the photograph, and Nel Bethwaite from Australia, all of whom supplied biographical material which I plundered to assemble this page.

Words: Jim Champ

Picture: Bruce Laybourn

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