"Ranger" and Bithell win the Cup for the USA, 1948-1949

by Charley Williamson

Vintage Model Yachting at its finest: Bill Bithell's exact replica of his 1948 Cup-winning "Ranger" sailing on Storrow Pond, Boston, in 1995. (Photograph by Dr. Harri Kytomaa)  Click on the thumbnails to see larger versions; use your browser's "Back" button to return to this page.

After the Second World War, international model yacht racing was resumed, following a period of no racing which extended from 1939 to 1948. Up to this time, USA had never won the "Yachting Monthly" Cup, which was essentially the World Championships of the model yachting sport. In those days, there was but one World Championships, which was always held following the British Empire A-Class Championships in England, and there did not exist the many different worlds competitions that presently take place for all the various classes. Mr. H.B.Tucker of the British journal "Marine Models" was even invited to write an article in the American press, in the early 30's, explaining why the Americans had not yet won. Some would point to the fact that Americans favoured skiff sailing, whereby sailors had to be good rowers, since they followed their yachts on open water, whereas the Brits favoured almost exclusively the pond sailing. In the latter case, a skipper would set up the rig at pondside, and then he or his mate would meet the yacht at her landfall. In England, it was almost a tradition that a town had to have its pond; indeed, even my sister-in-law's family had built a pond at Bournville! However, as will be made clear, there existed amongst the Americans some extremely gifted pond sailers. In some articles, John Black, who had represented USA on several occasions, was described as the "Sir Thomas Lipton" of the model yachting world, in that he failed to win the Cup, time after time. According to a later article in Marine Models of 1937, this point was echoed: "a well-known model yachtsman has said that this Cup has caused as much grief to America as the America's Cup has to England". The point being made here is that it was a period 1923-1948 when America would dearly have loved to win; it was by far the biggest challenge in model yachting. A win for Bill Bithell and Fred Pigeon in 1948 on British waters would be momentous indeed. This is just what happened.

The origin of the championships goes back to 1921. In that year, W.J.Daniels of England put out a challenge "to any model yachtsman in the United States to meet him in a series of races". In 1922, a series of races were held off the coast of USA, with the challenger "Endeavour" of Daniels being beaten by "Polka Dot" of Ernie Bull. The racing was in skiffs, whereby the sailors chased their yachts and trimmed them on the water, as stated earlier. Daniels was inexperienced, and lost at least one race through not allowing for the tide, as his yacht sailed off into the distance having passed the wrong side of a buoy!

The return match of 1923, which was raced for the "Yachting Monthly Cup" in A-Class yachts of around 80" in length, took place in England. This was the start of the international races which have continued to this day, reaching a peak of 56 A-Class yachts competing in 1975! From 1923-1926, the British, in particular one Mr. Bill Daniels, were unbeatable against all-comers when sailing on their ponds. However, and this would come as a surprise to those in America who had moaned about inexperience in pond sailing, the British received rude awakenings in 1927 and 1928, when John Black and Jo Weaver (respectively) came over from the States. Both of these matches were extremely close, with the British squeaking ahead by a scant one and two points respectively. As reported in "The Model Yacht" of 1928 (a magazine that lasted for but one year in USA), it came down to the last few yards of the very last race to decide the winner; "only a miracle could save Britain from defeat" was written. The miracle came in the form of two wind shifts, or "headers", that luffed the American yacht, and the English yacht "Little Nell" crossed the line six inches ahead of "Patsy". At that time, it was reported to be the most "spectacular finish to an international Race that has ever been seen". The Brits had woken up to the danger of defeat, which was hitherto deemed unthinkable.

Between 1929 and 1934, Daniels steered four further yachts to victory in the international races, but 1935 was to see, for the first time, a new country at the front. Sam Berge of Norway entered the races, using a new "vane steering gear" to keep the yacht at a preset angle to the wind, and he won the Championships. The vane gear, with which Herreshoff had experimented decades earlier, was thus used for the first time in a major regatta, and its success led to gradual adoption, until it was almost universally used after the War. Self-tacking vanes were later to be used, with ever more complexity, until the 1970's. This international regatta of 1935 also saw Bill Bithell competing, for the first time, with "Yankee II". Let us digress for a moment.

Bill Bithell sailing in 1995. (Photograph by Wayne George)In Figure 1 above, actually taken in August 1995 at Storrow's Lagoon in Boston, the site of many early American championships, we can see the same Bill Bithell casting off his mahogany-planked A-Class yacht "Ranger III", completed over the winter of 1994-5, at the age of "eighty something". He is watched by several other vintage yacht sailors (or one should say "sailors of vintage yachts") of the US Vintage Model Yacht Group, affiliated with the AMYA.

Bill Bithell sailing in 1948 ("Marine Models" photograph)


We shall later realise the significance of this particularly beautiful, and recently constructed, yacht, but for now we can note the similarity of Bill's stance at the pondside in 1995 with the style he had 60 years earlier in 1935 (Figure 2 above), as a young, indeed "pukkah", Bill, pushing off his "Yankee II" at Fleetwood! It was reported in "Marine Models": "Yankee II is a pretty yacht, but appears too lean forward, and was unbalanced". However, the real problem in the 1935 races was caused by the Englishman Colonel Holden tacking his yacht into Yankee II early in the regatta, breaking her mast, and upsetting the American yacht's delicate balance. Bithell finished fifth behind Norway, Britain, France and Germany, but he had begun his quest to bring the Cup to America.

Continue with Chapter 2.