Whether it be dingey, dinghey or dinghy, Bermuda’s sailing history is irrevocably linked to these fitted boats.

The Hamilton Amateur Dingey Association was formed in the summer of 1882 by a group of men who were interested in organizing dinghy races. The Association soon became the basis for what is now the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club.

The first recorded dinghy race was on July 7, 1853 in St. George’s. The RHADC Centennial Brochure states the competitors being those who had small family boats, which were used to travel between St. George’s and St. David’s Islands or along the shore of the main island.

These boats could either be sailed or rowed, depending on how Mother Nature was behaving. The sail was lashed to the mast and rolled up when not in use, thus using a loose-footed boom. Bermuda cedar usually comprised the hull with a three to four inch cedar keel along the length of the bottom.

A family would distribute themselves in the boat in such a way as to act for ballast, or, when there were only one or two people aboard, sandbags or pieces of lead tied to rope would be used as shifting ballast so they could be used as a shifting ballast, to be moved side to side on successive tacks.

The Centennial Brochure goes on to add that when they were used for racing, the boats would be “specially fitted for the day.” This fitting became more and more intricate as dinghy racing spread across Bermuda. The Minors of St. David’s and the Smith’s of St. George’s were regular competitors in these early races and would use a larger set of sails, and, possibly, a longer mast. This would be counterbalanced by a crew of four to six plus the shifting ballast.

Fitted dinghy’s flying spinnaker

That first race was limited to boats with keel of 12 feet or less and was won by Joseph Minors in Early Riser.

Jack Arnell notes in Sailing in Bermuda; Sail Racing in the Nineteenth Century that the next dinghy race was held just a few months later on September 13 in Hamilton Harbour as part of a much larger regatta. The dinghies were limited to 10 feet in length.

Sometime between 1853 and 1870, a temporary iron fin was added to the boats. The fin was bolted through the cedar keel with its top end against the side of the keel.

During a race in Hamilton Harbour organized by black dinghy sailors in 1870, Samuel Lambert’s Little Spry lost her false keel on the second windward leg and had to withdraw from the race. This was the first mention of such an iron fin on the dinghies.

Barely a decade later it was common to have the temporary iron fin. It is not known with certainty which boat had the first permanent iron fin, but speculation tabs Somerset as the most likely candidate. This dinghy, with a rating of 127 cubic feet, belonged to Joseph L. Trimingham, the first president of the HADC. The boat made its debut in August 1878 in the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club’s Duke of Edinburgh Cup Race.

Professional crews were dominating the sport, thus making it too expensive.

Dinhgy racing was proposed as an alternative with the first official race being held on August 26, 1880 that were restricted to amateur crews.

This could be seen as a case of Bermuda’s history of racism raising its ugly head. As most of the professional sailors were black and had competed in sloop racing, they were now banned from the competition. On top of that, dinghy racing was restricted to certain clubs, whose membership were historically restricted to white people.

Blacks formed their own sailing groups like the Paget Union Club and over the course of the 1880s dinghy clubs sprang up all over the island including the Southampton Union Dinghy Club, Harrington Amateur Dingey Club, Shelly Bay Dinghy Club, Flatts Club, Crawl Club., Hamilton Parish Amateur Boat Club, St. George’s Amateur Boating Club and the Sandys Amateur Dingey Club to name but just a few.

The sport was still developing and in 1883 Princess Louise, the daughter of Queen Victoria, visited the island and donated a trophy which was competed for on March 8. After this competition, a purse race was held which restricted the hulls of the boats to 12 feet of keel and 14’1” overall. This has become the standard ever since.

It wasn’t until 1894 that permanent decked dinghies appeared. The HADC had asked for a “small deck boat race”, which was granted by the Sailing Committee. Six boats competed for the £2 first prize.

John Vincent Lightbourne’s Magic pretty much ended the era of general purpose built boats taking home the majority of the cup prizes. His success spurred McCallan to write in Life on Old St. David’s that “the day of Germania and Waburn was over — and so was racing for owners of general purpose dinghies.

Prior to that some of the other boats that had success included Vixen, Reckless and Mosquito, the first winner of the Jubilee Cup in 1887.

The prior year, 1886, saw Victory, the St. George’s boat, make its first foray into the competitions.

The 1890s saw a decrease in the number of fitted dinghies in competition and included two years, 1893 and 1896, in which no Championship Cup. However, 1897 introduced one of the legacy names in Bermuda fitted dinghy racing history, the Henry Masters’ designed Contest. The RBYC boat along with Victory

dominated the competition that dinghy racing nearly disappeared after 1900.

Both of these boats have survived and can been seen at the local boat loft in the National Museum of Bermuda in Dockyard along with several other dinghies.

The Championship Cup was competed on and off up to 1912. With the outbreak of World War I, it went into hiatus again.

Dinghy racing returned in 1920 but then went into hibernation for seven years between 1928 to 1933 as the high cost of building and maintaining the boats was to blame.

In 1934 two boats, St. George’s Victory and the Hamilton Dinghy Club’s H.D.C. II, helped bring fitted dinghy racing back from the dead when they competed in the 20-event Aquatic Gymkhana and Regatta held at what is now he Hamilton Princess Resort.

These short, wide-beamed, top heavy racing machines that carried so much sail one would expect it to have been on a much bigger boat.

As an example, in the 1930s, in her No. 1 fit, Victory carried 450 square feet of sail and off the win carried 300 square feet of spinnaker.

In 1944 the Championship (Jubilee) Cup competition was again brought back from life support allowing spectators to enjoy the thrill of fitted dinghy racing.

This was the first time it had been held since 1927. Some of the old dinghies were recovered and restored. This marked the end of competitions being held sporadically as since then there has been a full season of dinghy racing every year since.

Today the sport is contested between four clubs – RBYC (Contest III), RHADC (Elizabeth II), Sandys Boat Club (Challenger II) and St. George’s Dinghy and Sports Club (Victory IV). The traditional dinghy season starts on May 24, Bermuda Day, and ends in September with the boats competing in a variety of locations including Granaway Deep, Mangrove Bay as well as Hamilton and St. George’s Harbours.

RBYC’s Contest II racing in 1980s

An amusing sport
Besides being cheaper than sloop racing, dinghy races had more of a fun factor do it. Bermuda fitted dinghys have a five or six man crew – depending on whether it was light or heavy winds – who would then try to manoeuvre this vessel around the marks without turning over.

The crew consisted of a skipper for the steering, one man to handle the mainsheets, another the jibsheets and two to three others to provide ballast. One person’s job was to act as a baler.

The Royal Hamilton Dinghy Club’s Centennial Brochure said in the early days of fitted dinghy racing this was often a bucket or a big tin dishpan, It was the most back-breaking job of the crew as he had to feverishly dispatch the water over the side of the dinghy to keep her afloat. Quite often he couldn’t keep pace as the inflow overmatched the baler’s hectic efforts and the boat capsized.

It wasn’t uncommon to see a boat that was bottom’s up in the water and may have been one of the reason it drew such huge crowds, akin to those NASCAR fans who just show up to see the crashes more than the race.

Jack Arnell’s Sailing in Bermuda: Sail Racing in the Nineteenth Century called it the ‘”fun” aspect of the sport as the crowds enjoyed the humour of seeing a boat “bottom’s up and the crew splashing around in the water with no worries about any of them having their life in danger.’

Arnell quotes the Royal Gazette “what very different feelings a capsize is hailed in Bermuda and elsewhwere; on our waters an upset of a boat and her crew is rather a matter of fun and merriment because we are certain that her crew, one and all, can handle themselves well in as well as out of the water.”

The baler’s reward was the eventual promotion to a regular crew spot and watch some other newbie perform the back-breaking job of trying to keep the dinghy right-side up.

While the skipper was in charge of helming the fitted dinghy around the course, his most important decision was at the start of the race in deciding which mast to use. Once the gun went off, it was impossible to increase or decrease sail. It wasn’t – and still isn’t – uncommon to see a skipper, with the realization of a dying wind, make the decision that one of the crew is now detrimental to the race efforts and order a man overboard to lighten the load.

Unlike other forms of yachting, fitted dinghy rules did not require the boats to finish with the same number of crew as it started with.

It is such a common occurrence that rules were developed on how the jettisoned man must leave the boat. The castaway wasn’t allowed to splash into the water just anywhere where. No, he had to shove off from the stern as he dived into the water with much less grace then you would see at an Olympic pool.

From capsizing boats to jettisoned crew members it is easy to see why locals turned out to watch dinghy races.