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Noted designer, builder and short-handed offshore sailor Derek Kelsall dies in New Zealand

by Derek Kelsall 2 Jan 12:40 NZDT
Great Britain II leaving Auckland in the 1977-78 Whitbread, which she was again first around the World © Richard Gladwell

Derek Kelsall the British-born pioneer in composite construction technology, offshore multihull design, and noted short-handed and singlehanded offshore and trans-oceanic race sailor, died in Thames, on the Coromandel Peninsular, east of Auckland, on December 11, 2022. He was 89.

He competed in the second OSTAR (RWYC Singlehanded Trans-Atlantic Race for the Observer Trophy, or OSTAR). The 1960 event was promoted by Francis Chichester and Blondie Hasler, and won by Chichester. Five days after the start of the 1964 OSTAR while contesting for second place a few miles behind Eric Tabarly, Derek Kelsall in his 35ft Piver trimaran, struck what he presumed was a whale, damaging a rudder and daggerboard. He returned to Plymouth for repairs then restarted finishing a creditable 34 days later. Tabarly won the race in 27 days, remarkably his wind vane gear only worked for eight of those days.

Derek Kelsall entered the two handed, 2000 mile race Around Great Britain was won convincingly by a Toria, a trimaran of his own design and construction, and crewed by Martin Minter-Kemp, completed the circumnavigation of the British Isles a day ahead of the next boat to finish.

The feat put Kelsall into that very select handful of sailors who have designed, built and skippered their own yachts to victory in a major yacht race. Since that race trimarans have dominated open class short-handed offshore, and trans-oceanic racing.

In New Zealand he will be best remembered as the builder of the Whitbread Race yacht 78ft Great Britain II, which took part in all six Whitbread Round the World Races. Launched in 1973, Great Britain II was constructed using the then revolutionary foam sandwich construction pioneered by Kelsall.

The ketch rigged Great Britain II was the first boat to finish in the first Whitbread Round the World Race which started in September 1973.

Derek Kelsall was the builder of the 78ft maxi designed by Alan Gurney and skippered by Chay Blyth in 2014 he wrote to Sail-World to give his perspective of how the foam sandwich ketch was constructed. She went on to compete in six round the world races:

Prior to GB 11, I had designed and built the first foam sandwich yacht of note, trimaran Toria, which won us the 1966 2000 mile Round Britain Race and along with a number of other multihull winners, I built the Robert Clark design mono Sir Thomas Lipton, the winner of OSTAR 68. Chay Blyth chose a near sister ship, British Steel, for his solo around the World.

Chay had found a sponsor for his mount for the first Whitbread yacht and approached me to discuss building the 78 ft Alan Gurney design in foam/fiberglass sandwich. No problem. STL was the biggest sailing yacht in fiberglass at that time and another jump in size to 78ft. was the kind of challenge I enjoyed.

I was designing only at the time and I would be happy to be consultant on this prestige project. We would find a suitable established builder. We talked to several, but none came forward or were in a position to launch by May of the next year, which was the date set for Princess Anne to crack the champagne bottle.

The time came, when I said to myself and then to Chay, if this boat is going to get built, someone had better start building.

To cut a long story short, I put my hand up. A week later I had employed a model yacht builder and found an old sail loft in Sandwich, Kent, in which to loft the frames. Lots of hurdles were climbed during the next six months. There were still some jobs to do when GB 11 trundled down the old fashioned slipway in Ramsgate but she got to the water on schedule.

The most remarkable part of this story is not that we achieved in six months what most such projects take 2-3 times as long, but that the crew, which built up to 32, working in three shifts around the clock at launch time, had all learnt their boat building on the job. Half of these men where the sailing crew of Royal Marines.

What a fantastic group they were to work with. The motivation was to ensure their place when the boat sailed. There can be no better testament to the dedication of the crew than the boat and its history since. Of course, having helped build the boat, most of the crew then had to learn to sail.

One question I do wonder, is there a more travelled yacht ever?

About fifteen years ago I was talking to Alan Toone, one of the original crew who has skippered and followed the progress of GB 11 on its various projects since. He counted to 50 Atlantic crossings and 6 or more times around the World. I have met dozens of those crews. There was one common factor; the confidence they all had in GB 11. With 17 tons of lead ballast, she was no light weight racer by today's standards but a great boat for her time and for the event.

At that time GB 11 seemed to have been sailing almost continuously.

Today (2014) I have an active design company in NZ where we continue to specialize in refining foam sandwich build methods (KSS) and design catamarans of all kinds, with clients in 20 countries around the World. GB 11 is testament to the efficiency and durability of the materials and the Kelsall methods.

Amazingly, we continue to find refinements to our KSS building technique for these exceptionally versatile and effective materials for composite boat building. The materials have changed little. The handling methods are now very much more build time efficient.

Derek Kelsall, FRINA 2014.

For an interview with Derek Kelsall on the 1964 OSTAR (singlehanded trans-Atlantic) and 1966 Round Britain (Two handed) click here

For a full obituary click here

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