UFFA FOX (1898-1972)
Uffa Fox was born in 1898 on the Isle of Wight and grew up on Cowes waterfront. When his school days were over he began an apprenticeship with SE Saunders, boatbuilders. Even then they were engaged with high sped craft like Maple LeafIV which was capable of over 50 knots.
Uffa’s apprenticeship lasted seven years covering boatbuilding, shipbuilding and design. At the age of 21 he set up his own boat building business. As premises he acquired an aged ‘floating bridge’ which had linked Cowes to East Cowes. The central part was roofed over to provide a workshop. The prow at one end formed a gangway to the shore and the other became a slipway for launching boats into the river. The passenger accommodation was converted to a drawing office and living space.
We would not like to give the impression that he was a model citizen. As an example he was made a Scout Master by the Sea Scout Committee. On one of his excursions as Scout Master and at a time when he was unemployed he dediced that it was time to “blood” the troup. He took “Valhalla’s” whaleboat with his Scouts to France-in the summer holidays. There was a total of 10 crew ages ranging from 14 to 18. Uffa swore them all to secrecy and told them to tell everyone that they would be camping in the Solent area. In fact they were trying to reach Paris via the Seine. On returning home they were “greeted “ by some very angry parents. The committee resigned en bloc and Uffa was charged with irresponsibility and placing young lives in jeopardy. He became a martyr to the scouts but the devil to the parents. It turned out that the “team” hadn’t quite made Paris but had turned back only 20 miles short. (Tony Dixon has a very amusing illustrated talk on the trip which is well worth booking for your yacht club).
Uffa was the father of the planing dinghy. Having worked on high speed power craft, Uffa believed tha if a dinghy hull were made the right shape, and her crew held her upright, she could be made to plane over the surface. He was a little diffident about it but finally gave his theories full rein in the International Fourteen Footer Avenger. In 57 starts in 1928 she gained 52 first places, two seconds and three thirds including winning the coveted Prince of Wales Cup. A large order book was soon built up and for many years his were the most sought after designs.
Following the success of the Fourteens he applied the concept to other classes. He designed and built two sailing canoes which Roger De Quincy and himself took across the Atlantic and brought back many trophies including the International Canoe Trophy.
Uffa was forever coming up with new designs and was always ready to prove them with a practical demonstration. A typical example was Vigilant, a 22 Square Metre with such extreme light displacement that the ‘Q’ Class refused to allow her to race with them in the Solent, yet her design and construction was substantial enough to be sailed to Sweden and back in a summer of strong winds.
People had grown accustomed to his eccentricities but he certainly raised some eyebrows when he took off across the English Channel in a two man sliding seat canoe, Brynhild. Uffa and his crew (also his chief draughtsman) Bill Waight crossed to Cherbourg in twelve hours and then cruised the North Britanny coast. In those days few people attempted anythig so audacious.
Prior to the second world war Uffa had established his name primarily in the world of dinghies, where his designs dominated the National Twelves, Fourteens and Eighteens.
During the second world war Uffa conceived the idea of the Airborne Lifeboat, a vessel to be carried beneath aeroplanes and dropped by parachute to survivors of ditched aircraft. Lightly built, with lines that blended to the shape of the planes, the Airbornes had sails, engine, survival kit and instructions on how to sail. Many aircrews owed their lives to Uffa’s invention. Years later he was caught by Eamon Andrews on the television programme “This is Your Life” where many of the airmen that had been rescued by the were able to thank him. For all his success in the field of yacht racing he maintained that this was his most fulfilling design.
Immediately after the war he was closely associated with Fairey Marine of Hamble who built hot moulded boats to his design. Included in the impressive list were International Fourteens, Firefly, Swordfish, Albacore, Jolly Boat, Duckling and the cruiser Atalanta.
Although he had been well known in yachting circles for many years it was Uffa’s association with royalty which spilled his name over on to the broad mass of the British public. He and the Duke of Edinburgh raced together on the Dragon Bluebottle. The royal helmsman, with Uffa as crew, was also prominent at Cowes Week in the Flying Fifteen, Coweslip. This 20 foot keelboat was one of Uffa’s most successful post-war designs.
Out of the Flying Fifteen design came Uffa's next wave of inspiration, producing a range of planing keelboats from the Flying Ten through to the Flying Twenty Five. Then using similar hulls he produced a range of cruiser/racer yachts from the Flying Twenty Five through to the Flying Fifty. (The Flying Thirty and Thirty Five designs actually planed in the right conditions!)
Uffa was married three times. His first wife was Alma who played a large part in his early career including preparation of much of his five pre-war books. In 1941 he married Cherry and then in 1956 a French lady Yvonne Bernard. This was an interesting match as Uffa spoke no French and Yvonne no English!
His last residence was the Commodore’s House, overlooking Cowes harbour. it is a 300 year old warehouse with it’s own quay. With balconies added and painted in gay colours it has a rather Italianate air. Designed specifically for his old age he had a lift fitted serving all three floors and the roof garden.
In the 1960s Uffa became associated with the American yachtsman and boat builder George O’Day. This liason resulted in the Daysailer and Javelin classes which people in UK probably do not realise are Uffa’s most numerous classes.
The last boat Uffa designed for his own use was a 25 foot launch Ankle Deep. She was built in the basement of the Commodore’s House and lived suspended in davits from his quay. The boat was used for fishing and picnics. His last excursion on the Solent was to watch the start of the 1972 Tall Ships Race hailing his friends in the great mass of spectator boats.
Uffa died in October 1972. Trinity Church at Cowes was packed for the service at which the lesson was read by his great friend Sir Max Aitken. A memorial service at St Martin In The Fields London was equally packed and attended by amongst others the Duke of Edinburgh.
He will be remembered not merely as a yachtsman and designer, but as a writer, phiosopher and character the likes of which will never be seen again.
(This is of necessity a very brief biography of the man. Refer to the bibliography section of the web site for more reading).