One of Britain’s most prolific yacht designers, David Thomas made his name with classics such as the Impala, Elizabethan, Sonata, Hunter 707 and the Sigma range. The Sigma 38 celebrated its Silver Jubilee in 2013 – we take a look back at how David Thomas came to produce one the most popular One Design Racer Cruisers and the other popular designs he created.
The Early Years
David Thomas was born in 1932 and grew up in Eling on Southampton Water.
David sailed at Eling Sailing club from an early age, and when yacht sailing was banned during the Second World War raced a modified 9ft rowing clinker boat in races organised by the Club. After the war, David Thomas and his father found a 12 foot Itchen Ferry Punt built at the Belvedere Yard on the River Itchen. David Thomas designed a new Gunter Rig for Heron11 and a Half Deck to make her more seaworthy for the voyages that were planned. He and his school friend cruised the boat round the Solent and won the Victory Regatta dinghy race in her at Dockhead in September 1945. With an interest in architecture – civil engineering – big bridges – Winchester Cathedral, David Thomas had an interest in boat design.
A 10 year stint in the Merchant Navy provided him with the opportunity to sail lots of different craft and make lots of sailing friends.
After leaving the Merchant Navy David Thomas started to work as an editorial assistant for Yachting World, and during his time there he had the idea for a new racing dinghy called the "Unit" which went onto be selected by the International Yacht Racing Union as a boat to replace the Finn class racing dinghy. The Unit had a brief career, but it was enough to get him started. While sailing with a boat builder from Lymington, David Thomas got the opportunity to design a cruising yacht that would go on to become the Elizabethan 31.
The popularity of the Elizabethan 31 provided David with the opportunity to produce a one off racer cruiser under the IOR Half Ton rule, which David raced successfully and took the Gold Roman Bowl in the Round the Island race in 1970.
David went on to produce "Quarto" an IOR Quarter Tonner that won the JOG Championship. David Thomas worked as a production manager for sail maker Ratsey and Lapthorn, while designing boats in his spare time.
The success of his one off Quarter Tonner "Quarto" led to the design of the National Sonata One Design, while the chance to design the Sigma 33 was a chance meeting with the Managing Director of Marine Projects at the Southampton boat show. After the success of these boats David Thomas decided to start his own design company David Thomas Yachts Ltd and penned many more successful yachts.
David Thomas Yachts Ltd
National Sonata One Design – 1976
David Thomas and Peter Poland met in a beer tent at the 1975 Southampton boat show.
Peter Poland was impressed by David Thomas’ one off Quarter Tonner "Quarto", and wanted David to design a new 22ft boat for Hunter Boats. By the time David Thomas had left the beer tent he had agreed to design a new 22ft boat made from fibreglass.
A few weeks later Peter Hornbrook was visiting Hunter Boats and enquired if they had anything new and interesting in the pipeline.
Peter Hornbrook was shown the first drawings of what would become the Sonata, and decided to order one. From this the Sonata One Design was born. It was decided that a set of One Design Rules should be formulated before the first boats were built or sailed. This was duly done and an initial Steering Committee formed to see the Class through its formative months. The first boat was launched in May 1976, with a healthy number of yachts to follow allowing the boat to make a dramatic impact on the sailing scene in its first season.
David Thompson entered "Piccolo" into Cowes Week and placed in the top three of all his races.
In its first year the Sonata placed second in the International Eight Ton Cup, and won overall trophies at Poole, Burnham and the Channel Islands. By the following year fleets had become established on the Clyde, Windermere and the Solent, with the first National Championship attracting 15 entries.
The Sonata became affiliated to the RYA and number grew around the UK and as far afield as Norway, Sweden and Hong Kong.
The Sonata continued to win races in open handicap events, the UK Mini Ton Championships, and numerous victories in Cowes Week. 1977 saw dramatic growth in Scotland and the South and East Coast of England. With 28 boats attending the National Championship held at Island Sailing Club in Cowes, the Sonata continued to dominate in open handicap events throughout the UK. A windy and very rough Cowes Week saw the Sonatas fill, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th positions in the level rating system.
The year ended with a panel of experts from the Sunday Times deciding that the Sonata was the best One Design Cruiser Racer of her size in the UK. Numbers passed the 300 mark by 1979 with 220 being sailed in the UK and by 1982 over 400 boats had been sold.
The Sonata attained National Stature from the RYA and provided the class with solid credentials for the future. The RYA chose the Sonata for their Youth Sail Training scheme the same year. By 1986 IOR handicap class racing was in decline. One Design classes were becoming a significant force in yachting with the National Sonata a familiar sight in most major events and because of its popularity, receiving their own Class starts in major events like Cowes Week and Round the Island. Production ended in 1990 with 479 boats being produced by Hunter Boats.
Although production of the National Sonata has finished there is still an active class association with nearly 300 members.
Impala 28 Offshore One Design – 1977
The initial design for the Impala 28 evolved as a direct result of the formation of the Offshore One Design Council in 1977. This was set up by a group of leading yachtsmen to encourage One Design racing. The Impala 28 was one of thirty designs submitted, of which three were given the support of the Council, with the Impala 28 being among the top three. The first National Championship was held in Cowes in 1979 and was won by David Thomas. He won the final race despite losing his mast on the final leg. The fallen spar crossed the line before the boat! The Impala 28 Offshore one design was built between 1977 and 1984 with 155 boats being made.
The boats are sailed throughout the UK and as far afield as Hong Kong.
The Impala 28 has an active class association with over 40 boats registered and National Championships are still being held with 12 boats attending in 2012. You will regularly see them racing in IRC class 4 in major events like the Hamble Winter Series alongside other David Thomas designs like the Sigma 33 OOD, and Cowes Week.
Sigma 33 Offshore One Design – 1979
The Sigma range started after a chance meeting with the Managing Director of Marine Projects, David King, on the pontoon at the Southampton Boat Show. In 1978 the Offshore One Design Council chose three boats to back as One Design boats of which the Sigma 33 was not one – but soon proved to be the most popular and out sold the chosen three. The prototype of the Sigma 33 proved that she was a worthy offshore racer when she emerged relatively unscathed for the 1979 Fastnet race. The Sigma 33 was built between 1979 and 1991 with 364 boats being built, 44 masthead versions with shallower draft called a 33C were also built.
A Sigma 33C won the double handed race in the 2011 Fastnet. In previous years the Sigma 33 enjoyed its own class start at most events on the South Coast, but with dwindling numbers they race in IRC class 4 are still capable of winning.
They still have their own class start for Cowes week, and large fleets of the Sigma 33 can still be found in Ireland and Scotland. The class association is still active and there are few boats of 33ft that can provide such enjoyable racing and sensible cruising.
Sigma 38 Offshore One Design – 1988
In 1985 the Royal Ocean Racing Club and the Royal Thames Yacht Club agreed to sponsor a new One Design and commissioned top yacht designers, including Rob Humphries, Stephen Jones and David Thomas. The designers put forward proposals to some of the top yachtsmen of the day and the decision was made to adopt the design of David Thomas. Built by Marine projects in Plymouth with a sail wardrobe from North Sails the Sigma 38 became extremely popular, costing around £60,000 plus VAT. Marine Projects built a total of 124 yachts. Northshore Yachts at Itchenor built the last Sigma 38 in 1993. Large fleets were established in Scotland, Ireland, on the East Coast and particularly on the South Coast. The Class Association was established in 1988. Many changes, including introducing new sail makers, have been introduced to the rules to maintain the competitive nature of the fleet. The Sigma 38 is enjoying resurgence in popularity and in 2013 enjoyed its Silver Jubilee.
Round the Island 2012 saw 24 boats competing, making it the largest One Design in the race. The Sigma 38 still enjoys its own start in the Hamble Winter Series, Warsash Spring Series, and Cowes Week where you will normally find 10 – 12 boats competing each year. Although the Sigma 38 enjoys a thrash around the cans racing, the boat was built to race offshore, and more importantly look after her crew while doing it. The Sigma 38 is always well represented in JOG and RORC races, with 11 boats competing in the 2011 Fastnet and 1st – 7th being separated by 1 hour and 18 minutes at the finish of the 608 mile race, showing the competitiveness of the Class.
Hunter 707 One Design – 1995
In 1995 David Thomas teamed up again with Hunter Boats and designed and built the Hunter 707 to compete in the extremely competitive small keel/sports boat market.
Having a designer with a successful track record and a Class Association that provided input during conception, the Hunter 707 had established itself as the number one sports boat by 1996. The Class is enjoyed by Club and National sailor alike and won the Yacht of the Year in 1996.
By 1999 the Class enjoyed the largest fleet in the Hamble Winter Series, with 40 boats entered. The fleet currently has a good balance of core boats and a turnover of second hand boats bringing new people into the fleet. The attraction continues to be big fleets enjoying fast, exciting and very competitive one design racing. The fleet is still recognised for its cost effective and impressively close racing. Major events and regattas such as Cowes Week, Cork Week, Round the Island Race as well as the Class Area and National Championships attract fleets of 45 boats or more. With sheet and other loadings less high than larger heavier boats, the boat is well suited to mixed-sex crews.