Sharpening the Sabre


After 33 years the home-grown single-hander continues to provide keen competition for all ages, by Rob Hartnett

REX FETTELL designed the popular Minnow junior sailing dinghy prior to finalising the Sabre design in 1974.
Initially he considered simply stretching the Minnow design, which had taken four prototypes over three years to finalise. He listed what he thought to be the best features of various boats he had seen based on simplicity, cost and effectiveness.
The hull was wired up, modified, pulled apart and modified again a number of times until it was aesthetically pleasing, functional, easy to build and had performance to suit the average sailor, rather than OlymA sail plan was drawn but with cost in mind, the boat was rigged with second-hand sail and spars. During its first summer at Point Lonsdale in Victoria, the boat was hammered through surf and 20kts-plus wind by many skippers and showed no structural faults.
After Point Lonsdale, Rex Fettell made an appearance with the new boat at Carrum Sailing Club on the eastern side of Port Phillip. There was considerable interest and a group of Carrum sailors suggested that a proper sail and spars should be tested. The CSC committee gave unofficial encouragement to develop what was initially called the Carrum Sabre.
In the first year (1975) 40 boats were built and a year later numbers were up to 400, spread over 30 clubs.

Fast forward to 2007

The Sabre has continued to be one of Australia's most popular single-handed classes with more than 1700 boats now built, despite not having an international association.
Competition is strong, from hot young sailors stepping out of a Minnow or Sabot through to masters-age sailors getting back into the sport after raising a family, and the wily old foxes in their 70s who often take away the silverware on light to medium days. That is the fun of the Sabre; you really don't know who you will be battling with at the top mark.
As testament to the competitiveness of the class, the 2003 Australian Sabre championships attracted 100 boats ð a major achievement for any class, much less an Australian-only class. There were 70 boats for the 2007 Victorian championships.
The Sabre seems to have universal appeal. Of the top 20 finishers in the 2007 Victorian titles, boats were from seven different clubs and included seven seniors (aged 30-39), seven masters (40-50), four grand masters (50-59) and two great-grand masters (60-plus). Ages across the fleet ranged from 14 to 70-plus and sailing experience from one or two seasons to more than 60 years.
The class offers great racing and family fun without breaking the bank or having to be a super athlete to stay competitive. If you are reasonably fit and sail often, you can have a ball in a Sabre without feeling too sore afterwards.
The Sabre is also a great boat to learn in and to teach young children how to sail. With its large cockpit and high topsides an adult and two small children can enjoy a safe sail together.

The champions

The Sabre is also responsible for the development of many of Australia's best sailors. Sarah Blanck, Ricky Ironmonger, Arthur Brett, Peter Cook, Wayne Bates, Peter Wilson, Stuart Wallace, Alan Riley, Stewart Rose, Jenni Lidgett and Krystal Weir are just a few who have sailed Sabres and gone on to become top Australian and international sailors.
Importantly each of these sailors has added their own ideas to the class, which has resulted in boat speed and boat handling techniques improving as the years go on.


The Sabre started as a wooden boat either for professional or home building. Fibreglass and composite (fibreglass hull/wooden deck) boats have been available for some years, but only in recent times have they become fully competitive.
Botterill-built composite boats performed well in the 2003 and 2004 nationals and more recently Brett Young from YMS Marine in Adelaide has built some all fibreglass boats which are very competitive, as well as making some very impressive Sabre foils.
There are now seven official builders of the Sabre across Australia, with the more recent appointees being YMS Marine in Adelaide and in Victoria Martin Sly of JL Sly Marine, appointed following the retirement of Rob Botterill in Melbourne.
Following trends in life where everyone seems to be living busier lives the association is seeing more boats being ordered through the official class builders and completed to sailaway stage and most of these are fiberglass boats simply because of the maintenance and construction advantages.

Economical too

One advantage of the Sabre has been its low entry cost. Prices range from $2500 for a decent second-hand entry level race boat through to $10,000 plus for a new fibreglass boat in sailaway fitout with the latest Ronstan gear, racing sail and beach dolly.
A new racing sail is approx $500-$600 and like any sailboat, the fitout costs as much as your budget is willing to bear.

Racing tips

Over the course of the Sabre's racing history one name stands out ð Bates ð firstly Russell and then his younger brother Wayne. Wayne has won more Sabre national and state titles than any other competitor and he and his family have been stalwarts of the class for well over 25 years, ever since their father Peter introduced the class to Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron in 1976.
Like any competitive sailor, Wayne is mentally and physically very strong and has an ability to change gears on the race course better than his rivals. He simply hikes harder for longer than anyone else and knows how to select power or height mode faster than anyone else.
Because of the size of the Sabre fleets at championship level, knowing how to get good starts consistently is vital if you wish to play at the front of the pack. Wayne's advice for Sabre sailors is to keep the boat powered up with a looser than normal vang and outhaul just prior to the gun to improve manoeuvrability, crank the vang back on and accelerate with three to five seconds to go and then have a zen-like focus on boat speed for the next few minutes out of the blocks while keeping an eye on the compass for the next shift.
The predominant sail-makers in the class are John Hooper and Lindsay Irwin, who have both put in significant development time over the years with racers of all ages and sizes. The sail measurements are flexible enough to allow a sail to be built that suits an individual's height and weight yet remain within the class rules.

Weighing in

Weight is very important in the Sabre and with a minimum hull weight of 41kg, any boat heavier than this pays the penalty especially in light airs and reaching conditions.
Crew weight is also important with the optimum being 65-75kg, although in any breeze over 15kts those sailors between 75-85kg seem to be very competitive even off the wind.
The Sabre mast is very stiff compared to other classes such as the Impulse, Laser or Contender and hence requires significant vang tension to flatten the sail. The boat is set up with very little weather helm and this takes some getting used to for sailors coming from a class such as a Laser.
Deck layouts are very much a personal choice and the class association recommends three standard layouts.
Despite the one-design restrictions there is quite a lot of flexibility in terms of personal set up, which is wise as the set up for a junior can be very different to a tall master. Downhaul, outhaul, vang, toestraps are all adjustable and electronic compasses are allowed.

Wide appeal

The Sabre is a boat for everyone and it is this wide appeal that will see the class with its distinctive red top sail on the beaches for years to come.
The latest Australian championships were hosted by Brighton and Seacliff Yacht Club in Adelaide over the Christmas/New Year period, with a strong contingent of interstate boats from Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania challenging the strong South Australian fleet. Local skipper John Gratton was able to claim his first national title win in the 72-boat fleet, sailing a two year old YMS boat with YMS foils and John Clifton sails.
The next Sabre nationals will be held at Safety Beach, Vic over the Christmas period. For more information about the class and its regattas, visit

Wave riders

For the 2008 Victorian Sabre titles the fleet headed to Elwood Sailing Club on Port Phillip. Strong winds and waves stirred across the bay, and the usual Elwood shore break went from mild little rollers to chest-high breakers. Even the gale mad windsurfers spent the weekend huddled up at home.
The fleet of 55 Sabres was a good turn-out considering the conditions, and the initial test was to leave the beach. With many fleet members coming from areas with small waves or even lake conditions, the voyage out through the breakers saw some interesting spills, with numerous boats capsizing, being swamped or dumped on by waves breaking over the bow. Some questioned if the Sabre was acting as a sailboat or a bath tub with cockpits and feets submerged in a foot or more of water.
With the venturi down and sucking like crazy most made it out the back and on to the start line relatively dry and ready to commence.
For those not used to waves, the series was a great initiation. While those who were fuller of figure powered ahead, the average sailor spent most of the race dumping sheet and hanging on for dear life as required. Elwood, known to have some good reefs, did not disappoint with a number of waves rolling through out the back as the fleet approach the top mark.
Reaches were fantastic as the normally underpowered Sabre came into its own in the stiff breeze and strong swell. Boats jumped from one wave to the next as they powered along, the chines and well-shaped hull biting into the swell and hanging on nicely.
The downwind leg was not as pleasant. Those that tried to jump that extra boat place in a moment of sail pumping, wave catching glory, were often a little disappointed when instead they ended up going for a swim to cool off from their rush of blood. Gybing was also an adventure.
Returning to shore again proved interesting. Thanks must be paid to Peter Wilcox who while not sailing, donned a wetsuit and dive mask and spent an hour or more in the water across both days, swimming out through the breakers and grabbing people's forestay to hold the boat steady in the breaking waves. This allowed the sailor to jump out, drop their sails and undo all the required ropes
It was a very close contest with the top four sailors all vying for contention, with Wayne Bates winning on countback from Callum Burns, followed by Alan Riley.
Ashley Parkinson

M.O.S.S Australia