Obituary: Derek Kelsall

Colin Forbes

Derek Kelsall in the cockpit of Toria sails with his wife, Clare, at the helm.

The sailing world has lost a pioneering multihull designer and boat-builder. Derek Kelsall, who famously introduced Eric Tabarly to multihulls, and who was one of the first to champion foam sandwich construction, died at 89 last December in Thames, New Zealand.

Born in rural North Wales on May 15, 1933, the son of a farm laborer and a schoolmistress, Kelsall spent his early childhood in humble surroundings. Later he studied engineering at Bristol University but was unable to finish the course for lack of funds. He entered the oil exploration business, working in Libya and Texas, but soon traded his desk job for sailing and building multihulls in the Caribbean. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, he entered the second edition of the Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race (OSTAR) in 1964, racing Folatre, a 35′ (10.7m) plywood Arthur Piver–designed trimaran.

The boat was ketch rigged and equipped with an early wind vane self-steering system, but there was much concern surrounding Folatre and her young skipper, as she was the first multihull to enter the race without ballast (two other catamarans in the race had been fitted with twin ballast keels). Sadly, five days into the race while lying in second place, Folatre struck an underwater object, destroying her rudder. Kelsall returned to Plymouth, fixed the rudder, restarted, and finished in Newport, Rhode Island, in the then-respectable time of 34 days. [With a otal elapsed time of 61 days, he officially finished 13th—Ed.]

He decided to produce his own trimaran design—the 45′ (13.7m) Toria, named after his newly born daughter. Toria was one of the most influential multihulls ever, establishing the fundamental concept of modern racing trimarans subsequently adopted by ORMA (Ocean Racing Multihull Association) 60s, Ultimes, and Ocean Fifties. Toria had twin akas connecting the relatively high-volume, fine-bowed amas to the main hull, their geometry such that at rest only one ama ever touched the water. Significantly, she was the first boat built in the U.K. using foam sandwich construction, with Airex foam as the core material.

Colin Forbes

Toria, built in foam sandwich and with high-volume amas, was ahead of her time and defined the genre of offshore racing trimarans in the 1960s.

Aboard Toria, Kelsall and Martin Minter-Kemp competed in the Royal Western Yacht Club’s first doublehanded Round Britain and Ireland Yacht Race in 1966, comfortably winning and thus posting the first-ever multihull victory in a major offshore race. This success created considerable interest in offshore trimarans, including from famous French skipper Eric Tabarly, who two years earlier had won the OSTAR on Pen Duick II, a 44′ (13.4m) monohull. Tabarly helped Kelsall deliver Toria from Cornwall to London, where it was displayed at the 1967 London Boat Show. Impressed, Tabarly returned to France to work on his first trimaran with French naval architect André Allègre and builder Chantiers de la Perrière.

The 68′ (20.7m) Pen Duick IV was a groundbreaking trimaran design, fitted with a ketch rig on twin rotating wing masts. But compared to what Kelsall built at this time in foam sandwich, her aluminum construction and tubular crossbeams appeared quite conservative. Tabarly was unable to defend his title in the 1968 OSTAR when the autopilot failed after a collision.

Derek Kelsall Built Winners

As the builder of the 57′ (17.4m) monohull Sir Thomas Lipton—the winning yacht in that race, designed by Robert Clark and sailed by Geoffrey Williams—Kelsall shared in her success. It was ironic that a multihull proponent like Kelsall would build a monohull to win the OSTAR, which saw a rising tide of multihull entries. The top multihull finisher was the super-spartan 40′ (12.2m) proa Cheers, designed by Dick Newick, built on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and skippered by American Tom Follett.

Kelsall continued to enjoy success into the 1980s with his small trimaran designs, including Trifle, built for Royal Yacht Squadron Commodore Major-General Ralph Farrant; and the 44′ trimaran Trumpeter, which finished third in the gale-ridden 1970 Round Britain and Ireland with American Phil Weld at the helm.

His greatest series of raceboats were the various Three Legs of Mann trimarans built and sailed by Isle of Man–based Nick Keig. The most successful of these was the 53′ (16.2m) Three Legs of Mann III, which Keig raced to second place in the 1980 OSTAR; however the most innovative was VSD, a hybrid cattrimaran with a flying center pod, a concept subsequently adopted by catamarans like the D35s and Alinghi 5.

After Sir Thomas Lipton’s 1968 OSTAR victory, Kelsall used his skills in foam-sandwich construction to build the Alan Gurney–designed Great Britain II for Chay Blyth, at 78′ (23.8m) LOA the largest composite boat ever at the time of her launching in 1973. In the first Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973–74 she was the scratch boat, took line honors, set the elapsed time record at 144 d 10 h [correcting out to 6th place overall—Ed.], and went on to compete in five further editions of that contest.


Kelsall with his partner, Paula Hesterman, in New Zealand.

Subsequently, Kelsall designed and built two large trimarans for Chay Blyth: the 80′ (24.4m) Great Britain III, and the 53′ Great Britain IV, which won the 1978 doublehanded Round Britain and Ireland Yacht Race. Spearheaded by the likes of Eric Tabarly and Alain Colas, large racing multihulls became popular in France during the 1980s, but Kelsall never rose to prominence there, even though Eugène Riguidel and Gilles Gahinet won the double-handed 1979 Transat Lorient– Kelsall with his partner, Paula Les Bermudes–Lorient on Hesterman, in New Zealand. VSD, passing Tabarly and
Marc Pajot aboard Paul Ricard before the finish. Kelsall also designed the giant William Saurin for Riguidel, at 93′ (28.3m) LOA the world’s largest trimaran when she was launched in 1982.

From the mid-1980s Kelsall’s work as a yacht designer focused on cruising catamarans and the Kelsall Swiftsure Sandwich technique (KSS), in which flat panels are laid up on a table to speed construction. He first used KSS in 1973 and kept improving the process over subsequent decades, building everything from small day boats to giant passenger ferries, catamarans such as the Space 55, Suncat 40, Islander 39, and larger one-offs.

After Kelsall’s first wife, Clare, succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, he continued to build boats, and with new partner Paula Hesterman made his home in Waihi, just north of Tauranga, New Zealand.

-James Boyd

[A version of this obituary appears on YachtsandYachting .com. —Ed.]