He joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force at the outbreak of the Second World War, becoming a flight instructor and test pilot before flying bombing missions over the Pacific during and He rose to the rank of squadron leader and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After settling in Sydney, Bethwaite designed a small boat suitable for his youngest children to use to learn how to sail. This became known as the Northbridge Junior now known as the 9er.
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He was in his 92nd year. Capable of intensely complex analysis, Bethwaite was without peer in the science of high performance sailing — which was best defined as boats which could sail faster than the windspeed.
An intensely serious, focused and loyal man, Frank coupled a very intense analysis approach with the ability to think laterally, and this created the genius that was Frank Bethwaite. Coupled with that was his ability to test and develop a scientific basis for testing, together with his ability to quickly build and modify test boats and rigs, so the whole learning process continued in a steady and studied manner.
This process led Bethwaite to discover and measure the ranges of factors on the interactions between hulls, rigs, sails, wind and waves. He found out how to make rigs work in response to changes in wind strength and pressure, so that the effect on boat performance and crew was smooth. These sessions could continue for up to ten hours, taking advantage of changing sea conditions with a constant test rig.
The data collected led Frank to conclude that there was a significant difference in drag between hulls that looked the same but were subtly different in their shape, resulting in marked difference in the drag of each for a given towing speed. As an aside, many of his ideas and theories did not work when tested, and the key was analyse and change direction if need be, and always continue the learning process. Simply put, low drag hulls were faster for the same sail power, than higher drag ones.
Similarly with the smaller 29er, which was put through a much more intensive and extensive process by Frank and others to optimise its sailing performance, ability to be easily righted, be tolerant of modern crew weights and a variety of factors which came together in the one boat. In discussions with Frank early in the 29er development process, when he went to several countries to talk with sailors and others about what they would like to see in a boat like the 29er, he made the interesting observation that the most successful boats were the ones that had the widest number of uses.
He cited three iconic boats — the Laser, which could be used by Olympic sailors; used by club sailors; used as a recreational off the beach boat and so on. Similarly with the Hobie catamaran which again had a use a serious racer at world championship level; another use as a club racer but also with mixed crews; and a use as a recreational boat; plus a use as a surf cat.
The other multi use boat he had identified was the windsurfer. He wanted the 29er to be a similar success with its multiple uses, and this is why he worked in the intense development process — which included investigating general body-weights of the population and then designing the boat to fit. He realised from this that most boats were in fact designed for a lighter body-weight than is the case in current times, as the population has got larger physically than say years ago.
But unlike almost all others, he evolved his thinking from a basis of science, and understanding the science through extensive testing.
His role in his latter years was not so much to design, but more to take a keen interest in the projects, and challenge the thinking or inject comment.
Only last week, the 49er FX was adopted by the ISAF as the new Olympic Womens Skiff class, astounding many that a 15year old hull design could not be beaten for speed by special, lighter boats. After graduating from the first intake of pilots, he spent two years training other pilots, before moving in to a test pilot role.
Frank initially continued his boyhood passion for model planes developing a remote controlled model glider that set a world endurance record of 9 hours in He showed a persistence to prototype, learn, and succeed that remained with him for the whole of sailing design career. Development of the remote glider took place over a five year period. Frank could not sail his IA at Torbay, but did buy a Cherub class designed by John Spencer, who had a shed in the next bay south, Browns Bay, and was one of the leading design innovators in New Zealand at that time.
He was almost the complete opposite to Bethwaite in his approach to design, however the outcomes were similar. That led to approaches to develop what became the Northbridge Senior, 14ft dinghy with the same sail area as a Cherub. The NS 14 was an open design class rather than a one design with many differing designs being built over the next ten years.
For his role in the construction of the new clubhouse at Northbridge, Frank was awarded Life Membership of the Club in In the cloud seeding project had its funding cut and Frank, then aged 48yrs, made the decision to move full time into the construction of dinghy masts, foils and boat construction. Starboard Products started first as a backyard operation before moving to Naremburn.
Eldest son, Mark was selected to represent Australia at the Olympics in Kiel, Germany, and Frank became meteorology adviser to the Australian team. The class became popular internationally and over were built, and the class is an International Class recognised by the ISAF. Frank Bethwaite designed and built early NS 14 , which has continued as an open class. In the 49er was developed largely by Julian but with assistance from Frank and won the ISAF trials to become the first Olympic skiff making its debut in the Olympics in Sydney.
That boat in turn led to the development of the 29er, intended as a two man youth, womens, adult boat. It was designed over a much longer period, as the hull and rig were carefully refined in a program run in Australia and England.
The top on the water Laser sailors produced the best numbers on the simulator. High Performance Sailing is regarded by many as the definitive work of sailing speed. Like many of the great thinkers in the sport Frank Bethwaite trod in the dual worlds of aviation and sailing.
Frank drew his bows mostly to the left. Parts of this article were adapted from www.
High Performance Sailing