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Isle of Wight's fantastic Uffa Fox
By Neil Sackley
BBC Hampshire and Isle of Wight

Uffa Fox
Uffa Fox was a sailor, designer, philosopher and eccentric.

There is a local saying on the Isle of Wight: "If it was Queen Victoria who put Cowes on the map, it was Uffa Fox who kept it there".

Uffa Fox was born in West Cowes in 1898.

The son of a Suffolk carpenter Arthur, and his wife Lucy, Uffa was named after 'Wuffa', an ancient King of East Anglia.

He attended Whippingham School in East Cowes, and even as a schoolboy, his love of the ocean was obvious.

He joined the Cowes Sea Scout troop in 1914, and forged friendships which to the disapproval of many of his friends' parents.

Talking on Uffa's 'This Is Your Life' programme in 1963, fellow sea scout Robert Lumsden admitted they never know what to expect next.

"That Uffa Fox will drown you!" was the cry from the worried parents.

Uffa meets a saved crew on This Is Your Life
Uffa Fox was a This Is Your Life subject in 1963

On leaving school Uffa became an apprentice boat builder, a career path taken up by many in Cowes at that time. He was also a choir boy at St James Church in the town.

Not only did he sing hymns in church - he would also sing whilst working in the boat sheds. His vocal qualities were not always appreciated by those around him, and it was not unknown for the managers to send Uffa home to "maintain quiet".

World War I

When World War I broke out, Uffa served in the Royal Navy Air Service. He spent three years repairing launches at the air-bases on Britain's the east coast.

But Cowes remained his home and Uffa returned to the Isle of Wight and set himself up as a boat-builder.

Rosemary Joyce, a trustee of the Classic Boat Museum in Newport said: "His adventures are legendary around here".

By the age of 21, Uffa was Sea Scoutmaster in Cowes. He took the boys for a trip to sea in a whaleboat.

"The parents assumed that they were spending time in The Solent, possibly to Weymouth", Rosemary explained. "In fact he took them up the Seine to Paris".

Trans Atlantic

In 1920, Uffa signed up as a member of a five-man crew, to sail the Atlantic in the American ketch Typhoon.

Uffa Fox on teaching Prince Charles to windsurf in 1970

The 5,000 mile (8,000 km) voyage from Cowes to New York took 50 days.

A year later, again as part of a five-man crew, he sailed back across the Atlantic, this time in a 46 ft schooner. While in the USA, Uffa entered, and won the American canoe championships.

Already an accomplished sailor, Uffa designed the 14 ft dinghy Avenger. It was with Avenger in 1922 that Uffa achieved 52 first place, two seconds and three third places together with The Prince of Wales cup.

"Trapezes to you"

Together with fellow sailor Peter Scott, Uffa devised a way of controlling a boat in high winds.

Using a cable attached high up the mast, the sailor would be able to clip himself on, then stand on the edge of the boat rather than sit on it.

This manoeuvre would allow the sailor's to weight to be further away from the boat, pulling the mast vertical, allowing the vessel to be sailed much faster.

The practice was subsequently banned in racing for over 20 years.

Airborne lifeboat

Uffa's most outstanding invention was the airborne lifeboat.

The self-righting, self-bailing boats could be dropped from underneath bombers, to allow airmen who had ditched in the sea to sail home in safety.

The boats, which could hold up to 25 men, contained sails, an engine with enough fuel for 1,000 miles (1,600 km), food, clothing and cigarettes.

The airborne lifeboat saved hundreds of lives during the war.

The first airmen to be saved by the lifeboat were the crew of a Halifax bomber which ditched into the North Sea while returning from a raid on Dortmund in 1943.

His gravestone in Whippingham churchyard is inscribed with the lifeboat's design.

At the end of the war, Uffa went back to designing boats that could be sailed for fun. In October 1955, the Duke of Edinburgh - in his role as president of the Royal Society of Arts presented Uffa with The Diploma of Royal Designer for Industry.

In presenting the award Prince Phillip commented that there was "There is a tendency today to believe that every new invention bust be scientific or rational. I can confirm that there is nothing scientific or rational about Mr Fox".

Uffa had many dealings with the Royal Family, including teaching Prince Charles to windsurf in The Solent.

His third marriage, in August 1956, was to Yvonne Bernard. The courtship was a challenge to both Uffa, who spoke no French and Yvonne, who did not speak English.

Uffa Fox CBE died in 1972 at the age of 74.

Uffa Fox's airborne rescue boat
19 Jan 10 |  History



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