Uffa Fox: Boat designer and much more

ulla-foxOne of the most original characters to come out of Cowes, Uffa Fox was a boat designer and builder by trade and a raconteur, bon vivant and all round eccentric individual by nature.

A personal friend of Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh from 1949, the Prince wrote the foreword to Uffa’s biography written by his niece June Dixon, including these words: “His life was one long campaign for the freedom of the human spirit and against the foolish, the stupid and the self-important, the whole conducted with a cheerful breeziness that disarmed all but the hardest of cases.”

He and Prince Philip raced together on the Dragon ‘Bluebottle’ and in the Flying Fifteen ‘Coweslip’ that was designed and built by Uffa. The 20 foot Flying Fifteen was one of Uffa’s most successful post-war designs and Coweslip was presented to the Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip by the people of Cowes as a wedding gift.

Although the Queen did sail Coweslip with her husband the boat was more often seen with the Prince as helmsman and Uffa as crew. The duo were prominent at Cowes Week in Coweslip and she was kept and maintained on Uffa Fox’s quay at Cowes, enabling Prince Philip to join her from the Royal Yacht during Cowes Week without having to run the gauntlet of crowds ashore. Uffa later took the royal children sailing at Cowes when they visited for Cowes Week.

“Uffa was a genius with a sailing boat and his advice on tactics and knowledge of the tidal conditions in the Solent was invaluable,” said the Prince of his friend. “He was usually very keen to take as much advantage as possible by going in-shore to avoid an adverse tide. This put us on the rocks at Egypt Point more than once!”

Uffa Fox designed the Britannia rowboat, used by another colourful character, John Fairfax, for the first solo-rowing expedition across the Atlantic Ocean in 1969. The Britannia was described as, “The Rolls-Royce of rowboats, made of mahogany.” It was self-righting, self-bailing and partly covered. John Fairfax and Sylvia Cook later rowed across the Pacific Ocean in Britannia II through 1971 and 1972, also designed and built by Uffa. The brightly painted orange boat can be viewed at the Classic Boat Museum in Cowes.

A prolific designer, Uffa designed many of the significant classes of boats around today, including the planing International 14, the Foxcub and Super Foxcub, the Flying Fifteen, the Flying Ten, the National 12, the National 18, the Albacore, the Firefly, the Javelin, the Pegasus Dinghy, the Jollyboat and the Daysailer.

ulla-fox2Uffa also designed ‘The Airborne Lifeboat’, a somewhat cumbersome attachment beneath wartime allied bomber aircraft that nevertheless saved many lives. His gravestone at Whippingham Church features the lifesaving boat that was dropped from the underside of a plane and parachuted to the water below when ditching from a stricken aircraft into the sea. A surviving Airbourne Lifeboat can also be viewed at the Classic Boat Museum in Cowes, complete with radio transmitter, waterproof maps and camping stove!

For some time Uffa lived on a converted former floating bridge, moving it from one side of the river to the other to avoid the rate collecting council employees.  Later he bought ‘Puckaster’ a beautiful home on the south coast of the Isle of Wight, where on one occasion he rode his horse ‘Frantic’ up the stairs and into his bedroom.

In 1951 he offered the house to George VI for recuperation after his chest operation. “The air at Puckaster, I can assure you, will make the king eat like a horse and sleep like a dog,” he wrote. Unfortunately, the new owners, to whom Uffa had recently sold the house, were not so enamoured of the idea.

On another occasion Uffa was playing cards with friends in Blackwater, just south of Newport, when a policeman burst into the house in pursuit of the owner of a car that had been left parked across the nearby level crossing, stopping the train in its tracks. On admission of guilt, in his defence Uffa declared that “The damn train had kept him waiting often enough”.

These are but a few colourful anecdotes on a man who was larger than life and of whom stories are still traded in Cowes.