Wolbold - Fast On Water 2017

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The following is based on an article about RonWolbold taken from Powerboat 83 Yearbook.
‘My real love is monos. I’ll build anything but I enjoy doing them the most.’ Ron Wolbold started building boats in 1959 and he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he wasn’t messing around with fibreglass. At the age of 62 he almost quit (1982). ‘I’d only been in my premises in Gloucester for twelve months and I had to get out. Having to move again really made me think about whether it was worth going on. Why not take an early retirement and pack it all in?’
But his customers were having none of that and it didn’t take much persuasion for Ron to find his new workshop in Birmingham and continue turning out monos at a rate of about twenty a year.
This down-to-earth one-time shopfitter has tried his hand at racing, though he admits ‘racing was a bit different in those days. In the early sixties we used to race with two in a boat. The driver would sit on the right and the passenger had a  crew slot where he had to move backwards and forwards to keep the boat balanced. We used to spend most of our time putting the boats back under the crewmen, it was that rough in those flat bottomed boats, they kept flying out!’
But a bad accident in 1966 forced Ron to give up racing. ‘I missed it a lot, but I was forty when I started and you don’t want too many accidents after that age – it takes so long to mend.’ Powerboat racing has changed considerably since Ron’s racing days, not necessarily for the better in his opinion. ‘I used to build lots of hydroplanes, mainly R1’s, really popular they were, but the engines are so temperamental and difficult to get hold of they seemed to have almost died out. And inboards. We used to have great fun with those, but you have to marine your own engine, with outboards all you have to do is take it out of the packing case and clamp it on.’ This by no means implies that he tried to hold on to the past – Ron was always attempting new ideas and would try his hand at anything.
‘The shape of a mono has changed a lot. Jim Wynn introduced the deep V in America and Sonny Levi started using it about a year later in Europe. This was in the days before catamarans and all racing boats became deep V’s. They turned beautifully but they lost speed and my new designs (1983) are going flatter and flatter again. All the time you have to strive for the right combination – the flatter the bottom the faster it goes, the deeper the V the better it turns. I wouldn’t mind betting that if you put a modern day engine on one of those old boats and took it to Windermere, it would break records, though my new boats can hover on the wind now and those old ones used to porpoise. Today’s boats are going so fast that you  have to build them to suit the driver. They’re that critical. And no mono is perfect. Johnny Pearce is driving my latest one and I don’t think there is anything in Europe to catch it, but it still isn’t cornering right. A mono is  much more difficult to get right than a catamaran. A cat is reasonably tolerant of a mistake, it’s on ‘four feet’ and you can trim the engine during the race to help control the amount of boat in or out of the water. The rules say  that a mono isn’t allowed the facilities for trimming. Mind you, the rules also say that you’re not allowed anything that will give you aerodynamic lift, and what’s a tunnel of a cat doing, if it’s not giving aerodynamic lift?  Maybe we’ll see trim buttons on a mono before long.’
When Ron returned to building race boats after break from 1972 to 1976 he started using glassfibre. ‘It takes two days to make a glassfibre boat. And once it comes out of the mould there’s no spraying to do because the colour paste is put in with the first layer of gel. All you have to do is rig it with steering gear and seat and away you go. It keeps the price down.’
But there are disadvantages in using this now-normal method of producing many boats. ‘A perfect race boat should have perfect edges but you can’t do that with fibreglass, it has to be slightly rounded. And there is always the danger that if you pop it out of the mould too soon it will buckle. A true cure takes seven days but I usually take mine out after four or five and it turns out fine. But if the cure hasn’t progressed far enough, the fibreglass will bend in and make the bottom  of the boat curve upwards. You may as well chuck it out then. And, although they say it’s very easy to mend a fibreglass boat, it’s not really. At least, not so it looks neat.’
Some customers are prepared to pay the extra price for a wooden hull – and put a fibreglass deck on to keep the weight as low as possible. ‘I’m making one for Andy Elliot now. The problem is to make the lid fit. To make a top class deck that looks good and is the right shape,wood makes it very heavy so we make a mould of it and make it in ‘glass instead. The great advantage of a wooden hull is that you can make alterations on it, something you can never do to a ‘glass  boat – you have to make about ten out of one mould to justify the initial cost.
What changes has Ron for the next few years? ‘For starters, I’m changing the seat in my boats. People have become very weight conscious and just want fibreglass buckets to sit on, rather than padded chairs. At the moment we bolt them to the floor but that concentrates too much pressure on one area and you can’t get them low enough. So I’m going to hang them from the combings – the sides of the cockpit. That will make them lower and, with the sides of the seats coming forward, maybe even to the dashboard, it will strengthen the sides and prevent drivers being thrown out. And I think I ought to start making more catamarans, though they can only be built in wood. I’ve made quite a few over a spread of years, but to build them really competitively you must build them one after the other. Drivers tend to go where they know they will get the best, so they come to me for a monohull but will go to somebody else for a catamaran. But there is no doubt that cats make better money and I suppose I ought to start looking to make some money as I’m over sixty and have to think about retiring at some point!’
But watching the master at work, looking nearer fifty than sixty, it seems fair to assume that Blu-Fin monohulls will be available for many years to come.
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