Colin Shepheard remembers Torbay J class yacht Dolphin (previously Sonnet)

Colin Shepheard has been in touch to tell us about his experiences with Torbay J class racing yachts Dolphin (previously named Sonnet).

There have been a couple of posts about the J class: see them here and here.

Here’s what Colin says:

‘I noticed today that both remain Torbay J class boats still in existance are now in German hands!

‘I know about both with maybe some additional history not known to the new owner.

I used to build/repair and maintain wooden boats at Kingsbridge in South Devon, England during the period from 1970 to 1984.

I later moved my workshop to a small village on the edge of Dartmoor, but during During my time at Kingsbridge I was approached by a retired gentleman named Alan Taverner who lived in Kingsbridge, after retiring from London as a photographer.

He asked me to travel to Torquay inner harbour as he had noticed Sonnet in the inner harbour on a summer drying mooring.

The aim was to trace the owner to see if they would sell the boat. It was not until the winter of 1977 that we found her upside down underneath a concrete car park adjacent to the inner harbour. The local Harbour master gave us the owner’s contact details (in obtaining this confidential info it helped that I was well known in the area) and Alan managed to buy.

I transported her to my nearby workshop and Alan set about bringing her back to new under my guidance. I remember that we worked together to replace the inner cockpit coaming, floor boards, external iron keel bolts around the centreplate box and refastened the planking around the stem post and transom.

The complete wood structure frames and planks including decking were saturated but through the winter in my warmed workshop we dried her out and repainted her. Two years later the centreplate box was replaced together with the surrounding wood to the iron keel.

The entire boat was stripped to bare wood and repainted together with the mast and spars. Alan wanted me to sail with him and we had great fun taking her from Bowcombe Creek on the Salcombe Estuary, where she was on a tidal mooring for eight months of the year, to Plymouth and various small inlets inbetween and also to Dartmouth.

She was a great boat to sail and Louis Gale of Paignton had built a lovely fleet of these boats in earlier years.

Alan must have owned Sonnet (after two years he renamed her Dolphin) for a total of some 30 years.

After I sold up and moved to Dartmoor, I let Alan keep Dolphin over winter in my workshop at home.

During the 1980s, Alan moved Dolphin from Bowcombe Creek to a mooring on the river Plym, which runs into Plymouth Sound. The photo above was taken by Alan and shows me sailing her single-handed off the Western Breakwater Lighthouse at Plymouth Sound at the time. The close up is the same picture, but reveals that Dolphin is sailing herself, which shows what a superb balanced rig she had for her hull.

Alan also entered a single-handed race around the Eddystone Lighthouse and I believe could have won his class in boat length, but unfortunately the boat suffered a lot of damage on the sail back when the wind increased and the seas developed a short sharp chop.

It was a great sail for Alan, but the boat required caulking.

Alan’s health deteriorated soon afterwards and he eventually sold her after some final years of neglect.

I’ve heard that heard she was purchased by a new owner who took great care of her and had work done in Cornwall somewhere… And I remember later seeing her for sale again.

I was busy at the time and moved again to do my work for the Plymouth Harbour Authority in maintaining their pilot boat and tugboat and oversaw the rebuilding of two new vessels.

Alan had died shortly after I moved to Sweden in 2009.

On 1998 I remember we both sailed the other J class boat at Brixham, when she was up for sale. After a trip around Torbay, we decided we were not so keen on the yawl rig. I gathered that most of the J class were gaff or gunter rigged. 

I was interested to find they are both now in the same ownership, where I hope they are enjoying a revival for the next 100 years! 

Torbay J class yachts

These photographs of the Torbay J Class 2 yachts Dolphin (ex Sonnet) and Suzette were sent in by owner Ingo Werner, who lives on the island of Usedom in the North-East of Germany, and has got in touch after meeting Fowey boatbuilder Marcus Lewis. Thanks Marcus!

Two years ago he bought Torbay J Suzette, which was built by Louis Gale of Paignton in 1920. I think they look like very pleasant and wholesome cruising and racing boats – and I must say I’m curious about how they sail.

Here’s what he says about them:

‘About 20 Torbay Js were built, the most of them by Louis Gale.

Suzette was converted to a yawl in the 1950s.

‘Last year I had the chance to acquire another Torbay J. Her name when I bought her was Dolphin, but her original name was Sonnet, and she was built in 1936.

When I saw her in January she was in a shed, and had not been in the water for two or more years.

In February I trailered her to my workshop in Germany. Unfortunately her condition was worse then expected, but happily the rot mainly in the deck, which is easier to repair. The planking and the bent frames are in good shape, and I plan to put her back in the water the next season.

‘Next week I will replace some frames on Suzette with the help of a professional boat builder, who might also help replacing the deck on Dolphin.

‘To cut a long story short: next year Suzette and Dolphin will race against each other.

‘I have already had two really nice sailing seasons with Suzette, taking part in the Classic Week 2014 at Flensburg, Sonderborgh, Kiel, Eckernförde, and Kappeln this year.

‘I feel a bit guilty about kidnapping two of these fine small boats from UK to Germany, but both were standing two or more years in a shed or in a container, so I also felt that I had take care of them because there seemed no one else!

‘But I have an idea. It might be unrealistic but why not give it a try…

‘I’d like to revive the Torbay J Class 2. There is another boat in UK that I know of called Nautilus that was restored by Joh Iley a few years ago. Maybe it would be possible to get in contact with John Iley with the help of your weblog?

‘I also was told that there is another Torbay J around that was converted to a launch.

‘How brilliant would it be to build up a small fleet of new Js in Germany and another one in Devon and Cornwall and race against each other! One year in Torquay, Paignton and Brixham, the next year in Germany and so on. Maybe it would be possible to organise a big revival regatta starting of Paignton in a few years.

Dolphin came with some historical material about the class, together with some old photos.

‘The silver model of Dolphin (photographed) was cast in 1960, and may be around somewhere – if it could be found it could be the challenge cup of the regatta!

‘It would be so great to get in contact with people who like the idea or maybe know something more about other boats.’


‘PS: I have read the book Catalan Castaway a few weeks ago. Brilliant book!’

Contact me at, and I will forward your messages and emails to Ingo.

PPS – Bill Serjeant has written to tell me about his time of owning a J4. His boat was Phillida, pictured below, and he has put up several posts about the boat and his adventures with her, including a trip to Alderney at his popular weblog, Bill’s Log. Oh – and he answer’s my question about the boat’s performance…

Bill Serjeant's Torbay j4 Phillida