A sad loss

Fireball designer Peter Milne has died

Tuesday May 27th 2008, Author: Barry Pickthall, Location: United Kingdom
Peter Milne, one of Britain’s most prodigious designers of small boats, including the International Fireball, died at his home in Chichester on Friday 23 May.

Born in Southport, Lancashire, his parents moved to Chichester when he was a few months old, where he learned not only to sail, but the finer points of what makes a boat sail fast at Dell Quay in Chichester Harbour. Peter inherited many of his innovative skills from his Father, Cecil, an engineer who bought him his first boat - a Snipe named Kim - when he won a school place at St Johns College, Hurstpierpoint.

It was a natural step to join the Royal Navy for his National Service, and though Peter was seconded to submarines, he spent much of his time racing yachts in the Mediterranean and northern Europe and was called on to crew the Royal Dragon Bluebottle, in a series of international regattas in Britain and Scandinavia. The yacht had been given to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Elizabeth as a wedding present by the Island Sailing Club at Cowes, and is now on permanent display at the National Maritime Museum at Falmouth. Midshipman Milne also joined the international force sent to Kefalonia when a major earthquake destroyed much of this Greek island in 1953. He was later promoted to Sub Lieutenant.

On his return to Civvy Street in 1954, Milne served a five-year apprenticeship at the Thornycroft shipyard in Southampton, learning his trade alongside other industry luminaries like Tony Taylor and Peter Nicholson.

In 1957, he built himself a Finn dinghy from a Fairey hot-moulded hull, and though he raced Sea Wolf competitivly against life-long Olympic friends Charles Currey and Keith Musto, this boat, which became his pride and joy, was laid up when he was married in 1962.

Milne also took a keen interest in the flat-bottomed American scows that are still raced on the Great Lakes and began experimenting with a similar concept designed to be built from a plywood kit. The result was the 4.93m Fireball, a 2-man performance scow later equipped with a trapeze and spinnaker which he completed in 1961 while working for Norris Bros, the design engineers based at Haywards Heath responsible for Donald Campbell’s land speed record breaking car Bluebird.

In 1962, Milne took the prototype Fireball to Yachts & Yachting magazine and was asked to write a feature about the design. Editor Bill Smart was so impressed with both the boat and the write-up that he asked Milne to join the magazine as Assistant Editor, replacing John Westall, the designer of the 505 dinghy. He worked there for seven years, taking over as Editor when Smart retired in 1965, as well as continuing with his design work.

While Milne produced more than 40 class dinghies, production cruisers and powerboat designs, it is the Fireball that he will be best remembered for. Andy Wyke, Boat Collection Manager at the National Maritime Museum, Cornwall says of this evergreen design: “Very few successful, long-lasting dinghy designs happen by accident. The Fireball is no exception and was designed to bridge the gap between small family-type dinghies and larger, more expensive classes. The fact that 15,000 have been built is a testament to their popularity and competitiveness.”

One prestigious design commission picked up while he was editing Yachts & Yachting, was for the water-jet powered Jetstar powerboat design for Donald Campbell. The Jetstar was designed as a commercial spin-off for Campbell’s water speed record attempt with his jet powered three-pointer Bluebird K7, but the very day the new design was launched at the 1967 London Boat Show, Campbell was killed when Bluebird flipped during her second run across Lake Coniston.

After drawing the lines of the Javelin, another successful 2-man performance sailboat class in 1968, Milne resigned from Yachts & Yachting in 1969 to concentrate on boat design, and returned to live at Aldingbourne on the outskirts of Chichester where he set up a drawing office in the garden.

The designs flowed at a fast pace: The Mirror 14 Marauder; the Skipper range of dinghies designed for mass-production, the Nicholson 26, 27, 37 & 40 production cruisers, together with the 26.5ft Salty Dog, 23ft Salty Pup, 22ft Outlaw and 28ft Stag yachts were all successful.

Throughout this time, Milne maintained a key interest in fast scows and developed an international Moth, which sold well in Australia, together with several prototypes including the 22ft Hurricane trapeze keelboat, and the Bullett, an innovative 4.42m junior trainer for the Fireball, for which he was awarded the Duke of Edinburgh Design Prize in 1975.

He was also an accomplished offshore yachtsman, and was one of the few crews to complete the 1979 Fastnet Race when a storm decimated the fleet and cost 15 lives.
In the latter part of his sailing career, Milne returned to writing about boats, editing the trade magazine Chandler & Boatbuilder before becoming Technical Editor of Yachting World, and later Editor of Classic Boat magazine.

Peter continued with his design and build vocation until fairly recently, recreating the Beluga Class concept from six decades ago in the shape of Sundance, a 7.2m lifting keel cruiser built with his oldest school friend, Terry Turner.

He is survived by his wife Margaret, sister Judith two daughters Sue and Tessa, and three grandchildren.

Editor's note: We worked with Peter during his tenure at Yachting World magazine and he was both a massive font of knowledge as well as being a great person to spend time with. We will NEVER forget his snoring overnight on two day boat tests. He is a great loss to our community

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