The Atalanta was conceived in 1955 by Alan Vines, a senior executive at the marine arm of the celebrated Fairey engineering company, with the expertise of Uffa Fox who was their Design Consultant. It was envisaged as a trailable shallow draft performance cruiser with the sea keeping capabilities and safety of a fin keel yacht. Over the succeeding decades the distinctive centre cockpit design with its rolled decks and generous accommodation has more than fulfilled expectations, offering a respectable turn of speed in light airs while her retractable cast iron keels give outstanding heavy weather performance in a seaway. Robust enough to carry its full sail in winds up to force five, the Atalanta retains many of the handling characteristics of a classic dinghy.
Fairey Marine went on to produce three variants of the Atalanta, another 26ft (8.1m) hull with a slightly shorter cockpit and more headroom called the Titania (named after another Fairey flying boat), a larger version the Atalanta 31 (9.45m) and the Fulmar a 20ft(6.1m) version with a single lifting keel. Small Dinghies were built using similar techniques as tenders for the larger boats.
Fairey Marine was founded in 1946 and its first volume production boat was another Uffa Fox design, the National 12 Firefly. The company established a tradition of naming its craft after the earlier generations of Fairey Aircraft - the most famous of which must be the unprepossessing but deadly Swordfish torpedo bomber. An early flying boat was named after Atalanta, the mythical Greek goddess who could run very fast. Plainly this struck the company as appropriate for the new Uffa Fox creation, especially as the son of chairman Sir Richard Fairey had just cemented the association of names by marrying Miss Atalanta Clifford!
Much of the inspiration for the Atalanta family came from Alan Vines, a native of Cowes who began his career in the design office and worked his way up to effectively running the Fairey Group by the 1960s. Vines was a keen Firefly sailor, but faced with a growing family sought a bigger boat. Wanting a vessel with the same seaworthiness and as fun to sail as his Firefly, Vines designed the 22ft (6.71m) Sujanwiz. The hot-moulded hull was based on a 15ft (4.57m) Fairey Albacore, split in half, lengthened and widened. It had twin ballasted daggerboards so it could take the ground and be easily trailed. It proved such a great success that Vines’ friend Uffa Fox, who by this time was closely associated with Fairey Marine, suggested that the company consider a larger production version.
In 1955, Fox designed a 24ft (7.32m) prototype based on some of the concepts demonstrated by Sujanwiz and after extensive trials the first 26ft (7.92m) Atalanta class boats were launched in June 1956. By 1968, when production ceased, some 291 Atalanta variants had been built at Fairey’s Hamble Point yard which had originally been acquired in 1915 to manufacture seaplanes. The Atalanta was sold directly or through traditional boatyards either as a finished boat, a bare hull or in kit form at any individually specified stage of completion. There were also two Atalanta agents - the O’Day Corporation and Bernard Argod in Paris - and unsurprisingly many boats ended up in North America and France.
During World War II Fairey acquired great expertise in hot moulding for aircraft manufacture and in the post war era adapted these techniques to boat building. Initially surplus stocks of ⅛ inch spruce or birch veneers were used but as stocks of these dwindled a switch was made to Agba - a lightweight African hardwood available in 2.5mm sheets (the only metric dimension on the drawings) - which proved to be both very durable and easily worked. The hot moulding process permitted high-volume, low cost production of resin impregnated hulls with an extraordinarily high strength to weight ratio, significantly exceeding the GRP laminates of the day.
The Atalanta hull consists of four laminate layers profiled and coated with a thermosetting resin. The laminates were laid-up diagonally over a mould and fixed with temporary staples at the keel, bilge and sheerline. With all veneers in place the hull was then vacuum-sealed in a rubber bag and wheeled into a giant autoclave, to which steam was introduced at about 50psi. “Cooking” took about an hour at 100°C after which the hull was left to cool slowly, usually overnight, while ambient pressure was maintained. Curing at elevated temperatures under vacuum not only ensured that all the veneers were firmly consolidated - conventional cold-moulding required thousands of staples - but it allowed the use of a truly waterproof, high temperature curing adhesive to impregnate the wood, creating a virtually rot-proof and very strong monocoque hull.
Atalantas have a double berth cabin aft and a two-berth cabin, galley and heads forward. The self-draining cockpit has room for six whilst a whipstaff tiller allows the maximum space to be utilised. Control lines, and halyards can be handled from the cockpit and the headsails and anchor can be deployed by standing in the forehatch. The relatively modest rig and sail area needed to drive the lightweight hull make for easy sail handling as well as lower capital cost and the relatively short mast is easily rigged or lowered for towing.
The secret of the Atalanta’s versatility lies in its shallow draught and retractable aerofoil section twin pivoting ballast keels. These are housed in keel boxes, either side of the cabin and under the bunks so as to not impinge on the accommodation space as is normally the case with lifting keels. They are supported by the main bulkhead and weigh 480lbs (218kg) each. The boat draws only 1ft 6in (0.46m) with them raised, but 5ft 9in (1.75m) with them lowered. Clamping plates on either side of the keels keep them in position and hold them rigid, although the design allows the keels to kick up safely without damage if the boat is run up a beach or in the case of collision with some other object, be it a whale, semi-submerged shipping container or even an unexpected sandbank!
The Atalanta was one of the last wooden production boats to be built; its enduring success and popularity attest to its classic status.