Vintage Model Yachting History

1. Portrait of a Model Yachtsman...Harold Kethman
2. America's "New Deal" and Model Yachting
3. Portrait of a Model Yachtsman...A.R. "Gus" Lassel

Portrait of a Model Yachtsman
Harold Kethman and the "Delta Boat"

-Don Kihlstrom-


click on any image to expand

Young Harold Kethman (far left) and his mates
from New York's Empire MYC. Ca. 1938

Harold Kethman and his father, Harold Sr., began sailing with the Empire MYC in New York City in the 1930's. At first, they sailed at Crotona Park in the Bronx, but eventually moved to Conservatory Lake in Manhattan's Central Park, where Empire shared the venue with the Central Park MYC. The Kethman's were active M-Class skippers with both clubs, but had an enthusiasm for all classes of model yachts, and Central Park, primarily an A-Class club, encouraged innovation and diversity.

A Central Park innovation:
"Gerry" Moore's 60" rolled tinplate
"Gertrude Thiebaud," Ca 1943

Eventually, Harold Jr. moved to Long island City and participated with the Long Island Model Yacht Club, which sailed in Hempstead State Park. He also sailed at times with the Mill Pond club in Port Washington. There, he became friendly with two of Mill Pond's members, Ains Ballantyne, one of model yachting's most notable and innovative skippers, and his nephew, Robert, a veteran of the depression-era New York City Parks department competitions, and an upcoming young M-Class skipper in his own right.

In 1949, Kethman and his father represented Long Island at the Marblehead National Championships at Belle Isle, in Detroit. He finished 3rd, just 6 points behind the champion, A. B. Taplin of the South Jersey MYC.

Harold Kethman at Belle Isle, 1949

A.B. Taplin's winning boat at Belle Isle, 1949

As early as 1943, Harold Jr. had begun to develop concepts for improved boats and steering gear. It was his belief that model yachting should be more accessible to the public, and youngsters in particular, by "giving newcomers an easy boat to build, sail, and maintain...that would also be competitive and easily transportable." Aware that interest in the then-current classes (A, X, and M) was languishing, he wanted to stimulate new interest in the sport.

Kethman and his friend, Jim Dempsey, of Brooklyn, had been impressed with an M-Class variant sailed by Vito Caeti of the Central Park MYC from 1938 until 1943. Although it was 50" in length, it was a lightweight, hard-chine model, capable of competing successfully with displacement M-boats, even though it normally carried only 500 sq. in. of sail.

Vito Caeti of the Central Park MYC
on active duty in 1943

Caeti's experimental "M"
with a full suit at Central Park in 1938

After a stint in the Army, from the mid-40's and early 50's, Kethman, Dempsey and others built a variety of Delta boats, so named because in mathematics, this Greek symbol denotes "change," and the "Delta" boat was a departure from the then-current design and rating trends. By 1952, a number of Delta forms had been experimented with, and the first three "official" Delta boats were built. They were named after the Greek deities Venus, Athene, and Juno. Other Delta boats were built by such prominent model yachtsmen as James Fulton, George Meyer, and A. Posey.

Harold Kethman, Sr. and Jr. in 1944.

Kethman and James Dempsey (left)
with the first two Delta boats.

By this time, the Delta boat had evolved into a light, long, and lean hard-chine double-ender with a metal fin and a Kethman-designed vane.. The double-ended form was thought by Kethman to correct the lack of balance that he observed in other hard-chine boats when heeling to windward. It carried 600 sq. inches of sail aloft. The Deltas featured a balanced rudder, which, Kethman conceded, was not so much of a design improvement, but eliminated the complication of building and attaching a skeg. This feature also allowed for safer and easier transport on trains, buses, and subways. Kethman's fin design, with its recessed leading edge, was thought to provide maximum stability and balance by placing the center of effort of the sail plan over the center of buoyancy of the hull. The center of lateral resistance was located far enough aft that the sail plan could be situated over the stoutest part of the hull. The fin was also designed to strongly support the lead torpedo and center the "root" of the fin above the center of gravity of the ballast.

Helen and Harold Kethman with the #1 Delta boat, Ca 1952.

The boat was felt by Kethman to be a fine performer that could excel in erratic winds or a "puff," and skim the surface in a 30-40 mph following wind. He claimed, "She planes before a stiff wind like a 'hydro'." He also stressed that the Delta's length to sail area ratio (50:600, or 1:12) would allow for the "scaling down" of X-Class boats accurately to Delta specifications.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the Model Yacht Racing Association of America didn't share Kethman's enthusiasm. Earlier, Kethman has encouraged the elimination of the 5/8" keel restriction and garboard radius in the M-Class regulations, and those in power thought there was a connection between that effort and the emergence of his Delta boat. Apparently, there was no interest in admitting a boat that might eventually challenge the existing fleet of displacement "M's" in the MYRAA, even though the International Model Yacht Racing Union allowed such fin design outside the US.

In the West, there were other similar efforts, such as "Gus" Lassel's "V" boat in California (ironically, first advanced reluctantly by MYRAA president Charles Farley of Boston), and the proposal of a "G," or "Gadget" Class by the Everett MYC in Washington. They, too were rebuffed by a stubborn MYRAA leadership, now headed by Charles Heistercamp (South Jersey MYC), as well.

"Gus" Lassel and the "V" boat, Ca. 1950

A fleet of "V's" in Wilmington, CA, Ca. 1950

Eventually, the leadership of the MYRAA shifted to the West coast, and the ideas of model yachtsmen like Gus Lassel and Seattle's Ted Houk prevailed for a short time.

Not easily dissuaded, Kethman and his friends formed a Delta Racing Association outside the auspices of the MYRAA, and built fleets of boats on Long Island and in New York's Westchester County. By 1953, Delta boats were under construction in New York-area school industrial arts programs and junior recreational programs. This, too, was felt to be a challenge to the authority of the MYRAA, and it added to the existing dissention within the organization, mostly a battle between West coast clubs with broad recreational notions, and the East coast "old guard."

The Delta fleet at the Long Island MYC

Kethman's #1 boat at Hempstead State Park

In December 1953, in a letter to MYRAA Secretary C.O. Davis, Kethman, now the Eastern Division representative to the MYRAA, conceded that the Delta Class would probably never be approved. He further rejected efforts by Gus Lassel to permit the addition of spinnakers with a 17" spinnaker pole and add the Delta boats to Lassel's pet project, the "V" boat. Marblehead class skippers were still skeptical of his intent, afraid, some thought, of getting "whupped" by a bunch of pimply-faced high school kids.

In one of his final letters on the subject, he wrote, "The Delta Class derives its name from the concept of the mathematical use of the Greek symbol DELTA to represent a change, and the class is intended to be just that...a change, and not just a means of side-stepping the restrictions of another class."

At about the same time, an attempt to have a "kit" Delta marketed by Sterling Models, in Philadelphia, failed because it was impractical to design a kit that would require dealer storage of boxes longer than 36", resulting in a maximum 33" boat length...not suited for serious sailing, particularly in rough water. The mass production of vane gear was also problematical. Kethman offered to scale down his Delta design, but it seems that the project went nowhere.

Young Delta skippers in action

In subsequent years, the Deltas died out in favor of other regional boats, but Kethman's attitude was unwavering. It appears that he continued to harbor a distrust for a model yachting authority that was blindly controlling and resistant to new ideas and new competitors.

In his later years, Harold moved to Port Washington to be near Mill Pond and its clubhouse. In the mid-90's, he suffered a debilitating stroke. From time-to-time, his son would take him to the pond to watch the racing. He wasn't able to speak much, but he loved to talk as long as he could about model yachting. Mr. Kethman died in 1997.

Jim Dempsey still lives in Port Washington, and is a regular at Mill Pond.

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America's "New Deal" and Model Yachting
Afloat in a Sea of Alphabet Soup

Don Kihlstrom

Click on any image to expand

President Roosevelt himself was an avid yachtsman
and modeler, as shown in this 1938 photo.

WPA photo

As noted  in this photo of James Roosevelt's playroom at Hyde Park,
NY in the 30's, model yachting was an important Roosevelt family activity.

Hyde Park Museum photo

Note: Most of the photos in this article were obtained from The National Archives and Records Administration, Library of Congress, and
the New Deal Network. Unless otherwise credited, they are all in the public domain, and have simply been identified as "WPA photos."

During America's Great Depression in the late 20's and 30's, President Roosevelt's "New Deal" established numerous programs to put Americans back to work, improve the skills of youngsters, and develop the countries' infrastructure. The first agencies were created in 1933 and were intended to put people back to work in jobs that would serve the "public good," expand and conserve working skills, and develop the self-esteem of workers.

One of the priorities of the "New Deal" was to address plight of youngsters, who, as their
 families struggled to make a living, were often left to their own devices in unhealthy conditions.
WPA photos

The many governmental entities created for this purpose were widely known by their initials, and were commonly known as the "alphabet soup" agencies. Among these were the WPA (Works Progress Administration), the FYA (Federal Youth Adminsistration), CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), PWA (Public Works Adminsitration), and the FAP (Federal Art Project). All of these contributed greatly to the encouragement of model yachting activities in the 30's. In fact, model yachting experienced its most rapid growth during the Depression.

The  political cartoon above  depicts New Deal "Alphabet Soup" remedies for America's ills.
Washington Star, Jan. 5, 1934


The  real "alphabets" and "soups" that concerned Americans during the New Deal
Above, left: The "ABC's" in Transylvania, Louisiana

Above, right: A soup kitchen in rural Kentucky
WPA photos

The Federal Art Project was, perhaps, the most "unsung" of the New Deal agencies until viewed in retrospect. Besides establishing fine art, theater, and writing projects for artists who would later become widely acclaimed, FAP photographers carefully documented the good, bad, and ugly aspects of the Great Depression and recovery, including the desirable and undesirable activities of the youngsters of America. In many cases these activities included the sailing of models.

A scene in Kempton, WVA
WPA photo, 1939

Chicago, IL
WPA photo, 1941

Grundy Center, IA
WPA photo, 1939

New York City
WPA photo, 1938

The photos above represent undesirable activities which would, hopefully, be replaced by healthy "New Deal "activities, below.

Washington DC's Reflecting Pool
WPA Photo, Ca. 1935

Another view at the Reflecting Pool
WPA photo, Ca 1935

An idyllic scene
WPA photo, Ca. 1935

Photo by Theodor Horydczak
WPA Photo

The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Public Works Administration were entrusted with community improvement and recreational projects. Teams or "companies" of men worked on Federal, State, and local properties to improve them. During the construction of giant utilities projects, like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), public recreational facilities were created and improved. During the "New Deal" it is estimated that over 14,000 parks, the pride of every turn-of-the-century city and town, were improved.

Above left: CCC workers construct a sidewalk around a pond in New Orleans, LA, Ca. 1936
Above center: An improved pond in Schenectady, NY, Ca. 1935
WPA photos
Above right: Skiff sailing in Douthat State Park, near Luray, VA in the late 1930's
postcard photo

Many model yachtsmen of the period were often influential community leaders, unable to keep their full-sized craft afloat during the nation's hard times. They exerted political pressure to direct improvements to their local public parks and, in particular, their own ponds. Some of these projects were quite elaborate. In the case of Ogden Park in Chicago, a concrete-bound pool was built to the uniform depth of four feet. To the dismay of Chicago's model yachtsmen, John Q. Public found that it was the perfect place to take a dip on Sunday afternoon. In Camden, New Jersey, a spectacular "model" model yachting venue was constructed in the Cooper River basin, to what were considered to be the perfect dimensions. In many other locations, such as Long Island's Hempstead State Park, walkways and walls were constructed and repaired around existing venues. At Boston's Storrow Lagoon, on the Charles River, the construction of an overpass saved the site from destruction. Elsewhere across the country, and particularly on the West Coast, less secular model yachting projects abounded.

Artist's rendering of the new pond
at Ogden Park, Chicago, IL
MYRAA Yearbook, 1940

Construction of the South Jersey Model Yacht Basin in Camden, NJ
MYRAA Yearbook, 1940

Completed South Jersey MYC model yacht basin in Camden, NJ
MYRAA Yearbook, 1941

WPA improvements at Hempstead State Park on Long Island, NY
1940 postcard

America had been "caught short" by the Depression. It was widely felt that everyone should have alternate skills to fall back on should hard times continue (or return). Manual arts programs were emphasized in schools and workshops across the country, with model-building often a preferred activity, since it incorporated the development and use of a wide variety of skills and knowledge. The Federal Youth Administration, preparing youngsters and young adults for productive activities, sponsored manual arts classes which taught the use of tools and machinery. This resulted in many model-making classes, often supported by local merchants and hobby suppliers. There, youngsters crafted sail and power boats as well as aircraft models to be put to recreational use on the public parks and ponds that were being improved through the efforts of the CCC and and PWA.

Adult model-making class
in St Paul, MN
WPA photo, 1937

A youngster learns to use a jigsaw in a FYA wokshop in Baraga, MI
WPA photo 1940

An FYA workshop in Minnesota
WPA photo 1938

FYA workshop in
New York City
WPA photo 1936

Above left: FYA modeling in Salem, MA
Above right: Youngsters of Salem, MA present a completed model yacht to FDR
WPA photos 1938

Municipal parks and recreation departments teamed up with schools and merchants to sponsor local racing activities, aided by the FAP artists, who designed promotional materials for the events, and FYA trade workshops, who executed their designs.

Poster-making in Paterson, NJ
WPA photo, 1938

FYA printing trades workshop in New York City
WPA photo, 1936

WPA recreation poster in Sioux City, IA
WPA image 1930's

Model Yachting poster in New York City
WPA image 1930's

 The New Deal "boon" for model yachting ended abruptly with the onset of WWII.

A "New Deal" youngster in a naval shipyard, Ca. 1940
WPA photo

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Portrait of a Model Yachtsman
Augustus R. "Gus" Lassel: "The Wizard of Wilmington"

Don Kihlstrom

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Gus Lassel and a conventional boat at Wilmington, CA, Circa 1940
Photo courtesy William G. Bithell

"If ever, if ever a wizard there was....." Gus Lassel was one! When one thinks of model yachting's great builders and skippers, names like Bill Bithell and Ains Ballantyne always come to mind. Many of model yachting's greatest innovators and promoters, however, often took a back seat to their more publicized comrades. Gus Lassel was one of the many model yachtsmen on the West Coast of the USA who worked tirelessly to improve, promote and expand the sport. Although he was the perennial commodore of the Banning (Wilmington) CA MYC, Lassel was active with many of the model yachting clubs up and down the Pacific seaboard, including the San Diego, Long Beach and Los Angeles clubs.

Members of Lassel's Wilmington CA club, where the motto was: "We are all nuts!"
Courtesy Popular Mechanics, August  1953

Lassel, a former Finnish merchant mariner, immigrated to the United States in about 1904, intending to enlist in the U.S. Navy. Lassel couldn't meet the requirements for alien enlistment in the navy, and served in the U.S. Marine Corps until he was injured in1910. Lassel then worked in Southern California's munitions and ship-building industies.

In the 1930's, Lassel introduced his children to model yachting as a means to "broaden their culture." From that time on, his participation in model yachting activities at every level became legendary. At first, Lassel formed a club that sailed in Banning Park, a 20 acre historic park acquired by the City of Los Angeles in 1927. His club also sailed in Alondra Park in LA. By 1934, he was seriously involved in Marblehead Class development. Later, he would become an X-Class and "entry-level" innovator.

In the late 30's, Lassel teamed with his young Long Beach, CA protege, Ted Thorson, in many building and sailing activities. In 1938, he competed in the M-Class National Championship at Berkeley, CA, where Thorson finished first.

At the 1938 National Championships, Berkeley CA
At the far right, Gus Lassel. Far left, Ted Thorson

By 1940, it was apparent that Lassel's interests were in innovation and the championing of model yachting activities and experiences for youngsters. He worked tirelessly for budding model yachtsmen and naval architects through YMCA "Hobby Schools," and often assisted his like-minded friend Ted Houk, a Seattle-based model yachtsman. In the late 40's, Lassel's hard-chine "M" Class "Sunkiss,"  developed in collaboration with Thorson, dominated Western racing.

A Wilmington member with two club boats.
A "Sun Kiss" with the "seal-fliiper" fin is seen on the left.
Courtesy Popular Mechanics, August 1953

Lassel's innovations included the Seal-flipper fin and Finless Fin Keel, an odd-looking prognathous appendage with a recessive leading edge, which he thought greatly improved a boat's resistance to turbulence and drag. He estimated that he tested the keel design on more than 85 model yachts over a six-year period.

In the workshop, Gus Lassel works on a "finless fin" keel
Courtesy Popular Mechanics, August 1953

A Lassel "M" boat with finless fin, Ca 1950

Other Lassel innovations included the California Vane and Sliding Rig. As was the case with the "finless fin," model yachting authorities questioned many of his innovations, despite the fact that they were widely (and successfully) used. His designs were freely shared with model yachtsmen world-wide.

Design for a "California" vane
Courtesy Popular Mechanics, August 1953

Lassel's "sliding rig"
Courtesy Popular Mechanics, August 1953

Lassel built boats for many competitors across the United States and abroad, including Norway's Crown Prince. He built countless 40" boats and "Sharpies" for youthful competitors, and sponsored "fleet-building" activities, a simple assembly-line technique for group building. Lassel developed and proposed two new classes, the "V" class and "L" class, in the late forties and early fifties. Both of these classes were met with resistance by the model yachting establishment.

A fleet of "V" boats ashore at Wilmington, CA

Lassel was diagnosed with polio in 1948, but he never slowed down, often aided to meets by his friend Stafford Banks, of the Los Angeles MYC. In the 19 months after he contracted the disease, he built 29 boats, most of them for other Pacific Division clubs. He also continued to build his stainless steel sliding rig and a variety of vanes for skippers across the U.S. Gus Lassel died in 1956 at the age of 73. Today, his boats are the among the sought-after of vintage model yachts.

Gus Lassel assists a competitor at LA's Alondra Park
Courtesy Popular Mechanics, August 1953

At Wilmington, CA
Ca. 1948

Lassel with an "X-boat"
Ca. 1948
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