Noelex 22 turns 50
This year  marks the 50th anniversary of the irrepressible Noelex 22 trailer-sailer. It remains one of the most popular designs in the class, writes Matt Vance.
Designing boats is like writing books. Some languish in the sale bins, while a select few bolt for the heady heights of the best-seller list. The performance, we’re told, is down to the quality of the marketing – but in reality, it comes down to a little magic.
The Noelex 22 is one of these designs and, like the Nordic Folkboat of Scandinavia, it was a case of the right design for the right time. The time for the Noelex 22 as it turns out, was the trailer-sailer boom of the 1970s and 80s.
It was all targeted at the baby boomer with limited time, money and the complexity of young families who wanted to get out sailing. The solution was an armada of light, trailable boats that could be stored in the suburban backyard and towed by a modest family wagon. It negated all the hassles of keeping a keeler in the water and shifting it around to different cruising grounds in the summer holidays.
Some of these trailer-sailer designs sailed about as well as a plastic bag and because the worst of them were designed around the accommodation they looked like they should have wheels.
The Noelex 22 – designed in 1969 – stood out from the pack like a yacht in a caravan park. With an elegant hull, modest overhang and a distinctive raked transom, the Noelex 22 had efficient lines designed around exceptional sailing abilities rather than accommodation.
The original design evolved from an 18-foot prototype built by Dr. Noel Honey. The boat attracted a lot of attention on her test sails, as unlike most of the other trailer-sailers, she looked more like a yacht than a dinghy.
Among those inspecting her was businessman Alex Tretheway. Forming a partnership, they developed the Noelex 22 – the name’s a mash-up of Noel and Alex. From a design that was intended to be a one-off, family day-sailer and restricted cruiser, blossomed a production boat that was both tough and fast around a race course.
The class soon established itself in Christchurch as it was particularly suited to Lyttelton’s windy summer sea breeze conditions and from there it spread around the country. The design first made an impact on the national trailer yachting scene in the 1974 National Trailer Yachting Championships when a Noelex 22 took the open title against a number of established stock designs.
By the 1975 championships, the Noelex 22 class mustered the largest fleet of any single design and sailed for its own national championship and handicap trophies, the former being donated by co-designer Alex Trethewey and won by his original Noelex 22.
Noelex Yachts began producing a production GRP version of the design from its Christchurch factory and these were added to with custom builds by Dave Elder, Sandy Powell and a collection of home-built boats.
Not long after the class was established an owners’ association was formed. It administered plans, registration and class rules. Initially, there was latitude for improvisation with the design but the class quickly got so big and competitive that measurement rules were tightened in keeping with the spirit of accessible, competitive racing. This has been the backbone of the class ever since.
The Noelex 22 quickly became the most popular trailer yacht in New Zealand, and today is still the country’s most prolific class of trailer yacht with over 450 Noelex 22s registered with Yachting New Zealand.
The Noelex 22 shows elegant restraint throughout her well thought-out details. The sail and rigging plans are simple and are said to be based on the graceful simplicity of the Flying Dutchman rig with a light, easily-raised mast and single side-stays.
The relatively small sail area allows the crew to handle the sheets without winches and its general simplicity permits the racing enthusiast to tune the boat without falling into the arms race of chequebook sailing. As might be expected from their development in southern waters and the flexible dinghy-type rig, these boats stand up well to being driven hard under full sail in fresh conditions.
Part of this ability lies in the ballasted centreplate and the low centre of gravity of the design. Combined with the modest rig this gives the Noelex 22 keeler-like windward ability in big seas. Like the famously seaworthy Folkboat, I have yet to see a Noelex 22 reefed for racing and in survival conditions either the main or jib can be dropped to get you home.
The secret in the good looks is the outboard well. Ahead of its time, the well is snugged under the raked transom and allows the 6hp outboard to be fully-retracted with a hatch to fair the hull. This not only provides a clean hull for sailing but also avoids the unsightly eggbeater having to be hung off the stern – an unfortunate feature of many other trailer-sailer classes of that era.
A large cockpit is designed for sailing with the accommodation a secondary consideration in a class that is known for its spirited racing. This reputation was such that the local fleet at Timaru was cheekily called ‘bumper boats.’ Racing was cut-throat stuff and on one notable occasion passions ran so high that an offended skipper boarded another’s boat to sort out an apparent rule infringement with his fists!
Not many trailer-sailing classes can compete with the Noelex 22 for numbers or longevity – a definite-best seller of the sailing world. Fifty years on, the national champs returned to the birthplace of Lyttelton Harbour with a fleet of seventeen.
Despite the age of the design, the boats are still some of the most elegant trailer-sailers you will see and the racing as competitive as you will get – a fitting tribute to the vision of Dr. Noel Honey and Alex Tretheway.