Origins of Achilles Yachts

By Chris Butler, Designer and builder of the Achilles range of yachts, and the manufacture of high quality G.R.P. mouldings since 1954. Winner in the single handed classes of the 1979 Azores and Back, and the 1984 TransAtlantic yacht races. September 2008

Achilles 24 "Hot foot"
A24 #320 "Hot Foot", a hot boat helmed by
Roeland Vroon driving hard in the Fal estuary
on a blustery day.
In recent years I have been beleaguered with questions regarding the origins of the Achilles 24. Who was her original designer? Where did the conception of the design originate? And why? Why is it sometimes assumed that Chris Butler was the designer? Or was it Oliver Lee? So, time to settle the question; the facts.

I was recovering from a knee operation in Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge after another moderately heavy fall in a motorcycle accident. Perhaps I should explain that for twenty or so years I had been obsessed with motorcycles and motorcycle sport, had designed and built them, and had progressed into International competition for a good number of years. I was not a brilliant rider but occasionally did have some decent rides; I was friends with World Champions but nowhere near their status.

An Ajax racing off St Mawes, 2021.
Photograph: John Lashbrook.
Georgina, my wife and life's companion, bought a magazine (Yachts and Yachting) for me to read in bed, and I found in it an article, with drawings, of Oliver Lee's Ajax - a 23 foot day-boat/racer. I knew Oliver as he was an I.Y.A. measurer and measured the 505 dinghies we produced (and later Finns etc); and I decided that when I came out of hospital I would ask him if it would be a possibility to develop the Ajax design into a "cruiser racer"; in which case we would build it and move from racing dinghies into yachts. The year was 1966 and I was still racing my motorcycles and continued to do so for another two years before concluding I was no longer "up to it" in 1968 at 36 years old. My reactions were slowing down and I was getting dangerous.

Our fibreglass moulding business had been based on making motorcycle accessories but had expanded into making complete motor cycles, usually with Villiers 250 engines - some of which still perform 45 years on - and I am pleased that those bikes still have a collectors value, still look good and are competitive to this day, (2008).

In those days I was reluctant to admit that I was not a yachtsman and could not sail - I did not admit it - but I had enough technical ability to understand how to produce a first class racing dinghy, indeed the Finn class World Championship was won in one of my boats in the early seventies, but once I realised I had to retire from motorcycle sport at the end of 1968 I knew I must enter the actual sport of yachting.

This took time and it was not until 1971 I felt I could claim to be a yachtsman, but I knew my products were good yachts.

Achilles 24 "Hot foot"

Back to the Achilles 24.

Oliver Lee liked the idea of developing the Ajax into a small cruiser-racer and together we evolved the Achilles 24 (Ajax, Achilles, Exeter, Graf Spee, River Plate - remember?) produced the moulds and the first prototype of the 24. The prototype was good enough to win its class at Burnham Week in, I think,1968.

And then Oliver had a serious illness, I think it was a heart attack, though I am not sure. He was already involved in the building of the Squib. As he recovered he devoted himself to the Squib and put the Achilles aside, and that was where it would have stayed but for our intervention.

Butlers (Chris and Georgina) had an expensive set of basic moulds with nowhere to go.

It was an era of rapid development in yachting and I concluded that I could not pursue the commercial development of the Achilles 24 design without improving the limited accommodation. I added 4 extra inches to the freeboard thus raising the headroom - I wish now that I had added more! Later the sail plan was increased for Switzerland, Denmark and the Mediterranean, but that is another story. A simple but better interior was evolved and was the basis for the accommodation for the next 15 years.

Achilles 9m "Lanthe of Angle"
A9m 041 Lanthe of Angle, Newlyn 2021.
Photo: John Lashbrook.
 Call it intuition, call it what you like, but the 24 developed from a prototype evolved from the Ajax by Oliver Lee that would have been a commercial disaster, into a successful cruiser- racer. Oliver did not like my intervention much, but with the exchange of a nominal sum of money agreed to bow out.

Chris and Georgina Butler's company developed the original design into the Achilles 24 that we all love, from the basic conception - in my hospital bed - to a yacht having a family of around 600 sisters. That family, as at the year 2008, has lasted for forty years and will surely last for still more decades. Not bad for the idea of a motorcyclist in his hospital bed back in 1966.

Achilles 9 metre "Sancerre"
A9m A021 "Sancerre" in 2019.
The windows are non standard bespoke.
Photo: John Lashbrook.

As a matter of pride I will point out here that I, Chris Butler, designed the Achilles 9 metre and subsequent Achilles without recourse to any other designer, and without regard to the drawings of anyone else. From a non-yachtsman born and brought up in London's East End I became sufficient a yachtsman to gain wins in two out of five major International Single Handed Ocean races, never retiring or otherwise failing to finish in these events. Never did I risk lives other than my own.

I will repeat that. Never did I risk lives other than my own. I think that important. I think it important that safety, as well as commercial value, has been of at least equal concern in any products I have made and sold to the public.

Big-headed maybe, but I have never had cause to doubt the integrity of any of my lifetimes products. I have put them all to the test at my own risk before offering them to the public.

I was not blessed with the background or the education to advance myself beyond that which is apparent to everyone; therefore it is a delight to me that anyone should enjoy anything I have produced over the past half century, and I believe still enjoy them.

I know for fact that my motorcycles and yachts are still enjoyed. That H.M. Navy still uses missiles to which we contributed. That major sewage companies still use our products. That public corporations still use leisure installations we produced twenty five years ago.

The submersible fire-resistant life rescue craft we moulded are still in use on oil platforms in the North Sea. Smaller commercial fishing boats we moulded are still earning their keep.

It seems a wonder now that my dear late wife and I ever found time to breathe.

Rightly or wrongly I am still proud of my products. I am proud that the Achilles 24 is still enjoyed in 2008 as it was in 1968. And does it matter, does it really matter whose idea the Achilles 24 originally was? I designed the Achilles 9 metre and the 840 from a clean sheet of paper, sailed those prototypes across the ocean. No one else did.

And I had a win for Britain in the 1984 OSTAR. No one else did that either.

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