Tony St. Denis stands with Sprite, a Penguin class dinghy he’s restoring for a client. The Penguin class burst onto the scene in the 1930s and this one was homebuilt by the client’s father in the 1950s. ISLANDER PHOTO BY ETHAN GENTER  

Penguin restoration shines light on the little boats 

BAR HARBORIn the next few weeks, you may catch Tony St. Denis testing out Sprite, a Penguin class dinghy he’s been restoring that was homebuilt for his client by her father when she was a child in the 1950s.  

The simplicity of the cat-rigged sailing dinghies earned a soft spot in the hearts of many sailors, though they aren’t the most common sight on the water anymore.    

“I have talked to some people that are sailors that remember sailing them when they were young,” said St. Denis, who has been working with boats for years and now runs his own business, Acadia Marine Services.  

The boats were designed in the late 1930s by Philip Rhodes, a famed designer of several deep-water racing yachts. According to the Penguin 1941 yearbook, it started with a small group of Potomac and Chesapeake Bay sailors who had grown tired of caring for and racing larger boats. They sent off for plans for an able sailing dinghy that was around 12feet long and relatively simple to build.  

“Keeping in mind simplicity and economy of construction, the Potomac river sailors requested and received from Designer Rhodes his redrafting of the dinghy to 11½ feet without the gunther ring,” according to the yearbook. “A chine bottom with only a slight arc answered the problems of building Penguins of Plywood.”   

By the end of the 1939 season, 12 Penguin boats cropped up on the Potomac, but its popularity was soon about to grow. The boat caught the eye of Herbert Stone, the editor of Yachting Magazine, and he saw the Penguin as the answer to the growing demand for an able little racing dinghy.   

The plans for the Penguin were later published in 1940. It wasn’t long before the magazine’s offices were flooded with requests for plans and a national racing class was soon organized.  

“The Penguin had hatched from its shell and was beginning to feel its wings for the first time,” the yearbook read. “Today those wings in increasing numbers are appearing wherever there exists the desire to get afloat in a smart sailer at a minimum cost.”    

Though they can be made of fiberglass, Sprite is made of wood and St. Denis has been sprucing it up since the fall.   

The mast has had some work, he’s built a new centerboard handle, gave it a new coat of paint and is busy making sure it’s ready for the water.  

The owner takes it out on a freshwater lake between the island and Bangor, but St. Denis may test it out on a quiet spot here on Mount Desert Island.   

“It’s in great shape,” he said. “She’s a pretty little boat.”  


Ethan Genter

Ethan Genter

Former reporter for the Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander, Ethan covered maritime news and the town of Bar Harbor.

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