Roll Tacks - 15 December 2011

Throwing myself back into team racing after 20 years was always going to be an ego-crushing reawakening. Of that much, I could be certain. The occasion was an intergenerational competition between Oxford and Cambridge sailors past and present. I was reunited with a few of my team mates for the 1980s Cambridge team, and there were some teams going as far back as the 1960s.  

Impeccably organised by Jeremy Atkins and staged every October at Farmoor Reservoir near Oxford, the regatta took place on one of the hottest days of the year at the height of Britain’s recent Indian summer. The main downside, from my point of view, was that we would be racing in Fireflies. Even 25 years ago in my university days, the Firefly felt small, cramped and slow. As the size of the average human being in the western world has grown over the past 50 years, so family cars have grown with them. Take, for example, the size difference between an original 1959 Mini and BMW’s modern, considerably roomier revamp of the Mini, built as it happens, not far from Farmoor Reservoir.  

Somehow I was hoping the Firefly might have grown over the past 20 years, so imagine my disappointment when I discovered that it was exactly the same dimensions as before. Actually, to be fair, the plastic version of the Firefly does yield a bit more internal space compared with the old wooden ones, so it wasn’t all bad.  

Meeting up with my team, put together by Vincent Geake (Lawrie Smith’s navigator in a couple of Whitbread Round the World Races), it became pretty clear that my 1980s colleagues were as clueless about the racing rules and the key moves in team racing as I was. We used to live and breathe this stuff, and the rule book was our bible, but since giving up team racing and taking up skiff racing for the past 20 years, all but the basics of the rules have long since been forgotten.  

Fortunately the regatta takes account of rules amnesia and the ageing process by giving you a point’s advantage for every decade since you graduated (at least that’s how I think it worked). So if we were racing a Noughties team, we would get a two-point advantage. Three-boat team racing operates on the basis of winning combinations, so for example, 2,3,5 trumps 1,4,6. However, with our points advantage this meant we could still win with an inferior finishing combination - unless of course we were racing our elders from the 1960s and 1970s.  

Without the handicapping system, we wouldn’t have stood a chance against the current teams from Oxford and Cambridge, who doubtless take team racing just as seriously as we did back in the day. As it was, we did OK, but the young teams still whopped us - and most of the older teams - mostly winning their races with an unstoppable 1,2,3.  

Every time I come back to team racing - whether to spectate or participate - I’m reminded what a great part of the sport this is. It would be a great Olympic discipline - fast-paced, unpredictable, ever-changing. And cheap, too. Although it would need close and expert umpiring which, as in match racing, adds considerable expense in terms of flying and accommodating umpires for international regattas.  

For Farmoor, there were no umpires, just self-policing. There was one race where we (me and my crew Mike Dunbar) came off the start line with one of the current generation from Oxford behind and to leeward. They tacked out to leeward and gave our transom a good whack on the way through. “Didn’t happen! Didn’t happen!” said the helm, holding his hand up as if to distract us from believing that the collision that had ever occurred. It was the worst attempt at a Derren Brown/ Obi Wan Kenobi mind trick I think I’ve ever seen. “This is not the boat you’re looking for,” he seemed to be saying. Instead, it made us more insistent on him taking his penalty turn.  

Eventually and with some reluctance, Obi Wan did take his turn, although this time the Force was indeed with him, as he emerged from the turn incredibly quickly and still had a piece of us as we tried to cross him on port. With another of his team mates crossing our stern, we did a slam dunk tack, only to find the leech of our mainsail scraped across his jib forestay. Oh dear, school boy error, or old boy error, anyway. The Force was not with us for our penalty and suddenly a certain victory off the start line had been converted to another 1,2,3 drubbing. Getting whipped so comprehensively certainly makes you want to go back for more. Not more whipping, you understand, but rather a belief (misplaced, maybe) that a bit of practice might bring back some of the old competitive instincts.  

Fact is, team racing is all about practice, practice, practice, which requires time, something that you have in spades when you’re younger but which seems in ever shorter supply as you get older. What you don’t need is tons of money, though, and that’s another reason why it deserves consideration as an Olympic sport. Just not in Fireflies, please!  

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