Roll Tacks December 2010

I don’t know about you, but when the thermometer is hovering somewhere around zero, I find it pretty hard to get motivated about getting out of bed, let alone the idea of going sailing.

But the thought of it really is the worst bit. Driving back home in the car, as the warmth starts to creep back into your fingers and toes, you look forward to eating and drinking slightly too much, but you know you’ve earned it. There’s no better feeling.

There’s rarely a time I’ve regretted going sailing, so why can’t we remind ourselves of what it feels like to have gone sailing when we’re struggling to crawl out from underneath the duvet? Such are the perennial mental battles that we have with ourselves. Or, at least, that I have with myself.

It’s part of the reason why I decided to organise the SailJuice Global Warm-Up for the first time last winter. When an event is a one-off and a long drive up the country, it’s easy to find reasons and excuses not to go, especially with the kind of winter we had last year. And looking at the kind of winter we’re going through this year, I know that I’m going to need all the motivation I can find to go sailing in January and February.

Seeing as I am still in the early stages of trying to master the Musto Skiff, there has to be another reason to travel to these big winter handicap events other than some faint notion of being able to win them. Winning is not a realistic option. Not capsizing would be achievement enough. For me, the best thing about these multiclass events is the rare chance to catch up with old friends and rivals from classes that I have long since departed.

This year, there are four events in the series, starting with the Grafham Grand Prix, then the Bloody Mary, the Steve Nicholson Trophy and concluding with the John Merricks Tiger Trophy. A lot of good sponsors have come on board, and one that I’m particularly pleased to have signed up is Laser Performance, for donating two brand-new Laser sails  to the series. One goes to the highest place Laser in the series, and the other to a Laser competitor picked at random.

Let’s face it, as I’ve mentioned before, there’s not much hope of a Laser winning any of these events on their standard RYA handicap, but hopefully these prizes will serve as an extra incentive for the downtrodden Laser sailor to come along and participate.

Having said that, I think that the tide is beginning to turn, and that sailing clubs are finally waking up to the potential of the RYA’s electronic replacement for the paper-based handicap returns system. Handicapping has, and continues to be, a very political hot potato, and one that’s too hot for most clubs to want to touch. But for the second year running, Queen Mary Sailing Club will be implementing its own numbers based on the results of previous editions of the Bloody Mary. This is an event where the Laser actually stands a chance of doing quite well, because the historic data means that the number has shifted accordingly.

Behind the scenes, a number of  well-known sailing clubs have been working together in conjunction with Bas Edmonds at the RYA to analyse the numbers. There is almost universal agreement that the Laser standard rig should be about 40 points higher, from 1078 to about 1118.

After the student protests we’ve seen in recent weeks outside Westminster, maybe some Laser sailing students will go on the march until they get a fairer handicap. Just so long as they don’t drop any rudders from the clubhouse balcony or turn over the commodore’s car. It does continue to amaze me firstly how seriously people take handicap racing, and secondly, bearing in mind how seriously they take it, how people are prepared to suffer in silence when the numbers in some cases are so patently unfair.

What is also interesting about the big winter handicap events is they provide an early opportunity to see how new designs fare against established classes. So for example last year we had the Devoti D-1 and RS100 singlehanders racing for the first time, and creating some real, usable data to be fed back into the PY system.

At the other end of the scale, it also creates a place for very old boats to come racing, such as the Thames Estuary One-Design called ‘Ripple’. Now, Ripple really is a one-design in every sense of the term, because this 100-year-old boat is the sole survivor from a fleet which was one of the country’s early one-design fleets. She has now been completely restored by Swiftboats, and will take pride of place on the Hyde Sails stand at the forthcoming London Boat Show.

Ripple is a reminder of just what a powerhouse of dinghy racing the East coast used to be, and Southend in particular. In 1911 the club decided to commission a one-design boat that would be able to sit on the mud flats when the tide went out. Morgan Giles and May of Hammersmith submitted plans for an 18-footer with a lifting keel and optional rig of up to 220sq ft  and this design was the one adopted, although with the sail area reduced to 210sq ft. At a meeting held on 11 December, 1911, a number of members agreed to purchase new boats and the legendary Thames Estuary One Design was born. Drake Brothers of Tollesbury won the tender and 10 boats were built at a total cost of £370.38 for the whole fleet, and that included the price of the sails! Their first race took place on Saturday 25 May, 1912.

Negotiations between the Interclub Committee and the Yacht Racing Association resulted in King George V racing ‘Britannia’ at Southend in the first Southend Yachting Week, held in 1921. The royal entry resulted in a large number of entries, and the King won the race. People knew their place in those days!

The return of the King in 1923 was just as memorable but for all the wrong reasons. ‘Britannia’ ran aground just inside the West Shoebury Buoy and  right in front of the ‘London Belle’, a yacht which was carrying a large number of spectators. Many of them were local yachtsmen who were not racing that day and were willing the King to tack, and perhaps a few republicans who just smiled to themselves instead. Some feared the King’s embarrassment might mark the end of Southend Yachting Week, but it thrived for many more years to come.

Wing Wars Downunder

Now, every Moth sailor loves wings on his foils, but it turns out that not every Moth sailor loves the idea of a wing replacing a sail. With the International Moth Worlds about to kick off at Lake Macquarie in sunny Australia, the mood is distinctly dark.

After Weymouth’s Adam May was first to put a wing rig on his Moth back in the summer, an arms race has broken out. About six wing rigs are expected to show up for the Worlds - IF they’re deemed to be legal. A big debate has started about what constitutes a mast, and what constitutes a sail. Adam May’s wing is a two-element rig, meaning it’s got a front flap and a back flap. It’s a small version of what BMW Oracle used to win the America’s Cup last February.

Meanwhile the Americans have developed three-element wing rigs. But those speaking against the wing rigs say that in effect the two-element rigs are two sails, and the three-element rigs are three sails. The wing defenders argue that the front element is a mast. And the Americans say they’d built their rigs before the Moth committee had made a ruling in what was legal and what was not.

There are only difficult questions and no easy answers. When does a mast cease to be a mast and start to be a sail? And if the ‘wing’ers are allowed more than one sail (not permitted under the rules), then why can’t the ‘softsail’ers put a jib in front of the mast? They argue it’s pretty much the same thing.

It’s a mess that was hard for anyone to foresee, and this is going to be a controversial world championship. Of course we all want to want to know just how much faster - if at all - the wings are going to be, and are they up to the job? The photo of Adam May (not attending the Worlds by the way) is an impressive illustration of just how strong these carbon wing structures can be, but would they really cope with a bad landing in a Force 6 on a lee shore? And does anyone really want to allow the idea of wings to be moved around the world by container in one piece (as the Americans have done with their three-piece rigs), and lose the wonderful convenience of being able to fly your Moth around the world as air freight?

There are some real practical and theoretical conundrums here, and I’m glad there are people mad enough and keen enough to test these ideas out while the rest of us can just look on in wonder and amazement.

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