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Queen Mary Sailing Club: 7th January

It’s difficult to interpret whether the Snipe has a fair handicap when only one boat sailed. However, it is clear from what we saw on the water in the first windward leg, when the wind dropped right off to near zero that the lightest boats, such as the Firefly’s and Enterprises were able to keep their way and just as importantly to tack on the very light wind shifts, whereas we had great difficulty in preserving our way on one tack. It is notable that the theses two classes all rapidly got right to the front of the fleet and held their positions at the finish, so it is probable in light airs that their handicap is more favourable than a Snipe’s.

The slowest boats on handicap, the Toppers, had started with a light wind and were already significantly up the first leg at the time we were in the water. We ran towards the line painfully slowly under the same light breeze. Surprisingly we were on the starting line five-ten minutes early and made several turns on the windward side of the starboard Committee boat, before venturing along the line on starboard, soon after to encounter head two Enterprises on port (same starting number of 20 as us), the first of whom barged us out of the way, thinking they had an exclusive start. The four Enterprises started at the starboard end of the line, whist we started mid-line. We stayed on starboard tack to keep the apparent wind in the sails, but the light breeze dropped to near zero and the sails lost their shape. The jib luff tell tails were stuck to the sail due to the earlier rain and snow when we were rigging, where they remained throughout the majority of the race. The mast head burgee was barely responding and the shroud tell tails, used to detect changes in direction, rather than direction, were barely lifted from vertical (they never reached horizontal on the windward legs). To windward the Toppers had rounded the windward mark and were well on their way towards Mark 2 and it seemed that they must win (few finished). Ominously the other slower handicap boats ahead of us had not made progress and had not rounded the mark. Several boats ahead of us had lost the wind direction completely and were going astern. We pulled level with some of the Fireflys who had started 5 minutes ahead of us. When light puffs of wind appeared, these were able to accelerate and tack under control and work their way to the first mark. The Enterprises had stayed on the starboard side and had kept the light breeze from the starting line and had pulled a long way ahead of us to get around the first mark well ahead, whilst we and the majority of the fleet were pinned by the lack of wind. We could see the Toppers and Enterprises well ahead on the next leg.

The conditions were freezing cold, despite our full dry suits and nominally warm clothing, especially for the crew, who had to sit motionless to keep the boat heeled to leeward.

We only came under limited control towards the end of the first leg when some wind appeared and this was useful for ghosting around Mark 1. We were prospectively inner boat at the mark, with a single hander (Laser?) looking to miss it. However the single hander jammed himself on to the mark and a fast handicap boat tacked under our stern, doubtfully calling water on us, jamming himself against the single hander and skewing himself tightly around the mark, whilst to our leeward faster boats were coming up and closing what had been a nice open gap. This light puff brought with it more faster handicap boats astern of us, which had only recently started. Upon rounding the mark onto a nominal reaching leg these attempted to set their jennikers and spinnakers unsuccessfully and blanketed us. Having slowly cleared and freed our wind, it again almost dropped to zero, whereupon more boats rounded the mark and closed the lead that we had gained. When the wind dropped to zero on both the windward and reaching legs neither our jib nor our main had any aero-dynamic shape, both often being inverted and, in particular, the main being completely limp and creased at the battons, despite ramming the mast maximum forward and adjusting the shape.

Just past the first mark and into the second leg, the race winner, the huge three man Thames A Rater, with the appearance of a Dragon, having a very tall, high aspect ratio, moulded sail, presumably catching a high altitude wind, sailed closely in between near stationary dinghies around the mark and was able to tack and manoeuvre under full control at constant speed, as though powered by a motor. This boat had started 25 minutes after us. Shortly afterwards the 49ers passed us, these had a starting number of 63 and had started 43 minutes after us, but had come up fast on the appearance of the light air (as predicted by the Club Commentator just before the start). Upon overtaking a Merlin(?) we were luffed hard and continuously, this stopping our apparent wind and killing us dead.

When a very light wind again appeared on the second nominal reaching leg, the direction headed us onto close hauled. We came under control again towards the end of the now close reach, as more fast boats overtook us on the same slight breeze. These boats, Merlins , Nationals, and RS asymmetric rounded Mark 3 just ahead of us and stayed on port tack and potentially blanketed us, being ahead and slightly to windward. This is where the Snipe’s ability to point came into its own. We were able to bear away and overtake the group to leeward to free our wind and then point up, still under very low wind conditions. We considered tacking onto starboard and crossing the 75-85% of the fleet astern of us, to head towards the central spit in the reservoir. If we had lost our apparent wind, we would have become enmeshed in the faster handicap fleet as it overtook us and thence pushed to the back of the fleet. Astern of us one boat, perhaps a Fireball, capsized and turned turtle, one can only assume that the crew had attempted a roll tack in zero wind whilst frozen stiff.

The advantage of the classes with fully battened sails was clear in the near zero wind conditions, as the mainsails kept their aerodynamic shape and the helm was able to use body kinetics to gently and continuously pump the light hull forward.

On a leg or two ahead of us we saw one of the 49ers hoist its union jack jenniker, showing that it was an ex-Olympic boat.

Having rounded the third mark the wind had strengthened slightly to force 2-3 and so the faster boats from the rear began to come through again. At the end of this fourth leg we heard the finishing gun go at 2-30pm (150 minutes from the first start and after 130 minutes for us). The finishing boats were 2.5 legs ahead of us and had approximately completed one lap in, for them, 100 minutes. At fourth mark, the fast handicap boats astern were able to hoist their jennikers and roar past us as though we were stationary. At the fifth mark, a gybe mark, we came onto a close port jib reach, which became close hauled onto a fetch and then freed again, however the fast handicap boats were able to keep their jennikers set and continued to overtake us.

We were sufficiently towards the front part of the fleet that we continued to complete the full course to the final gate finish, whilst unknown to us, the later 60% of the fleet astern had the benefit of a second gate being set up. At the time we thought that the latter half of the fleet had given up so they could get to the slipways first, which they did! We continued and rounded the spit in the centre of the reservoir , then round Mark 6, then halfway up the original first leg and passed through the original finishing gate, with just a few boats astern, just before the gate was closed. Had the second gate been set up earlier we would have retained a higher position as fewer fast handicap boats would have driven through under jenniker.

Overall our result was reasonably creditable. If only we had had one or two more knots of wind sufficient to have made headway on the first beat. At least the RYA will not reduce the Snipe’s handicap on our performance.

We came 79th,

215 boats entered.

173 boats finished, 42 did not.

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