Last time the Blazes visited Bala I made reference to our rocky relationship with the place.   Beautiful, certainly.   Violent, occasionally.   Fickle in the extreme.   We have certainly suffered before at the will of her peaty waters.   This time though, her vigorous pimp, Tim Heaton, had solemnly promised that he had her under control.

It certainly looked like it when I arrived on Saturday morning.   A gentle six knots blew straight down the lake (south-westerly, perfect direction), nerry a squall to be seen, and none of that peculiar foam that (on stormy days) gathers on the lee shore, as if the lake is frothing at the mouth in anticipation of your sacrifice.  

The fleet had taken Mr Heaton at his word.   37 turned out from the four corners of the nation (and beyond, where is Johannesberg?).   The forecast looked ideal, a gentle start, rising to a moderate force 3 by the end of the day and cranking up further on Sunday.

As for favourites, current National Champion Rob Jones, has always shown the fleet the way in windy weather, while Mike Lyons, reigning Inland Champion, has been equally unassailable in the light stuff.   Would normality prevail?

A short first line made for an aggressive start.   Gone are the days of gentlemanly back-scratching on the start-line.   This is war, damnit!   And where there's war, there will, apparently, be shouting.   You know who you are, you guilty few.

The fleet got off in good order.   Lyons had found a gap on the pin end and led off the line, closely followed by Martin Saveker.   The two rapidly pulled out a small lead and rounded together, never to be caught.   Behind them the fleet had split in twain, with groups breaking for either bank.   We've all heard the rule of Bala, “pick a shore.”   With such an even wind, though, coming straight down the long, narrow lake, diving for a bank seemed to offer little.   There was no dramatic lift to be had, on either shore, as far as I could tell.   Thus a tight chasing pack formed at the windward mark, with proximity belying their various routes.   Leading the way was Mike Bell in the boat that had won this event, at this venue, almost two years ago to the day.   Haunted by the ghost of champions past?   Perhaps.   Chasing Bell was a close group of Jon Saunders, Bob Williamson, David Entwistle and Mark Astbury.   Saunders escaped, while the rest of the pack, held up by text-book rafting at the wing marks, were steadily reeled in by Simon (half pint) Beddows, gliding through the fleet after a bad start.

The breeze freshened just in time for the chasers to make their final leg to the finish.   An almost perfectly square, short, beat.   And very divisive it was too.   Young Ben Pickering (which I'm now allowed to call him, as I am no longer a 'youth') squeezed in front of Tim Heaton to cross the finish on port, only to squarely hit him across the line.   These youngsters!

Forming up for the second line, yet more calls of “Up! Up!” came from behind, and, seeing that the source was a true authority on the Blaze, the fleet obeyed en masse!   Over we went with ten seconds to go.   Up went the black flag, and that, tut tut, was the end of that.

Pickering led off the middle of the line in the building breeze, tacking to lead up the middle of the beat.   It was the right decision, whether they went left or right, all who picked a shore lost out.   Lyons chased around the windward mark and took him on the second reach.   The pair stayed close and were never caught.   Behind them Saveker led Saunders round, but neither were able to stop Beddows once again making his way through to third.

All through the day the clouds raced over the surrounding hills, low grey and stormy, occasionally shrouding the highest peaks, occasionally letting through a short burst of sunlight.   None of it seemed to really touch ground though, the breeze rose and fell evenly between six knots and twelve.   If there is an old god watching over Lake Bala, it was clearly occupied with other things.

A fresh swell of breeze accompanied the final start of the day.   The wind had come round a little to the west, favouring a starboard end start.   Lined up in a freshening breeze, packed close with nowhere to go, the fleet once again jumped the gun.   Back we went.   Out came the flag.

It’s amazing the effect a Black flag has on a fleet.   It was as if a tremendous slap had been administered to our collective bottoms. All kept quiet on the new line, nobody pushed anybody anywhere and the line sag was visible.   With only one discard available the start had become a necessary evil, rather than an opportunity to get ahead.   Off the line a group of three leaders quickly formed.   Pickering, Lyons and Rob Jones.   They fought up to the second run, where Lyons (admitting later that he didn’t know where the mark was), found himself in between a Pickering sailing high and a Jones sailing low.   Once again, the middle ground won out and Lyons slipped between them.

With it now quite clear that the middle of the lake was the only path to take upwind and with a dying breeze, the fleet settled in to a processional finish.   I enquired from Mr Lyons (over complimentary cake from the galley, lovely touch) about the days sailing.   His tip of the day?   Stay away from the shore!

The tip he did not give away was one of sailing technique and his is very very distinct.   As the breeze builds over 5 knots or so, we abandon letting the boat heel to leeward and endeavour to keep it perfectly flat (even heeling a little windward, in some cases).   Mike Lyons does not.   At seven knots he still lets his leeward wing skim just over the water, a good twenty degrees of heel.   And upwind, in the light stuff, he is far from slow.

At the end of the Saturday Lyons held a commanding lead.   Three bullets and with very inconsistent chasers.   All he needed was one good race on Sunday and the championship was surely his.   Easy, right?

Not so.   Sunday’s forecast, while hardly formidable, was not friendly for light wind sailors.   Ten to sixteen knots.   It materialised too, and through the day would rarely drop below ten, and often reach well over sixteen.

In the fresh breeze, Rob Jones came back with a vengeance and quickly secured a lead upwind.   He sailed fast, flat and free and made it all look contemptuously easy.   Behind him Lyons was still in contention, but was gradually overhauled by Saunders and Myles Mences.   The two stayed close through screaming reaches and exchanged places twice on the runs.   Pickering came through the chasers and took Mences to finish third.   Lyons held on to fifth.

For race five the beat was shortened and the emphasis shifted to downwind shenanigans. The wind continued its pattern of broad, deep fronts, straight down the lake.   With little to be gained or lost in upwind tactics, the race upwind became a matter of technique and fitness.   Jones had both in spades and pulled out a lead from the pin end, not to be caught.   Saveker and Saunders pursued fruitlessly, each diving all the way to opposite banks up the following beat, desperate for any advantage.   None came.   Saunders mucked up his gybing on the final run and gave Mences (who had been steadily gaining) hope for a last minute overhaul, but it wasn’t enough.   Lyons pulled a muscle in a dodgy gybe but hung on to finish fifth, then retired.

Jones led again off the final line, Saveker and Saunders kept in touch and looked able to make a fight of it, until a botched tack by Saunders left Saveker trying desperately to dive his stalled boat.   He almost made it but took a wing-end to the chest and went in to windward. They were both out of contention.   Behind Jones, Mences and Pickering did battle for second.   Youth versus experience, Alloy versus Carbon, border-line Giant versus…modest proportions.   Modesty won out.

With racing over an atmosphere of bemusement fell over the fleet.   Who had won?   Nobody knew, partly due to confusion over the number of discards, partly because we were all too tired to remember.

In a magnanimous speech, Mike Lyons paid tribute to Rob’s performance in the windy weather.   As it turned out, hanging on for fifth had been just enough.   With one discard, Jones had dropped an 11th from Saturday, but still carried a 9th from race two.   If Lyons had fallen to 8th in his final race it would’ve gone the other way, but he didn’t and it didn’t.   Lyons won on 13 points, with Jones on 15.   Ben Pickering finished one point behind him.

So normality did prevail, sort of.   Though it should be added that while the usual faces did win every race, this belies a shift that’s taking place in the wider fleet.   The standard, certainly in the last three years, has steadily risen.   Gone are the days of the port-end flyer, start lines are highly competitive (three recalls!), racing has become a cleaner, closer affair, with far less of the foppish cockups that, while entertaining, sometimes blighted even the top of the fleet.

Finally, with the introduction of the carbon mast, the varied conditions did give opportunity for some observation.   The received wisdom is that in lighter airs the difference is marginal, but when “God’s icy wind doth blow,” carbon is the only way to play.   Jones’s performance appears to bear this out, he had a carbon rig and did very well in the wind, but then he did very well before the conversion.   Mike Lyons had a carbon rig and did very well in lighter airs, but that was his previous signature, too.

What the shift to Carbon has achieved, certainly, is a greater range of weights in contention in stronger airs.   Myles Mences, for example, a definite lightweight, achieved a fourth and a second in Sundays conditions, fighting on far more equal terms with Pickering and Saunders, (who both have alloy masts, and are tall enough to occasionally eclipse the sun) than he has in previous meetings.

A difference?   Certainly, and while I’m perhaps a little loath to admit it, probably a very good one.

Sailed: 6, Discards: 1, To count: 5, Entries: 37, Scoring system: Appendix A
1st Mike Lyons Burghfield SC 806 1.0 1.0 1.0 5.0 5.0 (38.0 DNC) 51.0 13.0
2nd Rob Jones Warsash SC 678 (11.0) 9.0 3.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 26.0 15.0
3rd Ben Pickering Chase SC 769 (14.0 SCP) 2.0 2.0 3.0 6.0 3.0 30.0 16.0
4th Jonathen Saunders Felpham SC 789 3.0 5.0 (6.0) 2.0 3.0 6.0 25.0 19.0
5th Myles Mence Royal Solent Yacht Club 7571 (10.0) 8.0 4.0 4.0 4.0 2.0 32.0 22.0
6th Martin Saveker Chase SC 807 2.0 4.0 8.0 10.0 2.0 (16.0) 42.0 26.0
7th Simon Beddows Burghfield SC 800 4.0 3.0 5.0 (14.0) 12.0 8.0 46.0 32.0
8th Bob Williamson Aberdeen & Stonehaven YC 787 6.0 11.0 11.0 (12.0) 7.0 4.0 51.0 39.0
9th Pete Barlow Burghfield SC 758 (29.0) 18.0 16.0 6.0 9.0 5.0 83.0 54.0
10th John Deacon Aberdeen & Stonehaven YC 775 9.0 14.0 10.0 11.0 13.0 (38.0 DNF) 95.0 57.0
11th Mark Astbury Warsash SC 754 5.0 10.0 (17.0) 16.0 17.0 13.0 78.0 61.0
12th Mike Bell Burghfield SC 757 16.0 (19.0) 14.0 15.0 11.0 9.0 84.0 65.0
13th Ian Clark Warsash SC 695 13.0 6.0 9.0 9.0 (38.0 DNF) 38.0 DNC 113.0 75.0
14th Dan Partington Bala SC 749 14.0 12.0 13.0 8.0 (38.0 DNC) 38.0 DNC 123.0 85.0
15th Nick Ripley Paignton SC 545 (28.0) 28.0 25.0 13.0 10.0 11.0 115.0 87.0
16th David John Entwistle Burghfield SC 781 15.0 16.0 15.0 22.0 21.0 (38.0 DNF) 127.0 89.0
17th Dave Wall Bala SC 771 25.0 23.0 20.0 7.0 15.0 (38.0 DNC) 128.0 90.0
18th Pip Warner Hornsea SC 637 23.0 24.0 (26.0) 17.0 14.0 14.0 118.0 92.0
19th Julian Owen Pembrokeshire Yacht Club 704 24.0 21.0 (27.0) 18.0 18.0 12.0 120.0 93.0
20th Martin Hattersley Llandudno SC 682 (31.0) 31.0 24.0 24.0 8.0 7.0 125.0 94.0
21st Nick Thorne Warsash SC 720 20.0 17.0 18.0 23.0 20.0 (38.0 DNF) 136.0 98.0
22nd Bob Cowan Warsash SC 772 17.0 7.0 21.0 26.0 (38.0 DNF) 38.0 DNC 147.0 109.0
23rd Rob Dunkley Hollowell SC 634 27.0 30.0 (32.0) 20.0 19.0 15.0 143.0 111.0
24th Andrew Grant   642 34.0 (36.0) 31.0 21.0 16.0 10.0 148.0 112.0
25th Tim Heaton Bala SC 804 8.0 13.0 (38.0 DNC) 19.0 38.0 DNC 38.0 DNC 154.0 116.0
26th Laurence Fernley KGSC 698 22.0 15.0 7.0 (38.0 DNF) 38.0 DNC 38.0 DNC 158.0 120.0
27th Paul Hemsley Felpham SC 761 12.0 20.0 12.0 (38.0 DNF) 38.0 DNC 38.0 DNC 158.0 120.0
28th Andy Whitcher Pembrokeshire Yacht Club 619 18.0 22.0 23.0 25.0 (38.0 DNF) 38.0 DNF 164.0 126.0
29th Steve Wingrove Porthpean SC 654 35.0 (37.0) 36.0 29.0 23.0 17.0 177.0 140.0
30th Paul Taylor   751 19.0 25.0 22.0 (38.0 DNF) 38.0 DNC 38.0 DNC 180.0 142.0
31st Richard Botting Draycote Water SC 774 26.0 32.0 19.0 27.0 (38.0 DNF) 38.0 DNC 180.0 142.0
32nd Robert Yates Burghfield SC 796 32.0 27.0 35.0 28.0 24.0 (38.0 DNC) 184.0 146.0
33rd Andy Jones Bala SC 662 21.0 26.0 30.0 (38.0 DNC) 38.0 DNC 38.0 DNC 191.0 153.0
34th Mike Holmes   663 33.0 35.0 33.0 30.0 22.0 (38.0 DNC) 191.0 153.0
35th John Abbott Oxford SC 766 30.0 29.0 29.0 (38.0 DNF) 38.0 DNC 38.0 DNC 202.0 164.0
36th Dave Cole Bala SC 530 36.0 33.0 28.0 (38.0 DNF) 38.0 DNC 38.0 DNC 211.0 173.0
37th Laurence Marshall Oxford SC 795 37.0 34.0 34.0 (38.0 DNC) 38.0 DNC 38.0 DNC 219.0 181.0