Reflections on the Flyer and winter sailing by Jon Saunders

Time is a peculiar idea. Last weekend I trailed the boat over to Datchet Water, west London, a mere twenty five miles for me. I was a little apprehensive, the last time I attended a winter sailing event (the Brass Monkey, 2012), my hands became so cold that I suffered from “minor nerve death” (doctor’s words, not mine). It took two weeks for the feeling to return and the tortured nerves to live again. I swore (a lot, that day) that I would never again be stupid enough to go sailing within a month of the solstice. Now, last weekend feels like an age ago. The boat sits on its trailer in the garden, soaking up rain, the undercover sagging more and more day by day, bulging over its straps like the waistline of a depressed blue Santa Claus. As for last year’s nervy ending, that feels like it happened to somebody else entirely, a story told round the dinner table. Time is a peculiar idea.

So, having learnt nothing from previous mistakes I made the merry jaunt through London town, cursing the closure of the A4 and marvelling that so many people had so many places to go on a Saturday morning.

Datchet is one of those “concrete bowl” clubs, perched on the lip of a giant crater. Raised, exposed, barren. The club, I should say, is lovely. Bacon, Bar, warm showers, big changing rooms, high security military-style-road-block entrance (It’s London, people) and quite welcoming. They were hosting a new event in the GJW Sailjuice Series (a kind of Winter Grand Prix for all classes and all comers) called the Datchet Flyer.

I did have an ulterior motive for attending the event, Santa, in the form of Mike Lyons, was bringing a very particular present. On handover he advised me not to rig it immediately, as it takes time to get used to these things and the forecast looked rather intimidating. But I, like a kid on Christmas morning, would not be told and set about my new carbon mast with gleeful abandon. Then the halyard got stuck. My only halyard, freshly pulled from my alloy mast and now jammed halfway down the carbon. With the clock ticking Santa and his helpers (Simon and Myles) stepped in, draped the glorified fishing rod over the ledge and shook it like a British Nanny.

We managed it, I’m pleased to say, and the mast was raised just in time for me to get on the water. I’d diligently taken advice on rake, tension, what note to tune to (middle C was it?) but in my haste had completely forgotten to do any of it. I thus sailed with mystery settings. As Rob Jones put it, was we wheeled toward the water “It's up. Looks fine to me.”

The course was to be a standard port-rounding P shape. Two fleets, the fast and the allegedly slow, with the Blazes slotted in to the latter. Starboard-biased line, big mixed fleets, gusty building breeze. Hmm.

The fast fleet were recalled. The slows were up. Now I’d like to say here that the Blaze has many virtues; speed, ease, comfort, armour, did I say speed? As with any boat though she has her flaws and a big one is that she doesn’t like to sit still for very long. Lasers, on the other hand, do. And so it was that as I settled on the line like a nesting bird I was quickly surrounded, hemmed in and buried by a mob of over-zealous teenagers. There was even a Topper. Ugh.

Suitably embarrassed, I tacked early and looked upwind to see Myles lead Rob up the left side of the beat (which I had told myself would definitely pay and firmly decided was my chosen course) as I went right in to a heading breeze, never to be seen again.

Of a grand total of 96 boats, I finished 88th. Myles, sailing a clean and consistent race finished 4th and Rob 65th.

Race two (fast fleet recalled again) saw the breeze building in waves, with each gust leaving behind a little more than was there before. I managed to get buried again, this time by a handy RS300 who tacked, apparently on a pinhead, right on top of me and then shoved me out above him. I never learn. Myles didn’t need to and, starting at the ill-favoured port end (to which I eventually descended) led me up the beat. A lap passed in building breeze, with relatively little drama. The leeward mark was a little tense, as we approached on a run, skiffs of all shapes and sizes descended, kytes bulging, pointed bowsprits glinting like the Rams of Grecian Triremes, looking about as controlled as a nuclear reaction, I’ve never felt happier to be inside my big metal wings.

On the way to the wing mark, right in the natural path of all, lay a large raised fort. A concrete cabin stood on a giant rusting metal tripod. Whatever its purpose, this presented a problem, to dive below and be on the inside track to the wing mark, or to sail over the top for clean air and then fight for rights at the mark rounding. Myles dived under ahead of me I sailed over and, for the first time that day, had a bit of luck. Rob had disappeared, last spotted with his sail at half-mast between races. He’d broken a kicker block and, unable to effect a repair, gone home. Trying too hard, Rob.

After being buried twice, I abandoned the fight for the (still) favoured boat end of the line and joined the layabouts further down (NB: Fast fleet black flagged this time...). Myles became entangled with another boat and couldn’t contest the line, so I sailed round alone. Having accepted a poor start I cruised up the left side of the beat, tacked on a header, feeling sure it was the right move and to my horror ducked the following boats: A Merlin Rocket, three Lasers, two Solos and a Topper. I have never felt so ashamed. As the race wore on conditions verged towards the violent and casualties abounded. I recalled Windguru’s predictions for the afternoon. They had been difficult to read, black figures inside increasingly purple boxes, perhaps the website’s little way of saying “are you sure you want to see this?”

I borrowed a tape measure back on the shore. My rake measured 6960, rough translation, really really really raked. I blame this entirely for my poor performance in the light stuff. It was nothing to do with horrible starts followed by bad strategies at all! Ahem.

Fortunately for me the Flyer was a two day affair, the first dedicated to standard handicap racing and the second to a double-point, non-discardable, duo-fleet pursuit race, so still everything to play for, as the official coverage put it.

It was a stormy night but light dimly dawned on grey still water the following morning. The forecast was fiercer still but I confess difficulty in believing it. WindGuru has lied before. Myles, the unofficial class Weatherman, consulted the skies (and a smartphone, but mainly the skies) and started loosening his lower shrouds. “It’ll come,” he said gravely.

On an unrelated note, while changing I got talking to a young sailor. I asked him what he sailed, “National 12,” and he returned the question. “I sail a Blaze,” I said, expecting nothing. He made a face like a dog being forced to chew toffee. The red mist descended.

On the water I hovered by the line, watching the slower boats make their choices on the beat, trying to judge what had paid and what had not. The N-12s made their getaway. I watched, patiently.

When our turn came Myles had the best of the start and led round the first, extensive, lap. In typical Blaze style, though, he made for the wrong wing mark on lap two and gave away the lead. As for me, derogatory sneers fresh in my mind I relentlessly pursued my prey and when the time to overtake came it was a slow, close overhaul on a fetch, deliberate, like a murder.

Laps tumbled and exhaustion began to take hold, there were plenty of retirees. With the help of my bendy (now upright) mast I finally found my form and chased down the Toppers and Lasers that had so embarrassed me previously. With a few minutes left I found myself alone, racing a Musto skiff upwind. In the end he resorted to lee-bowing me, which I thought a bit unnecessary. Still, honour restored. The official report’s paragraph concerning the “slow” pursuit does not make mention of a Blaze winning the race. It’s rather more concerned with the plight of the Lasers and Solos, and the odd celebrity. Little odd, that.

Final places:

Jon Saunders 15th
Myles Mences 17th
Rob Jones: Gone Home

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