Three years ago Felpham Sailing Club hosted the Blaze Nationals. While the forecasts had been moderate, the weather on the day turned rather violent and led to a healthy list of retirees. The wind had, unusually, blown straight across the channel and created a very challenging swell that proved too much for many.
So it was only natural then, that to advertise this years open I tempted the fleet with the promise of plenty of wind and the joys of the open sea. While only a modest 7 Blazes heeded the siren call, mother nature was not about to disappoint.
A twenty knot southerly greeted me as I pedalled along the shore toward the club. Higher than forecast, the unusual direction (south west is the prevailing) meant that the "joy of the open sea" was violently crashing on the shingle beach and hurling small stones at my face. Launching, I thought, would be interesting.
This was to be a shared open between the Blazes and Finns and the tone was set when a volunteer crew of six were required to lower the "light Finn" off of its double Stacker. This ritual was repeated ad nauseum as we tried to launch them in to the swell. I have to ask, guys, is the fixed rudder really worth it?
The Blazes had a mercifully better time getting off the beach (three cheers for lifting foils!) But their fortunes quickly turned. The conditions, once you had battled beyond the breakers, could be modestly described as "bumpy" and less modestly described as "so rough the Race Officer threw up over the side."
It wasn't just a matter of the wave height, either. Had we been on the Atlantic we could have expected long, large rollers that could be easily sailed over, but in the channel the waves were tall and the wave length very short.
Off of the belated first line Rob Jones showed excellent form, sailing just low enough to keep speed but high enough to make good progress to windward. He quickly left the fleet behind, pursued eventually by Jon Saunders, who, while sailing fast, was far too low and lost ground Behind them, Pete Barlow led the chasers. While the upwind stretch proved tricky, downwind quickly became a matter of survival. A couple of submarine moments taught us that the dead-run was a nono and that artfully picking your path between the waves would be the difference between finishing a race and not. After three laps we were down to four finishers, Jones, Saunders, Barlow and Burghfield's David Entwistle. Steve Pollard, of Queen Mary SC, had suffered a broken kicker and retired to fix it.
As we waited for race two, a Finn sailor caught my eye and pointed directly upwind, out to sea. A few miles in to the channel a thick, dark, battleship-like cloud hung, already shedding rain by the bucket load and, of course, headed our way.
The breeze freshened further and a spitting rain marked the beginning of race two. Again Jones lead cleanly from the off and again Saunders pursued upwind, followed by Barlow and the chasers, closer this time. Jones escaped and sailed around alone and without incident. Saunders and Barlow sailed in procession, focusing more on getting around cleanly, which, despite the odd short capsize, they did.
The final race of the day began as the rain departed and saw Jones and Saunders at close quarters upwind. Saunders led in to the windward mark, but missed the layline, and the resulting two tacks let Jones through. They swapped places again on the first reach and enjoyed a close contest until Saunders capsized to windward on the second. This gave the lead to Jones, who, in a sudden, bad squall, capsized, giving the lead to Pete Barlow, who also capsized, giving the lead to Steve Pollard, who- you get the picture. By the time everyone had righted Barlow had a good lead and was working on the upwind leg. Jones, not easily discouraged, spotted the windshift Barlow had missed and fetched in to the Windward mark. The difference in speed was truly phenomenal, and demonstrated aptly just how quickly the Blaze can go when, as Jones put it later, "everything was just right." Jones led to finish, followed by Barlow, content with second.
With the exception of Steve Pollard's kicker, the fleet survived with no damage, and while several boats struggled to finish races, the majority made an attempt at all three.
This was intended to be a two day open, but as I pedalled along the shore on Sunday morning, I noted not only were the conditions if anything a little worse, but that half the beach had been deposited on the coast-path over night. When I got to the club it was quickly confirmed that, with the long wait required (for the tide to drop) before the rescue boats could launch in these conditions, and with a lack of will in both fleets to undergo the trials of launching that late in the day, racing would be abandoned.
A small prize giving was held, Pete Barlow claimed second place and Rob Jones a clear first. With his Finn counterpart (also a Warsash sailor) he thanked the club for its efforts in the conditions and hospitality, and especially for the quick turnarounds between races.
If nothing else, the weekend provided some valuable lessons.