For many moons now a clan of hardy Scotsmen have been sighted at Blaze Open Meetings.   What began as a solitary scout has now become a veritable battalion as three rolled up for the Nationals earlier this year (leaving much of Scotland empty).   So, to thank them for their commitment to travelling events (and the required sponsorship of oil companies to fuel the trips), every year a select group of Southern softies head north to return the favour and take part in the Scottish Championships.   This time, I joined them.

The time; the weekend of 11th August, in the year of our lord 2012.

The place; Aberdeen and Stonehaven YC.

Vitals:   6 races over 2 days, Triangle-sausage courses, class start.

As I began my fourteen hour marathon drive north I imagined what sailing in the North Sea might be like (and why anybody would ever want to do it).   Our resident Scots had told us many a tale of tsunami-like rollers and submerged icebergs harbouring bands of marauding Polar Bears.   The forecast might have been moderate, an easterly 2-3, but I wasn’t taking any chances.   I packed my winter wetsuit, under-gloves, harpoon gun and put my house in order should I not return.

On arriving in Stonehaven I felt two things.   Firstly, a new swell of respect for all Scottish travellers, it is a simply epic (if rather picturesque) drive and not to be undertaken lightly.   My second feeling was utter dissapointment.   It is my solemn duty to report that Scotland, for all the horror-stories, is actually quite nice.   The first hint came when, on sitting down for breakfast and ordering the traditional Scottish I was asked “Hen eggs or duck?”   Oh my, it’s that kind of B&B.

I wasn’t alone.   On comparing notes with the other explorers it seemed impossible to find a place in Stonehaven that isn’t ridiculously hospitable, it was rather like being the policeman at the beginning of Wicker Man, everyone was so very very nice.   Whatever terrible secret the place might be hiding, we had no time to investigate, for the raging North Sea beat the harbour wall with all its might and struck fear in to our very bones.   In opposite world.

For all the tall-tales of stormy terror, on this occasion there was none to be found.   I mean really none.   So little that boats were instructed to stay near the harbour on launching so as not to get swept away on the terrifying 2knot tide.

For a while things looked truly dire for the dozen Blazes (not to mention the other fleets, over 50 boats in all) as they lolled about.   Finally though, a light south easterly began to settle in, coming rolling in over the southern cliffs and down across the bay.   The start line was set in the northern corner of the bay and off they went!

For the beats the fleet was presented with a dilemma; head left out to sea in the hope of avoiding the wind shadow of the southern cliffs or head right in to the bay and avoid the worst of the tide.   It was quickly plain that right was right as local sailor Francis Neill (788) led off the line and banged the right corner to take the lead.   Nick Miller (757) was in close pursuit, followed by Jonathon Saunders (789).   The trio quickly broke away from the pack and by the end of the second lap the lead had passed to Miller, whose upwind speed was unmatched.   He didn’t break away but, as it became clear that there was only one way to sail the beat, opportunities to gain and lose were few, and he sailed to the end unchallenged.   Saunders found his way past Neill downwind to take 2nd followed by local John Deacon (775) in 3rd.

Race two saw a freshening breeze (all the way up to a heady 8 knots at its height) and a further easterly shift.   After re-laying, the race started cleanly and quickly became a two-horse affair between Miller and Saunders.   Miller led for the first two laps but couldn’t make a break of it.   On the second run the pair were split by a beating Laser, Saunders gybed for the inside, Miller for the out and the lead changed hands.   At least Lasers are good for something.

The promise of ever-building breeze went unfulfilled as, even as the seconds ticked down for the final start, the air developed that thickening sagging feeling and the previously thick clouds overhead ruptured sunlight, it was going to be a still evening.   Eager for that extra lift off the line, the 400s were recalled before the Blazes, who, unusually, bunched on the port end for an ugly beginning to race three.   There was contact between Miller and Saunders leaving the former with turns to do.   Neill managed a clean start and led to the windward mark, with Saunders in pursuit.   The gap widened a little off wind and persisted to the finish.   Behind them, much fun was being had in the battle for 3rd, as some aggressive wing-mark luffing sent a group of the usual favourites off the course.   Locals Paul Howey (687) and Nigel Orkney (Shagileogigolo, 726) slipped through to claim 3rd and 4th respectively.

Much lively discussion was had on that matter in the bar.   For all those who found the light stuff a frustrating exercise in teeth-grinding the forecast for Sunday provided some reprieve.   12-14 knots and gusting higher.   Mmmmm.

As I peered out to sea over my Poached Salmon Breakfast things looked very promising.   Ripples could be seen across the placid bay.   Even and dark, it looked like a plain easterly with a lot of potential.   So, with an almost visible skip in my step I pootled down to the boat park and cheerfully slipped in to the chill embrace of yesterday’s wetsuit.   As soon as we rounded the harbour wall it became clear though, that I had been terribly terribly wrong.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of consistency in life (and especially, in racing) but my feeling is that Sunday’s forecast existed solely to embitter me.   It was as if we were continuing exactly where we left off.

Miller dominated from the off and led the port-heavy beat through low rolling waves and light breeze.   Saunders was next in line and managed, briefly, to take the lead downwind.   Upwind though, he could not match Miller’s speed and fell away again.   Behind them, the event organiser, local sailor and general ne’er-do-well Bob Williamson (778, No Yak Hunts) was finally having a better time of it and crept past Martin Saveker (774) on the crest of a wave to claim 3rd.

Unless somebody could find more speed upwind Miller could not be stopped, he was, plainly, faster than everybody else.   This led to a slightly desperate manoeuvre in race five.   Off the line, Miller, followed solely by Deacon, went left as the entire fleet sailed right, all the way to the layline.   Despite a little header in to the mark, the first of them rounded right on Miller’s tale, but could do little to overtake.   The real battle was for second place between Saunders, Neill and Williamson.   Local knowledge clearly played its part as both home sailors kept the Englishman clear and broke away to settle it.    Neill led Williamson off the final mark but got pipped on the line and dropped to third.

The top two spots were now all but decided.   Consistent 1sts with the odd blip had left Miller with an easy task to finish and Saunders with a comfortable lead over the rest of the chasers.   For them, all that was left was to play out the final act without any drama.    Neill, too, was in a comfortable position, all he had to do was keep clear of John Deacon (easier said than done…) to secure third.

Over a gentle swell and through dying breeze the final race was launched.   Miller led to the right again, followed by Neill and Saunders who, after a little fighting, settled in to 2nd and 3rd.   Behind them Deacon, after a slow start, closed down Williamson for 4th.

Aberdeen & Stonehaven do not do speeches at victory ceremonies.   Nor do they do wine.   Instead, to the victors, local Ale and inscribed glasses to drink it from.   And to Nick Miller the title of Blaze Scottish Champion 2012 and a rather fine plaque.

On my through-the-night return journey I had plenty of time to consider things;   the Lilly, the socio-economic problems of our age, Syria.   My main thought though, as I cruised down the winding roads of Scotland for home, was that I can see why you would live and sail out here.   It’s just that it takes so bloody long to get anywhere else.


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