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Holt Centenary Tideway Race at Ranelagh Sailing Club

by David Henshall 9 Oct 2012 14:45 BST 7 October 2012

After a year of amazing celebratory events, the commemoration of the centenary of the birth of Jack Holt reached its conclusion with a running of the Tideway Race on the River Thames. Hosted by Ranelagh Sailing Club, whose club house is located just a stones throw along the river bank from the house and workshop where Jack designed and built so many of his ground-breaking dinghies, the Tideway Race is as special as the great man himself.

From the fixed Ranelagh start line just upstream from Putney Bridge, the course heads downstream to a rounding mark, from there you retrace your steps back up the river. Since the first running of the race back in 1962, the club have honed their timing skills so that the one turning mark is laid to ensure that as boats start to lay it, the tide will just be turning. Having brought them downstream, the new flood tide then helps carry the boats back up towards Putney.

Sadly, the Tideway Race is not run every year, else it would have been a sure fire bet for a place in the Yachts and Yachting Top Ten list of events that 'have to be done'. Early versions of the Tideway took the fleet as far downstream to Tower Bridge, where for the summer London Council had imported sufficient sand to create a beach by the river. Here the Tideway fleet would pause to come ashore, enjoy a picnic, then race back to Ranelagh.

As it was, the success of the Tideway Race in the 1970's saw entries rocket, to the point that the Thames was crowded with over 300 dinghies which created some serious congestion as they all tried to squeeze under the arches of the many bridges along the route. This was not just an issue for the competitors, but risked becoming a serious safety issue given the rise (not to mention the speed) of the commercial river traffic.

Wisely, Ranelagh limited the entry number and with help from neighbouring clubs, beefed up the Patrol cover and with this in place, got the 'green light' to host the event this year. Ranelagh must have thought that they'd covered all the bases. For, in addition to easy parking, there was coffee and bacon butties for all competitors and as these were digested, easy to follow SI's and a cheerful briefing. The only thing missing was the wind, though autumn sunshine was very much in evidence. With a strong ebb tide ripping away downstream, the requirement for wind may have seemed superfluous but it helped to be able to sail clear of the very solid buttresses and bridge supports that had to be negotiated along the course!

The host club wisely split the fleet into 2, with the slower boats, mainly Solos and Enterprises but with some real Holt oldies to fly the flag too (many people commented on the excellent restoration of Vagabond 61) starting first, followed 6 minutes later by the fast fleet, though this was something of an oxymoron in the conditions. Scratch boat was Toby Bardlesy-Dale in his Hornet; Conquest, a Holt International Canoe was in the mix but the bulk of the fast fleet comprised a large collection of Holt Merlins, from Number 1 'Kate' all the way through to the famous 'Passing Cloud' which is so much a part of the Thames River scene.

The two fleets soon mixed and matched as the usual fun of river sailing 'snakes and ladders' helped some boats forward whilst others, not more than a few boats length away, were left to rue their lack of good fortune.

As if on cue, the turning mark was laid and as the leaders rounded, so the new flood started pulling them away upwind – this was a tidal gate 'par excellence'. Luckily, at the same time, a new gentle breeze arrived and though this meant a beat all the way back, there was only a few times on this leg when the boats were not moving.

As is the tradition of Ranelagh, rather than the industrial blare of a hooter (which would be quite out of keeping for this location) boats finished to the ringing of a bell and a round of applause from helpers and competitors alike. The club then treated the sailors to a hot sit down meal, before Commodore Thomas Stolper took charge of the prize giving.

It is said that highly specialist events such as the Tideway are a local knowledge benefit and it is true that the winning boat, Michael Gifford's carefully sailed Solo was from the host club. However, not far behind was the Miracle of Nick Smith, crewed by his daughter Pamela, who had travelled from Portishead and who were able to hold off the challenge from river regulars Richard and Harry Harris in Passing Cloud.

It is a measure of the success of the Ranelagh handicapping scheme that the fastest boat, the Hornet, finished just one place ahead of the slowest, a Mirror. On the water there was over an hour difference in the elapsed time, yet the corrected times showed just 1 minute 47 seconds between the two boats. This is just one small part of the attention to detail shown by Ranelagh in hosting a very special race for what was a very special cause. Jack Holt gave the sport of dinghy sailing so much, he would have been immensely proud to see his boats paying him this tribute on the day.