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Seawanhaka International Challenge Cup

by John Forbes 4 Oct 16:34 BST 15-17 September 2017
Minima crew at close-quarters as they circle a spectator boat in the pre-start against Royal Nova Scotia at the Seawanhaka International Challenge. The jib is being held aback to turn the Match 40 faster. Tech tops courtesy of Spinlock. © John Forbes

Minima Yacht Club of Kingston upon Thames, came seventh out of eight competitors in the prestigious 2017 Seawanhaka International Challenge Cup, the oldest US sailing competition.

The match racing event was held last month in Oyster Bay, Long Island Sound, on the home waters of the holders, Seawanhaka Corinthian Sailing Club, which was founded in 1871, 18 years before Minima.

Oyster Bay is also home to Oakcliff Sailing, one of the USA's centres for match racing using what are believed to be the only surviving Swedish Match 40s, a 5/6-crew purpose-built match racer based on the America's Cup boats of the early 2000s, which was the chosen craft for this year's competition.

Minima is regularly invited to the contest because one of its members, J. Arthur Brand, was the challenger the first time the Cup was raced, in 1895. At that time Minima was a national organisation, claiming to be the largest sailing club in the UK.

Today, with just over 100 members, it is one of the smallest. Commodore John Forbes said: 'We are very aware and proud of our history at Minima, and although we are now primarily a dinghy club many of our members have keelboat racing experience, so when we got the latest invitation from Seawanhaka, we thought, why not have a go? This really captured members' imagination, and we got huge support from club members, and many donations to our appeal for financial help with training.'

Another factor was the friendly invitation from Seawanhaka Commodore Willets S. Meyer, promising 'spirited sailing with equally spirited entertainment' a promise Seawanhaka Corinthian lived up to with characteristic American generosity, and which Minima's squad enjoyed with characteristic British gusto.

Crucial to their challenge was Jim Houston, a bowman with current international experience, together with Robin Broomfield and Paul Bloomfield, at main and trim, both experienced offshore racers. Helm Peter Halligan, currently one of Minima's leading tactical sailors and at pit Paul Seamen, a veteran Merlin helm with a penchant for flying his spinnaker single-handed when the wind gets up on the Thames, completed the team.

Match-racing the large-cockpit Match 40s in the sheltered waters of Oyster Bay bore many resemblances to dinghy racing on the Thames: with very short courses and intense close-quarters manoeuvring, particularly in the pre-start. Helm Peter survived 14 races only incurring a single penalty, and scoring a couple against the top-notch opposition. Minima won two races.

However if Minima crew had been an established unit they felt they might have done even better. In a total of nine days practice on the Solent and finally in the US, with a changing team list, only the last two had been in the final personnel configuration. And a few times they were simply outwitted by opposition with greater match racing skills.

The other seven entries were generally about half the average age of the Minima crew. They comprised East Coast clubs Black Rock, from Bridgeport, Connecticut and Corinthian from Marblehead, Massachusetts; Long Beach and Newport Harbor Yacht Clubs, both from California, and two Canadian clubs: Royal Nova Scotia and Royal St Lawrence alongside the hosts.

Stamina was another factor, particularly on the second Round Robin day, when after two early wins against the weakest opponents the Brits were unable to score when the same opposition came up again later in the day in the final two of nine races, when a single win could have put them in the semi finals.

Next day the wind died, curtailing the final rounds, and those two wins were enough to lift Minima off eighth place, beating Black Rock, who had taken a similar quixotic attitude to the Challenge Cup, to the delight of the British commodore: 'With no experience whatsoever of the intensity of match racing I thought a single victory would be good going,' said John, 'but we had two, and left feeling we could do even better.'

Overall Results:

1 Seawanhaka
2 Long Beach
3 Royal Nova Scotia
4 Royal St Lawrence
5 Corinthian
6 Newport Harbor
7 Minima
8 Black Rock