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Blaze National Championship at Paignton Sailing Club

by Jon Saunders 8 Jun 2016 12:30 BST 3-5 June 2016
Blaze Nationals at Paignton © Steve Cayley Photography

There is something very satisfying about polishing a trophy, bringing out the shine on all the little shields of winners past (then getting bits of cloth stuck in them and cursing as you try to lever them out with a pair of eyebrow tweezers). I had this privilege last weekend and enjoyed it safe in the knowledge that said cup would not be returning from the Nationals with me.

I'd been watching the weather and was happily resigned to my fate. By Thursday, no matter where you looked the answer was the same. Paignton would be warm, sunny, and a complete drifter! "But what about the sea breeze, I hear you cry." Yes, what about it, Mr Ripley?

In the spirit of hope over experience 40 Blazes turned up to try their stars and one of them would be going home with the cup in my polish-sodden hands.

There were several likely candidates. From Burghfield, spiritual home of the Blaze, Mike Lyons, a light wind master and former national and inland champion, and Simon Beddows, the pint sized lightweight and Blaze veteran never far behind him. From Chase a pair of youngsters, Ben Pickering, also a former National champion and always quick in a drift and of course young Eden Hyland, who had nailed his colours to the mast last autumn, narrowly missing out on the Inland Championship to Lyons, by only two points.

On to the briefing. Not everybody goes to briefings. Everybody should, because every now and then the race officer produces really crucial stuff that you will definitely need to know. For this event there was reams of it. Firstly, there would be not one but four courses; Square, Olympic, Figure of Eight and Triangle, all denoted by a letter on the back of the committee boat. For starting, the black flag would not be used, instead, if we were naughty, the U flag would be used which is like a black flag, but different. And not black.

For finishing, a flag would be flown by the leeward mark to denote a shortened course, unless we weren't finishing and a mark was being moved mid race, at which point an extremely similar flag would be flown instead along with a plus or a minus sign to show that it was being moved closer or further away. It's all perfectly simple.

When asked if we could perhaps cram in a third race on day one so as to guarantee a championship, our Race Officer replied "I like your optimism". And so, optimistically, we flip flopped our way out in to Tor Bay.

Come the first start (square course) and Eden Hyland made his mark early, escaping from a mob on the boat end in to clear air. Off of the pin end Simon Beddows pulled away and tacked to cross Hyland, leading him to the mark. Looking upwind from the start there seemed to be more pressure on the left and for the most part those who went left won. At the top of the fleet Beddows pulled out a hundred yard lead and looked set to take the first race unchallenged. After an easy first lap he rounded the leeward mark and tacked. He went left. And lost. Badly.

Hyland, either through intuition or simply a desire to try something different to the leader, sailed on a little before tacking and this proved crucial. A wave of breeze filled in from the right, lifting him and all who followed him toward the mark. Beddows, and all followed him (including me, damnit), languished. He went from clear ahead and leading to 17th. Hyland took the race, followed by Lyons and Hugh Kingdon, who would prove a very reliable light wind sailor In the name of variety a figure eight course was set for race two (which led to a lot of people staring at the comitee boat and trying to remember what the giant E meant) and, for the moment our few knots of breeze seemed to be holding after its swing to the east.

Beddows, his zeal undimmed, tried to lead off of the pin but tacked off to avoid a pair of boats luffing so high that one sailor got dunked to windward and almost fell out. Was it worth it, I wonder? Kingdon had more luck, led from the port end and tacked early. It was the right move, the windward mark was so far to the right that much of the fleet over stood on port and suffered for it. Kingdon rounded first, followed by Ben Pickering and then Hyland.

In five knots of breeze it was never going to be very dramatic. It all came down to the best offwind technique and Pickering would repeatedly show his quality, getting the most out of each friendly wave (a technique he learnt from a man in Barbados, apparently). Both he and the lightweight Hyland sailed around Kingdon on the penultimate leg to seal a one-two Brummy victory.

Race 3 saw Beddows once again take control, leading from the pin and then tacking very early to cross the fleet and go right. Warsash's Bob Cowan had beaten him to it though and tacked from further up the line, giving him an early lead. By this point in the day the tide, which hadn't this far been a huge factor, was driving the fleet to the left as it flowed in to Tor Bay. By tacking right early, Cowan and Beddows rode the tide in to the mark and pulled away. They didn't meet again until the second beat (we were now on an Olympic course, keep up!). Rather than sail defensively the pair crossed once, twice and on the third cross Beddows was clear ahead. With time running out and the breeze rapidly dying Hyland and Pickering closed the gap on Cowan and took him on the final, miserable drift to the line. Hyland took second and Pickering, ever determined, caught Cowan on the line for a true photo finish.

In the bar there was consternation in some quarters. The schedule had only planned for two races on friday but with a dire forecast for the remainder of the weekend the race committee had exercised their right to run a third. Whatever happened now, we had a champion and at the moment, sitting on 5 points, his name was Eden.

Saturday came in its grey, cool, breeze-less glory and, trapped in a boat park under a limp AP flag, there was much messing about with boats. One learns a lot, eavesdropping in a busy boat park. Most of it is interesting, some of it is useful, and some of it is downright shameful. For example, one should never ask Mr Hyland to tie a bow line because he doesn't know how. Likewise, while trying to tension a sail batten, a certain Mr Pickering let slip that he has no idea which part of the sail the leech is. Kids these days. Cuh.

Much food was eaten, much Beer was had (thanks Paignton!) And Sunday dawned looking...pretty much the same. Have the nationals in June, they said. There'll be a sea breeze they said.

Mother nature, not content to let us despondently pack up, eventually offered enough fitful ripples to tempt us out on to the water. So, on a Sunday afternoon 40 boats sat in the middle of Tor Bay and waited, for nearly two hours.

I won't lie, it was pretty hellish. We had been bobbing about on the glassy calm for an hour or so when the committee boat inexplicably raised the L flag. What does L stand for? Lollies! Ice lollies to be precise, forty or so of them distributed by rib to the lolling fleet. I don't know whose idea that was but on behalf of the Blazes, thank you for easing the pain.

We did, eventually, get a race out of it. By sheer perseverance the RO got a square course down and set a line. Five seconds before the gun half the fleet were already over it. General recall. I blame cabin fever.

With that agression out of our system and with the U flag flying, the fourth and final race of the 2016 nationals got underway. Everything was still to play for. With the exception of Hyland, all the leaders had one bad race counting. And with a 4th race comes a discard. Simon Beddows could lose his 17th, Ben Pickering could lose his 6th and if he beat Hyland in this last race they would be on equal points and he would win the championship on count back. The stage was set for the Battle of the Brummies.

Before I tell you, dear reader, the end of this tale, let's talk about the U flag. Like the black flag, if you are over the start line in the last minute before the gun, you are disqualified from that race. And like the black flag, unless the entire fleet is recalled, there will be no second gun to tell you that you are over the start line.

All there will be is your sail number displayed on a noticeboard on the committee boat at the finish. And for the race in question you'd need to sail close to read the numbers, because so many boats were over that they nearly ran out of space.

Back to the start and a small group led off the middle of the line, Pickering initially leading. Beddows had stuck with the pin end and clear air and tacked across him to lead to the windward mark. Hyland followed and behind him Mark Hartley, of Hartley boats, the new builder of the Blaze. Mark had been quietly racking up respectable results and was about to discard his only shocker. A good result here would land him in the chocolates.

Pickering was already ahead of Hyland on the course but Eden had a 2nd to discard, so to beat him Pickering had to win the race outright (and thus have the most 1sts). At the wing mark Beddows bore off, Pickering gybed for the inside and slowly, steadily, reeled him in, sailing below him to claim the lead. Hyland clawed past Beddows too but, try as he might, couldn't close the gap. Ben Pickering cruised to the finish line, victory, the narrowest, narrowest of victories, would now be his.

No gun. Stoney silence and a big white noticeboard with seven sail numbers on it, including his. Eden Hyland, who had watched the championship sail away from him in the last race was now given it back. Needless to say, Ben looked heartbroken. That's sailing for you.

At the prize giving there was a lot to cover. A parade of thanks to Paignton, our warm and welcoming hosts and particular gratitude to Ian Bullock, our long suffering Race Officer, who got four races out of really pretty dire conditions. Mark Hartley also gave thanks for his welcome to the fleet as he picked up a very respectable 6th. Not to mention the promise of prizes from Hartley's at future events. Yes, he definitely said that... with his eyes.

Looking ahead, the Warsash open, always a popular fixture, is just around the corner (16th-17th July, enter early, it's cheaper) and come October the Inlands at Draycote. Congratulations should also go to Catherine Helmsley, the fleet's only current female trailblazer (get it?) who put in a commanding 9th.

As for our new champion, I don't think Eden is very used to giving speeches. A short burst of thanks and he was off. He'll get used to it, if he keeps sailing like this there will be many more speeches to give.


1st Eden Hyland (1st Youth)
2nd Simon Beddows (1st Grandmaster)
3rd Mike Lyons
4th Ben Pickering
5th Hugh Kingdon (1st master)
6th Mark Hartley

1st Great Grandmaster: Bob Cowan
The Endeavour Trophy: Peter Macfarlane

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