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A Class Catamarans in the East Coast Piers Race at Marconi Sailing Club

by Gordon Upton 12 Jul 2019 11:34 BST 6-7 July 2019
East Coast Piers Colne Point Race © Alex Irwin /

Hero to Zero in 13 miles

Let's face it, no one gets on an 'A' Class Cat because it is a absolute bandit on the handicap. And if you'd a bit of a pot-hunter, you'd better sail like Glenn Ashby, or basically look somewhere else. This is the tale of one such race as an example. With the ‘A’ Class Cat World Championships at WPNSA next month, this event was good training.

The famed East Coast Piers Race, and it's shorter variations, have been long established on the UK endurance race circuit for many years. Organised and sailed from the Marconi SC on the South side of the Blackwater river. Now forming part of the Allen Endurance Race Series, it is some 47 miles for the full race, 27 for the Colne Point leg. This is the one usually recommended for the slower boats and the single handers. Sailing the full 47 mile race on a single-handed boat, particularly if the wind got up, could possibly kill you.

Over the weekend, the Saturday has a couple of around the cans races up and down the Blackwater river to get you warmed up and finalise your settings after rigging up. The wind this time was from the Northwest, and thus came over the wooded Osea Island and as a result, was rather shifty and gusty. It gave a few of us the feeling of sailing around Rutland Water only with a tide.

Leading the 'A' Cat fleet challenge, (all on Classic non foilers BTW) was the British Association President Struan Wallace from TBYC., BACCA Sec Gordon Upton from Rutland SC., Dan Brzezinski from Clacton SC, Vincey Talfourd from Marconi SC, but were a man down as another Clacton sailor, Pete Boxer, was unfortunately forced to be absent after already booking in. A pity as it would have been his race given the conditions. All were looking for a good sail in their warm-up for the GBR Nationals and the 'A' Cat World Championships starting Mid August at Weymouth.

After a leisurely morning bimbling about the boat, getting your stuff sorted, racing started at 1pm. Vincey wasn't sailing the Saturday races, so the three remaining launched down the appropriately named slip-way and launched off. All good until T minus 6 minutes, when Gordon pulled on the mainsheet and the shackle fixing the mainsheet block to the tramp gave out. Not as much bimbling as he thought eh? After a few moments of industrial language, he sailed back in again. The race started and the others all shot off up river. Gordon meanwhile was then lying on his back under the trampoline on the slimy seaweed encrusted shore fixing the block and being glad it had happened then and not in the middle of the next day's race.

Race two was then joined by the newly seaweed-bedecked sailor. And all was well. Other than about half of the fleet forgetting to go around a way-mark on the course, all was good. Back ashore, where we were delighted to be told at the briefing for the next day's epic by Andrew Downie, ECPR Big Boss, that a sponsor, Allen, had put 100 pints behind the bar. 'Is that each?' some wag asked. BBQ and then a great band played. No idea who they were, but they made a great sound. However, us 'A' Class athletes were all tucked up in bed by 10:30pm as an early start was in the offing.

Bang on 5:30am, the PRO woke everyone up and told the rescue crews to get their skates on, before playing the traditional Sweet Caroline hit over the tannoy, leaving it as a earworm for the day for many. 8am was the start for the ECPR, 8:15 for the Colne Point sailors. So at the allotted time, boats formed an orderly queue onto the hard to have their flares, paddle, rope and compass ticked off. And the Sailracer trackers were handed out.

85+ cats launched onto the river, now on the ebb tide to help us along. The big boys got off, fortunately it was an east wind, so with the tide flowing, none were taken over the line. Then it was Game On for the Colne Point fleet.

Now, you'd think that a really blistering start would be less important for a 27 mile race than for your usual 45min club affair wouldn't you? Wrong! The fleet started to amass near the line. You can watch this back on and relive the potential unfolding horror in real time. Gordon and Vincey had both realized most boats were over at the pin end and seemed to be planning a mass port start.

OK, the thing with a port flier is that there is only usually one, or possibly two willing to try it on the start. It is a bit of a specialty of which Gordon has been known to practice more than is good for him. If you are on a boat such as the 'A' Cat in a mixed fleet, it certainly makes things easier. And, he once witnessed it occur at the start of one of the final races in the 2018 'A' Cat worlds where NZL ace Micah Wilkinson did it successfully right across the foiling fleet, containing Glenn Ashby and Pete Burling plus other sailing Gods, at Hervey Bay. Ballsiest thing ever witnessed!

But doing a 'starboard flier', if there is such a thing, well, that required less courage. More a sort of morbid sense of curiosity and willingness to see what could actually happen in reality, when a lone boat meets a mass of other boats, but with right of way.

Bang! Gun went off right behind his right ear, and the starboarders immediately started screaming 'Staaaaarboard!' at the top of their lungs, repeatedly for the next 30 seconds. Sure enough, crews heads popped out from behind jibs or under booms, rooster tails shot up from rudders suddenly pushed one way or the other. Boats turned into the paths of other boats, screams emanated from the wronged only to get screamed at from the others they had wronged. Gordon felt a huge sense of accomplishment, as he had finally achieved something in sailing. 'Our work here is done', he though, as he finally tacked the windward side of the entire fleet and headed East for the river's entrance.

After a few minutes things calmed down. Time to check your surrounding boats, who was where, whom to watch and follow or to avoid. The wind was about 12 kts but a little gusty here and there. Try to remember where the bits you aren't supposed to be sailing in is tricky if you don't sail much on a estuary. Luckily the wind seemed to be in the channel centre so the decision was made for you. Time to take a drink. Wearing a Camelback drink system, designed for runners, is the only way on a single-hander to stay hydrated on a race where you could be in the trapeze for an hour or more at a time. It was worn under Gordon's impact vest giving him a hunchback look to perfectly match his hunchfront. The impact vest was tight fitting, even more so with the Camelback. This resulted in a inadvertently pressurized water hydration system that came as a bit of a shock at first use, blasting water into his mouth and up his nose with considerable force.

After 15 mins, the windward performance of the 'A' Cat was showing. Few boats can match the class when going uphill, as the 'A' can outpoint anything. Ollie Harris on his Spitfire was going well a few hundred meters away slightly ahead from Gordon, at about the same speed, but half a degree or so lower, so closed with the shoreline meaning a few more tacks as we headed for the first waypoint of Bradwell Gate, next to the power station.

Staying to the windward side of the old Radio Caroline ship was a good move too. Struan didn't see that massive red boat anchored in the middle of the river for some reason and ended up in its lee for a bit. A couple of other 'A's were in the vicinity as was a Tornado, but as the fleet exited the estuary mouth, Gordon's higher VMG showed to be paying off as he had stretched out a healthy lead.

Then the wind started to drop and the fleet started to disperse a little in search of more pressure. This was the point that you are vulnerable if you are leading. Do you cover the fleet by tacking more frequently, or do you try to find the pressure in front of you. He elected to do a bit of each. Trying to reduce the number of tacks too, as tacks are another potential massive CRS (cockup rich situations) that can cost tens of boatlengths.

Not knowing where you are supposed to be going doesn't help either, particularly when you find yourself in the weird position of actually leading the race. Fortunately, the lovely organisers had arranged 'Mother' ships stationed at 1 mile intervals, flying flags. This helped enormously and guiding the way to seeing the Colne buoy mark and it's attendant red inflatable triangle gate. First to the top mark, but now the screaming starts.

The wind had now dropped to about 4-5 kts and was dropping still. What to do? Being a boat about purity, elegance and simplicity (Ha!) the 'A' Cat doesn't carry a kite to hoist to help with going downhill. All the 'A 'Cats realized that their upwind pace, in a dying breeze would not have been enough to see them not picked off one at a time by the laundry flyers, rather like those old wildebeest on the Veldt being hunted by hyenas that you see in David Attenborough films.

Sure enough, the lead boat changed about half way back across the bay when that Tornado went in for the kill. Not an outright kill, just enough to lame though. Death by a thousand cuts this was to be. The 'A' Cat going downhill in 3 kts of wind is a sorry sight. The crew is usually stretched out along the windward hull, halfway to the forestay. Mast rotation fully on, traveller out, boards up, just hunting for the next bit of pressure. The German 'A' Cat sailors love this sort of stuff though. In an 'A' Class regatta, light winds = GER at the front of the fleet.

So it continued, into the estuary entrance a slight pressure increase. This seemed to be over on the southern bank on the left and those who realized made gains on the others. By now they had been joined by the leaders of the ECPR coming through. But they too then slowed to a crawl. Every now and then a bit of a gust arrived and little bunches of boats suddenly moved off. Occasionally one of the big foiling Vampires or the Flying Phantom got up on it's foils and shot off. Only to sit down again and with the drag of the foils, became rather more sluggish, like an old seaplane until the next puff.

This was the pattern for the rest of the race. The tide was in flow, so the fleet was being swept up the river anyhow. Eventually the finish line was crossed and the dreaded wait for the results on corrected times commenced. You have to realize that sometimes you just need to suck it up. Getting beaten by a boat that finishes as you are already hosing yours down on the hard is just what happens in handicap racing. No point in getting bitter, we all had some degree of say in the boats we sail, so it's our own fault. If that is important to you, then as was said at the beginning, get a slower boat. Or learn to sail yours like a champion.

In the final analysis, and reflecting on the drive home, you realize you probably made the correct decision and wouldn't have changed it for the world. A really well organized event, great friendly people, a good club - what's not to like. Back next year and it's a week earlier. Probably rename the boat 'The Old Wildebeest' too.

'A' Cat Results:

1st Gordon Upton - DNA (23rd Overall) 4h 0m 6s
2nd Vincey Talfourd - Bim V1 (33rd) 4h 13m 2s
3rd Struan Wallace - Exploder A15 (36th) 4h 15m, 36s
4th Dan Brzezinski - Tool (38th) (4h 16m 27s)

(40 entered and the fleet winner was Nigel James in a Dart Sprint 15 - 4h 30m 38s)

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