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Imperial Poona Yacht Club vs. The Victory Class & Portsmouth Sailing Club

by Jeremy Atkins 9 Sep 07:44 BST 8 September 2019
Close racing between a Poona & Portsmouth boat © Jeremy Atkins

The Imperial Poona Yacht Club travelled by a variety of dhows and motorised rickshsaws to Portsmouth for their fifth annual match against and tiffin with the Victory Class and Portsmouth Sailing Club as both Poona and the Victory Class celebrated their 85th years - both immune to the ravages of time.

As usual, 4 boat team racing was the order of the day with the added twist that the final leg of the final race was to be sailed backwards as tradition dictates. This dates back to the hazy early years of Poona in the 1930s when, at the cradle of backwards racing in Oxford, the habit was adopted along with the rules that port tack had priority and the windward mark had to be hit. In order to protect their valuable boats, the Victory Class insist that these latter two rules are dropped for this match, but the challenge of backwards racing remains.

In the first race, Russell Mead of Portsmouth sailed into a commanding lead, with Gareth Penn, also of Portsmouth, holding second place and the other two Pompey boats bringing up the rear - the scores being equal. But up the second beat, Poona's Richard Dobbs moved up a gear and went from fourth to second ensuring a Poona victory by two points.

In the second race Gareth was out to put things right and it was this time his turn to build up a convincing lead. Some tight team racing ensued around the course behind him, but Gareth was not sure the Victory Class had the lead and so decided to go back to team race on the final run to the finish. For the second race in succession, Richard Dobbs sailed past him to take the victory and ensuring that Poona won the race, again by the narrowest of margins.

All was set for the final race with its backward element. This consisted of the boats being required to sail through the gate on the second beat to an imaginary line 5 boat lengths above the gate and sail backwards across the finishing line.

For those not versed in the art of sailing day keelboats backwards, the Victory is possibly the most ill-suited design for this task. 5 years ago, Archie Massey managed it, sailing with Stephen Murray, but since then no-one else has really succeeded. Stephen Murray had submitted a learned paper on how it was to be done which was circulated to all Poona sailors in subsequent matches, but the technique had not been replicated.

This year Russell Mead again had a convincing lead up to the time he started trying to sail backwards. Slowly the other Victories joined him in what looked like a fleet of drunken keelboats scattered in the area around the start of the backwards leg going in every direction possible but failing miserably to move in reverse.

However, fourth placed Jono Pank & Ewan McLennan had studied Professor Murray's thesis carefully and expertly reached the imaginary line and calmly reversed impressively straight over the finishing line to claim victory for Poona. Despite the rest of the Poona team having the same instructions, they were failing as badly as the Victory sailors in this task. In the end, an exasperated Sir Robin Knox-Johnston commanded Ben Vines to hand over the helm to him and, with Robin in control, they too crossed the finishing line backwards for Poona. None of the other 6 boats managed it, but since the curry in the clubhouse was getting cold, the race officials allowed the other boats to finish in a more usual direction.

Both fleets then happily retired to the most welcoming Portsmouth Sailing Club for a delicious curry tiffin and presentation of the Victory Plate - obtained from HMS Victory - to Poona Commode, Peter Hunter. Plans are already under way for next year's event.

As Prince Philip wrote in his Forward (rather than Backward or even Foreword) to the Imperial Poona Yacht Club's history: "life can be significantly improved by not taking it too seriously all the time".

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