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Fast Track Sailing in the Salcombe Estuary - Upwind from the start line to Blackstone

by Malcolm Mackley 11 Apr 2020 10:24 BST
Salcombe Yacht Club Summer Series race 7 © Margaret Mackley

Malcolm Mackley has written up his observations from many years of watching the racing at Salcombe in Devon, UK.

The Salcombe Estuary is one of the most beautiful and challenging places to sail in the UK and in addition it is possibly the most challenging place to race. There are so many complicating factors coming into play with the tide, wind patterns, moored boats, rocks, shallow beaches and other competitors all providing a potent cocktail of obstacles to overcome.

Having now watched the Salcombe Estuary sailing experts for some time, it has become apparent that for a given set of tidal and wind conditions there are only a limited number of ways to "fast track" around the race course. I often used to try alternative routes; but my success rate was low; so in this article I attempt to describe the fast track routes the experts take and where you should almost certainly go too. The possible permutations are massive and so this article deals with one small, but very important sector of the race track. and one important set of conditions where the tide is coming in (flooding). The wind is blowing down the estuary from the sea and the start is wind against tide heading for the Blackstone Mark at the mouth of the estuary.

This "Classic" and often most frequently used start sequence at Salcombe is a beat against the tide and wind from the Club Line to mark number one; Blackstone. The wind and tide directions are marked by red arrows on the diagram. Obviously the state of the tide, the operation of the Fairway (a Salcombe speciality to allow safe navigation of non racing boats during start sequences), the wind strength and its variability all come into play, however there are some general points that dictate how to reach Blackstone first.

The map of the estuary between the start line and Blackstone shows three examples of a routes that might get you to the windward mark first, all with the assumption that the Fairway Prohibition Fag is flying.

All of the routes involve starting in roughly the same position on the line because if the Fairway flag is flying starting against the tide on the Salcombe side is a very poor option. The photographs below indicate how tricky the start can be.

Here you can see Yawls lining up nicely for a Portlemouth side start. If you are too near the shore you will likely to be left high and dry and covered by faster moving boats. If you are too far from the Portlemouth shore you will be in an adverse tide; so there is a window of opportunity for very few boats to make a good start. Then you have the cavalry charge to the Smalls shore with the inevitable call for water. Yes you can call for water and the boat to windward should respond with a port tack. Once however both boats have tacked onto port they then effectively have no rights on other starboard tack boats and should avoid a collision by going below the starboard tack boats. This is all of course theoretical and assumes everyone knows the rules. The bottom line is that unless you can tack onto port at the shore without having to give water to a starboard boat, you will be sucked back into the pack. The first few tacks out of Smalls cove are crucial and will almost certainly dictate your final position.

The map shows the favoured routes to Blackstone and they all start off short tacking through Smalls Cove. Even if I make a good start, short tacking my Solo Mr Blue Sky as expertly as many of the experts is poor and so following the favoured "Blue Route" is not always a good option for me. Breaking away onto the "Green Route" is often my own favoured option and invariably for me does not really work very well, but at least I am in clear air. The Blue route is usually the favoured one and the boats that take an early lead out of Smalls can smile, enjoy clear air and short tack where they want to go. Being left in the pack is tough and you just have to grit your teeth and tough it out usually all the way to Blackstone.

The Green Route involves crossing the channel twice and getting the first crossing right in order to be just the correct side of the outer Fairway buoy. Choosing the right moment to return to the Portlemouth shore is critical too and can be dictated by crossing when the wind strength and direction is favourable. The third Yellow route is an option that can pay but is a risk! Tacking inside the Crab pots and then going far enough upstream to be able to do a single Starboard tack to Blackstone is brave, exciting and different. Success rates are variable, but when it does come off it is very rewarding.

Now back to Blue and Green routes which merge again on the Portlemouth side at Biddlehead Rocks. This too is usually an exciting phase of the race as it becomes a game of "how close dare I go to the often submerged rocks?" Generally you need to go as close as possible before you head off to the Blackstone mark and this can be an extremely tricky phase of the race that I rarely get right. On a rising tide Blackstone rocks appears to offer some tidal protection and so making a final approach to Blackstone on Starboard tack often is a good option and also gives you priority over port tack approaching boats. Only on very light wind days and strong tides does it pay to go deep into Sunny Cove before tacking on to port in order to reach Blackstone.

In summary; make a brilliant start, take the Blue Route and be an expert at short tacking!

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