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Crafty Keith - The definition of 'Legend'

by Dougal Henshall 15 Sep 2020 14:00 BST
The Contenders enjoy a fantastic day at their Nationals in Looe © Tom Gruitt / www.fotoboat.com

Sadly it is a part of modern media that "hyperbole rules", when even quite modest achievements are championed as something special. In contrast, sailing writing is not just more grounded, but far more rounded, thanks in part to the lack of 'ism's across the sport; dinghy racing is remarkably non-sexist and non-ageist.

With this in mind, to describe someone as a 'legend' means that they really have to be special, across a number of disciplines and a protracted period of time. Multiple Contender World Champion David Pitman used to say that, "getting to the top was one thing, but staying there took something very special indeed," and if there is one sailor who is special enough to be worthy of that term 'legend' then it has to be Weston Sailing Club's Keith Paul.

Keith had announced that when he came ashore at the end of the Weston Contender 'Invitation' event this past weekend he will hang up his trapeze harness and wetsuit for good. His beloved Bonezzi Contender is up for sale (a quick boat there if anyone is looking for a Contender) so the man known as 'crafty Keith' will no longer be causing mayhem on start lines. He knew his racing rules and was a Grand Master at the art of exploiting them to the maximum benefit for himself and the maximum inconvenience to every other competitor!

Before people ask, "but why does this make Keith a legend," it should be stated that he has already had his 80th birthday and has spent 60 of those years racking up race wins at world class events. That lifelong career in small boats would be given an early boost when Keith was still a young lad, sailing a traditional small dinghy down on Chichester Harbour. It was here that he was able to see John Westell and Max Johnson working up their entry for the IYRU Performance Dinghy Trials, the Coronet. Keith recalls seeing this fantastic boat and thinking that he wanted to sail a boat like this... and by the time the Coronet had morphed into the 505, Keith had moved along to Weston, which was already well on its way to becoming one of the top locations for the new class.

Weston would also be the home of other top helms such as Larry Marks, and with the boost that came from strong, home club class competition, Keith sharpened up to the point that in 1962, he and crew Bill Moakes would first win the UK Nationals, before becoming the first UK team to win the 5o5 World Championships.

Having won the top title in the 5o5s, Keith would then move on to the Flying Dutchman, where he would again be a strong front runner, winning the UK Championships in 1973, no mean feat given that in the era of John Oakeley, Keith Musto and Rodney Pattisson that the UK fleet had real depth of top class talent. After more than a decade at the top of the FD fleet, both in the UK and on the European circuit, Keith would make another move, this time into the International Contender.

He was now 36 years of age, but thought that his days of serious international competition were behind him, only to open his account in this class by very nearly snatching victory in a light airs European Championships at Hayling. At this event he would lose out by a narrow margin to the amazing talents of the young Joachim Harpprecht, with the pair of them crossing tacks for the next 40 years. Little wonder that Joachim would recently describe Keith as a 'tough nut' to crack out on the racecourse. At the 1983 European Championships at Porto Sant'Elpidio on the Adriatic, Keith would finally triumph over his old adversary, taking the title ahead of the German sailor.

More championship victories would follow, with two UK National wins in three years in the mid-1980s. A measure of his success was his offer to donate a new trophy, for the under-40s, so that they had something they could compete for! By the 1990s there would be no let-up in the driving competitiveness and as he was now into his 50s, Keith qualified as a Veteran, winning the Contender Worlds in this category in both 1992 and 93, but despite being very much in the Veteran category, Keith was still claiming many scalps from the front runners from the main event.

Even once Keith had his bus pass in his pocket, he was still racking up the victories and though his reputation as 'Crafty Keith' (stemmed from his uncanny abilities in light and shifty conditions) was well deserved, he was also still able to hang on to the acknowledged windy weather experts in the briskest of conditions. Although the modern Contender is a much more sophisticated boat than it had been when Keith came into the class, it is still a demanding boat to be sailing at this level and in more recent years Keith found that his ability to compete was becoming ever more limited.

First and foremost Keith had been a competitor, not just as a sailor but as an equally 'tough nut to crack' on both the badminton and squash courts (I thought I was a competitive squash player but Keith thrashed me on a day when a lack of wind kept the fleet ashore - and he didn't even take his sweater off!). As he started to make the transition into his 80s Keith found that not only could he no longer compete in terms of boat speed, but if he suffered a bad capsize, his chances of self-recovery were severely reduced.

A lesser man might have continued on, trailing around at the back of the fleet, or changed classes to a less demanding boat, but it is a measure of Keith that now it is time to stop, he is stopping completely. It is another measure of Keith's standing in the sport that news of his retirement has brought out a blizzard of good wishes for the future from top sailors around the world.

What that future will be is far from clear, as even Keith has yet to work out what he will do next. Top flight dinghy racing has been such a major part of his life, for so long, that it's absence will leave a large gap. However, knowing Keith and his love of competition, whatever he chooses to do next, it will surely be something that he will soon excel at. He may be into his 80s, but the skills that have kept 'Crafty Keith' at the top of our sport will surely surface elsewhere.

But if this report makes Keith Paul sound as if he were on the saintly side of the sport, there can be few who haven't suffered at his hands as a great practical joker; far from being the 'elder statesman' of the class that his age suggested, was also first over the barricades when the going got rough in the post championship dinner shenanigans.

After today, start lines and dining rooms will undoubtedly be a safer place, but dinghy sailing will be all the poorer with Keith's retirement, as he represents one of the very last links to that golden era of dinghy racing. Together, we must wish him well in his retirement.

Footnote: Sadly Keith's career would end in something of an anti-climax. After two good results on Saturday, he had a coming together with another competitor in race 3 which ended in a bad capsize and retirement. Any hopes of ending on a high note were dashed when Sunday's promised light and fluky conditions (which would surely have seen him front running) failed to materialise. When Flag N was flown with three sound signals, that, as the saying goes, was that! See the event report.

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