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An interview with Ossie Stewart, RS Elite National Champion

by Alasdair McLeod 27 Oct 2022 14:13 BST
Ossie Stewart relaxes with a beer after racing © Alasdair McLeod

When Ossie Stewart won the 2022 Brewin Dolphin RS Elite International Grand Prix and UK National Championship, it was the first time he had won a major championship event as helm.

As crew he has had a successful career with a number of event wins. As helm, he has come second in championship events in a number of classes like 505s, Fireballs, 470s, RS Elites (4 or 5 times), etc. However winning the 2022 RS Elite National Championship was a new milestone. "It was quite a pleasing thing to do - to be a contemporary champion at my age (he is now 68) against a pretty good fleet"

The championship was not decided until the last of ten races. Ossie (crewed by his son Tom and Geoff Carveth) put up a consistent performance throughout the closely-fought event and emerged after the final race as overall winner, just one point ahead of his nearest rival Russell Peters. "I did focus on this event pretty hard. The 40 boat event was quite a difficult one to win because of the conditions. For me it was a big thing."

Ossie is still perhaps best known for his 1992 Olympic bronze medal, sailing in the Soling class with Lawrie Smith and Rob Cruikshank, who is now also an RS Elite sailor. "The Soling was a good boat, Russel Coutts and others were sailing them. It is a very physical boat for a keelboat, we had to drop hike over the side, and it was quite hard to sail." Clearly a very different boat from the RS Elite. They had quite a short campaign, acquiring the boat in the October before the Olympics in the next August.

In the 2010s Ossie was one of the group of people who led the revival of the RS Elite in Hayling Island Sailing Club. "I know Phil Morrison the designer quite well and think the Elite is one of the best small keelboats around, especially when compared to an XOD or a lot of the older style boats." He also points to the relatively low cost of ownership compared to many other small keelboats.

He feels that the Elite is a great boat for getting people sailing. "You can actually race the Elite with two people doing most of the work, so the third person doesn't need to be that experienced - you can literally take out someone who hasn't sailed much and they can have a good experience." This has been borne out at Ossie's home club at Hayling Island where an increasing number of people from a variety of sailing backgrounds have been introduced to the RS Elite and want to be involved in keelboat racing. The Elite fleet has grown to the point where there is a waiting list for dry sailing spaces. He feels that the next step is for the club to look at ways to increase the available capacity to meet the growing demand.

Ossie has had a long association with the Thames. He owns a boatyard at Surbiton and originally learned to sail at the Thames Sailing Club next door to his boatyard. He owns a classic One Rater - a 30 foot gaff rigged keelboat designed by Linton Hope, built in 1894, still in original condition and which he sails at some classic events. Linton Hope was a member of Thames Sailing Club and won an Olympic Gold Medal in a boat of his own design in 1900. Ossie also has a Linton Hope A Rater - essentially a large dinghy with a very tall rig - built in 1898

He also has a Dufour 45 in which he has done, among other things, the ARC transatlantic yacht race twice and the Caribbean Circuit. He has also done the RORC Caribbean 600; a race round all the islands starting and finishing in Antigua. "It's a long way to take a boat but it's a good adventure." Will he do it again? "I'm thinking about it."

Is he going to the RS Elite UK Nationals at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland next year? "Yes, absolutely. I've been to events in Ireland three times already, to the Nationals at Strangford Lough (the last time), the Royal North of Ireland Yacht club in Belfast Lough and to Dun Laoghaire when the UK National Championship was held as part of the Dun Laoghaire Regatta." The 2022 International Grand Prix and UK Nationals in 2022 was a very special event with the largest ever fleet. Following the enthusiasm generated he feels that it will be interesting to see how well the numbers stack up in Northern Ireland next year.

Will he continue to sail the Elite? "As I live at Hayling it's so easy to own one. They're not an expensive boat to own and I think I'll always have one so long as they can crane me on and off the boat." He is excited about the proposal to hold the UK Nationals at the Royal Southern Yacht Club at Hamble in 2024. "A new venue where the Elite has not been sailed before would help the class and it might attract some new people to take part. Further afield a great thing to do would be to rake the boats to Lake Garda but with the economy as it is and the current uncertainties it's unlikely to happen."

Nearing the end of the current season, November sees the start of the Crabber's Nip open Autumn Series, sailed at Hayling Island for the Crabber's Nip trophy. This was originally presented by Ossie and named after his house. "I have to win that trophy back from Tom (Tom Hewitson - last year's winner) this year."

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