Sail­ing with the Royal Navy

Sail­ing ships may be long gone, but sail­ing un­der can­vas is still go­ing strong, re­ports Theo Stocker

Yachting Monthly - - INSIDE THIS MONTH -

Tack­ing in five…’ Tom called. Jamie jumped to the mast to help the large over­lap­ping genoa round the shrouds. Alex and Vince made up the winches ready to sheet in on the new tack, I tailed while Vince got ready to grind in what­ever I hadn’t pulled in by hand, and Tom steered a smooth curve through the wind, from the mid­dle of the crowded cock­pit.

I was sail­ing with the Royal Navy, and do­ing my best to keep up. On a sunny Satur­day morn­ing in early sum­mer, I had found my­self hur­ry­ing through Gosport. Civil­ian ‘on time’ is five min­utes late in the Navy and I didn’t want to get off to a bad start. I made it to the gate of Hor­net Ser­vices Sail­ing Club at 0800 sharp. Home to many mem­bers of the Royal Naval Sail­ing As­so­ci­a­tion (RNSA) and the Joint Ser­vices Ad­ven­tur­ous Sail Train­ing Cen­tre (JSASTC), I was here for the an­nual Yar­mouth Rally.

Af­ter the tor­ren­tial down­pour overnight, things were fore­cast to brighten up, but for now the skies were over­cast. Hav­ing met my skip­per for the day, Royal Navy Off­shore sail­ing team man­ager, Lead­ing En­gi­neer­ing Tech­ni­cian Tom Gigg, we made our way down Field­house pon­toon to the fleet of Vic­to­ria 34s, a fa­mil­iar sight to So­lent sailors, where we joined our boat, Trochus.

On board were five young mem­bers of the Royal Navy. The fact that all but one of them were rat­ings, rather than of­fi­cers, and all un­der 30, is proof that Royal Naval sail­ing is ben­e­fit­ting from a grass-roots ef­fort to en­cour­age and train up new sailors from across the ranks. Sail­ing doesn’t have to be a ‘Ward­room only’ af­fair.

We would be com­pet­ing in the Royal Navy In­ter-Com­mand Re­gatta, a low-key com­pe­ti­tion over a long week­end be­tween dif­fer­ent Navy bases, serv­ing as a warm-up ahead of the In­ter-Ser­vices Re­gatta. My crew were rep­re­sent­ing HMS Sul­tan, where the Navy’s engi­neers are trained, and would be com­pet­ing against crews from the new HMS Prince of

Wales air­craft car­rier, Portsmouth and Ply­mouth naval bases and the Fleet Air Arm. Some on board were sea­soned off­shore rac­ers. For oth­ers, this was their first time yacht rac­ing.

With a west­erly Force 3 to 4 and the tide flow­ing east un­til af­ter

‘ The sun sparkled while busy flocks of yachts scur­ried around the So­lent’

midday, it was go­ing to be a long slog up­wind, with a pre­mium on find­ing a way out of the tide. We sailed out of Portsmouth Har­bour past a Type 45 de­stroyer and the new lead­ing lights for the huge new air­craft car­ri­ers, soon to ar­rive in the har­bour, the largest ships the Navy has ever owned, by some mar­gin. Our 0930 start time was ap­proach­ing fast and we still had a way to go. As the count­down be­gan, we lined up amongst the fleet.

Sud­denly the last few sec­onds ar­rived, and I was tasked to sheet in the genoa. I promptly got a rid­ing turn on the winch, cost­ing us valu­able sec­onds at the cru­cial mo­ment. Sorry chaps. We crossed the line in fourth place and set out across Stokes Bay. To the south of us, RORC and JOG race fleets streamed down­tide in a colourful pro­ces­sion of spin­nakers. Grad­u­ally, we eased off onto a fetch to­wards Cal­shot and headed for our first mark, be­fore the course took us south across the So­lent to Ryde Mid­dle. The tide set us badly to the east, forc­ing us to put in a cou­ple of ex­tra tacks, but we made it up to third in the fleet, briefly, be­fore a boat higher up tide over­hauled us again.

Vince and Tom took turns on the helm, con­tin­u­ally search­ing out ways to avoid the tide, and fi­nally found a back-eddy along the shore be­tween Cal­shot and Beaulieu, hold­ing our tacks as close in­shore as we dared, re­ly­ing on neat team­work to get about promptly. An­other rac­ing fleet fol­lowed and over­took us, be­fore peel­ing away for a dif­fer­ent mark. We still weren’t catch­ing the two lead boats, but we were a solid third.

The sun sparkled on the milky green wa­ter as the clouds dis­persed over the Isle of Wight. The mot­tled green of the New For­est lined the op­po­site shore and rac­ing yachts flocked around the So­lent. It felt good to be afloat.

Sit­ting on the rail, Jamie, Sam and Alex told me about their ca­reers in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines re­serve, while flur­ries of ac­tiv­ity punc­tu­ated our con­ver­sa­tion.

Grad­u­ally the move­ments of rac­ing came back to me, and the crew got slicker with ev­ery tack. I hadn’t yacht raced in years, and I was en­joy­ing my­self. With clearer skies, the wind con­tin­ued to build and white horses capped ev­ery wave as the tide be­gan to turn in our favour. We reached a buoy that marked the start of a short run down the cen­tre of the So­lent, our first turn­ing mark for a while and so chance to see how we were do­ing against the other boats. Third, still. Given the con­di­tions, spin­nakers had been ve­toed, but we goosewinged the num­ber two jib op­po­site the genoa in search of ex­tra sail area, though it made lit­tle

‘Ju­nior rates chat­ted hap­pily to re­tired war­rant of­fi­cers and com­modores’

dif­fer­ence to our po­si­tion. The lively breeze shot us back to­wards Cowes, against the now west-go­ing tide, and we were soon round­ing the bot­tom mark hard onto the wind sail­ing for the So­lent’s south­ern shore as we lined up for the fin­ish off Yar­mouth.

With a fair tide at last, Yar­mouth drew rapidly closer. In the last few fever­ish mo­ments, there was some pan­icked dis­cus­sion about ex­actly where the fin­ish line was and whether the boats ahead of us had re­ally crossed it. With this tide un­der us, there would be no turn­ing back to re-cross it. For­tu­nately Vince made the right call, and we fin­shed in a re­spectable third.

Yar­mouth har­bour was rapidly fill­ing up with the com­bined RNSA and JOG fleets, but luck­ily space had been re­served for us to raft up three deep.

These are mil­i­tary boats, and putting them to bed at the end of the day was an or­derly af­fair – lines made off and neatly coiled, head­sails crisply flaked down. With ev­ery­thing ship-shape, drinks soon ap­peared and crews re­laxed into the evening. Com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the crews melted away and the ban­ter flowed.

Cleaned up and in shore clothes, pro­ceed­ings moved to the Royal So­lent Yacht Club. On the club’s ter­race in the warm evening sun­shine, the In­ter-Com­mand Re­gatta crews min­gled with the RNSA Rally crews. Ju­nior rates chat­ted hap­pily to re­tired war­rant of­fi­cers and com­modores; a shared love of sail­ing and sto­ries of ships, over­seas de­ploy­ments and for­eign ports over­rode the for­mal­i­ties of rank. Old friend­ships were stoked and new ones kin­dled. This was the fa­mil­ial ca­ma­raderie that is par­tic­u­lar to the Navy, and was con­tin­ued late into the evening. I re­tired to the hospi­tal­ity of Dusty Miller’s Jean­neau Sun Odyssey 40 that was act­ing as com­mit­tee boat for the week­end.

The next morn­ing brought gen­tler winds as crews emerged blink­ing into the sun­light. The Vic­to­ria 34s would be rac­ing in their own class again, and the RNSA yachts could opt for the rac­ing or cruis­ing class.

I switched boats, join­ing RNSA gen­eral sec­re­tary Mike Shrives and his fam­ily for the day aboard Sword­fish, a Starlight 35 char­tered through RNSA for the week­end. Mike has sailed all the way through a Naval ca­reer that has in­cluded time as a he­li­copter pi­lot, a sub­mariner, and com­mand­ing a ship in the first Gulf War.

‘Char­ter­ing a boat for the Rally is a good ex­cuse to get the fam­ily to­gether,’ Mike said, in­tro­duc­ing me to his wife Sarah and three adult chil­dren, Han­nah, Sam and James. The youngest, James, a he­li­copter pi­lot at HMS Cul­drose in Corn­wall, was skip­per­ing.

To al­low for a leisurely sail with the tide, an early start was set for the cruis­ing divi­sion of the Yar­mouth Rally, an hour ahead of the IRC-rated rac­ers who would be com­pet­ing for the Yar­mouth Tro­phy. We may have been cruis­ing, but pas­sage times were recorded for the Golden Bough cruiser tro­phy; smart boat-han­dling and best speed were still the or­der for the day. We pushed up tide from Yar­mouth to cre­ate enough sea-room to set in the spin­naker in the weak breeze be­fore cross­ing the start line. We were on our way.

James may have been skip­per­ing but Mike was still keen to gal­vanise his crew into race-like ac­tion. He en­thu­si­as­ti­cally dis­cussed the course with James, and briefed every­one on marks to be rounded. Fam­ily friend Lizzie Far­ring­ton was an ex­pe­ri­enced hand at the helm; her par­ents had set sail from Yar­mouth to Guernsey that morn­ing on the first leg of their long-awaited cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion. Sam was trim­ming the spin­naker sheet. Not every­one was con­vinced, how­ever, and holiday-mode reigned over at least some of the cock­pit. Mike’s wife Sarah was en­joy­ing the sun­shine and Han­nah threat­ened the crew with a book of puz­zles. A happy medium soon pre­vailed as cof­fee and snacks emerged from be­low, along with mem­o­ries of hol­i­days on RNSA boats.

‘Do you re­mem­ber the teddy bear over­board in­ci­dent, Dad?’

‘How could I for­get? That nearly ru­ined the holiday! Luck­ily we got it back on the first at­tempt,’ re­called Mike. The bear was cer­e­mo­ni­ally re­named OBB (Over­board bear).

Lizzie, who had been a mem­ber of the Bris­tol Univer­sity Royal Naval Unit as a stu­dent and sailed the RNSA’s J80 and SB20 in re­gat­tas, kept the boat pow­er­ing down­wind, while I did my best to re­mem­ber how to dip-pole gybe a spin­naker. Hav­ing rounded our mark in mid-So­lent, we hard­ened up for a reach to the Nor­ris port hand buoy. The black, yel­low and green kite strained above us, but we just about held it be­fore gy­bing for our fi­nal leg to­wards Gil­kicker Point.

I took the helm as we crossed Ryde Mid­dle, but in an ef­fort to keep the spin­naker full, I headed too far up­wind. A more com­pe­tent helm took over to make up the ground down­wind. Sorry chaps, again.

As we crossed the line, our time was noted down; we came sec­ond be­hind Arthur Bald­win's Fidra. Astern, the rest of the Yar­mouth Rally fleet was eat­ing into our time. For us though, race over, we slipped back into Portsmouth, home of the Royal Navy, and the peace of a sunny Sun­day af­ter­noon qui­etly re­asserted it­self.

Vince and Alex lis­ten out for the start sig­nal and check the course

The af­ter­guard bat­tle with a lively breeze

Vic­to­ria 34 Cal­lista powers up for the start off Gil­kicker Point

Pla­cuna tacks across Ryde Mid­dle on her way to vic­tory

Our crew add their weight to the rail while cross­ing tacks off Stan­sore Point

Wild Blue lead­ing the RNSA rac­ing fleet, hot on the heels of the cruis­ing divi­sion

A happy crew re­laxes in the cock­pit

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