A cruising man ponders the racing life
Apuff of smoke is snatched away on the wind then a bang. Is it the 10minute gun or the five-minute? If it’s the five-minute, should the engine be off? If I shut the engine down will I be carried over the start line on the fast-running ebb? Where is the start line exactly? What is that flag fluttering furiously on the committee boat mast? Is that course one or two? Actually, is that the committee boat, or is it that yacht with the bunting, anchored adjacent? Which class are those boats down tide of you in? Have they started?
Watch out, where the hell is this boat going? We’re on a collision course. Is he upwind of you? Yes, then should he give way? Not sure because he’s on starboard. What is the first mark? Where are the sailing directions? Drat… in the bilges.
And so another regatta begins for me, my crew and Betty II, my 25ft gaff cutter. I’ve endeavoured to compete in several this season because the boat has a name for being slippery. But each time I’m confronted with pure chaos on the start line and a recipe for breaking the rig, stoving in a plank, or putting a tear in the mainsail. The whole exercise goes against good seamanship, common sense and a happy life.
A former editor of Yachting Monthly, upon taking the helm of this august organ, put a strapline on the cover: ‘Guaranteed no racing,’ Des Sleightholme knew a thing or two about his readers and he watched the circulation rise. So, at least I’m in good company.
At school I was a wimp on the playing field: cricket was a nonsense, rugby for bully boys and football beyond the pale. ‘I don’t like sport,’ I complained as some enthusiastic master forced me to cross-country at speed in plimsolls. ‘You do,’ he puffed. ‘Don’t you go sailing?’ ‘Sailing isn’t a sport, Sir, that’s racing,’ I said.
Sport, sport, masculine sport Equips a young man for Society
Yes, sport turns out a jolly good sort
It’s an Odd Boy who doesn’t like sport
So sang Vivian Stanshall, the genius lead singer of the 1960s pop group The Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band and I agree wholeheartedly. I was and still am that odd boy.
For me it’s a relief once the race has begun, not that I’m ever certain when that is, and the boats tear away for the first mark. Then we can get the boat in trim and follow in their wake. Not the idea at all, I know, but it’s the taking part, not the winning.
The sort of ‘races’ my 97-year-old, one-off cutter can enter are hardly serious contests anyway. Littered with a motley collection of converted lifeboat ketches, ancient yawls and ludicrously over-canvassed day-boats there is not a ‘match’ among any of the fleet. We rely instead on an algorithm, devised by some old duffer who once ‘crewed on a metre yacht’, called a handicap.
And so round we go. Thrashing to windward with an ill-setting topsail, which when cruising would not have come out of the sail-bag, or lurching downwind with an old dinghy foresail lashed up beneath the boom in the spirit of competition.
Whatever transpires, the same fellows seem to pick up the trophies at the prizegiving. And there are pots-aplenty in the name of inclusivity – for seamanship, for the best turned out yacht, the Roderick and Christobel Mainwearing platter for the posterity of a long departed racing duo. In one contest there’s even a model of Old Harry, one-time spoof columnist of YM, the creation of the aforementioned Des Sleightholme, for managing to bugger something up. I haven’t even won that.
So far this season I’ve disqualified myself for going the wrong side of the finish line, started 20 minutes behind everyone else because the bacon wasn’t ready and lost my deposit by being beneaped in my berth.
But it’s the taking part, right?
The whole exercise goes against common sense and a happy life