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Beginner's Guide to the Hoo Freezer

Hoo Freezer 2009 by Roy Winnett
The 2009 Hoo Freezer. Photo by Roy Winnett

Further to a conversation with Stephen Bush on the Sunday of the 2009 Freezer I was asked to explain a little about the event to those members who might not have been previously involved or who are newly arrived. The following is intended to be just that, not a comprehensive history of the event

As a long-past commodore Bill Steele once famously said "Hoo is a funny place to have a yacht club because when the water does come in, it is an event." The fact that in past years the club was a hot-bed of competitive dinghy racing doesn't alter the reality that there is only water to launch dinghies for a brief period over each tide. As a result of this, and many other factors, the club gently changed from dinghy orientated to entirely cruiser based sailing. Dinghy sailing on the Medway continued elsewhere at locations with better access to the water.

Nearly forty years ago however, when dinghy sailing was very much in the ascendant, it apparently seemed a good idea to create a winter dinghy racing event to compete with the likes of the Pompey Perisher and the Bloody Mary winter sailing regattas elsewhere. This was called the Hoo Freezer and was a great success, despite the water only being available for a short time, and soon entries had to be restricted to 120 to avoid overcrowding on the Club's then uncluttered grounds. Things changed over the decades, but somehow the Club never got around to stopping it happening each year. Like Marmite however, it seems that one either loves it or hates it! From my own point of view, with nearly twenty years of involvement in the event, it seems that this annual "Bash" brings the Club to life, is a great tonic for jaded sailors, and puts Hoo Ness Yacht Club on the map like nothing else we do.

As I understand it most functions in the early days were carried out "in-house", but entry administration was provided by various sponsors such as Baker Marine and Gransden Marine. The club's ability to run the dinghy racing itself over the Freezer weekend was jealously guarded. The Rear Commodore was responsible for running the event and this task went with the job. I was the last one to do so before retiring hurt in the early nineties. In 1993 we were able to report that the event had been entirely administered by the Club, albeit with generous sponsorship and advertising assistance from various parties including the London Dinghy Centre and bankers Singer and Friedlander. Subsequently a separate Freezer Committee was formed to run the event under the chairmanship of Barry Francis and this organisation has run the event since then. This organisation has developed over the years and various people have undertaken management of discrete areas of responsibility, sometimes for many years, with the support of loyal teams of helpers. Several of the older ones are looking to retire so there are opportunities for anybody interested in becoming involved.

The Club having taken on the complete administration of the event it became clear that our ability to manage the racing on the water was waning. This led, eventually, to a team of experienced dinghy race managers from the Wilsonian Sailing Club taking over the on-water management of the racing, initially headed-up by Bob Jones. This excellent arrangement has continued ever since, with the Wilsonian team now being lead by Tom Sims and Colin Treadwell.

Until the great hurricane force winds of the late 1980's the dinghy races were controlled from a Starting Box situated on the seaward side of the sunken barges and walkways forming the artificial harbour or Marina which preceded the present house boat business. The Box disappeared in the storms and since then the races have been started from a Committee Boat. For some years various boats were provided for this purpose by Rochester Cruising Club, but it became clear that large power boats were not suitable for this purpose. In the early 1990's we started using sailing boats to provide more suitable working platforms. Ian Beech's "Afton", catamaran "Resource" out of Hoo Marina and, most recently, Wally Belsham's trimaran "Triton", among them.

The Freezer is notable for the long-service of people involved with it. There have only been three Race Secretaries during the 38 years the event has been run. Jan Slogrove, the present incumbent, has been there since the present committee was formed. Before her, Ada Threadgold and Kate Steele spanned the preceding years. Last year the flag signaller on the start team, one Robin Reade, retired after 20 years unbroken service. Other heroes still labour on! Controlling car parking has always been an issue and George Raine, our longest standing member and ex: Trustee, carried on doing the job until he was in his late 80's.

Over the years entries for the Freezer have declined from the heady days of 120 as other events and venues provided more competition. Over the same period our own Club arrangements have changed, with laying-up of boats being allowed on the Club grounds. This has progressively reduced the amount of grass available for parking dinghies but a combination of gradually reducing entries and the decision to allow pre-entered boats to launch from the Wilsonian Sailing club grounds has, so far, prevented this lack of room becoming a serious issue. Entries in recent years have averaged about 65 boats.

Results used to be calculated manually. During my first involvement with the event results were calculated on a computer operated by Frank Burgess on a table in the Clubhouse. This was almost impossible to manage with everybody milling about and separate accommodation was subsequently arranged in a mobile site hut provided by one of the sponsors. This separation was found to be advantageous and the present system of using the Marina office facilities for the Race Office was developed on the back of Ernie Slogrove's then position as Chairman of the Hoo Marina Berth holders Association. Various teams of computer wizards have delivered the racing results over the years. These have, occasionally, proved the "rubbish in, rubbish out" principle. Having a tidally controlled event means that boats are frequently finishing at about 1.00 p.m. Finishing times recorded afloat as Clock times but received in the Results Office as Elapsed times gave amazing results! In recent times Roy Francis and Barry Gardiner have manned the machines to great effect and we have come to expect accurate results as a matter of course.

Attitudes to Health and Safety have changed over the years and the event has had to change with them. We have our Disaster Planning in place and a superb rescue fleet arranged by Ernie Slogrove. This includes open boats from various clubs for handling dinghies in difficulties, fast RIBs for urgent attendance and getting any casualties ashore, power boats to act as hospital ships and a large power boat for supervision of Safety Afloat, headed-up by Tony Cottis. This very responsible position was previously held by Tony Pay for many years before he was unfortunately injured in an accident away from the water. Several rescue boat teams have attended for many years, notably Bob Hall in "Raider Rescue" and subsequently "Cobra" and Whitstable YC. It has sometimes been the case on the Saturday Practice Race that we have had more Safety Boats than competitors! Paramedics are in attendance on the water and St. John Ambulance personnel are in attendance outside the clubhouse with their superb, but increasingly expensive, ambulance.

Ensuring that everybody is accounted for and all competitors are safely ashore has exercised the organisers over the years. A system of numbered wrist bands is used as the primary safety control by the Race Admin. Team working out of the marina office. Basically a wrist band returned to its own hook in the Race Office means the crew is safely ashore. Everybody on the water management team remains on full alert until everybody is safe. If all else fails the wrist band on the body will lead us to the next of kin! A system of "counting them out and counting them back" is also operated. A team of small RIBs are on hand to assist dinghies entering and leaving Hoo Marina if required and the whole Safety Ashore team is headed-up by Ernie Slogrove over the weekend.

Launch and recovery of dinghies at Hoo is assisted by Martin Vinton and his team of Scouts and supporters. A cunning system of coloured labels and entry numbers ensures that the correct trailer is available to receive each of the incoming dinghies often to the amazement of the competitors who are not necessarily used to such service elsewhere. Despite having a very mixed fleet of different classes of dinghies it has proved to be the case that sail numbers are seldom duplicated and these are used for identifying the boats as they approach the shore.

All parties are fed and watered in the clubhouse. The Galley is manned by a team of stalwarts of many years standing consisting, nominally, of the House Committee. This hard working team is headed-up by Malcolm and Pam Hillman who pride themselves on making a profit for the Club, even at their very reasonable prices. The famous Freezer sausages, together with all the meat for the meals, have been supplied by Club member Roger Glover for many years. The bar is now run by our own gallant team of well trained members, but was previously manned by the Club Steward, latterly Colin Wells and his wife Jenny, with help from members.

On the Sunday morning the Club entertains VIP Guests at a Reception in the Clubhouse. This is the responsibility of the Commodore and the table is usually organised by the Commodore's Lady with help from other members. Guests include the Mayor, all of the Sponsors, representatives of the River Authority and Commodores of assisting clubs. The Club's Flag Officers and Trustees usually get dressed up for the occasion. In recent years it has become traditional to take the mayor out on the river to view the racing at close quarters. Various members boats have been used for this purpose over the years.

During the weekend the clubhouse furniture and equipment is constantly pushed and shoved around to accommodate various different functions from Breakfast to Crew Briefing to VIP Reception via Saturday evening entertainment. On the Friday before the event the Training Room entry doors are blocked off with a prefabricated structure to provide a site for the Official Notice Board and the Lobby is cleared to provide a large clear entry space. At the same time the alternative access to the Training Room is opened up and the room is modified to provide enlarged Male changing facilities. After the event this is all reversed and the prefabricated notice board spends the rest of the year in our loft!

PR and publicity have been used to good effect over the years and as the technology has changed Christopher Stevens and Roy Winnett from WSC have kept the event in the public eye. Recently comprehensive Race Reports have been available on the Internet, together with action photographs by Mark Bloomfield.

After many years of faithful service Barry Francis, the Chairman of the Freezer Committee, is handing the overall management of the event to Sue Worthington. Barry has been involved with the event since the second year it was run and has carried out just about every function from competitor to chief organiser over the intervening years. This year it was Barry shadowed by Sue, next year it will be Sue shadowed by Barry! The next Hoo Freezer is scheduled for 27th/28th February 2010 and I wish Sue and the event the very best of luck in the future.

Martin Richards

Date Published 17th Feb 2009