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A First Yacht Racing Season

Learning to sail from scratch, over the past 6 years has been a steep learning curve, however, days without a clue, charts or Day Skipper, and restricting ourselves to Gillingham Reach do seem a long time ago.

With Aurai and the HNYC races we have grown to understand the basics, made a reasonable fist of the Nore Race once and have even won one club race, without ever feeling we were experienced racers. Fast forward to the end of this season just past and now that feeling seems a long time ago. With no sense that we have learned everything either.

Having bought a "second home" in Cornwall, across the water from Falmouth, it would not be long before I connected with some sailing, but I had no idea how lady luck would help me. I actually felt I needed few distractions as renovating the house needed all my attention and I kept my outside interests to a minimum.

Eventually though, a call went out to crew a race boat as regulars were absent and I have not looked back. Keeping my place and a regular invite back each week. The boat is a Dehler DB1, 10 metres of race design about 20 years old. Shenanigan II is well known and skippered by the son of the late Colm Mulcahy, a seemingly legendary Falmouth nice guy, President of the rugby club and long time Royal Cornwall YC member. Colm's son, Chris, not only inherited the boat, and its race reputation, but his father's long time crew. Though I would not think of this as an overnight transition as Chris was also crew on his Dad's boat for many years.

This meant I might just reduce the average crew age and in fact some of the long time crew have eased off a bit leaving space for new members. Chris and the helm Adam have crewed together for 30 years and most of the crew have 20+ years experience on Shenanigan. That did not stop us running aground once though.

The race scene here, is built around Royal Cornwall and Flushing Sailing Clubs and there are class races for several yacht types with the added one in Falmouth of the local Working Boats, IRC 1 & 2 classes split "proper" race boats into larger and smaller and we race in IRC 2. Later in the season as less boats go out the classes are amalgamated and pursuit races are used.

We also have all tide access from either yacht club and two or three club boats (Heather sized) with paid crew ferry us from shore to mooring, we use VHF to call up a lift from the quay at Flushing which is a two minute walk from the house. Shenanigan has a prime mooring and is not far from here. Meaning a lot of unearned comfort for a new boy and no need to start at the bottom.

Once all crew are aboard, we set to work on the string, loads of it, fortunately colour coded. Jib Sheets, Spinnaker Sheets, Spinnaker Guys, miles of mainsheet on a 6:1 x 6:1 system and all has to be threaded correctly and outside shrouds etc. That may be the first shock until it dawns on you quite how many people are now on board, what now feels like a small boat. IRC races are restricted to 8 crew! Skipper, helm, 2 x cockpit, 2 x foredeck, one stern role looking after the twin back stays and one mid ship crew to aid foredeck and lean on boom.

One crew is now sitting at the chart table with pencil poised and listening carefully to the VHF race channel, while we motor out to start area. Helm and skipper in detailed conversation about tide, wind and predicted course, to aid sail choice.

Falmouth Bay and the Carrick Roads offer masses of sailing water with very little need to look at the depth gauge and you would have to be pretty negligent to run in to Black Rock, some do though. Several rivers meet at the bay and race marks up each river mean you can be called upon to take care.

Our one real mishap, occurred as we were creaming along on our spinnaker at 11+ knots, with it all being a bit of a job to hang on and that lead to nobody watching quite where we were (on an autumnal low water spring) until that sudden stop feeling occurs. I was in trouble for not smelling the mud seen as where I come from!

A decision is made, often changed, for choice of foresail and spinnaker. Sometimes an alternative mainsail is selected as well. By now the course is known and we will be at the start line. The list of Courses is mind boggling and the Race Officers seem to delight in then modifying their choice. We also now can see who else is racing and part of the calculation is how to compete against very well known yachts and their crew.

Our geriatric foredeck chap (Mick, ex navy) is also race countdown crew and the skipper chooses his start strategy. Typically, we approach the line on a close reach, luffing the sails, as required, to manage speed and as we are about 20 seconds off the start I get busy on the Jib sheet winch and speed builds. Nearly always, we get a call to tack immediately and that seems to set us away from the rest of the fleet. Shenanigan is very light and picks up speed quickly, but it always seems an odd way to start, but I do not ask! Nor have we ever been early, Mick watches us across the line with close attention and a countdown. He also calls back detail on the other yachts, we will be in a class of 12 - 18 boats, to ensure no mishaps.

The first leg is an upwind route to the windward mark and as crew, we do our tacks as quickly as possible and get out on the rail as fast as possible to keep weight out. Depending what the tide is doing, winds are fairly constant across Falmouth Bay, close to shore routes are favoured if tide is adverse. However, there is then a danger of wind shadow from the shore, then some parts of the course gets wind rolling down the cliffs and giving us a lift, so we leave all that to the skipper.

Mick will be rolling a fag, hoping to get a puff of a different sort just ahead of the call for the spinnaker. This is where you learn you have your own job to do and do not help anyone else. Foredeck prepare the spinnaker and the rest of us lean out. The sail bag is clipped to the rail and sheets and guys clipped on as well as the halyard ready for the hoist. We tend to prepare a bit early to reduce risk of error and clear the mark before the hoist, but pole will be lifted and hoist prepared before the windward mark.

By now, in a typical RCYC race we will know we are real time 3rd or 4th to our arch enemy boats, more of them later, and the rest of the fleet playing catch-up. Some of these stragglers are on better handicaps and may not be so badly placed though. Nor will I fully describe spinnaker sailing, only to say that it is not for the faint hearted in race situations and mistakes do occur, far less, though, than with our competitors it seems.
As crew we remain ready for any calls and as soon as the spinnaker is taken down it is re packed and made ready for the next hoist. We also often get ready and then do not use the spinnaker if the wind is just too broad. However, no matter how short the opportunity to use it, the spinnaker will be hoisted, once we even hoisted it for 200 metres at the end of a race!

Where experience does pay on Shenanigan is that we seem to get course planning right, watching expensive boats in front of us failing to round the correct marks and with local tide knowledge we remain competitive. Though this is where you learn about handicapping. Half our races were shortened during the race, giving each boat less time to extend its lead over slower rivals. We would be regularly 3rd or 4th on the line but move to 7th or 8th on adjusted time. When I have looked at the times, you see we lose out by only a few seconds, and you have to look at saving time.

Start can be improved, tacks can be sharpened up and spinnaker hoists, drops, gybes can be left later and later. Shenanigan is raced on a modest budget and uses second hand race sails, so I guess new sails would shave some seconds off our race time.

You can buy a DB1 for £25k probably equipped for racing. Our faster competitors are in £150k worth of J and X class yachts with new sails and I have to admit very keen crew. Though you would not want to be the youngest as they have to get goggles and snorkel organised and get sent under the boat to clean the bottom prior to each race. Hence you may understand our mild amusement and smug look when they go off course and one of our rivals did manage to teach me what "OCS" meant. The pursuit races are started in order with no signals and you are required to time your own start, this particular boat is 2 minutes behind us at the start and so their "on course side of the line" failure gave us quite a lift. Our grins were wiped when we ran aground (mentioned above) and DNF (Did not Finish) and the afore mentioned boat did finish in another race.

My main job has been in the cockpit, with a partner in crime and we tack the jib, one tailing for the other. I tend to get the sheet more or less where it should be, then get on the rail and skipper fine tunes the sail to get the slot right and tell tales doing exactly what they are supposed to do.

My other job is to tend the mainsheet and traveller on a spinnaker run, needing to be quick to act if we risk a broach and I have just about learned how to manage all the string without falling on top of the helm.

Within seconds of crossing the finish line, the engine is on, the sails are down and as crew we put everything away, which with four or five of us up front this only takes 10 minutes and the skipper digs out a can of beer each. 20 minutes after the race we are on our mooring and all go home. Later in the season we started going for a beer after the race, our helm and skipper are men of few words but like a beer and the rest of us are just happy to relax.
As you may imagine, Skipper Chris is so experienced and realistic we have a very calm boat, our worst broach, had us all knee deep in water, flogging sails, lost lines and a bent pole, still utter calm and unpicking the situation. One Falmouth week race was witness to F3/4 rising, as a squall arrived, to top end F8 in seconds. Our luck was to be on a reach without a need to tack, other boats who had to tack, blew their sails out and one mast snapped just behind us. Our helm treated it as a welcome lift to improve our track!

These weekly races are one thing but a major part of my brilliant experience was Chris deciding he had enough crew to enter Falmouth week. We could not race Shenanigan on the first day, I joined a Working Boat that day and that missed race was to cost us dearly in the rankings, but the whole week was marvellous.

Racing started with keen F5/6 winds and choppy waters and so very exciting spinnaker work and ended with light airs. Our class had an RS2000 (more like a dinghy) a 1926 Clyde race yacht [20% age allowance in the handicaps], fresh from winning at Cowes Classic race week (unbeaten) and some of our regular rivals. Races all seemed to run to a pattern, Shenanigan gaining line honours by quite some margin in every race, they hardly felt like races. Then being pushed to 3rd or 4th on elapsed time. With our no show on Day one we ended up 4th, equal points with 3rd but a worse discard record. We had one very bad day at the office around the cans as well. For my first regatta series that felt brilliant, and the week is very well organised with different clubs hosting each day. Race finishes near the host club and all ashore for afternoon tea and some live music mean everybody gets to meet everybody.

As a note, some of our rivals left for IoW 1/2 ton and 3/4 ton cup races. Two of which were top ten in the premier national race week for these boats, so we seem to have some quality opposition. Our mud experience cost us a reasonable place in the final series, and just shows the main lesson I learned from HNYC racing, cut out errors and finish is all you need to do to start with!

All in all I have been very lucky, very spoiled and it has been a brilliant sailing summer even if I was away from Aurai for most of it.

Look out Wil, Andy and all.

Charles Hessey

Date Published 30th Dec 2011