The Bank Holiday weekend of the 5th - 7th May saw the Dart 15 Sprint National Championships take place at Gurnard Sailing Club on the Isle of Wight. The event, sponsored by Southern Water and the Laser Centre, underlined the strength of this class in the UK as a record turnout of 42 entrants, up by 30% on last year, turned up to do battle both with each other and the challenging vagaries of the Solent.
Race officer Brian Cole looked out on a blanket of Dart 15s, as he set the course for the first day. Taking account of prevailing conditions, an Olympic style "triangle and sausage" course was created. The Solent takes no prisoners and for the first race served up a helping of cold North Easterly, Force 5 winds, sizeable waves, complex currents and fast moving tides.
As the race evolved the quality of seamanship that pervades this racing class was apparent for all to see, with past champions George Carter, Bob Carter and Bob Milton being joined in battle with, among many others, the talents of Robin Leather, Laurie Gustar and Steve Sawford. The sailing club safety boats were to be kept busy as the testing conditions produced numerous capsizes in the choppy waters.
Defending champion George Carter, on his first visit to the Solent, was to suffer a dislocated shoulder and capsize. Undeterred he popped it back and set about the task of keeping his crown. The first race however was not to be his and after a gruelling few hours the first race ended with Robin Leather 1st, Bob Milton 2nd and Laurie Gustar 3rd. Robin had just delivered a wake up call to all watching that he has matured to a standard worthy of a National Champion and was intent on proving it.
By now the visitors, led by an 8 strong contingent from Instow presided over by Joe Armstrong, were learning that gains of up to 5 boat lengths were possible by judicious use of pinching, tidal flow and, when possible, surfing the large waves - the latter technique proving particularly popular.
For Race 2 an identical course was laid and the Solent, as if smarting from the mastery displayed by those assembled, produced an exceptionally low tide which had the effect of thrusting Gurnard Ledge from the depths, challenging the competitors to repeat their performance, while flirting with the risk of damage that seeking out the advantages of sailing close to the partially exposed ledge would bring. The assembled Fleet attacked the task with gusto, skill and the occasional tightly clenched set of buttocks as an intriguing game of Rudder Roulette unfolded. It would appear that the time spent by George Carter in the Solent during the first race gave him some useful insights into its workings. A hotly contested race ended with George Carter 1st, Robin Leather 2nd and Bob Milton 3rd.
An evening dinner at the splendid facilities of the Gurnard Sailing Club allowed time to unwind and reflect on the events of the day and the emerging, maturing talents of Steve Sawford, Olly Price, Sarah Fenwick, Ed Low, Erling Homberg and Carl Blenkinsop - all of who must be considered potential championship material for the coming years.
Day Two was witness to three races, the first two being sailed in similar conditions to the previous day and on an identical course. Both races were notable for the inclusion of Steve Sawford in the top three placings. Race 3 ended with Bob Milton 1st, George Carter 2nd and Steve Sawford 3rd. Race 4 ended with Steve Sawford 1st, George Carter 2nd and Robin Leather 3rd.
By now the spectators Michelle Fisher, Boo Jones and Ange Carter were spectating in an manner befitting a National Championship. Resplendent on the veranda of the sailing club, complete with sunglasses and drinks they would shout encouragement to all who tacked close to shore. Eavesdropping on their conversations I heard such observations as "The silly bugger has tacked too early", "He could do with a bit more downhaul" and "Do you think his bum looks big in that?"
Back on the Solent, the winds dropped to a Force 4, during race 4, and, in anticipation of a further drop, the course for race 5 was changed to an inshore upwind/ downwind course. In the end the wind did not drop and spectators were treated to the excitement of watching single handed catamarans being propelled downwind in a Force 4-5 with the prospect of cartwheeling and pitchpoling imminent. George Stephen spoilt potentially his best result by missing out the downwind gate mark when in 3rd position. The expletives he used at the leeward mark, when told, are best deleted, In the end skill prevailed and race 5 ended with the familiar trio of George Carter 1st, Bob Milton 2nd and Robin Leather 3rd.
Day Two was also notable for the magnanimous gesture by Colin Price, who on hearing that Dave Standbridge had lost his rigging, donated his spare set so that Dave could continue to race. Having replaced the rig, Dave took to the water once more and promptly repaid his debt to Colin by punching a hole the size of a football (in one side and out the other!) in Colin's port hull! The word "bemused" does not begin to adequately describe Colin's reaction.
The third and final day greeted the competitors with Force 6 winds and sizeable wave conditions. The race officer reverted to the course format of Day One and the scene was set for a thrilling end to the championships. Race 6 started with Olly Price, a young man who will be pushing the leaders at next years championships, taking the lead only to have a shroud break at the first mark causing his retirement from the race.
Both Bob Carter and Laurie Gustar put in strong, tactical performances and the race ended with, Robin Leather 1st, Laurie Gustar 2nd and Bob Carter 3rd. As race 7, the final race, beckoned some quick mathematics indicated that the 2001 championship could go to one of only three people - Robin Leather, Bob Milton or George Carter.
The last race drew a sizeable group of spectators at the sailing club, drawn by the news that the championship would be decided on the final race. They were not to be disappointed as they were treated to a fantastic display of boat handling from the three key contenders, pushing their catamarans to the limits and jousting with each other as ground was taken and then given away.
By the time they cleared the final mark there was little water between them with Bob Milton leading the pack. Milton and Leather chose to come close to the shore on port tack, Carter delaying this move for some time. On the first time around the course considerable lift had been experienced, at this section, on port tack and Milton planned to take the line, and the championship, on the next port tack. From the shore it certainly seemed the right tactic as Milton on starboard, with Leather in close pursuit, crossed Carter on port. With the line coming up fast both Milton and Leather shifted to a port tack waiting for the lift that had previously been experienced that would carry them over the line and to victory. Carter was now on a starboard tack and also making for the line. At this point the wind shifted and the locals found themselves headed back to the beach, while Carter, achieving some lift, closed the gap with Leather and Milton in the process. Both groups needed one more tack to make the line.
Excitement mounted as Carter came on to port tack, making agonisingly slow progress, pinching his boat expertly towards the line, as the local pair of Milton and Leathers, on starboard and with the wind working for them, bore down on Carter and the finish line. With no more than 20 feet separating the three boats Carter managed to catch a gust to take him over the line just as Milton appeared to be in a position to win and take race and the title. George Carter had battled hard and retained his championship mantle. Race 7 ended with George Carter1st, Bob Milton 2nd and Robin Leather 3rd.
Additional prizes were handed out for the honour of being 15th ( Chris Johnson, Gurnard ) and 21st (Mike Johns, Instow).
The top three placings for the the Pro/Am pairings were 1st Ian Mounce / Erling Homberg, 2nd Paul Airey / Matt Smith and 3rd Dave Downer / Brian FitzPatrick. The pairings were created after the racing on Day One and the idea was that the "Pro" would coach the "Am" between races to improve the latter's performance. Such cutting edge advice from the professionals such as "Keep the mast pointing to the sky", "Just follow me and do what I do" and the golden nugget "Remember, if you get in front of me, slow down so that I can pass" ensured that the novices of the fleet gained an important insight into what happens to your brain when you spend too much time on the water!
Finally, the Race Box Prize went to a boat. This boat lost it's owner at the start of one of the races, and proceeded to sail faster, straighter and with a finer sense of tactical awareness than when sailed by it's helm. Laurie Gustar, from Gurnard, stepped up to accept the award on behalf of his Dart 15.
Appetites are now whetted for a terrific competition when the Championships are held at Instow in 2002. The first goal of all Sprint sailors should be to help push the turnout for that event above this year's record numbers - see you there!
by Pat Moore, Gurnard SC.